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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Day Of Transformation

I require neither an excuse nor permission to be weird. But October 31 is the one day each year even the most buttoned-up can let it rip. So, how can you transform yourself tomorrow?

* If you've lived in a well-established neighborhood for a long time and have paid enough attention through the years to how the neighbors dress etc., how about a party where everyone dresses as someone from that neighborhood? Then award a prize to whoever does the best job simulating a neighbor. After my wife and I had lived in our first home ten years, I suggested this. Though it didn't go anywhere that first time, once we're in our current house for five years (2015), I'm planning to revive my idea. In the meanwhile, steal it for your own neighborhood. Or, have a family party and use the same concept.

Suggestion re above: Learn from me, OK? The next time I suggest this I'm leaving out the bit about opposite gender stuff. Think that was too much for some of the men in neighborhood #1.

* Why not use Halloween to dress up as a person of the opposite gender you admire from history? I could see myself as Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony or another of the earliest feminists. Why the opposite gender? Why not? It's Halloween - What other day of the year would you try this?

* Too tame, you say? Get your disguised self into Greenwich Village. Try to stand out there.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Force

It's taken some self-control to avoid making every blog post relate somehow to my love of music. Because of two recent interactions, I'll ask you indulge me for two paragraphs today.

In a conversation, a friend told me about hearing Terry Gross interview Graham Nash on NPR. My friend described how moved he was when Nash said he was never the same after the first time he heard "Bye Bye Love". In my 50+ years associating with musicians, I have never known one who did not have a musical moment like this. If you're a musician, please tell me about yours. My own? The drum break just before the last verse of "He's So Fine". If put on the spot in an interview, the opening pulse of "Where Did Our Love Go", the background hand clapping on "I Want To Hold Your Hand" or the harmonies of "Surfer Girl" could be epiphanies #2, 3, 4. And don't tell me epiphany is too strong a word; these were life-altering experiences for me.

The next interaction was the last guitar lesson I gave my 14 year old nephew, an intuitively gifted musician. He's not a prodigy but he has all the necessary tools - brains, ears, instincts, memory, passion, chops. Listening to him play, I remembered myself at his age, the age I took up drums. Driving home from my brother's house, I pulled over to the side of the road and wept with gratitude for this force that has sustained me all these years.  

Monday, October 28, 2013

I Repeat - First, The Book

Finally, a classic that grabbed me in a big way. What was the last classic that did that for you?

"The Painted Veil" (1925) by W. Somerset Maugham is a straightforward tale of the human capacity for growth. Each of the three main characters are human, wholly believable and the words each speak mesh beautifully with their characters.

When it became clear Walter Fane was about to succumb to cholera, my experience with death scenes from other classics I'd recently finished gave me pause. Happily, Maugham does not agonizingly prolong the scene, thereby making it more poignant. And the brief reunion Kitty Fane has with her erstwhile lover Charles Townsend near the end of the book is occasion for one of the great send-offs in all of literature: "You really are the most vain and fatuous ass I've ever had the bad luck to run across".

Re "The Painted Veil" - only two things I'd change: A few sentences during Kitty's final scene with her Father and... next time I'd read the book before seeing the film; couldn't get Ed Norton, Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber out of my head -  I hate that.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/06/first-book.html

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Word That Haunts My Grade (So Far): Humility

Humility: The quality or condition of being humble; modest sense of one's own importance, rank etc.

Based on the definition, the attribute of humility straddles two of my blog series and presents a few dilemmas.

a.) If used in "My Grade (So Far)" and I give myself an "A", doesn't being so immodest automatically contradict that grade? So for now I'll go with a modest (aka humble) "C" without saying I'm being clever doing so - too immodest.

b.) But humility is also a good candidate for word #8 in "Words That Can Haunt Me". I've used that series infrequently because any word geek who claims to be haunted by a lot of words is a bit suspect, no? Still, in my experience, authentic humility is hard to come by and even harder to attain. False humility is disingenuous; lack of humility is obnoxious. Where is the middle ground? Isn't middle ground a "C"? See what I mean about a haunting dilemma?

So, consider this a two-for-one deal. And tell me about your relationship to this tricky word.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Caught Short, Again

Some recent public statements Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has made prompted me to dig out a few old journal entries of mine. To get some needed context for this post, it might help to do a Google search using Scalia's name and some keywords like gay or evolution.

In the late 1990's when part of my job was matching instructors for training classes, there was one request I didn't have the heart to assign to someone - a mandatory all day class on diversity for 50 Administrative Law judges. And it was on a Saturday; judges do not get paid extra for attending training on Saturday. I knew this group of people was not going to be happy. So I taught the class myself.

Scalia's recent statements brought that challenging day of teaching into sharp focus and my journal helped me recall some of the highlights. Early in the day, as I was conducting an activity about prejudice, one participant said to me and his colleagues "I don't need to be here; I'm a judge and have had all the prejudice taught out of me." Although my journal entry didn't include my response, I do remember being caught short. How would you respond if someone you knew said they've had all the prejudice taught out of them?

Based on his accomplishments and intellect, Antonin Scalia has earned a place in history. His range of influence is immense. I've tried to imagine how I'd react if he were in a class of mine and made his recent statements. I'd probably be caught short, again.        

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Recognizable Cannibals

In my experience, many ruthless characters in fiction are either sociopaths or so malevolent they strain credibility. In her exceptional novel "The Woman Upstairs" (2013), Claire Messud upends that paradigm. Unlike the evil types that populate many books, both artist Sirena Shahid and her equally manipulative husband Skandar are wholly believable. Characters this nuanced linger longer in the memory, a bit like actual memories of people I've known like them. People who have done some minor damage to me.

"How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that". So begins and ends the book in the inimitable and instantly captivating voice of Nora Eldridge, a 42 year old never married 3rd grade teacher. Nora's entree into the Shahid wonderland comes after their son Reza is bullied at her school. Soon after, Nora's own postponed artistic dreams are re-kindled when Sirena alluringly asks her to share a rented space so they can both create. Now pick up the book and see where this talented author takes you.

And when you finish it, tell me either online or off, about people you've known like Sirena and Skandar. How did you feel after those people were done with you? What warning signs did you ignore early in the game, like Nora does and I have, that later on embarrassed you? In the future, I'm thinking I'll take my chances with the guy who eats the liver, fava beans and fine Chianti - easier to spot.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

#16: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four lines of movie dialogue are indelibly carved into your brain? I'm embarrassed to admit limiting myself to four requires super-human effort but respect the parameters I must. Mine are listed in approximate chronological order of release date of the film.

1.) "Is it safe?" From the day I heard Laurence Olivier repeatedly ask Dustin Hoffman that question, I have never once heard a dentist's drill and not thought of that scene from "Marathon Man".

2.) "As you wish"  "The Princess Bride" is brimming with memorable lines ("My name is Inigo Montoya..." "It's inconceivable!", etc.), many lifted directly from William Goldman's book. But has anyone ever topped "As you wish" as a euphemism for "I love you"? At the end of the film, when Peter Falk says those magic words to his grandson (a pre-"Wonder Years" Fred Savage), who but the cold-blooded can resist tears?

3.) "What separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize"  I never said the line had to come from a great movie. I've quoted this gem (might even have pretended a few times it was my own) from "Steel Magnolias" more times than any other line of movie dialogue with the exception of  "What we have here is a failure to communicate". So at present, Strother Martin is slightly ahead of Olympia Dukakis.

4.) "Whatcha got in the chippa?" Joel & Ethan Coen have created so many quirky characters. But for a memorable line, it's very normal sheriff Frances McDormand's deadpan question in "Fargo" that goes on my Mt. Rushmore. I purposefully didn't Google the name of the actor who plays the lunatic she's speaking to. But he's just as creepy as the character Javier Bardem played in "No Country For Old Men", wouldn't you agree? Those Coen Brothers get the weirdos so right.

Though I cheated and slipped in a few extras here, give this nerd a break OK? Besides, now it's you turn.      
  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Home Again

Scorecard for the just completed impromptu vacation?

Company and conversation? A  ("Just The Two Of Us")

Food? A-  Managed to visit two new countries - Uzbekistan (!) and Korea - and, did really well with other on-the-fly while on-the-road choices. Gotta love Yelp.

Music? N/A  The I-pod remained uncharacteristically silent, partially because of the good conversation and partially because we had...

Books on tape? C+  Luminous Alice Munro short stories, offset by a terrible (if popular) book with an Eastern deity in the title. Yikes!

Camping? B-  Great for the two nights we got a campsite in Robert A. Treman State Park, not so great when the two other NY State Parks we visited were closed for camping ahead of posted schedule.

Other? B+  Gorgeous fall colors, an unexpected and wonderful visit to the Lakota Wolf Preserve, invigorating hike at Treman State Park, rainy day spent in a book store. On the "-" side - Our night staying in the main section of Geneva, NY - yikes, part 2.  Recommendation: Stick to a drive through the lovely historic district.

Not bad for extemporaneous, huh? How does the scorecard from your last improvised vacation compare?    

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Leaving Out The Cryptic Frills

What price do we pay for excessive caution?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/04/learning-from-walking-wounded.html

The most powerful human experience I've had this year resulted in the post directly above. When someone recently commented on it offline, I re-read it and knew immediately why it had missed the mark. My caution had turned this intense experience into cryptic crap.

Based on stats this blog hosting site provides, I have a fairly accurate idea how many people read me regularly. This alone should be enough to allow me to throw caution to the wind. My wife, my ideal and most faithful reader, has only chastised me twice about encounters we've had together that became subsequent posts, meaning dozens more have escaped her discerning eye - too cautious, cryptic, circumspect - boring.

So, where is the line? Back in early April, a group of strangers listened as a burly, tattooed ex-Marine told a small part of his story. Later, when we were alone, that same man told me much more in a non-stop 50 minute monologue. I wasn't surprised. Among that group of strangers we'd been the only two men in the room and I'd revealed my own raw emotional state in front of the group before he spoke. In addition, when the session ended and we passed in the hall, I'd invited him to approach me offline. That's the real story, leaving out the cryptic frills of my first cautious attempt. The quotes in the original are verbatim.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Treatise Re A Barnyard Epithet

I'm still unsure if Harry G. Frankfurt is putting readers on or trying to make a serious philosophical case with his 2005 book "On Bullshit". If anyone has read it, I'm curious to hear your opinion. Either way, it was an educational read and a fun ride.

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." How can anyone resist a book with that first sentence? Frankfurt's primary sources include the Oxford English Dictionary, Saint Augustine's "Lying" & a 1985 essay called "The Prevalence of Humbug" by Max Black. Each gives the author important and specific reference points to "...begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit..." For this Princeton Philosophy Professor, bullshit is not tantamount to lying. Near the end of his brief volume, after persuasively presenting distinctions between the two, he makes this claim: "...Bullshit is a greater enemy to the truth than lies are".

Along the way, Frankfurt cites an anecdote showing philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's disdain for imprecise language as well as quoting the poetry of Ezra Pound as he builds his case. Tongue-in-cheek, serious scholarship or something in between? You tell me. Whatever it is, how's this for a provocative ending? "Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. In so far as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit".          

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Electronic Bread Crumbs

This post might amuse readers who regularly use the public library. Others? Depends on your interest in following or leaving trails. Anyone prone to any degree of paranoia, skip this one.

For almost four years, a significant trail of electronic bread crumbs has been left in books I've borrowed from the public libraries in my county. Instead of discarding the computer slips issued by each library, I've made a point of leaving them in the returned books. Yes, my name is on the slips but so what? There is no other revealing information on there. And in the spirit of a kind of secret society of readers, I've paid attention to the names of others who've left their slips; maybe I'll run across the name of someone familiar to me. Far fetched you say?  Not so fast.

Several months ago, I had a long conversation with a reader new to the area who had left a phone number at my town library. This person had asked the librarians about local book clubs, they thought of my involvement with several and then passed the phone number onto me. Although the conversation was pleasant, I'd forgotten it had ever happened until today. Here is the paraphrased phone message:

"Hi Pat, you probably don't remember me but we talked some time back when you told me about local book clubs. I joined one a few months ago and after borrowing this month's book, I noticed a computer slip still in it with your name. Would you like to come to the meeting?"

Like my brother-in-law says all the time - "you just can't make up this stuff!"  

Monday, October 14, 2013

Enhancing Creativity

What sources have you found to be effective in enhancing your creativity?

During my adult years, I'd estimate about 25% of my non-fiction reading has been related to creativity, creative people and their process. Given the distance between cause and effect in this domain, it's unrealistic to expect I'd have seen any direct or immediate link from this reading to an enhancement of my own creativity. Still, my attitude remains - How can it hurt? Consequently, books or essays like this continue to have immense appeal for me. What have you read on the subject of creativity that you felt had a clear, if not immediate impact on your own?

How about people you've known? What useful guidance have you received from them? On first consideration, permission strikes me as a more apt word than guidance to describe how others have enhanced my creativity. And unlike with my reading, here the links are unmistakable. I can draw a straight line from some of my proudest creative moments to people in my life who have honored and supported my efforts.

Other effective sources? To this point, my experience with formal educational pursuits aimed at enhancing creativity has been a mixed bag and because it's a lot more expensive than reading, I've been more reticent. But if you have ideas, please share them with me or anyone else reading.  


Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Secret Revealed

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-secret-synaptic-spark-for-now.html

Every so often, a reader reminds me of something I wrote earlier, like the promise made in the post above earlier this year.

If you love good literature, read Ben Fountain's "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk". More importantly, if you love good literature and Bruce Springsteen's music, try reading this book without hearing Springsteen's anthemic songs playing in your head.

OK, "Born In The USA" was the obvious, maybe even cliched catalyst for this synaptic spark. But in the scene in Fountain's book when Billy visits his family briefly during the whirlwind tour his decorated unit is doing to pump up support for an unpopular war, "My Hometown" was inescapable for me. During the fight scene late in the book when Billy's unit and the bouncers at the stadium go head-to-head, I heard Clarence's sax solo from "Jungleland" & part of "Incident at 57th St." Over the closing credits to my imaginary movie made from the book? "Better Days", without question. By the way, Billy Lynn is played by Paul Dano, in case you were wondering.

I'm such a bookworm (dork), music lover (geek), film buff (nerd), right? Anyone who has read this terrific book, if Bruce isn't singing and tearing up his guitar in the background who is? And thanks to the faithful reader who reminded me to reveal this six month old secret.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Being Tested Redux

What is the most difficult moral dilemma you've ever faced?

Woody Allen finds a few ways to pose that provocative question to each of us in "Blue Jasmine". To start, if you were fabulously wealthy like the eponymous character played by Cate Blanchett in the film, what are the chances you would expose a spouse's financial chicanery? Like many people, I've railed sanctimoniously about Ruth Madoff's level of responsibility for her husband's thievery. But if Pat were in Jasmine/Ruth's moccasins, what would he do? What would you do?

Then Woody ups the ante with a moral dilemma more common to all economic groups. If you were sure the spouse of a good friend or sibling was having an affair what would you do? Back in my naive "black is black" and "white is white" days, I recall playing a board game called "Scruples" that posed a similar question. My self-righteous answer then, before I was smart enough to sometimes see shades of gray? "Of course, I would tell my friend (or sibling) about the affair!"

Mostly, "Blue Jasmine" made me happy I haven't been tested like Allen's characters; yet.            

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Improvised Vacations

Thanks to our ineffectual elected officials, this year only Congaree in South Carolina will be added to the list of National Parks my wife and I have visited. Our putative destination tomorrow was Smoky Mountain; that will have to wait until 2014. But the camping gear is ready, bike rack is on the car, I-pod is loaded with tunes. Only thing missing this moment - an actual destination.

Stay tuned. Next post could be as soon as tomorrow or...several days from now. Our semi-improvised itinerary is pointing north; upstate New York or somewhere in New England - good direction to head in the early Fall. If any readers up that way want to make us an offer, I'm listening. And since departure time is still up in the air, catch us before we leave and you could have two charming visitors; I'll even play guitar for our dinner. If you have Internet service, sweet!

Where did you go on your last improvised vacation? What forced you into improvising? How did it turn out? No stories involving showers or hotel proprietors named Norman, OK?

Mudbound

Though the assured prose and unique use of six narrators grabbed me immediately, about 80 pages into "Mudbound" (2008), my guard went up. As the tale of two families in Jim Crow Mississippi right after WW II began its slow build, I felt a familiar sensation; novels like this often take a toll on me.

I was right to be concerned. About 70 pages later, the oldest son of the black family in Hillary Jordan's stunning debut describes in flashback the liberation of Dachau; I had to stop reading for a while. Horrifying as that experience was for Ronsel Jackson, he has returned home to a country prepared to torture him further. As Act Three in Jordan's classic structure began, only her undeniable skill as a writer propelled me forward. Nobody can enjoy what they read in a book like this. But anyone open to them can learn important lessons.

"What we can't speak, we say in silence". Even though that sentence is nine pages from the end of "Mudbound", they could have easily been the final words. I don't believe it's a coincidence the words have the familiar ring of Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter."  Nor do I believe it's a coincidence this talented author has the youngest son of the white family speak the words at the top of this paragraph.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Shortcut This Time, Please

"How much are we willing to reveal about ourselves?"

Except when I'm out of Internet range, if "Reflections" land is quiet two days in a row, assume something jarred me. For these two days just past, the question above from a NY Times op-ed piece was the trigger. Then, observing the sea of gray hair and hearing aids while at a free jazz concert the following day, the deal was sealed. How did these two seemingly unrelated things temporarily silence the bigmouth blogger?

How would you answer that question? Having revealed myself to an alarming degree here since March 2011, you already know my answer. So, my atypical cyberspace quiet this time was initially triggered when that question helped me first fully recognize the extent of my semi-public psychic nakedness. From there it was a short distance to reflecting on what drives me to reveal myself willingly and voluntarily.

Connection to the gray hair & hearing aids? With the question and subsequent reflections keeping my face red, those visual cues reminded me again there are fewer years ahead than there are behind for me to at least approach some good answers. So, despite my clear skill at plodding and postponing gratification, I'm disappointed the only answer I found after two days of processing is a question that contradicts those complementary abilities: Where is the shortcut to Nirvana?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Spin The Word

Let's play spin the word. Without using a dictionary to parse your response, answer the following:

a.) You're an attentive parent. Which would offend you more - someone referring to your child as coddled or doted upon?

b.) You occasionally lose your cool when playing sports. Would you prefer your teammates call you competitive or intense?

c.) Your tastes in food, music, etc. are well known to people close to you and largely unchanging. Would you be more likely to refer to yourself as predictable or an open book?

Pay close attention and tell me the next time you run into a potato vs. potahto scenario similar to a-c above. I'm curious to know if the next tomato/tomahto situation you encounter is one not already on my list. And as far as that list is concerned, call me thorough or quirky - I've heard both. Just depends on who is spinning the word.

Friday, October 4, 2013

February 2, February 2, February 2

Of the many silly movies I've seen, Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day", starring Bill Murray, has returned to my mind more frequently than any other. Case in point:

Whining about how my planned trip to Smoky Mountain National Park next week will likely be cancelled because of boneheaded politics, a new friend helpfully commiserated. Then he added - "Imagine those people who were already camping in Yosemite or elsewhere and were told to pack up and leave a park!" In a flash the central premise of "Groundhog Day" came to me - How many times have I made this same mistake over and over? While busy feeling sorry for myself, others have been so much more inconvenienced than I.  And how about all those Federal employees on unpaid furlough?

Pat whines; friend speaks; "Groundhog Day" flashes; Buddha intones -"When a student is ready, a teacher appears"; perspective returns. Until the next time.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Cranky Minority

You notice someone reading a book you've read and ask how they're enjoying it. What other circumstance readily comes to mind where you initiate a conversation with a total stranger?

Direct from codger-land comes my next question: If the same stranger is using a Kindle or a Nook, what are the chances of you initiating that conversation? Though reading is a solitary act, even a superficial conversation with a stranger can deepen my enjoyment of a book. And perhaps equally important, a visible book title acts as a socially permissible entree for human connection, no matter how brief.

In a galaxy far away, I recall being in the distinct minority when those loud boom boxes were everywhere on the streets. Even when the music temporarily pummeling me was not to my liking, at least I was sharing an experience. When the Sony Walkman soon after became the polite and default way to retreat into a private concert, I got a bit wistful for the chest rattling bass of those boom boxes. Minority status could soon be mine again vis-a-vis my current posture re Kindles etc. There are worse things.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Your Place Or Mine, Barbara?

I doubt it's a coincidence that the writers I most want to meet came to me via non-fiction.

I clearly recall my first experience like this, right after reading Anna Quindlen's 1993 book of essays "Thinking Out Loud", which I finished around the time of its publication. I began by writing her a letter of introduction - never sent. And though I've subsequently read and liked some of Quindlen's fiction, I can't this moment remember an instance when my gateway for wanting a tete-a-tete with an author was a novel. For example, my first experience with the late David Foster Wallace was trying to crack his breakout novel "Infinite Jest". Had no luck with that and his short stories are equally inscrutable. Yet, two of his books of essays made me want to look him up; seriously.

Immediately after finishing "This Is How" by Agusten Burroughs last year, I tried communicating with him via his website. Wisely, his firewall is avid fan/stalker/nut proof. Oh well. Regular readers of this blog know of my unadorned admiration for the non-fiction of Christopher Hitchens. Though I'd have been hard-pressed to hold my own in a conversation with him, that didn't prevent me from fantasizing about exactly that scenario while Hitchens was still alive.

Now, directly on the heels of completing "Nickel and Dimed" (2001) by Barbara Ehrenreich, a few years after reading her 2008 book "This Land Is Their Land", I've added another candidate for that dinner all serious readers have imagined. If you had that dinner and only writers were invited, who would they be? How many would be, like mine, primarily from the world of non-fiction? For the record: If E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison or Philip Roth want to discuss their fiction with me, I am so available.