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Sunday, September 29, 2013

NYC - Just Like I Pictured (& Heard And Smelled) It

Having spent the last two days bombarded by the sights, sounds and smells of NYC, I've decided - when low on inspiration, it's time to hop on a train and just walk around the city. If nothing grabs me while I'm there, all those solitary hours reading, writing & daydreaming on the train are often an effective portal.

Rebel Bingo - That NYC sign went directly into a notebook I started many years ago after buying a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "fill dirt and croissants". On the train home, "rebel bingo" begat "jock strap and black tie", "tapioca topiary" & "tupperware gridlock" in my addled brain. Because adjective/noun word combinations are more common, my own long list of these jarring juxtapositions combine two nouns. More jarring, right? Why not let your brain roam and send me a few of yours?

Also, after hearing a passer-by mentioning a marriage that was "on the rocks", I began to unexpectedly channel the late George Carlin while walking the streets of NYC. Flashing to a wedding ceremony I recently saw being conducted on a jetty near my home, I wondered - If those newlyweds split up will others say their marriage is "off the rocks?" What common phrases have you reflected on lately? How about "swan song?" Come on, get jiggy.    

I'll leave out which NYC smells took my mind where. Use your imagination - that's what this post is meant to inspire in you. NYC does it for me.
             

Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Eloquence - Your Call

eloquence: the action, practice, or art of using language with fluency, power, and aptness.

To date, I've introduced twenty attributes in this series, grading myself publicly on all but wit, this May just past. However, based on the definition, it seems wholly appropriate that you complete my current report card for eloquence. When compiling my grade, please take all three factors mentioned into consideration and do the same when grading yourself, a practice I've encouraged all along. Public or offline comments can then be one grade (i.e. yours for me) or two, if you want to share your self-grade. A nice bonus for anyone going public would be sharing a rationale for your self-grade.

From the start of this series in February 2012, my primary consideration selecting attributes has been to make each one unique enough to avoid overlap. My aim? Helping ensure anyone that chose to do the needed introspection each month would do fresh work. An unintended by product of making the attributes so diverse has been my own grades being diverse. Anyone with straight A's at this point? I'd like to see that water-walking trick soon, OK?

And my biggest challenge from the start has been to be honest about the grade I think I deserve (so far) while keeping false modesty in check. If you've done any of this work with me, how have you dealt with that challenge?    

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Birthday & Christmas In One Package

It's no exaggeration to say the teaching assignment I'll begin early next year is a dream come true.

The first continuing ed course I'll deliver is called "One Thing Leads To Another: Popular Music In The 20th Century".  Ever since my proposal was accepted, my mind has been singing. As I now begin the design, all my musician friends can expect their brains to be picked. Lurkers in the bell curve blogosphere who'd like to weigh in, musician or otherwise, consider the following:

* For the first course, I'm looking for connections that link songs and artists throughout the century; nothing is too far fetched. Joe Jackson & Duke Ellington; Steely Dan & Horace Silver; the Beatles & Meredith Wilson, etc.
* Because I'll be playing as well as lecturing in the first course and beyond, songs lending themselves well to solo guitar (without voice) are especially welcome.
* Later courses will build on the first and touch on several genres (blues, country, rock, jazz, R&B) so let your creativity run amok and then share your ideas with me. Sorry, no royalties; can't afford it on the pittance I'm being paid.

More on this in the coming months. What a nice early birthday gift.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Intelligent And Revealing

"The harder I work, the luckier I get" - Mark Twain

I wonder why Malcolm Gladwell did not use those pithy words as the epigraph for his 2008 bestseller "Outliers"? Or at minimum, to open his chapter called "The 10,000 Hour Rule"? Twain's aphorism has always had the ring of truth for me. And Gladwell's examples of outliers who have assiduously applied that 10,000 hour rule, from Mozart to Bill Gates to the Beatles, further fortify Twain's words for me.

Having never had much use for the over-used "genius", I also appreciated how Gladwell deconstructs that hoary cliche. He doesn't deny the role of innate talent but his persuasive research makes a nuanced case for the other factors contributing to success.

But what I've most liked about Gladwell's books is how he doesn't hide from topics he covers. For example, the essay "Something Borrowed" from "What The Dogs Saw" (2009) is about confronting the probability that all writers (including Gladwell), sometimes unknowingly borrow from other writers. He asks - Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life? Here, in section two of "Outliers" (entitled "Legacy"), he skillfully yet courageously teases out the way cultural norms impact success. In less skilled or polemic hands, this could have easily deteriorated into stereotyping. Gladwell not only avoids that, in the epilogue he uses his own family history to support his convincing premise. In my experience, except for memoirs, non-fiction this intelligent and revealing is hard to come by.  Your experience?      

Monday, September 23, 2013

#15: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four learning experiences would be on your personal Mt. Rushmore? Formal or informal, in or out of a classroom, for credit or strictly for personal enrichment - anything goes; it's your mountain. Mine are listed chronologically; yours need not be.

1.) High school English with Mrs. Cavico: Forced to identify a single educational experience leading to my lifelong love affair with words, this has to be it. Specifically, I recall Mrs. Cavico's rapturous praise for Keats, Byron, & Shelley; their poetry spoke to me almost as potently as music.

2.) Freshman English with Mr. Larsen: Just a few years later as an undergraduate, this man's palpable love of literature (he described caressing the bindings of library books) ensured my permanent infection. He introduced me to John Barth, Ken Kesey, William Styron; I'm forever in Mr. Larsen's debt.

3.) Organizational Behavior with Dr. Toby Tetenbaum:  Fast forward to summer of 1997, the middle of my graduate studies. Having worked as an adult educator for over ten years, this course offered practical insights that immeasurably enriched my next fifteen years of teaching, coaching and living. Just yesterday, I relied on something from Toby's syllabus working with a group.

4.) One Day University (Various Instructors): Beginning December 2007, my wife and I have attended at least one event a year sponsored by this new (since 2006) learning organization. My next time on "campus"? This Saturday. Visit their website and try not to get hooked.

My peak musical learning experiences, including a week spent at the National Guitar Workshop the summer of 2002, would fill a second Mt. Rushmore. When you comment, online or off, include those experiences also. What could be better than learning combined with a passion?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Remembering The Bad Guys

Looking back, aside from your parents, what early lessons did other adults knowingly or unknowingly teach you?

When recalling the fathers of childhood friends, it's difficult for me to identify specific traits for the fathers I felt comfortable being around. No such difficulty for those who made me uncomfortable. When those men weren't sullen, they were angry. Sullen or angry, they often spoke to my childhood friends with indifference or disdain. More than once I heard a friend called "stupid" or worse. I also vividly recall being embarrassed when one father openly disrespected his wife and then not at all surprised to later learn he was carrying on with a divorcee.

I knew even then my own father was unlike this second group of men. Though he had a temper, only my family saw that side; my friends mostly enjoyed being around him. Although I'm sure it happened, I don't recall my father disrespecting my mother either. They argued, mostly about the four of us or money, but ugly words were usually not part of the deal. Those early lessons I learned from sullen, angry, and disrespectful fathers made me appreciate my father in ways I'm still reflecting on over 50 years later. And here's hoping my daughter's childhood friends will remember being comfortable around me, even if they too can't identify a specific trait of mine to support their memory.

Friday, September 20, 2013

If Only...

Early in my adult life, someone wise advised me about the folly of bemoaning "if only..." about anything. And that wise counsel has comforted me many times over the ensuing years.

With respect to creativity however, "if only..." is a tape I find challenging to fully erase. This is especially true when I'm exposed to people who are more inclined to stand apart than they are to fit in. Or when I recognize how my thinking is converging on one answer or solution rather than diverging and seeking out several alternatives. At times like these, my internal conversations can sound something like this:

"If only I didn't have such a need to fit in then..." or..."If only my brain diverged more often than it converged then ..." .  How do those sentences end? "...my creativity could flourish"

How familiar does this sound to you? In what domain of your life are you sometimes plagued by "if only"?    

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Sense Of An Ending, Part 2

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/06/sense-of-ending.html

I was dismayed when another commitment prevented me from attending a book club meeting to discuss Julian Barnes' "The Sense Of An Ending" last September. I really wanted to hear what smart readers had to say about this 2011 novel that had moved me so much I gifted it to both my sister and wife last Christmas.

Early today, fifteen months after finishing it the first time and writing the above post, almost exactly one year after that missed meeting, I re-read the book - a different club picked it for a meeting held this afternoon. Though in the past I'd used my book journal or any notes taken to refresh my memory when attending meetings to discuss other books I'd previously read, the glow of Barnes' novel was still so fresh I relished the idea of re-reading it. And it was an improbably richer experience the second time. You know that old magical thinking bit that goes something like this? "If only everyone could read/hear/see/be exposed to (fill in the blank), the world would be a better place". The brilliance of "The Sense Of An Ending" makes me wish my blog had enough reach that using that evangelistic hyperbole would bring this book to every thinking person.

If able to narrow down my choices, I'd use Barnes' exquisite prose to entice you. But his book is bursting with sentences, paragraphs, pages worthy of quoting. One reader at today's meeting, an artist, compared the surgical concision of Barnes' writing to the way abstract painters leave out enough in their work so our imaginations can roam free. Hearing her insightful remark reminded me why I like listening at these meetings more than speaking.    

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reminiscing Re Routines, Rituals & Riffs

Thirty years married today; five and a half additional years as an exclusive partnership. And my wife/partner and I have routines, rituals and riffs to spare. Doesn't every couple that's been together for even a few years have at least some of these? If ever there was a risk-free post to comment on, surely this is it.

* I'm responsible for picking up and disposing of dead birds, rodents, etc.; my wife is responsible for changing flats on our bicycles.

* She makes sure the natural peanut butter gets stirred; I make sure neither of us is ever caught without toilet paper in the bathroom.

* Our oldest riff? The way we fold sheets together. Started on our first visit to a laundromat in 1978; repeated as recently as a few days ago. We laugh every time.

Knowing we'd be back late from our hike at Bear Mountain today, early this morning I considered posting something somber written a few days ago. But during the hike a whole passel of these silly routines came to mind, bringing me unexpected but genuine pleasure. The somber post can wait. There are worse things than having an epitaph that reads "Here lies a good man who made sure the toilet paper was always there."

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Very Mild Terror

Two and a half years of blogging and over 600 posts. Sometimes I feel on fire, sometimes I'm stuck, but either way money is not part of the equation, thank goodness. What must it be like for people who depend on creating something to support a family, especially when they get stuck?

During the years music was my sole means of support, no one depended on my income. In addition, although I scraped by a living, I mostly performed music others had created. Consequently, the terror of creative block never entered the picture during my lean years.

Nowadays, a very mild form of that terror is with me routinely, though these meager musings have nothing to do with my livelihood and no one holds me accountable for continuing. Some days when I feel on fire, instead of rejoicing, my mind skips unaccountably to days I've been stuck. On others I reflect - How well am I harnessing this heat? But even when my notebook of ideas feels a little thin, I breathe easier knowing there will be no parallel thinning of my bank account. No such luxury for those creative people much braver than I.          

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Which "We" Are We Talking About?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/what-do-you-call-this.html

The first book mentioned after I began blogging in March 2011 was "The Painted Drum" (2005) by Louise Erdrich. Though that novel marked my initial exposure to Erdrich, I knew I'd return. What author new to you has most recently grabbed you that way?

"Small trees had attacked my parents' house at the foundation."

With the first foreshadowing sentence, "The Round House" (2012) had me immediately. Then just three pages later comes this - "And so, you see, her absence stopped time." Before any "action" occurs, Erdrich's pitch-perfect tone propelled me forward. Only once, with the vigilante act concluding the penultimate chapter, did I temporarily fall out of the author's spell. But then Erdrich masterfully puts the moral universe back on its axis in the last chapter, especially her final three pages and concluding sentences.

"We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going."

Those last four words are nominally about the fictional Coutts family of this novel. But based on the harrowing legal legacy our Supreme Court has constructed since the early 19th century to abrogate the rights of Native Americans, the "we" in that sentence carries added weight. You'll need to read the book and let me know if you agree Erdrich had that legacy on her mind with both the first and last sentence of "The Round House".        

Friday, September 13, 2013

Our Autos, Ourselves

The sticker on my windshield reminding me I'm overdue got me reflecting: Is there an equivalent in human terms for the necessity of regularly changing the oil in our autos?

First thought: How about the way many of us get our teeth cleaned every six months? Threw that out as not quite the same as an oil change - more like getting the car washed, isn't it?

I also discarded my second thought, the idea of getting periodic total blood transfusions, as too radical. But the strong parallels between the two processes, i.e. out with the old, in with the new, makes it a better fit than teeth cleaning. How about fasting? Nope, that's more akin to not driving for a few days.

Because no reasonable physical equivalents come to mind, I'm thinking something behavioral is called for. How about this? At the same time each of us gets our oil changed, we dump past resentments and replace them with positive thoughts. Pretty sure toxic thoughts I've held onto have done as much damage as the dirty oil sitting in my engine right now.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Take 3 And...Print!

OK, last chance to get into the movie business.

I first tried getting you to imagine your own life as a feature length film back on May 15. To grease your creative wheels, I even humiliated myself in that post, providing some choice cinematic moments from the life of yours truly. Despite my self-abasement, no one took the initial bait.

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

Tried a different tack on July 5 asking instead for nominations of people other than yourself fit for the role of hero or heroine of our imaginary film. Comments from the second post at least produced one notable hero - a drill sergeant a la "Officer and A Gentleman". And that reader even provided casting - Denzel Washington as the sergeant and Brad Pitt as the grunt - nice. Other nominees from Take 2? A pyromaniac bassist and a cat. Come on people, work with me here.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/07/take-2-andaction.html

So, if your own life has provided too few ready-for-closeup moments and nobody you've known comes to mind as a hero or heroine, how about a villain? Who in your life has been despicable enough to qualify as the bad guy in our film? No names or identifying markers are necessary, just give me and others some juicy details so we can get a vicarious thrill. If just one person responds to this post, I'll spill the beans on my personal Mephistopheles; you won't be disappointed.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Picky, Picky, Picky

If you belong to any book clubs, how do you assess which ones meet your needs? Full disclosure: I attended my first book club meeting in June 2010 ("Brooklyn" by Colm Toibin), so I'm fairly new to the game, although I've since been in and out of twelve clubs, with my longest continual participation in one club now approaching three years. Though at present I regularly attend meetings for six clubs, some of those are destined to drop off, based on my needs (below) or unforeseen variables.

1.) For me, leaders must be discerning readers skilled at asking pure questions (i.e. those they do not have ready answers for). Said leaders should pick the books, giving ample advance notice, and be willing (but not obligated) to take suggestions from members.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/11/parenting-book-clubs-democracy.html

2.) Groups must be big enough that non-participation in any meeting discussion does not stand out.

3.) Any processes used in meetings must remain flexible. For example, members must be able to opt out of "rating" books ("I liked it"/"I didn't"; "I give it a 1-5", etc.) if they choose.

The ideal club for picky, picky, picky me: One with all of the above, reading a mix of fiction and non-fiction and a leader who attempts to keep profound pronouncements and side conversations to a minimum. Recommendations are welcome; location is unimportant.    
 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Irvington, NJ: 1959

What was the first message about race you recall ever receiving?

I've largely avoided this on my blog, mostly because three or four brief paragraphs risks trivializing such an important subject. But close on the heels of the Trayvon Martin verdict was all that media coverage about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and ML King's seminal speech. Then last night I saw "The Butler".

I was about ten years old. My mother and I were buying milk from a street vending machine near my childhood home. Standing about 10 yards away was a black man; I recall that him standing nearby made me nervous. After the machine discharged our milk, my mother and the man exchanged a polite hello. As we walked away the man approached the machine to make his purchase.

The very brief conversation my Mother and I had following that innocuous encounter went something like this: "Mom, that colored man was not bad".  "No, Patrick, not all of them are bad". Although this is the first conversation I recall ever having about race, it was not my first message - my nervousness standing at that milk machine points to earlier messages received. I'm still unsure what my ten year old mind took away from that conversation with my mother.    

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Temporary Solution

To what do you turn to shake yourself up a bit?

Although complacency and comfort have their place, I question how much I'm learning when long periods have elapsed without any significant jolts to my routine. Being in a quiet cycle like that right now, I noticed how opposing words have been arguing with each other in my head the past few weeks. For example -

Am I in a groove or...a rut?
Am I feeling mellow or...smug?

And always, there is that fine line. Seeking out people or experiences that go way off the path entails immense risk. But habit and ritual becoming the default mode is deadening to my creativity.

Soon after posting this, I'll put on Joe Jackson's "Right" and play it so loud the paint peels. Not the complete solution but the extreme volume mixed with the profanity and indignation in his song will shake me up, at least a little. Better than nothing.                

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Retreat of Mr. Id

"The best authors are those whose writing is easy to understand".

No regular reader of my blog will be surprised to know how frequently I interact with librarians. When recommending Nina Sankovitch's "Tolstoy And The Purple Chair" to one of them recently I innocently commented how the writing in this memoir was simple but highly effective. Her response to my comment was the statement above. What's your reaction, if any, to her statement? Put another way, when an author is not easy to understand, how much impact does that have on your assessment of their talent?

My gentle push back to the librarian's statement was accepted with grace. This wasn't surprising; she is intelligent and uncharacteristically, I had chosen my words carefully. But despite my atypical tact and our polite interchange, the encounter has replayed in my head several times. And my doppelganger Mr. Id has been hovering nearby whispering to me - Best?

Before putting Mr. Id back in his dungeon, many past conversations with others sharing this librarian's sentiment about music, art, film, and literature rumbled in my head. Then a contrasting statement (paraphrased below) an old friend made when we were discussing, of all things, the drummer in the White Stripes, gave me enough solace to banish the old coot, at least for now.

"Don't equate 'I don't like it' with 'It's not good' ". Now those are sentiments even Mr. Id can abide.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Politics Behind Door #1

The sub-title of "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America" telegraphs the central premise of journalist David Von Drehle's 2003 riveting account of the fire that took 146 lives in a NYC shirtwaist factory on March 25, 1911. In this author's view, that avoidable tragedy was a catalyst for many progressive workplace reforms that followed.

Given the horrendous workplace conditions existing in developing world sweatshops producing inexpensive goods for the modern age, I can readily envision book titles in the near future that need only replace a few words. How about "Nike: The Fire That Changed India"? or "Apple: The Building Collapse That Changed Malaysia"? That leads me to reflect: Is progressive a dirty word in those countries right now as it was in pre-Triangle America? And, how did America revert to the word being dirty a century later?

Reading a book like Von Drehle's reminded me of a few of the quaint notions progressive politics has given us - fire safety, child labor laws, scaling the work week back from 84 hours. Conserving the status quo in 1910 America meant 84 hour work weeks for 14 year olds (the youngest victim of the fire) in demonstrably unsafe buildings. Progress or conserve? When this talented author draws a straight line to the many other progressive reforms that followed on the heels of the Triangle Fire, and groups aligned with those reforms like the Suffragists and early advocates of the New Deal, I choose door #1.  

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Metaphor & The Reality Check

"A few years ago I tossed my life into a blender and turned it up to high".

What event or circumstance from your life is conjured by this muscular metaphor?

When an old friend said this a few days back, I was instantly catapulted back to my arrest a little over two years ago. I vividly recalled how my mind raced through the potential ramifications of my rash act while sitting handcuffed in the police station. I remembered the months that followed - how people commiserated, saying they might have done the same thing given the circumstances - how that helped only until the possibility of a civil action came back front and center. Suddenly, the cost of defending a principle was more than I was willing to pay. Talk about a reality check.  

After the possibility of civil action dissipated on August 15 and I wrote a purging post about not recognizing myself that dismal day two years ago, all was going smoothly. That is, until my friend's life in a blender metaphor.      

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Not A Rant, Maybe Not Even A Post

It's easy deciding what to write about except on the days it is not. On those days it's hard although there are exceptions. Ambivalence is difficult to escape though certainty is hardly a panacea.

After settling on a subject, I don't waver unless something more compelling occurs to me. Following an earlier conversation, writing today about the challenges of remaining objective seemed the right choice until I began outlining my thoughts and noticed the qualifiers creeping into my positions. Those qualifiers are insidious, while also obvious when paying close attention. Still, they remain even when I attempt to reduce their equivocating effect or, try to hide them in a sentence.

On the other hand, how can they be avoided? However hard I work at eliminating qualifiers, without any ambivalence, what comes out is a rant. Nothing wrong with rants provided I give up expecting anyone to read me. Would be nice to say I'd post anyway if that were the case, but that's a lie.