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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best Of 2015

Of the end-of-year posts I've published, only the first category below has now been used four years running. I welcome hearing your best of 2015, using any categories you'd like.

Best concert: Diana Krall at the Count Basie Theater. Krall's regular guitarist (Anthony Wilson) never fails to floor me.

Best new habit: Finishing books before reading the jackets - often ridiculously hyperbolic - or the author blurbs. As someone able to be swayed by words of praise from a favorite author, better to skip that praise and arrive at my own opinion of a book honestly.

Best time away:  Tie - Our Sierra Club service trip to the Virgin Islands Resource Center and later  visit to Denali & Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska with Road Scholars.

Best documentaryThe Wrecking Crew. Because this is a film about studio musicians, it may not transport you as it did me. I still suggest you give it a chance. Then let me know what you think.

Best party: Our "Pot Luck & Posts" bash in April, celebrating our five year old "Eat The World" project - twenty "new" national cuisines sampled in one feast - as well as one thousand  reflections from the bell curve.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Crazy Love

"The heart wants what it wants."

What did you do the last time love made you crazy? Have you ever known anyone who hasn't gone off the deep end at least one time because of love?

We were all children once, we all have stories, we're all going to die. While listening to a podcast about 30,000 men who were convinced they had connected with their "soul mate" - when in fact just one sinister con man, posing as many women, was writing to all of them - I was struck by another universal human condition. Sooner or later, love makes a fool of all of us.

When his relationship with Soon Yi first became public, I recall Woody Allen paraphrasing Emily Dickinson by saying something similar to the words that open this post. I also remember my cynical and self-righteous reaction at the time. But over the ensuing years, I've watched several people put their life in a blender and turn it on high - for love. None of us escape this madness forever.         

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Gifts

Whenever a documentary delivers a wallop, I normally allow time before writing a post about it. But even though I'm still processing "The Wolf Pack", my initial reaction to this extraordinary and disturbing film is strongly linked to a few other recent reflections about parenting.

A week before seeing "The Wolf Pack", my most recent Mt. Rushmore post prompted one reader to comment on "The Glass Castle", a harrowing memoir of off-the-rails parenting by Jeannette Walls. The comment sent me back to my copy of that book and the note I made on its final page upon finishing it in 2006: "Compelling and well written; mostly made me feel very grateful for the stability and normalcy of my childhood, thanks to my parents."

Then a few days later, a brief conversation about how difficult it can be to avoid parental landmines brought me back - again - to how few of those I've had to step over in my lifetime. Neither of my folks had any education beyond high school but their intuitive sense of parenting was rock solid.

Mom's been gone for over thirty eight years, Dad for eighteen. But Christmas gifts they've given me keep appearing beneath my tree year after year.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The 2015 Streak (Vs. The 2014 Semi-Slump)

While it's still fresh on your mind, would you call this past year more or less memorable than 2014 with respect to the books you finished?

For me, 2015 was a much stronger year. I had my first experience with several prodigiously talented authors - Anthony Doerr ("All The Light We Cannot See"), Neil Gaiman ("The Ocean At The End of The Lane"), Jill Lepore ("The Secret History of Wonder Woman"), Daniel Woodrell ("The Maid's Version"), to name a few.  I returned twice to the gifted Colm Toibin - "Nora Webster" early in the year and "The Master" toward the end. Essays in the NY Times led me first to "The Road to Character " (David Brooks) and later to Sherry Turkle's "Reclaiming Conversation". What a streak.

Now, a book I recently finished - "The Devotion Of Suspect X"  - has persuaded me to pay more attention in the future to crime novels, a genre I've mostly avoided. This 2005 thriller by Keigo Higashino is as riveting as it is psychologically astute. And though the denouement pulling the whole thing together is satisfying- and true to form - I'm sure the penultimate scene will remain with me longer than the solved mystery. In that scene, as the object of devotion realizes how far Suspect X has gone to protect her, the twists and turns of the story fade as the heartbreaking prose reduces a complex tale to the elemental.

 If "Devotion..." ends up the final novel I finish in 2015, the year will end on a fiction high, making that part equivalent to last year; Celeste Ng's stunning debut "Everything I Never Told You" was my fiction finale in 2014. Still, this year was clearly superior to last even though I never got through a classic in 2015. Actually, considering my recent track record with novels from the canon, maybe part of the reason 2015 feels so much stronger is connected to skipping my cultural vegetables this past year.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Closet Presents

I'm betting most of us have at least one closet present tucked away. How long it has remained sitting in your closet unseen would depend on the last time the giver visited you. What is your view on how long you must retain such a gift? More importantly, what is your strategy if the giver makes an unannounced visit? Have you and your partner decided on a secret signal or code word to help retrieve and then quietly display the item? If you live alone, how will you handle this sensitive situation?

It's an equally good bet most of us have given at least one closet present at some point. Do you recall the last one you gave? Was your gift to a family member, a friend, work colleague? Or, are you confident this has never happened? Gift cards are not my go-to choice, but it's hard to deny how well that trend has mitigated the closet present scourge. I suspect bridal registries have gained traction for a similar reason. Gift cards may be unimaginative and bridal registries may remove an element of surprise but no doubt both also cut down on the dust gathering on unused and unseen gifts.

Before any reader screams Scrooge, I'm coming to my own defense. Earlier today, my brother noticed and commented on an indoor thermometer sitting on our bookshelves, a Christmas gift my sister gave my wife and I many years ago. We both loved it and it has never spent a second in a closet. But both my brother's comment and my sister's thoughtful present got me reflecting about closet presents, received and given. Marsha - If you haven't already done so, please feel free to get rid of that winter hat. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Choice Did I Have?

"Trumbo" is a film worth seeing; Bryan Cranston is terrific in the titular role. But it is clearly time for filmmakers to dump that tired scene when a writer balls up a piece of typewriter paper and tosses it into a nearby trash can. There's got to be a fresher way to depict the frustration that perpetually accompanies writing.

My suggestion? How about having a writer look up a word - via the Internet or dictionary - and then pulling on the hair or suitable body part? Like what happened to me not long after hearing an excellent lecture about the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. The lecturer ended by saying a single word - choose. Hair pulling was not far in my future.

It began as I reflected on the choices I make every time I write even a simple blog post. Each choice, i.e. each word, can determine if a sentence will come alive; imprecise words have a deadening effect on most prose. Grabbed the dictionary to look up "choose", thinking I'd write a post about this simple word most of us use frequently. Read the distinctions that separate some of the synonyms for choose - select, pick, elect, prefer. Big mistake.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Lunch With Anna

Of the authors you consider favorites which one can you easily imagine as a friend?

About halfway into "Thinking Out Loud" (1993), the first Anna Quindlen book I ever read, I started writing a letter to her. I didn't finish it, primarily because it started sounding a little creepy to me. But I have since maintained my one-sided friendship with her through several subsequent books. Both her non-fiction and her novels have an accessibility that almost feels like she is inviting me to lunch. Ever had an experience like this?

"Blessings" (2002) is my third Quindlen novel. Like both "Black & Blue" & "Every Last One", the premise is contemporary, the narrative straightforward, characters familiar. Although she herself is widely read - my favorite Quindlen essay, packaged as a book, is "How Reading Changed My Life" - the fiction of hers I've read does not feature experimental flourishes like the ones used by some of her favorite authors, e.g. Dom DeLillo. But every missing post-modern device in "Blessings" is richly replaced with Quindlen's wise and humane prose.  "Most people turned out the way you'd expect. But not all. Not by a long shot."

I do have one minor quibble about "Blessings" - Quindlen's editor let her down. Throughout this otherwise excellent novel the number of sentences containing "had had" is downright distracting. And here's where I veer into fantasy land - Quindlen stumbles onto or learns about this post, decides my discerning eye has been helpful, invites me to lunch. For the record, Anna: I'll gladly pay.
 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Let's NOT Go Dutch, OK?

The Netherlands - Holland - Dutch - Flemish.

I began blogging because I maintain that except for the small percent of people who are famous - thus too busy being fabulous and chasing off paparazzi - and the equally small percent who deserve to be incarcerated - thus too busy avoiding being stabbed by a shiv - many of us on the bell curve will, on occasion, have a little time to ponder the imponderables.

For example: Why are people from the Netherlands called Dutch instead of Netherlanders? Or, since the Netherlands is also called Holland (and not in the change-the-country-name tradition of Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe but a side-by-side-let's-have-two-names-to-confuse-everybody tradition) why aren't the residents of this perplexing country called Hollanders? Come on, fellow residents on the bell curve, don't tell me things like this never cross your mind.

While on the Dutch thing, let's consider the two official languages of the Netherlands/Holland. First there's Dutch, which is annoying enough. A quaint Western tradition like French as the language of the French living in France is apparently not good enough for Netherlanders. Want to guess the name of the other official language of this country that can't make up its mind what to call itself? Frisian! Come on. I bet you were going to say Flemish, right? Not on your life. Ready? Though Flemish is indistinguishable from Dutch, no reference book lists it as connected to Dutch or the Dutch or the Netherlands (BTW, how many independent nations have a "the" in front of their name?) or Holland in any way. And where the hell does Frisian fit in to this indecipherable mess?

At least the Hollish could have had the decency to have one capitol city like most of the nations of the world. Having two would not have been unique but these bozos couldn't leave well enough alone with this piece either. One of their two capitols is The Hague. A capital with two capitalized words and the best they could come up with is "the" as the first word? Really?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

#38: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Inspired by my niece's suggestion, the 38th iteration of my Mt. Rushmore series enshrines four flawed fathers from great novels. Which literary paterfamilias you'd have been unhappy to have as a Dad belong on your mountain? Mine are listed alphabetically.

1.) Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom (from John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy): Rabbit's flaws are legion yet he somehow retains a rakish charm right up to his last breath in the final novel of the series - "Rabbit At Rest". In my view, his worst moments occur in the second  book - "Rabbit Redux" - but I'm curious to hear your take if you've spent any time in Rabbit land.

2.) Ally Fox ( from "Mosquito Coast" by Paul Theroux): Because of his hubris and arrogance, I'm still not sure how to interpret my wife telling me - after she read the book - I would "...love ..." the main character in Theroux's novel. Though my subsequent close identification with Fox's iconoclastic views made me uncomfortable, he is brilliantly drawn and deserves a spot on my mountain.

3.) David Lurie (from "Disgrace" by JM Coetzee): From a novel that has been in my top 25 since I read it soon after its release, David Lurie was the first damaged Dad to come to me. His inability to provide any solace to his young adult daughter following her brutal assault was very difficult to read.

4.) Nathan Price (from "Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver): From the only novel ever getting a unanimous "home run" designation from my reading posse, the tragic evangelist Nathan Price is also the only flawed father from my mountain not yet depicted on film. If Kingsolver's masterpiece ever gets made into a movie, Clive Owens was born to play the role. Mark my words.

I'd love to hear your choices. Now if my niece doesn't chime in with at least one idea, all the rest of you are off the hook.
       

Friday, December 18, 2015

Less Out Of It On Africa

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/12/out-of-it-on-africa.html

Of the posts published in my first year of blogging, the one above - from this date in 2011 - is one that gives me perhaps the greatest satisfaction, in terms of my subsequent and purposeful learning. That is, four years later, I feel less out of it on Africa.

A small part of my growth here is related to my reading. In particular, William Boyd's gripping 1990 novel "Brazzaville Beach" comes to mind. But the majority of my education about Africa is connected - directly or otherwise - to the "Eat The World" project my wife and I initiated almost five years ago. The most recent gratifying example of how that project has broadened my understanding of the second largest continent occurred having breakfast at a restaurant in Brooklyn.

Noticing the t-shirt with a map of Africa worn by the young man waiting on me - and also detecting an African accent - I asked him about his origins. He said he'd come to the US from Burkina Faso. When I interrupted his description of where his native country was located to say I was familiar with it, it was easy to see the surprise on his face. Our conversation continued as I related how we'd featured cuisine from his home in one of our recent repasts - his broad smile spoke volumes. As I left the restaurant he went out of his way to ask my name.

If I'd met someone from Burkina Faso when I wrote the post at the top, my cluelessness about that small landlocked country in Africa would have been the same as it was about Ghana - the home of  our taxi driver Eddie - the inspiration for the original post. But the public commitment I made on 12/18/11 - to become less out of it on Africa - has since then continually prodded my learning. The very cool net result over the ensuing years has been several instances like my Burkina Faso aha. Where in your life have you made a commitment to learn more (about anything) and then seen a similar result?  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Nearby Resource

Ever had someone you've cared for a great deal suddenly and inexplicably cease contact with you? What strategies helped you deal with your loss?

I didn't get far writing personal notes on our family holiday picture this year before stopping at the name of one old friend, someone I've known since 1977. I couldn't say for sure when the two of us last had contact but I am certain it is I who has reached out numerous times over the last several years, never receiving a single word in response. It didn't feel right to surrender this important friendship without humbling myself one final time to ask if I'd unknowingly done or said something offensive or hurtful the last time we were together. And if that was the case, how could I make it right?

After mailing the picture with my note, I temporarily put it out of mind. Then, later describing my friend's mystifying behavior to my daughter, she told me of a similar experience of hers from college. Instead of appreciating my daughter's desire to ease my pain by sharing her own story with me, I initially reacted by saying a 25+ year friendship and a college friendship were not - in my mind - on equal footing. But my daughter - perhaps the most emotionally intelligent person I know - stayed on point and then went on to make a few plausible conjectures about why someone with whom you once shared an intense bond might suddenly leave a silent hole in your life.

That conversation did not erase my loss. But it did help me heal a bit. More significantly, my increased respect for my daughter ensures I'll remember her as a nearby resource when next I'm in need of a strategy.


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Decisions & DECISIONS

Given how much I read, one would think buying books as holiday gifts for family should be easy - if only. Lest anyone recommends medication, today I offer a condensed version of my decision-making process. I'm happy to share the full story with any interested reading obsessives, just not publicly.

1.) Most important: Any book I gift must be a single, at minimum, per my baseball metaphor.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/2nd-attempt-to-capture-sports-market.html

2.) Gifted books must have a high likelihood of landing well with the recipient. Examples: If the politics of an author are widely known (e.g. Bill O'Reilly, Noah Chomsky), care must be taken. If a recipient prefers their fiction with a straightforward narrative line, more experimental authors or books are usually avoided.

3.) If a book has been adapted to film - unless the film has not been well received or widely seen - it is eliminated from consideration. That is, no one will get "Brooklyn" (Colm Toibin) as a gift from me although "Serena" (Ron Rash) remains a possibility, especially since it fits #1 above, and it's perfect for the fiction readers in my family who enjoy a straightforward narrative line.

I'm afraid there is more. Try to imagine my turmoil in a book store. Anyone out there relate at all? How often does your intense love of something complicate your decision making?

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Book Club Scorecard

Although my sixth year as a serial book club surfer was a mixed bag - and I haven't yet re-captured the magic of the first club I ever joined back in 2010 - I continue hanging in there.

Still, my record for longevity in any club is about two and a third years. So recently hearing about my local librarian's private club - together for over twenty years - I began wondering. Those of you who have been in any one club for more than five years, what sustains your involvement? The discussions? Camaraderie? Moderator? Selections? Proximity to your home? Wine? The absence of men?

I've been around long enough to experience the predictable life cycles of many types of groups. And my standards for book club involvement - frequently centering on the selections - probably interfere with my enjoyment and, in turn, how long I remain. But that conversation with my librarian about her all women's club also started me reflecting on the impact being the only man in most of my clubs might have on any group dynamic.

For now, I've settled on two strategies: 1.) A 2016 vs. 2015 comparison. In 2015, three clubs bit the dust and one was added. If I can't improve on that scorecard in 2016, it may be time to start my own club in 2017. 2.) I'm also going to pay more attention to how my participation might affect the group dynamic at meetings. Giving that second piece more focus could easily have a positive effect in other domains of my life, especially my conversations. As always, I'm interested in your view on my strategies and your experiences.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

More Than Halfway

Although it's been many years since I've aligned myself with any religious tradition, each has teachings and concepts that continue to resonate with me, for better or worse. With respect to the seven deadly sins, it's possible an early heavy dose of guilt - the Irish Catholic strain - partially explains why some of those unlucky seven pop up now and again in my reflections.

Lest you dread a post wallowing in self-flagellation - a quaint religious custom, no? - let me start with this: Had David Fincher featured my proportion of the deadly sins in his gruesome film "7even", the movie would have been less than half as long. No need for stomach-churning depictions of avarice, gluttony, lust, and sloth in my film. Your turn - Which of those four ever give you pause?

Now anger, envy & pride? Best to start alphabetically and perhaps save a few for another post. First off -  no disrespect to Christian dogma - anger can be an issue, especially when physically directed at others, but it also has its place. A healthy anger directed at injustice or intolerance is not a sin in my mind. That said, because my anger is more likely to be directed at myself, this deadly sin has clear health-related - vs. heaven-related - ramifications, at least for me. How about you? Is working on your anger, whether it manifests in an inward or outward fashion, a growth edge for you?

So, with a batting average above .500, am I more than halfway to the pearly gates? Is that George Burns or ... Morgan Freeman I see?

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fridays With Sisyphus & I

To the few regular readers who have spent as much time as I with horse manure - you're on safe ground. All other regular readers - weirdness alert. New readers stumbling onto today's reflection - my stuff is rarely scatological and usually not this lowbrow; honest. But poop aside, I won't be as embarrassed going on record with this crap if at least one reader - old or new - tells me where their brain travels when involved with any smelly task as repetitive as mucking. Zen masters: Please, no shit about mindfulness.

The upside to mucking a paddock: It's near impossible for someone to question your thoroughness.

The downside: Your sense of closure is never longer than any one horse's digestive cycle. 

I'm especially interested in knowing how a perfectionist thinks they would handle my stinky dilemma.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Cap & Gown Optional

After almost four years evaluating myself on forty one attributes for a series I named "My Grade (So Far)", it's graduation time. I began by giving myself a "C" for ambition in February 2012 and ended with a "B" for vulnerability this September. Nearly every month in between I asked folks to consider the dictionary-defined attribute and then join me by giving themselves a grade. Though not many chimed in publicly, some folks told me offline the long running exercise in self-scrutiny was helpful to them, grades notwithstanding. Good enough.

Reviewing all my grades - easy to do with the handy search feature of blogger - I noticed a few that might already require adjusting; a future post or two perhaps? For anyone who tried the exercise even once, I'd be curious to know what - if anything - has shifted for you or what has remained constant. I'm most proud of how I continue to deserve my "A" for loyalty (October, 2012). On the other side, my "C-" for generosity (July, 2012), and C's for both wisdom (July, 2014) and flexibility (May, 2015) remain developmental priorities. For my worst grade - a "D+" for panache (February, 2014) - I'm leaving well enough alone - old dog, new tricks, etc.

Even doing the rough math in my head, it's clear I didn't make Dean's list. But I'm keeping my final grade point average to myself and unless one of you goes first, I'm also skipping giving myself a grade for pride. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Dunderhead Effect

Very soon after a rock or popular artist takes the concert stage, I suddenly remember why the whole experience is often not as enjoyable as going to a jazz concert or a symphony. Do the dunderheads yelling requests at rock shows never listen to anything but the hits? More significantly, why are they yelling in the first place?

Like many things, I suspect the answer lies in mathematics. Rock music is vastly more popular than either jazz or what is frequently called classical music. More people = more dunderheads. This observation is supported when I stop and contrast my own earlier years playing rock n' roll and popular music to my current situation playing jazz. With a few magical exceptions, most audiences I've entertained have been equally inattentive but, there is no comparison in the dunderhead factor. Or discard the experience of Pat the unknown and go see a well known recording artist in a smaller music venue, like a supper club. Then compare the behavior of these different audiences and tell me what you observe.

Part of the joy of rock and much popular music is its energy; jazz and classical music can seem more cerebral, especially to the uninitiated. It's possible that energy contributes to the Id-like enthusiasm simulating dunderheadism at rock concerts. But understanding the impulse doesn't diminish my annoyance. And over the years, the cumulative effect has been to discourage me from going to live shows of many performers whose music has meant a great deal to me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Saving The Best For Last

Thanks to those who have asked about progress on my current recording project, the first in a long time. Because I'm using a friend's home studio, a completion date is hard to pin down but the final result will be available through this blog site so stay tuned.  

In the meanwhile, it's exhilarating to be working on my own music again. On more than one day while recording, I've felt my creativity surge. In addition, memorizing all those songs by great composers like George Gershwin and Thelonious Monk over the last five years has clearly helped me mature as a songwriter and arranger. To what was your most recent creative surge connected?  

After the tracks are complete, then my daughter comes to the studio to add vocals. Nothing beats saving the best for last.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Lana & Alan & I

Of the procrastination techniques I've devised to deflect my numerous attempts at long form writing, one of the most effective is perpetual indecision about names I'll use for couples. Toiling at the keyboard, some pairings of names just snap when said aloud while others fall flat. For instance, how could anyone discount the fictional palindromic coupling of Otto and Ava?  To avoid directly disrespecting any family or friends, I'll instead cite the ubiquitous Brad and Angelina as an example of a serious syllabic mismatch I won't be using in my literary masterpiece. That glamorous duet may have pizzazz but I'm sorry, their names do not pop when said or read as a pair. Now Rebecca and Sebastian, Eve & Paul, Penelope and Alexander? Different story.

Try this experiment. Write a limerick and see if two names you'd consider using in a Great American Novel like mine have a pleasing rhythmic bounce in any verse you create. (Or, if you're feeling brave, try it with your name and your partner's.) If the names you selected do not sing together, they're not good enough. I've spent time fussing about whether reducing William to Bill and Barbara to Barb will provide the needed lift to an unfinished passage about that couple. I've also given too much thought to whether nicknames will help both my cadences and my story. If readers are to later warm to Mildred and Rudolph as my opus unfolds, mustn't they slowly become Millie and Rudy? Nice ring, right? When the ready-made pun name Matt (as in "What is the name of the guy who lies on the floor near the front door?") felt right for one of my characters, the remaining half of that duo was named Art briefly until I came to my senses.

Try, if you dare, to imagine how this goes when an androgynous name like Terry sounds good as 50% of a partnership to this insecure blogger with big dreams. It may be time for me to be satisfied with one perfectly named couple and let go of the rest. What do you say, Lana & Alan? Ready for your close up?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Dare I Attempt Three For Three?

I can't remember the last time I thoroughly enjoyed back-to-back movie adaptations of books I've also enjoyed. When was the last time this happened for you?

On the face of it, of the two recent films, "The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared" - based on Jonas Jonasson's delightful 2009 novel - would seem to have a more inherently cinematic plot. It's basically a wacky road trip featuring the eponymous man - along with three eccentric companions (if you don't include Sonja, the elephant) - running from some dimwitted goons. But aside from admirably handling the substantial comedic elements of the novel, the filmmakers also did a great job relating the twisted backstory of the 100 year old's eventful life, sort of like Forrest Gump if Forrest had been a demolitions expert. And, I loved the film being mostly in Jonasson's native tongue - Swedish. Be advised: Ingmar Bergman this ain't.

I approached the adaptation of Colm Toibin's masterful novel "Brooklyn" with more trepidation, primarily because the novel is exceedingly quiet. But Nick Hornby's sensitive screenplay and Saoirise Ronan's nuanced performance as Eilis Lacey quickly won me over. I was especially moved by the scene from the novel when Eilis, desperately homesick, volunteers to serve other recent Irish immigrants in a shelter during her first Christmas in Brooklyn. When one of the men gets up to sing a Gaelic ballad, all of Toibin's luminous prose was appropriately absent; either Hornby or the Director wisely chose to instead do a close-up of Ronan's expressive face - nothing else was needed.

If any of you saw either of these wildly dissimilar - for me equally wonderful - films, let me know your reactions. BTW, I'm even more nervous about seeing "Room" - adapted from Emma Donoghue's harrowing novel - than I was about "Brooklyn". Anyone seen that yet? Dare I attempt the hat trick?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Choir And The Monkey

Books of non-fiction able to disinter my judging monkey are usually wise to avoid. So, if anyone would like to discount my unabashed praise for "Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk In A Digital Age" (2015) by pointing out the irony of a blogger extolling a book with this title, I'll save you the trouble: guilty as charged. Caveat #2: Author Sherry Turkle was - in my case -  clearly preaching to the choir in her scrupulously researched book. And I say this fully aware of the dangers of confirmation bias. But judging, irony, and confirmation bias aside, I sincerely believe our modern era desperately needs to hear the message Turkle delivers here.

"Early on, computers offered the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship and then, as the programs got really good, the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy."

"But human relationships are rich, messy and demanding. When we clean them up with technology, we move from conversation to the efficiency of mere connection."

"Every time you check your phone in company, what you gain is a hint of stimulation, a neurochemical shot, and what you lose is what a friend, teacher, parent, lover, or co-worker just said, meant, or felt."

I could continue citing gems like the above for several screens. I could also insert any number of Turkle's startling statistics. How about this? The average American adult checks their phone once every six and one half minutes. But it makes more sense for those already saying amen to instead read this book and then to gently evangelize on its behalf. As I do so, my biggest challenge will be keeping that judging monkey at bay. Wish me luck.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/09/amen.html

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Public Service Announcment

Since reading David Von Drehle's November 23 cover story for Time magazine entitled "What It Takes To Forgive A Killer", I've been slowly recovering my emotional composure. The link for his extraordinary piece of reporting is at the bottom of this post.

Immediately after reading it, I was uncertain if a second hand blog post extolling the value of Drehle's article would be of much value. Then a new reader recently told me she "...didn't have enough time..." to read many of the books I recommend here and felt "...a little overwhelmed..." with my frequent suggestions. Early today, a light bulb: While this new reader is still paying attention, why not point her toward this exceptional piece, much shorter than a book but so worthwhile?

Both Drehle's name and the subject of his article initially caught my eye. His byline reminded me how much I'd enjoyed and learned from his 2003 book "Triangle: The Fire That Changed America". And, I've been trying to process the Charleston massacre since it occurred. Reading this intense account about "murder, race, and mercy" helped a bit with my processing. It almost felt like having a conversation about that awful event with someone smarter than I.

Now, maybe this puny blog of mine can help sustain that conversation for perhaps one more person.

http://time.com/time-magazine-charleston-shooting-cover-story/

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Mantras And Milk

Of the key gripes President Obama's critics are fond of repeating, the talking heads are perhaps most attached to the "federal over-reach" mantra. I'm sometimes unclear about which government programs people would jettison, given the opportunity. Defense spending? Maintaining the highways? Veteran's benefits? I suspect the answer would differ from person-to-person and largely depend on whose bread is being buttered.

How about the Bureau of Weights and Measures? Federal over-reach? After packing lunch bags at Meals on Wheels for five years, I've developed a good sense of the heft of a half-pint of milk. Consequently, I recently noticed something wasn't right with the milk delivery to our site. We took down the scale and sure enough more than 1/3 of the half-pints were under weight anywhere from a very noticeable four ounces to a barely detectable half an ounce. We called Headquarters to report the discrepancies and asked for replacements.

As the morning proceeded, we asked the drivers to be patient and described the reason for our delay. Everyone understood this could be a machine/computer filling error or it could be intentional under-filling. Some of you may recall a scandal a few years ago involving two Pennsylvania milk companies and the latter scenario. The drivers were patient and also pleased we'd noticed; we're all volunteers there to ensure the homebound people we serve get the proper nutrition. But an innocent mention of the role Weights and Measures can sometimes play in these situations was enough to trigger one driver into chanting the federal over-reach mantra. To his credit, he quickly apologized for turning the milk mishap into a political issue. Though the bad taste this interchange left in my mouth didn't linger long, my reflections on the mantra have continued. Where is that line in the sand for you?

Monday, November 30, 2015

Anne Tyler's World

It's been six years since my last visit to Anne Tyler's quotidian - yet wholly magical - world. Though her 2015 novel  - "A Spool Of Blue Thread" - is of a piece with every Tyler novel I've loved, that did not interfere at all with my enjoyment. Her gifts continue enchanting me.

Set in Baltimore - as most Tyler novels are - the book starts and finishes with Denny, prodigal son of Abby and Red Whitshank. Between those bookends, Tyler masterfully toggles from the Depression to the near present, though not necessarily chronologically. Though Abby and Red's courtship and long marriage form the core of the novel, the story of how Red's parents come together brilliantly showcases Tyler's comedic side. Also, the house Red's parents come to occupy - the same one where Abby and Red later raise Denny and his three siblings - is itself almost a character.

The secrets of the Whitshank family are effortlessly revealed and totally plausible; capital "S" surprises are not Tyler's style. Her unmistakable talent is never turning day-to-day domestic events into drama. And reading Anne Tyler's dialogue is always like eavesdropping on a conversation.

Would welcome hearing from anyone who has ever visited Anne Tyler's world - this novel or any other. Thanks to my youngest sister for recommending and then loaning me the book. What a posse I've got.          

Sunday, November 29, 2015

More Thanksgiving

Since leaving my parents home at twenty one, I've lived alone approximately three years of the past forty five. How does that compare to your experience?

The predominant feeling I have following many of my encounters with people who have lived alone for a significant percentage of their adult lives is gratitude for my good fortune. More notable than the loneliness I detect, these encounters lead me to reflect on what my social skills would be like had most of my life been solitary. Although there's no way to be certain, I suspect the regular feedback I've gotten via living with others for many more years than not has helped me develop at least a modicum of socially acceptable behavior. When did you last consider this particular benefit that living with someone likely provides you?

It can be easy to take for granted the investment others make in us when they provide feedback - it helps us better navigate future interactions. I don't enjoy being corrected or told I have behaved badly any more than the next person. But I also know how not hearing that stuff periodically would guarantee perpetual regret. For me, the temporary discomfort of hearing something unpleasant outweighs repeating avoidable mistakes.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Our Era Of First Fiddlers

Have second fiddles become obsolete?

If you think not, then tell me: Who strikes you as a present day analogue for Dr. Watson or Robin or Ed McMahon? I would submit Sherlock Holmes, Batman and Johnny Carson didn't look over their shoulders the way John Stewart likely did with Stephen Colbert around. I suppose one could argue John Oates fits the criteria for a present day sidekick/second fiddle. But Hall & Oates parted sometime ago and besides - his diminutive carriage and lack of charisma aside - John's name did appear alongside Daryl's and he also got some composing credits. In my mind that eliminates him from being lumped in with Tonto et al.   

In the bad old days, women sometimes were obliged to be Man-Friday-obsequious while their top banana male partner basked in the limelight. But again, from my perspective, 21st century power couples - at least the ubiquitous ones - pretty much share first fiddle. If you've got exceptions, bring them on, provided you keep the Watson/Holmes model (gender aside) in mind. I wonder: Have social media and viral fame made second fiddlers too quaint for our times?

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Parent's Thanksgiving

For most of my life, my indiscriminate movie jones has been a benign - if geeky - hobby.

Still, I've recently re-considered the utility of all the film ephemera this hobby has provided me. Each time my actress daughter and I get into one of our frequent movie conversations, I'm increasingly grateful for the celluloid archive residing in my addled brain. Who could have predicted my lifelong movie geekhood would lead to yet another strong bond between she and I? Where in your life have you seen such a clear demonstration of the law of unintended consequences? 

Truth be told, when considering the way my three passions - music, film, and reading - align with my young adult daughter, every day is Thanksgiving for me. She has an exceptional singing voice - accompanying her is an indescribable thrill; she loves film as much as I - it's so much fun to dissect performances and the approach each of our favorite directors take; she's growing into a discerning reader - at present she is enjoying Celeste Ng's 2014 novel "Everything I Never Told You", a book that knocked me out. I've loved being a parent from day one; it just keeps getting better.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Ministry Of Silly Hats

What strategies do you use to avoid taking yourself too seriously?

Those of you on the bell curve more emotionally evolved than I may not be compelled to respond to this question. Still, somehow I doubt I'm unique in needing to periodically remind myself to get off my high horse. For several years my most reliable go-to strategy has involved the use of props, the sillier the better.

Clown noses, fake glasses/nose combos, and Groucho eyebrows are all pretty dependable. And ridiculous hats work wonders for me. Wearing a turkey hat while driving is a near-foolproof method for minimizing my mild tendency toward road aggression. Early today a man spotting my fowl headgear asked if he could " ... have a leg ... " When I told him I was a vegetarian and he was welcome to both, his laugh echoed across the bank parking lot. Gotta love that. What props have you used?

Props don't work for you? Fair enough, then what does?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Reading Rapture

Had I read the back cover blurbs on "All The Light We Cannot See" before finishing it, it's possible my impression of Anthony Doerr's remarkable 2014 novel could have been unduly influenced. This is especially so in this case because I've enjoyed each of the authors who justifiably praised Doerr's panoramic yet intimate book. I've even written a blog post about all four blurbers - Abraham Verghese ("Cutting For Stone"), J.R. Moehringer ("The Tender Bar"), Jess Walter ("Beautiful Ruins") and M.L. Stedman ("The Light Between Oceans").

But I'm pleased to have not noticed the glowing words of that talented group until after "All The Light We Cannot See" utterly transported me; I arrived at my reading rapture honestly. Though I have a reasonably good attention span, it's not unusual for me to fall out of the spell a few times in novels exceeding 500 pages, no matter how rich. This book had me beginning to end. The sweep of the tale is thrilling, the prose is gorgeous, the architecture Doerr constructed is startling but accessible - a peak reading experience.

And the two main characters - a young French girl named Marie Laure and Werner, a German soldier around the same age - are perfectly realized. Though they don't know each other, their lives magically intersect throughout the book. As their only meeting, WWII and the novel draw to a close, Doerr's mastery is on full display; his command of this material is stunning. Please let me know if you read this book. Discussing it with a discerning reader is the best way I know to extend my reading rapture.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Key Learnings: Year 66

How often do you stop to consider the key things you've recently learned? This post marks the fifth time I've done so on my birthday. I'm very glad I started this back in 2011.

* This past year I learned how to use my memory to better serve my music. Instead of being so pre-occupied with what eludes me musically, I've learned to appreciate how my strong memory helps me grow.

* I added a new mantra to my meditation practice: Make it new. These simple words focus me remarkably well.

* A NY Times book review contributor named Leslie Jamison, describing herself as a writer said  "...it is an identity category I define by sustained commitment rather than publication..." Reading Jamison's statement raised the hairs on the back of my neck and provided me with a profound key learning. Though at times I've done other things to support myself and my family, my sustained commitment to music - and writing - have never wavered. So even when my livelihood was otherwise, being a musician - and a writer - has been my identity.

Birthdays aside, I'd enjoy hearing some of your recent key learnings.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Goal For Year 67

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/11/goal-for-year-62.html

Since publicly declaring it here on the day before my 62nd birthday in 2011, I've steadily chipped away at the goal stated in the post above. Although that first goal turned out to be wildly unrealistic for a year, I am proud to say I'm currently up to 185 fully memorized tunes - only 115 to go.    

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/11/goal-for-year-65.html

Now on the day before my 65th birthday one year ago, I wisely got much more modest than in years past. Having reached last year's goal - and the party was a huge success, thanks for asking - my four year batting average now stands at .333 (two goals reached out of six goals set) - Ted Williams territory. For those who said they would join me last November, please let me and others know how you did with your goal.

As a goal for year 67, something numerological seems appropriate. Watch 67% fewer movies? Drive the entire length of Route 66 and then walk a mile? Average 67 miles per week on my bicycle? Get the number of bell curve believers up to 67? Wait 67 days from today to announce the goal for year 67?          

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Gift From My Dad

When a friend recently shared his turmoil attending to his late mother's estate, I was relieved our conversation wasn't very long. As my friend spoke I perched on an emotional edge, trying to remain empathic about his pain while simultaneously recalling my own experience as executor of my father's will eighteen years ago. Soon after that conversation, I felt compelled to take a nap.

When I woke, those memories were still surprisingly raw. What I most vividly remembered was the odd ambivalence I felt over those few months. Each time a new task related to Dad's estate needed my attention, I was glad doing it because it kept him in my thoughts. And then, in nearly the same moment, I was profoundly sad because everything I was doing re-confirmed he was truly gone.

In the end, I'm pleased Dad chose me to put his affairs in order. Though as the oldest I was the logical choice, it also felt like a final affirmation of his trust in me. He was always very good at making me feel worthy of that trust.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mr. Id's First Visit To Facebook (w/ethnic pets)

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/12/mr-id-food-ethnocentrist.html

When Mr. Id published the post above in December 2011 - suggesting ethnic restaurants were best served when chefs are of the advertised ethnicity - he got some flak. Although not persuaded that his position on the cuisine/chef match was without merit, the mild censure Mr. Id received at that time chastened him enough to steer clear of ethnic issues, until recently.

But Mr. Id's dormant ethnocentrism was jolted awake when a friend revealed the name of her new German Shepherd puppy. Fritz? Gertrude? Rudolf? None of the above - Rusty! Where do you stand on this ethnic mismatch? If you own a Persian cat, don't you owe it to the feline's cultural heritage to give it an appropriate moniker? Put another way, is Tabby going to ring as true to your kitty as Gita or Jamal or Khalil?

Just thinking of some of the possibilities makes Mr. Id shudder. A Great Dane with an Asian name? A French poodle with a German handle? The certain identity crisis of a Guinea pig saddled with Todd or Courtney or something similarly WASPY? When will this madness end? Mr. Id implores pet owners: For the psychological well-being of your Chihuahuas, your Irish setters, your English bloodhounds, please tread carefully.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Still On The Balance Beam

The dictionary has over twenty five definitions for the word balance. But none of those definitions really get to the core of my reflections when I consider the balance in my own life.

The more I explore the concept of balance - probably the subject or subtext for dozens of posts since the inception of my blog - the more the fitting it seems that the word has so many definitions. There are so many competing impulses each of us try keeping in balance. Work/play; planning/spontaneity; privacy/transparency; etc. Which balancing act is currently bedeviling you?

My current struggle is one that sits near the doing/being balance beam, i.e. accomplishing/relaxing aka producing/chilling. This is not a balance issue I envisioned I'd be having almost six years after leaving the world of full time work. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Which Gilded Age?

"Was it not them who were buying legislatures, cutting wages, and getting a great deal richer than was right or good for any mortal man in a free, democratic country?"

That sentence is near the end of "The Johnstown Flood" (1968) by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough. Reading it, is anyone else struck by the parallel to our current reality? I was, although the sentence is referring to the culpability of several wealthy industrialists for an 1889 disaster that claimed over 2000 lives. Those Gilded Age golden boys escaped totally unscathed. Ring any bells?

McCullough is less polemic than I and, as always, his writing is balanced yet incisive. In his excellent account, he points out many factors - including a shortsighted belief that nature will act according to plan (sound familiar, again?) - that contributed to this wholly preventable tragedy. And he skillfully profiles the others - aside from the fat cats - who acted irresponsibly as well as the many who acted heroically while the flood decimated most of what was in its path.      

As perturbed as I got with parallels to our own Gilded Age and our deranged hubris intervening with nature, damn the consequences, that is not what will most remain with me, rant aside. What I'll remember are the individual stories of the citizens of Johnstown - victims and survivors alike - that McCullough skillfully weaves into his narrative. For that reason, I feel confident saying those of you who enjoyed "Zeitoun" (2009), Dave Eggers' non-fiction account of Hurricane Katrina, "The Johnstown Flood" is a pretty safe bet.     

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Musical Fusion In A Perfect Setting

Much as I adore music, days as musically rich as today are still unusual.

First was an exquisite set by the TS Monk Sextet. Few experiences can match the exhilaration I feel listening to jazz musicians of this caliber. What gives you this kind of rush?

Then, a few hours later, I listened to the NJ All State High School Choir and Orchestra and got pulled into a different musical spell. The well rehearsed pieces performed by these young folks were far removed from the improvised magic of the TS Monk Sextet. But imagining all those talented youngsters growing into ambassadors for music energized and inspired me. As the orchestra concluded a stunning twenty-five minute piece - music from Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" score - I wept. The musical past fusing with musicians of the future.

And both shows took place at arguably the finest venue on the East Coast - the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ. If you're a music fan and New Jersey resident and have never seen a show at NJPAC, you owe it to yourself to get there soon. You will not be disappointed.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

#37: The Mt. Rushmore Series

How's this for a twist? Which four non-American leaders would you enshrine on this 37th iteration of Mt. Rushmore? Though none of my choices were without flaws, each one deserves veneration for their significant impact.

1.) Winston Churchill: Although he could be wrongheaded - think of his posture toward an independent India - Churchill's leadership during WWII still inspires.

2.) Mikhail Gorbachev:  Considering his political career coincided with the zenith of the Cold War, Gorbachev's dismantling of the USSR - and the subsequent easing of tensions with the US - earns him a spot on my mountain.

3.) Nelson Mandela: Truth and reconciliation. If you'd been imprisoned as long as Mandela was, would you have spent the remainder of your life building a political legacy on those words?

4.) Anwar Sadat: Like other visionaries, Sadat paid the ultimate price for swimming against the tide. As hopeless as the Mideast can feel at times, had Sadat never lived, envision what it might be like today.

And on your mountain? Although Gandhi is noticeably missing from mine, his absence is a technicality because he never held political office, elected or otherwise. Maybe a future Mt. Rushmore?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Imagine

Like me, I'm sure many of you have indulged in that harmless mental exercise where you imagine how history would have been improved had some irredeemably evil person (Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, etc.) never been born. Join me today in a more positive fantasy about changing history.

If you had the power to do so, which hard-to-dispute marker of mankind's progress would you move back in time so that the benefits could be enjoyed sooner?

My own bias leads me to nominate the invention of the printing press. Imagine with me how many people would have had vastly improved lives if they'd had access to the information contained in books. Imagine how many later missteps could have been avoided if all mankind - instead of just the clergy and very wealthy elite - was reading widely and being educated much sooner in history. Imagine.

I'm curious - and I suspect readers of my blog will be as well - to hear your revised version of history.    

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It's A Wonderful World

Is there any place in the world you have no interest in exploring?

As each year draws to a close, my wife and I discuss which places on our ever-expanding list we'd like to visit. Following one of our recent 2016 planning conversations, I realized there are very few places I'd reject out of hand.

I do have one guideline that helps keep my list manageable. Despite the allure some countries offer, I'm not interested in putting myself in harm's way. So, if a stable government has not been in place for at least ten years in an otherwise interesting country, I can wait, thank you. I appreciate and admire journalists who report on and photograph these places; their courage assists and humbles me in equal measure.

But aside from that guideline, my interest ranges from places it would be nice to see, to places I want to see, to places I really want to see, to places I really really want to see. There is no place on the other side of the equation. You?  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Where Did I Put Those Darn Bootstraps?

privilege: a right, immunity or benefit enjoyed by a particular person or restricted group of persons.

When you were growing up, did your parents discuss privilege with you? What do you recall about those discussions?

My parents were decent hard working people, committed to their four children. If they ever discussed privilege with us, I don't recall it. And though neither of them are around to support or refute it, my guess would be they'd both have had trouble seeing themselves as privileged, given our day-to-day economic situation. But economics is only part of the story of privilege.

Raising our daughter, my wife and I were unified in our approach to this subject. We regularly emphasized to her how privileged our family was - economically, racially, culturally. It was important to us that our daughter grow up knowing the benefits her privilege - in all its permutations - conferred upon her.

Now, I've started a post about this subject several times since the inception of my blog. Cowardice and my need for approval prevented me from publishing until ... along came another bootstraps story, bravado and cultural myopia tossed in, no charge. Heard one of those tall tales lately? I can easily spot them; they were once part of my own legend. I'm just grateful I recognized my own privilege and dropped the bootstraps malarkey before becoming a parent.  

                

Monday, November 9, 2015

Four For Four

At this point in my life, the highest praise I can bestow on an author is to spend any of my remaining precious reading time returning to their work. Since first being exposed to Colm Toibin five years ago via his novel "Brooklyn" - just released as a film starring Saoirse Ronan - I've returned three more times. And each time I've been knocked out.

In "The Master" (2004) Toibin delivered me into the private world of author Henry James. Although my familiarity with the novels and stories of James is not very deep, several of my Great Courses CD series cover his work in some detail. Having recently listened to a few of those I was better able to follow the references to seminal James' characters like Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer that Toibin expertly weaves into his narrative.

But even without that background, "The Master" is so rich and nuanced. "He was ready to listen, always ready to do that, but not prepared to reveal the mind at work, the imagination, or the depth of feeling." "...he also wanted to keep the past to himself, a prized and private possession." "...how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost..." Toibin's books ache with longing.

This novel came most vividly alive for me in the passages where Toibin describes the friendship between James and Constance Fenimore Woolson, another esteemed and intensely interior 19th century author. "He was not allowed to pity her, nor was he allowed to know her fully, except as a set of passionate contradictions underlined by two essential truths: she was immensely clever and she was lonely." If any of you have spent time with Colm Toibin's work, I'd enjoy hearing about it. To me, he is a treasure.        

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wait ... Wait .... Wait

How skilled are you at postponing gratification? Who or what helped you develop the skill? How has the value of postponing gratification shown up in your life? 

It's likely the most formative link in my ability to postpone gratification was having parents who lived through the Great Depression. One of my earliest memories is hearing my folks continually stress the importance of  "saving for a rainy day". Even though I subsequently overdid the saving bit a little - sometimes not fully enjoying what I'd earned - it would have been a whole lot worse had I ignored my parent's early guidance and not learned the value of postponing gratification. How effective was the earliest modeling you got in this skill?

And though I didn't start out learning to play a musical instrument thinking it would help fortify this skill, that is precisely what happened. The intrinsic rewards connected to all those hours of solitary practice were never quite adequate for young adult Pat. The extrinsic rewards - when there were any - were far removed from those solitary hours. Net result: More skill at postponing gratification.  

At almost 66, I now understand that my increasing skill at postponing gratification assisted me countless times to push through my frustration - itself an inescapable element of getting better at any instrument. It would be difficult to over-state how valuable that lesson has been for me.   

Friday, November 6, 2015

SEE IT HERE - DOGS & CATS ICING THE PUCK!!

Regular readers: Feel free to bypass this post. File it under: Shameless self & family promotion.

Animal lovers & sports fans: Please continue reading.

Animal lovers - Even though the highlight promised in the post title is completely bogus, I do have something to tantalize you into periodically visiting my blog, while shamelessly & simultaneously promoting my daughter's career. With a partner, my daughter produces, writes and directs brief clips for a service called "Barkbox" - really. The clip in the link directly below is one of the best from the series.

https://www.facebook.com/barkbox/videos/vl.1648727132077693/921245681244817/?type=1&theater

Sports fans - Although I have already unsuccessfully tried enticing you with no less than four earlier posts - each containing a stunning sports-related metaphor -  I'm not yet ready to throw in the towel. We may be in the home stretch vis-a-vis my sniveling attempts to woo you but it ain't over til it's over. And even if I strike out again today, there's no penalty for icing an imaginary puck, right?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats

What percentage of the novels you've finished over the last three years have deepened your experience of living?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/search?q=Deepening+The+Experience+Of+Living

Since first being exposed to that phrase, I've used it as model. Three years on, I'd estimate about 20% of the novels I've finished have met that bar. Some of them, like the exceptional book cited in my November 4 2012 post above - Jaimy Gordon's "The Lord of Misrule" - did so by exposing me to an unfamiliar world. And others - like "The Art Of Hearing Heartbeats" (Jan-Philip Sendker - 2002) - did so by re-familiarizing me with the fundamentals we all share - the need to love and be loved, the mysteries of the human heart, the balancing act that is life.

Sendker's book is not perfect. Parts of it tug a little too much at the heart, the short chapters can be a bit episodic and the central surprise is not hard to see coming - all minor quibbles. The prose is assured, Tin Win's backstory and his daughter Julia's growing understanding of the forces that shaped her father are skillfully depicted, and two of the chapters near the end featuring Tin Win and Mi Mi are deeply moving yet beautifully understated.

When any of you read this gem, please let me know how your experience of life has deepened.     

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Request For A Gentle Push

Why do you think the overwhelming majority of book club participants are women?

Before attending my first book club meeting in 2010, I anticipated I'd be in the minority. But I did not anticipate how few men I'd ever see. And any men I've regularly seen - with one exception - have been at the meetings with wives or partners. Over five years, eighteen clubs, more than one hundred meetings, only one book - "Founding Brothers" (Joseph Ellis) - attracted two men aside from myself. I clearly recall that meeting and the book discussed because it was such a notable exception.

My wife has suggested I start my own club, see if I can attract some guys. It's not clear to me why I've so far resisted her reasonable suggestion. What's the worst that can happen, right? If there are any guys out there on the bell curve who enjoy a book club, please tell me what appeals to you. Maybe your input will be the gentle push that propels me to the next step.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Counting Before Publishing

Whenever capturing a kernel in my blog notebook that has potential to later put me on my high horse as I compose a post, I frequently add an admonishment right alongside the kernel. Of late, the one that seems to work best is  "Be careful, Pat".  Kind of the written equivalent of counting to ten before opening my mouth.

When e-mail first became popular, I recall once being instructed not to send anything written while angry or otherwise upset. And it's possible that instruction contributes to my self-admonishments. But even if there is no connection, being more deliberate before publishing 1200 blog posts has had some unintended and welcome consequences in my face-to-face interactions. I'm both more tactful and marginally less judgmental than I was five years ago.

Though no one is likely to mistake me for a Zen master, it's gratifying to feel myself growing. So, I plan to continue being careful.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

One Year, Ten Favorites, Three Surprises

While recently compiling a requested list of ten favorite books finished over the past year, it suddenly dawned on me why these lists usually bedevil me - the requested parameters are often not narrow enough. I raced through this recent request because deciding on ten top books from a single year is cake compared to the dreaded but oft-requested "all time favorite" list of books, recordings, or films. And when a requester combines the "all time" nonsense with a large number, my head throbs. Those "1001 (fill in the blank) You Must (Read, Hear, See, Visit, Eat, Genuflect To) Before You Die" books all have a team of contributors, for crying out loud. Have mercy on an approval-seeking, semi-obsessive list making, takes-requests-like-this-way-too-serious solo blogger, I want to cry.

Do any of your lists ever have titles? If yes, read on. If no, this might be a good time to sign off the bell curve. This latest list of mine - and remember, it was requested - is called "Top Ten: 11/1/14 - 10/31/15". Six of the titles came to me without even glancing at my book journal, a sure sign a book is destined to stay with me; for the remaining four I consulted my journal. Surprise #1: Only one non-fiction title made the list - "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" (Jill Lepore). Also, aside from Colm Toibin - whose luminous "Nora Webster" is one of the nine novels - all the other authors are new to me. That partially explains surprise #2:  All ten books are 21st century titles; the oldest on the list is "Home" (2008) by Marilyne Robinson.

Surprise #3: "The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox" (Maggie O'Farrell) did not make the top ten for this period. Considering how O'Farrell's book moved me, this was obviously a good year. Please don't spoil the pleasure and closure I derived from this narrowly delineated assignment by asking which of the ten is my favorite, OK?

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Carlinisms, Cont.

With a nod to the late great George Carlin, I've got some questions for you, beginning with a holiday appropriate one: If a prostitute came to your door today, how would you respond to the Halloween expression "Trick or treat?" Just asking.

George and I also want to know - The last time you had mahi mahi did you have couscous as a side? While on that same subject, what would you call a defective yo-yo? A no-yo? Just a plain old yo? How come the cha-cha is not called the cha-cha-cha since there are three quick steps in the dance? And, if you only do half the steps are you doing the cha?  Is a group of dodos learning karate called a dodo dojo? If you eat M&M's upside down are you eating W&W's?

Now about those ruby slippers. If Dorothy clicked her heels and she was instead wearing cowboy boots, where would she have landed? How about pumps? Sandals? Do sandals click? Would she have ever gotten out of Oz if all she'd had were flip flops?

Got any Carlinisms you'd like to share?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

An Up Close And Personal Chicken & Egg

Pretend you're a casting agent. Which actor or actress would most challenge you with respect to typecasting? That is, which role is so clearly tied to a specific acting performance in your mind that you have trouble seeing the actor playing anything else?

This inconsequential dilemma began when my wife and I happened to see Henry Winkler interviewed in a recent documentary about Robin Williams. Our subsequent conversation about typecasting - can anyone see Henry Winkler as anything but the Fonz? - sent me into a chicken/egg loop, movie geek version. As I briefly pondered Winkler's post-Fonz fate, I reflected. Did that iconic role forever typecast Winkler? Or, were his skills as an actor not able to transcend the role? Which comes first? And, not insignificantly, how much do the people handling the careers of actors have to do with this trap that can ensnare otherwise talented people? Like say, Anthony Perkins?

When I hit the final question in this particular chicken/egg deal, the reflection was no longer inconsequential; now it was personal. My daughter is an actress.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ralph To The Rescue

What was the last really thorny moral dilemma you faced? Who or what did you turn to for assistance?

Though I'm not Christian, I've often found the practice of asking myself  "What would Jesus do?" a useful tool in these situations. And I've also found it useful to substitute the names of others into that formulation periodically. Though my intent is not blasphemous, I am curious to know who you could readily insert into that question if faced with this kind of dilemma.

I'm guessing many folks turn to other religious or spiritual figures, regardless of the particular faith those folks follow. All religious scripture has astute guidance on navigating these circumstances. My most recent quandary had me consulting Emerson, probably the lay person who has most assisted me. A collection of his essays occupies the same book shelf as my well worn bible. I suspect Emerson's early career as a minister has something to do with the solace I invariably get from his words.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Alchemy Vs. Education

Without question, the biggest challenge I face developing classes on music is what will end up being on the playlists. Doesn't matter if it's a brief presentation or multi-day course, it's exquisite torture every time.

I've also observed that as soon as my playlist falls into place, alchemy occurs. Unfortunately, that pushes up against my training as an educator. I was always instructed that content - a playlist would fall under that heading - should flow from teaching objectives, not the other way around. And though it's likely those objectives are in my head  - even as I'm combing through my collection, trolling I-tunes and soliciting input from others for the playlist - if I haven't written them, well, they're not real objectives then are they? Meanwhile, precious time ticks away as I try extracting my rule-bound head from an otherwise enjoyable process.

In the end, the torture, the alchemy - even the confounded objectives - bring me such joy that raising the issue feels a bit churlish. Maybe if someone else on the bell curve told me they've ever struggled with a tension between alchemy and education, I'd feel better?

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Nomads Vs. The Rooted

Which two US States have the highest percentage of people not born in those same States? Which two have the highest percentage who were born in the States where they reside?

Although I'm certain this data is readily available - I did not Google it -  I'm equally certain the curious among us have a better than even shot getting at least one State right for each question without a research grant. This is not a trivia contest; I've been reflecting on it since my recent Road Scholars trip and wondered what your experience tells you. Counting the almost forty participants - and the two guides in the first National Park - nineteen States were represented on that trip. Over the two weeks, I made sure to find out which of these folks were nomads - i.e. those fitting the first question posed - vs. rooted. Nerdy, right? But I've found few conversational gambits as reliable as this one.

I'll go first - surprise, right? - but I'm looking forward to your non-researched guesses. Top two nomad States = California & Florida. Top two rooted States = Oklahoma & West Virginia. Full disclosure: My wife's family is from West Virginia and my totally non-scientific guess is partially based on that infinitesimal sample and the rooted-ness therein. But, I further grounded my guess when the West Virginia couple from my Road Scholar trip told me they were indeed both born in almost heaven. And I didn't have to sing John Denver's song - they knew exactly what I meant.

Come on, even folks who complain the questions in my blog make their head hurt can jump in the pool on this, no? Just promise you won't cheat - that will upset this rooted blogger.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Lesson From Freddie

"Being a writer is always about being a reader first." Matt Bell

I'm usually not fond of absolutes. But for me, the "always" in that sentence above is beyond dispute. And in my experience, replacing the words "writer" and "reader" with "musician" and "listener" does not alter the fundamental truth of the sentence one bit. Although I'd enjoy hearing from writers or musicians on either Bell's formulation or my corollary, I'm equally interested in anyone's views on this subject.

Without fail, each time I think I've been exposed to the "best" version of a particular great song, someone upends my expectations. Most recently, for the first time, I heard Freddie Hubbard play the majestic Jimmy Van Heusen composition called "But Beautiful" - oh...my...goodness. I've often fantasized that in my next musical life, I'd learn trumpet. Maybe doing that would allow me to mimic Hubbard's exquisite phrasing on Van Heusen's great tune, or capture the tone Miles Davis gets on "My Funny Valentine", or copy a few of Woody Shaw's phrases of improvised magic from his take on "It Might As Well Be Spring". What a musical life that would be.

Fantasy aside, I'll settle for using the lessons all three performances of these timeless songs have taught me in my continuing evolution as a jazz guitarist. In addition, I'll continue listening and reading until I become the best musician and writer I can be.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Rationalizing Those Rational Lies

rationalize: to ascribe (one's acts, opinions, etc.) to causes that seem valid but are actually not the true, possibly unconscious causes.

Ever notice the similarity/connection between the psychological expression rationalize and the two words rational lies? Yeah that's about the story for me when it comes to the amount of time I've spent watching movies in my life. My latest neat rationalization started something like this.

Before going to see Steven Spielberg's latest film - "Bridge of Spies" - I made sure it had its share of bona fides. Based on actual events - cue the "I'm learning history" rationalization - and a Director and star (Tom Hanks) with politics that match mine. Consequently, the story being told would likely lend itself neatly to a tasty dose of confirmation bias. So far, so good. But those things alone would not have been enough if I couldn't also tell myself I'd extracted something of longer lasting value from another two hours spent on my butt. And that's where a rational lie comes in handy.

Throughout the film, the Russian spy Rudolf Abel - a stunning performance by Mark Rylance - when asked if he is worried or nervous about the events unfolding as he is arrested, convicted and sentenced to jail, responds "Would it help if I were?" I've decided that if here on in I use this simple but effective phrase to help me cope better, then my time was well spent. Was your last rationalization as well constructed as that one? I'm available for lessons, if anyone is interested.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Curiosity, Not Narcissism (An Experiment)

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/07/my-glass-half-full-experiment.html

I was gratified and chastened when a reader asked for the update mentioned in my July 19 post above; I'd forgotten I made the promise to report back on this experiment after three months.

Of the twelve people I interviewed to ask my question "Which trait of mine do you think most attracts others?", 33% of the responses matched the trait I'd predicted - my energy. And though none of the responses from the other eight people surprised me, the fact that no other one answer was duplicated did. Did anyone else - aside from the reader who asked for this update and also told me her results - try the experiment with us? Did any of the answers match what you thought people would say? Any surprises?

If you decided - as I suggested you could in the original post - to replace the word "attracts" with "repels" in your question, I'm equally curious to know the results. I plan to continue the experiment and hope you'll join me. No more promises about when my next update will be.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It Was A Very Good Choice

When a college where I teach part time decided their New Jersey themed program needed a music component, they asked me which Jersey boy I'd like to feature in my 90 minute segment - Sinatra or Springsteen? I, of course, gave way too much thought to my answer.

Many of the songs Sinatra sang during his remarkable career have been mainstays of my guitar repertoire for almost 30 years. "All Of Me", "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning", "Night And Day" and many more are now deeply woven into my musical fabric. Sinatra's song choices were nearly impeccable and he was a superb craftsman who acknowledged a musical debt to Billie Holiday. His legacy is secure.
 
The date of Springsteen's birth and mine are exactly two months apart. We both grew up playing in bar bands across NJ. Although the last full length Springsteen recording I bought was released in 1992, I never fully stopped listening to him; one of the last "new" songs I learned and then sang with a band was "Streets of Philadelphia" and for my money "The Rising" (2002) stands tall alongside his earlier work. His shows are deservedly legendary, his anthems powerful, and he is a ferocious, if underrated guitarist.

"These songs completed a circle, bringing me back to 1978 and the inspiration I  got from 'The Grapes of Wrath'. Their skin was darker and their language had changed but these people were trapped by the same brutal circumstances."  I'd already told the college my decision and started the development of my presentation long before I came across that Springsteen statement in "Songs", a 1998 collection of his lyrics from 1973-1995. What Bruce said - as a description of how he came to write "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" in 1995 - simply confirmed I'd made a very good choice.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Act Three

Each time I settle on a useful metaphor for where I am in life, something better occurs to me. Although I suspect I've got less company on the bell curve than usual this time, I'm also reasonably certain I'm not alone. So, what metaphor describing the arc of your life has most recently resonated with you?

Of late, Act Three seems most apt for me. Given my age, it's realistic, although not bleak - Act Fours are not unheard of. And there's something majestic about third acts. Big things often happen - think Shakespeare. Of course, metaphors require parameters to be useful. No regular reader will be surprised to learn I have a few.

* Re my passions: In Act Three I'm shooting for listening to music that can help me grow as a musician or lyricist, sampling as many new authors as I can - returning to an old one only if the last book of theirs I read moved me, discriminating more about the films I watch.

* Re conversations: As Act Three proceeds, I'm aiming to speak less, use more pure questions, be mindful of elevating the discourse by avoiding discussions of people and events, concentrating instead on conversations about ideas.

* Re creativity: In my third act, all energy must be aimed at fine tuning my creative voice. In addition, I will make more space for collaboration, something I neglected in Act One & Two.

How about you? Although I've reflected on it, I left out the Act Three parameter about relationships - a future post, perhaps. I'm also not treating the above as goals; more like I'm shaping my life as it unfolds.

Monday, October 19, 2015

THE Bete Peeve/Pet Noire

bete noire: something that a person dislikes or dreads; a bugbear. 

Let's face it - French just makes things sound better than other languages. This goes for food  - even if you didn't know what they were wouldn't you pick a croissant any day over a bratwurst? for clothing - I bet a beret entices even people who otherwise eschew haberdashery, even for things you dislike or dread. Come on, admit it - doesn't bete noire have so much more snap than pet peeve?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-crab-out-of-water.html

A list of my bete noires - begun sometime ago to assist me writing future posts for my crabbiness series - has since gotten quite long. But reviewing that list recently, I realized lip syncing needed a post of its own. This all-too-common practice - a bete noire surpassed in my mind only by poseur DJs who fancy themselves musicians, especially those who lip sync - can get me so incensed I sometimes appear irrational. Silly, I know but who out there hasn't at least once appeared a bit cuckoo? Was it one of your bete noires that triggered you?

The good news: The next time I watch someone lip sync - or run across a moronic DJ doing it - I've got a cool sounding expression for my annoyance. Maybe this can assist me to be more measured in my response? Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Gratitude

Sitting down to capture my reflections on a completely different subject, I glanced at my reading space, located directly adjacent to this laptop. In that instant, I flashed to how my surroundings could quickly deteriorate if I lived alone - not a pretty picture.

The space is usually more contained. My wife has been away only two days. So how did my reading and writing materials expand so quickly that they now occupy a good portion of this room? Am I that reliant on someone else to moderate my tendency toward clutter? Are you?

It's possible the mess would have escaped my attention and my original reflection would have been today's post had I not earlier this a.m. finished a Times article about a NYC hoarder. Doesn't that perfectly demonstrate the value of reading? My empathy for the lonely life and death of George Bell - brilliantly reported by N.R. Kleinfield and photographed by Josh Haner - probably contributed to that glance at my reading space. In turn, I experienced gratitude for a life that includes someone who helps moderate my excesses. Next? Spend a minute and get my space under control. The rest of this glorious fall day awaits.

Friday, October 16, 2015

California Girls

While developing my continuing ed class on the intersection of movies and music, I had to think hard about which films to include. In the end, I ended up using no movies for that course from the genre that film critics call "biopics". Well known examples of this genre would be "Bird" or "Ray" or "Walk The Line", three movies that respectively depicted the lives of Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, and Johnny Cash. Many biopics have good moments but for me, just as many fall flat. Often they are overly dramatic or unimaginative.  

"Love and Mercy" - the recent biopic about Brian Wilson - is not without its faults. In particular, a few of the scenes that depicted his second wife rescuing him from his unscrupulous therapist struck me as over the top. This was not the fault of Elizabeth Banks, the actress playing Wilson's wife, or Paul Giamatti, who portrayed the venal Eugene Landy to menacing perfection. In my view, the script or the direction - or a combination of the two - let down both these talented actors.

But this biopic would have been included in my course had I seen it before beginning my development:
* The imaginative, seamless way Brian Wilson is played by two gifted actors - Paul Dano as the young genius losing his grip and John Cusack as an older Wilson under the thumb of Landy - is thrilling.
* The Wrecking Crew - a remarkable group of 60's studio musicians who played on many Beach Boys recordings - gets their due. One of my favorite scenes involves drummer Hal Blaine reassuring an insecure Wilson about tracks that would ultimately become the masterpiece called "Pet Sounds".
* Brian Wilson's glorious music is front and center. I wept when Dano crooned "Caroline, No".

You need not be a Beach Boys fan to enjoy this movie. If you've seen it, tell me if you agree. If you haven't, I recommend you do. Then tell me what you think. And everyone - tell me which biopic about a musician has moved you. My next delivery of that course is still a few months away.            

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Schadenfreude Mirror

schadenfreude: pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

That German word - literal translation per Wikipedia = "ham joy" - is very useful. My first thought recently hearing someone describe an obituary as "fascinating" was what an odd choice of adjective she'd used. Then as I reflected further, I realized how many people I've known who are indeed fascinated by obituaries. Are obits your frequent path to schadenfreude?

Then I turned around the mirror. I wondered - Are us older folks more likely to read obits than young people? Intuitively, it would seem so, but they're not my thing now; never have been. However, me being jarred by that fascinating adjective does not mean schadenfreude street is unfamiliar to me. My brake foot and rubber neck have intersected more than once. Sometimes I'm able to recall more details about the gory deeds of some serial killers than wholesome information about people who ennoble the spirit. Etc., unfortunately.

Not long ago I read a comment attributed to Gore Vidal, a favorite author of mine for many years. Vidal said in order to be happy it wasn't enough that he was wildly successful; other authors also had to fail miserably. If Vidal really felt that way - he was known for provoking controversy just for the sake of it - then he's got me beat in the schadenfreude sweepstakes. How about you? If you're above it all, it's probably better the rest of us on the bell curve don't hear about it. No hard feelings.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Interview With The Bookworm

Why not just a book blog, Pat?

Don't want to be locked into a blogosphere niche.

But what percentage of your posts end up being about literature anyway?

Haven't specifically calculated but I'd estimate about 20%. So what?

Seems like a high percentage for a blog that doesn't want to be a niche. Moving on, why only posts about books you like?

Until I finish my own book, who am I to publicly bash someone who has? Anyway, the people really close to me know about books that haven't moved me, especially when those same people recommended them. Also, instead of being negative, the remaining 80% of my reflections might possibly entice readers to whom books are not that critical.   

OK, I surrender. What has most recently moved you?

Now there's a good question. Try "Station Eleven" (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel. It's a page turner in the best sense of that expression.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Go Outside And Play

How often did your parents say to you - "Go outside and play!"  Don't you wish someone would periodically say the same thing to you now?

Sometimes when I've been in my head too long, I do in fact say those exact words to myself, although not aloud. Strange as it sounds, it actually works. Often the self-admonishment will prompt me to simply take a walk - to the library or the local coffee shop or I'll indulge in some aimless meandering. Any of these seem to do the trick. What do you do when you go outside to play?

Perhaps this need to go outside and play partially explains why some people prefer a temperate climate year round. But I don't mind playing outside in New Jersey winters. Also, giving up winter would additionally entail giving up autumn, my favorite time to go outside and play. This time of year, I need no prompting, parental or otherwise.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Warning: Bragging Ahead

What's the closest contact you've ever had with a President?

My answer is easy - handling currency. But the ambitious and talented young man my daughter has been dating for four years recently gave me one degree of separation bragging rights. He and several other young entrepreneurs were guests in the oval office last Wednesday. If you're interested in learning more, visit the website of the NYC-based company he founded and look for details on the Labor Summit hosted by the President and Secretary of Labor on October 7.

www.managedbyq.com

As astounded as I am by this young man's precociousness, it wouldn't mean a thing if he wasn't good for my daughter. But his values are solid, he is supportive of her chosen path and his instincts about people are often spot-on. I can take no credit for any of this or for who my daughter chooses to date, for that matter. But I can be grateful for both. Bragging is so uncool. But one of the clear consolations of being old is how much being cool does not matter.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bless Me Father

Unless someone makes a comment online or off, I'm never sure who reads these reflections regularly. At least for today that's good because of the confession herein. If I get lucky and several people close to me don't read this - or decide not to tell me they did - maybe they won't call me on my shit. Here goes.

Despite an occasional snobbish protestation to the contrary, I too am able to be influenced by pop culture. Two recent experiences brought this into sharp relief.

The first was an audio lecture at the Alamo museum. Among the many moving displays there was a rifle that Fess Parker used when he portrayed Davy Crockett on TV. Before my holier-than-thou persona had a chance to dismiss this pop ephemera, the lecturer whispered a convincing case about how this prop has served as an entree for people who might otherwise not have been interested in Davy Crockett's martyrdom or the Alamo at all. Strike one against Pat the snob.

Then, "The Secret History Of Wonder Woman" (2014) by Jill Lepore blew me away. This remarkable book is wrapped in a pop culture package of the highest order. But, isn't it wholly plausible someone would be drawn in by the comic book and then become enthralled by the way Lepore braids the history of feminism into her narrative? I can easily envision this book opening a whole new world for someone. If it takes fake guns or comic books for people to get hooked, who am I to gripe? Strike two.

But the batter wasn't out until these recent experiences reminded me how I was introduced to my all time favorite jazz composer, Thelonious Monk. That's right, pop goes the culture. While still in my jazz infancy in the early 80's, my brother bought a double album called "That's The Way I Feel Now". Many rock names familiar to me - Donald Fagen, Peter Frampton, Joe Jackson - were featured playing Monk's idiosyncratic compositions on that record. I was hooked and soon after searched for the originals. Care to join me in the booth? When in your life has a pop culture phenomenon taken you to the source?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Liar, Liar

Although I try to keep an open mind, there are subjects that just don't interest me much. Like say, comic books.

"The Secret History of Wonder Woman" (2014) is fascinating, salacious and educational. William Moulton Marston - Wonder Woman's creator and the inventor, if not patent owner, of the lie detector - was brilliant, quirky and totally shameless. I lost count how many times this Harvard PhD (psychology) re-invented himself. The three women who inhabited his alternate universe were feminists, as well as Marston's collaborators and co-conspirators. Somehow, author Jill Lepore manages to juxtapose the story of 20th century feminism with the history of a comic book without ever missing a beat. The research she did to re-construct the Marston family's secretive funhouse is staggering. And Lepore's prose is nearly flawless.

It would be difficult to over-praise this book. I was re-introduced to Margaret Sanger's early 20th century crusade for birth control via the mother of Marston's two middle children; she was Sanger's niece. I learned the backstory of the Supreme Court's landmark ruling (Frye vs. United States) on the inadmissibility of the lie detector test (did I mention Marston was also a lawyer?) I was exposed to the innocence of mid-20th century America in the chapter "Comic Book Menace" when Batman was considered a threat to public safety because he brandished a handgun.

What was the last book you finished about a subject in which you had no interest? Did it knock you out as much as "The Secret History of Wonder Woman" did me? Comic books; go figure.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Progress ...

On this otherwise unexceptional day, i.e. I have few commitments, it's not a holiday or an anniversary of any kind, a provocative question came to me out of nowhere early this morning: What am I most afraid of?

Now it would probably be wise to let this too-existential-for-a-blog-post-of-a-few-paragraphs question pass. I've done exactly that several times over the last four and a half years. But as I reflect on it, today seems like as good a day as any to throw caution to the wind. Anyway, in this moment my answer is clear. I'm most afraid of passing through this world unnoticed. What are you most afraid of?

In my blog infancy, an early follower suggested I sounded depressed in these musings. I was not at all depressed then nor am I low this very moment. It's a nice day. I plan to take a walk shortly, return home and play my guitar, read. And what I'm feeling right now is less afraid about sounding real here - even if that means some people stop reading me - vs. when I began blogging in 2011. So, if you don't want to answer the question about what you are most afraid of, how about this: What are you less afraid of now than you were four years ago?

Monday, October 5, 2015

Did I Hear You Right?

Question: "So, what are you working on now?"

Answer: "I'm writing a book about salt."

I'm trying to imagine what my gut reaction would be if I were a new book agent, having an initial lunch with an author and my first question to him was answered that way.

"Salt: A World History" (2002) is a wonderful read. Author Mark Kurlansky skillfully transported me from Ancient China to the city-states of Venice and Genoa long before Italy was a unified nation to the present day Caribbean. And every chapter featured at least one recipe - accompanied by the story behind it - each illustrating the critical role salt has played in world cuisine. It was fascinating to be re-introduced to history via this commodity most of us take for granted.

All the same, each time that imaginary Q&A popped into my head I got a little sidetracked. How would you react to that answer if you were Kurlansky's friend? Sibling? Spouse? I'd love to eavesdrop on a conversation like that.