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Friday, February 28, 2014

#20: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four qualities do you look for in a friend? On my Mt. Rushmore, the first two qualities are chiseled in the hardest rock, my Washington & Lincoln - i.e., "must haves" for any friendship. The third & fourth are marginally less significant, my Jefferson & Roosevelt.

1.) Trustworthiness: I want my friends to know they can rely on me. If they tell me something is for my ears only, they can depend on me to keep my mouth shut. I expect the same in return.

2.) Sense of humor: No laughter = no friendship.

3.) Adventurousness and keeping the "those were the good old days" rhetoric to a minimum: In my experience these two qualities go hand-in-hand. I want friends who'll try new foods, new experiences, new music, new places, new authors. Old stuff is fine but let's get some new into the mix, shall we?

4.) If someone is a parent, an unmistakable recognition of the value of that experience. Although parenting can be a gigantic pain in the ass at times, I give wide berth to people who continually complain about their children. For me, a friendship with someone like that is likely not in the cards.

My Grade (So Far): Panache

panache: verve, style

I've always loved the word. But I've expended few resources and paid little attention to the attribute, so my grade (so far) for panache is C-/D+, at best. But one consult with my daughter, who has panache to spare, and higher grades are within reach. Who do you turn to for style tune-ups?

Of late, I've been more inclined to notice folks with a certain flair. More significantly, my reaction toward people with a distinct style has been more measured than in the past. Whether it's my daughter's influence or the simple fact of paying more attention to others, the net effect on me has been a desire to step up my own panache. I'm still settling into this shift and unsure what the next steps will look like.

What grade would you give yourself (so far) for panache?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Questions From A Reasonable Man

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."  - George Bernard Shaw

Although I recognize the wisdom of Shaw's words, my need for approval has often made being unreasonable very challenging. If you share my need, how do you reconcile this dilemma?

Also, I'm not particularly confident making a distinction between being unreasonable and being difficult. Are you? Even the idea of being unreasonable about an unjust law gives me pause. It's possible that conflict is more about courage than unreasonableness. Is there a difference?

How many people have you met that you would call unreasonable? Would you also call those people courageous? I wonder who was Shaw's inspiration.        

Monday, February 24, 2014

Forests, Friends, Trees, Book Clubs & One Wife

Though I consider myself a discerning reader, sometimes a conversation about a book brings into focus how easy it is to miss the forest for the trees. If you relate to this, please comment here or communicate with me offline.

My most recent experiences have centered on "The Marriage Plot" (2011) by Jeffrey Eugenides and "A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena" (2013) by Anthony Marra. I read both novels soon after their release. With the Eugenides' book, I didn't realize how narrowly I'd read it until a long conversation with my wife, who finished it weeks ago. Taken as a whole, both of us were unsure about the book for different reasons; our conversation included me reading aloud my book journal entry, now almost three years old. Hearing my own words in combination with her insights helped me see larger themes I'd missed. Not surprisingly, it also deepened my appreciation for the novel.

My more recent conversation about "A Constellation..." was not as in depth. But because this friend's insights about other books have frequently dazzled me, I was leaning in as she spoke. And once again I recognized how one author device of Marra's, annoying as it may have been to me, had temporarily blinded me from seeing the large and exquisite canvas he'd painted. I've heard several times that these "aha" moments are among the reasons people enjoy book clubs. Though neither of these conversations occurred in that setting, I share that viewpoint. Now if every book club meeting I attended had all readers as discerning as my wife and my friend, it's possible I'd miss fewer forests.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Targets Worthy Of The "F" Bomb

Before anyone accuses me of being hopelessly naive, I realize fame and wealth both confer immense privilege. But here in my tiny corner of the blogosphere, I make no apologies for these harsh words to the famous and the wealthy: If you need a new liver or other vital organ, wait your fucking turn. Please. And if you're going to cheat people out of their money to support a lavish lifestyle, pay some of those people back with the money you make selling your fucking memoir. Please.

To avoid having my blog turn up in key word searches with porn etc., I have assiduously avoided using the "f" bomb for almost three years. Then two things recently coincided to convince me it was time to temporarily abandon my previous restraint: 1.) A conversation with a good friend about a famous musician, widely rumored to have jumped to the front of the line when he needed a liver transplant several years ago. 2.) My lingering revulsion since seeing "The Wolf Of Wall Street" as it dawns on me over and over how the reprobate featured in that film is profiting handsomely from his story of materialism and greed run amok.

To all regular or irregular readers offended by my choice of adjective in the first paragraph, I apologize. To anyone stumbling onto my blog for the first time, I'm also sorry; not my style, I promise. To anyone key word searching and finding me instead of what you were looking for, better luck next time.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Putting Yourself Out There

How likely are you to subject yourself to any kind of public scrutiny?

A few threads led me to this question:
* Following our most recent conversation, thinking (again) about my daughter's choice to be an actor.
* Listening to four CDs a good friend made featuring his original music.
* Noticing a book on my shelves written and self-published by another good friend.

Although my threads all happen to involve people putting themselves out there via the arts, there are many other ways people can subject themselves to public scrutiny, e.g. politics. If you have never thrown caution to the wind in this way, what prevents you from doing so?

I suspect most of us would agree making oneself personally vulnerable is difficult. In your view, how does public vulnerability compare?

Sorry, Mom - Still Doing It

At what age did your political views begin taking shape? Who were some of the people who had a significant influence on your early views? How much has your viewpoint shifted over time?

A recent article in "The Week" claiming our political views are shaped in adolescence has me reflecting on my own political evolution. Before starting college in 1967, I don't recall giving much thought to politics. Early in my freshman year, a classmate asked about my view of the Vietnam War - I remember feeling a bit dense; I didn't have any opinion about it. If my parents ever talked politics at home, I must not have been paying much attention. Consequently, although I'm sure they weren't progressives, I don't know exactly where they fell on the political spectrum or their opinion of Vietnam. I strongly suspect any influence they might have had on my early views would later have been superseded by my college experience.

One clear recollection I have of the early development of my politics was wanting to avoid becoming as bigoted as some people around me. To this day, I do not know what made this important to me at the time. And I also remember the discomfort it caused my conflict-averse Mother when her obnoxious teenage college son confronted others. That hasn't changed much. Just today, listening to someone casually tossing around generalizations and stereotypes about "...everyone who works for government...", I lost my patience and confronted the individual. Mom wouldn't have been happy.    

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

As Promised: Completism, Part 2

You've read the entire catalog, no exceptions. For which author(s) do you make this claim? Though single novel writers like Harper Lee ("To Kill A Mockingbird") and Ralph Ellison ("The Invisible Man") can count, my inquiry is more related to a line I've approached and heard others say they've crossed - a kind of compulsion to read everything an author has written.    

In my experience, this phenomenon (call it completism), takes hold in others especially when an author uses a repetitive fictional character like Sherlock Holmes. The crime/mystery/thriller genre and young adult fiction are noted for this author device. Those genres are not my favorites but there have been times when my preoccupation with a few authors has gotten a little out-of-hand, considering how many great writers there are to sample.

And along the way, that preoccupation has meshed a few times with an oh-so-mild case of completism. Which may explain why at present, I'm itching to read Wally Lamb's most recent novel - "We Are Water". I think this is because I've sincerely enjoyed Lamb's first four novels but it's also possible completism has got me. Doesn't matter that I haven't read any of Lamb's non-fiction. If I read "We Are Water", a check can go alongside the "Wally Lamb novels" box. Just like the check I put alongside the "Toni Morrison books" in 1992 after finishing "Playing In The Dark". But now her box has to be unchecked because I haven't read any of Morrison's work since. Damn.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Last Laugh

Which of your attitudes or habits makes you feel old before your time?

I work studiously to avoid having this happen, but it's a constant battle. My biggest challenge is figuring out when I'm being reasonable about not needing the "latest and greatest" and when I'm resisting just because something is new and I've "done without it until now". For me, this is particularly so with respect to technology.

The problem is compounded when this distances me from my young adult daughter. She is kind to her Father but the wider our technological gap, the greater the chance for frustration on her end. At this point, I'm unsure where the middle ground lies.

Whenever someone my age yearns for the "good old days", complains about rap, or claims young people "today" have no manners (or ambition or political commitment or...), I usually bite my tongue. It's too easy for me to get on my soapbox and call someone an old fart. Anyway, if I made the mistake of getting holier than thou and that person then saw my antique cell phone, they would surely have the last laugh.

50,000 Words, Here I Come

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/bozo-publishes.html

Yes, I made that February 15 deadline and thanks for asking.

Three years of blogging has taught me several things. Foremost, I've learned to largely ignore that nasty inner critic and just write. Also, in my pre-blogging past, my ego would have prevented me from asking others to critique my work before I submitted it. This time around I welcomed the feedback and, not surprisingly, the suggestions I got from trusted readers significantly enhanced my submission. A huge thanks to those folks.

So, 5000 words down for 2014 project #1.  Next? 50,000 words for project #2, with a November deadline. That number would have intimidated me into paralysis three years ago. But having already written over 700 posts, averaging well over 100 words each, simple math has trumped my fear. Gotta love that.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What Moral?

"We Are The Millers" is an instantly forgettable movie. Silly premise, inane script, and an ending so formulaic anyone can see it coming. When I dishonestly ducked into a theater a few months ago and did not pay to see it, I was pleased to have not wasted my money. A few days ago, while the closing credits played for "The Wolf of Wall Street", I thought - I'd gladly pay twice the admission price and sit through "We Are The Millers" a second time if I could get back what I just paid for "The Wolf Of Wall Street".

I have never so regretted paying to see a movie. Martin Scorcese has long been a favorite director of mine and this latest film of his is another tour-de-force. But notwithstanding the brilliance of "...Wolf...", even a tiny amount of my money going to the amoral man it is based on galls me. I do not want to assist in the financial rehabilitation of this parasite. I feel foolish not having researched enough to know the leech could benefit from my patronage, no matter the amount.

The irony of prattling on about an amoral man after admitting I didn't pay for "We Are The Millers" is not lost on me. Stealing is stealing. So this is a story with an anti-moral, uncool as that is. Next time, I'll try to be informed enough to cheat someone who deserves to be cheated.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Noticing

"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it." 

Although I wasn't oblivious to my surroundings before I read Alice Walker's words in 1982, her observation has been a beacon of sorts for me ever since. Do you recall a similar awakening you've had about noticing your surroundings?

Becoming a parent in 1989 was probably the next significant breakthrough for me. Soon after my daughter was born, I recall having a cup of coffee that tasted better than any I'd ever had. A few days later I wrote a song called "Everything Is New" about the things I was noticing; it remains one of my favorite creations. And as my daughter was growing up I found myself paying a lot more attention to commonplace stuff so she and I could have conversations beyond the usual "How was your day?" etc. It worked - I noticed more, she tried to do the same, we connected. Those words from "The Color Purple" definitely played a role in this.

Early in the a.m. recently I was thinking about a blog post and happened to glance at Walker's book on my shelves. Moments later I was focusing on the sounds coming from the two appliances I'd used to make my breakfast; the coffee maker has a higher pitch than the toaster oven - hadn't noticed that before. I turned on the microwave for 10 seconds to hear that pitch. Then I set the alarm on the oven and waited to hear that go off. I'm not sure God would be pissed I'd not noticed these pitches before - they are surely not as majestic as the color purple. Still, I'd stopped to notice something I hadn't previously. Good enough.      

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Unconscious No More!

How far away are we from having a computer application that will make sense of our dreams?

How cool would this be? As soon as we wake up, we input everything we can recall about the dream - who was in it, who had clothes on, who was flying, etc. Presto! The application tells us exactly what the dream means. Apologies to psychiatrists and therapists who make major cash guessing at all this now but come on - every other modern profession has to compete with what computers can do, right?

Consider the possibilities when we're all aware what our unconscious is instructing us to do. Admittedly, there is a potential downside for the psychopaths among us, but the people who develop those algorithms for Pandora etc. are pretty clever. Their design of the app could include a little assessment everyone must complete before using it. If that upfront assessment picks up a Ted Bundy-like vibe, no matter what the unhinged individual reports from their dreams, the output would say something innocuous like "This dream is instructing you to clean your refrigerator and discard any mustard over ten years old". I would volunteer to write that part of the code, providing an endless supply of vapid statements that would randomize and respond to Ted and his cohort. Problem solved.

What am I missing? Who is ready to sign up for the prototype?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Old Man, Young Talent, Innocent Questions

After finishing ML Stedman's strong debut novel "The Light Between Oceans" (2012), the first questions I wanted to ask this talented new author were - What were the last significant changes you made to this book? And, who or what influenced you to make those final changes? If Stedman has promoted her novel at all, the answers could be available somewhere; I haven't looked. If you've already read or later read this fine book and have done or do that research, please educate me.

The reason I haven't sought out the answers? Several months ago I read Hillary Jordan's equally assured debut "Mudbound" (2008), which shares some of the strengths of "The Light Between Oceans" - believably flawed characters, skillful use of a classic three act structure, a solid sense of locale. And in my estimation, both books made minor missteps during their third acts. When I learned that Barbara Kingsolver, a giant of contemporary fiction, is one of Jordan's mentors and played a small role in the midwifing of "Mudbound", I wondered what part she played as Jordan finished her powerful book. Did Kingsolver contribute to what I saw as those minor missteps? Or, did Kingsolver suggest final changes that Jordan chose to ignore, making those missteps (sic) the author's?

Both these gifted young authors make me green with envy; what I call their missteps can be easily dismissed. This post is more about my never-ending fascination with the mystery of the creative process. I recall having a similar wondering soon after finishing "The Art Of Fielding" (2011), the debut of Chad Harbach, and another clear winner. By the time I finish my own debut, I'll be old enough to be the grandfather of the newest promising talents finishing theirs. Here's hoping some insolent blogger uses a word no more harsh than missteps to describe the flaws in my work. That is, if that insolent blogger can even find my work.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Hard Way - The Only Way

"The Tender Bar", a wonderful book by JR Moehringer, marked the beginning of a memoir moratorium for me. Reason for the break? A concern about how much I was learning. Since last August, I've skipped nearly all of the memoirs selected by my book clubs as well as those recommended to me by friends & family.

"Five Finger Discount" by Helene Stapinski (the subject of my last post about a book) already had me re-thinking last summer's pledge. Now "Wait Till Next Year" (1997) by Doris Kearns Goodwin has convinced me to suspend my moratorium. How did Goodwin persuade me to temporarily abandon my resolve? With a memoir about baseball, of all things. "My early years were happily governed by the dual calendars of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Catholic church".  And now that I've been exposed to her exceptional storytelling skills, I'm looking forward to reading Goodwin the historian via "Team Of Rivals", her book that formed the backbone of  Steven Spielberg's film "Lincoln".

So, what about that earlier concern about how much I'm learning when reading memoirs? Well, the uniformly high quality of the prose in "The Tender Bar", "Five Finger Discount" & "Wait Till Next Year", combined with my own recent attempt at writing a memoir, has clearly demonstrated the need to tune up my definition of the word "learn".

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Angels Among Us

How nice it is to spend time with the angels among us.

Each Friday for the past three years, I've listened to the patient and supportive words of instructors working with the disabled people who ride at the stable where I volunteer. On days like today, when I'm needed to lead or side-walk a horse, my admiration for these instructors increases.

Each accomplishment is celebrated, each glimpse of understanding is affirmed, each utterance is acknowledged. The enthusiasm and caring is infectious and impossible to resist. Today, watching people called to this work, my reflections turned to my own family.

My younger sister recently retired after 25 years teaching special education; her younger daughter followed her mother into the field. In the early 80's I became friends with a woman who taught daily living skills at a Rehabilitation Center for the Commission For The Blind. That woman, who has since become a special education teacher, is now my sister-in-law.  

How nice it is to spend time with the angels among us.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Pills, Products & Penance For Past Pooh-Poohing

How much have you thought about the impact marketing and its kissing cousin advertising has on each of us?

As someone who has tried to resist consumerism, I've largely pooh-poohed the impact marketing has had on me. Over the last few weeks, while beginning the development of some music courses I'll be teaching soon, I've been forced to re-evaluate my smugness. I've played, studied and been immersed in music for over a half century. But these past weeks brought home how difficult it is to escape labels that are foisted on everyone, including this educated "immune-to-advertising" nincompoop.

Eating crow has been a lifelong pastime. Consequently, the duh-style revelation above would not alone be worthy of even a blog post. But something more disturbing crept up on me recently. Not only did I discover marketing labels for music had found fertile soil in my indiscriminate brain (is it pop? no, it's rock, or... jazz or country or blues, soul, rap, etc.), I also learned I have to consciously work at resisting the temptation to put an artist in a labelled box based on race.

Just one example of many - Living Colour plays loud, ferocious, balls-to-the wall music in a classic power trio with lead singer format; they happen to be four black guys. So are they "rock"? From the looks of it, sorry but no. Led Zeppelin or the Who or Green Day fit that label and look the part. I searched for a "rock" band with more than one black person. Closest? The Jimi Hendrix Trio (one black, two white at least to start) but marketers called them "blues" as often as "rock". OK, let's go race-appropriate: Living Color is "R&B", right? No, that label is more for Al Green or the Temptations or Usher. But wait, given their attack and volume, aren't they "metal"? Sorry, no black people in that box. Surely given their more narrow appeal and material and era they must be "alternative"? Wait, nobody black there either. "Funk" or "dance"? Clearly we're in the right box for race now but Living Color is not about dancing - way too many time signature shifts. OK, I got it, they must be "hip-hop or rap". Nope - they sing not speak and, no turntables. Want to try the reverse? Try Eric Clapton on for size and see if your racial glasses don't fog up a bit.

Longer post, I know. But I've rarely felt more caught in the sticky web of marketing than over the last month. I realize someone has to categorize product to help position that product which in turn helps sell product. Guess I'm disappointed I missed the racial angle for so long along with all that implies about keeping stuff separate. I ignorantly swallowed that pill. Is the pill part of the product or is it the product?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Nice Monster

Calling Mary Shelley.

I've known a lot of terrific people. Juvenile as it is, sometimes I fantasize about taking the best traits of many of these people, Frankenstein-style, and re-configuring myself. I don't expect many to join me in fantasy land today, at least not publicly. And I also know this shows me in a not real evolved light. Still...

* I'd take my wife's integrity
* I'd take my sister's generosity
* I'd take my last guitar teacher's grace
* I'd take the focus of any of several talented musicians I've known
* I'd take the nimbleness of a work colleague I had while at the Commission For The Blind

Of course there's more, but why be greedy? These five will do for now. Anyone else care to mortify themselves?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Competence And Patterns

Which habit or routine do you seem to have the most trouble escaping?

The brain is an exquisite pattern-making machine. When we train ourselves to brush our teeth each morning, or exercise on the way home from work, or eat slowly, we reap the benefits of that pattern-making machinery. According to behavioral psychologists, in the ideal, building a skill requires we move from a stage of unconscious incompetence (we don't know what we don't know) to conscious incompetence (we know what we don't know) to conscious competence (we practice what we know) to unconscious competence (we become what we practice). An elegant example of these stages is when we learn to drive.

But what happens if we're in the unconscious competence stage and decide what we built has morphed into a habit or routine that is no longer beneficial? How do we un-learn what we've become, i.e. dissemble that pattern? As a lifelong musician, deconstructing and then reassembling patterns is more than an academic exercise. And as an amateur tennis player, just a few lessons woke me up to how exquisitely that brain of mine built some very unhelpful patterns.  

Where in your life has that exquisite machinery in your brain gotten in your way?        

Saturday, February 1, 2014

An Alienated Demographic On The Day Before

Several weeks ago a good song I didn't recognize was playing on the sound system at a local place I patronize for early dinners - this is not a sports bar. I asked the barmaid if she recognized the song. She did not but used the remote and quickly located the music station playing which then displayed both the song title and artist on one of the fifteen TV screens. So far, so good - a new song for me to add to my I-tunes library.

Then I innocently asked the barmaid if she could leave that music station displayed just for the few remaining minutes I'd be there in case another good but unknown song played. She replied politely that her orders were all TVs had to always be playing sports. This innocuous exchange stuck with me and later re-played in my mind several times before dissipating. Then this past week I was in NYC a few times, exposed to Super Bowl gridlock, and that exchange at my local place returned.  

Does a request for one TV out of fifteen to show something aside from sports for perhaps ten minutes strike you as unreasonable? Given my proclivities, I long ago gave up on the idea of being anyone's target demographic. I don't enjoy shopping. I'm 64 years old. I'm uninterested in professional sports, cars, tools, hair and other enhancement or Cialis. But a thread connecting that exchange from weeks ago and the atmosphere in NYC this past week feels a little like alienation.