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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

And Another Thing...

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/04/mundane-probably-satisfying-without.html

In my haste issuing the challenge in last night's post (link above), I forgot other highly pertinent questions:

1.) What is it about organizing a living or work space, no matter how temporary, that gives us all that juice? Sense of accomplishment? Closure? Scratching an item off a long festering "to do" list? Creating feng shui?

2.) How many times in your life have you organized one space by moving all the stuff (or most of the stuff or even some of the stuff) to another space? And, why does even that shuffling feel so damn good?

3.) This last question is for the famous people reading my blog: Now that you have a personal assistant (or several personal assistants Sir Elton), what do you use to replace the satisfaction you used to get organizing your (smaller) living space, your (less glamorous) work space or your (significantly less expensive) car?

Just asking.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Mundane? Probably. Satisfying? Without Question

I'm rarely certain about anything. I'm also careful about using absolutes like everyone, always etc. But after almost 38 months of blogging I'm convinced I've finally stumbled onto a universal. To prove my point I issue this challenge - Share with someone close to you the satisfaction you got the last time you organized any work or living space. Report back ONLY if that person doesn't turn around and tell you a similar story.

Are we hard-wired to get satisfaction from this mundane task? Did our long-ago descendants get that ping when things in the cave were in place, no matter how temporarily? Immune to this buzz you say? Organizing a closet, attic, basement, car trunk, workbench, garage, shed, dresser drawers, desk, do nothing for you? OK, maybe you're off the bell curve. But try denying getting the junk drawer in your kitchen straightened out for even a day doesn't give you a tiny thrill. You don't have a drawer like that? Now I know you're lying.

Forward this post to as many people as you know. Try finding a single adult who can tell you they're above this. If your search turns up someone, don't introduce me, OK? I'm busy organizing my photos.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

#22: The Mt. Rushmore Series (75%)

Major construction on the monument for this installment of the Mt. Rushmore series. This month only three slots are available. Which living actor, author and musician that has been in the public eye for over forty years would you enshrine? Think of this as your version of the Kennedy Center honors.

Actor: Gene Hackman  - In my estimation, Hackman is among that rare breed who can redeem even a bad film. Though perhaps best known for his Academy-Award winning turn as Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection", he was equally effective as an evil sheriff in "The Unforgiven", creepy surveillance expert in "The Conversation", wayward father in "The Royal Tennenbaums", etc. What a range. Reading a few years ago Hackman was no longer making movies made me sad.

Author: Philip Roth -  I enjoyed Gene Hackman's work from the first movie of his I saw ("Scarecrow"). My experience with Philip Roth's work evolved quite differently. As I've grown as a reader, my appreciation for his gift has steadily deepened. In three years of blogging, I've mentioned "The Human Stain" (2000) in several different contexts; it remains among my most treasured reading memories. Roth might challenge you as a reader but you'll feel smarter finishing any one of his books. Unfortunately, like Hackman, Roth has also said he's done. Fortunately, his catalog is substantial. Start with "Goodbye Columbus" (1959) and go from there.

Musician: Joni Mitchell - Good news first - Joni is still at it. Singling out any Mitchell recording is a fool's errand. She has few contemporary peers with respect to how much musical territory she has covered. The closest analogue is the distance the late Miles Davis traveled in his 50+ year career. Joni's music has enriched my life for almost half a century, as have Gene Hackman's films and Philip Roth's books. Carving them into a 3/4 size Mt. Rushmore is the least I can do. Who is on your mountain?        

My Grade (So Far): Serenity

serenity: the state or quality of being calm, peaceful or tranquil.

Using that dictionary definition, how would you grade yourself (so far) on serenity? Of the attributes thus far cited in this series, I've given more focused attention to this one than most, particularly through a strong commitment to my meditation practice.

That commitment took root easily because, though my default is energy, enthusiasm and excitability, people with calm and tranquil temperaments had always appealed to me. Though the benefits can be tricky to quantify, soon after I began meditating in the early 1990's, I noticed myself relaxing more when improvising on the guitar. I also wasn't quite as quick to lose my temper. Those two things, real or imagined, convinced me to make meditation a lifelong discipline.

No one has ever called me mellow. I don't imagine anyone will ever call me serene or calm either. Still, I'm splitting my grade for serenity. "C" based on my temperament, "A" based on my commitment giving me a "B" overall.  FYI, whenever my focus strays from my breathing during meditation, I purposefully picked the word peace to help me re-enter. How can this do anything but good for me, the people I love, the whole world?

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Nerd & A Melancholic Walk Into A Bar In Nebraska...

Being a movie nerd, I usually see most of the Academy Award nominees for best picture before Oscar night. 2014 has been a bit hectic so this year I got behind - still two left to see. How many have you seen?

Also, although I respect the talent of Director Alexander Payne, I knew his nominated film "Nebraska"
centered on an old man (Bruce Dern) chasing an illusion. I still haven't shaken a scene from an earlier Payne movie ("About Schmidt") when Jack Nicholson (Schmidt) sees 40 years of his work sitting near a dumpster on the day after his retirement. So, nomination aside, rushing to see "Nebraska" wasn't a high priority - I'm already pretty good at getting myself into a funk. And that memory of mine doesn't help the situation.

I'm glad the nerd inched out the melancholic. "Nebraska" does have somber moments but it is also very wise and laugh out loud funny. Dern is a revelation; June Squibb gets most of the funny lines. Her scene in a cemetery exposing herself to the grave of an early-in-life admirer had me sputtering. The criminally under-utilized Stacey Keach is wonderful as a smarmy small town creep. The nicest surprise is how the skillful direction and perceptive script develop the character played by Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame. As Dern's feckless younger son, Forte reluctantly agrees to drive his Father to Lincoln. By the time the film concludes, Forte's character has selflessly helped his Dad reclaim his dignity. It's a completely believable transformation - the final scene with Dern driving and grinning and Forte hiding and smiling strikes the perfect note.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Beauty And Synaptic Sparks

What are the truly beautiful things in life and how far will you go to get them?

Questions similar to the one above - from the book jacket of "On Beauty" (2005) by Zadie Smith - have been on my mind since I finished Muriel Barbery's "Elegance of the Hedgehog" (2006) about three years ago. And though these two talented authors approach the subject of beauty from very different perspectives, they share traits that helped rivet me to their respective novels: a fearless point of view, a sly sense of humor, and a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, especially across class lines.

Smith's book is roomier than Barbery's three character miniature. The patriarchs of the Belsey and Kipps family are feuding academics. Despite the diametrically opposed politics of Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps, their wives Kiki and Carlene become friends. The beauty of a painting helps unify the matriarchs; the beauty of the Kipps' daughter Victoria is catnip to men. In scenes bristling with tension, the author expertly depicts how far people will go and how they will deceive themselves and others to hold onto or just be near to beauty.

"Her little audience guffawed, pretending to a worldliness none of them had earned". Reading that sentence about midway through "On Beauty", synaptic sparks flew. I heard the 1991 moan of Elvis Costello singing "You haven't earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on your tongue" from his song "All Grown Up".  Smith would have been about 16 years old when that song was released. And, she's a Brit just like Elvis. Coincidence? Probably.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Size Of The Clouds

Although I knew better, it was difficult to avoid fantasizing that my submission to the AARP/Huffington Post memoir contest would be selected as a finalist. Not surprisingly, being subsequently disappointed started me reflecting on similar experiences. I wonder: How skilled are you at recognizing silver linings? In general, how quickly do you discern those linings? And how much impact does the size of the cloud have on your silver-lining detecting ability?

Based on past reactions to rejection and disappointment, I suspect my ability to quickly recognize the silver lining here is directly related to the size of the cloud. I wanted to be selected but a bruised ego is easy to shake off. What were the silver linings? Finishing the memoir; hearing the love in my sister's voice when she hesitated giving me her immensely helpful feedback; feeling the generosity of spirit of friends who asked to read it.

During the years when playing music supported me, every audition ended with either "no thanks" or "you're hired". Those clouds seemed pretty large at the time. My musings of late - Had I been a young adult as mature, poised and confident as my actress daughter, would my younger self have extracted silver linings from those rejections more skillfully? How would that ability, if developed earlier in life, have assisted me with later rejection and disappointment? And - Are many of the clouds smaller nowadays or does it just seem that way?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Climbing Out

Much as I love reading the NY Times, sometimes doing so leads me into a funk - like the one I'm trying to climb out of now. What was the last reading experience you had like this?

There is rarely a shortage of disturbing news stories, although to me, this week seemed worse than usual. My dip may have begun as I read about the hate killings in Kansas City, the cowardly ship captain in Korea, or the murdering mother in Utah. But a feature in the NY Times Magazine about environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth (entitled "It's The End Of The World As We Know It...And He Feels Fine") sealed the deal early on Saturday.

Given my prolonged slide after finishing the piece, it would be sadistic to recommend anyone reads it. The sole reason for this post is to force myself to get off the pity pot. So here it is: My own environmental activism has been limited and erratic. Reading an article about Kingsnorth's decision to relinquish his twenty year battle - primarily because he believes the damage is irrevocable - landed very hard with me.
 

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Good Friday

If the surveys reported in mainstream media have any basis in truth, my lack of involvement in organized religion is shared by a majority of Americans, i.e. I'm on the bell curve, again. How did I (you) get here?

Still, surveys aside, at a recent One Day University lecture, Tufts professor Sol Gittelman remarked "...if you live within an hour of an ocean, you know nothing about what goes on in America vis-a-vis religion..." Even before hearing Gittelman, the impact being a lifelong NJ resident has had on my religious skepticism was something I'd considered. I have also always suspected being an undergraduate in the turbulent late 60's cemented an already festering doubt as I became a young adult. And now? I'm guessing a late-in-life epiphany is probably not in the cards, especially with only one immediate family member who is at all devout.

However, two days from now, my family will gather as we have on most Easter Sundays for as long as I can recall. If recent history is any indication, there will be no mention of the holiday and what it signifies. Though raised Catholic (no shortage of guilt there), somehow I've avoided feeling guilty about Easter Sunday being stripped of its religious significance; I like hanging out with my family. Does this make me a blasphemer? How about you? And Good Friday? Yes it was.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Reducing My Dosage (For Now)

If you are a reader, what bias do you detect in your reading habits?

Except for boyhood experiences with Mark Twain & Jules Verne, I've always had significant difficulty with novels written prior to the mid-20th century. Since leaving the world of full time work, I've been on a mission to overcome this reading bias. And though I've met my goals for how many I'll finish each year, my level of enjoyment has yet to appreciably increase.

Partly because pre-1950 short stories have often appealed to me, I recently tried a new twist - sampling shorter novels, including ones not as widely touted or anthologized. Based on my positive reaction to both "Ward No. 6" (Anton Chekhov) & "Old Man" (William Faulkner), I plan to continue this new tactic for a while. I also welcome your recommendations, of any length.

In addition, I avoid reading about book awards. Though it dismays me admitting it, I'm just suggestible enough to let a positive bias sneak in if I know a book is a prizewinner. I much prefer not knowing and then being pleasantly surprised to learn later that a book that knocked me out has been lauded by the discerning readers who make up the panel of judges.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spring Cleaning

I've tried gamely not to allow my energy to be connected to the attention this blog attracts. But it would be dishonest to claim I've transcended that nasty ego of mine. Put simply, when a post gets a response, online or off, I'm more juiced. So, thanks to those who have helped sustain me.    

Under the rubric of spring cleaning, a few other things I've noticed after over three years:
* The longer an idea incubates in my notebook, the more likely it will eventually merge with another.
* Most of the ideas that initially come from a negative or scarcity space end up better if I wait for a more positive spin to emerge. I'm not opposed to being cranky (that's what Mr. Id is for), but when I have occasion to re-read an older post, the ones that make me happiest often evolved from what was first a rant.
* Without insights derived from stimulating conversations, my notebook would be noticeably thinner.

I'm curious to know how your creative impulses, however they express themselves, match up (or not) with what I've observed.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Return To Oz

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/05/im-off-to-see-wizard.html

Very infrequently, I'll receive an out-of-the-blue response to an old post. When someone contacted me offline recently about the post above from three years ago (!), I decided a return to Oz was in order.

Which of the missing traits of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion are most lacking in people you routinely encounter? And in your opinion, how well does the trait you find most lacking match up with the most pressing problems of our time? I'm a little embarrassed to say this non-Kansas dilemma has interfered with my sleep for a few days.

That lack of sleep probably played a role in my initial (and condescending) choice of the Scarecrow. But after using my own rested brain, and especially when I considered which missing trait aligns best with what's missing in our times, getting more heart to the Tin Men among us seems a better choice. How about this for a bonus? If the Wizard gave hearts full of compassion to the Tin Men who are our elected officials, most of whom already have brains, I suspect natural selection would render the cowardly lion's flaw obsolete in no time.


*It took immense discipline to avoid loading this post with Oz references and puns. Toto, Dorothy, yellow bricks, rainbow, monkey, witch, munchkin, emerald slippers, Auntie Em, etc. Why not use some of those and send your twisted version to me? Even better - post it as a comment*

Saturday, April 12, 2014

I Can Hear Music

One fiery solo after another. Trumpet, then piano followed by someone tearing it up on the saxophone. How dispiriting when the employees couldn't help me identify who was playing. Seems when my local Starbucks was recently renovated, a decision was made to eliminate the screen customers previously could see displaying name of recording and artist. Guess someone decided either - a.) no one is listening; b.) no one is interested; or...c.) everyone has the Shazam app on their phones.

Just a few days later, I receive a terrific e-mail from a participant from one of my college courses telling me she followed up on a suggestion made in class to check out three songs, not widely played. She has fallen under the spell of each unique lyric; my dispiriting experience at Starbucks is relegated to an insignificant footnote from the lifetime of joy that sharing music with others has given me.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-300-short-story.html

"If there were no music, then I would not get through":  Shawn Colvin from "I Don't Know Why" (1992).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who You Calling Funny?

On a scale of 1-100, where "1" equals no sense of humor and "100" equals the funniest person you know, how would you score yourself? How close do you suppose your self-score for sense of humor is to how others would score you?

Of the many ways each of us delude ourselves, my guess is our estimate of how funny we are tops the list. I know very few people who don't want to be thought of as funny and even fewer who think they aren't, including yours truly. But if as many of us who thought we were funny were that funny, shouldn't we all be laughing a lot more?

How come a humorometer hasn't been invented? Everyone wears one. Each time we're intentionally trying to make others laugh, we press a button to measure the volume and intensity of the ensuing laughter, not counting our own. I'm still working on how to ensure someone doesn't get credit for unintentional laughs by leaving their humorometer on all the time. Ideas?

Once you help me conquer that glitch and I know it's a fair contest, I'm anxious to compare my humorometer score with a few people who think they're funnier than me.    

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Woman, Woman - The Song Is You

Thanks to readers who have asked how the college courses about music I started teaching a few weeks ago have been going. Despite my whining about the paltry pay, the good news is, even before the second course has finished, the college has asked me for future offerings - very gratifying.

And this Friday I'll be presenting at the annual Women's Conference hosted by the college! After a successful "test run" using a good woman friend, I'm now eagerly anticipating the reaction of a big audience for the activity I developed to end this event. A big thanks to my better half for the brainstorming session that led me to the final concept, a semi-recycling of a blog post from last summer.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-song-is-you.html

Riffing on song titles in a college setting and getting paid for it? Pinch me, OK?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Circa 2045-2046

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/05/talking-to-younger-self.html

The post above from May 2012 has remained one of my most viewed since I wrote it. A recent conversation about aging persuaded me that reversing the question posed in that post might yield even better results. So, tell me and others - What would you like to tell your older self? To make this feasible for people in my cohort, I suggest dividing your age in half and adding that number to your current age. Everyone else can do the same; even if you're just a tender 25, surely you have something you'd like to tell your 37-38 year-old self.

I'll start. I'd like to say to 96 year old Pat - do not act your age.  One of the most inspiring photos I've seen in the last ten years is on page 384 of Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book "Unbroken" - look at it, please. Hillenbrand's subject, WWII vet Louie Zamperini, is pictured on a skateboard; he was 81 years young at the time. Skateboard vs. shuffleboard - gotta love this guy.

In a similar vein, I'd like to tell my 96 year old self never to give up on rock n'roll, keep reading the most contemporary authors, and remain up-to-date on technology. Yes, you read that right. High time to begin carrying a cell phone and ...texting! And now that I've gone public with that particular pledge, I suspect there are a few people who'd like to hold my feet to the fire. Fair enough; bring on the torches and catch up to the guy on the skateboard.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Bliss, Etc.

"Ignorance is bliss": Thomas Gray

How often do you find yourself agreeing with Thomas Gray's oft-quoted words? I'm way past ambivalent on this. Weeks can go by where I would assert these are the wisest words ever spoken. But as soon as the hibernating educator in me awakens, I reject Gray's words as pure folly.

Even within the short span of a single conversation, I can do an about face so abrupt that just listening to me can induce whiplash in others. I attempt to discuss something I've learned, citing sources of any information used. Moments later, I'll sincerely wish I'd been completely ignorant of the subject and had never opened my mouth.

And with respect to empathy, my ambivalence about Gray's pithy aphorism reaches Jekyll and Hyde proportions. Some days my openness to the suffering or misfortune of others is a gift - my feelings remind me I'm alive. Other days that same empathy is a curse and and I long for Gray's bliss. Which parts of this dilemma sound familiar to you?    

Friday, April 4, 2014

Got Time?

Even with my savvy adult daughter mentoring me, being 64 and feeling a little old-fashioned sometimes go hand-in-hand. And, as long as I continue not carrying a cellphone, if recent experience is any indication, it's high time to replace the battery in my long dead wristwatch.

No exaggeration - I spent about three minutes walking through two buildings on a college campus a few days ago,  including the building with the student cafeteria, unable to locate a single wall clock. Why not ask someone the time, especially given the ubiquity of cellphones, laptops, Kindles etc.? I have no reasonable answer to that other than saying after the first minute or so my search for a clock became a moronic vision quest of sorts. It also reminded me of a similar situation in my local park about a year ago.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/05/fashion-quid-pro-quo.html

My idiotic odyssey ended moments later when I spotted a kiosk with a computer and touched the mouse - 12:01 - twenty nine minutes left to prepare for my class. Preparing for the technological changes sure to unfold in the years to come? Stay tuned re that.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Me Vs. The Beasts

Aside from the obvious talent of the authors, what invariably astounds me about books like Erik Larson's "In The Garden of The Beasts" (2011) is the research involved in writing them. When asked for advice to pass onto aspiring writers, author Ernest Gaines said something like "read, read, and then read some more." Based on Larson's end notes for "...Beasts", it's fair to say he has heeded Gaines' sage counsel.

American Ambassador William Dodd & his family resided in Berlin from July 1933 until late 1937. In his prologue, Larson skillfully reveals the menace growing in Germany prior to those years. But most of this story of "love, terror and an American family..." takes place beginning with the Dodd family's arrival and ends about thirteen months later. All the events taking place after Hitler appoints himself President on August 2, 1934 - an act that sealed the fate of millions and propelled Germany into eleven years of moral oblivion - are then briefly summarized in Larson's final chapters.

Dodd was FDR's fifth choice for the ambassadorship and not a political progressive. And the other main character Larson focuses on, Dodd's 23 year old daughter Martha, was naive enough to take up with Russian spies and charmed when the Fuhrer kissed her hand. Just as in his earlier book "The Devil In The White City", Larson's scrupulous research and balanced writing brings these people vividly alive - strengths and flaws. Though I yearned to detest Dodd for his lack of outrage and agreeing to be "entertained" by a demon like Hermann Goring, thanks to the author I ended with a more nuanced view.

"These were complicated people, moving through complicated times before the monsters declared their true nature."  As always, I'm left with the question:  Faced with similar circumstances, what would I have done differently than these complicated people? You?             

    

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mr. Id Tees Up: TV, Teapots, Celebrities

After enduring a New Jersey winter that felt like one from Mr. Id's childhood, enjoying a day like today has inspired him to tee up and do some blog spring cleaning, blingeaning in blogger-speak. So, effective immediately...

* Whenever Mr. Id is inclined to blog about his passions (music, literature, film), he will instead write about TV.

* If he has been musing about words that intrigue him, balance that eludes him, or a meaningful conversation that juiced him, before blogging he'll research antique teapots and then write about those.

* All the series invented by Mr. Id's creator will be abandoned, especially those that seem to keep people interested in reading (e.g. Mt. Rushmore.) Mr. Id feels it's high time to make celebrities the focus of this blog, given there is not enough information readily available about them.

Still with the evil twin? April Fool's!! So stay tuned for tomorrow's post - a few paragraphs about Erik Larson's 2011 book "In the Garden of The Beasts" - a powerful exploration of an American family facing the menace of the Third Reich. TV, indeed.