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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Bartons Saturate The Airwaves! Story At 10

OK, maybe saturate is over-the-top but humor me anyway. 

The first link below is an ATT commercial that has gotten a significant amount of airplay recently, especially during the football playoffs. It features a repetitive character named Lily that many of you may have seen but you probably didn't know about the Barton piece. That's my daughter playing the young woman customer in the spot. It's brief but quite delightful. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMQ9MJe_4fY

My TV spot is longer but clearly not as likely to be seen. A gentleman related to a student of mine interviews me on his local cable show called "Classic Movies" focusing on the intersection of music & film. My three spots - complete with toothy grin - occur at the start (about eight minutes in length as the host prepares to introduce the film) again for about two minutes fifty one minutes into the movie and two final minutes after the film is over, 1 hour and thirty eight minutes later.  All I can say about my mug on camera is it's a good thing I don't wear dentures. Yikes! 

Friday, January 29, 2016

No Napping While Driving

At present, I'm almost through a Great Courses lecture series entitled "The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes To Derrida" featuring Professor Lawrence Cahoone . Listening to this brilliant scholar parse the distinctions between philosophical constructs is often a confusing experience. In just minutes I ping-pong from stimulation to bewilderment to discouragement.

Though my Sybil-like self talk is unsettling, I suspect it's not terribly unique but you tell me: Aren't you stimulated when learning? At the same time, aren't you sometimes bewildered when what you're learning has limited practical value? And yet, when learning from someone who has a seemingly limitless depth of expertise, aren't you occasionally discouraged thinking about the limitations of your own intellect regardless of the utility of what you're learning?

Confusion and angst aside, I'm pleased with a decision to listen to the CDs from this series only while driving. If I'd unwisely chosen to listen while at home, my dips into discouragement could have easily turned into excuses for frequent naps.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A G-Force Synaptic Spark

I won't ask for credit when Director Terry Gilliam ("Brazil", "Twelve Monkeys", "The Fisher King") begins converting author Neal Gaiman's imaginative novels into film. But I will request anyone reading this post remember it was my idea. I want to be sure some research assistant working for Gilliam doesn't claim he or she thought of it first.

While reading Gaiman's debut novel "Neverwhere" (1996), I kept seeing the wild and nightmarish visuals that Gilliam has used to amazing effect in his movies. Then, I began recalling my stunned reaction last summer to "The Ocean At The End Of The Lane" (2013), my first exposure to Gaiman. Both novels share a visual sensibility and edge-of-believability narrative that begs for a filmmaker who'll take risks that might fail, spectacularly. That would be Terry Gilliam.

Even if Gilliam's people don't steal my concept and "Neverwhere" never becomes a film, it's a book that will remain with me. Imagine Walter Mitty taking acid then meeting up with two goons who make the one from Cormac McCarthy's "No Country For Old Men" look like a pansy. Add in a plucky heroine who walks through doors, insert the scene from "The Princess Bride" when the hero is "almost dead" - later revived by an unrecognizable Billy Crystal - and make sure they all go shopping in the London sewers for translators who speak Rat. Are you getting the same synaptic sparks I am? Gilliam & Gaiman are made for each other.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What Is Your Favorite Kool-Aid?

Since watching "Going Clear" a few weeks ago, I've been trying to decide if reading Lawrence Wright's bestseller about Scientology - the source material for this unsettling documentary - is a good idea. Given the somber tone of many of my recent non-fiction choices, I'll probably wait a bit.

And though I'm still processing the film, one thing really stands out - the shame and regret felt by Scientologists who left the fold and spoke to filmmaker Alex Gibney. The naked vulnerability and bravery of these witnesses - considering the retaliation frequently aimed at folks like this - is painful and riveting to watch.

In the movie, when Academy Award winning Director Paul Haggis ("Crash") - a Scientologist for over thirty years  - says "... you see only what you choose to see ... ", I was reminded - again - of the power of confirmation bias.  Each of us routinely overlooks information that contradicts our beliefs and narrow our focus to what supports those beliefs. It's impossible to escape the filter through which we see the world. The best we can do is to know the filter is there and then work at seeking out information that expands our viewpoint.

How gullible can you be? Where is your common sense? Can't you see this is a cult? Doubting the judgment of people who swallow Scientology's Kool-Aid and expecting answers to these questions is easy. Much harder - but more likely to help me grow - is taking a closer look at myself to see what Kool-Aid I swallow without thinking.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Reality Check

Re-entering a routine Monday yanked me right back from the petulant posture of yesterday's post.

While driving to Meals on Wheels, with the snow making the sidewalks impassable and no shoulder in the road, it was hard not to notice people walking in the streets en route to bus stops or the local gathering places for itinerant labor. I was reminded how I take my automobile - among other things - for granted.

Then after arriving and learning the service was cancelled today, on the drive home I reflected on the homebound people the program serves. Since meals are not typically delivered over the weekend, how many of these folks might be entering their third full day without a single human contact? Even those with nearby family may have been unreachable given the storm.

It's so easy to forget my good fortune.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Four Thousand Here I Come

Based on the number of posts I've published since March 2011, with an average of two or three questions or requests for input per, by now, four thousand or so pieces of data - answers, sarcastic rejoinders, something - could reasonably be expected to reside in the bell curve archives. And four thousand would represent just a single response to each of my questions or requests.  

Although I'm still a distance from four thousand - and in truth I suppose I never really expected answers or input every day - the bigger surprise for me is how few times anyone has claimed solidarity with a weirdness I've surfaced here. I don't mean a public comment or confession or anything even remotely Catholic. But an occasional offline comment, phone call, Pony express message along the lines of  "Hey Pat, I thought I was the only one that thought about ... " or maybe  "When you wrote about ... it was good to know I'm not alone in my weirdness ..." or something similar would be re-assuring from time-to-time. If this strikes anyone as needy, I blame cabin fever and no Sunday delivery of the NY Times.

Here's your chance to show how simpatico we bell curve denizens are. When you're alone driving and spot a license plate containing an accidental three or four letter word, what goes through your mind? In this instance, I will remain uncharacteristically enigmatic, not revealing my weirdness until receiving at least two public comments. Four thousand here I come.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The January 23 Trifecta

Periodically since mid-March 2014, I've scanned the blog posts I published three and four years ago on the same date to see what might have shifted over the ensuing years. The readers who've joined me on this adventure - reviewing their three and four year old journal entries, etc. - have shared some intriguing observations with me. Thanks to those folks. Now I've got one for you.

My posts for January 23 2012 and 2013 - links are at the bottom - are both about a new friend I made in 2010, although I had no inkling of this coincidence until a few hours ago. But it gets more eerie considering my original idea for today's post was to write about a dark novel called "Eileen", the selection for a book club of two that is meeting for just the third time next week. Guess who the other person is in that club? If it turns out January 23 is her birthday, I'm going to play 123 in the lottery and I've never bought a lottery ticket.

Now, about Ottessa Moshfegh's book. Like happy endings? Not the book for you. Want to relate to characters? Read this 2015 debut novel only if you're deeply dysfunctional. Enjoy luxuriating in rich prose and blacker than coal humor? Try this - "When he was alone, he had an ominous kind of stillness, like a slingshot being pulled back too hard." And this - "His smile perturbed me. He looked like a man who would fondle chicken." Or, marvel with an author nailing the essence of her protagonist like so: "It was a brief vacation from the loud, rabid inner circuitry of my mind."

See why I titled my January 23 2013 post "A Reader To Rely On"? She picked this off-center winner.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-impressions-books-their-people.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-reader-to-rely-on.html

Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Future Of The Past

Over the last few years, several novels I've read have dealt with the high price paid by independent women in the first half of the 20th century. The really exceptional ones - like "The Secret Scripture" (Sebastian Barry) or "The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox" (Maggie O'Farrell) - make me long for a conversation with my Mother. Would the way these talented authors handle this theme have had any resonance for her?

And these books about the social conventions & accepted wisdom of the early to mid 20th century among us "civilized" folks in the West also lead me to reflect on 2016. What current common practice or contemporary issue will occupy the imagination of great writers as this century concludes? What are we doing or ... not doing right now that readers in eighty five to one hundred years will view with disbelief?

Up until the early 1950's, a woman could be permanently institutionalized in Ireland if a father or husband requested it. All that was needed was the agreement of a general practitioner; almost all the general practitioners back then were men. Doesn't seem possible, right? What will seem equally far-fetched in 2116?      

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Help When We're Stuck

Putting aside the economic piece, what do you think explains the significant gap between the number of people who ever seek out therapy and the number who could benefit from therapy?

My long-running reflection on this dis-connect kicked into higher gear after a mini-meltdown I had over the holidays followed by a deeply disturbing conversation with someone. During my own bad moments, I tried using some of the tools my therapist taught me during four years with him to help me navigate my trouble. Then, even after hearing skepticism about therapy in the later conversation, I still struggled with my instinct to suggest it as an intervention to someone so obviously stuck. But I resisted, instead doing what I often do - asking a lot of non-leading questions, hoping the person might find some of their own answers. Then I left that conversation disappointed in myself for not following my instinct.  

Have you ever met anyone who could not benefit from having a wholly impartial trained person listen without judgment? I have not. No matter how rich our personal relationships are, people who love us always carry baggage that interferes with their impartiality and ability to listen without judgment. It's hard for me to escape the conclusion that all of us can benefit, throughout our lives, from trained help.          

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

January 19, 1989

Over your lifetime, how many specific dates could you identify that you would say with some certainty had a measurable positive impact on most of the days following it?

January 19, 1989 is such a date for me. Twenty seven years ago today at 10:07 a.m., my daughter was born. Not every day since then has been measurably better, but the great majority of them have. She has undeniably helped me become a better person. And I'm incapable of fully describing all the other ways she has enriched my life.

I became a parent for the first and only time at thirty nine years old. For years before that, I clearly recall people reacting to my statement that I would not be a parent until I felt ready by telling me "You're never ready." I always had the same response - "Then I guess I'll never be a parent." So I will always be grateful things worked out so incredibly well once I finally felt ready.

Happy birthday sweetheart.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 13: Pride

How heavy is your baggage with respect to the word pride? 

As is my practice, I started with a dictionary: 1.) the state or quality of being proud; 2.) self-respect. So far, so good, although #1 is one of those definitions I don't find real helpful. But things get dicey pretty fast when moving to #3 & #4, especially the synonyms associated with those two definitions - conceit, self-esteem, egotism. Uh-oh. And the antonyms for pride - modesty & humility - are also more than a little sobering.

But ... since my Random House dictionary no doubt owes a debt to that Christian dude Noah Webster, I began reflecting on the whole seven deadly sins enchilada. I wonder - What would those very smart guys in ancient Greece - the ones who extolled pride (and came up with their own word for excessive pride - hubris) - have had to say about pride, not of the excessive variety, being equated with conceit? How much of my baggage about this word is connected to my early years spent in the pews? What a tangled web.

Doing a quick search of my 1200 blog posts using just pride & humility as keywords did not lighten my load at all. After re-reading just a few reflections from the last five years, I realized pride may or may not be a deadly sin - sorry Father - but it's clearly near the top of any list of words that haunt me.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/12/more-than-halfway.html

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Confession From The Bell Curve

Am I mellowing? I hope not because I buy Woody Allen's sentiment from "Annie Hall" that anyone who gets too mellow begins to rot.

But soon after finishing "The Martian" by Andy Weir I put aside my default crankiness about books that don't engage me and heard the cantankerous Pat say to a mellower Pat, "It's not your cup of tea but it is a book that has a lot to recommend it". This might not be a step for many of you but it's a leap for me. Really. Call this a confession from the bell curve.

I started Weir's debut novel in early December and put it down - thinking I would not return - after about thirty pages. A while later, discussing my aborted first try with two good friends who finished the book, they convinced me to give it a second shot. Near page fifty - when the narrative shifts viewpoints, moving from protagonist Mark Watney to the control room at NASA in Houston - I realized why the book has such understandable appeal. And that realization alone propelled me to the end.

I then waited several days before writing an entry in my book journal about "The Martian", time for any residual snarkiness to dissipate. That entry mentions the noticeable lack of any groanworthy prose and concludes with this cliche - "different strokes". I know; those of you more evolved than I could justifiably chortle - big deal, Pat. My response to your chastising admonition: Stand aside as a marginally more mellow Pat leaves the booth.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Home On The Abbey

I'm not big on TV. But listening recently to an animated four way conversation where everyone discussed the motivations and machinations of characters from "Downtown Abbey", I had a small "e" epiphany. If I weren't paying close attention at the outset, it would have been easy to assume the conversation about those TV characters was instead a discussion about friends of the people having that conversation.

My "aha" came as I recognized how I've enjoyed similar conversations about characters from novels that have transported me. And since I've often stated that a novel succeeds to some degree if characters seem alive enough to maintain a conversation, it logically follows that a TV show that does the same thing has also succeeded.

Not terribly profound but it could be helpful at home. My wife is a big "Downtown Abbey" fan.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Take Two Re Number Two

On January 13, 2014 I sagely proposed Constitutional Amendment XXVIII. On the same date last year I moved up to XXIX. The links to my posts spelling out those two amendments - both currently under consideration in Congress - are at the bottom of this one.

Though I've several ideas for XXX, the recent public remarks made by that father who lost a child at Sandy Hook in 2012 persuaded me one of the ten original amendments is overdue for an overhaul. There is precedent for dumping an amendment altogether - recall the fate of XXIII - but I'm not politically naive enough to suggest we do the same here. But how about a second look at number two?

* In the musket-with-one-bullet-at-a-time era, a "right to keep and bear arms" was likely a reasonable proposition for most excepting the Quakers. How about in our current era of automatic assault weapons? Any chance of amending the amendment to mitigate the carnage just a little? BTW, I'm also not wild about that "... well regulated militia ..." piece of our beloved second either. Reminds me of the books that lunatic who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City liked to read.

* What about the fact that our current population is over 80 times what it was when the Bill of Rights was adopted? If every resident of 1790 America owned one of those single bullet weapons when the first census was conducted - and then everyone shot at once  - about four million rounds would have been discharged. Compare that to our current situation and don't take my word for it. Use your favorite source to research approximately how many rounds are fired in an average hour in any one state in the country. Even in States with more restrictive gun laws, it's pretty darn noisy out there.  

* OK, put aside the type of guns and the huge difference in population. How about the relative ease of acquiring arms today vs. when the Founding Fathers drafted #2? How about interstate commerce in 1790 vs. 2016? Can anyone honestly claim these things don't contribute on some level to the ubiquity of our modern day massacres?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/xxviii.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/xxiv.html

Monday, January 11, 2016

Can This Be Right? (2nd Winter Edition)

Of the sixteen words deconstructed in six previous iterations of this series, so far only one reader has dissented - and he with just one word -  that the words I've chosen do not sound like what the dictionary says they mean. For today's second winter edition of "Can This Be Right?", I offer three new boners, including one suggested by that only (to date) dissenter. Let the debate begin.

apposite: suitable, pertinent. Come on, how can this be right? Tell the truth now, what did you think apposite meant? Even if you didn't think of what I often do when seeing or hearing that word, don't tell me you thought it meant what it means, OK?

prolix: tediously long. I know, I know, it does have that "pro" prefix that could make you think of prolonged or something similar but own up, OK? When you see prolix in print or even better, hear it said aloud, what is the first thing that really crosses your mind? This isn't fun if you're not honest.

stevedore: a firm or individual engaged in the loading or unloading of a vessel. What? You've got to be kidding. Marlon Brando plays a stevedore in "On The Waterfront?" Can this be right?

This is your chance to either supply your own "Can This Be Right?" word(s) or dissent with my risible choices, all right? Pick one option or the other or ... risk not earning the approbation of this redoubtable blogger.    

   

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Invigorating And Intimidating

I'm guessing books about the Puritans aren't real high on your "must read" list. But in "The Wordy Shipmates" (2008) author Sarah Vowell's supple mind and smart alecky writing style help her convert the musty legends and linguistic sleight-of-hand of our stuffy forebears into fascinating stories while simultaneously deconstructing a hoary myth or two. Honest.

"At his city-on-the hill best, John Winthrop [first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony] is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Roger Williams [founder of Rhode Island, after his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony] is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise."  How can anyone resist that kind of wild analogy? I sure can't. Despite the sometimes glib tone, every masterful riff in this book is used in the service of this brainy author's main theme, i.e. the role the Puritans played in helping shape our most tenacious national myth - American exceptionalism. It's invigorating and intimidating in equal measure to read someone who exposes the painful irony of Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad Gita as the first atom bomb lit up the sky at Los Alamos. And then just as quickly shifts into using the Brady Bunch or Elliot Gould's performance in "The Long Goodbye" to support a parallel point. Whew.

Aside from being politically astute and smarter than hell, Vowell is also very funny. "...severed body parts being the 17th century equivalent of a gift basket of mini-muffins." Grotesque? You bet, but also true and hilarious. I have one quibble with "The Wordy Shipmates" - With no chapter breaks or headings of any kind over its 248 pages,  I ended up taking more breaks than normal while reading this book and that may have contributed to me losing the main thread a few times. Don't let that dissuade you. This book is worth your time. Really.

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Library Of Leftovers

Over the years, whenever we've had occasion to rent a place for a getaway, one thing that invariably gets my attention are books that people leave behind - what a geek, right?

Most recently, probably because my time on the slopes was so minimal, the book selection at the ski house we rented was even more carefully scrutinized. And with the leftover library from our time earlier in 2015 at the Virgin Islands Resource Center still fresh on my bookworm's brain - a library I'm embarrassed to say was organized by yours truly - I offer my wholly unscientific list of the top five authors people are inclined to leave behind. I welcome your equally unscientific list. Alphabetically...

1.) Barbara Taylor Bradford 
2.) Nelson DeMille (full disclosure - "Word Of Honor" is still on my shelves)
3.) Sue Grafton
4.) James Patterson
5.) Nora Roberts

Do you hold onto only the books you've enjoyed, as I do? Or, regardless whether you enjoyed it or not, do you hold onto most books you've read? Or, do you part with most or all of the books you finish? What is your theory of why the five authors above have appeared so frequently in the library of leftovers noticed by this book nerd?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Captain Crunch, Anyone?

As the prelude to our presidential election farce begins its march into the laughable territory of the ludicrous nominating process, including debates that aren't debates, I welcome answers from either side of the aisle. How is it we can all choose from well over fifty different varieties of cereal but there are only two viable political parties at our disposal?

I'm aware of the fact that we often have more than two choices when entering the ballot box. However, when was the last time someone other than a Democrat or a Republican was elected to any significant public office higher than dogcatcher? Put another way, when did anyone last see a color aside from red or blue on any TV map? Try imagining the mayhem that would ensue if just Rice Krispies and Cherrios were on grocery shelves. The consuming public would revolt! What about the voting public?

Who we choose to represent us in Government might be the most critical choice we make as citizens. But instead of several options, we're essentially stuck with an odious either/or when electing a President, a Senator, a Freeholder, for crying out loud. How can something so important be relegated to such an antiquated bi-polar construct?

I've been chastised more than once for "wasting" my vote in the past on someone with no chance of winning - that would be someone not a donkey or an elephant. I plead guilty by reason of sanity. In my further defense I submit the following: Red & blue are not alone on the spectrum; that ark had more than donkeys & elephants on it; Captain Crunch is still available at a store near you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The General Practitioner's Five Year Check Up

The books I've read about blogging all suggest that a narrow focus is the safest route for building a following. And classes I've taken about blogging say mostly the same thing. One of my recent instructors has a blog devoted to dissecting the lyrics of Bob Dylan - now that's a niche, right?

But in classic extrovert fashion - and long before knowing it might limit readership - I decided early on to aim for breadth vs. depth. My eclectic approach to subject matter was further influenced by a strong belief that our passions - no matter how intense - don't necessarily dominate our conversations. Don't most of us ruminate about lots of stuff, not just the things we enjoy? I do and I'm certainly not unique.

What exactly is the general practitioner/blogger getting at? Well, it's been almost five years and based on a wish to reach more readers, I'm considering a course correction. Is it time for me to become a specialist? If I switch to blogging exclusively about one of my passions, which of those would help keep you interested? The more input I receive, on or offline, the more confident I'll feel about any course correction I make.

One caveat: Keeping to my practice of brief posts (three or four short paragraphs) will be challenging if I begin specializing in one of my most intense passions - music, literature, film. So, if my short format is a big deciding factor in whether you'll hang in there with me, let me know that as well. And thanks for your help.

Monday, January 4, 2016

So There

"My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, soft music." - Vladimir Nabokov

Several months ago, I rammed through a tiny book called "My Pet Peeves" while browsing in a book store with my wife. I might or might not have been feeling grouchy that day but I clearly recall reading the Nabokov entry above, laughing out loud, and immediately reading it to  my wife. I gleefully pointed out the "soft music" part of Nabokov's pet peeve to her while thinking - good enough for Vlad, good enough for Pat. So there. And I was sure our thirty eight year battle about the phrase "background music" being an oxymoron had been decisively won with me the undisputed and supercilious victor. So there, again.

So imagine my delight when my oldest niece gave this same little gem of a book to me as a Christmas present. Soon after reading Nabokov's words to my wife a second time, I did a victory lap around our living room and then cranked up Pandora to full volume. So there - the hat trick. Admittedly not my finest moment, but no less sweet for that.

But as wonderful as that moment was for despicable me, I knew this minuscule volume deserved a permanent place in our library when my wife discovered an equally snarky quote by David Foster Wallace that she immediately loved: "We are the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else." See how she and I were meant for each other?

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Duds Among The Sacred

How many of you have a bad teacher story?

Teaching is a sacred profession. But like any profession, there are bound to be some serious duds. Aside from the near universality of it, what most strikes me about this phenomenon is how the memory of a bad teacher is painfully seared into memory, even when some of the particulars - often decades old - are a little fuzzy. Want to try this out? Just ask someone the name of a bad teacher they've had and listen for how quickly the name is spit from that someone's mouth. As they tell their story, listen to the pain in that same someone's voice.

I'm sure many could also easily recall the name of an inspirational or exceptional teacher. And this is understandable either way given the number of hours we spend with teachers, especially in grammar school. But each time I hear a bad teacher story, or think of my own sadistic third grade teacher Mrs. Betz, I'm newly struck by the huge influence teachers exert, for worse or better. I'm also reminded anew of my own responsibility as a teacher, for better and then better than that.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Stop - Start - Continue: 2016

Last year began promisingly here on the bell curve. In response to my January 1 post, several people shared what they would stop, start, and continue in 2015. The link to that New Year's post is at the bottom of this one - be sure to read the pledges folks made; some good stuff.

In 2016, I will ...

Stop getting triggered as easily and as often. I know getting triggered is part of the human condition; I'm aiming for having it happen less frequently and less indiscriminately.  And I will...

Start composing more. I know my songwriting will improve appreciably if I approach it the same way as my blog - by writing something every day. And last, I will...

Continue seeking out additional colleges to teach my music courses. Each time I get to repeat a course at a new location, my total compensation gets closer to minimum wage.
         
Why not try this model on for size by telling me and others what you will stop, start, and continue in 2016? Going public with a commitment increases the likelihood you'll keep it.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/continue-stop-start-2015.html