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Monday, March 30, 2015

The Same Fruitcake?

In the early years of our relationship, my wife and I would routinely speculate about couples seated near to us in a restaurant who barely said a word to one another while dining. Invariably, our conversation would then move onto our hopes that we'd continue to enjoy each other's company and conversation indefinitely. Thirty seven years later, I'm pleased to say that is the case.

Fast forward. A few weeks ago my wife and I were out dining, enjoying our conversation. I casually glanced at a nearby couple and observed both of them texting on their individual cell phones. Brief pause - more texting, no face-to-face communication. I said to my wife - how sad. She gently chastised me and suggested I ignore them and come back to giving her my full attention. Point taken.

Yet since that night I've been thinking about fruitcake. Years ago, each time I received a fruitcake around Christmas, I would re-gift it to someone else. And I often joked that the same fruitcake had probably traveled around the world several times. So, is it possible the recent couple texting on their phones are the same silent people my wife and I saw in the early years of our relationship?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Being Human

What is the likely outcome when your logic collides with your empathy?

Of my internal battles, this one bedevils me more than most. I believe I value both traits equally yet sometimes find them more mutually exclusive than my other perennial struggle - being in the moment vs. planning for the future. And when I'm stuck, the conflict between being logical while remaining empathic is frequently the main culprit. I'm reasonably certain I'm not alone on the bell curve here. Right?

In my case, it's possible the two traits work in opposition to each other because empathy seems to be a default; logic - not so much. So even though I value both, one comes naturally and the other requires conscious effort, similar to that future vs. present dynamic. Are these tendencies perhaps connected, i.e. do those of us who have to make a conscious effort to be in the moment - however contradictory that sounds - come more naturally to our empathy? I'm having trouble discerning a link there. Assistance for me? Also, which trait - logic or empathy - feels more natural for you?

Perhaps tension between the two is an unavoidable consequence of being human. Tough game, this human thing.

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Loss For Words (Sort Of)

"The Jazz Standards" (2012) by Ted Gioia is so exceptional, either as a resource or a straight read, I'm unsure how to begin praising it. I'll settle for a partial list.

* It is uniformly well written. "We live in an age of anorexic melodies." That's the author on popular music circa 2012. His book brims with sharp sentences like this, and most are not as cranky as that one; I just happen to find that observation spot-on.

* Even for a music geek like me, there is fresh information about many of the 250 songs Gioia highlights and most of it is not technical. For example, his entries on "St. James Infirmary" and "St. Louis Blues" - two early twentieth century tunes - read like brief history lessons, in a good way.

* Gioia is a fine writer, an experienced professional pianist, an educated musicologist and...he's got superb taste. Each essay is accompanied by his list of recommended versions of these standards. I knew I was in good hands when one of his recommendations for Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You" was the Wynton & Ellis Marsalis duet from "Standard Time, Volume 3: The Resolution of Romance". That performance moves me to tears every time I listen to it.

I'm a patient man. I'll wait until you read this book, send me your list, and then I'll tell you everything else I loved about it. And I'll look forward to our conversation.        

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Second First

What was the first movie that made a lasting impression on you? What about it was so memorable?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/02/recalling-first.html

Since writing the post above a month ago, several other firsts have been rattling my brain. With movies, it boiled down to three - The Magnificent Seven, West Side Story & Ben Hur. Although none would make my top ten list, they all made an indelible impression. But I couldn't remember which was the first I'd seen. Any non-Google guesses about the release date of each? Hold that thought - first, the allure of each to my young sensibilities and remember - I didn't know back then I'd grow into such a film freak.

The Magnificent Seven - James Coburn's cool in the knife throwing scene; the first time I recall hearing anyone swear in a movie (two of the seven say "damn" as they lay dying).

West Side Story - The Sharks' purple shirts and black ties; the choreography in the scene featuring "Cool"; not being 100% sure of the final lyric in "Gee Officer Krupke".

Ben Hur -  The chariot scene and its aftermath as Stephen Boyd lies dying.

Drum roll, please. And the first one released was...Ben Hur, 1959. I was only nine years old, unless it was released after November 23. I recall several other scenes, but it's very possible that chariot scene started my lifelong love affair with film. How about you?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Voyage Of The Narwhal

"Like children, they gave their names to the landscape, pretending to discover places her people had known for generations."

Near the end of Andrea Barrett's thoughtful novel "The Voyage of the Narwhal" (1998), the wealthy commander of  the Narwhal's ill-fated expedition to the Arctic decides to bring two Greenland natives back with him to Philadelphia. His aim? To display these "exotic" people to his mid-19th century contemporaries. His arrogance supersedes his hubris and both are trumped by his racism. As the woman torn from her family lies dying from exposure to the radically different climate, she yearns for home, musing about a landscape white explorers have childishly named after themselves.

Barrett's skillful toggling between the actual writings of Arctic explorers from the Victorian era - not a real progressive bunch - and the fictional journals and letters of her characters gives this book a journalistic flavor. The illustrations that open each of the three acts and eleven chapters serve a similar function. From a narrative perspective, the book came most alive for me in the final 100 pages as the main character, naturalist Erasmus Wells, begins to find his way at forty+ years old - felt uncomfortably albeit distinctly familiar.

Still, after finishing it, I immediately returned and re-read several earlier sections. How often do you find yourself doing that? In my experience, doing so is a sure sign a book is going to stick with me.

Monday, March 23, 2015

#31: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Today marks the inception of the "eat around the world" project announced here four years ago. To mark the anniversary, this iteration of Mt. Rushmore includes four items my wife and I have made for guests since beginning our project; each deserves enshrining. Which four ethnic foods would you put on your Mt. Rushmore?

1.) Dukkah - An Egyptian spice blend - beyond wonderful. We served it as an appetizer with pita bread but later put out a whole bowl so people could use it to dress up the other dishes from Egypt.

2.) Llapingachos - One of our discoveries doing this project has been how many cuisines feature some variation on ravioli. This one from Ecuador with cheese and potato filling has been my favorite to date.

3.) Cataplana de Marisco - Our culinary visits to Europe, at least the ones we've cooked, have been pretty dismal. But this seafood entree from Portugal (we left out the chourico sausage) was a notable exception.

4.) Bananas Foster Bread Pudding - What would a Mt. Rushmore of food be without dessert? We traveled to Trinidad/Tobago for this winner.

Following a party we're hosting next month, where we've asked folks to prepare something from a country we haven't yet sampled, our tally could get as high as seventy nations; look for an update in a month or so. In the meanwhile, go online and search out recipes for the above - tasty stuff, I promise.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Crab And A Tiny Puddle

Most of us have heard the expression "big fish in a small pond". This humble blogger/infrequent crab recently witnessed behavior so self-important he's decided the body of water needs a demotion.

Aside from the chilly, pompous moderator, one book club I attended on/off for a few years had many of the elements I relish - big group, good selections, enjoyable process not involving everyone having to "rate" the books. When the imperious moderator announced her retirement at a meeting, I stifled my whoop of joy.

The person taking the retiring moderator's seat was pleasant, tried hard and maintained the quality of the selections. Unfortunately, big fish decided she was now going to be "just a participant" after having led the meetings for many years. Watching her successor try to run meetings as this diva pontificated - and all her previous "followers" oohed at pronouncements masquerading as insights - was so uncomfortable I stopped attending. What's been your most recent experience with a big fish in a tiny puddle? Surely I'm not the only crab to have witnessed this.

Friday, March 20, 2015

All Sports, All The Time

The average life expectancy of any single person depends on several variables. And different sources don't agree even when those variables are taken into account. Still, this latest desperate attempt to help my blog reach the vast sports market is predicated on my actuarial viability. Sports fans, get out your calculators. I am 65 meaning I've got approximately 12-15 years left. Am I...

* In the fourth quarter of the football game? If I exceed 80 years old, does that mean I've gone into overtime?

* Which golf hole am I approaching? How does that handicap thing work for me?

* What baseball inning is it for me? Bowling frame? If I get to a tiebreaker in tennis, what happens if the point spread never exceeds one? Do I get to keep going indefinitely?  

Apologies to curling fans; can't even formulate a reasonable metaphor to attract you as a reader.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Sibling Revelry

Since my first exposure to the Romantic poets in junior high, expressing myself through writing has felt essential. And if not for the early encouragement my two sisters gave my pathetic adolescent poetry, it's unclear if I'd still be at it a half century later. Who in your early life gave you that kind of creative support?

Many writers of note speak of their "ideal readers" - people they want to reach above anyone else. My sisters are ideal readers for me although not only because of their lifelong support. Along with my wife and oldest niece, both are among the most avid readers I know. Love of reading makes any feedback about writing more meaningful. Stephen King once commented that pointed criticism of his writing stung much more whenever he was certain the critic was read widely. Several years ago, I picked up Stephen Sondheim's memoir "Finishing The Hat" based on a review written by Paul Simon. I'll guess Simon's feedback meant something to Sondheim because the two share an obvious love of and talent for music. The value I place on my sister's opinions of my writing, notoriety aside, is based on a mutual love of the written word.

A brother as a musical MVP and two sisters as ideal readers. I've got this sibling thing nailed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Happy Dummy & His Insight

Researchers from Rutgers University recently asked if they could interview me for a project about the retention of women and minorities in State Government. I was pleased to be selected and happy to participate based on my experience running a succession planning program, my last full time job.

As the questions about retention near the end of the interview transcended gender and race, one of my replies surprised me. Ever hear yourself say something and realize you've stumbled onto a significant insight about your life?

The interviewers asked me about the impact of the Civil Service system on retention in general. As I began describing the highly motivated folks in my program - people who wanted to make a difference, even though for many of them refusing promotional opportunities meant they could make more money - it dawned on me why I loved working with those folks for seven years. In my years with government, I'd made those same choices, i.e. I accepted promotions to management positions even though the broken Civil Service system frequently made doing so a financial disincentive. My self-description to the interviewers: "I was a happy dummy."

Monday, March 16, 2015

Legacy, Re-Visited

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/words-that-can-haunt-me-legacy.html

In the post above, written four years ago today, I asked if leaving a legacy crossed your mind as frequently as it does mine. Given what is about to unfold, I'm relieved my daughter is mentioned in that post.

Recently she asked me if we could together perform one of my original songs for an upcoming NYC showcase. Accompanying her singing in any setting has always reduced me to puddles. But even the anticipation of her doing one of my songs for a live audience is taking me to another level.

When my daughter was two, our family of three went on a whale watch off the coast of Maine. While the movement of the boat rocked her to sleep, I held her against my chest and could feel her heartbeat. It was a moment I will never forget.

As I continue treasuring that moment from twenty four years ago, consider the countless joys my daughter has given me in between, and add my excitement about our upcoming performance, the word legacy loses some of its ability to haunt me.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Four More Years?

Tomorrow marks the day in 2011 when I first began reflecting from the bell curve. Is it a birthday, anniversary or election cycle?

Regardless how I mark the day, it seems fitting to check in and get your feedback. Many suggestions I've received over the four years have been helpful. Of late, some regular readers have offered their ideas for new series; thanks to those folks. And to anyone who has commented on a specific post, a special thanks. Anonymous or not, online or off, your comments often lead me to new territory and invariably juice me.

Please continue to help me. Tell me what you'd like to see retained or dropped. Any feedback you offer about content, format, writing, design, anything, is welcome. I'm sincerely grateful to those who have hung in there through the years. Should you decide to discontinue reading, let me know why. Whatever your reason, you're likely not alone so you might be helping me avoid losing someone else.

Last: I'm very excited approaching my 1000th post. If you have any ideas how I can promote this milestone, I'm open to hearing them.  

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Grade (So Far): Reliability

reliability: the quality of being able to be relied on; trustworthiness.

Upon initially reading the dictionary definition of reliability, and then recalling my "A" last month ( for thrift), I thought I might be headed for two straight "A's" - a first since this series began. But my honor roll hopes were dashed as my eye drifted to the listed synonyms - authenticity, consistency. Whoa.

In my view, being authentic is a noble aspiration and an endless road. There goes my "A" for reliability. Coupled with some periodic inconsistency, I'll take a "B" so far on this attribute, continue being as reliable and trustworthy as people tell me I am, and remain on the road. In other words, still plenty of work to do. How would you grade yourself on reliability so far?

I wanted that "A" but circling back to the consistency component, I do take some solace in the wise words of Walt Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Not All Habits Are Created Equal

If you're anything like me, you've got at least a few habits you've had some trouble fully shaking loose. Let's turn that around today, shall we? Which of your habits makes you really happy?

For over thirty years I've spent part of nearly every Saturday and Sunday reading the New York Times. There may be a better newspaper to keep me informed but I haven't discovered it. I'm aware some people put the Times into the  "liberal media" bucket. And though I don't wholly disagree, op-ed columnist Ross Douthat and some of his right-of-center colleagues - all regular Times contributors - might not appreciate being lumped into that category. Anyway, politics are beside the point.

Which newspaper has equivalent book reviews? Travel section? Sports? Arts & leisure? Though the Wall Street Journal arguably trumps the Times financial section, business is the Journal's mission after all. Finally, what newspaper magazine comes close to the one in the Times?

I'm still working on the swearing and the sweets. My Saturday and Sunday NY Times habit? Here to stay.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Off-White Album

Unless you're a serious Beatles buff, this post may not be for you. And Beatles purists - you won't be happy.

Which songs would you leave on the White album if it were just a single LP? Since the double LP had thirty selections, you get to keep fifteen. And, how would you sequence the tunes? I'm open to re-considering my flawless choices and sequence should someone demonstrate they've given this matter the requisite thought. The judge of that? Who do you think?

Side 1: While My Guitar Gently Weeps (lead vocal -Harrison); Revolution (Lennon); I Will (McCartney); Yer Blues (Lennon); Helter Skelter (McCartney); Piggies (Harrison); Dear Prudence (Lennon)

Side 2:  Birthday (McCartney); Happiness Is A Warm Gun (Lennon); Blackbird (McCartney); Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey (Lennon); Savoy Truffle (Harrison); Julia (Lennon); Back In The USSR (McCartney); *Goodnight* (Starr)

* Only if we can dump most of the strings - piano and acoustic guitar would be much better, along with McCartney playing one of his great bass lines on standup with a bow. If that can't be managed, then my Off-White album closes instead with "I'm So Tired" - another Lennon vocal; sorry Ringo.

This post was directly inspired by a scene from "Boyhood" when the father (played by Ethan Hawke) gives his teenage son (Ellar Coltrane) a mix tape comprised of songs by each of the Beatles as solo artists. He calls it "the Black Album"; gotta love any screenplay with that brilliant idea.     

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Scratching An Itch

Among the reasons I prefer bigger book clubs is how easy it is to remain relatively silent. I've spent a good portion of my professional life speaking to groups and even now still have ample opportunity to do so; it's good dialing down the extrovert periodically. In addition, I generally prefer clubs where the same person runs meetings. If a leader/facilitator or their process is not to my liking, I don't return.

When I do get involved with a smaller club - where the leadership/facilitation role often rotates - I try to avoid being drafted or stepping into that role; been there as well. Still, on occasion, I do itch to lead a book discussion. This is especially true for books with rich prose, startling insights about the human condition, a unique architecture or that rare wonderful combination: can't put it down/don't want it to end. My itch increases significantly when the reader's guide questions for books of this caliber are lame or leading.

Despite the itch, I've been mostly disappointed with the few discussions I've led to date, even though each has been about a book I love without reservation. What's going on? Are my set-ups weak? Do I have unrealistic expectations? Are my questions imprecise? Or...too precise? Small groups are often more challenging than large groups and that alone could be the story. My next opportunity to facilitate will be my second shot moderating a conversation about "Tolstoy & The Purple Chair" (Nina Sankovitch), perhaps my favorite non-fiction book of the past five years. If you've read it and have ideas, get them to me - I'll let you know how it goes. And wish me luck scratching this itch.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Learning From A Lyric

"We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned from school" :  Bruce Springsteen - "No Surrender" (1984) 

Just for a moment, put aside Springsteen's obvious hyperbole. Which lyric has hit you hard enough that you can make a similar, if less grandiose claim, i.e. you learned something from it? Regular readers already know I'm going to go first but I will be seriously bummed if no one chimes in here. Really.

"To love another person is to see the face of God": Claude Michel-Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel - final reprise of "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" (1987)

What I learned from that lyric is a way to see God everyday. These words have shaped me, a person who has loved deeply and struggled with matters of faith. I don't have to hear it sung; just thinking about it fills me up and reinforces the lesson. Corny? Perhaps, but true nonetheless. Your turn, please.
   

Friday, March 6, 2015

Unraveling A Dream

My dreams may have helped me unravel the disquiet I've felt since finishing "River Of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" (2005), the startling debut of Candice Millard. One paragraph of exposition, a few dream fragments and a conclusion.

Of the twenty one men Roosevelt had with him exploring an uncharted tributary of the Amazon in the early 20th century, five were his fellow officers -  three Americans, including Roosevelt and his son Kermit and three Brazilians, including Roosevelt's co-commander Colonel Candido Rondon. The remaining sixteen were Brazilian camaradas, men responsible for propelling the canoes, carrying the gear and cooking the meals. Along with an inherently compelling story, the author adds scrupulous research, straightforward prose and a solid sense of pace to create an inspiring read.

Everything is green and wet; children cry - "where is Daddy?"; a man stands at a podium talking about his adventures; the audience applauds.

Millard's book is a triumph. Teddy Roosevelt is the President who championed the concept of US National Parks. As River of Doubt makes clear, he was also a fearless adventurer and naturalist. Three of those sixteen camaradas perished during the two month long descent of the tributary known today as Rio Roosevelt. If I'd learned just a little more (perhaps in the moving epilogue?) about the lives of any of the sixteen, it's possible the unsettled feeling I've had since finishing the book would not have remained with me this long.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Problem With A Proverb (Maxim Messing, Pt. 3)

"Who is not satisfied with himself will grow." - Hebrew proverb

Well, OK but...where is the line between being dissatisfied and being reflexively self-critical? Also, if dissatisfaction is a measure for growth, how much will our desire for that growth contribute to a tendency to gaze inward vs. looking outside ourselves? How do you reconcile either of these tensions?

Running across the proverb above recently reminded me of a modern-day shorthand I hear all the time, i.e. how we human beings are "works in progress." And I've now begun re-thinking my previous disdain for that phrase. Strikes me as an easier pill to swallow than dissatisfaction with myself, especially since mine is frequently preceded by excessive introspection.

So, look for work-in-progress to pop up here now and then, especially in any posts about personal growth. While we're on that subject - How do you measure your own growth? How much does dissatisfaction with yourself enter the picture?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thanks For The Surprises, Diana

I was fully expecting to enjoy seeing Diana Krall live. Her low key musical approach to the repertoire of the Great American songbook has given me such pleasure over the last twenty years. And her two most used guitar players - Russell Malone & Anthony Wilson - are both superb. What I wasn't expecting from a Krall concert was much surprise, although that did not dampen my eager anticipation.

But surprise me she did. At least half of her selections were not standards. Instead, both in the portions when she was supported by her terrific quintet (including Wilson) and also when she played solo, Krall explored the work of some of contemporary music's great composers. Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, John Phillips, Bob Dylan, Jim Croce, Paul McCartney and others were featured. Although I suspect some of Krall's more recent recordings - none of which I own - probably contain some or most of the songs she performed, it was still a wonderful surprise hearing these tunes, imaginatively re-invented. The Dylan and McCartney stuff was unknown to me, amplifying my delight and making me anxious to seek out the originals after hearing Krall's take.

In addition, I appreciated Krall asking the audience during her solo section what they'd like to hear. Most yelled out standards - perhaps heard on the same earlier recordings I own - and she did a few. But then she turned around and did a jaunty version of Fats Waller's "Your Feet's Too Big", including an authentic stride piano solo - another delightful surprise.

Krall saved her biggest surprise for the three song encore - no standards - "I'm Not In Love" (10 cc), "Ophelia" (the Band) and "Hey Now, The Dream Is Over" (Tears For Fears). If you were planning to see her soon, sorry for the spoilers. Go anyway; so worth it.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

One Day University

www.onedayu.com

Each time I attend a One Day University event, I walk away buzzing. Do yourself a favor - check out their website. Then after you attend your first event, share with me and others a few key takeaways as I have below.

* Yale professor Laurie Santos' lecture on the evolution of irrationality persuaded me I can remove some of the bias from my decision making. The book she recommended, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth & Happiness (2006) by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, is now on my list.

* In his lecture entitled "Thinking Creatively About Creativity" NYU's Peter Rajsingh suggested "...psychological androgyny is a key element of creativity...", a teaching point that really resonated with me. Professor Rajsingh also introduced me to "cognitive disinhibition", an elegant way to express how creativity flourishes when the mind is allowed to wander without constraints.

* polymath: a person learned in many fields. Two authors I greatly admire - Martin Amis & Christopher Hitchens - love the word polymath. The main character in one of my favorite novels - Renee in Muriel Barbery's Elegance Of The Hedgehog - is a polymath. In his lecture, Fairfield Professor Orin Grossman referred to Composer/Conductor/Pianist/Teacher Leonard Bernstein as a polymath. That word belongs to me now.

I love One Day University.