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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Of 2014

Would enjoy hearing about your 2014 highlights. Use my categories or make up your own.

Best novel not read for a book club: "Let The Great World Spin" (2009) by Colum McCann.

Best concert: Lyle Lovett & His Large Band at the Count Basie Theater.

Best discovery: A word game called Bananagrams.

Best film and film title: Birdman Or...The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance.

Best scene on network television: Hipster chick & Wendell discovering dead body in episode entitled "The Pugilist Break" on ABC's "Forever".

Happy new year!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Chicken/Egg - Singer/Song

My current chicken vs. egg dilemma began while developing my summer course on timeless songs. It deepened following the offline response to three Mt. Rushmore posts on that same subject. Then, after recently reading composer Otis Redding's comment about "Respect" never again being "his" song after Aretha Franklin's version was released, I decided it was time to turn this particular headache-inducing dilemma over to you. Please consider the following:
1.) Over The Rainbow
2.) I Will Always Love You
3.) At Last

For #1: Is the first version of this Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg tune - sung by Judy Garland in 1939 - so iconic that the song was destined to be timeless? Or is the song itself so well constructed it would have endured as well as it has for these last 75 years no matter who first performed it? Ringo Starr, even?

For #2: Is Whitney Houston's version of this song - first a country hit for composer Dolly Parton years before - so iconic the performance catapulted the tune into timeless territory? What will happen to this tune if Whitney's posthumous reputation fades a bit? Will others still be recording it 30 years from now? 50 years?

For #3: Is Etta James' 1960 version of this 1941 Harry Warren/Mack Gordon song - also a top ten hit for Glenn Miller in 1942 - the only one that can be called iconic? Was this tune just waiting for Etta to re-discover it 18 years later thus extending its appeal an additional 50+ years?

Singer or song? Six months is a long time to wait to lay an egg, even for a chicken like me.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Caution Re Search Engines

Although I've referred to confirmation bias a few times in my blog, ever since a good friend sent me the link below I've been re-considering how modern technology reinforces that bias. For any thinking person, this is surely a sobering wake-up call.

http://www.delanceyplace.com/view_archives.php?2683&p=2683

My first deep immersion in confirmation bias occurred in the early 90's while doing diversity training. Several years later I read Peter Senge's brilliant book "The Fifth Discipline" in preparation for delivering courses in leadership. According to Senge, uncovering our "mental models", is a critical element in building learning organizations. From the outset, his premise resonated with me probably because I recognized the way we construct our mental models is wholly consistent with the insidious phenomenon of confirmation bias. That is, we seek out (largely) data supporting our viewpoints and "filter" out (or give less credence to) data that refutes those viewpoints. And that subtle but unmistakable weeding out process helps us believe our mental models are the "truth". Sound familiar?

Based on that scary article above, I'm now committed to using search engines in a more discriminating fashion. After you read it, please tell me (and others) about your takeaways. I've never doubted I'm an unwilling victim of confirmation bias. But thanks to that good friend who thought to send me the article, perhaps I can mitigate the effects of confirmation bias just a little. This can only be a good thing for my mental models and, in turn, my development as a thinking person.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

ISBN 978-1-32-027062-5

To this point, what has been the most thoughtful material gift you've ever received?

Since the start of our love affair in April 1978, many of the wonderful gifts my wife has given me have stopped me cold. But right now I'm having difficulty imagining ever again unwrapping something as meaningful as I did several hours ago. My wife assembled a lifelong goal, handed me a dream.    

ISBN 978-1-32-027062-5 - my unique, legal copyright. Ten sections - each with a monthly heading, March through December -  containing the 203 blog posts I wrote in 2011. Lying on the couch in this room is my first book. Except for the comments, which I'm pleased my wife decided to include, every word between the covers came from inside me. And so did the words on the cover.

"Reflections From The Bell Curve, 2011" : Patrick J. Barton  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Costly Fuel

"Anger gives you a certain power. It's fuel. But it's costly fuel. It burns quickly and destroys everything around it and as you get older, if you don't let it go, it burns you up." 

Since first reading it in "Moving To Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life" (2008) I've relied on that passage many times when my anger is getting out of hand. Though author Wynton Marsalis was referring to his anger about lingering racism in the book, you needn't be a target of racism to learn from these words. Have you ever struggled letting go of that costly fuel? I have; it's possible that explains why his words have remained useful to me for over six years.

Bad temper, foul mood, over-reacting - just a few euphemisms I've hidden behind when anger hijacks good sense. And though I've clearly gotten better managing my moods, as recently as today I felt a toddler-like temper tantrum percolating. After isolating myself, out came my journal, which has the passage above affixed to it via a post-it. Laugh if you must but it worked. Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Big Finish?

Although not superstitious, I'm relieved the last novel** I'll likely finish in 2014 was a big winner; would've been a drag to end the year with something just OK. What was (or likely will be) the last book you'll finish this year? Winner or groaner?

"Everything I Never Told You" (2014) by Celeste Ng, tells a wholly believable story of the effect a family tragedy has on the surviving members. The last novel I read using this theme that struck me as equally authentic was Anna Quindlen's "Every Last One" (2010). Not coincidentally, I finished Ng's book in one sitting just as I did Quindlen's back in 2011 (book journals - gotta love them).

In particular, Ng's debut expertly etches the relationship between three siblings. Nathan Lee is the oldest; his whiplash ambivalence toward his younger sisters - dismissive to tender to mean to protective, often in a span of minutes  - felt so familiar I stopped several times while reading. It was easy to recall myself at Nathan's age - a self-centered and casually cruel college freshman older brother. This book has much to recommend it, not least of which is prose that never calls attention to itself and characters as real as your friends and neighbors. Let me know your reaction when you read it.

** More good news: I specified last novel above because I'm eagerly anticipating my yearly doorstop disguised as Christmas gift. Traditionally, these leviathans have been non-fiction and my wife and daughter have yet to strike out on their pick(s) for me. Stay tuned for news on this year's tome.**           

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holidays, Time, Success

The blur of time going by gets to me some days. What are some common triggers that get you thinking about this phenomenon?

In this particular instance, these thoughts began sweeping over me while writing little notes to friends on our holiday letter. Another year ending; no doubt this happens to many people around now. Add in my introspective nature and a recent conversation about the elusive concept of success and presto - a little dip in the holiday mood, perky music and festive decorations notwithstanding.

After almost four years of blogging, I've learned to wait until my low points have passed before publishing a post reflecting on any melancholy; the really mawkish stuff ends up in my journal instead. The nadir of this particular dip was about a week ago. The result? Two quiet days in a row from Pat on the bell curve and several long naps. What are your go-to strategies? A week later and the blur of time feels less onerous. And, some kind words an ex-colleague said about me in a speech at his retirement celebration this past week helped me re-calibrate the word success, again.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Calling Other Non-Damaged Goods

Many cliches are harmless enough. What damage has the hackneyed expression "think outside the box" ever inflicted on anyone?

For me, however, the "tortured" artist cliche has lately become more bothersome. Biographies about miserable and misanthropic individuals who have created towering art fight for space on bestseller lists. Historical fiction (sic) is rife with stories about poets, musicians, architects, etc.  who are abusive serial philanderers or... alcoholic narcissistic gamblers or... insanely controlling and still in the closet. Recently, I found myself fairly agitated by an innocuous discussion about the eccentricities creative "types" supposedly share.
  
Where does being without the tortured badge leave me? You? I've never had the courage to call myself an artist despite a lifetime spent creating.  But lately I've been reflecting - Is it possible I never claimed that community because I've been without the badge? Put another way - Did the cliche so fully take hold in me that it turned into an exclusionary stereotype?

I challenge you to pay closer attention to future conversations about artists and creativity. Notice how frequently this confining cliche - in all its permutations - is mentioned. Then tell me about it.  And, if you know any non-tortured artists, tell them this non-tortured blogger would like to hear from them. I'll take it from there.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pets R' You (2014)

While waiting for my daughter's dog at "doggie day care" yesterday, I began reflecting: Have the norms for other pets changed as much over the last thirty years as those linked to having a dog? Pet owners - please don't go dog-shit on me; I haven't had a pet since the mid-80's. So I was wondering...

* Are there "kitty day care" centers? If yes, do the cats care if their owners forget to claim them?
* What percentage of holiday cards do you receive where the picture includes pets? How many include pet signatures? When you get a picture card that no has human beings - i.e. only animal(s) - do you wonder what happened to the owners?
* Aside from dogs, what kind of clothing is currently available for other pets? Are tropical fish owners living in cold climates satisfied with adjusting the water temperature of their tanks or...lobbying for a new designer line?

I'm also a little curious about comparable laws for pets (aside from dogs) related to poop-scooping but that's where I came in. Those laws - very thankfully - went into effect after my last dog died. Given that services and viewings for pets were also not commonplace in 1985, I'm guessing that last dog of mine is residing in either doggie-limbo or purgatory. So my final question is: Can any of those pre-1985 pets get retroactively admitted into animal heaven? Just asking.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#29: The Mt. Rushmore Series (1940's version)

Which four songs written in the 1940's would you enshrine on Mt. Rushmore? So far, I've offered my four - with sparkling annotation for each - from the 1920's (in August) and 1930's (November). Don't leave me alone out here. And no fair saying you don't know when a favorite song was written; Google long ago made that an obsolete excuse.

1.) Take The "A" Train - Billy Strayhorn (1941) - Although arguably Duke Ellington's most well known tune, it still sounds wonderfully fresh. For my money, Billy Strayhorn was Duke's most reliable collaborator.

2.) At Last - Harry Warren and Mack Gordon (1941) - Etta James' massive hit did not occur until many years after Warren & Gordon wrote this gem. "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "The More I See You" are just two more of that longstanding team's winners.

3.) Round Midnight - Thelonious Monk (1944) - If you're interested to know of the others who get co-credit with Monk for this amazing & complex ballad, use Wikipedia. This song is so much fun to play.

4.) But Beautiful -  Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke (1947) - If I'd constructed this Mt. Rushmore just five years ago, this chromatic giant wouldn't have had a spot - it's a recent discovery for me. Thank you to Shawn Colvin for leading me to this treasure.

As with the two earlier iterations of Mt. Rushmore timeless songs, I've opted not to repeat any composers in this decade either. Ignore that guideline when you offer your choices. But do offer something, willya please?

Monday, December 15, 2014

Trying To Get It

Though I've worked alongside and had them as neighbors a good part of my life, denying there's often been a missing element in my relationships with black people would be dishonest. That missing element? Genuine and sustained conversation about race and privilege.

I've got many of the badges I've sometimes noticed white people wear as racial bona fides. For example, black folks have shared important moments in my life - one of the speakers at my retirement celebration was a close colleague for over twelve years. He and his wife have been to my home for dinner; they're not the only African-Americans my wife and I have entertained. If that colleague or any other black person with whom I've had close and prolonged contact reads this post, I sincerely hope they are not hurt by what I say here. At the same time, I would be surprised if any of them were taken aback.

A few months ago, NY Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof began a provocatively titled series: "When White People Don't Get It". Kristof's words have stung me, angered me, educated me. Most of all, they've lingered with me. Several times, soon after finishing his column, I started then abandoned a blog post - my insights felt meager. But with every breaking story, avoiding race in my tiny corner of the blogosphere has started to feel evasive and dishonest. And once again, I suspect I'm not alone on the bell curve. Anyone in my mostly white world want to talk about the last genuine conversation you had with a black person about race and privilege?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Reading About Reading

"All criticism is a form of autobiography."

From that first sentence of "How Literature Saved My Life" (2013), author David Shields had me. His brief volume is a stimulating dissertation on great books as well as a thoughtful and humorous meditation on loneliness. It is also a list maker's dream.

Over the past several years, I've lost count how many books about books I've finished. Most have been worthwhile and surprisingly, not as redundant as you might imagine. And I've tried not to get defensive when any book-to-book overlap reminds me of gaps in my own education (e.g. "Remembrance of Things Past"). Shields' book was refreshing because his picks of "...works I swear by..." from the oeuvre of oft-cited authors (Cheever, Nabokov, Orwell, etc.) was not a list of their "greatest hits".

I also share the author's unabashed admiration for the late David Foster Wallace. Coincidentally, just days before stumbling onto "...Literature..." in a library drive-by, I'd similarly run across Wallace's "This is Water". The latter is a transcript of a commencement address Wallace delivered in 2005 at Kenyon College. Given Wallace's tragic 2008 suicide, it was difficult reading the final sentences of Shields' book.

"I wanted literature to assuage human loneliness, but nothing can assuage human loneliness. Literature doesn't lie about this - that's what makes it essential."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

And Now, A Word From Our Friendly Sponsor...

It's silly but I get really juiced when people make public comments on this blog. I treasure the offline reactions many of you have shared with me but a main goal from the outset has been to initiate cyber-conversations. When that happens, even with just one person, it sustains me for days.

Recently, several "anonymous" comments have contributed to an overall slight increase . Do I know these mysterious people? If no, how did they learn about my blog? If new people are finding me because regular readers are telling others, thank you, thank you, thank you. New and regular readers: If you know of anyone who may want to join a conversation about a specific post, please consider using the e-mail icon at the bottom left of the screen to forward the post - thanks again.

And remember: Your feedback is welcome. Some of your suggestions have been so helpful. I'm grateful to all of you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mr. Id's Rosy Vision

Mr. Id is not interested in adding to the noise surrounding Bill Cosby's fall from grace. And, if any of the allegations turn out to be true, his bias is clear - victimized women in these situations deserve to be heard.

That said, Mr. Id does wonder how this sordid story can be called "news".  There is nothing at all new about it. Why haven't the media developed a boilerplate that allows the next powerful sexual predator's name to be inserted into this redundant story the next time it happens? Cynical as it may be, is there any reasonable person who doubts this will happen again soon?

Mr. Id has also largely resisted the notion of a rosy past magically superior to the present. But in this instance, he wouldn't mind returning to the days before 24-7-365, TVs-as-big-as-movie-screens, Internet-everywhere news. Or, if we have to have all news, all the time, Mr. Id has a proposal:  How about if stories like this are identified as "old news" so we all know in advance we can skip reading about, listening to, or watching most of it? Now that would be rosy.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Meeting #1: Bell Curve Book Group

While still writing my book journal entry about Colum McCann's 2009 novel "Let the Great World Spin", I put his latest ("Transatlantic" - 2013), in my mental queue. No need to add the second book to any list. "Let the Great World Spin" is so exceptional there is zero doubt I'll be returning to this gifted author.

When you read a novel describing actual events from your lifetime, what effect does it have on you? McCann uses Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers to frame about a dozen stories, each in a unique voice. Those stories expertly depict the madcap diversity of NYC with wealth & despair alongside grit & influence while faith & grief & wonder hover nearby. Penthouse on Park Avenue, phone booth on Wall Street (remember - it's 1974), projects in the South Bronx. There are judges, hookers, support groups, priests, hackers, Irish & French & Guatemalan immigrants. And, in the short passages featuring Petit opening the first three sections, I found myself wandering around my young adult years, trying to recall how his feat of daring registered with me at the time.

My journey to the past was brief; I was too involved with the book. This is a perfect storm of a novel - immediately and thoroughly engaging, unquestionably literary, over too fast. If one of my book clubs does not select it soon, it's time to start my own group. Come to think of it, if you've read McCann's masterpiece, let's get started right now. Which of the voices in this book spoke loudest to you?

Monday, December 8, 2014

War And Tiny Pieces

Good intentions, uncooperative muse.

That about sums up my November of long form writing. Although I took the month off from regular volunteer commitments, tried limiting the social interactions, retreated to the library (laptop in hand) several times, I don't have a great deal to show for all that dedicated time. As I frequently coach others - time to adjust the expectations. How often do you find yourself wishing you were a little better at taking the advice you dole out?

Spending so much time staring at a blinking cursor did remind me - again- to be grateful writing is not my livelihood. And even though my "book" is still a very short story, extra solitary time is always therapeutic. Finally, all those popping kernels - most of which didn't mesh with my opus - might well turn out to be useful. Song fragments, blog posts, ideas for future classes - grist for the mill. In my experience, creativity is as much about incubation as it is inspiration. I'm committed to remaining patient with my process.

So, even though the muse apparently didn't get the memo about November being National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), it was time well spent. Big thanks to the folks who asked about my progress.                          

Friday, December 5, 2014

Who Was That Jackass?

Begin, again.

Sour, preachy, pedantic. I've been each of these more than once in my life. Yesterday I was all three at the same time for over an hour in the presence of several people I hardly know, while ostensibly discussing a book. When you behave badly, how good are you at diagnosing what triggered you? What strategies do you use to prevent getting triggered in the first place?

Ironically, I began joining book clubs in 2010 to work on...
* listening more than speaking
* remaining open and inquisitive
* improving my questioning skills

Begin, again.

Let me guess. You're wondering where the guy is with the white collar, right? But I'm wondering about the last time you were as big a jackass as I was yesterday and what triggered you. If you join me in my public confession booth, I'll come clean with what triggered me and you can give me my penance.    

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jeremy Latino?

After watching the 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby's wonderful 1995 novel "High Fidelity" a few months ago, I began a ranting post about the decision some genius made to move the location from London to Chicago. As if American audiences couldn't tolerate the main character being a Brit. BTW, the film was otherwise pretty good and Jack Black was sensational singing Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On".

But, soon after I started my tirade about boneheaded choices Hollywood types regularly make, three terrific actors from an earlier era popped into my mind's eye - Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood.  That would be Marlon the Asian (an exotic "oriental" in "Teahouse Of The August Moon"), Paul the Native American ( a "half-breed" in "Hombre"), and Natalie the Latina (Puerto Rican Maria in "West Side Story"). At that moment I realized my whining about a white guy being an American instead of a Brit was small potatoes, Hollywood-wise. What is your nomination for the most egregious miscasting from those bad old days when white people portrayed almost all people? Asked a different way, how did Chita Rivera keep a straight face playing alongside Natalie Wood?

Although we're still not out of the woods  - note the distinct Chilean visages of Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Meryl Streep in the mid-90's film adaptation of Isabel Allende's "House Of the Spirits" - we've clearly come a long way. Zorro nowadays, thank goodness, is Antonio Banderas; RIP Erroll. So hold me to this - If I go on a future toot about a minor detail some filmmaker botches adapting a good book, remind me about George Chakiris playing Natalie Wood's Latino brother, OK?                

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Nearly Endlessly

"...endlessly inventive..."

Coming across that hyperbolic phrase in a music review recently, I paused. Praising something to entice others is a key element in many reviews, but is it possible to be endlessly inventive? Endlessly anything?

For nearly endlessly introspective yours truly, this is no idle reflection. Just two examples from the creative domain came to me immediately: 1.) Whenever I begin improvising on guitar and hear myself returning to something tried and true ("licks" in musician-speak), I realize the extemporaneous moment has passed. 2.) When I come up with a "new" idea for a blog post and a keyword search reveals I've been there (done that), I wonder - If keyword search were not available, would I even know I was not being endlessly inventive?

How about an endlessly inventive life? Anyone? When you re-tell a story for the hundreth time (accompanied by wholly appropriate groans from any longtime partner), do you find yourself longing for fresh material? What examples of endlessly anything can you offer this nearly endlessly inquisitive blogger?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Atlas Riffing (Redux), Silver Linings

For me, novels that don't connect with the ball can be tolerable if they at least feature an unfamiliar locale. At minimum, very OK books give me an excuse to get lost in my Atlas. The James Michener fans I've known have told me this was a large part of his appeal as an author. When was the last time a novel introduced you to a place that intrigued you even when the plot, characters or writing left you cold?

The first and best book club I ever joined once did a three month "exotic places" theme that took me to a speck of an island in the South Pacific (via "Tattoo Artist" by Jill Cement), the Amazon forest ("State Of Wonder" by Ann Patchett) and the Congo ("Brazzaville Beach" by William Boyd). And in those three cases, the ensuing Atlas riffing and book were worthwhile.

Several recent trips I've made have not been as successful as those. But it's still been instructive getting lost in my Atlas. If not for a few of those mediocre books, I might still be having trouble keeping straight the seven countries that all used to be part of what was once called Yugoslavia or having a vague understanding of the conflict in that part of Eastern Europe. Actually, the only reason I know Yugoslavia doesn't exist anymore is because of a few fair-to-middling books. Now there's a silver lining, right?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/12/atlas-riffing.html