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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

History Vs. Hero Worship

On my birthday last November, I committed here to writing 63 posts about books over my 63rd year. Although on task to make my commitment, refusing to write about any book not worthy of a discerning reader's time has complicated the challenge and also increased my frustration with marginal books.

No such complications or frustration with "Founding Brothers" (2000) by Joseph Ellis. This might be the most enjoyable and informative book I've ever read about names familiar to anyone who studied early American history - Washington, Adams (John & Abigail), Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Burr. The author uses each of his seven sections to describe the relationships each had with the others and how their shifting alliances influenced the formative years of the republic. My attention never flagged; the author's language and scholarship are first rate.

And unlike most of what I recall being taught as a child, Ellis faces the question of slavery head-on throughout his book; the focus is on history, not hero worship. Though the first census in 1790 recorded a slave population of almost 700,000 in a population of just 4 million, the founding brothers found a way to kick this can down the road, setting the stage for an inevitable Civil War 70 years later. In the author's words, slavery was "...an intractable problem that even the revolutionary generation, with all its extraordinary talent, could neither solve nor face."   

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Confidence

Confidence: self-reliance, assurance, boldness.

Based on the dictionary definition above, how would you grade yourself so far on this prized attribute? I'll give myself a "B+" on this one so far.

At the same time, this attribute, above most others, has reminded me many times how an over-played strength can bite you in the ass. If, like me, you've been more confident in your life than not, what has been the occasional downside? I've appended an earlier post of mine below that lays out my yin vs. yang struggle with confidence.

My work here is to get to an "A", quietly. One of my favorite childhood movies, "The Magnificent Seven", has two great scenes early in the film, both featuring Yul Brynner (quietly confident) and Horst Bucholz (not so quietly confident). My whole life with this attribute/strength has been aimed at becoming Yul Brynner's character. Now that I've got almost as little hair as Yul, maybe I'm ready for my close-up? 

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/11/confident-im-not-alone.html

Friday, July 26, 2013

Fresh Eyes

After watching Johnny Depp ham it up as a quintessential "man out of time" in "Dark Shadows", I was reminded how much fun it can be to periodically look at the world through fresh eyes. For example...

* What would a visitor from the 19th century or another world make of all those rows of symmetrical white lines in an empty mall parking lot? Or...

* What if that same visitor happened onto those vertical cages used in city parking lots or a group of empty utility trucks parked with their crows nests' fully extended? Or...

* Imagine being that visitor, walking in mid-town Manhattan at midnight, looking up at a second floor window and seeing a room full of people on rowing machines, stairmasters and ellipiticals. Even better, how about if that visitor stumbled onto a empty gym with that same equipment. How is this stuff used?

What are your candidates for stuff that could have those visitors scratching their heads?  Elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks in airports or casinos have already been spoken for. But look around with fresh eyes and then share with me and others a few of your ideas.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Tool For Seekers

Of the tools I routinely turned to in my last full time job, the one I most miss using regularly is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). If unfamiliar, I encourage you to spend a few minutes online learning a little about it, especially if you're a seeker.

Based on the pioneering work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the MBTI greatly assisted me with the high potential people who were my main customers. As much as the tool helped those folks better navigate the world of relationships, I reaped an equal or greater benefit. Nearly every time I administered, interpreted and then debriefed the MBTI with a customer, I gained new insights about my own interactions. And as I got better using the tool those insights deepened, lending credence to the words of Buddha - "We teach best what we need to learn most."

Though I have less opportunity to use the tool now, there's an ample supply of literature to help me at least stay up-to-date. Still, I do miss the almost daily practice, especially when one of those bumpy, if inevitable interactions comes my way.   

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lucky #13 - The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four quotes are timeless enough to be carved in stone? Most of the words in this post, the 13th in my Mt. Rushmore series, do not belong to me. But the sentiments expressed below are mine in every way.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.

Isaac Newton:  If I see great distances it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.

Martin Luther King Jr:  Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.

Mahatma Gandhi: Our thoughts become our beliefs; our beliefs become our words; our words become our actions; our actions become our habits; our habits become our values; our values become our destiny.

I would really like to know which words move you like the words above move me. In my experience, this kind of inspiration is always welcome.

     

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Unsung Unseen

The offline feedback I've received about my July 17 post on translators got me refIecting more broadly on how easy it is to overlook people who support those in the limelight. Which group(s) are some of your candidates for the unsung?

How about accompanists? As one who is better supporting a singer than soloing, this is an unsung group close to my heart. In the world of film, cinematographers remain largely invisible, despite their critical role. Each time a book feels padded to me, I'm reminded of models of concision like Julian Barnes' "The Sense Of An Ending" and wonder - How much impact did Barnes' editor have on the final product?

How would an unsung role like these appeal to you? I wonder - How much do the unsung enjoy being mostly unseen?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ballad On A Hot Saturday

What percentage of your all time favorite songs are ballads or, at least started out as ballads?

Could be I'm more of a sap than most but my percentage is mushman high. Listening to my I-pod on shuffle recently while exercising, the first six songs were ballads, each better than the next. Found myself getting a little annoyed when the first uptempo song played. Didn't matter that uptempo song better suited the rhythm of my exercise - I anticipated the next tear-jerking ballad. So when the drum intro to Poco's "Nothing To Hide" thundered into my earphones, I was ecstatic in 12/8 time.

Soon after stopping my exercise (eight ballads out of the thirteen songs that played), I further indulged my compulsive side and did a quick perusal of my I-tunes library. Ballads make up more than 50% of the tunes I've obsessively selected for inclusion there. Mind you, they are all great ballads, but slow songs they are.

Though tempted to do a Mt. Rushmore post on this subject, limiting myself to four ballads to enshrine is barbaric. But I'd like to know a few of your favorites in case I've missed some choice ones.               

  

Friday, July 19, 2013

21st Century Picture Prisoner

Anyone as old as I may recall the bad old days when a friend cornered you with a carousel full of slides documenting their last vacation to Disney World. And most of us of all ages have likely withstood a narrated journey through one or more family wedding albums. Tedious as being a picture prisoner in someone's home can be, culinary benefits are often conferred upon unwilling victims. In the days of carousel slides, perhaps a fondue? Would you care for some dessert as your eyes glaze over this wedding album?

Recently I endured the 21st century iteration of this water torture after asking a casual acquaintance about his vacation.  Out came the cell phone. When the interminable narration accompanying the pictures ended, 90 precious minutes of my life had vanished without so much as a compensatory eclair.

Now having made others picture prisoners while they were guests in my home, I too have blood on my hands. But with cell phones capable of holding the picture equivalent of the Library of Congress, a remote cabin in rural Wyoming is looking pretty appealing.    
   

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Artists Of Language

While reading the stunning prose in "Out Stealing Horses" by Per Petterson, I began reflecting on what the translator (Anne Born) brought to bear on this Norwegian novel from 2003. How much attention have you ever given to this easy-to-overlook detail?

I'm certain being mono-lingual contributes to my fascination of the translator's art. "...until he could not hear anything but that shot when people talked to him no matter what they said, and it was the only thing he would hear for a long, long time." Reading that critical phrase midway through the book (describing a horrific accident from the childhood of one of the main characters), I wondered - How many words were there in the original Norwegian? Was it a phrase in the original text or a stand alone sentence? What was the punctuation? How much work did it take to ensure most of the words in that phrase were one syllable when translated into English? If the original Norwegian did not use that clipped cadence, how would the raw power of that phrase have been affected?

One of my adult guitar students is a multi-lingual Asian Indian. Whenever he asks me to teach him a Hindi song, I ask him to translate the lyrics for me. This process invariably deepens my fascination with language, especially when the singer utters one syllable and my student's English translation becomes  several words. Or vice versa. Petterson's elegiac and brilliant novel brought my guitar student to mind and also made me recall an earlier novel I'd finished with equally stunning prose - "Elegance of the Hedgehog" (2006) by Muriel Barbery. Went back to my book journal - that one was translated from French by Alison Anderson.

In my perfect world, artists of language like Born and Anderson deserve more recognition. Without them, I would have missed both "Out Stealing Horses" and "Elegance Of The Hedgehog".    

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Three To The Bar

My lifelong distrust of barroom and alcohol camaraderie has been forged by two experiences.

* Many years playing music in bars where I've witnessed firsthand how fleeting that camaraderie usually is.
* Hearing "I love you, Pat" slurred by those who, absent alcohol, have previously shown zero regard for me, let alone any wish for the camaraderie they now wish to extend.

So while having dinner alone at a bar recently, I surprised myself getting engaged with a stranger in the kind of barroom camaraderie I've always avoided. My first indication the interaction was going to go well? When he said "Cinderella Man" and "Saving Private Ryan" were two movies that "inspired" him.

Had things never gone beyond that superficial link, my suspicions about these interactions would have remained unchanged. But when he shared lessons his parents taught him, I was glad I'd remained open despite my initial reluctance; these lessons had the ring of truth and familiarity. No matter how fleeting my connection, can anyone ever hear these things too much?

"Take care of your own health so that you'll be able to take care of those you love."
"Find work you enjoy so you're happy about what you do each day."
"Live within your means".

Thanks for the company and the reminders, Sal.      

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reading With Care

Ever been a little chagrined by one of the reasons you've liked a book?

"Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" (2003) by Nassim Taleb, had me from the start. Even when out of my depth, the central premise of how we fool ourselves into believing unpredictable events are somehow "explainable" kept me engaged. The author's intellect, coupled with a cheeky irreverence, also helped me through the technical stuff.

However, there were instances when the laughter stuck in my throat. Sometimes, Taleb's disdain for people who have challenged his iconoclastic views got a bit nasty. If a group of people he was dissing happened to be a group I'm frequently scornful of, it was easy to giggle...for a moment. But liking a book because it is snarky is not something to be proud of.  I don't need help being more judgmental.

"Black Swan" devotes serious attention to confirmation bias, the human tendency to seek out information that supports our views and ignore whatever challenges those views. It's a construct I'm very familiar with from years of teaching value-laden subjects like racism. More than once while reading this provocative and intelligent book, I had to remind myself that Taleb's views often mesh with mine. Hmmm.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Birthday Goat

Trust I'm not alone preferring birthday celebrations to funerals. Consequently, I'm looking forward to attending a good friend's 70th birthday party this weekend even if the words "friend" and "70th birthday" in such close proximity feels a little weird.

Anticipating this party did get me reflecting, however. What was the first birthday party you recall attending, your own or otherwise, when the number gave you some pause? Don't remember my 20th but my 30th, 40th, 50th and even 60th passed without too much drama. In those years, to keep the Irish melancholy at bay, I whispered clichés like "It's only a number" and "Beats the alternative" to myself; worked reasonably well for each of my own milestones.

But in 1985, while still a ripe 36 years old, I clearly recall attending a 40th birthday party for a work colleague that sent me into a tailspin. No clichés, Hallmark sentiments or consoling words soothed me that time. Driving home from that party (which, by the way, was a serious dud), I was silent, sullen and self-pitying.

Would be good to know others have had similar experiences when a birthday number got your goat. In the meanwhile, I plan on having a great time celebrating my friend entering her 8th decade.     

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Mysterious Relationship

What is your relationship to food?

I suspect some of you might have difficulty answering that question if you are at all like me. For me, food is primarily about sustenance, i.e. I eat when hungry (exception: free samples) and usually stop when full. For the first 30 years of my life the words relationship and food never struck me as belonging together.

But early on in our partnership, and long before our daughter was born, my wife began educating me about how the simplicity of my relationship to food was not universal. For every book I read about music or movie ephemera, she read two about the link between food and love, food and stress, food and family. By osmosis, I learned how complicated this relationship can be. And when our daughter was still young, I fully recognized the importance of teaching her about the relationship.

Although this is a topic ripe for judgments, that is not my intent. Instead, I'd like to hear about your journey, what you've uncovered about this mysterious relationship, and if you're a parent, what you've tried to impart to your children.

 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Rockin' Heaven Down

Over the last 20 years, my enjoyment of concerts by rock musicians of my age group has been touch and go. For every Joe Jackson or Boz Scaggs show that has delighted me there have been dispiriting affairs by many others, including artists who used to be favorites.

Watching Heart tear it up on TV the night they were inducted into the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame was encouraging; seeing them live recently was inspiring. What was the last concert you attended that similarly inspired you? Two quibbles to get out of the way: The sound at PNC Arts Center continues to be atrocious. And, I would have enjoyed hearing more than one new tune even at the expense of all those great hits.

Putting that aside, Ann Wilson was in extraordinary voice and her sister Nancy shares with the exceptional Bonnie Raitt a rare distinction - a woman who plays fierce electric guitar. The Wilson sisters have always had a good ear for superb supporting musicians; their current band fits the bill. Finally, their generous encore was a Led Zeppelin feast. Though Zeppelin was never a personal favorite of mine, the way Heart attacked those songs was ferocious and very un-ladylike. Cool.   

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Sleepers Anonymous

Support groups are designed to help people feel less alone, ostensibly because the stories people tell in those groups often share elements with the stories of others. In my experience, books can sometimes serve a similar function.

After finishing Jeanette Winterson's harrowing 2011 memoir "Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?", I had two gratitude-tinged reactions:

*Continuing gratitude for being raised by two reasonably sane parents, not unlike how I felt after reading "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls and...
* New gratitude when the author revealed that her default coping mechanism is sleep.

Thank you Jeanette. Sleep has always been my main coping mechanism but I haven't uncovered a support group called "Sleepers Anonymous". Your memoir made me feel less alone. Any other closet sleepers out there? If not that, what is your default coping mechanism? Ever read a book that gave you the solace that Winterson's gave me?

p.s. My blog silence for the past three days has been technology-induced. This post courtesy of the Monmouth County Library. If home PC problems persist, my near future posts could be a bit erratic.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Moving Toward Four Saturdays

Which day of the week has shifted for you throughout your life the way Saturday has for me?

From first grade through age 17 I had one Saturday, that great day following Friday when school was done and the whole weekend was mine. Then, starting soon after high school graduation, Saturday was lost to me until I was about 35. During my college years, I worked almost every Saturday, though playing drums did not always feel like work. Still, the day wasn't wholly mine like the first 17 years.

I didn't get Saturday back until my playing music full time and then retail years were over. This is no exaggeration; I recall turning down many invitations for things others looked forward to on Saturdays - barbecues, parties, that irreplaceable night of the week when friends were usually around etc.

I finally got back my one Saturday during the years 1985-2010. But here's the good news. Beginning March 2010, I got promoted - three Saturdays each week! Monday, Thursday and Friday have part time work and volunteer commitments. That leaves both Tuesday & Wednesday feeling like two additional Saturdays most weeks. 

So, any parties during the day on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Saturday, count me in. Or, if you want to hang out on a Tuesday or Saturday night, the next day is Sunday either way. Wednesday night is good too but I might have to hang up the rock n' roll shoes a bit earlier, say 2:00 a.m? That is, until I ditch my Thursday commitment and move into four Saturdays each week.   

Friday, July 5, 2013

Take 2 And...Action!

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/05/action.html

After posting the above on May 15 and getting no response despite my begging, occurred to me people might be more comfortable if the focus of that imaginary movie was not them. After all, not everyone is as solipsistic as a blogger, right?  So here's another chance. Ready? Take 2 and ...Action!

Who have you've known that has had enough punch in their life to make that life an interesting movie? Again, don't worry about length. Rewind through the cast of characters from your own life and tell me and others about the pieces from another individual's life that would make compelling film. What are the key element(s) leading to your selection? The person's dynamism/charisma? Their talent? Intellect? Interests? Experiences? Uniqueness?

This exercise was more fun than my self-centered original. And, because I've been fortunate enough to know loads of interesting and interested people, my cast keeps growing. Now I've started matching up actors to my friends - what a blast! I need Halle Berry's contact info. She was born to play the human tsunami who was the Director of an organization where I worked from 1991-2003.    

   

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Declarations On Independence Day

As someone prone to criticize but slow to praise the United States, today seems an ideal day to reverse that paradigm. Taking anything for granted, even a country, is short sighted. Join me. What are your declarations on Independence Day?

* I'm proud of the bill of rights and especially partial to the first amendment declaring freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. For all our arguments, where would we be without those freedoms?

* While on the Constitution, I'm real fond of the checks and balances established there. Anytime one of the three branches lets me down or oversteps its bounds, it's nice to know the other two are there to provide ballast. It's a pretty cool set-up, don't you think?

* Though I know it's hokey, and am also aware lots of people were dragged here against their will, I'm proud of how the U.S. continues to (mostly) welcome people from all over the world. Lots of challenges go with that "give us your tired..." motto, but July 4th reminds me how this country has made that work as well as most.

  

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Pitch For Stage Five

Though not hard and fast, over the past several years a pattern has emerged regarding my evolving opinion of books completed. Curious how much of this sounds familiar to other readers.

Stage 1: My immediate reaction as I read the last sentence. With many novels and some non-fiction, there may have been inklings all along but until finishing, my big picture opinion feels incomplete somehow. I know; a little anal-retentive.   

Stage 2 or Stage 3 (where applicable):  My wife asking "What did you think?" When this stage occurs (a 50-50 shot), my stated opinion is usually terse. And though my view has often not yet fully evolved, expressing something aloud, distilled to its essence, actually helps the ongoing processing of what I've finished.

Stage 2** (if my wife asks much later or never asks) or Stage 3:  My book journal entry. Like stage 1, this is automatic. After three+ years, the book journal discipline is now a non-negotiable in my life, like meditation and exercise. As David Hare famously said "Writing is the act of self-discovery"; when I complete the entry, my opinion invariably gets deeper although not granite-like, I hope. **If my wife asks after my entry and I hear myself say something not written, I do not revise the entry. But I have been tempted.

Stage 3 or Stage 4 (where applicable): A book club discussion. Although here I'm even less prone to the temptation of revising a book journal entry, this stage, where applicable, clearly contributes to my long view. How sad for me if I were unable to be occasionally persuaded by the differing views of discerning readers.

Today? Stage 1 and 2 (the wife version) have taken place re David Wroblewski's 2008 novel "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle"; stage 3 - later today or tomorrow, stage 4 - July 17. That leaves the far less frequent, if always desired, stage 5 - a discussion with one or more of you.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Big Three

How much effort do you expend steering clear of politics, religion and money in conversation? Which of the three subjects gives you the least difficulty? The most?

A faithful reader of this blog recently commented on my avoidance of all three, suggesting I might be playing it too safe. There could be some truth to that. However, it's equally plausible my reluctance is more about lack of confidence vs. lack of nerve. My few published posts about the big three have taken me an inordinate amount of time to write as I searched for a tone that didn't strike me as shrill. I've got plenty to say about the big three but I'm still a little short of the writing chops that will allow me to express myself persuasively yet not obnoxiously. And it's not real different for me in conversation.

For me, religion usually gives me the least difficulty, although it's far from easy. Politics and money? A tie for most difficult. So to my compassionate critic who called me on this, I'm going to try dipping my toe into religion a little bit more first and see how that goes. To the rest of you - let me know how I'm doing. Politics and money? God only knows.