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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Alphabetizing And Coffee Mugs

Everyone has at least one; some have many. What routine or ritual gives you undeniable, if not easily explicable comfort? Without sounding glib about genuine mental illness, I maintain each of us has routines or rituals which, when soberly considered, put us in an obsessive-compulsive league, if not the medication recommended ballpark.

Each time I find myself re-arranging the coffee mugs in my cupboard, Jack Nicholson's character in "As Good As It Gets" comes to mind. And my smart-ass sisters once had fun de-alphabetizing my books (or was it my recordings?) while I was away on vacation. But revenge is sweet; I recently changed the order of my brother-in-law's three gasoline cans, usually arranged smallest to largest; ha - so there!

I'm usually not big on "everyone" declarations but have yet to meet an exception to this rule. How about you?  No fair messing with my mugs when you visit unless you come clean.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Thanks Bucky

When I was an undergraduate and my musical horizon didn't extend far beyond playing rock n' roll drums, legendary jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli did a solo show at my school. Although almost 45 years ago, I remember it clearly; it's no exaggeration to say Bucky's performance altered the path of my life. What sort of parallel experiences have you had, musical or otherwise?

At the time, my guitar playing was rudimentary at best. But I still recall thinking - some day I'm going to do what he's doing, i.e. play guitar like a pianist, so listeners can hear melody and chords at the same time. I had no idea how Bucky was making his left hand do so much but knew I wanted to learn.

Years later, my singing voice gave out. After finding another way to make a living, I sought out a teacher and used my leisure hours to learn a new way to play guitar; singing was no longer necessary, thanks to Bucky. Though I'm still not at his level these many years past, the joy and satisfaction I've derived from my playing has enhanced my life beyond measure.  

This past New Year's Eve my wife and I caught a show with Bucky, now over 80 years old. He sounded great. And, while playing my guitar yesterday, digging yet again into the rich harmonies of "My Romance", I wished Bucky wasn't surrounded by people following his show in December. I would have liked to say thanks to him.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

RSVP

I was recently reminded of that great scene from Mark Twain's "Adventures Of Tom Sawyer" where Tom gets to listen to others eulogize him when he is mistakenly presumed to be dead. That got me ghoulishly reflecting. What do I want to happen at my funeral service? How about you? Come on, don't leave me out here on this one all alone. Treat it as a morbid planning exercise.

* I want all the food to be high calorie, high fat, high cholesterol, i.e. the best tasting stuff. As Julia Child once said "You can never go wrong adding butter."

* I want live music, the more uptempo the better - nothing mellow or somber. Lots of dancing, lots of laughter, lots of volume.

* I want people to read passages from their favorite books, poems, short stories, essays, plays. Copies of all readings should be provided (author name and full title of piece, please) so others can later look up the source material if they choose.

Surely I'm not the only one who ever gave this some thought? And though I plan to stick around quite a while, knowing this agenda, aren't you dying to attend? Sorry, date is unavailable at present but feel free to RSVP anyway.          

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Back On The Job

Blogging about Jonathan Franzen's book of essays "How To Be Alone" on the day I finished it would have been a mistake; I needed distance to process my feelings about talent like this. How do you usually react when someone's talent blows you away? For me, it depends; this time I was temporarily immobilized.

Of the thirteen pieces here, written between 1994-2001, it's difficult to pick a favorite. I suspect if I re-read all of them next week, my favorite would change - they're all that good. "Sifting The Ashes" (1996), Franzen's reflection about smoking, is a nuanced juxtaposition of incisive thinking, genuine introspection & brilliant writing.  In "Scavenging" (also 1996), he describes how quickly the personas we create for ourselves become prisons. "Meet Me In St. Louis" (2001) struck me as an honest exploration of the flap  created when Franzen publicly admitted his ambivalence about his 2001 novel "The Corrections" being selected as an Oprah book.           

"The first lesson reading teaches us is how to be alone". To that sentence, from "The Reader In Exile" (1995), I say amen.

  

Monday, March 25, 2013

On This Day In 1918

Happy birthday Dad.

Though gone more than 15 years, my Dad often feels nearby. This past weekend a good friend described a painful childhood memory involving the casual cruelty of a parent. As sadness for my friend washed over me, childhood incidents involving my Dad came to mind. Gratitude soon supplanted my sadness.

Dad was a talented carpenter. And though I tried, even as a grade schooler, I knew my woodshop projects were pathetic. My father routinely hung up these travesties like fine art. Years later, I used this memory when teaching modules about building self-esteem in children. This past weekend listening to my friend, for perhaps the first time, something else occurred to me.

My Dad gave me another gift by treating my work with respect. In effect, he was saying "I honor your creative voice, Patrick." Although his formal education was limited, my Dad was a smart man. I miss him.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Twenty Nine Down

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/world-traveling-via-food-to-be.html

My wife and I are now two years into the above project and so far our only challenge has been making reasonable distinctions between some of the cuisines of neighboring countries.

As an example, our most recent in home visit (vs. restaurant journey) took us to Laos and Cambodia. It ended up a two-for-one deal since most websites and cookbooks make little distinction between the cuisine of countries in the region commonly called Indochina. No matter, we still had fun visiting both at once despite how labor intensive the meal preparation was. This latest home visit means we've now cooked from countries on four continents. Our complete tally has taken us to all six inhabited continents.

We've also added a ritual for all in home visits. Out comes the 2012 almanac and while eating we have a discussion about the country to learn a bit. Though she knows I'm a geography geek, my wife has drawn the line at bringing the almanac on our restaurant journeys.

Finally, I was pleased when an astute reader of my blog asked what our "cutoff" would be - great question. We decided no country that came into existence after the year the project began (2011) will be required. So, the cuisine of South Sudan will be our cutoff, although not necessarily the last country we visit. Your suggestions continue to be welcome and thanks for all the interest.   
 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Is And Other Cliches

Who gets to decide when a phrase has become a cliche? Is that person or those people responsible for coming up with an alternate phrase to replace it?

Here's an idea: How about a private/public partnership that decides on expiration dates for worn out phrases submitted to them by the public? Once that date is decided the partnership has two responsibilities - making the expiration date widely known and inventing something to replace the publicly declared cliche. There are even revenue-generating possibilities here - why not a small fine for anyone caught using the expired phrase in print? I can hear the moans of free speech advocates from here.   

Ok, let's get the party started - What would be your first submission to the partnership? Come on, get out of your comfort zone, push the envelope, think outside the box. As groanworthy as those three are to me, my first submission would be the modern day koan "It is what it is". I mean, come on, what else would it be other than what it is? Unless you're Bill Clinton, of course.       

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Sensitivity

Sensitivity: The state of being readily or excessively affected by outside agencies or influences.

Using an A-F grading system for this attribute might not work optimally. Based on that dictionary definition, if I give myself an "A" for sensitivity, isn't that tantamount to saying I have no backbone? But only a hermit would warrant an "F". So, should we all aspire to a "C" for sensitivity?

Even the secondary definitions ("the state of being easily affected, annoyed, pained") don't make me want a high grade. Yet whenever someone has called me sensitive, which I've heard more than insensitive, I considered it a compliment. How about you?

Maybe all these years people have been confusing my empathy with sensitivity. For the former, I'll give myself an "A-" so far but based on the dictionary, only a "C" seems accurate for the latter. What would you give yourself so far for this attribute?            

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A Secret Synaptic Spark (For Now)

What was the last novel you finished that...

* got your attention with the first sentence and kept your interest until the last?
* made you laugh and weep in equal measure?
* left you with at least one character you won't forget?

In "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (2012), Ben Fountain pulls off that authorial hat trick and more, doing so with a story taking place over just a single day. Fountain's politics preclude me recommending this book without a caveat but his funniest barbs are aimed at excess, not politics. In addition, his observations (e.g. "...with all the emotion of a flounder on ice", "...the unctuous patter of an undertaker murmuring pickup lines in a bar", "...chum in the shark tank of family dynamics") may sound tossed off but anyone who has ever tried to write will attest how difficult this is to actually do.

Turn around and Fountain goes from spot-on observations like those above to heart wrenching sentences like this: "She looks so good he feels himself empty out, no breath, no pain, no thought, no past, his whole life distilled to the sight of her striding toward him". Man, what a gift. If any of you read or have already read this book, please let me know whose music you heard in your head while doing so. I'll keep that particular synaptic spark to myself for now.            

Monday, March 18, 2013

#9: Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four board games would be on your Mt. Rushmore? As a certified board game fanatic, I am genuinely curious to know your answers in the 9th iteration of this series. My four are listed in approximate order of when they hit the market; yours need not be.

1.) Scrabble: As a word geek, this is a no brainer. And though I love to win, I still enjoy playing with just my wife and I, though she's ahead by about 2:1 over our 35 years together. Without a doubt, the best board game ever invented if you have just two players.

2.) Trivial Pursuit: I like all the versions except sports. Still haven't met many from the bell curve that give me much competition in the music or silver screen versions. Any takers out there? Bring it on.

3.) Balderdash: Before someone invented this as a board game, we had our own take on this concept; our only prop was a dictionary and our name for it a barnyard epithet. Later market versions, expanding the bs concept beyond just words, are even more fun.

4.) Wise and Otherwise: Found this about 10-15 years ago and all I'll say is buy it. If you're a board game person, guaranteed you'll enjoy it. More creative than competitive.

I've got a few more recent ones that are good, but not quite Mt. Rushmore status. How about you?
 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Retaining My Right To Hide

How would you describe your prevailing attitude about the easy availability the Internet provides for getting information about people? Excited? Indifferent? Ambivalent? Creeped out? How much does your attitude shift based on you getting information about others vs. others getting information about you?

My attitude about this modern-day reality shifts so frequently that ambivalent, although close, seems an inadequate descriptor. Just a few days ago, in the space of twelve hours, a Google maps shot of my house at Home Depot brought to mind "1984", while finding a long ago musical associate within ten minutes had me extolling technology. At the same time, it was hard to ignore how my whiplash was totally self-serving.

Given I'm a blogger, as well as a mostly law-abiding citizen, I don't have a great deal to hide. That doesn't mean I want to give up my right to be able to hide. How about you?    

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Toddler

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/first-entry.html

What did you most recently learn about yourself? What led you to that learning?

Writing is the act of self-discovery: David Hare. Although that quote seemed a relevant one to use in my first post, these two years of blogging have demonstrated the wisdom of those words to me again and again. I hope some of you discovered things either via the comments you wrote here or stuff you've written me offline. But even if you have not made any self-discoveries via your writing, I've learned from you. Thanks for that.

Toddle: An unsteady gait. Based on the dictionary definition, calling my blog a toddler feels a bit off.  On the other hand, it is two years old tomorrow, there's still lots of room for growth, and it gives me an excuse for any unsteady days until next March 15.        

    

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Out Of The Lowbrow Zone

Though admitting it puts me in lowbrow land, my preference in non-fiction reading to this point has favored memoirs, books aimed at self-improvement or, on middlebrow days, stuff about adult learning or psychology. I enjoy history and biographies but those are usually not at the top of my non-fiction queue. "Mornings on Horseback" (1981) by David McCullough could help change that.

McCullough is a well-regarded historian and this book about Teddy Roosevelt's early life helps explain why. Though it is meticulously researched (31 pages of end notes & an eleven page bibliography), it is highly readable. Because Roosevelt's family were faithful letter writers (McCullough estimates Teddy himself wrote 15,000 over his 60 years) and diarists, a reader is never far from actual words that tell a story of intense family love and unwavering loyalty. The post-Lincoln Republican party, NYC in the Tammany Hall era, and the most contested presidential contest in US history form the fascinating political backdrop.

What was the last book you finished and enjoyed that you would have been unlikely to choose on your own? For me, the top benefit to being in book clubs is being regularly exposed to gems like "Mornings on Horseback", a book this lowbrow would not have chosen. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Speaking To The Graduates (Etc.)

As the keynote speaker, you've got about three months to prepare. What would you focus on delivering a commencement speech for graduates in 2013?

Although I know this locates me in dinosaur-land, not to mention being an ironic subject for a blogger to prattle about, I would focus on the benefits of face-to-face communication. I don't believe the world is going to hell in a hand basket because of tweeting, texting, over-reliance on technology, etc. But it's possible a persuasive commencement speech might help increase awareness of the benefits of old-fashioned face-to-face communication. Or conversely, increase awareness of the rudeness of ignoring the people you're with in favor of electronic devices. And not only graduates could benefit from this awareness.

Of late, I've noticed a fair share of couples of all ages sitting in public places (restaurants in particular), not speaking to each other but instead tapping away on their cell phones. At minimum, my commencement speech would have at least a few sarcastic remarks aimed at this behavior which in my mind is tantamount to saying "I'm sitting here with you but whatever this person is texting to me is more interesting or  more important than anything you might want to talk about."

I'm reasonably sure my young adult daughter will chastise her old fart father for this post (online or offline chastising is the unknown) but what is your view? In her defense, she is almost always fully present when with her mother and I. For that, I'm grateful. I'm sure she's grateful I was not selected to deliver any of her commencement speeches. 

    

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Qualifying

Imagine this scenario. You're interacting with someone who you think is highly intelligent and/or a very discerning reader. Perhaps this person's intellect is mildly intimidating. In your mind, this person would be unlikely to read much fiction but if they did, it would probably be the classics. For the purposes of this exercise, it doesn't matter if your assumptions about this person are at all accurate.

Which author that you really enjoy would earn a qualifier of any kind when speaking to this imaginary person? Examples of qualifiers - "I read so and so when I want something light". Or..."So and so is my favorite beach read". Or..."just junk, you know", etc. Got the idea?

There's a fascinating human dynamic at work here. In my experience, qualifying our opinions is fairly commonplace. Years ago I began a project to review every recording in my personal collection. And even though no one will ever read these reviews, I recently discovered myself qualifying my positive opinion of  "Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits", using the expression "guilty pleasure". That led me to reflect on other stuff I routinely qualify, including contemporary authors I really enjoy.

Decided from now on when I mention Nick Hornby & Elmore Leonard, among others, I'm going to work on leaving out the qualifiers. My challenge will be retaining that resolve when encountering someone like the imaginary person in the first paragraph.       

Friday, March 8, 2013

Wanted: Non-Therapeutic Advice

From the start, I've used Facebook selectively to promote this blog. About one out of every six posts I've written has gone up on my Facebook timeline. And though those posts often receive more views than those not using Facebook, there have been notable exceptions to that pattern. Since the number of comments I routinely get has stayed low, I remain unsure where the readers for the more widely viewed non-Facebook posts are coming from. If you're one of those people, I'd love to know how you found this blog and what I can do better to keep you reading. 

More significantly, I'm interested in knowing what people think about using social media to promote a blog. Do any of you have a Facebook friend or Linked-In contact who does this? How do you feel about them doing so? Several people have suggested I put every post I write on my Facebook timeline and similarly use my Linked-In contact list. What do you think? At what point does a blogger begin wearing out their welcome? Is a business social media site like Linked-In appropriate for a blog like mine which rarely touches on business matters?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Really?

My one word question for individuals who think it a good idea to place video screens above men's room urinals. Really?

Yesterday was my first experience with this latest example of our TV-saturated lives. Point of information: There was no on/off button. And there were three urinals; all had the screens. So, as the sports channel chattered on and a perfectly coiffed young man remained unavoidably in my line of sight, I tried to imagine the meeting when salespeople pitched this ludicrous notion to the management of this chain restaurant. What benefits would be presented? What would the potential buyers present as objections? How would the salespeople respond to the objections? Assuming a sale was not closed after the initial pitch, what would be discussed at a follow-up meeting by the decision makers? Would a company memo be circulated asking for additional input from employees? What would be the subject line of that memo?

After finishing my business, I decided to never give this restaurant future business of any sort. The possibility of being stuck in a stall sometime in the future with "Jersey Shore" playing, sound or no sound, is just too scary. It's also profoundly sad to me that the people running this restaurant chain think, on any level, that I somehow welcome having this intrusion in my world.         

    
 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Nose On My Face

"To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle.": George Orwell

Which strategies do you use to ensure you are continually learning?

I'm not sure Orwell was necessarily referring to continual learning but his words remind me how important that pursuit is, especially when I find myself stuck. It's seductive holding onto a viewpoint and not actively seeking new information that could upend that view. Peter Senge calls this "being held by a position" vs. "holding a position" - a critical distinction. In my experience it's a short distance from being temporarily stuck to becoming hard-to-budge provincial. What has been your experience?

Recently, an old friend about my age speculated that aging invariably moves us toward becoming more provincial. I have no evidence to either support or refute his view. But I am planning to keep Orwell's words in front of my nose from now on, just in case.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Around The World In 30 Essays

Although getting to every country of the world I want to is still possible, reading "The Conde Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys" provides a pleasant alternative in case I miss a few. And finishing the 2012 volume, the second in this wonderful series, also assisted me in noting a few places to skip.

Aside from the uniformly high quality of the writing, I invented a process to further enhance my reading enjoyment. Instead of taking the essays in the order presented, i.e. alphabetical by country, I planned a travel route, starting with the location nearest to me - the Hudson River via a Patrick Symmes piece entitled "Romancing The River". Then with my Atlas handy, I mapped out a logical itinerary to take me to the other 25 places around the globe. My last stop before returning home was Amy Wilentz' terrific "Love and Haiti and the Whole Damn Thing". It was a great trip; hit six of the seven continents.

It would be cool to know which places you'd add or subtract from your list after reading this book. One of each for me? Adding: Berlin (Guy Martin - "The Greatest Show on Earth"). Subtracting: Arctic Bay, Canada (Wade Davis - "Force of Nature"). No offense, Wade; blubber diets just don't work for me.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A Slightly Brighter Vision For 2023

Hallelujah! A film about people 10-15 years older than I that left me feeling something other than mild dread about being 10-15 years older. The film - "Quartet", the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman.

With few exceptions, films of the past few years featuring people in their mid-late 70's, including most recently, "Robot and Frank" with Frank Langella, have been dispiriting affairs for me. Ironically, these films have been proliferating to capitalize on the discretionary moolah of the aging baby boomer market, i.e. yours truly. Though the enticing tag lines for movie trailers or on DVD boxes have uplifting sentiments like "...you're never too old for (insert your choice of word)...", when most of these films are over I'm often left with something more akin to "be grateful for NJ transit discount fares".

Sounding like an old crank is not a good technique for making a point about this issue. But many recent films that both reviewers (how old are those folks by the way?) and friends have raved about featuring folks in their mid-late 70's have not made me look at the future with eager anticipation. Lots of Alzheimer's, numerous enema references, and in a movie that shall remain nameless everyone except me seemed to love, Tom Wilkinson dying prematurely right after finding his soul mate. And I'm no Pollyanna. Traditionally, I've enjoyed dark, somber books and films. I even like Leonard Cohen, Janis Ian and Nick Drake's music for crying out loud.

This is my take - what's yours? "Quartet" has a bit more balance but most contemporary films about people in their mid-late 70's show this group as frail and/or marginalized. If they're not marginalized, they're heroic, albeit frequently in a reactionary way ("Gran Torino", anyone?). At the risk of being labeled culturally insensitive, this doesn't strike me as totally dissimilar to the stereotyped way films like "New Jack City" and others portrayed young African-American men in the 90's. Thin skin, you say? Maybe, but enough with the nap jokes, OK?  

Friday, March 1, 2013

One For The Road

Which profession is the modern-day equivalent for the bartender of old who would listen to semi-inebriated tales of woe and heartbreak? I nominate the barristas of locally-owned coffee shops.

Don't try this at Starbucks, OK? But next time you patronize your local coffee shop, instead of taking your Joe to go, sit and sip and listen. I'll wager even money you'll run into at least one of the following:

* A tale involving family rivalries, dysfunctions, feuds.
* Some saga of love - a quarrel, an engagement or wedding, a parting.
* If barrista is female, listening will likely accompany the latte prior to advice being offered. Male barrista?  Listen for snappy solutions served with the soy milk.

I'll wait for your report. In the meanwhile, just milk in my coffee, please.