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Monday, December 30, 2013

Best Of 2013

Why should newspapers, magazines and websites have all the fun with end of year "Best Of..." lists? Join me and share with others your "Best Of 2013", using my categories and/or any you want to invent.

Best time away: Our second trip to Kripalu Yoga Retreat. A quiet, idyllic setting, worthwhile personal enrichment classes, stimulating conversations with well read people - how can you miss?

Best concert:  Heart. For more, see- http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/07/rockin-heaven-down.html

Best book club meeting: Discussing "Founding Brothers" by Joseph Ellis, something I would not have chosen to read on my own, arguably the best reason to belong to a book club.

Best discovery: The Lakota Wolf Preserve in Northern New Jersey. At the start of our improvised fall vacation, my sister told us of this. The couple running it personify the notion of living a vision, which always awes me.

Best ethnic meal: As our project to eat the cuisine of every country in the world approaches it's third anniversary, Babur Garden, an Afghani restaurant in nearby Ocean, NJ was the hands down winner for this category in 2013. Next update on that project coming in March.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Ishmael And The Bass Drum

"Call me Ishmael."

Book geek and music nerd that I am, I was recently perusing a Goodreads list of memorable first sentences from literature while listening to Pandora. As I came across the compelling start of "Moby Dick", out of nowhere, the drum introduction from "Be My Baby" began pounding. And somehow in my addled brain, the two matched up. After all, each starts something majestic, right?

Mind you, the Ronettes tune was not playing on Pandora that very moment and, the song opens with six bass drum thumps vs. Melville's four syllables. But the longer I stared at that Goodreads list, the more song introductions began racing through my head, each lining up with an iconic opening sentence. Anything like this ever happen to you? Just asking.

So, I've already begun testing the reverse syndrome. Early today, I played the two measure (eleven notes if you're counting) introduction to "Daytripper" on my guitar. Any guesses which first sentence came to me? If you write me back (online or off) and the first sentence you match with that particular Beatles intro is the same as mine, let's you and I take it to the next level, OK? First - You match up musical intros with all those first sentences from the Goodreads list. Second - We compare lists. Last - We both get our meds adjusted.

Friday, December 27, 2013

My Grade (So Far): Logic

logic: reason or sound judgment, as in utterances and actions.

Though it's not logical to think anyone has, it would make my week if some reader told me they'd kept up with this whole series, grading themselves on all 23 attributes I've presented to date. And since it's impossible to know if you're telling the truth, why not just lie to me? It's a white lie that harms no one and makes this needy blogger feel good.

Using the definition, how would grade yourself (so far) on logic? As someone who has led more with my heart than my head, I guess I've been in "C" territory a good part of my life with this attribute. If I could start over, would I reverse that model? Although leading with my heart has led to some rough patches and I'm anxious to give myself a few more "A's" and "B's", I don't think I would. See what I mean? Even my answer to that question is not real logical. Yeah, it's a "C" for Pat on logic, at least for this marking period.

Next question: How much effort am I (are you) willing to devote to improving my grade for logic? Compared to my other attributes needing work, logic is more worthy of effort than charm but less worthy than generosity. Bottom line: I'll be needing those extra lifetimes, thank you.  
  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

#18: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which last words spoken in movies would go up on your Mt. Rushmore? My four are so iconic I'm guessing most people will identify two or more of the films ending with these words without additional context or clues. In chronological order -

1.) "There's no place like home."

2.) "After all, tomorrow is another day."

3.) "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

4.) "Well, nobody's perfect."

Since I didn't get past 1959 here, another mountain or two might be in order. But prior to beginning construction, I first need to know your Mt. Rushmore of parting words.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Magical Eve

If you celebrated Christmas when you were younger, what do you recollect from back then about this day before the holiday?

My wife and I have been hosting Christmas Eve for my siblings and their families (most recent count = 21) and others (this year = add 4) for about 30 years. Whenever I find myself getting a little tense or crabby preparing for today, I try to recall the sweet anticipation from Christmas Eves of long ago when the four of us were growing up. Doing this invariably chases away the Scrooge in me.

A little before midnight on this day, once my parents had gone to bed, the four of us would rendezvous near the tree, located in the dining room adjacent to the bedroom my brother and I shared. We called it "camping out". For hours we'd stare at the wrapped presents, guessing what was in each. I'm sure my parents heard us whispering (they slept about 15 feet away on a converted porch) but they were too tired from their preparations to get out of bed and also knew we wouldn't dare open anything until they told us we could. What exquisite torture those hours were. Sometime around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. we'd begin drifting off to sleep one-by-one. It was always a point of pride, a contest of sorts, to see who could stay awake longest.

Occurred to me as my younger sister left just a little while ago that around this time on this day more than a half century ago, four children were getting ready to camp out. Are Mommy & Daddy asleep yet?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Completism

How does completism show up in your life?

Though I've never felt an obsessive need to own every Hummel figurine or collect every commemorative Presidential plate or see Bruce Springsteen every time he goes on tour, throughout my life, completism has had me in its grip in other ways.

At one time, I had to own every Poco recording. Completism is inherently illogical - the Beatles had a much greater musical impact on me and, it would have been easier and cheaper to own every Beatles recording, yet I continued purchasing mediocre Poco records just so my collection would remain complete.

My completism about seeing every Woody Allen film is equally mystifying. What else besides a mild form of compulsion can explain wasting time searching out movies that disappeared without a trace, but only those directed by Woody?

Author completism? You bet. But until I hear back from some of you (to re-assure me I'm not alone on the bell curve here), think I'll hold onto how completism afflicts me in that domain.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Scanning The Dial, Searching For Wonder

Remember that scene from "Big" when Josh (Tom Hanks) impetuously and continually changes the car radio station driving Elizabeth Perkins to distraction?

Recently when I find myself stuck turning over the same idea in my head, I pretend I'm Josh and begin scanning an imaginary radio. Clumsy metaphor aside, as a creative strategy it seems to be working - my dry spells have gotten a little shorter. What strategies work for you when your creativity stalls? How often do you find yourself, as I do, getting fixated on a single idea or solution to the exclusion of alternatives? You know, like leaving the same radio station on all the time. And how do you get out of that loop?

Another useful creative strategy that scene from "Big" reinforces for me is staying alert to wonder. Though it's easy to forget to scan the dial, it's waiting to be searched, each discovery with the potential to fill you with wonder. Why not?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Christmas Story

It's difficult to know when to let go.

Though it doesn't take much effort during the holidays to send a note or card to people who have slipped away, my internal conversation about doing so has shifted a little this year. Petty as it is, I've been trying to recall how long it has been since I've had any meaningful interaction with some people. By trying to maintain contact, however minimal, am I beginning to look needy, foolish or even worse, low-tech? Then, Hallmark cliches began playing in my head ("friends for a season, friends for a reason", etc.) and the ghost of Christmas future whispered - "Next year Pat, send out a group e-mail; it's easier, free, and people can block your e-mails without you knowing." 

Maybe that's my answer to a similar holiday dilemma from the ghost of a Christmas past.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/12/tis-season-for-decisions.html

Technology; helping me with the ghost of Christmas present- gotta love it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Modified Policy (For Use By Mr. Id Only)

When a finished book has wasted precious hours of my life or yours, aside from being snide and contributing to the increasingly ugly public discourse, what do we do with our disappointment?

Any regular reader of this blog knows I've avoided naming those books and their authors. But after recently coming across this groaner - "Stimulated by the elixir of hope, I breathed deeply the crisp air of freedom" - I've decided to modify my policy slightly. Effective immediately, I will permit my doppelganger Mr. Id to out truly bad writing using these guidelines:

*The book was finished. The sentence in italics above is close to the end of a novel of lifeless prose, one in which the dialogue largely serves a redundant purpose - reminding the reader what happened earlier in the book. Why didn't I stop sooner? Based on a promising start and the subject matter, I kept thinking the author would find a way back - didn't happen. For the record, I'm not one of those people who feel compelled to finish every book I start. Still, any future snark (under Mr. Id's moniker) will be confined to books I finish. Fair is fair.

* The title and author will remain unnamed. (Even Mr. Id has compassion)

* Examples will be provided. "We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they are badly read, too" - Nick Hornby. Tired cliches like "It just wasn't my cup of tea" or "It just didn't hold my interest" are just more bad writing as well as bad reading. Mr. Id will specify what it was about the unnamed book that made it a waste of time.

All to what end, you ask? Although I don't let him out often, Mr. Id needs to come out of his cave every so often. Join him if you like but please follow the guidelines.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Too Much Persuasion?

How often do you find yourself crossing the line from keeping an open mind to being too suggestible? With all the information bombarding us how does anyone avoid crossing this line routinely?

On some days (e.g. yesterday), this dilemma bedevils me. Early in the day, while in a waiting room, I read a New Yorker piece by Frank Rich. Then, mulling over his premise on the drive home, a familiar sensation overtook me - I'd been persuaded. Was it Rich's convincing writing? Were my views on this subject wishy-washy to begin with? Or using Buddha's maxim, was I ready student waiting for a teacher to appear? Much ado about nothing. Still, all day my focus was off - practicing was scattered, had trouble concentrating on my reading, couldn't land on a blog topic and gave up after staring at the screen for a while.

One of my mentors often used an expression she'd learned via a discipline called appreciative inquiry - "I'm finding myself persuaded by your position". Moved by her vulnerability every time she said this to someone, I subsequently began using it myself in an effort to be more open minded. On some days (e.g. yesterday), finding myself persuaded by a position, I reflect that my mentor's expression might have caught me in a suggestible moment. A moment, perhaps, when I was too easily persuaded.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Power Of Habit

Adhering to the discipline of reading a non-fiction book alongside each novel I've finished over the past four years has resulted in several nice surprises - "The Power of Habit" (2012) by Charles Duhigg is the latest.

Citing research from the field of neuroscience that gets more sophisticated and astonishing with every book I read, Duhigg claims habits can not be eradicated. Instead, they must be "replaced" with new ones. As someone who has struggled more with un-learning old habits vs. learning new ones, his central premise rings true. In Duhigg's formulation, a simple model (cue-routine-reward) describes how habits take hold in individuals, organizations and societies. I was most engaged when the author got to the macro level, possibly because of how persuasively he'd built his case at the micro.

In a slightly defensive but very brief appendix the author uses the model to deconstruct a habit of his own but this is not self-help or how-to. I enjoyed the learning and didn't miss the advice. Timing? Very possible.  

 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Just Four Letters

"What would I do if I weren't afraid?"

In matters large (e.g. procrastinating on a major decision), medium (avoiding an unpleasant recurring situation), or small (postponing sending out a blog I'm not completely satisfied with), if I remind myself to ask the question above, I usually find a way to push through. How do you get unstuck when temporarily immobilized by fear?

I don't recall when or where I first saw the question that opens this post - probably when immersed in self-help literature in the early-mid 90's while developing adult ed courses. I do know that question alone has been as helpful to me as entire books. And though the words are simple, doing the work behind the question can be hard. Few of us want to admit how often fear gets in our way and we're even less inclined to identify what we're afraid of. More likely? To save face, we manufacture other factors hindering us.

I started this blog hoping to generate an online dialogue; I've since adjusted my expectations. Of late, I'm satisfied when someone tells me they've discovered a useful morsel here. So any insight that occurs to you while considering this question, please let me know, online or off.  The energy I get hearing from you can be useful ballast when my own fear slows me down a little.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

NO Klahoma

Of the States you've visited, which one holds the least appeal as a place to live?

Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii and Mississippi are four I haven't yet visited. My beloved New Jersey is out of the running. Of the ones remaining I have visited, I'm removing from consideration Arkansas, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee - don't recall staying overnight there. So comparing those with others that got a better look-see seems unfair. Give those five a "*". Forty left.

Among those forty, at least for me, there is some competition for this dubious honor. Extreme weather takes care of a few, politics several more, prohibitive distance to a cultural center or large city a few others. But I did ask for one and can't very well expect you to commit unless I do, right? Cue the Rodgers & Hammerstein...

Oklahoma appears to be in no danger of inheriting me, and not because of the groan inducing pun disguised as post title. Tulsa is a very nice small city mentioned in several terrific songs, the setting of some good Westerns and books. Visit it if you're out that way. Just don't look for OK as a return address from me, OK?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 9: Ideals

As someone who once imagined he had capital "I" ideals, it's uncomfortable admitting this word can now haunt me.

My ideals and my politics have always been closely connected. And my politics have not measurably shifted. So why does it seem as though my ideals have slipped? Are ideals inextricably linked to youth? Although people don't refer to me as a cynic or even a pragmatist (at least to my face), I was in my 20's the last time I recall being called an idealist. How well have you held onto your ideals?

On a bus trip to Washington protesting the Keystone pipeline, the event organizers circulated several petitions related to other environmental concerns. They also distributed form letters that would be sent to elected officials outlining additional issues. Aside from reading the petitions and form letters, all that was required of me, if I chose, was a signature and address. How easy it was to have ideals under these conditions.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Goodbye Alice

Another giant of contemporary literature, Alice Munro, has published what she says will be her last book - "Dear Life" (2012). These twelve stories, including four she describes as "...autobiographical in feeling though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact",  are representative of her best work - exquisite miniatures that reveal the universal via the everyday.

After finishing the book, using the five stories briefly described on the book jacket as a model, I set myself to the task of writing descriptions for the remaining seven to include in my book journal. Then I began fantasizing about other bookworms doing something similar. So, if you get around to reading this collection please send me your brief descriptions. In return, I'll send you mine, one nerd to another. It would be fascinating to see which details each of us extract from the stories to include, no?

If this is indeed Munro's coda, I will sincerely miss her. Glad she has a significant back catalog I haven't yet gotten through.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Songs To Live In

Finishing my preparation early today for a performance tonight, I began reflecting on how long I've lived in some of these amazing songs. Each time I explore "Embraceable You", it reveals something new, a gift jazz improvising continually bestows.

And there is a never-ending supply of these gems. A few months ago I became entranced with a Jimmy Van Heusen ballad called "But Beautiful". As I began experimenting with it, I discovered how elegantly the enchanting melody lays on the guitar. I've now lived in this tune long enough; tonight it's ready to be played in public.

Frank Conroy's 1993 novel "Body and Soul" (incredible song, by the way), although taking place in the world of classical music, has probably gotten closest to nailing the musical rapture I'm trying to describe here. But inadequate as this attempt may be, in a few hours I'll be inside this music and sharing that with others. For that, I'm grateful.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Name Game

If someone's last name is also a common first name (e.g. Barry or Lewis or Thomas), what is your view on first names? Though usually good with names, when first and last are interchangeable (James Barry, Henry Lewis, Scott Thomas), I've more than once found myself reversing the two and calling someone by their last name. This ever happen to you?

With a last name like David or Ryan or Terry, I'd advocate for a first name you don't often hear as a last - Sam David, Jacob Ryan, Eileen Terry. And though I'm more partial to traditional names, when someone's last name is a ubiquitous first name (e.g  Michael), this is an ideal time to get a little bolder with the first - Juliet Michael or Ian Michael or Yvonne Michael. Your thoughts?

Which brings me, politics aside, to Chris Christie. Come on, this is the best someone can do?        

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hearing Stories

How do you prefer to tell your story?

Everyone has a story. Most people want to tell their story to others - it's the human condition. On a recent visit to the 9/11 memorial, I was mesmerized listening to "Story Corps", a long running project sponsored by National Public Radio. The faces accompanying those stories made that experience very powerful. I suspect the method many people prefer when telling their story is conversation. That got me reflecting - How skilled am I recognizing when a conversation has moved from the mundane and become someone telling me their story? How skilled are you recognizing that shift?

Despite being an extrovert, I'm more inclined to tell my story via writing, hence a lifelong habit of journalling and since early 2011, this blog. Another preferred method, also less direct than conversation, is telling my story via music. But my frequent frustration with those methods, usually related to how skillfully I'm telling the story, can lead me to conversation. When reverting to that, I hope someone is really listening. But the method any of us use is just the means to the crucial end - the story itself. So it occurred to me recently that the sooner I stop judging myself for how skillfully I'm telling my own story, the better I might get at really hearing the stories of others. Your thoughts?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Hiatus From Nihilism

I think I understand why author Cormac McCarthy is so widely praised by his peers. His prose is muscular and unsparing and does not insult a reader's intelligence. Using little exposition and exceedingly terse dialogue (a fair degree of it in Spanish), McCarthy's characters are free of sentiment. You don't empathize with them because McCarthy doesn't try to make you "feel their pain". When they die, often gruesomely, you move on quickly; someone else will die soon after.

Soon after finishing "Blood Meridian" early this year, I decided to take a break from McCarthy. When the opening credits for "The Counselor" showed his name as the screenwriter, although I figured it unlikely ABBA would be on soundtrack, it's just a movie, right? It'll be over in less than two hours.

In my lifetime, I've probably walked out of fewer than five movie theaters. Even at home, I rarely turn off a film before it's over. And I didn't walk out on "The Counselor". But weeks later, with scenes from this brutal nihilistic movie still in my head, I wish I had. If you thought the ending to "No Country For Old Men" (based on a McCarthy book) was unsettling, avoid "The Counselor". About that hiatus from McCarthy's books? May be longer than originally planned.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Not-So-Brave New World

Given the shortcuts and quick fixes invented throughout history, what do you imagine might be in store for us in the future?

* In the tradition of Readers Digest and Cliff Notes, how about a computer app providing enough detail (plot, characters, etc.) that others could be persuaded you read the book everyone's talking about? Is this already available? OK, how about combining that technology with a voice simulation device so you don't even have to talk. Instead, the device spits out the convincing particulars using your voice. Voila - you're well read and articulate!

* Given how common stomach band surgery has become as a weight-loss technique, can drive-through therapy be far behind? Would you like some fries with that insight?

* Now that song lyrics are routinely displayed on stages using those small screens, how about avatars for the musicians backing up the singers who can't be bothered memorizing words?

Got more where that came from but I'd like to hear some of yours first.