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Friday, January 31, 2014

Cheese Doodles, Memoirs And That Voice

It's been a hit-and-miss month for books. Among other missteps, one of my newer book clubs selected a bestselling "page turner" (per the cover blurb). Though I did jam through 375 pages in two sittings, you've read books like this - zero nutritional value. As I finished, I was reminded of the last time I wolfed down a bag of cheese doodles only to ask myself seconds later - Why did I just eat that?

But the month is ending on a high note. "Five Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History" (2001) by Helene Stapinski is a touching but wholly unsentimental memoir of growing up in hardscrabble Jersey City, NJ. The author's background as a journalist serves her well; few metaphors, little dialogue, lots of texture. As a lifelong NJ resident, it's been difficult to escape the rampant political corruption of Hudson County. Even with this as her context, Stapinski manages not to sound cynical, bringing energy and humor to the tales of these swindlers & crooks. And some of them are members of her family, including her very unsavory Grandfather.  

There was, however, one downside to reading a memoir so well crafted this month. I've been working steadily on my own "memoir" - a 5000 word submission for an AARP/Huffington Post contest, deadline - February 15. Each time I toggled from reading Stapinski's book back to my own project, my inner critic got a little louder. What strategies have worked well for you when you hear that voice?        

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

My Grade (So Far): Memory

memory: the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving impressions , or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences.

After grading myself on logic last month, I reviewed my entire report card beginning with the Feb, 2012 start of this series. Decided I needed an "A" and subsequently chose memory as attribute #24. OK, that's out of the way. How about you? What grade (so far) would you give yourself for memory?

Then, after immodestly deciding I deserved an "A" for memory, that same memory of mine reminded me of something:
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/10/cocktail-conundrum.html

Is the fact that I recalled this old post ironic? Or, more evidence of a good memory? Or..solipsism?

Suddenly that "A" is no longer as gratifying. Damn.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

#19: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four cities belong on your Mt. Rushmore? My version does not include NYC - the Big Apple deserves its own mountain.

1.) Boston, Massachusetts: Beantown is arguably the best college city in the US. Berklee School of Music, great public transportation, loads of history. Although I don't particularly mind the cold, Boston is about as far North as I'd ever want to live.

2.) London, England: On our last visit, my wife and I sat in Hyde Park for about an hour and had trouble identifying all the unique languages we heard passers-by speak - gotta love that. The rain would be annoying if the museums weren't so astonishing.  

3.) New Orleans, Louisiana: Music, food, food, music. Try timing a visit to coincide with JazzFest - what a blast! In rabidly red Louisiana, the Big Easy is an oasis, much like Austin in neighboring Texas. Be prepared to sweat but who cares when you can carry around a frozen daiquiri?

4.) San Francisco, California: I've yet to discover a thing I don't like about San Francisco. It's got college life and a transportation system that rivals Boston, the multiculturalism of London, music & food & politics akin to New Orleans. And the year round weather is spectacular. If not for the nuisance of an occasional earthquake, it would be perfect.

Please share your Mt. Rushmore of cities with me; anxious to hear about places that turn others on.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Crab Out Of Water

All worthy pejoratives deserve agreed-upon distinctions, aside from a dictionary definition. Heretofore, I readily accept and own the pejorative "crab" or "crabby", provided the user adheres to the following:

* Call me a Level 1 crab if I'm ranting about a pet peeve, e.g. people who repeatedly glace at their phones or text while otherwise engaged in conversation with me.

* Reduce me to a Level 2 crab if I'm prattling on about something I just don't get like men my age who dye their hair. I honor being termed a Level 2 crab in instances like this for what some may call a matter of personal choice, taste etc. Feel free to use those distinctions in your own crabless taxonomy.

* Further reduce me to a Level 3 crab if I seem mystified, without excessive judging, and muse about a hobby (vs. a "life" choice akin to the hair dye thing) like autograph seeking.

Any comments on this post or future installments in this new series, please adhere to the distinctions above = A pet peeve of yours (level 1 crab), something you don't "get" (level 2), hobbies that mystify you (3). To assist those readers who wish to avoid my dull pincers, look for crab, crabby, crabbiness etc. in the title of any future post.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Heeding The Sign, If Not The Goal

A piece in today's NY Times book review section combined with an undeveloped blog musing from August got me reflecting - What comes first to your mind as a value, model or goal you instinctively rejected?

A college and young adult friend of mine often spoke of his goal of being a millionaire by age 30. I recall having an immediate, almost viscerally negative reaction to that. I can even recollect parts of some brief testy discussions we had about it - 45 years ago.

My friend and I came from similar economic backgrounds, were born a month apart and grew up in the same town. We attended the same high school, began college in 1967, joined the same fraternity and were the first in both our families to finish college. He's the youngest of three boys; I'm the oldest of four - two boys, two girls. His parents were first generation immigrants; my family has been in the US for several generations.

That brief, superficial list of surface similarities and differences sheds no light on my instinctive rejection of his goal. But with the intersection of that NY Times piece and my strikingly similar blog musing still rattling, that old friend is in my head. My psychic saw has never been very sharp so this qualifies as a sign. If I've learned one valuable thing in three years of blogging, it's to heed these signs, wherever they lead.          

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Me And The "In" Crowd

Been to a wedding reception or another big party where you didn't know many people? Bored at a business meeting? Waiting in line at Motor Vehicles with no book, magazine or I-phone?

A while back I developed a foolproof method to entertain myself in situations like these. I pretend to be back in high school and imagine what each person I see would have been into or which clique they would have belonged to. That guy over there? Definitely would have been in the chess club. The woman standing next to him? Clearly played in the marching band. That other guy? Football player, without a doubt.

Where is the bookworm/brainiac in this crowd you're in? How about the mean girl? Geek? Goth? Freak? This can be even more fun when you engage someone who doesn't know you and ask them to put you back in high school. The last time I tried it at a party, the first two people I attempted to engage wouldn't bite. They said they were afraid they'd offend me! Did I put them in mind of the guy who tortured animals? (My unconfirmed guesses about them - jock & drum majorette.)

Then a brave soul rose to the challenge - she guessed I was part of the "in crowd" - flattering, but way, way off the mark. She told me my guess about her was close; I said artist, she said "outsider". We had a good laugh. Why not try this and let me know how it goes?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Twist My Arm

Twist my arm; just a little.

OK, I'll do it for you. Here's a list of movies you might have missed that you should see. Or books that slipped by you that you simply must read. What about these films or books makes them so special you ask? Twist my arm; just a little more.

OK, I'll append to this mix tape without music a document describing what makes each movie or book on your list worth seeking out. And as an added bonus, I'll include others that have a similar feel in case you happened to see one or more of the movies or read one or more of the books. You know, like the algorithm Pandora uses or the way Barnes & Noble makes suggestions on your receipts. Except I started making these mix tapes without music long before Al Gore invented the Internet, when Mom & Pop bookstores were thriving, back when people used cassette for mix tapes with music.

How am I certain I was doing this so long ago? Easy, I've saved copies of all my documents. One of the earliest copies, a mix tape of movies for my future sister-in-law, was made with carbon paper. Remember that? Why did I save all of these documents? Even easier - I need to refer to the old ones when doing a new one; avoids excessive duplication. There are always fresh movies and books to be added to any new list.

Weird? Mildly obsessive? OK, then don't twist my arm, don't even touch my arm. And, be sure to steer future conversations with me away from music. If we go there and I sense gaps in your musical education   and you even graze my arm, a CD music mix with accompanying document is in your future. No charge.  

Monday, January 20, 2014

Living History (Revisited)

Mentioned to a good friend who follows my blog that I was thinking about a post to honor Martin Luther King Jr.  When he suggested re-posting what I'd written in 2012, I was surprised and pleased anyone would recall an old post and even more surprised reading it; no altering is needed. My questions from the original still warrant thoughtful answers. PB   

I was an 18 year old college freshman on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. 

I remember the day clearly. Walking across campus, the first question I thought to ask my closest black friend was if he hated me. He answered by saying something about how angry he was at white people that day but that no, he did not hate me. I recall being relieved. I was so young, so naive and I so wanted to be liked. Where were you that day? Who in your life was hit hardest by King's death?  

Years later, when the talk started about establishing a holiday in King's honor, I have an even clearer recollection. I thought - How can this be? I was alive when King was. How is it possible his historic importance escaped me? Was it because I was young and so self-centered? Or, is it because his place in the grander scheme wouldn't have been part of the conversation in my white world?

Did you know you were living history if you were alive when Martin was? I did not. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Helping Make Me Better

I find myself oddly ambivalent after spending a good amount of time around a young person as together as the one who left my home a few hours ago. To ensure you hang in there, let me say up front the churlish and wistful part is confined to the next paragraph and that paragraph will be shorter than the others.

How did I miss the boat so badly when I was an undergraduate? Did a relatively normal life with my family of origin lull me into cluelessness from the ages of 18-21? Is there any truth to the conventional wisdom postulating that young men mature later than young women? If so, is it too late to turn in my gender card?

She is so poised, so articulate, so focused, so self-aware, so open. (I lied about the first paragraph having all the wistfulness - How the hell did I get so closed off when I was young? OK, I'm really done now). She knows where she is headed and is unafraid to ask for help and to be mentored. She is willing to re-locate despite the insularity of her childhood. She has already applied to several prestigious Graduate schools and is searching the country for summer internships to do after she receives her BS in May. She's speaking of her Doctorate as a foregone conclusion.

I seem to be surrounded by young people like this. Two of my own young adult nieces and my wife's youngest niece already have Graduate degrees; one of her other nieces is in Medical School. My daughter is focused and remarkably resilient in a field where every single day rejection is the default; only one person gets any role auditioned for. And that whole "call back" thing in the acting profession is monstrous, harder than what I went through as a young aspiring musician. At least I heard "no" just one time from the same person or people. I'm thrilled to have these young women in my life because even though my ship sailed long ago, I'm now on board with them. Their drive and willingness to put themselves on the line can only make me better.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mr. Id's Search For The Truth

What is your favorite conspiracy theory?

Mr. Id is not being coy; he doesn't have any up his sleeve. Perhaps he is too trusting. Or maybe time spent working in a large organization convinced him the coordination needed to orchestrate a complex conspiracy is not something any group larger than two people can reasonably manage.

Coming of age in the late 60's should make Mr. Id an ideal candidate for conspiracy theories. Shouldn't he reflexively distrust authority? Somehow, while Mr. Id retained a healthy dose of that hippie Kool-Aid, the conspiracy bogeyman didn't take hold. Maybe he's not smart enough to detect obvious and intricate patterns or hasn't read the right books. Cabals of bankers, secrets held for decades, scientists coerced into producing questionable findings - how dense can one doppelganger be?

Since his last experience being confronted by overwhelming evidence of multiple long running government conspiracies rendered Mr. Id uncharacteristically speechless, time to re-group. According to reliable sources, the Internet is the place to find answers and also a conspiracy-free zone. So, Mr. Id's search for truth begins here, with you.            

Friday, January 17, 2014

Bozo Publishes

Deadline For Submission: February 15

Strange how those five words are looming so large since meeting or not meeting the deadline in question will have little impact. And no one except me need ever know if I met it or didn't.

Each time I open the document I've worked on steadily for a few weeks I'm initially pleased with what I've got so far. Then the tinkering starts - hours go by and lots of words have changed but the word count hasn't shifted much. I honestly cannot tell if the 5000 word limit is helping or hindering me. This particular project also has me re-evaluating how much perfectionism may have hampered my previous attempts at longer form writing.

Maybe treating this project like my blog is a way to get over the endless rewriting. Most days it's no struggle to post three or four paragraphs here. But on days I find myself wordsmithing a post to death, if I look at the clock on the bottom right of the screen and too much time has gone by I say to myself, "press 'publish' bozo!" What's the worst that can happen? No one will read it?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Until Next Time

Aside from your spouse or partner, how many times have you felt completely in sync with another person? Even when this kind of experience is fleeting, it is still very powerful. The closest analogue might be the eerie connection identical twins are often said to have.

More than once, I've thought of the husband of an old friend as my soul mate. I was instantly smitten the first time we met and even though we haven't spent a lot of time together, every time I see him the connection deepens. Having always had more women friends, I treasure this relationship.

In our most recent conversation, we spoke of our Fathers. His moving anecdote about his Dad opened me up to share one about mine. Two men discussing the most important male relationship from their young lives. I look forward to the next time we're together.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

XXVIII

If you were in a position to do so, what would you propose as Constitutional Amendment XXVIII?

How about limiting Congressional terms the way the 22nd amendment limits Presidents to two consecutive terms? Given the gridlock paralyzing our Legislative branch in recent memory, isn't this an idea whose time has arrived? My amendment would allow no Senator or Representative to serve more than five consecutive terms. As an incentive to continue attracting talented people, anyone who serves the full twenty years, i.e. is re-elected four times, would be entitled to a partial federal Government pension. Where in our Constitution is it written these were potentially lifetime jobs? How effective was Strom Thurmond at 90+ years old?
  
Obstacle: The very people whose terms would be limited would be unlikely to support such an amendment. Solution: A national referendum, placed on the presidential ballot, so voters can make their wishes known, with the amendment subsequently adopted only if the mandated 2/3 of the States ratify it.

I clearly recall the clamor for term limits in 1996, the year Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. The idea had great appeal to me then; I admired people who campaigned on the promise to serve no more than two terms, although I would have been satisfied if they'd said four. That was 17 years ago. Any guesses how many of those Freshmen Representatives elected to the 104th Congress left voluntarily after being re-elected the first time? How about after they served 12 years? 16? Is it any wonder public trust in Congress is at an all-time low?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2nd Attempt To Capture The Sports Market

A book so exceptional it is frequently transformative is like a home run.

A book that is a nearly unqualified winner is like a triple.

A book that is worthy of any discerning reader's time is like a double or a single - smart people can disagree where the runner belongs but clearly the author hit the ball well.

A book that is OK, i.e. more diverting than involving is like a base on balls.

A book that is underwhelming, deficient in at least one critical domain (story, characters, quality of prose, contribution to form, etc.) is like any out except...

A book so bad it is frequently groanworthy is like looking at three strikes.

 http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/05/attention-sports-fans.html

Just as my post above makes clear the inarguable link between authors and basketball, this one makes the connection between books and baseball more crystalline. In the future I request all basketball and baseball enthusiasts use the exquisite metaphors from May 2012 (for authors) and this (for books) when communicating with me. If sports lovers are still not among my legions, please stay tuned for more pathetic attempts at establishing common ground. Warning to curling fans: It could be 2050 before I come up with a catchy metaphor for your sport.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Admitting I'm Powerless

Time to come clean. I'm a film junkie. Without trivializing the real pain that accompanies serious addiction, it's also clear my movie habit sometimes really interferes with my life. I offer the following:

* Matters as mundane as the weather can trigger a film jumping into my consciousness. I'm driving this a.m. trying to land on a worthwhile subject for today's post - a light rain is falling. Out of nowhere, a little seen Nicholas Cage movie called "Weather Man" pops into my head. Come on, this is not normal, especially considering the quality of the film.

* Doing a crossword recently, I struggled remembering the name of a Supreme Court judge. I went through the high court - only eight names came to me. Understandable you say? Not sure you could come up with all nine justice names either? Fair enough. But a few days after, playing a board game, the name of ten Paul Newman films came to me effortlessly. Come on, this can't be good. I remember Mickey Rourke's film debut in "Body Heat" but can't remember my congressman's name?

* It's unusual for more than a few days to pass without me sneaking the name of a film into conversation. At book club meetings? All the time. At volunteer activities? This week alone I'm batting two for two - no exaggeration. Come on, this is clearly out of hand. And my non sequiturs are getting a bit jarring.

Around the same time I realized this would be the subject of today's post, I made a resolution. Decided to try making it 21 days without movies or movie conversations. Seconds later (I swear!), Sandra Bullock's film about rehab called "28 Days" arrived unbidden in my addled brain. Appropriate, right? But when my monkey mind jumped quickly to a scene from the apocalyptic "28 Days Later", I thought - come on, Pat, time to surrender to a higher power. That would be Morgan Freeman ( God in "Bruce Almighty"), right?        

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

That Wicked Cycle

What a wicked cycle. Procrastination then rumination about the procrastination and so on. When you're aware of being in this reinforcing loop how do you break through? Some would say the fact of being aware means the cycle has already been broken.

Early today I was acutely aware I was in this loop; that awareness did not restore my focus. I continued ruminating, which in turn meant more procrastination, yet even after acknowledging the cycle aloud I remained stuck a good while longer. Although I was glad no one was around to overhear, the absurdity did not escape me. Ever talk aloud to yourself when in this loop? What do you say?

OK, probably unrealistic to expect anyone would answer that last question. Still, given the slight uptick in public comments of late, decided I'd visit the edge of the bell curve today and see if anyone is out here with me on this. If no one comments, do I assume that wicked cycle has you in its grip?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Nick - That Mate You're Looking For Is In NJ

Forced to guess, I'd estimate roughly 15-20% of my almost 700 posts have either mentioned or featured books. But my % of posts mentioning or featuring books about books is much lower - definitely under 3%. Hence, I'm totally justified devoting these paragraphs to "Ten Years In The Tub: A Decade Spent Soaking in Great Books" (2013) by Nick Hornby.

Hornby is an unapologetic populist. Literary fiction with a capital "L" is not for him. And though this collection of columns he wrote for "The Believer" is ostensibly about books purchased/books read, Hornby uses his other passions - music, film and soccer - to cover a lot more territory. Reading him reminds me of listening to a great improviser; the riffs bounce all over the place, you're never sure where he's going to land, but it's likely to be new ground, satisfying even when dissonant.

Of the two dozen or so books Hornby writes about that we both finished, my take differed from his significantly on just two. If we were friends on Goodreads, he'd score higher for compatibility with me than either my sister or my niece, two of my most trusted readers. A few he and I both loved? "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" (Tom Franklin), "Digging To America" (Anne Tyler),  "Out Stealing Horses" (Per Peterson).

To top it all off, Hornby is a hoot. I don 't think I got through many more than ten of his pieces without laughing out loud. Much as I enjoy and learn from trenchant critics like James Wood, my sides usually don't hurt when reading his work. Finally, Hornby is unafraid to change his opinion. Over the course of the ten years of columns collected in this book, he does so several times. I love that.          

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A Modest Proposal From An Old Fart Musician

Accountants, teachers, doctors - each have continuing education requirements, as do many other professions. I've always considered this a great idea. How else do professionals stay educated, fresh and up-to-date? Do you want an accountant not up-to-date on tax law or a doctor who doesn't attend conferences about the latest medical breakthroughs?

At dinner last night, my wife and I were subjected to yet another tired version of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door", performed by two guys around my age. Leaving the restaurant, as I ranted to her about this for perhaps the 1000th time, she made a brilliant suggestion. I hereby submit baseline criteria for the continuing education of any paid musician. Arbitrary? You bet. Long overdue and sure to mitigate listener boredom? Without a doubt.

* Repertoire must shift at least 25% each year, i.e. a repertoire of 48 songs must contain 12 songs that were not performed by that musician the year before.
* All decades of a musician's life must be represented by at least one song, i.e. someone born in the 70's must have a repertoire containing at least one song from every decade since. Extra points awarded to musicians with repertoires pre-dating their birth. For you jazz guys whining about the first part, at least you're getting extra points - quit complaining.
* Except for JT himself, can we retire "Fire And Rain" once and for all? Too capricious you say? OK, how about at least adding a second song from JT's extensive, terrific repertoire? Have mercy on this old fart musician, please.      

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Pleasure & Heartache

When I began blogging almost three years ago, I solicited some guidance from my oldest niece who works in publishing. Aside from her suggestions, I also recall her saying most non-celebrity bloggers, following an initial flurry of posts, give up fairly quickly or, if they do continue, their output falls off radically. I remember thinking - that will not be me.

And though I have (obviously) not given up and my output so far has increased each year, I can now envision how it could have gone the way my niece predicted, my arrogance notwithstanding. The strategy I've used some days when thinking of giving up has been to write about exactly that. Don't all of us think about giving up something that gives us a mix of pleasure and heartache? Not surprisingly, I get few comments on those somber musings.

On the darker days? I wait for it to pass and use my journal. What do you do when the heartache temporarily outweighs the pleasure? Sometimes I'm caught off guard, noticing a somber post has attracted some attention. Because it's impossible to know if someone is actually reading a post unless they tell me so or comment, I don't read anything into that attention. But it does help me get ready to begin again. Thank you for that.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Starting Strong In The New Year

I really liked Dave Eggers' quirky memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" (2001). "The Circle", his quietly terrifying novel from 2013 about technology run amok, has made me a believer.

Twenty something Mae Holland lands the entry level job of her dreams after a friend provides an entree to a northern California company called the Circle. Mae's life outside work begins quickly disappearing as a growing list of instant metrics displayed on her multiple screens starts becoming the way she measures her worth as an employee, a friend, a daughter. Eggers is masterful creating an innocuous and wholly plausible world, one that is also deeply creepy and riddled with Orwellian double-speak. Each new demand her employers make on Mae is framed by the leading, close-ended question - "Sound good?". The circle closes around her.

If you enjoyed the modern sensibilities of "Super Sad True Love Story" (Gary Shteyngart) or "A Visit From The Goon Squad" (Jennifer Egan), the pace and tone of this book, although heavier on dialogue than either of those, should appeal to you. As always, I'd love to hear your take on "The Circle". Though I'm not superstitious, it's a good sign the first book I've finished this year is so strong.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Stop & Continue, 2014 - Start...Again

Today marks the third time I've used a stop-start-continue model to initiate a new year of blogging. Though no one was public, I know a few of you joined me in either 2012 or 2013; thanks for letting me know. For both years now I've had more success with the stop and the continue components. So, if I don't start recording my original songs in 2014, next January's start component will be different. That said...

In 2014, I will stop skipping lunch. Since ceasing full time work, I've developed this habit which clearly contributes to me occasionally making poor snack choices in the afternoon and/or over-eating at dinner.

In 2014, I will continue looking for new writing projects. Two already on my radar are a memoir contest sponsored by AARP/Huffington Post (first round deadline is February 15, a 5000 word submission) and National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) - producing 50,000 words in November.

I'm looking forward to a great year; hope you are too. Remember to tell me (online or off) what you'll stop-start-continue in this new year. And please keep the feedback coming about my blog.