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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?