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Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Moral Obligation

My decision not to see "Twelve Years a Slave" in a theater was purposeful. To this point, I've avoided going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington for a similar reason - a concern about losing control of my emotions in a public place. Over the past few months I borrowed ""Twelve Years..." from the library several times, then returned it unwatched because I still didn't feel ready.

This is a film that clearly deserves the accolades it received and the ensuing conversation it generated. Just as clearly, I was wise to wait to see it in private. The unthinking cruelty and debasement are graphic - I was overcome many times. Even so, I knew it was critical to keep reminding myself that my reactions to what was being depicted were meaningless next to the actual experiences of a man like Solomon Northrup. I'm morally obligated to learn and re-learn that lesson from movies or books dealing with slavery.  

The dramatization of Northrup's emotional reuniting with his family at the conclusion is wrenching and triumphant. But then come the end notes. And as difficult as it was watching "Twelve Years A Slave", in his postscript Director Steve McQueen saved the larger tragedy - what happened to Northrup and his tormentors after the twelve years - for last.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More Maxim Messing

That which does not kill us makes us stronger”: Friedrich Nietzsche

Was Nietzsche right? When someone survives trauma, does it automatically follow they are stronger having had that experience?

My life has been thankfully free of abuse and major trauma. Also, compared to many people I've known, the level of dysfunction in my family of origin has been minimal. Still, even if my depths didn't reach as low as others I've known, they felt pretty bad. Obviously, I survived. Does my survival support Nietzsche's claim? I'm no longer sure it does.

Over the last several years, some of the memoirs of loss I've read have made me very suspicious of this oft-quoted maxim. Is its enduring popularity perhaps tied to the stoic ring it has? Hearing someone telling a person who is in grief to "be strong" often annoys me. Is there something wrong with saying instead "be sad"? Or, if "be strong" is the best you can do, keeping quiet? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Return To Brooklyn

I read Colm Toibin's "Brooklyn" soon after its 2009 release - it was the first selection for the first book club I ever joined. At the time I remember thinking the quiet tone of the novel belied its considerable power. In my experience, authors like Toibin - no flash but lots of fire - are not easy to come by. After finishing his 2012 book of essays - "New Ways To Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families" - I knew more of Toibin's work awaited me.
So, it was cool when a different book club recently selected "Brooklyn". Almost five years have elapsed but my notes and book journal brought Eilis Lacey and her parochial world right back to me. And Toibin's luminous prose struck me as brighter than on my first reading: "...do anything rather than face her tomb of a bedroom...";  "Eilis felt, despite the improving weather, that all of the colour had been washed out of her world";  "It was early and there was no sound except for birdsong". John Updike once remarked that writing book reviews was easy since most of the words he used in any review belonged to the author he was reviewing; Colm Toibin's gifts support Updike's statement.

I recommend "Brooklyn" without reservation - it is strong beginning to end. Especially when I re-read a powerful passage midway through - a brief conversation between a book clerk and Eilis about her teacher Mr. Rosenblum - it was great to be back in Brooklyn. What return to a book last gave you this kind of pleasure?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Whose Good Old Days?


And another thing that annoys when I hear carping about the good old days etc. - Exactly who were those good old days good for, anyway? Seems to me the good old days were good for people like me - straight white guys without a disability. To wit:

* People like me never needed a constitutional amendment to get the vote or full citizenship or a law to guarantee an unobstructed path to a polling place. Affirmative action? Us white guys have always had our good old boys network to go along with our good old days.
* As recently as the passage of the American With Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, even being a straight white guy wouldn't have made the good old days so good if you were in a wheelchair. I recall conversations with good old days people twenty five years ago claiming Government shouldn't be involved in "social engineering" projects like the ADA. Funny how those complaints have diminished as curb cuts help the good old days advocates (and their wives and sisters) better navigate when using a baby carriage.
* Good old days - You mean the celebratory kind, like the day you're permitted to marry someone you've built a life with? Oops, let's keep those good old days for us straight folks, shall we?

And yes, Mabel, some things were better long ago. Families more frequently ate dinner together; there wasn't a television in every public space; there wasn't quite as much business for frivolous ambulance chasers. But on balance, I'll take the here and now. Three years after my initial post questioning much of the good from the often longed for good old days, I'm sticking with these good old days. You?

Friday, July 25, 2014

My Grade (So Far): Wisdom

wisdom: knowledge of what is true or right coupled with good judgment.

Using that definition, how would you grade yourself (so far) on wisdom? Personally, I'm glad I graded myself on twenty nine earlier attributes before arriving at this tricky word.

First off, the words "true" and "right" from that definition give me serious pause. How do I reasonably assess whether my knowledge is true or right? How do you? Then the "good judgment" piece slows me down further. I suppose my judgment is OK or else I'd have been incarcerated long ago (or on reality TV). But over 64+ years, some of my lapses in judgment have been fairly significant and given my arrest following a public outburst at almost 62, I can't claim they were all youthful indiscretions. All this makes settling on a self-grade for wisdom really tough.

It gets even messier when considering Benjamin Disraeli's words: "A man who is not liberal when he is young has no heart; a man who is not conservative when he is old has no head". Uh-oh - more trouble in wisdom land for Pat. Guess I'll go with a "C" and hope no one is paying too much attention.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

a liitle ado about nothing

After nearly 900 posts over three and a third years, today I'm small "c" celebrating because my blog now has its own web domain. What does this mean for any of you? Nothing you will notice - you can still find me the same ways you always have. But, STARTING TODAY (drum roll, please!) the words "reflections from the bell curve" followed by a .com "belong" to me - in the virtual world, anyway.

I guess some small "p" peace of mind is now mine since, for a fee, someone has given me a tiny something somewhere in cyberspace. And, in theory, no one can now decide to use the exact same words, in the exact same order, as their own web domain. Who says money doesn't buy safety and security? Does the money I shelled out protect me from being plagiarized? No way. In any sense, are my posts now my "intellectual property"? Not a chance. Do I have any recourse if someone decides to begin writing under the rubric, "Bell Curve, Reflections" or puts a .net, .org,  .edu directly next to "my" five words? No, nope, you're dreaming, ha!

Such a deal.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

James And His Brethren

Maybe I did not fully appreciate the outsize imprint James made on my life twenty five years ago. He was the unfailingly positive parking lot attendant for a building where I worked in Newark, NJ. Only the most miserable misanthrope could resist his infectious demeanor. I spoke with him nearly every day for the brief time I worked there, asked him his secret, and thought about him regularly years after I was transferred. Then, James slipped my mind.

Not long ago, I began noticing a remarkably attentive and energetic gas station attendant at a WAWA I infrequently patronize. Yesterday, that attendant waited on me. I left my car at the pump, got coffee and returned to settle up. As I handed him my $$ he asked me "How is your day going?" Truth be told, it hadn't been a stellar day to that point, but I answered "fine" anyway and politely asked him the same. His response? "I'm making it terrific." And I believe him.

Pulling away, I made a few resolutions:
* If that attendant is working the next time I get gas at that WAWA, I'm going to learn his name and if he asks, tell him mine. As time goes on, unless I get a weird vibe or it appears I'm giving him the creeps, I'm going to engage him further, maybe learn his story, like I did with James.
* I'm going to be on the lookout for more people like this; my life is richer for them.

When did you last encounter the kind of unbridled positive energy James and his brethren give off?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Single Or Double?


For those of you who have not read "Serena" (2008) by Ron Rash, it is clearly worth your time. Crisp prose, memorably ruthless eponymous character, terrific cautionary tale about rapacious greed. For anyone who has read it, after consulting the hierarchy I created early this year (see the post above), I have to know - Would you rate this book a single or a double?

I've toggled between first and second base since finishing it. There is no doubt Rash hit the ball solidly, and especially in the chapters featuring the young mother (Rachel Harmon) and her son, third base beckoned. Near the end, as evil incarnate Galloway relentlessly pursues Rachel on Serena's behalf, the author had me by the throat. It's been a long time since I've read a book with three venomous but compelling lead characters. Serena and Galloway top the totem pole with the ever-so-slightly less vicious George Pemberton close on their heels.

If you recall the terrifying character Javier Bardem played in the movie "No Country For Old Men", I'm sure you can appreciate my unimaginative choice of who should play Galloway in the upcoming film version of "Serena". The book jacket says Jennifer Lawrence has the title role and Bradley Cooper plays George. Neither would have been my first choices - I would have picked Michelle Williams and Christian Bale - but nobody asked me. I hate when that happens. If you read the book, who would you pick to play these three irredeemably vile people?    

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Ross Douthat

I love reading the NY Times. Of late, conservative op-ed columnist Ross Douthat is near the top of my reasons why.

I disagree with Douthat's conclusions more than I agree. But what keeps me continually reading is his willingness to occasionally acknowledge the inherent contradictions in some of his positions. Doing so helps Douthat present his views without the irrational and shrill certainty usually accompanying the opinions of some of his colleagues on the political right or the opposing voices to his left.

Another thing that keeps me returning to Douthat's column is my sense that he largely resists the temptation to simply ditto the party line; his conservative take strikes me as his own. Evidence? I haven't yet read in his columns any of the taglines the local diner wingnuts quote incessantly. If I had a dollar for every time I heard Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck's words parroted, I'd be able to afford the college education neither one of them ever got. Distrust of certainty, nuance and education - Douthat is someone worth my attention.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 10: Selfishness

There's no question the world would be a better place if we were kinder to one another. And George Saunders' May 2013 commencement address at Syracuse University - first a viral sensation and now a book ("Congratulations, By The Way: Some Thoughts On Kindness") - proves that people are hungry to hear it. I'm grateful to Saunders for getting out the word. Buy this little gem for others and help spread his message.

"If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?": Rabbi Hillel

"There's a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness":  George Saunders

Because kindness is Saunders' cure for the sickness of selfishness, my long and complicated relationship with that word has now come into sharp focus. As a young adult, I began questioning conventional wisdom about the evils of selfishness. Then I discovered the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel. For over thirty years his words have been a beacon to me. Now I wonder: Along the way, did I lose sight of some of the second part of the Rabbi's formulation and let my selfishness interfere with kindness? When you consider the Rabbi's words, how do you keep your balance?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Distracted, Distracting, Distractor

Distractions come in a few varieties don't they? Which variety is most likely to trigger you? And what technique works most effectively when you're trying to get past those distractions?

My wife and I frequently represent opposing sides of this human dilemma. When she is distracted by stuff needing attention around our home, she's more likely than I to attack it even if it means something she'd prefer doing gets short shrift. When I'm distracted by a home task - like a lawn needing to be mowed - my default is to pick up and leave. I'm not procrastinating, exactly (I know I'll get to it) but those private distractions - even when that distinction is fuzzy or infuriating to my wife - are relatively easy for me to ignore or escape.

On the other side, what I call public distractions are less problematic for my wife than for me. Loud conversations, omnipresent TV screens, chatty fellow travelers all trigger me disproportionately. My wife is usually able to tune these out and focus on whatever she's up to, whether alone or with others. My over-reaction to public distractions sometimes disrupts an otherwise enjoyable interaction with her.

And then there are all the modern distractions blurring my private/public distinction. For example, we've all been publicly assaulted by cell phone conversations that should have remained private. And how about those damn bloggers who distract us with their private musings using a public forum?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Worth The Wait


Soon after finishing Alice Munro's "Dear Life" and writing the above, I began an unsubtle campaign to persuade a few of my book clubs to read it. Two clubs took the bait but the subsequent discussions were not as rich as I'd hoped, probably because the groups were small. But I'm a persistent bookworm and three turned out to be my lucky number this time.

Of the fourteen short stories in "Dear Life", this larger club ended up touching on twelve and their insights made my stubborn persistence worthwhile. Because her main characters are often women who trust or love unworthy men, I was curious to hear how other women would react to Munro's somber and spare tales. And though the reactions of the women in the club varied, their lively exchange of ideas was fascinating. At this point, though I'm used to being the only man at many of these meetings, I was still caught off guard when asked if I felt Munro was "fair" in her depiction of men. Since the Father in Munro's story "Night" is the kind of Father I hope I am to my daughter, I used that example to respond to the question. If you're not fond of short story collections, let me suggest you read "Night" first; I suspect you'll want to continue with the others after you've done so.  

Then, the coolest thing happened. One woman at the meeting said she wrote her own brief descriptions of each of the stories similar to the fantasy I entertained in my post eight months ago! Like my brother-in-law always says - "you can't make this stuff up."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Calling All Apple Polishers

As I began the prep for a week long course I'm teaching in mid-August, it suddenly dawned on me: Many of you might be able to assist me. If you never polished a teacher's apple before, consider this your golden opportunity.

My course is called "The Roaring 20's Through The Rocking 80's: The Timeless Appeal Of Great Songs". Which one song written in each of those seven decades would you consider essential if you were taking a course with this title? And, which component makes it timeless? Melody? Harmony? Rhythm? Lyric? I sincerely welcome any suggestions you make, online or off.

Special bonus: Any suggestion I end up using entitles the suggester to free views of my blog. Such a deal. Any one interested in the course itself, look for the "Summer Scholars" schedule from the link below.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

#24: The Mt. Rushmore Series (By Half)

I say "Adam and     " and you say what? For this iteration of the Mt. Rushmore series, here are my four choices for one half of a fictional duo to span the ages. I maintain there is no more than one possible name to complete the other half of any of these partnerships, each from a different world. Try to make another name go along with any of these, I dare you. Even better, give me your version of Mt. Rushmore by half, using the worlds I chose or your own.

From the world of drama: Romeo and 

From the world of film: Thelma and 

From the world of music: Frankie and 

From the world of  literature: Scarlett and

This post goes out to folks who've told me they resist commenting on my blog because they have nothing "profound" to say. Think it's fair to say no one would use the word profound to describe this reflection, right?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Sacred Place

"It's impossible to capture the beauty of nature, but it's inspiring to try." -  Mindy Flexer, 2007 Artist in Residence, Schoodic Peninsula

On our fourth trip to Acadia National Park, my wife and I have explored different parts of this amazing place largely because a friend who lives close to the park kindly put us up for a night and then also guided us around. Had she not done so, it's likely we'd have both missed the heaven on earth called Schoodic Peninsula.

Where were you the last time an experience with nature left you unable to articulate how you felt? Standing on the rocks early today at Schoodic Peninsula as the ocean pounded the shore nearby, the summer of 2000 came rushing back. That year, while hiking in Glacier National Park, I bent down and cupped my hands to take a drink from a creek running alongside the trail. I can't articulate what I felt that day fourteen years ago any better than I can what I felt today standing on those rocks. But I am inspired to keep trying and also to keep seeking out experiences like this.

What Is The Magic Number?

How many books would you have to include on a list of favorites to be certain you wouldn't leave off any important ones?

An author I admire got me started on this by listing twenty five of his favorites and suggesting the optimum method for completing it was to do an automatic writing exercise. That number and that approach presented me with two immediate issues: 1.) My bias for fiction made my quickly constructed list of twenty five very lopsided and... 2.) The egalitarian in me had difficulty allowing more than one book by any author on such a short list. A solution? Double the number.

Fifty favorite books helped with issue #1 - non-fiction and fiction have started evening out. However, issue #2 persists. Limiting some authors to even two books among fifty still leaves my list woefully incomplete. And, I haven't even consulted my reading journals yet - I'm still in automatic writing mode. Is one hundred my magic number? What is yours?

Monday, July 7, 2014

That Missing Article

Of late, upon hearing or reading something unfamiliar I've begun saying "If I ever knew that, I don't recall." It may be a dubious distinction but given how much I've taken in over 64 years, that statement often seems more accurate than saying "I never knew that".  More significant, it's less self-deprecating than that "...senior moment..." nonsense.

I've also harmlessly fantasized how cool it would be to be able to store everything important I read, see or hear from here on in. I'm not greedy - I'll gladly re-read all the seminal books, re-watch all the documentaries, re-listen to all the worthwhile music provided it all sticks with me this second time. Even better, I'll trade in all the garbage I do remember - old phone numbers, 1958 batting order of the NY Yankees, who recorded "Expressway To Your Heart" - if the stuff I really want to remember would just stay put so I could retrieve it at will.

Didn't I read somewhere that the brain is capable of doing this?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Kevin And Pat

We've all had the experience of thinking a person's name just doesn't fit them somehow. But how many times in your life have you felt a different name would fit you better than the one you have?

Patrick is a respectable name, albeit a bit predictable for someone raised Irish Catholic. It's easy to spell and pronounce and has the added benefit of being used enough not to be exotic, but it hasn't yet been over-used. The only two Patricks I've known personally have both been pretty cool and to my knowledge, no one with my moniker has joined the ranks of serial killers, brutal dictators, or talk radio DJs. So far, so good.

Still, at points in my life, other names have felt like a better fit:
* For years, I tried in vain to get others to call me by my confirmation name of Timothy, chosen as a tribute to my childhood best friend. Fortunately I gave up this moronic quest many years before Oklahoma City.
* When my wife and I were discussing names for our unborn child of unknown gender, naming a son seemed an ideal time to channel my re-naming fantasies. Eric or Keith topped my list when I was 39. If John, Paul, George or Richard had ever felt like they fit me better than Patrick, my son could have ended up being named after one of the Fab Four. Moot point - we had a girl.

Surely, at 64 I've fully reconciled myself to my given name, you ask? Ahem - I will not answer to Shirley but if you call me Kevin these days I might surprise you and turn around. Any name other than your own feel like a good fit for you right now?  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Receptivity And Connecting

I seem to be in one of those cool cycles where many new people I'm coming into contact with intrigue me. Are these things as cyclical with you as they are with me?

During periods like this, my challenge is not scaring off new people being over eager. At the same time, because the next similar cycle could be a long way off, it feels foolish acting at all aloof. As soon as I connect, it seems important to pursue that, wherever it leads.

I've also been reflecting on how much these cycles are linked to where I am when they occur. Although at present I don't feel more or less receptive than is my norm, it would probably be smart to get other opinions. In the meanwhile, I'm happily anticipating spending time with some new people.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Nine Days On The Road

Because my wife and I still enjoy each other's company after 36 years, we're looking forward to our time alone on a road trip to Maine beginning Saturday. That is, except for the road part.

Our car conversations are stimulating, we enjoy listening to music (provided what she calls "frantic jazz" and King Crimson are minimized), and we almost always agree what books we'll listen to on tape. Though our respective food clocks are not perfectly synchronized, they're close enough to keep low sugar rants at bay. But the driving - oh boy.

If you're in a long term relationship, what is your point of greatest friction? My wife and I take the expression "driving me nuts" to a whole new level. We both anxiously anticipate the day self-driving cars become reality - marital bliss awaits.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Not Quite Thirteen Ways To Say Thanks

Excuse me while I gush but "Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Novel" (2005) by Jane Smiley was exactly the book for me to read right now.

Soon after submitting my memoir to AARP/Huffington Post early this year, I began my second foray into long form writing. So far, things haven't gone real well - a little writing here, long breaks, a little more work on my masterpiece, longer breaks, etc. Then, two breakthroughs:

* An inspiring workshop which included interaction and encouraging support from other aspiring writers.
* Smiley's terrific book - "Writing a novel is , above all, a habit." Precisely what I needed to hear. When was the last time a non-fiction book (vs. a character or voice from a novel) spoke that directly to you?

And "Thirteen Ways..." is not just for stuck wanna-be writers like me - it's a reader's feast. I can't recommend it highly enough. Goodreads - thanks for the recommendation; Jane - thanks for the kick in the ass and by the way, I loved your novel "A Thousand Acres".

"When a student is ready, a teacher appears" - Buddha