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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Decade Slippage

A caveat and an apology are needed to preface today's post. The caveat - Readers under 50 might have more trouble relating to this reflection. The apology -  I'm not trying to be glib about dementia - sorry if anyone reads this that way.

Though I haven't lost any significant chunks of memory, over the past year or two I have experienced several instances of what I've begun calling "decade slippage" - see if you relate.

* Reporting an auto insurance claim, I told the adjuster two times my Accord was a 1995. Only after she couldn't locate such a vehicle on my policy did it dawn on me; my car is a 2005 model.

* Meeting someone who told me he's worked in Human Resources at Princeton for several years, I was surprised he did not know the Director of HR at Princeton who interviewed me in 2012. Good reason - My interview occurred in 2002.

* My most recent instance of decade slippage was committed to writing. In an e-mail to a good friend, I referred to my blog "...started in March 2001...". Uh-oh - my blog debut was March, 2011.  

I'm relieved (a little) the slippage is at least going both directions. How about yours? Re-assure me, please?

Friday, August 29, 2014

When I Was 25...

"Our capacity for justice makes democracy possible and our capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary": Reinhold Niebuhr

Beginning with when I finished "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand and "Big Russ and Me" by Tim Russert back to back in 2011, and continuing after watching an excellent HBO film called "Taking Chance" about a year later, my lifelong resistance to calling myself patriotic has been slowly dissipating. While recently reading "Where We Stand: 30 Reasons For Loving Our Country" (2002) by Roger Rosenblatt - which included the amazing quote above - I found myself unexpectedly choking up several times as this talented essayist makes his compelling case.

There wasn't much in this brief volume I didn't like but the pieces Rosenblatt wrote about 9/11 really stopped me cold. Reading those essays in this book brought me right back to a NY Times series that ran each Sunday for months following our national horror that described the "ordinary" lives cut short on that awful day. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Rosenblatt, who wrote for the Times for years, was involved in that series; the 9/11 pieces in his book pack an equivalent punch.

Though not planning to display an American flag this Monday (or anytime soon), with respect to patriotism, the Pat of 2014 is a slightly different version from the Pat of 2011 and a dramatically different version than the Pat of 1974.  In what domain of your life are you noticeably different than three or ten or forty years ago?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Helping Rescue The Damaged

In my experience, you don't have to look hard to find a damaged person. And though the story of each damaged person differs in its specifics, many share one trait - they were raised by people ill-equipped or unprepared for raising others.

An ex-colleague of mine who is near my age decided to adopt a damaged six year old about three years ago. As she described to me her child's incremental progress, I struggled to keep my composure and couldn't escape one thought - what an enormous responsibility it is attempting to help heal another human being. But if people like she and her husband didn't take on these challenges day after day, how many more damaged adults would each of us routinely encounter?

My ex-colleague is as modest about the important work she is doing as another woman I've recently become acquainted with who has fostered several children. Either or both might even be uncomfortable I'm singling them out. But I have no doubt these two people I'm honored to know (and many others like them) deserve the accolades. If more of us followed that lead, the damage we see all around us might slowly diminish.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Grade (So Far): Zest

zest: keen relish; hearty enjoyment; gusto.

Before getting around to giving myself a grade for this attribute (# 31 in this series if anyone is keeping track), I have to know - Does the dictionary definition of zest above strike anyone else as vaguely food-like? Relish? Hearty? Even the word gusto is close enough to gumbo to make me hungry.

With that out of the way, how would you grade yourself (so far) for zest? I give myself a solid "B" on this attribute. And, unlike other attributes requiring constant attention to keep my saw sharp (e.g. mindfulness), zest seems to come naturally to me, which in turn makes it easier to take for granted. But in good conscience, I haven't (yet) earned an "A" for zest - my moodiness often works against me. An old friend used to call my mild melancholy streak an "Irish discourse" but given how far back in my family history I have to go to find someone from the Emerald Isle, my friend's theory is a bit far-fetched.

Next month it's back to "A" in this series. Your ideas for an attribute? Ambition and amiability have already been covered. Or, I could just skip "A" in this third round and put more effort into letters I've yet to cover at all. You know which letters those are, right? Right!         

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Power Of Listening

What's been your most recent experience of a powerful learning derived through focused listening?

Although I'm an extrovert, my listening skills are a source of pride for me. And those skills paid off in a big way as I recently listened carefully to a conversation two people were having about their respective takes on the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. The individuals each presented their differing views in a nuanced and uncharged way and my decision to remain totally silent - despite a few statements that triggered me - helped me learn a few things.

From the person in the pair whose view seemed closer to mine, I saw how effective it was to stay in control of emotions having a conversation like this. From the other person, I learned a more effective way to present factual information. From both, I re-learned the importance of civility.

Most importantly, by listening vs. talking, I recognized the gaps in my knowledge, flaws in my logic and work to be done to help make my views nuanced and uncharged.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Predicting All The Way To The Bank

Unimaginative as it may be, among my main reasons for wanting to travel into the future would be so I could subsequently return and thoroughly debunk all the books purporting to predict that same future. You've all seen these - "15 Reasons To Build An Ark Today", "10 Investments Guaranteed To Make You Rich", "Avoiding The Next 5 Cataclysms", etc.  Imagine how many bridges an unscrupulous salesman could unload if his list of leads included the gullible purchasers of this junk.

Anyone ever done a study of the accuracy of professional predictors like the late Jeanne Dixon? And what about the success rate of our ubiquitous political prognosticators? When President Obama was re-elected in 2012, my wife made a great suggestion to anyone who - courtesy of our prophets of doom - foresaw an imminent government takeover, including immediate confiscation of all firearms. My wife asked others to write down all the things they were afraid might happen over the next four years. She got no takers on her suggestion. My takeaway: Those folks who would not commit their predictions about the demise of our nation to writing are smarter than the authors of those silly books, although, maybe not as rich.   

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pass The Kumera...I'll Pass On The Callaloo

As our three and a half year old "eat around the world" project continues (last cuisine sampled - New Zealand), my heightened awareness of foreign foods has been accompanied by an observation: Some languages, if not their respective cuisines, are just more appetizing than others.

For example, given the choice between escargot, empanadas and bratwurst which would you pick? How can a food with one syllable sounding like "worst" with the other syllable 75% "rat" whet your appetite? On the occasions when we've cooked a cuisine vs. seeking out a restaurant, my wife and I have tried to pick food that sounds as good as it tastes. It just seems wrong to serve guests something as unappealing sounding as varm kalstuvning, when pleasing to the ear pad thai is available as an alternative.

Seems to me there's a continuum at work here - some foods sound scrumptious, many sound neutral, a handful sound revolting. Which would you place where?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Holden, Me And Three Good Things

"Bad  things come in three."

At the risk of alienating pessimists, my life experience routinely turns the superstition above on its head. Take yesterday, for example.

The first two good things took place during the second day of my current Adult Ed class. First, while playing Wynton Marsalis' majestic rendition of Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You", I had four minutes of musical communion with about 40 adults, all of whom respected my request not to sing along. The room remained so silent, time felt suspended. Then a few minutes later I improvised my way through George Gershwin's "Summertime" to illustrate a teaching point about how a timeless song makes it simple for a non-singing musician to get inside the essence of a lyric using just their instrument. My playing made me as happy as Marsalis' trumpet had moments before.

#3: A short time later my wife and I spent over two hours listening to thirteen uniformly excellent musicians support Lyle Lovett at the Count Basie Theater. It's no exaggeration to say Lovett's concert transported me. Driving home, I kept recalling that passage from "Catcher In The Rye" when Holden Caulfield talks about how the world is conspiring to make him happy - that was my Tuesday.

What were the last three good things that hit you like my three hit me?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Breaking A Pledge

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/08/memoir-moratorium.html

Though sincere when I wrote the post above, when my oldest niece strongly recommended "Ghost Light" (2000) by Frank Rich, I decided to temporarily suspend my one year old memoir moratorium. An additional factor convinced me to lift the freeze - Rich has been a favorite columnist for years.

Aside from the supple writing and ample humor ("The persistent though never consummated daily struggle of her huge breasts to escape the captivity of her tight bathing suit was more dramatic than most of our rehearsals"), when Rich describes how his passion for theater took hold at seven years old, I found myself nodding, having been similarly possessed by music almost that young. If you've had a lifelong love affair with an art form, this is a memoir to savor.

Now, back to that August 2013 pledge. What did I learn reading this? Mostly, how to be a better long form writer - no small thing.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Thank You, Teaching Assistants

By far, the biggest benefit I've derived from my recent experiences teaching Continuing Ed classes about music has been my own learning. And though I've certainly learned a few things about music doing my research, the richer learning has been about myself. Which of you has had a similar experience when teaching a subject close to your heart? I'd love to hear your stories.

For the week long course starting tomorrow (entitled "The Timeless Appeal of Great Songs"), I've learned how much the music lover and the musician in me have in common. Until I began teasing apart distinctions about what makes a song timeless, the similarities in those two parts of me were not as obvious as you might think.

In addition, while developing all the courses I've learned how important it is to have reliable sounding boards. From each discussion, sharing of a model, or rehearsing of a condensed version of a lecture, I've walked away with a clearer idea of how to proceed. I'm surrounded by a terrific network of smart and discerning people - that is not new learning for me. But it is something I'm grateful for.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Charity And Another Bell Curve

Imagine for a second you were born with immense inherited wealth.  

"Some people are born on third base and think they've hit a triple."

When I first heard that italicized phrase used to describe George Bush senior in the late 80's, I snickered with self-righteousness. To this day, in the midst of an unthinking polemic rant, that stinging remark still slips off my tongue periodically.

But once reason returns, the only thing I know is that I really don't know how a privileged birthright would have shaped me. The noble Pat fancies himself an unmitigated philanthropist, giving it away as fast as his ancestors acquired it. This is who I flatter myself I'd be. But unless faced with those exact circumstances, how can I know who I would have become? More significantly, what have my actions so far in my unprivileged life said about my charitable instincts?

Another continuum, another bell curve. There are those who give nothing to others, to whom charity is a dirty word. There are those who give of themselves and their resources completely, to whom charity is a calling. And then there's me, on the bell curve again.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Offstage Fright

Most people have heard the expression "stage fright" to describe the immobilizing fear that can grip some musicians or actors from time to time. Ham that I am (yes Sam I am), I've never experienced anything approaching stage fright. But I do wonder if a parallel fear sometimes take hold of people from other professions.

For example, do accountants get "IRS stress?" Can it result in the loss of potential income like stage fright does for performers? How do they overcome it? And what about salespeople? "Closing fear", maybe? I made a living for four years in sales and didn't have much trouble going for the close. But based on the way I choke and subsequently lose every time I'm ahead in tennis, this notion doesn't strike me as that glib.

Dentists? I'm wondering if the expression "bite the hand that feeds you" is somehow cryptically connected to performance anxiety among dentists. Were I to continue and offer the tasteless rhyming and punning examples that occurred to me among some medical specialties, I could lose my legions. So, how about your ideas? Start with your respective profession - Is there something parallel to stage fright in your line of work? What would you call it?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Next Time, I'll Slow Down Sooner

Over the past four+ years, my mile walk to the downtown coffee shop has helped me get clear, frequently supplied inspiration, and even given me a few opportunities for pleasant interactions; I look forward to these walks. As often as I've made this trip, a cynic or pessimist might say my experience today was overdue. Though that may be so, it made it no less disturbing for me.

Aside from a 100 yard stretch from my home to the end of the street, and about the same distance once downtown to the coffee shop, the entire route I routinely walk is on one street. Soon after getting on that street today heading home, I noticed two adolescent girls leisurely walking about 30 yards in front of me. Because my pace at first was slightly quicker, I was slowly gaining on them; I noticed one as she turned around to look my direction. I thought nothing of it and about a minute or two later the other did the same. And I would likely have not given that a second thought either until they broke into a run and put more distance between us. I immediately slowed my pace and began keeping my head down. Then it got sadder.

Although more than 50 yards now separated the three of us and I was moving slower and had already considered changing my route to an adjacent street so I would not continue to remain behind them, at one point I looked up and saw at least one of them look in my direction again before they began running a second time. At the first place where that street takes a slight bend (about 75% of the way to my home), with them out of my sight, me out of theirs, I stopped in my tracks and let several minutes pass. When I resumed walking the girls were nowhere to be seen. I was relieved and disturbed in equal measure.

In the hours since, I've tried to distract myself, including trying to blog about something lighter. But my mind remains fixed on the image of those girls running. Am I over-reacting? I'm as unsure about that as I am sure of this - next time, I'll slow down sooner.      

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

#25: The Mt. Rushmore Series (1920's version)

Although I didn't get any online responses to the July 11 post requesting ideas for timeless songs to include in my upcoming music course, the suggestions I received offline were very helpful - thanks to those folks.

Then, as I began constructing the playlist for my course, it became clear the Mt. Rushmore series is a perfect vehicle to continue in this vein. Your mission, should you decide to accept it - Which four songs from each decade from 1920 to 1980 would you enshrine on an iteration of Mt. Rushmore? I'm opting to not repeat any one composer in any decade but you can ignore that when you chime in. And stay tuned for the 30's-80's in the coming months.

1.) Bye Bye Blackbird (1926): Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon - Tie for my favorite version of this durable chestnut:  Rickie Lee Jones vocal and Miles Davis instrumental.

2.) Someone To Watch Over Me (1926): George and Ira Gershwin - No tie this time: Blossom Dearie's take has no competition. Also: Good creepy movie with same title, starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers.

3.) Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man (1927): Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II - This song is so good, I cannot pick any version as a favorite; no matter who does it the tune wins.

4.) More Than You Know (1929): Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose, and Edward Eliscu: Although Jane Monheit's read on this chromatic masterpiece is hard to top, in my mind the song will always be inextricably linked to Michelle Pfeiffer (yes, she sings well too, damn her) and her first scene in my favorite movie about musicians  - "The Fabulous Baker Boys".

Come on, you've got to have ideas for this.    

Monday, August 11, 2014

Mr. Id And Moccasins

Bicycle training wheels and signs on driving school cars serve as good reminders to the rest of us that a child or inexperienced driver is on the learning curve. Mr. Id has often wondered why there are not yet equivalent visual cues alerting us when folks our own age are still learning some equally important skill.

* Someone still learning to have a civil political conversation would wear a smiley face elephant or donkey lapel pin until that skill is mastered.
* Someone still learning how to listen without interrupting would have a small easy-to-erase decal of a taped mouth pasted on their forehead.
* Someone still learning to be more tolerant of people different from themselves would wear moccasins at all times with climate-appropriate socks.

These are a few possibilities Mr. Id supports. Your ideas?  

Friday, August 8, 2014

Scared? Yes. Terrified? Never

I've certainly been anxious or nervous many times in my life. And I can think of a few instances when I've been scared. But I don't think I've ever crossed the line into being terrified by something or perhaps worse, by someone. Another case where my life has been one of reasonably good fortune.

On the few occasions my Dad spoke of his experiences in WWII, I got a sense of the terror he felt as a young man. Like most vets I've met, he was reluctant to even speak about that time of his life. But the few details I got from him remain so vivid that when I hear someone say "I was terrified", they've got my attention. If it turns out the word is being used to exaggerated effect, I turn off.

Yet, as impatient as I can be now when people toss around the word terror, I'm a model of tolerance compared to Pat circa mid-90's. In those years doing adult education on the subject of domestic violence, which included visiting women's shelters as part of my research, I saw terror up close. "I'm terrified" got tossed onto my personal trash heap of hyperbolic expressions soon after.            

Thursday, August 7, 2014

John And Abigail And Me And You

Almost ten years after reading "John Adams", I've lately been recalling David McCullough's descriptions of the relationship our 2nd President had with his wife Abigail. I realize this takes me out of historian territory and closer to lightweight reader or romantic fool land.

Still, McCullough's take on Abigail's influence on John is fresh on my mind because I recently had occasion to recognize, again, how well my wife grounds me. Who do you rely on to keep you from getting too certain? My wife's ability to keep me on my toes is something I hope I'll never take for granted. I have often wondered how famous people who are constantly surrounded by people who only tell them what they want to hear can wade through their own bullshit as well as what's being thrown at their feet.

Both my sisters and my brother also remind me from time to time that I don't have a monopoly on truth. But family of origin relationships, even good ones like mine, are fraught with enough baggage that it's easy to occasionally ignore that feedback, especially when convinced I've discovered the holy grail. When my wife tells me to get over myself, points out holes in my logic or reminds me being right is not the highest virtue, I want to remember how listening carefully to Abigail helped John do pretty well.      

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hours I Want Back

Regular readers of my blog know I can be hard on myself for wasting time watching worthless movies. But after recently spending several hours on a truly terrible book, I wondered:  How do the number of total hours spent watching Hollywood garbage compare over my lifetime to the number of hours I've spent on atrocious books? How does your lifetime scoresheet compare?

I long ago gave up the silly habit of enduring the entirety of either a bad film or a bad book. In most cases, I cut my losses and move on. But in my experience, the average bad movie reveals its awfulness pretty quickly. Even when I watch more than is wise, hoping against reason it will improve, it's rare for me to waste more than 90 minutes on an execrable film.

In my most recent bad reading experience it took me over three hours to realize that as a long form author, the writer is an excellent journalist. She has scant storytelling ability (despite a non-fiction premise having great potential), uses clunky metaphors, and her sidebars go nowhere, including one about what she and her writing partner had for lunch while doing their research.

The more I consider my lifetime scoresheet, the more I think it's time to cut myself some slack about all those lousy movies I've endured.          

Monday, August 4, 2014

Re-Visiting That Train Ride

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/search?q=Enjoying+The+Train+Ride

Beginning on the anniversary date of my blog in March, I've been periodically reading my posts from 2011, primarily to see what has shifted over the ensuing three years. I hope some of you who journal or otherwise record your thoughts have - as I suggested back then - taken the time to re-visit your 2011 selves in some fashion. If so, please let me know what you've discovered.

What became clear to me as I read the post above was how effective my "train ride" metaphor turned out to be. I've played guitar for almost fifty years - the last three have been among the most rewarding I've ever experienced. And that enhanced enjoyment is directly tied to what I wrote on 8/4/11 despite my uncertainty at the time. The metaphor is not the sole reason for my re-energized playing, but the more old posts I read the more it seems undeniable that the public transparency of blogging is helping me get healthier all the way around.

Thanks to all who have hung in there with me and also to those who pay enough attention to ask me for updates on projects or goals I've written of here. Big thanks to those who make an effort to comment from time to time.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Block By Any Other Name

When someone recently asked me if I ever get "writer's block" regarding blog ideas, I had several moments of ego-inflated joy just hearing the word writer and me together in a sentence.

Following the return to earth, both the question and my delusions of grandeur got recorded in my journal. But soon after I found myself reflecting on what happens when I am stuck for blog (or song) ideas. Though there are others, among the most reliable sources of inspiration for me are other people. No matter your outlet, what do you rely on for creative juice?

My reflections also uncovered something to always keep in mind. In my continual search for creative sparks, I need to stay fully in the moment in order to enjoy interactions with others. If my mind is instead racing through a conversation to mine what I might later be able to use in some fashion in a post (or a song), I run the risk of missing a connection with someone. Or, even worse, assessing the value of an interaction based on what I'm getting rather than giving. If the price for being present with others is occasional block, I'll pay, especially if I get occasionally mistaken for a writer.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Holiday For The 1% With Less Cash

I've tried valiantly to elevate this most barren of months. On August 1 2012 and 2013, I proposed new holidays to help August join the other eleven months of the year that each have at least one - my clever holiday proposals are outlined in the posts at the bottom. If this year's ingenious idea does not take hold, I might have to give up. Hallmark marketing department - three strikes.

As of late 2013 there were 152 million blogs on the Internet. Since about half are business blogs, that means approximately one out of every one hundred individuals on the planet has a blog. So, I propose August 1 be celebrated as "International Bloggers Day" in honor of us, the 1% - I finally got off the bell curve.

To help kick off this important new holiday I suggest -
* All cards sent in this and subsequent years include a generous donation - no bit coins, please.
* Non-estranged family members of the 76,000,000+  individual bloggers must immediately sign up as followers to give their family member's blog the artificial appearance of significant reach.
* Employers are required to grant a day off to those among the 1% who have been personally vetted by the inventor of the holiday. Bloggers - Said vetting begins with your first pithy comment posted here.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/08/in-case-i-forget-january-3-july-24.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/08/august-1-2014-national-book-day.html