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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Moonwalking With Goodreads

In May of last year, while loitering in the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, I read about half of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" (2011). Given my high geek quotient and memory I couldn't resist a book with the subtitle "The Art & Science of Remembering Everything".

Then a few months ago, my local librarian turned me onto the Goodreads website. If you're a reader and any kind of list maker, you'll love this site. Rate some books you've finished and an algorithm spits out recommendations; Foer's book appeared on my non-fiction list, reminding me (ahem) to finish it. It was so worth it. To date, every non-fiction recommendation made by the site has been worthwhile; what a find.

I do have a quibble with the 1-5 star rating system Goodreads uses. Two stars for "OK" and one star for "I didn't like it" doesn't give me enough room. I need a category in between those two. I'm curious if any of you familiar with the site agree or disagree. But "Moonwalking For Einstein" is fully deserving of a Goodreads four star rating ("I really liked it") and I'm depending on you to remember I said so.    


       

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

An Unspoken Escape Clause

What do you think of when you hear the word "calling"? Has anyone ever told you they thought you missed your calling? How did that feel? Have you known anyone who you thought missed their calling?

It's tempting to offer guidance to people who seem adrift, especially when you sense they have a strength or skill that could be vocationally valuable. And if I know someone well enough and they persist in asking me for guidance even after I've dodged the issue several times, I will occasionally relent. But I'm careful about using the word calling. It's possible this is silly semantics on my part. But doesn't the word itself imply the person would hear something, even if just in a metaphorical sense?

The most challenging circumstance I've faced in this arena was when someone significantly younger than I recently asked me "What do you think I was called to do?"  Flattered as I was that this individual wanted my insight, my initial reaction was to ask a series of questions like "What are you passionate about?" "What have others told you are your strengths or skills?" "How can you combine your passion with those strengths?" Though I didn't, I also wanted to add a caveat about the whole calling thing. Something like "Being called to do something now doesn't preclude being called to something different in the future". After all, how many called people have you known who later had difficulty escaping that calling?  

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 7: Forgiveness

Which is easier for you - to forgive others or to forgive yourself?

Compared to many people who have shared their stories with me, either personally or via a memoir, my experience to date has been largely free of the type of trauma and/or dysfunction that would call on me to forgive others in order to fully heal. For that, I'm grateful.

At the same time, forgiving others, even when a trespass has not necessarily been traumatic, does not come easy to me. When I still regularly attended religious services, any homily about forgiveness would linger with me for weeks.

But forgiving myself puts this word into the haunting realm. I veer from the paradox of how to forgive myself for being unforgiving of others to ridiculously mundane matters re self-forgiveness. For example, the genesis of this post occurred on a day when I kept postponing some reading. On that day, in order to rally above a dip in mood, I wrote in my journal - "Forgive yourself for not wanting to read today". It worked for a few moments but the absurdity did not escape me.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Smoky Mountain, Here I Come

Though it's silly doing so, since returning from Congaree National Park in South Carolina, I've found myself comparing it to the other National Parks I've visited. My inescapable conclusion: I'd return to any of those other parks before visiting Congaree again.

But every road trip has numerous pleasures. From this trip to the just OK Congaree?
* Spending more time than planned in historic Charleston, South Carolina - unique and beautiful Southern homes, a soothing rocking chair while gazing at the harbor, great raw oysters at Pearlz.
* Listening to John Updike's 2006 novel "Terrorist". Having an expressive reader (Christopher Lane) narrating those remarkable Updike descriptions reminded my wife and I why Updike's writing has entranced us both for over 30 years.
* Seeing my youngest niece and two friends, all Carolinians now.

And despite my underwhelmed reaction to it, Congaree itself had appeal. Nice 2.4 mile hike on an elevated boardwalk, towering pine trees, a relaxing quiet periodically interrupted by woodpeckers, one of nature's most intriguing sounds. Next National Park? Smoky Mountain in the fall. Oh yeah, almost forgot - we did our planning for that while in the car on this trip - gotta love the Internet! Which National Park is next for you? And how did the last one you visit compare to others you've seen?         

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Stuff

Compared to most people I've met sharing my economic and educational background, I've never had a great deal of stuff. Some days, I think this is because I never really wanted stuff. Other times I wonder if my lack of stuff is more tied to a lack of ambition. If you're more like me than not, what reasons have you given to yourself and others for your lack of stuff?

I've known people that have lots of stuff. But I haven't met that many who have the stuff they need the moment they need it. If you have lots of stuff, how true has this been for you? What systems do you have for storing, organizing and maintaining your stuff? I have enough trouble keeping track of photographs let alone a lot of stuff.

A few months ago someone suggested to me people would be better off accumulating more good actions rather than more stuff. This makes sense to me especially since I really don't like cleaning stuff.    
    

Friday, May 24, 2013

Book Club Juice

I've come to rely on book club juice, pure and simple.

After three years attending multiple book club meetings each month, with only one this May, I'm feeling a little off. So much inspiration for blog posts and songwriting, so many interesting perspectives on books I likely wouldn't have chosen to read, cool quotes that nail the essence of a book being discussed. Most recent tasty morsel - "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional". The book club participant attributed this to Buddha; I didn't check - doesn't matter because it's in my bag of tricks now thanks to her and him, if she was right.

It would have been so neat to discover this juice prior to 2010. What a blast if I could have been part of a discussion about "At Play In The Fields of the Lord" by Peter Matthiessen or "The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart" by Alice Walker or "My Secret History" by Paul Theroux. Or anything by John Updike or Anne Tyler or Toni Morrison. But wait; I can still suggest any or all of the above, right?

And another thing. When I'm away a lot like this month, aside from missing my juice, I also get library withdrawal symptoms. Suggestions from cyberspace doctors?   


Thursday, May 23, 2013

#11: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four actors would be on your Mt. Rushmore? All my choices are still alive, close in age, white and more the leading type than character actors. Listed in alphabetical order, my Mt. Rushmore has:

1.) Jeff Bridges: If he'd never starred in any movie except "Fearless", Bridges would be here. But he was also "The Big Lebowski". In addition, he's the actor who most convincingly portrays musicians; a cynical jazz pianist in "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and a dissolute country singer and guitarist in "Crazy Heart".

2.) Gene Hackman: An actor who can redeem nearly any film. Although I'm partial to his early roles in movies like "I Never Sang For My Father" and "Once In A Lifetime", my favorite Hackman performance was a small part he played in a little seen Woody Allen gem called "Another Woman".

3.) Laura Linney: Want to see a range that will dazzle you? Watch "The Truman Show", "Mystic River", "You Can Count On Me", & "The Squid and The Whale" back-to-back. Try not to be amazed.

4.) Meryl Streep: No explanation required.

As with musicians, it was difficult for me to pick just four for this iteration of Mt. Rushmore. And though my baby boomer bias is clear here, even fitting ten or twelve actors on my mountain wouldn't change that.    

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Wit

wit: the keen perception or cleverly apt expression of amusing words or ideas or of those connections between ideas which awaken amusement and pleasure.

This monthly series kicked off in February 2012, starting at the beginning of the alphabet; ambition was the first attribute for which I gave myself a grade (so far). And I've encouraged you to join me so if you've done so faithfully, you now have sixteen grades for sixteen unique attributes and perhaps some ideas about growth edges.

Of the attributes selected to date, a solid "A" for wit would give me the most joy. For a discernible improvement in wit, I'll remain satisfied indefinitely with my "Cs" for ambition & bravery. If trading my "A" for enthusiasm or my "B+" for determination would have those bon mots rolling off my tongue quicker, just show me where to sign. Hell, I'll accept even lower grades for "charm" or "generosity" in exchange for unlimited clever witticisms. How about you? Any wit envy? Do you marvel at people for whom those connections between ideas are humorous grist for the mill? I do.

My grade so far for wit? Doesn't matter; I want that "A".         

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Little Victory

If you were asked to identify one, what variable would you pick as most likely to have a significant impact on your receptivity to a book? Though this has changed a few times over my reading life, of late I'd pick timing.

I recall little about the first time I finished "Goodbye Columbus" by Philip Roth. However, I am certain my first go round didn't pack the wallop my recent reading did. I'm nearly as certain that timing explains my enhanced receptivity to this early Roth collection. In addition to reading more of his work over the last few years and my unqualified love for "The Human Stain", I really enjoyed "Unmasked" the new PBS documentary about Roth. The film was actually the catalyst for me grabbing "Goodbye Columbus" again.

Lately, I've also noticed timing can cut the other way. Reading the entries in my book journal about the novels I finished immediately following "A Visit From The Goon Squad" (Jennifer Egan) and "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (Junot Diaz) brought this home. Both Goon Squad and Oscar Wao knocked me out so much, whatever I read after each was bound to let me down. I've been trying to remember the last time I was really knocked out by back-to-back books. Timing?

And what about the books that gave me (or you) trouble the first time out - timing? Even if conquering "Ulysses" is not in my future, recognizing the significance of timing is still a little victory to assist me in my reading odyssey. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Fashion Quid Pro Quo

Passing a group of teenagers recently, I pointed to my wrist to ask the time. When one of them pulled out a cell phone, I realized how quickly my gesture is becoming outmoded. Then a few days later, the incredulous response I received from a 20-ish clerk at my local liquor store about paying by check caught me short again. After the second incident, I decided to share both with my young adult daughter. She loves making fun of me about this stuff just as I did with my Father when I was her age. 

But then it occurred to me. If my old fart missteps sometimes put me behind the curve or make me look old fashioned, what to call the opposite phenomenon? For example, while watching  "The Graduate" with my daughter for the first time not long ago, we had to pause the film twice for explanations about technology circa 1967. First, when Benjamin is signing a hotel register prior to his initial rendezvous with Mrs. Robinson, and again soon after to explain what those "things" were on top of the hotel TV. OK, my texting skills are a little weak but when we're at a flea market together, I have to explain to my daughter the purpose of a 45 RPM insert. Seems like quid pro quo to me. Your view?             

So, am I an old fart or a valuable archivist? If I'm behind the curve in the present tense, what label do I deserve for my acumen in decoding stuff from the past? And if I start keeping score, will I end up with more quid than her quo?  

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Song & The Trip

Where did you go on your last memorable road trip? Who was with you? What song(s) mark the trip in your memory?  

Since my first cross country drive in 1972, I've been hooked on long road trips. When my wife recently decided she wanted to visit all the National Parks, my wanderlust got a free pass. And over the years it's become easier to make a critical element of any road trip, i.e. the music, exceedingly enjoyable. Whoever thought of installing USB ports in automobiles has truly enriched my life.

For me, the year of the song doesn't necessarily match the year of the trip. In 1972, my VW van had only an AM radio. When out of range of a station, I played cassette tapes of WNEW-FM made prior to leaving. So the song that marked that trip is "Something In The Air" by Thunderclap Newman with DJ Pete Fornatale introducing it. My cross country hitch hiking trip of 1978 is marked by a Kinks song called  "Apeman". I can't separate "On The Wind" by Bryndle from my most recent cross country trek in 2000. Any road trip of significance from my life has at least one song like this. 

With my I-pod accompanying me the past five years, my geek cup over floweth. On my current road trip, the song is already a lock: "One Hundred Years" by Five For Fighting.    

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Action!

Which pieces of your life could make a movie reasonably compelling from beginning to end? Don't worry about how long the movie would end up being; I'll get back to that.

Over the last several weeks, I've seen films about Jackie Robinson ("42"), Bob Dylan ("I'm Not There") and Philip Roth ("Unmasked"). Each film had interesting stretches; none were without dull moments. Could that tedium have been the writing or directing rather than the lives depicted? Sure. However, isn't it equally plausible that any life depicted on film, no matter its notoriety, has to show dull moments in order to be realistic? How many lives are an unbroken series of exciting or noteworthy events? Call this exposition overload but that's how I arrived at my original question. So, back to that now and remember - only pieces that would make a final cut - leave out your dull stuff. This won't be fun if I'm the only one who embarrasses myself.

Making my final cut (and I'll be the screenwriter so this will be a feature length film):
1.) The regrettable arrest scene in my 61st year.
2.) Two chases; this time I'm the good guy - One after a shoplifter in Elizabeth NJ, the other after a purse snatcher in Greenwich Village.
3.) Four songs in front of a very receptive crowd in Montclair, NJ in 1978.

Ready? Action!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Memorializing An Important Day

When my Mom died in 1977, I was a self-absorbed 28 year old just off a difficult year. Also, because my journalling discipline wasn't as rigorous then, the written record of our interactions is erratic. Mother's Day throughout the years? Although I remember my Mother fondly, I have no reliable recollections or journal entries about this important day. Did I own a camera? If yes, I can't locate any pictures. How does my experience compare with yours?  

Seeing the connection my young adult daughter has with her mother makes me proud and happy. It also makes me wistful about those gaps in my memory. My daughter wrote a beautiful card, gave her Mom a thoughtful gift, took several pictures of the three of us after our Mother's Day breakfast. I hope when she gets home she also writes something in her journal. Words on a page are precious; they help preserve memories in ways even pictures sometimes do not. And it's never too late to start.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/05/my-mothers-legacy.html

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Healing & Bravery

Having never served in the military or held a gun, a book graphically describing combat is as foreign to me as the world depicted in the novels of Jane Austen. Since finishing "The Yellow Birds" (2012) by Kevin Powers, a book that strikes me as both wholly authentic and masterfully written, I've had some difficulty shaking off a question. How well is this author healing following his own combat experience in Iraq?

I also wonder how books like Powers' or "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (Ben Fountain) or "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien land with those who have seen combat. One thing the narrators in all three novels share is emotional paralysis re-entering the civilian world. And when each tries to articulate their experiences to those back home, the results are uniformly abysmal. The attempt made by the narrator of  "The Yellow Birds" (Bart) comes in the form of one sentence about 2/3 through the book; the sentence is about three pages long. If this sounds daunting, do not be put off. Powers may be paying intentional or accidental homage to James Joyce or Virginia Woolf with a sentence like this, but you will not be left scratching your head. Instead you'll find yourself stopping to let the rawness of Bart's words sink in. I did.

Reading these three books in close proximity has also deepened my reflections on the meaning of bravery. Here is O'Brien from "The Things They Carried": "I survived but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war". What do you take away from those words?
  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Uncomfortably True

All right it's true. Faced with a public restroom having two or more stalls, if the non-handicapped ones need any janitorial attention, I use the handicapped stall.

This from someone whose sister, niece, and sister-in-law teach special education. Someone who worked at the Commission For The Blind for almost seven years and now volunteers at a stable specializing in therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. Someone who wouldn't think of pulling into a handicapped parking space even when it means not finding an available slot. Talk about PC bona fides. 

Recently realized that somehow I concluded using these toilets is not as likely to inconvenience someone with a disability like taking a parking space does. Certainly, I've rationalized, I will not be in a stall as long as someone would occupy a parking space. Detect any magical thinking here?

For anyone who has ever really needed a public restroom, I'm guessing no pictures are required. Faced with a choice, I suspect many disabled people would prefer waiting for the dunce to vacate a handicapped parking space vs. waiting for Pat the dunce in the only stall that can accommodate them. What do you think?   

 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Who's On First?

Christiaan Barnard, Neil Armstrong, Sandra Day-O'Connor - famous firsts. What about us folks on the bell curve? Where/when have we been first? And from which arena? Among our family? From our high school? Hometown?

Started reflecting on this while dissembling some framed retirement paraphernalia a few days ago. Although the frames can be re-used, until noticing a "first" mentioned in one, I'd planned to discard all the documents. I then decided to save that one document to remind me of a modest work-related accomplishment. Though not nearly as significant as performing the world's first heart transplant, walking on the moon, or being the first of my gender to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, it is a first nonetheless.

Then while sitting alone in a memorial garden late yesterday, I saw several of the plaques commemorating the firsts of local people. Folks much like me or you, I suppose. Occurred to me that each of us can benefit from acknowledging our own firsts, no matter the size of the arena or whether our accomplishment has been turned into a public plaque. For the record, my wife was the first person from either of our families to complete a triathlon and she was responsible for starting the first farmers market in Montgomery township. I'm the first family blogger. Your turn.  

  

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ready For You

OK, I'm ready. After reading this post, call me an elitist. Or, if you prefer adjectives use supercilious. Need the one-two punch of adjective with noun? Try arrogant snob. Only a hyphenated epithet will do? Hit me with pseudo-intellectual. Better yet, come up with your own words and make them good ones - that's the whole point of the ersatz erudition that follows.

At this point in my reading life, especially with non-fiction, I really enjoy it when a writer's vocabulary challenges me. Get your sarcastic mojos working because there are no qualifications coming for this view. Although having a dictionary nearby when reading puts me in solid geek territory, no apologies are offered. I don't like feeling inadequate (who does?) but learning new words while I read has become, if not essential, clearly important to me. Got your nasty rejoinders ready? I hope so because there's a bit more.

This blog is appropriately named "Reflections From The Bell Curve" because I have no illusions about my intelligence. Like many of us on the bell curve, I have a smattering of knowledge about lots of stuff but I'm neither exceptional nor a scholar. But each time I'm exposed to someone much smarter than I, whether an author or someone I know, I grow. Every new word is a new world. I won't get to visit all of them all but bring on those new worlds, please. Got those insults handy? Make them shiny & new. 


    

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Those *!@!&@/* Blurbs

Which new author have you tried based on the endorsement of another author?

Although I've had reasonably good luck with this method of finding new authors, I've only recently gotten wise to relying on these endorsements when delivered in essay or review form. For example, an essay by the late Christopher Hitchens persuaded me to try Martin Amis. I started with a short novel of his called "The House of Meetings" (2006). On the strength of that, next was Amis' "The War Against Cliche" (2001), a collection of essays & reviews from the past 25 years. That book is a feast that reminded me how great writers are invariably insatiable readers. Having lost so many wonderful essayists the last few years, discovering Amis is consoling. Thank you Christopher.

On the other side, I've grown increasingly suspicious when the endorsement takes the form of an author blurb on a book cover. Having been burned several times like this in my reading life, my new practice is to research and see if the blurbing author ever wrote an actual review of the blurbed book. If yes, I read that review and then decide whether to try the book. If no review is to be found, I skip the book.

What has been your experience? What was the last book you read, based on a blurb only, that disappointed you? How did that experience change your attitude toward the author of the blurb? How fair is that to the blurbing author?    

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Terrible Twos Of Mr. Id

Since being hatched two years ago today, Mr. Id has written thirteen cranky rants. Truth be told, when this doppelganger was introduced, his creator thought Mr. Id would appear much more regularly; perhaps the creator's need for approval has thus far superseded his need to publicly vent. In the past two years, how many times have you allowed your evil twin to surface? How did you feel after doing so? Or, are you someone who has yet to uncover the dark side of your personality?

Based on comments received and stats provided by the blog site, Mr. Id's November 20, 2011 post about rap music generated the most buzz. Of the remaining posts that did not stir the pot as intended, Mr. Id can offer only conjecture. Perhaps those posts were too raw; perhaps readers avoided any post with Mr. Id's moniker in the title line; perhaps any reader once exposed to Mr. Id never returned to the blog site at all.

What will the terrible twos of Mr. Id reveal? On his birthday today, Mr. Id is quiet. His last appearance was over four months ago, the longest break to date between posts. But he lurks. Passing a billboard today with an advertised website named crap.com (not visited nor vetted), Mr. Id was reminded of a post of his with a similar scent. Read it; you might be surprised to see you have things in common.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/05/mrid-returns.html


                

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Aspiring Buddhist - Dry Ice?

Though I'm aware of the wisdom of living in the moment, that ideal state often eludes me. And a fantasy about additional lifetimes shows my enlightened path in need of repair. Humor me anyway. What would you do with another 150 years?

In his brilliant essay about "Lolita" in "The War Against Cliche" (2001), author Martin Amis says he's read Nabokov's masterpiece "...eight or nine times". OK, there's one activity for my additional lifetimes - reading and re-reading. Listening to Horace Silver's Jazz Messengers playing "The Kicker" yesterday reminded me of several Silver compositions I haven't gotten around to learning yet. Want to guess where that line of thought took me? Hint: My Buddhist friends would not be proud. Preparing for an upcoming trip to Congaree National Park got me reflecting on the next National Park, the next city, other countries.

Back in the moment. No, wait; not yet. I read all that stuff, I listen to and learn all that music, I visit all those places. Now I need more time to meet intelligent people who are good conversationalists; what use are those rich experiences without processing them with others? Would be nice if those same people had excellent vocabularies so I could learn some new words at the same time but now I'm being greedy and not living in the moment. Guess the Dalai Lama's job is safe.               


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

Surgery for your real OR imaginary girlfriend

Since seeing a billboard with those exact words a few weeks ago, I've been trying to imagine the target audience for this Central Jersey cosmetic surgery practice.

1.) Though possibly aimed at gay women, I strongly suspect it is more aimed at men. Feel free to disagree.

2.) Younger men aiming to create the perfect mate? Middle-aged men looking for a younger model? Older men with Viagra prescriptions?

3.) When the man (or gay woman) contacts this business will they involve their partner in the initial consult?

4.) Does that same man (or gay woman) have vanity license plates? If no, what are they waiting for?

File this blog post under stranger than fiction. And if you're travelling north on Rt. 295 near Hamilton, try to keep your composure as you pass this nonsense.