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Friday, December 30, 2016

Best Of 2016

This is more fun when some of you join in and tell me and others what made the year that is ending a memorable one, using my categories or some of your own. I use this once a year post to emphasize positive events but, feel free to whine. I certainly do that enough here throughout the year.

Best reunionEarly in 2016, I re-connected with an old friend. Turns out, she'd saved the holiday letters and pictures I'd never stopped sending and then reached out after her son saw the pile and asked about me. We spoke at length last January and then re-united at her home in upstate NY over the summer. This one doubles as best gift I received in 2016.

Best new novel: Purity - Jonathan Franzen

Best new filmManchester By The Sea

Best teaching-related moment: Shortly after finishing a class on Paul Simon, I got an e-mail from a student that sustained me for weeks. She wrote to tell me that my passion about Simon's "American Tune" had inspired her so much that she and her family downloaded the song (with accompanying lyric) and then listened to it while eating dinner. She went on to say the ensuing family conversation was " ... one of the best they've ever had ...". If I feel great about this - being the conduit - imagine how Paul Simon must feel knowing how his work reaches people.

Best inspirational quote discovered for future blog use: "Do one thing every day that scares you" - Eleanor Roosevelt

Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Z: Raincheck, Please

"It is what it is."

What's your view of this endlessly repeated modern day tautology? Often upon hearing it - especially when it's used to discount pain that people other than the speaker are experiencing - I'm tempted to say well duh ... What else would it be other than what it is?

Zeno, cited as the founder of Stoicism, would likely have been aligned with those who love the whole "is" thing and its corollary - "It's all good". Is it? Reflexively spouting this second bromide - sometimes in an unsubtle attempt to shift from an uncomfortable topic - doesn't make it all good. It also doesn't absolve the speaker of responsibility for interacting with those who don't see it all as good or what it is.  Finally, saying "it's all good" or "it is what it is" doesn't magically erase deeper feelings the speaker might be avoiding. But, feelings are not Z's thing.   

Before any glass half empty clichés get hurled my way, let me say: I embrace and live the notion of looking at the bright side and not dwelling on the negative. And I understand that the use of these two hoary contemporary expressions can be an attempt to interject optimism or realism into a gloomy conversation. That said, I strongly suspect Zeno would have revered men (women couldn't get into his lectures during those particular "good old days") fond of the "...is..." and "...all good..." stuff. I also doubt that Z and I were destined for a bromance. The foundation of Stoicism taught men to be "free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and to submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity." I'll pass, thank you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Garbage In, Better Sounding Garbage Out

Although I've never had any illusions, after gleefully ramming through a book like "Anatomy Of A Song" (Mark Myers), my lightweight intellect is indisputably confirmed. Why not re-read King Lear or make another attempt at Ulysses or spend reading time otherwise challenging myself? Yikes.

Self-flagellation aside, there is a bright spot. All those hours spent with eye candy have come in handy since I began teaching courses about music a few years back. Otherwise meaningless tidbits provided by books like "Anatomy..." give me geeky fuel for classroom riffs. For example: No one really needs to know that the Hues Corporation - of "Rock The Boat" fifteen-minutes-of-fame note - were originally called the Children of Howard Hughes, a moniker they changed after realizing they could be sued by the billionaire recluse. Who besides a nerd like me could ever make use of such worthless information about a one hit wonder that quickly faded into obscurity?

Perhaps you'll be surprised - or appalled - to know that garbage like this is fodder for the addled brain of yours truly when in front of a room full of people. I'm not necessarily proud of this but at least it gives me small consolation for the few hours I spent reading "Anatomy..."  Anyway, it was a Christmas gift from my wife. She loves this intellectual pygmy.    

Monday, December 26, 2016

Drama Vs. Facade

How many of you spent significant time with family over this holiday season? Compared to previous years, was there more, less, or about the same amount of drama?

Around Thanksgiving, I began reflecting on which is more exhausting - family drama or the effort it takes to maintain a façade around people who are not family. Your view? Are you more worn out after a family squabble - holiday version or otherwise - or after a non-family event requiring obligatory small talk and a perpetual smile?

I've concluded my fatigue level following either scenario is roughly equal. Almost without fail, I need a nap soon after family drama or façade-building. And though I used to think the latter did more long term damage to my soul, a shift in that perspective also seems to be underway. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Teach Your Children

"There is no office higher than that of a teacher of youth, for there is nothing on earth so precious as the mind, soul, and character of the child." - William Ellery Channing

Where would the people you know line up with respect to Channing's statement? That is, how much value do the people you know place on the importance of teachers?

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."

Heard that one? Notwithstanding the lip service given to Channing's noble sentiment, my experience has often led me to conclude there are a significant number of people more aligned with that latter - more cynical - notion. Your experience?

I've always resisted the idea that the value of the work people choose to do and how they are paid are at all connected. And that resistance has - for better or worse - shaped me in powerful ways. But the  societal message that used to be implicit - recently more explicit - equating salary and net worth with contribution to the world, has begun to dull the inspiration I once derived from Channing's words.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Transcending Humbug

Whenever I unthinkingly move into humbug mode this time of year, one of the constants that help guarantee my mood will lift is spending lots of time with my daughter. What helps you transcend humbug? 

Mind you, she and I have our less-than-sparkling moments. But the bulk of our interactions remind me what a fine person she has become. And it's not unusual for pieces of our conversations to later appear, however elliptically, in a blog post. Her insights are wise beyond her years, her commitment to her career is inspiring, and we almost always get to play some music together. Biased, you say? Not to my face if you're smart.

Mostly, I'm grateful she seems to enjoy my company. Hard to stay in humbug mode too long when I consider that gift.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

To Pursue Or Not To Pursue

What percentage of your relationships with others - family, friends, etc. are largely reciprocal? If you're at all like me, you're pursued about as often as you pursue.

That said, each holiday season I seem to reflect a fair amount on those relationships in which I'm much more frequently the pursuer. How many of these relationships do you have? If you have none - or none come readily to mind - here's the next question: How frequently are you avidly pursued? I suspect anyone who cannot readily identify any relationships where pursuer is more frequently their role is likely more frequently pursued. Simple math, no?

Once I'm down this rabbit hole, my yearly reflections toggle from logical to cynical to insecure. Logical = The person I'm pursuing - more than being pursued by - has been very busy, had personal difficulties, lost my contact info (a stretch, given technology). Cynical = My pursued person is chronically disorganized or has lost my contact info and eschewed technology. Insecure = You can figure this one out yourself.

The good news for me in 2016 was that one important relationship where I had long been the unrequited pursuer got back on equal footing. I love happy endings.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Keeping Those Moccasins Handy

"We don't remember days, we remember moments" - Cesare Pavese

What moment have you experienced recently that you're confident will stay with you?

I've volunteered at Meals On Wheels on Monday mornings since November, 2010. The man who has delivered the supplies to our satellite location nearly every week always struck me as an unpleasant, unhappy individual. Both the woman I work alongside in the kitchen and I have tried to engage this driver in conversation on numerous occasions, only to be spoken to gruffly - or more often - ignored. Both of us had just about given up trying. 

Yesterday, this same man was glowing and - in the space of five minutes - said more to us than he had in the previous seven years. The bulk of his conversation was to rave about the new hearing aids that he'd recently had implanted.

My coaching to others about tolerance has often included that old saying  - "Try walking a mile in someone else's moccasins". After the teaching moment I experienced yesterday - one I'm sure will stay with me - I pray for the grace to recall those moccasins the next time I make a judgment about another "unpleasant, unhappy" individual. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Christmas Chortle From Mr. Id

Upending his creator's initial cranky expectations, Mr. Id's visits to the bell curve have steadily decreased each year since his dreary debut in May 2011. And with only one previous visit from the evil twin during this past year, a record low number of appearances from your favorite doppelganger was on the horizon for 2016.

But, feeling more Scrooge-like than in Christmases past - with apocalyptic visions dancing in his head in place of sugar plums - and facing yet another sleepless night, Mr. Id must now own his political ignorance. Along with all the pollsters and smug overpaid liberal pundits - not to mention two generations of the Bush family, Mitt Romney, and other notable Republicans - he never believed it plausible that someone with a reality TV show on his resume could be elected President. Snookie for leading the National Endowment Of The Arts, anyone? Oh wait, does that still exist?

Lest anyone chastise the Wizard behind the curtain for Monday morning quarterbacking on top of ignorance, please note: Dr. Frankenstein had himself previously blogged sarcastically about that national antique called the Electoral College long before the elephants and donkeys had their conventions.
.
http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/xxiv.html

But we all know those three million votes we're stolen anyway. After all, that was tweeted and then ... re-tweeted so it must be true, right?

"2016 was the kind of year you could even lie about being cheated after you won." - Joel Stein

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Be Jubilant, My Feet

miracle: 1.) an event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural or divine cause. 2.) a wonder; marvel.

"Peace Like A River" (2001) is a novel about both kinds of miracles. And Leif Unger's 2001 debut is itself a miracle in the latter sense.

"You know how it is - you grow up with a story in your life, it can transmute into something you neither question nor particularly value. It's why we have such bad luck learning from mistakes." 

Eleven year old Reuben Land - the narrator and witness of this thoroughly enchanting and beautifully written book - makes more than his share of mistakes. But he has a devoted Father who literally willed him into life, an older hot-headed fugitive brother who he idolizes, and a precocious and talented younger sister who knows how to bring him back from crippling asthma attacks. Reuben's voice is strong even when his breathing fails him.

"At that moment, there was nothing - no valiant history or hopeful future - half worth my sister's pardon. Fair is whatever God wants to do." 

This is an old-fashioned book in all the right ways. It has a compelling narrative arc, unforgettable characters, and an unmistakable moral center. If you've read it or do so in the future, let's swap notes, OK?   

Friday, December 16, 2016

Saving For A Rainy Or ... Sunny Or ... Any Day

What do you continue to keep that you know - in lucid moments - would not have been missed had you discarded it long ago?

I consider myself fortunate compared to those who struggle to discard anything. Like many of you, I've known people who are overwhelmed by their stuff. I'm also grateful that what I hold onto doesn't take up a lot of space and doesn't annoy or interfere with the lives of people close to me.

Still, as the years pass and my basement swells with old journals and other writing of all kinds, I do periodically wonder what this quirk says about me. What do you think? And sometimes - in a morbid moment - I realize that if I don't chuck these ramblings and fragments, someone will someday get the job. During those maudlin reflections, I'm chastened when picturing my wife or daughter with the task instead of some disinterested third party. Creepy, I know. 

But how about you? What conclusions would someone make about you if they discovered what you unthinkingly save? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

An Existentialist Hat Trick

It appears my reading Sarah Bakewell's book "At The Existentialist Café" while - purely by accident - listening to lectures about the leading thinkers of the Existential movement has also lined up with a recent existential moment of my own.

An old friend, a former Deputy Attorney General of the NJ Office of Bias Crime, has again enlisted my help for a multi-day workshop he's leading at a national conference in Minneapolis next June. And though I'm honored - as always - he's asked me to co-facilitate, as our first conversation and review of his outline deepened, a few of his questions prompted me to peer into an abyss.

How do each of us live with our confusion, guilt, or shame surrounding oppression? What are the compromises we make to help us cope with the moral injustice of the way people with less privilege are treated? And most pertinently to the workshop, what emotions do we avoid or deny to keep these questions from interfering with the comfort in our own lives?

Work to do. Good thing there are several months to prepare.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

To All The Men I've Ever Loved

"Internalized oppression" is a term sociologists use to describe how members of a group can - given enough repetition - unconsciously accept stereotypes about their group. In simple terms, think of it as believing one's own bad press.

Fully cognizant of how insidious internalized oppression can be, when a new friend suggested men's resistance to fiction is mostly about hubris, it felt less like stereotyping than it did truth. Do your own informal survey. Ask every man you know who reads regularly what his fiction to non-fiction ratio is. I'm confident asserting you will find less than 20% of men - I'm being generous - with anything approaching parity in their reading diet. After gathering those results - and please contradict me if your findings are at odds with my own informal research - move to the next part.

Ask your same group of hunting-gathering readers why non-fiction takes precedence. I'm equally confident their answer will approximate something I heard my beloved Father say many times: "I read for information." Now carefully analyze that statement. What is not being said?

I submit the pride of many men blocks them from acknowledging a simple fact: Each of us can learn - i.e. get information - from a well constructed novel of ideas. It's true the information isn't always delivered in a linear fashion. But insights about relationships or the human condition, and deeper truths about life don't necessarily lend themselves to a "just the facts" linear approach. Hang in there, my brothers, and put that hubris on hold. Perhaps you'll find you understand the women in your life a little better.       

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Prophet In His Own Land

If you're over forty, what's your recollection of how much you valued the coaching of your parents when you were a young adult? If you're a young adult, how much do you value that coaching now?

On balance, I would say my young adult daughter - although very much her own person - is more receptive to me than I ever was to my parents. That said, on occasion I've considered subterfuge to help me get my point across. Which strategy for overcoming the prophet in his own land syndrome might work best?  Disguise my voice? Don a costume? Shave my beard?

And mine is a manageable situation; I feel heard - if not heeded - much of the time. I've heard enough frustration from some ignored parents to suggest they try plastic surgery as a strategy.

On the other hand, I've also heard the relief and gratitude frustrated parents feel when a helpful third party breaks through where they could not, a fairly common occurrence. Although it's nice when our coaching is valued, in the end, isn't it more important these young people we cherish find their way, regardless of the source? As for me, given a second chance, I hope I'd be smart enough to heed my own parent's coaching more. I'm reasonably sure they would have enjoyed more often being valued as the prophets in their land.   

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Recovery

What was the last film you saw that you're sure you'll never forget?

Although it is exceptional end-to-end, there is one scene in "Manchester By The Sea" that I have trouble imagining anyone could ever forget. The main character - played by Casey Affleck - unexpectedly bumps into his ex-wife - played by Michelle Williams - out walking with her infant in a baby carriage. Their brief interaction is so raw and real I didn't realize I was holding my breath until the tears started streaming down my face. Although my wife and I saw the film last night, I needed a full day to process my reaction to it. The closest recent analogue I can recall was how long it took me to recover after reading Anna Quindlen's 2010 novel "Every Last One."

In large part because my daughter has chosen it as her field, my appreciation for acting has deepened over the past fifteen years. Affleck's performance in "Manchester By The Sea" is a marvel. See this movie. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Thanks From The Big Head In His Tiny Puddle

It's been a while since I've said thanks to folks who read this blog, no matter how regularly. Every time someone tells me they've gotten something from a post, my already over-sized head swells. I'm especially grateful that a few years back my daughter discovered the widget on blogger allowing people to follow me via getting an e-mail each time I publish. Since adding that widget to my interface, I've seen a significant spike in views. Welcome to new readers who found me that way.

And sometimes, especially after reaching a personal milestone in total views - as I did this past week - or, if an individual post gets a fair amount of attention, I find myself reflecting what it must be like to have the reach of an artist like Paul Simon. When someone attains that level of notoriety, how do they remain grounded? It must be so difficult for folks in that rarefied realm to distinguish sincere admiration for their work from the sycophancy of the crazies. No wonder the famous often marry the famous.

Excuse the idle speculation from the bell curve. The big head in his tiny puddle says thanks and, as always, sincerely welcomes feedback on how to keep you reading.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

19th Century Concord; 21st Century NJ

What's become clearer to you since we last spoke?

Emerson frequently used that fantastic question when he encountered people on the streets of Concord. When I need either an emotional lift or an intellectual jolt, few things work as reliably as spending time with the Transcendentalists. Which group of American thinkers has ever rivaled the freshness of their ideas or their moral bravery?

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."

Feminists almost a century before women got the vote, abolitionists thirty years before the Civil War, naturalists, educational reformers, advocates. More than a few times, I've fantasized about having conversations on these visionary subjects with people like this. Would I have had what it takes? Would you? At minimum, this blog has been a method I've used regularly to sort out what's become clearer to me. What has become clearer for you recently?

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes."

Monday, December 5, 2016

No Wine Or Whining Book Club

After seven years and lessons learned from eighteen clubs, I've concluded the best way to continually deepen my appreciation for books I've read is to try starting my own club. Added advantage: No one can ask me to leave.

I'm aiming for perfection. Here's how that would look:
* Six to ten people at most meetings.
* Discussions about "likable" fictional characters and grandchildren's hobbies are minimal.
* Challenging and provocative books are welcome alongside engaging or entertaining ones.

With all the remaining variables my responsibility, I'm feeling positive about the potential. If the club is successful, drawing more discerning readers as time goes on, great. If the club doesn't get off the ground or is gasping for air after several meetings, the buck stops here.

Wish me luck and let me know offline if you're interested. Readers who don't live locally and those I don't know personally, stay tuned for periodic updates.   

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 3

Even with the number of words available and the hundreds or thousands of song lyrics we've heard over our lives, the four words below can still only conjure three possible songs in the minds of most people.

I say huckleberry and you say ....

I say unphotographable and you say ...

I say Joe DiMaggio and you say ...

Oh yeah, I've got a long list of these unmistakable references from pop songs . But I'm just greasing the wheels. In your mind, what word or name is so inextricably linked to a specific song that there is only one plausible response? No phrases or sentences, and the word can't be part of the title of the song. Fair is fair. Bring 'em on.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Lists, Cafes, Synergies

The NY Times "100 Notable Books Of The Year" is a list that reminds me how time zips by. This year I didn't read a single novel of the fifty from that list. There are two - "The Nix" (Nathan Hill) and "Nutshell" (Ian McEwan) -  that will be moved up on my own list now that the Times has endorsed them. Both had been previously recommended to me by my reading posse; that's some group, right?

At least I got to two the Times featured on the non-fiction side. "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi was the subject of my August 9 post. Not a happy book but clearly a notable one. And most recently, I was enchanted by the company "At The Existentialist Cafe" (Sarah Bakewell). I picked up Bakewell's latest book based on loving "How To Live", her 2010 biography of Michel Montaigne.

"Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so." That sentence seems to shape Bakewell's writing approach. Just as in the Montaigne book, "...Café" is an educational but lively romp with people at the center. In this book, she showcases the thinkers who informed and then shaped what became known as existentialism. And in a wild coincidence, at the same time I happened to be reading Bakewell's account of Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, I had reached the point in a Great Courses series on philosophy where I was listening to lectures on the same three giants! Did this visual/auditory synergy make Heidegger's dense writing more comprehensible to me? If only. 

Still, the eye to ear repetition of parallel information can only be good for my brain. Bakewell saves her highest praise for Simone DeBeauvoir, Sartre's lifelong intellectual companion. I was tempted to add DeBeauvoir's magnum opus "The Second Sex" to my reading list after finishing "...Café" until that damn NY Times list came out.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/08/finding-solace.html

Friday, December 2, 2016

Message From 2016: Daddy Wants Your Tally

Over a lifetime, each of us on the bell curve have prolonged contact with several groups of people, usually beginning with our immediate families. For many of us, that first group is frequently followed by our classmates, neighbors, and friends made outside of school or neighborhoods. Later in life, other common groups may include extended family, work colleagues, parents of our children's friends, and people from groups encountered via work interests, hobbies, or otherwise.

Considering all those groups - and add in anything I've overlooked - how many total people would you guess you've had prolonged contact with over your lifetime? For those of us thirty five and older, a guess is probably the best we can do. But if Facebook and other social media platforms continue to thrive, in 2056 when my millennial twenty seven year old daughter is my age her guess will be much more grounded than any of our 2016 versions. She'll be able to scroll through her networks - how many will she be juggling by then? -  and tally how many individuals she actually had prolonged contact with over her sixty seven years. Will she bother? Almost certainly not, unless I can figure out a way to have this blog post appear on the screen of whatever device she's carrying forty years from now. If anyone can help me with that, I'd be grateful.  

My daughter - like many in her generation - grew up with this technology and has embraced and adopted each social media platform as it was introduced. Consequently, her network is massive. And that has helped her career, allowed her to stay in touch with many people from earlier years and - at times - exhausted her. Still, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I envy her ability to do that tally anytime she wants; I like more precise numbers.      

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

You May Say That I'm A Dreamer

Attentive readers might have noticed that I infrequently indulge in fantasy and encourage you to join me. Ready to participate in today's harmless dream?

When was the last time a stranger said "good morning" to you? Held open a public door for you? How about another driver waving you into traffic as you were waiting to exit a parking lot? Given the current ugliness of much of our public discourse, lately I've found myself fantasizing that a few of those simple acts of common courtesy have been accompanied by a civil political discussion. Scoff if you will but when I have the presence of mind to imagine a reasonable conversation when some stranger is gracious to me, it gives me a small measure of solace.

On some days the screaming, the name calling, the petulant tweeting are so wearying that a basic kindness - no matter how mundane - catapults me to fantasy land. There are surely worse things.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Glad To Be Unhappy

Which would you prefer to hear first about "The Fun Stuff" (2012) - the latest book of essays by esteemed critic James Wood - good news or bad news?

Good news, you say? OK, if you decide to tackle this book it's a safe bet you'll benefit because Wood might be one of the most well read people you'll ever encounter. He'll likely expose you to writers and books that might otherwise escape your attention. Of the twenty three authors featured in this feast for the mind, nine were names unknown to me. Among that group, the next new author I'm going to try - based on Wood's glowing endorsement - is Lydia Davis.

Bad news? OK, if you share even a portion of my day-dependent intellectual insecurity, if you decide to tackle this book it's a safe bet you'll be demoralized because Wood might be one of the most well read people you'll ever encounter. My first bad moment occurred as I read his scary smart essay on Edmund Wilson, perhaps Wood's closest analogue from the earlier part of the 20th century. Later came "Robert Alter and The King James Bible" when Wood compares several translations of the big book. Yikes. Lest I sound too pathetic, I'll leave out how my feelings of inadequacy nearly overtook me recognizing subtleties I apparently missed in several books we've both read.

But, I'll finish with good news. The title essay, the first one in the book and a finalist for the 2011 National Magazine Award, is about Keith Moon's drumming. It's a hoot and is also 100% accessible, thank goodness. "Rock music ... is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theater, pantomime, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity. It's not so much concentration as it is fission." Wood's down-to-earth populism pulled me in right there and then sustained me during subsequent, if brief, spells on the pity pot. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

#46: The Mt. Rushmore Series

I've been fortunate to have spent time in all but three U.S. States. But so far, I've never been seriously tempted to leave the State where I was born and raised. This iteration of Mt. Rushmore has my top four reasons for staying put, at least for now. If you're a Jersey lover, I hope you'll tell me why.

1.) The beach in off season - Even before moving to my current home seven years ago - one mile from the ocean - my favorite time to walk on the beach was in the fall. New Jersey autumns are extraordinary; fall on the beach is unbeatable.

2.) The diversity

3.) The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) - Every time I see a show at NJPAC, I say the same thing - "Why don't I come here more often?". There are other good concert venues in NJ but nothing close to NJPAC.

4.) The Pinelands National Preserve - Five State forests, 22% of the total area of the State, amazing bio-diversity, phenomenal hiking, kayaking, and camping. A prime example of protecting open space for the good of all vs. providing profit for a few.

And here's hoping all those comics keep making NJ the butt of their lame jokes and those who are listening keep swallowing the stereotypes unthinkingly. If people decide not to move here, that's just fine - more for me and mine.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

History And History

Historical novels clearly serve an important role. Many people might never be exposed to a less told slice of history without them. Authors like Christina Baker Kline ("Orphan Train") or Tatiana de Rosnay ("Sarah's Key") deserve respect for bringing millions of readers to these portals to the past. 

That said, my experience has taught me I'm often better served reading non-fiction accounts of historical events. Not that I haven't enjoyed my share of historical novels - EL Doctorow's vibrant re-imaginings come first to mind - but my list demands continual culling. So, each time a non-fiction account like "Into the Arms of Strangers" (Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer) or "Beyond The Beautiful Forever" (Katherine Boo) takes my breath away using facts, I have less patience for the neat moralizing found in many historical novels and I'm able to easily eliminate certain titles from that pesky list. It's annoying when an author telling me a story grounded in history decides to end a chapter using a "cliffhanger" sentence, usually involving their fictional protagonist facing some soul-testing dilemma. Even worse are those scenes in historical novels when the author spoon feeds me the "big picture" via a vile character representing the "wrong" side of history.

Does this mildly churlish post have a whiff of maleness to it? Perhaps. But lest any reader lapse into stereotyping, I suggest you first peruse the Bell Curve Backlog, or just go back to early this month and read my back-to-back raves about "Olive Kitteridge" (Elizabeth Strout). Prose about the human condition frequently moves me and almost always teaches me; novels do that best. My male friends who tell me they never read any novels because they read for "information" only annoy me almost as much as authors who use history to try to manipulate my emotions.   

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Reconsideration

"Do not go gently into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying light." 

How old were you the first time that Dylan Thomas poem landed? How much has your perspective on his words shifted since that first exposure?

One of the few sentences I recall my mother repeatedly saying to me through adolescence and my young adulthood was "You're too serious, Patrick." That alone probably suggests how the poem first landed with me, even when that "good night" was more distant than near. And despite sincere efforts over the ensuing decades to integrate disciplines into my life aimed at tempering all the burning and raving, those who know me best would still probably not characterize me as mellow or light hearted.

I'm grateful beyond measure the rage has never been directed toward others. But on clearheaded days I also recognize how wearing my inner-directed rage must be for those who love me. That leads me to reflect on how going gently into that good night might have an upside I'd not considered, especially if I get around to it well before the dying light
 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Best Is Yet To Come

Every sentence can be improved.

If I'd known how long those five words would cling to me, I wouldn't have written them in my journal years ago. Several hundred blog posts and thousands of sentences later, it's safe to say ego superseded any latent perfectionism. Then recently, seven liberating words crossed my path.   

"A poem is never finished, only abandoned." - Paul Valery

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Key Learning: Year 67

To date, I've published fifteen key learnings, three each year beginning 11/23/11 and then followed on each subsequent birthday by three more. By streamlining the exercise to just one key learning extracted from my 67th year, I'm hoping to have more company on the bell curve this time. So, what have you learned over the past year that you're reasonably sure will stick with you?

My foremost musical gift is as an accompanist. This hard earned key learning revealed itself near the end of a thirty page journal entry I wrote upon my return from a weeklong guitar workshop in early September. Throughout the workshop all three leaders continually extolled the value of being able to locate any quality of a chord anywhere on a guitar. They also stressed the importance of thoroughly understanding inversions in order to be a well-rounded musician and soloist. So even though my experience at the workshop - featuring quite a bit of high volume soloing over rudimentary blues chords - wasn't real satisfying, the instructors affirmed that all the hours I've spent studying the instrument have been well spent.

This key learning will help sustain me, especially with any future opportunities I get to support my daughter's exceptional singing voice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Goal For Year 68

The first seven years of my post full time work life have been satisfying for many reasons, not least of which has been my progress on several longstanding goals. And this blog - itself a by-product of one of those goals - has assisted me in that effort. In a sense, announcing a goal here each year on the day before my birthday makes me accountable. This is so even when no one checks my progress because, not unlike the public declaration of their dependencies people make at support groups, the ante has been raised.

Inspired by the 88 year old tour guide who led my wife and I on a rigorous walking tour of Harlem recently, my goal for year 68 is to return to my pre-2010 bike riding level. Since stopping full time work, my exercise regimen has been good - mostly tennis and lots of walking - but guitar, reading, and writing have displaced much of my earlier cycling discipline. Obviously, something will have to give a bit - there still being only so many hours in each day - so effective immediately, any book or writing clubs dropped from the schedule will not be replaced. I'll also be more discriminating about how many college teaching assignments I'll take this next year; I love doing these classes but that tour guide really juiced me. I want to be that vital at 88.

Birthday aside, I hope some of you will share a goal of yours with me. I promise I'll hold you accountable, if that's what you want.    

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Repertory

Needing serious diversion, I recently re-watched Christopher Guest's hilarious "Best In Show". Soon after, it dawned on me that many of us have people in our lives that we routinely call on just as Guest does with the repertory of actors he frequently uses. Call it a network, a circle of friends, a gang, etc. Whatever you call it, how common is it for any individual in your posse to serve multiple purposes?

That is, aside from your partner - if you have one  - are there people in your repertory who can provide emotional support but also give you authentic corrective feedback? How effectively do people in your repertory toggle between emotional support and intellectual stimulation? How closely does your repertory mirror your politics, your economic status, your other group affiliations?

Struggling with these questions is not new for me, but it feels more urgent of late. More than once over the last six years, an urgent post has generated a helpful or empathic comment from one of you. Today that would be most welcome.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Don't Shoot The Messenger

After realizing my fiction to non-fiction ratio had recently gotten out of whack, I consulted my trusty list only to discover no non-fiction on there - clearly, time for a library drive-by. And the yield?  Immediately satisfying. Four intriguing titles by authors whose previous work I've enjoyed - Sarah Bakewell, Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, and Sarah Vowell - jumped off the shelves into my hungry arms. Then a book of literary criticism by the well regarded James Wood joined the pile. Ooh, goody. Stay tuned as I digest this feast.

How to prioritize this yummy meal? Decided I'd start with the shortest of the five which turned out to be Vowell's "Assassination Vacation" (2005). Though it didn't grab me as much as her more recent "Wordy Shipmates" (2008), I'm guessing the opposite would be true for most readers because the earlier book is about an inherently more interesting - if slightly morbid - subject.

This talented young author has attitude to spare, politics that match my own, and an irreverent sense of humor that is tough to beat. "One of John Wilkes Booth's many faults is that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a Metro stop."  Soon after seeing Stephen Sondheim's provocative show entitled "Assassins", Vowell drags her tolerant sister and her Pugsley-like nephew on a deranged road trip, visiting the perverse landmarks constructed and lovingly preserved by an industry that can only be described as ghoulish. Lincoln and Booth are names known to many of us, but how about Presidents Garfield and McKinley and their respective killers? Intrigued? I know I was in schadenfreude heaven even as my frequent laughter mortified me - a little.

Not your cup of tea? I get it. Take a look at my post below from early this year about "Wordy Shipmates" - more esoteric subject, for sure, but you owe it to yourself to check out this author.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/01/invigorating-and-intimidating.html

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Modesty Takes A Holiday

Sometime ago, an old friend and faithful reader asked why my blog put so much emphasis on my "...shortcomings..." As evidence, she cited a few posts from around that time as well as my now discontinued series entitled "My Grade So Far."

Though I'm not sure I agree with this observation, ever since receiving that e-mail, I have frequently reflected on which of my life choices have stood the test of time. I hope you'll join me today to pat yourself (ahem!) on the back.

1.) My unswerving loyalty and fidelity to my family and friends - a model my Father personified - has clearly helped keep me reasonably sane. I'm happy the people most important to me know they can count on me.

2.) My early-in-life decision to pursue my passions - even when doing so could mean material good fortune might elude me - turned out to be wise. It also helped mitigate work-related stress.

3.) My later-in-life decision to wait to have children until I felt fully ready helped me immeasurably as a parent. I can say without hyperbole I have never had a moment's regret about that decision. To be effective raising another human being, I had to wait until I felt whole.

Please take a moment to celebrate with me - publicly or privately - what you've gotten right so far.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Prognostication, Anyone?

How's your crystal ball? Let's give it a spin, shall we?

  • 2007 – Paul Simon.
  • 2009 – Stevie Wonder.
  • 2010 – Paul McCartney.
  • 2012 – Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
  • 2013 – Carole King.
  • 2014 – Billy Joel.
  • 2015 – Willie Nelson.
  • 2016 – Smokey Robinson

Above are the recipients of the Gershwin Award for popular song, issued by the Library of Congress. This award is given to living songwriters who work primarily in the popular vein vs. theater, etc. Care to don some soothsayer garb and guess future recipients? 

Only after challenging my current class with a similar question - that class happens to be about the first recipient of the award - did it occur to me that many folks who read this blog have good musical instincts. Let's test those instincts, OK? Pretend just for now that Bob Dylan is not qualified. Guessing him, considering his recent coronation, makes the exercise too easy.

For the record, I'll start with Jimmy Webb. Like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Webb's name is not as widely known as the others. But many of his compositions - "Up, Up, And Away", "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", "McArthur Park", just to name a few - make up the soundtrack of our times like the songs of all the winners.

If my guess turns out to be right - in any future year -  I'll be insufferable. If I'm wrong, only those of you with a really good memory will be able to gloat, if you can track me down. Of course, I've got more guesses up my sleeve but I'm saving them until one of you goes out on the limb. Fair is fair.      

Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Is This Person?

In which life pursuit does your inconsistency most frustrate you?

These days, it's a toss-up for me between my guitar playing and my tennis game. I have a lot more opportunity to get frustrated with my inconsistent guitar playing but only because I devote more time to it. On the other hand, my inconsistent tennis game is more likely to embarrass me because - more often than not -  others are on hand to witness my frustration.

The joy I get from both these pursuits outweighs the frustration with my inconsistency, usually. And when I allow my frustration with either to get out of hand, I recognize - cognitively - how readily that frustration can spiral into a counter-productive loop. But my internal conversation is frequently more connected to my emotional state than to any logic. I hear myself saying "Who is this person flubbing that passage - or that easy shot? You've made that same shot (or played that same passage) hundreds of times, for crying out loud!"

Sound at all familiar?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Moonlight

Have you seen "Moonlight" yet? If so, please tell me what you took away from this movie. 

Did I see the print ads for this film before hearing a few people rave about it? Because I don't know for sure, ever since walking out of the theater last week, I've been reflecting on the likelihood of an understated depiction of a man supporting a boy's head in the water enticing me to see a movie. Unlikely - I don't like the water all that much. I also don't recall reading any film reviews or seeing any trailers for the movie, common means for a film to get on my radar.

Still, I do recall parts of my interior dialogue after hearing the raves and my first conscious spotting of that print ad but before committing to seeing the film. Specifically, I recall taking note of the fact that the man and the boy in that low key ad were both African American actors unknown to me. And I wondered: What does this film have for me? I'm not proud of these thoughts. But there's a higher cost to be paid by denying them.

In the end, I'm glad I transcended my shallowness and saw "Moonlight". Turns out there was a great deal there for me.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Again And Again

Each year when Veterans Day arrives, my Dad is frequently on my mind soon after I wake. If either or both of your parents are gone, which days of the year are likely to bring them back for you?

"Look at it, Patrick". That's what Dad would say whenever he saw I was frustrated by something mechanical. Probably because he was already in my head, I heard his voice earlier today while caught up in one of those frustrating moments at the stable where I volunteer. Though I did not solve the problem, I did slow down and "look at it" instead of letting myself over-react. Thanks again Dad.

On the long list of things I'm grateful for, my Dad is always near the top. And even though military service and I would likely not have been a great match, I'm also grateful for all the men and women - including Dad - who we honor today.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Awful? Really?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-worth-hearing.html

Feet of clay, work in progress, one day at a time. On numerous occasions, I've used one or more of those hoary clichés to forgive myself for falling short. And each of those platitudes has worked to varying degrees - I can rationalize with the best of them.

But feeling sorry for myself has always been a flaw I've had difficulty rationalizing away, clichés or not. So after more than a day wallowing in my stink, I sat down to write a post. Several minutes of whining disguised as writing convinced me to try a new tack. I read my post from this date five years ago - no help. But the one above - from four years ago today - written soon after the 2012 devastation of Hurricane Sandy, began to lift me from the pity pot. 

Then I got in my car and drove on Route 35 through some areas still not recovered from Sandy. What was I complaining about again? Albert Ellis calls the human tendency to sometimes lose perspective "over-awfulizing".  How often do you succumb to this? Who or what helps you get a grip?       

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

For Every Shoe, There Is A Potato

I've often fantasized about artists from different fields who - in my mind - are meant to collaborate. The intelligent prose of Julian Barnes is ideally suited to Stephen Sondheim's challenging melodies. The haunting and mildly creepy literature of Dan Chaon is just what M. Night Shyamalan needs to revive his once promising film career. Tom Waits must write the score when Jennifer Egan's brilliant "A Visit From The Goon Squad" gets adapted to stage or film. Even if these made-in-heaven partnerships never materialize, I still get goosebumps imagining the possibilities.

But how about the opposite scenario? In your mind, which artists are so wildly incompatible that a collaboration makes you laugh, shudder and choke all at once? Let's call these mashups the shoe and potato partnerships.

What if Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, or Janis Ian got to do the soundtrack for a Michael Bay blockbuster or one of the Bourne films? Or Norman Rockwell paintings were used on the set of a Neil LaBute or Sam Shepherd play? Or the next time one of Cormac McCarthy's nihilistic books gets adapted to film, Chelsea Handler gets to write the screenplay and Abba gets to do the music?

Come on, use your imagination and have some fun with me, will you?        

Monday, November 7, 2016

Over Simplifying

In a recent conversation, I heard myself offering an over-simplified explanation to a complex issue being discussed. Although I know better, sometimes it's hard to resist doing this. When was the last time you caught yourself over simplifying?  

Like many of us, I've got some favorites. For example, when conversations arise about inequality in our economic system, too often I seem to rely on the tired cliché that greed is the root of the problem. If I heard someone in the media making a pronouncement like this, I'd call them a dunce. And if someone I was conversing with over-simplified to this degree, I'd try to point out some nuances that person was overlooking. Though I sometimes react defensively, I appreciate when others care enough to do the same for me. How can any of us expect to get more sophisticated in our thinking if people don't point out our over simplifying?

It's possible we fall into this habit because the problems in our world can be overwhelming. I know at times I crave simple answers as a coping mechanism. In the end, over-simplifying is relatively harmless so long as I remember to re-visit the issue later when I'm better able to handle complexity.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wake Me When It's Over

Regardless of who you'd like to see win, will you be as relieved as I am on Wednesday when this circus has left town?

Sadly, it could get worse. We could have a repeat of 2000 i.e. inconclusive final results, further prolonging the persistent ugliness of the past several weeks. Having to endure another month of this rancor - and the inevitable non stop coverage of it - would be a form of torture. If that happened, I'd pay a handsome price for a pill allowing me to take a long harmless nap. Just wake me when it's over.  

People who long for the "... good old days ..." usually annoy me. But when it comes to the state of modern politics and the seemingly insurmountable divisiveness that appears to have replaced civil public discourse about our differences, I reluctantly admit my nostalgia for earlier times.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Honest Tears

"No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader."  - Robert Frost

In almost six years of blogging, I have never written back-to-back posts about a book. But as my book journal entry for Elizabeth Strout's 2008 masterpiece "Olive Kitteridge" swelled to record length, I knew I was not done processing the effect these thirteen stories had on me. I can't get Olive out of my head. When did this last happen to you?

A reader of my blog who also read this remarkable book asked me which story was my favorite. Given the somber wisdom of these tales, better to ask which is most memorable. But even that is tricky. In just the week since I finished "Olive Kitteridge", the most memorable story of the bunch has shifted at least twice. Today, "Tulips" - #8 if you read the book in order - has popped into my head several times.

"She stood, waiting for the hug to end." That could be the saddest sentence I've read in the last year. It's Olive, describing her reaction when her husband Henry brings her flowers. "... not wanting to be reminded of what could happen to a family that had seemed as pretty and fresh as a blueberry pie." Olive again, thinking about the Larkins, whose son is imprisoned for life for committing a brutal crime. "You will marry a beast and love her, Olive thought. You will have a son and love him. You will be endlessly kind to townspeople as they come for medicine, tall in your white lab coat." There are two additional sentences describing Henry's life following those three but they contain a spoiler so I left them out. But in five crisp sentences, this talented author sums up a man's entire life.

And re-reading those five sentences as I selected the prose to use in this post, I cried for the second or third time. I would not be surprised to learn Elizabeth Strout did the same as she wrote them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Olive And I And Ouch

What reading experience have you had where your foibles matched those of a prickly character enough to give you pause?

Man, did I groan uncomfortably a few times reading ""Olive Kitteridge" (2008). But I didn't fully understand how much Olive and I shared until the final story in this remarkable book - entitled "River"- when she started bashing cell phones. Suddenly, I heard clear echoes of my own occasional crabbiness and stubborn resistance to cell phones. As the book ends, Olive is seventy four; I'll be sixty seven later this month - ouch!

The thirteen stories in Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize Winner all take place in Crosby, Maine and each can stand alone. Olive is central to seven of the thirteen; important in a few more (notably "Incoming Tide" and "Starving"); peripheral or incidental in the rest (in "The Piano Player" and "Criminal" she gets just a few sentences). Strout's shimmering prose brilliantly supports her stunning insight about human failings - "... she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter a pathetic fairy, but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment ..."

This is not a "happy" book.  But it is rich, funny ("Little tiny brownies. What was wrong with making a brownie big enough to sink your teeth into?"), and groundbreaking. And for better or worse - and there's a lot of worse, believe me - Olive Kitteridge is a force of nature. She is ferocious, complicated, kind, and sometimes cruel. Looking in the mirror can sometimes be unsettling, no?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Bridge Too Far

Among the things I cherish about my long marriage is how small a role TV has ever played in it. We've never owned more than one. It's never been close enough to watch from an eating area, even while we were raising our daughter. Our conversations rarely revolve around something one of us has watched. My newest favorite part? We agreed moving into our current home six years ago to put the TV in the basement, completely removed from our living space. With or without guests in the house, when walking in our front door, you might hear a conversation, some music, or quiet. But you will not hear a TV. I like that.  

Moving into the third act, maybe our TV habits will change. There are certainly worse things that could happen. My wife loves most things British and in recent years she has started to enjoy watching those good looking soccer players, especially the Italians. I'm a sucker for documentaries - especially by Ken Burns - and an indiscriminate film geek; for me, TCM is as essential as peanut butter. But even if our habits do change, don't ask me where the TV room is in my home. That's a bridge too far.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The "Good" Student & Critical Thinking

Except during my Masters studies - and I suspect those professors were not concerned with rigorously grading an almost fifty year old - my school grades have put me solidly on the bell curve: A few "A's", a fair number of "B's" and "C's", a few "D's" and at least one ''F". Obviously, the Ivy League didn't beckon and my grades as an undergraduate didn't move me from the muddle of the middle.

Grades aside, however, I've usually been an attentive and willing student, despite having an otherwise contrary nature. In addition, I enjoyed school from a young age and usually found that most of my teachers deserved respect. And much of what they taught has remained with me.

Still, some years back, I became aware of how this innate tendency to be a "good" student has one downside. Sometimes, my critical thinking skills get a little dull. That is, in some situations - formal school and otherwise - I've allowed things taught to me to become difficult-to-dislodge dogma. Ever detected anything like this in yourself? What do you do to dislodge an old no longer useful learning?

I'm hyper-aware of my responsibility from the other side of this equation, i.e. teaching others. I make a real effort to stress the importance of critical thinking, especially when faced with a "good" student like myself, grades notwithstanding.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Two Down, Four To Go (Continents, That Is)

It's official. After the Guyana/Paraguay/Suriname/Uruguay feast we recently hosted, we've now tried the cuisine of every independent nation in South America as part of our five-year-old mission to "Eat The World". We tasted Australia sometime ago. Also, once we sample a few remaining Central American countries, we'll have eaten our way across North America. Soon the only nations left to taste will be from Africa and Asia and a handful from Europe.

This last repast was interesting. The cuisine of Guyana and Suriname - Caribbean with a decidedly Asian-Indian influence - combined with the traditional Spanish-based dishes of Paraguay and Uruguay to make the dining experience more eclectic. Nice change from some of our other cooking experiences - our culinary trip to Laos & Cambodia comes to mind - when regional similarities between the recipes of different countries rendered moot any national distinctions in the dishes themselves.

Know of any ethnic restaurants in the NYC metropolitan area - especially from Africa and Asia - we might have missed? Let me know, preferably while our teeth and/or digestive tracts are still intact. And thanks for your continued interest in our project; it's been a blast!

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Rest Is Noise

"Revuelta's 1939 work 'La Noche de Los Mayos', originally conceived as a film score, has found a second life as a Mahlerian symphonic canvas, moving from purposefully kitschy dance episodes to stretches of open-hearted Romantic lamentation and on to a scary Mayan bacchanal that spills over into polyrhythmic mayhem." 

Alex Ross is a writer of dazzling musical erudition. "The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century" (2007) is an astonishing book about the intersection of music and history. Re-read that sentence above from page 274. In about fifty words - no lectures from English composition teachers, please - Ross references Mahler, the Romantics and polyrhythms. And kitsch and Mayan culture. Out of context, the sentence could strike a casual reader as showboating.

But Ross prepares the devoted and attentive reader by spending time with Mahler, the Romantics, and polyrhythms before unleashing a tour-de-force sentence like that. He does this repeatedly while also regularly slipping in jewels like "... scribbled lightning in the air ..." to describe Charlie Parker's saxophone playing. Powerfully descriptive, educational sentences that unwind like a comprehensible labyrinth, along with metaphors that shimmer; what a gift.

I'm obligated to conclude by giving a small sample of how Ross expertly weaves the tumultuous history of the twentieth century into his narrative. "Black and white categories make no sense in the shadowland of dictatorship. These composers were neither saints nor devils; they were flawed actors on a tilted stage."  Please talk to me if you read this book.
  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Good Enough

"I'm an excellent driver."

Remember Dustin Hoffman repeatedly saying that in "Rain Man"? Which mundane activities are you convinced you do well? Or excellently? Try limiting your answers to activities that would be difficult for others to refute.

For example: Are you a good (or excellent) parent? Are you good (or excellent) at sex? Are you a good (or excellent) conversationalist? How many people do you know who would say they were average (or worse) at any of those three things? Consider that number for a moment. So, what does it mean to be good (or excellent) at parenting, sex, conversation, driving?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#45: The Mt. Rushmore Series

If you read my last post, at least one of my selections for this iteration of Mt. Rushmore might not surprise you. That aside, as always, I'm curious which four duos - musical or otherwise - belong on your mountain. And for any nitpicker quibbling about there being only four Presidents on Rushmore and eight people here, you need a new hobby. In alphabetical order, my four duos are ...

1.) Abbott & Costello - If they'd only done "Who's On First?" and then disappeared, these two would  deserve a place on my monument. Has there ever been a better straight man than Bud Abbott?

2.) John & Abigail Adams - I'm sure their marriage was as imperfect as all marriages. But if historian David McCullough's account of this ahead-of-its-time partnership is even close to accurate, Abigail Adams was a feminist before there was such a word. And her husband was lucky to have her as his closest adviser.    

3.)  Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass - Although they made just one recording together, these two jazz titans created a template - yet to be surpassed -  for all vocal/guitar duos that followed.

4.) Simon & Garfunkel - If just a portion of the quoted statements I've seen attributed to Art Garfunkel are true, he's an arrogant ass. But he's got the voice of an angel and was fortunate enough to partner with one of pop music's true craftsman. When work begins on my mountain, I'm requesting Art's visage includes a gag in his mouth, removed only if his stone face gets to sing.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Joy Of Re-Discovery

When was the last time you re-discovered a piece of music or song that had once knocked you out but then somehow slipped away? What brought it back to you - the radio, someone playing it in a live setting, a movie soundtrack?

Given the size of my collection of recordings, many songs are bound to slip away. Factor #2: I'm far more likely these days to listen to my I-pod or Pandora radio vs. spending time in front of my stereo, a habit that consumed countless hours in my past. Third: Most of my car time is now spent listening to lectures from the Great courses series. Net result? Great songs go dormant.

But without fail, each time I begin developing a music course - starting with constructing a playlist that purposefully avoids being a "greatest hits" regurgitation - old gems get unearthed. If you were observing me when this occurs, you might be tempted to recommend medication. I whoop, I cry, I go into a musical trance, all frequently in the space of moments. Then I upload whatever kicked my ass onto my I-pod.  

Having regular opportunities to re-discover music that has enriched my life may be the greatest benefit of doing these courses. My direct inspiration here was recently being re-floored by a stunning Paul Simon song called "Teacher" from his 2000 CD entitled "You're The One". Check it out - you won't be disappointed.    

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Is Ouija Moving Toward "C" or "T"?

My parents have been gone for some time. Although I'm not sure if she voted, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were on the ballot in 1976, the last Presidential election of Mom's life. And the last time my Dad was around to vote for President was 1994 when Bill Clinton was running for re-election against Bob Dole. I don't recall either of my folks ever telling me who they voted for. Did your folks tell you about their politics? My only clear recollection was hearing my Father repeatedly gripe that politicians were not to be trusted because they didn't look out for the "...little guy ..."

I believe a candidate's positions on the issues mattered to my folks; they weren't superficial. But they weren't real sophisticated or urbane either. My guesses? Mom would have voted for Ford in 1976; I suspect a Georgia peanut farmer would have been a little exotic for her. Ford also had that guy-next-door demeanor my Mom would have liked. Dad? Would likely have chosen Dole in 1994; Clinton's sexual shenanigans would have put him off. Dole was also a WWII vet like Dad. My guesses aside, I never got the sense my parents voted strictly Republican. Now one of my siblings might disagree but I think any party affiliations my parents had were flexible, especially when contrasted to what seems to be the norm nowadays. Anyway, let's face it, Republicans and Democrats were not as far apart then as they are now.

What got me started on this was all the brouhaha about people voting from the grave this year. Maybe it's time for me to break out the Ouija board and get word from Mom and Dad on their choice for this election? How about you? Would you like to hear from any departed loved one about who they would choose in this year's circus?  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 2

Although I got only one public comment last month for the first iteration of this new series, it was a doozy - check out the link below. But several people did respond offline to that maiden post so I've now got some good ideas for future installments. Thanks to those offline folks and to Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. So ...

I say novel and phonies and you say ...

I say novels and Baltimore and you say ...

I say novels and Scotland Yard and you say ...

Keep your ideas coming, OK?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/09/pop-culture-triptych-volume-1.html

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Introducing Willy And Babs

What makes us English speakers routinely add an "e" sound to the end of so many names? John becomes Johnnie, Ruth becomes Ruthie, Scott becomes Scotty, etc. Why not an "a" sound instead? Jack = Jackay. Or, how about "i"? Kim = Kimeye. "O" or "u", anyone? Jeanoh or Georgeooh have just as nice a ring as Jeannie or Georgie, don't you think?

It's also weird how we often elongate one syllable names but just as regularly shorten those that are two, three, and four syllables. We do this even for names that sound bizarre when shortened like Eileen becoming "I". Worse than that, we truncate an elegant name like Victoria to Vickie. And how does Maureen become Mo? Where did that "O'" come from? How has your name been shortened or elongated? Does it ever annoy you? Don't even get me started on how being called Patty traumatized me in my macho years.

I'm requesting you submit your favorite case study in how this re-naming thing can get really out of hand. I'll start with a respectably named couple, William and Barbara. From there it's a short distance to Bill and Barb. But there are those among us who might go further. Allow me to introduce you to Willy (or Billy) and Babs (or Barbie).   

Monday, October 17, 2016

Caressing Those Vibrant Verbs

During my years in Graduate School - when non-fiction comprised my whole reading diet - I decided to start implementing at least one idea from every book I finished. Many of the disciplines resulting from that resolve remain with me to this day. How do you ensure something you learn from a non-fiction book sticks with you?

"Writing From The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" (1986) by Natalie Goldberg is packed with worthwhile ideas. The format of very short sections - the largest is about four pages long - invites the reader and aspiring writer to browse, find something to try, then return later. Weeks after finishing Goldberg's book, I still haven't settled on which idea I'm going to permanently incorporate into my writing practice. At present, the top contender comes from her section entitled "The Action Of A Sentence" where she suggests an ingenious activity to help writers unearth more vibrant verbs.

The creative people from whom I seem to learn best often demystify their process. In his memoirs, Stephen Sondheim describes composing as analogous to making a hat. In one section of her useful book, Goldberg extols the importance of details in writing. Her pertinent and demystifying metaphor about how those details help the finished product shine is to compare the details to the quality ingredients you use when "Baking A Cake". And then Goldberg puts on the icing by quoting Nabokov - "Caress the divine details". Caress? Now there's a vibrant verb.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Demanding Our Supply

What was the last film you saw based on real world circumstances but so far removed from any of your life experiences that much of what was depicted in the movie felt like science fiction?

If you don't relish being shaken up while watching a film, I'd recommend skipping "Sicario". Before  beginning to watch it, I "knew" there were vile people inhabiting the higher echelons of the drug cartels. I "knew" corruption, violence, and amorality were inescapable components of that world. And I "knew" the folks fighting the "war on drugs" on our behalf know it's unwinnable. "Knowing" all these things hardly prepared me for the graphic way this disturbing movie made its point. I was horrified and mesmerized in equal measure. And I couldn't help repeatedly saying to myself  "Thank goodness my life experience never put me anywhere close to this world."

Near the end, one of the "good" guys - played by Josh Brolin - tells Emily Blunt's main character, an FBI agent, that until Americans give up illegal "recreational" drugs, the two of them, and many thousands more, are guaranteed job security. Depending on which source you believe, the latest estimates on recreational drug use by the US adult population go from 10-20%. I recall very little about any class in economics I've taken, except supply and demand. What am I missing?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Back To School, Again

Rewind to grade school, again. If you're anywhere near my age, the rewind mechanism could break down doing this exercise but try anyway. Which subject consistently gave you the most difficulty? What lingering effects of your struggle with that subject - if any - do you detect now? Or, did your grasp or mastery of whatever be-deviled you early in life later improve?

Next question is for regular readers of my blog only. What grade school subject would you guess was Pat's bugbear? Hint: PCs made my nemesis largely irrelevant. That's right, it was handwriting. I'm still unsure what most contributed to my difficulty and/or resistance to penmanship and the resulting abysmal grades. Impatience? Poor hand-eye motor skills as a youngster? Requiring a clear auditory learner to continually drill an almost exclusively visual skill?  Or, given penmanship's subsequent elimination from school curricula, was soothsaying one of my hidden talents? What can you pinpoint as major contributing factors for your grade school white whale?

As long as I print - and don't try speaking at the same time - my still horrendous handwriting has no ill effect on my life. It's mildly intriguing that my best grade school subject - spelling, which also is no longer taught - has similarly had little discernible benefit for me. So my worst subject and my best made no difference and both are no longer taught. Hmm.

Is your worst subject still taught? How about your best?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Learning Via Exploring

Sharing my passion for music with others in an educational setting is a blast. Teaching cultural competence helps make the world shine a little brighter. Spending time with people who want to do the work it takes to be more culturally competent helps prevent cynicism from overwhelming me.

https://socialwork.rutgers.edu/centers/institute-families/new-jersey-victim-assistance-academy

Until a good friend recently asked me to co-facilitate a cultural competence workshop with him, I'd never heard of the New Jersey Victim Assistance Academy. A visit to their website gave me a glimpse of the scope of their mission but little idea of what to expect from the participants who would attend training. In my head, I began going through a model I was first exposed to in my early years doing adult education. Would any of the participants be prisoners, i.e. told to attend the workshop and unhappy having been told so? Would any of them be vacationers, i.e. told or not told to be there but in either case likely to treat the educational experience as mostly a day away from their regular work routine? How many of the participants might be explorers, i.e. told or not told to be there but willing to be present enough to do the activities as well as examine the material being presented?

It was clear early on - mandatory training or not - that this group had a healthy mix of all three. From there, it was up to the two of us to ensure no explorer became a vacationer or prisoner. And, if we tuned in well, maybe we could enlist some prisoners or vacationers to explore a bit, for however long we could positively engage them. Not an easy task but not much that's worthwhile doing is real easy, right?

Thanks again, Robin, for trusting me enough to let me do this important work at your side.

 http://beyonddiversity.org/


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

London Calling

If any of you has read either "Life Class" (2007) or "Toby's Room" (2012), the first books in Pat Barker's trilogy that concludes with "Noonday" (2015), please educate me: Does Bertha Mason - the spooky medium in the final book - make an appearance in either of the first two? If yes, I've got a serious bone to pick with whoever wrote the book jacket for the hardcover version of "Noonday". If no, I've got a tiny quibble I'd like to discuss with the talented Booker Prizewinning author.

Reading someone who has writing chops like Pat Barker is exhilarating to me - as a reader- at the same time it is dispiriting to me, as an aspiring writer. Not one clunky sentence in 300+ pages, dialogue that hits all the right notes, texture to spare. "Noonday" takes place in London during the Blitz that almost decimated that great city at the start of WWII. Barker is nearly flawless juxtaposing the relentless tension of those extraordinary months vs. people going on with their ordinary lives. Anyone recall the great John Boorman film from 1987 called "Hope And Glory"? "Noonday" is that movie's literary soul mate.

And once again, I have one of my reading posse to thank for introducing me to an author worth re-visiting. If I don't hear back soon from one of you about the exceedingly odd Bertha Mason, my first Pat Barker rewind will be to read "Life Class" and/or "Toby's Room", even though I now know the fate of all three principals introduced in those earlier installments.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What's Your Name?

"A name is what we carry our whole life. We respond to its call in the classroom, to its pronunciation at a graduation, or to the sound of it whispered in the night."  - Natalie Goldberg from "Writing Down The Bones" (1986)

I'm not sure when in life I decided to work hard at remembering names. Maybe it was when I heard my own name in a classroom or at a graduation or when it was whispered to me in the night. But at some point I did make that decision. It was probably one of the smarter things I've ever done.

I've lost track how many times I've heard people say "I'm not good with names." I've also lost track of how many times people have remarked positively about me remembering their name. Although I wait until asked, I've willingly offered counsel to those who say they're " ... not good with names ... " if they ask me "How do you do that?" I get that question frequently, especially after someone observes me remembering a group of names. Because I try doing it for the classes I teach, no matter the size. I try when involved for an extended time with a group of folks I've never met before, like the guitar players from the weeklong workshop I attended in August. I try in the most mundane settings - a party, a family gathering, a book club. It's worth the effort; people invariably appreciate it. And although I have techniques I'm happy to share with anyone, the bottom line is I almost always make the effort.   

How often do I flub the first attempt? All the time. However, it's amazing how few times I'll use an incorrect name twice, even with a big group. I'm sure there have been times when someone hasn't corrected me after a failed attempt at recalling their name; I suspect that situation is rare. After all, who doesn't want to be called by name, especially when someone got their name wrong the first time? Am I embarrassed when someone corrects me? No I'm not. A name is what we all carry our whole life.   

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Forgetting My Lines

guideline: any guide or indication of a future course of action.

Harmless enough, right? Guidelines are offered to us for many situations. I use the word myself all the time teaching guitar; it's a gentler and less restrictive word than "rule".

Still, lines are lines and lines can suggest shapes. Even that innocent definition above mentions a "future course of action". And when I'm trying to create - a process that thrives on unconscious thought - lines that can point me toward already existing shapes or direct me toward a future course of action have the potential to prevent me from seeing a new shape or, a different future.

Lately, I've been paying more attention to barriers, linguistic or otherwise, that may circumscribe my creativity. Aren't the ropes and buoys used to indicate swimming areas a guideline of sorts? I'm all for that kind of box to keep children safe while they're swimming. I just don't want to allow guidelines to create a box that could restrict my creativity. There's a fine line between that kind of box and a cage.   

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Philosophy As A Guide To Living

Which philosopher has given you useful guidance about living a meaningful life?

Of the legendary thinkers I've been exposed to over my ten years listening to the "Great Courses", the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche seem to be the most consistently helpful to me. I'm very grateful for the way Dr. Stephen Erikson from Pomona College distills Nietzsche's work into manageable chunks I'm able to absorb. My attempts at trying to read the source material have not been real successful.

Most recently, I've been struck by Nietzsche's guidance about treating one's life as a "masterpiece", a creative project in need of constant re-invention. Also - paraphrasing Dr. Erikson's paraphrasing - Nietzsche's doctrine of "Eternal Return" counsels us to " ... say 'yes' to the totality of life without qualification ...", an easy pill to swallow when things are going my way. It's the suffering, cruelty, and misfortune - all included in the same doctrine - that often derail me as I'm creating my masterpiece. But it's worth all the effort I can summon.

If I've piqued your interest in Nietzsche, I'm thrilled. If however, listening to the Learning Company's lectures about his work or trying to tackle his dense writing does not appeal to you, a little seen film from 2007 called "When Nietzsche Wept" is worth tracking down. And Irvin Yalom's novel of the same name is also fine. In the meanwhile, why not tell me and others about a philosopher who has given you some useful guidance? 
   

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Restaurant Etiquette From A Wanna Be

Though it's less than ennobling, I reluctantly admit that fantasies about achieving some degree of notoriety have crossed my mind from time to time. Fortunately, the delusions pass quickly. And when a tsunami of coverage descends on some celebrity - Brangelina, anyone? - I'm belatedly grateful for my anonymity.

Living in the public eye has to be an epic nightmare. Mistakes in judgment or missteps in a relationship are photographed and endlessly scrutinized. Imagine having to apologize for something stupid you did as a young adult well into your seventies. How many of us on the bell curve don't have at least one Hanoi Jane moment from our impetuous early years? Sure, she screwed up but who hasn't?

I know it goes with the territory. I also suspect most people don't have a lot of sympathy for the rich and famous, nutso paparazzi notwithstanding. I do wonder how many of us can agree to let these folks eat in peace in a public place.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I Hope There's No Quota

epiphany: an experience of sudden or striking realization (Wikipedia).

The word epiphany was originally connected to religion. My 1984 Random House dictionary has the word listed only as a proper noun, defined as "an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity". But in my view, the word is best utilized sparingly either way, sharing sacred linguistic ground with a word like genius. At the same time, I hope there's no such thing as an epiphany quota.  

What was your most recent epiphany? Mine seem to be linked to books, often novels. So whenever several novels in a row pass without some insight jarring me, I feel under-nourished intellectually. During my most recent stretch like that, I re-visited James Joyce, knowing the ending to the stories in "Dubliners" to be rich in wisdom.

Has any music ever led you to an epiphany? A piece of visual art? A film? Or, was your last epiphany the result of an interaction with someone? I'm curious about the source - if you're able to pinpoint it - as well as what you suddenly realized.        

Monday, October 3, 2016

Put Me In Coach

If people are willing to pay a personal trainer to help them stay in shape, surely there are folks who would spend money for someone that could help them stay intellectually limber, right?

The over-crowded field of personal coaches no doubt has specialists like this. If you were shopping for a coach of this type, what would you look for? Aside from the obvious, like educational credentials, good references, and samples of writing, I'd want someone who spoke more than one language. I'd also be looking for a person with high emotional intelligence.

And since I'd be paying, I'd make sure my quirky needs were met. Any coach I'm considering would have to provide me with their Mt. Rushmore of four favorite novels, non-fiction titles, feature films, documentaries, jazz artists, and recordings. Although I wouldn't be looking for a one-to-one match with my own choices, if all the other stuff were copacetic, someone with such impeccable taste would have a real good shot at sealing the deal.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Work To Do

How often do we learn how to improve by recognizing some of our own bad habits or behaviors in others?

The place I'm most likely to learn this lesson is when I closely observe my men friends interacting with their wives or partners. Whenever one of them interrupts, finishes a sentence or story, or steals a punchline, I'm reminded how rude it is, i.e. how rude I can sometimes be. And that's not the worst behavior I've observed in others that chastens me.

I think of myself as a good listener. When my wife and I are alone, I'm much less inclined to engage in some of the poor listening or disrespectful behaviors I find obnoxious in others. But clearly I've still got some work to do. I don't relish the idea of becoming an example to others of what not to do.

Friday, September 30, 2016

If You're Ready

"Yes. You should read it. But maybe start at the end. Then circle back."

Had I initially done what that underlined sentence on the final page of "I'm Thinking Of Ending Things" suggested, it's doubtful I would have "... circled back ..."

But, because I'd started at the beginning of this dark and disturbing book and never got off my chair until 210 pages whizzed by, "circle back" I did. I couldn't help myself. I had to understand how this author did what he did. But this is not a book recommendation: Iain Reid's 2016 debut novel is clearly not for every taste.

"People talk about the ability to endure ... But you can only do that if you're not alone. That's always the infrastructure life's built on."

Yes. You should read it. If you're ready.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Journey To The Past

Over the past five and one half years and almost 1400 posts, I've worked assiduously to avoid repeating myself here. The robust search feature on Blogger has been a huge help.

Unfortunately, using that search feature sometimes leads to what some artists might consider a solipsistic downside, i.e. I occasionally re-read my older stuff. How many times have you heard famous musicians say they never listen to their own recordings or famous film or TV actors say they never watch old performances? Aside from the use of the absolute "never" - itself a red flag - what I frequently wonder hearing statements like this is how these artists mark their growth if they don't occasionally contrast older work to more recent. And more pertinent to my thrust here: How do these folks ensure they're not repeating themselves without an infrequent glance backwards? If you're a recorded musician, a writer or visual artist of any kind, an actor who has been captured on film, do you never re-visit your older work?

I try not to dwell in the past, either with my writing or otherwise. On the other hand, I find significant wisdom in William Faulkner's words - "The past is not dead; in fact, it's not even past."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Glass More Than Half Full

I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn that from the day she was born, my daughter has been one of my favorite topics of conversation.

As her young adult years pass, what I occasionally find myself fantasizing - at least when conversing with other parents - is being allowed a "do-over". To be clear: I'm certain how well I did as a Father. After all, unlike many people I've encountered, I myself had excellent parents. I can't recall a single instance when I ever felt unloved or uncared for. I'm sure my daughter feels the same way.

But just as no marriage is perfect, no parent does a perfect job raising their children. I have long found solace in a metaphor Mitch Albom used in "The Five People You Meet In Heaven", which I read on its 2003 release; the timing could not have been better - my daughter was thirteen.

In "The Five People ..." Albom analogizes the inescapable damage people inflict on their children to a pane of glass. As parents we routinely either fog, break, or shatter that glass. Without exception, when I describe to someone my sincere belief that any harm I've done to my daughter has been of the fogging variety - the kind able to be addressed via gently wiping the glass - I become very emotional. And many people with whom I share this metaphor - parent or not - are touched in a similar fashion. More than a few times, others have shared powerful and revealing family of origin stories with me - for better or worse - soon after we discuss Albom's wisdom.

I've long reflected on the source of my emotional content and the tendency I and others have to be so vulnerable when discussing these things. After my most recent conversation citing Albom's metaphor, I landed on two insights. First, his analogy assists me to forgive myself for the minor, if inevitable, harm I've inflicted. Second, I'm grateful beyond measure for emerging into my young adult life with fogged - instead of broken or shattered - glass. What has been the source of your richest learning about being parented or being a parent?

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Binge Is A Binge Is A Binge

What is your favorite binge activity?

Although the word binge first gained wide traction when it began being associated with eating disorders, more recently it has become connected to watching an entire television series in one sitting. I suspect most of us occasionally binge on something.

If you want to disable me for hours, just put a book listing books, movies, or recordings in front of me or direct me to a website that does something similar. It doesn't have to be a good book or a reliable website either. My usual snobbishness about reading quality literature and using vetted websites gets tossed when faced with useless lists like these. And attempts at conversing with me are futile - a bingeing I go.

Not long ago, a good friend told me he needed to binge on my blog to catch up on the posts he'd missed; bless his heart. I couldn't bring myself to ask how many he'd let slip by.