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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Wonder Years

I can't count myself among the group of highly serene people who claim they have no regrets. Are you one of those folks?

But the foolhardy things I did as an adolescent, on balance, carry far less regret for me than the many blunders I've subsequently made. It's possible I'm able to forgive my early transgressions because they're more distant in my history; many of the people hurt by those missteps are either gone or no longer part of my life. However, some recent reflecting on my teenage stupidity - partially prompted by overhearing a stranger speak of his wayward adolescence - uncovered an equally plausible reason for my diminished regret about my wonder years.

As insensitive and clueless as I could be as a teenager, I was alive and engaged. My teachers had trouble with me, my parents and siblings were annoyed most of the time, my friends were often perplexed. Still, for all their dismay, they knew I was in the world, vs. passively observing it. I could have behaved better and followed the rules more. And I'm not proud that I didn't. But I don't carry quite as much regret about version 1.0 of Pat.    

How about you? When you reflect on your wonder years what is your predominant recollection? Satisfaction? Regret? Something in between?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

#36: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four companies would you enshrine on Mt. Rushmore? Why does each company deserve the honor? In most previous iterations of this long running series, I wrote from the heart. For this particular entry, I also did a little research/fact checking; wanted to be reasonably sure the salient facts were accurate. In alphabetical order:

1.) Ben & Jerry's: When these two Long Island hippies opened their first ice cream shop in Vermont in 1978, having a social mission as part of a business plan was not that common. I'm not sure how well that mission has withstood the 2000 transition after Ben & Jerry's became a subsidiary of Unilever. But the current Board Of Directors gives me hope the initial idealism hasn't faded. Anyway, the ice cream is still amazing.

2.) Body Shop: "We dedicate our business to the pursuit of environmental and social change". Anita Roddick's 1976 social mission pre-dated Ben & Jerry's. Because of their commitment to fair trade (long before Starbucks) and ethical treatment of animals, when buying cosmetics for my wife, I've frequently gone out of my way to find a Body Shop. Roddick sold her brand to L'Oreal in 2006, the year before she died.

3.) Marriott: Of the four on my mountain, this is the most personal. In the years I worked for the Commission For The Blind, before the passage of The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, I witnessed firsthand the Marriott Corporation's leadership hiring people with disabilities. When traveling, I try my best to stay at Marriott.

4.) Newman's Own: Since Paul Newman and AE Hotchner founded the company in 1982, all after-tax profits generated by the sale of Newman's Own products have been donated - through the Newman's Own Foundation - to charity. The main recipients of the Foundation's largesse - $430 million according to the website - have been educational and ecological organizations. BTW, the vodka spaghetti sauce is very tasty.

This post is dedicated to my daughter who suggested this version of Mt. Rushmore.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Away From Home

When you're away from home what do you miss most? How much does the length of time you're away affect what you miss? How much time do you need in between trips to catch your breath?

My wife and I are off to San Antonio for the week even though the laundry from our just finished trip to Alaska is still not done. But, having already passed up an opportunity earlier this year to accompany her on a business trip to Barcelona, no way I was letting this time away with her slip by.

Still, the short gap between these trips brought me back to my rock n' roll road years. For a while in the early-mid 70's it seemed as though I was away more than home. What did 20-something Pat miss the most when away from home over forty years ago? Uncool as it may be, I missed my parents. When I was in Los Angeles in 1972, my Father asked if I was considering moving there. I clearly recollect his relief over the phone when I said "no". What I don't recollect is whether I said how much I missed he and my Mom; I hope I did.

When away from home these days, I miss my daughter the most. And though it's much easier to stay in touch now than it was in 1972, nothing takes the place of being right alongside someone you love. That part hasn't changed at all.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

How Was That Sandwich Of Yours?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/07/so-long-seth.html

Good news first. Over the past two months I have kept my resolve (see above) from July 23; movie consumption is way down. The less encouraging (if not bad) news is the few films I've since watched at home have largely been ones I'd seen previously. Monotony in the diet, you say?

Not entirely. Re-watching Nobody's Fool (1994) a few weeks ago was a wholly delicious twenty one year sandwich. Saw the film upon its release; I love Paul Newman almost as much as most of the women I know. Then in 2010 I read Richard Russo's excellent 1993 novel of the same name. Then, a few days ago, I renewed the magic via watching the movie a second time.

And, the geek abides. Earlier today, I read my 2010 book journal entry on "Nobody's Fool". I also returned briefly to my underlined copy of the novel and compared my end notes on Russo's wonderfully drawn upstate New York characters with those depicted in the film while it was still fresh on my mind. My verdict on this sandwich and it's geeky aftermath - The book is better (duh!) but screenwriter and director Robert Benton nailed the essence of Russo's novel. In particular, the hapless main character Sully and his landlord Beryl - Newman and Jessica Tandy in the film - are brilliantly realized. Benton was also wise to use the author's dialogue, verbatim, in his movie. Dialogue is arguably Russo's greatest gift.

What's the verdict on your most recent sandwich? What book was it? Did the movie have the same name? Was your sandwich like mine, i.e. movie-book-movie? In order to vary my diet, think I'll switch now to book-movie-book. Hope that sandwich is as good as this last one.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Sure Thing

After five and one half years attending meetings with eighteen different book clubs, I'm confident asserting Christina Baker Kline's 2013 bestseller "Orphan Train" cannot miss.

* Both stories being told - although separated by more than eighty years - unfold in a linear fashion.

* The prose is straightforward and told in the first person.

* Though there are sad elements in both stories, the ending is upbeat.

* None of the surprises revealed as the book draws to its conclusion are at all implausible.

* The central premise is based on historical events.

I'm so sure this book will be a winner for any club, I'm offering a money back guarantee. If you suggest it and a significant majority of your fellow readers do not really like it, contact me and we'll arrange for an exchange of bitcoins, amount TBD.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Sentence Collector

"Popular culture is where we go to talk to and agree with one another, to simplify ourselves, to find our herd ... books are where we go alone to complicate ourselves." 

Stamps, antique cars, coins, and ... sentences. I've been collecting the latter for most of my reading life. It's rare for me to finish a book without coming across a single sentence unworthy of my collection. And some books, like the late John Leonard's "Reading For My Life" (2012) shimmer with examples like the one above. When uncovering these gems, years sometimes pass before I find a way to share them. But the joy in doing so is the main reason for collecting them in the first place.

In my experience, writers who are omnivorous readers are more apt to create sentences worth collecting. Polymaths like Leonard or Christopher Hitchens or Joyce Carol Oates, having spent a lifetime immersed in literature and ideas, seem to embody the majesty of their forebears. When asked his advice about how to write, award-winning author Ernest Gaines ("A Lesson Before Dying") replied - "Read, read, and then read some more."

I derive pleasure each time I peruse my ever-expanding sentence collection; there's a story behind most of them. I suspect stamp collectors might feel something similar. What do you collect? How do you share the stories behind your collection? With whom are you most likely to share your collection and the stories?

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Awaking My Activism

"Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die." - Horace Mann

Though already pretty skilled at beating myself up, I was chastened stumbling across Horace Mann's admonishment recently. Soon after, I realized how fortunate I am to have a wife that has helped kicked my long latent activism into higher gear. Who helps remind you of your responsibility to make the world a better place?

My wife's involvement with the issue of climate change has been inspiring as well as educational. As her commitment to act deepens, my previous lethargy dissipates. The other activists she has met represent a wide swath - business men and women, scientists, clergy - people who are bracing to be around. And not one fits the stereotype of the humorless environmentalist. To a person they are positive, educated, engaged. Common sense solutions, like making your vote count, take precedence over doom and gloom.

At a recent vigil we attended, individuals spoke on behalf of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Sikh. I was moved by the commonality of scripture cited from each faith represented. We all inhabit the same world. We are an interdependent human species. If we continue ignoring the science, we all pay the price.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Voyagers

"Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a short time, we could trade those essential secrets of our lives ... Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous, intricate disguises we wear at home ..." - from "My Reading Life", Pat Conroy (2010) 

For me, spending time with strangers while on vacation is nearly as enjoyable as experiencing new places. And I suspect some of that enjoyment is connected to the "... removing of masks and ... disguises..." How much do Pat Conroy's words resonate with you?

We shared our just finished Road Scholars adventure to Alaska with thirty-seven other voyagers. As you might expect, the number of  " ... essential secrets ..." traded varied widely. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the level of education in the group, charmed by the interactions of some of the long-married couples, energized by many of the conversations. I walked away with a few solid book recommendations, several new vocabulary words, and an invitation to Grand Lakes, Colorado. I observed one voyager working with a Sanskrit-to-English dictionary, laughed as a wife described how she distracts her bird-watching husband by pretending to spot a rare specimen, did my best with five strings playing a blues as part of "Three Blind Moose".

"Each of us had met by accident, our lives touched briefly ... then we continued on our own private journeys ... these intense encounters left a fragrant pollen on the sills and eaves of memory."

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Re-Incarnation Of Groucho

Miracles do happen. If you will, picture the 2016 election as the year our broken two party system finally loses its grip on the Presidency. Join my fantasy as the Democrats and Republicans both nominate unelectable candidates. Envision the energy and new ideas infusing next year's election as the conventions end with Sanders and Trump representing our two tired parties. A viable third color? An animal other than donkey or elephant? What a concept.

With either blue or red having held the oval office since 1852, I realize we're in 1969 Mets territory here. But if a genuine threat to the donkey/elephant juggernaut actually occurred next November, maybe some candidates for the mid-term congressional election of 2018 might hear the voter discontent, begin searching for common ground, tone down the divisive rhetoric a bit. Does wishing for civil conversation in the political arena make me a hopeless idealist? Would be comforting to know others on the bell curve are as tired of the screaming as I.

Politics aside, just imagining a Sanders vs. Trump debate makes me chuckle. I'd pay to attend that event. Who would you like to see as moderator? Too bad Groucho is no longer with us.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sorry, Aunt Mary

How many people have you known with a name that sometimes seems to not fit?

I'm convinced this common misfit problem greatly contributes to why many people have trouble remembering the names of others. When someone looks like a Jimmy, but their actual name is Eric, it takes real mental effort to displace the incorrect moniker. For me, the problem is magnified when someone with a regal or commanding demeanor is saddled with something pedestrian. Charismatic people need appropriate names: Yvonne and Sebastian definitely trump Ethel and Otto.

This gets tricky when family is involved. Growing up, I had a few cousins and a couple of uncles whose names and personas never quite meshed for me. One aunt was so wildly misnamed that I embarrassed myself more than once by calling her what fit vs. what was; my mother was not amused. And when my brother and sister-in-law selected my oldest nephew's name, I realized his son's name actually fit my brother pretty well. Maybe not as good a fit as his actual name, but if someone mistakenly called my brother by his first born's name it wouldn't surprise me at all.

For those who would argue our given names are the perfect fit, I can offer no reasonable refutation. At the same time, somehow I doubt that I'm alone on this.    

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

My Grade (So Far): Vulnerability

vulnerability: the state of being capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon. 

Because of my history, until consulting the dictionary, I'd never connected vulnerability with weapons. But the definition did prompt some reflecting on my capability or susceptibility to being wounded or hurt even if the hurt has been inflicted by non-physical means.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me". I'm hard pressed to come up with a more wrongheaded adage than that. Words wound; words hurt. Denying this simple truth is the first step toward giving ourselves permission to say ugly, hateful things. In my experience, even the most empathy-impaired person can readily recall words that have done them psychic damage, even when that damage is minimized with a meaningless euphemism like "whatever". Listen carefully when others describe a painful part of their past; notice how frequently words have been the cause of pain. Notice equally how often the useless advice given to people wounded by the words of others is some variation on a familiar trio: "buck up/grow up/suck it up".

Thin skin or thick skin? Over-sensitive or insensitive? Your grade (so far) on vulnerability? I'll happily take my "B" and continue to err on the side of believing words and non-physical actions can wound or hurt. I'm guessing that strategy may help people as vulnerable as I enjoy the time they spend with me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Can't Climb Every Mountain

Several regular readers have asked why I haven't yet used my Mt. Rushmore series to declare the four bands I'd enshrine. Music geek that I am, it's a very reasonable question. But one glaring problem prevents me from carving four bands - from any genre - into granite. Personnel changes.

Aside from the Beatles (who would clearly be on the mountain) and the Police (a solid contender), the few other bands that remained the same through their entire recording history don't meet my Mt. Rushmore standards. I realize that statement is apostasy to Led Zeppelin fans on the bell curve; oh well. If it's any consolation, I also discounted the Four Tops - possibly the all time record holder for an intact unit - albeit for a different reason than Zep; the Tops didn't play instruments. Call me a musical snob if you must; I've heard worse.

It's actually quite hard to build this particular iteration of the monument not allowing for personnel changes. Even the venerable Modern Jazz Quartet - who BTW would clearly supersede Zeppelin or the Four Tops on my mountain - changed drummers early in their history. If I allowed exceptions for the death of original members - which I'm not doing - the Who also would have had a slot before Jimmy, Robert, John & John - has any quartet in history ever had less interesting names than Zeppelin? At least the Beatles had Ringo, even if his given name is Richard - and Levi (now there's a name!) and his three pals.        

My exacting standards aside, feel free to share your version of Rushmore with four bands you feel worthy. I'm still thinking.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Posse 9, Clubs 2

"The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox" (2006) by Maggie O'Farrell is the perfect example of a terrific book that would likely have escaped my attention if not for my reading posse. Who in your life do you depend on for reliable recommendations?

O'Farrell's fourth novel is as easy to describe as it is hard to put down. Approaching middle age and never married, Iris Lockhart is shocked to discover her Alzheimer's-ridden grandmother has a sister Iris never knew existed. As Iris learns more about the circumstances surrounding her Great Aunt Esme's sixty-one year confinement in a mental hospital located just blocks from her apartment, her commitment-phobic life begins to feel a little hollow. Onto these bare bones - with just these three women in lead roles - O' Farrell fleshes out a rich and complex tale of treachery and survival with an ending as surprising as it is satisfying. I see Judy Dench as Esme, Blythe Danner (with more make-up than Dench) as her sister Kitty, and Maggie Gyllenhal as Iris.

Of late, the novels selected by my book clubs have not been as reliably enjoyable or as well crafted as "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" and several others I've featured here recently. If this trend continues, some book club casualties may be unavoidable.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Go Ahead - Top This

A big thanks to readers who have requested photos from our just finished trip to Alaska. As soon as I settle on a couple that are representative, I'll attach them to a near-future post.

But first, let's play "Can you top this?", small world version. About two hours en route from Denali National Park to Moose Pass (yes, you read that correctly), our bus stopped for coffee. While in the men's room line, someone says "Pat Barton?" And there, in remote Alaska, in a random coffee shop, standing in the same line as I, is a student from the last class I finished teaching on August 21, a week prior to leaving for vacation. This particular student - who just happens to live in the same county - goes on to say "I knew it was you; I recognized your voice!" Go ahead - top that.  

But wait; there's more. On Sunday August 30 - the day President Obama declared Mt. McKinley would revert back to being called Denali - guess what mountain we were staring at through our train window on a crystal clear day? That would be Denali. Our whole car broke out into a cheer and the narrating naturalist subsequently corrected herself each time she mistakenly used the (now) obsolete name, grinning ear-to-ear as she did so. Apparently, Alaska has long wanted to re-claim Denali for itself vs. a long dead President who never stepped foot in the State. Neither my wife nor I knew of this long-simmering controversy or about President Obama traveling to Anchorage to issue his declaration the day we left the city.

Denali's reclamation occurring exactly as we stared at the mountain was - at the moment - a pretty wild coincidence. But then a week later I happened to be in that bathroom. So Jeff, if you read this and you plan on skiing in Killington over the Christmas holiday and you hear my voice on the Great Eastern trail please ignore it, OK? Otherwise, you'll freak me out.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Beam Me Home, Scotty

And then there were three.

Unless a good friend or relative moves to either - or an unexpected wedding invitation comes my way - I suspect Alabama and Mississippi may be the last two States I ever visit. Neither has a National Park; the weather and history of both are not particularly compelling to me; no road trip to visit friends or family logically passes through either State. What's left? A lifelong wish to experience every State at least once.

That makes Hawaii my clear current choice to fill slot #48. Two National Parks, some of the world's greatest beaches, the most diversity of any State. But on the way home yesterday from a two week visit to a few National Parks in Alaska - a return trip that began Thursday at 8:30 p.m. - I found myself reflecting how terrific it would have been had my trip to faraway State #47 magically ended with another glance at a glacier or a humpback whale vs. the hassles and tedium associated with flying. I know those hassles will quickly fade and the positive memories will long linger but this moment the idea of getting on an airplane to Hawaii (or anywhere) has zero appeal.

Where is Scotty when I need him?