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Friday, April 29, 2016

Rascal Flatts & Missing My Exit

Foremost among the benefits of continuing to give private guitar lessons is how frequently I'm exposed to music that could have escaped me. When I request a new student burn a CD for me with songs they hope to learn to play, I'm often pleasantly surprised by at least one unfamiliar song.

My brother - my musical MVP - previously introduced me to an alt country band called Rascal Flatts. I really liked the one song ("What Hurts Most") he'd included on a recent mix he made. But listening to "Still Feels Good" on the CD of my newest guitar student has made me into a Rascal Flatts believer. Have you heard this tune? If not, invest $1.29 on I-tunes today. Then, let's talk.

These student CDs are the predictable soundtrack for my commute to a studio where I teach. Between all this good music and my Great Courses CDs, I've more than once passed my exit on the Interstate. What were you listening to the last time you got so lost?

Others Preparing Others For You

Imagine you're eavesdropping on a conversation. You're listening to someone who has known you reasonably well for a long time; that person is speaking to their new partner, someone you have yet to meet. How would the person who knows you prepare their new partner for that first face-to-face with you?

How often have you imagined how people prepare others for you? What do you hear? How much does what get said shift depending on who's doing the preparing? Often, I first try to hear what my sisters or my brother might say in these situations. They love me and they are my harshest critics so my potential for growth is highest imagining what the three of them might say to prepare others for me.

Lately, I've thought about starting to ask people I meet for the first time how my family or friends prepared them for me. Although I suspect honest answers might be in short supply, the question could ignite some lively conversation, don't you think?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Do You Use Your Blinker Every Time?

With respect to manners, societal conventions, and laws where would you fall on a 1-10 continuum, with one being totally defiant and ten being totally compliant? Use my three examples for each category to get you started and then substitute your own examples and see if your place on the continuum shifts at all.

Manners: Do you always chew with your mouth closed? Do you always respond yes or no to an invitation that asks for a response? Men - Do you always take your hat off indoors? Remember: If you can't answer always for all three of these, anything below, or any example of your own, you can't be a "10". Fair is fair.

Societal conventions: Do you always park within the lines? Do you always keep your lawn mowed? Do you always return loaned tools, books, dishes?

Laws: Do you pay every cent of the tax you owe? Do you come to a full stop at every stop sign? Do you make it a practice to never serve alcohol to someone not of legal age?

In my experience, most of us decide which manners, societal conventions, and laws suit us and our relative defiance or compliance for each then follows accordingly. I've never met a single person - no matter how much that person values rules and order - who can't find some neat ways to rationalize some of their rule breaking or order defying decisions. For the record, I'm probably a "5" on manners (sorry Mom), societal conventions and laws. That's right - the solid middle of that bell curve. You?

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Great Book, Good News, Fine Week

What book did you discuss in the most recent rich book conversation you had?

Although I might be setting myself up for disappointment, I'm having trouble imagining a dull conversation about "Let The Great World Spin". Colum McCann's 2009 novel is so packed with provocative ideas, diverse characters and literary inventiveness it begs to be discussed. Good news - Because my wife finished it not long before I did in late 2014, I've already had one opportunity to    
chew over this powerhouse with someone smart.

But, still greedy to hear what other discerning readers took away from the novel, I was thrilled one of my book clubs recently selected it. Even better, a few months ago a new couple - both writers - joined this same club. Cool.

Looking forward to the discussion in a few days is making this into a fine week, technology breakdowns during my latest class notwithstanding. Now, if you've read "Let The Great World Spin", take me up another notch. Tell me and others your impression of McCann's book.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Confirmation

Who do you believe? Him or her?

During my years as an adult educator, I taught many subjects. Though I didn't keep track, I'm reasonably sure I logged the most hours teaching sexual harassment.

All the sexual harassment classes I taught were mandatory; this might help explain why I regularly encountered participants who were openly hostile to the topic. Watching "Confirmation" - a recent HBO movie about Anita Hill's allegations of her experiences working for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when both were employed at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission - brought me right back to my teaching of this volatile subject. The film expertly depicts the same hostility I experienced trying to educate people about what is and isn't respectful behavior in the workplace, legality aside. Also, the cinematic portrayal of the dismissive attitude the Senate Judiciary Committee took with Hill as she spoke reminded me of how cavalier some folks in my classes could be about this issue.

The question opening this post is posed by one congressional staffer to another near the end of the film. When I taught sexual harassment, I frequently asked a less loaded question to start my classes - "What do you think contributes to the different way men and women often perceive what is or isn't sexual harassment?" So, what do you think? And how much progress do you think we've made on this issue since the Hill-Thomas hearings?      

Friday, April 22, 2016

Crossing The Finish Line, Chicken/Egg Aside

It's usually not hard for me to identify when fear gets in my way. Even when temporarily unable to transcend that fear, I recognize its signs. Sometimes asking myself what I would do if I weren't afraid helps me climb out, sometimes not. What strategies do you use when fear gets in your way?

But recognizing how seductively comfort conspires with fear is a different story. How many times have you postponed a goal because your life is otherwise purring along pretty well? There's always tomorrow, right? True, except when it isn't. For me, the toxic comfort + fear combo most often presents itself in the creative domain. How many music or writing projects died a quiet death because things were comfortable in Barton-land I don't know for sure. But because I save most of my false starts, there's no escaping reality. Which came first - the comfort in my life or my fear? Does it matter?

If there is any truth in the conventional wisdom that says being aware of an issue is the necessary first step to addressing it, I've got cause for hope. And though I'm not seeking out discomfort to prod me into a creative frenzy, I'll waste no time further pondering this chicken/egg dilemma. That pile of unfinished projects awaits.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Only Beatles Fans Need Apply

Although I've probably thought about it more than many people my age on the bell curve, surely I'm not alone in constructing an imaginary set list for the Beatles reunion that never was. How about if I first lay out the parameters? Then if anyone responds with their ideas, I'll reveal my perfect list.

* Concert will last approximately ninety minutes, without the encore, so pay attention to song length from the original recordings and also allow extra time for a little stage patter and some expanding of the tunes for added solos. Fair estimate: Twenty five to twenty eight tunes.
* The lead vocals should be shared similar to a typical Beatles recording, i.e. Ringo should get two - maximum -  over the length of the show and definitely not during the encore.
* Cover material is acceptable but not optimal.
* Even if you love the ballads as much as I, remember how well these four could rock and sequence the show accordingly.
* Be sure to make your set list representative of the catalog.

Now about that encore. Considering how long I've fantasized about this, ten minutes seems more than fair. A ballad followed by something midtempo and then finishing with a serious rave-up ("Helter Skelter", maybe?) sounds about right. Perhaps one each for John, George, and Paul? All right, get to work. I am so looking forward to hearing your ideas.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

#40: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Which four essayists would you enshrine on Mt. Rushmore? For #40 in this long-running series, I've picked four who have had the most impact on me as a reader and thinker. My alphabetized monument has four contemporary writers, reflecting a modern bias - mea culpa.

1.) Christopher Hitchens: Though Hitchens took a right turn as he got older, his later conservative politics never interfered with my enjoyment of his writing. He was fierce, funny, and scary smart. My all time favorite book of essays - and my favorite Hitchens book - is his collection called "Arguably" (2011).

2.) Jonathan Lethem: Purely as an essayist, I've read the least of Lethem's work. But on the strength of "The Ecstasy Of Influence" (2011) alone, he overtook two of my earlier essayist/heroes - John Updike and Gore Vidal - to claim his spot on Mt. Rushmore.

3.) Anna Quindlen - Quindlen had me from hello. Ramming through "Thinking Out Loud" (1993), felt like having a conversation with my political soulmate. I've read all of her non-fiction since.

4.) David Foster Wallace - "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" (1997) and "Consider The Lobster" (2006) are two of the funniest, most challenging and energizing books I've read in my entire life. I devoured the first, then raced to the library to borrow the other. Finishing them back-to-back felt like having a brain massage. I still mourn Wallace's suicide; he was one of a kind.

P.S. Hitchens is the only writer on my mountain not also a novelist. And though I have yet to complete a Wallace novel (I've started his magnum opus - "Infinite Jest" - at least three times), every novel I've read by Lethem and Quindlen is also worthy of any discerning reader's time.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Best If Used By ...

Aside from its intended purpose - advising us of the optimal shelf life of consumer products - in what other ways could the label "best if used by ..." be utilized as a tool?

Any teachers out there? How about attaching that label when instructing students in a practical skill? How many times have you forgotten how to do something you've been taught because too much time elapsed between lesson and application?

How about using the label for relationships? I've got one mildly profane idea for applying "best if used by ..." in that domain but you go first. Handy for jokes? Without doubt. How about music? If you'd heard the dreadful choral version of "Do You Want To Know A Secret?" I did this past weekend, you might be persuaded, although in that particular case, "best if never used" would be more apt. But most live rock recordings - especially from the late 60's and early 70's - have clearly outlived their shelf life, arguably more than any old box of spaghetti.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Taxman

Today's pertinent questions: If it were possible, how would you choose to have your tax dollars spent? And, what would you select be excluded from the tiny pot you contribute?

If I were sure all my moolah supported the National Endowment For The Arts, the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, the checks I write every April 15th would sting a little less. And knowing none of my dough is subsidizing either the tobacco or the coal industry in any fashion would be really sweet.

Recently a good friend told me of some Quakers he knows who refuse to pay the percentage of their tax bill representing the respective amount the Federal government dedicates to the military. I'm not that brave. But how I admire people willing to risk the wrath of the IRS for their moral principles.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Less Air Time, The Better

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/04/silencing-inner-critic.html

Five years have passed. How much progress have you made silencing your inner critic?

Although my inner critic continues yakking, I've made progress ignoring him more. And on the days I've been able to do that, I've been happier as well as more productive. Who said I was a slow learner?

In addition to asking myself "What's the worst that can happen?", over the ensuing years I've added "Begin, again" to assist myself whenever my inner critic's volume increases. What works for you? Never underestimate how a strategy that seems self-evident to you can be life-changing for someone else. Share the wealth here - together we can avoid giving our inner critics so much air time.        

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A Home Run

Even infrequent readers of my blog likely know of my penchant for lists so let me get right to that - Jonathan Franzen's 2015 novel "Purity" has joined my list of top one hundred novels of all time. Lest you recommend medication, I'll resist naming the novel Franzen's tour-de-force displaced on that ever-evolving list.

A plot summary, a description of the characters, or worse - trying to capture the richness of this author's ideas - are all beyond my pay grade. There are seven parts to this transformative book. Below is a different taste from each - humor, wisdom, heartbreak; there's much more. Consider these an appetizer but be sure to read the complete novel for a meal you won't soon forget.

From part 1: "Wasn't asking for a recipe supposed to be good coin of the feminine realm?"

Part 2: " Everyone thinks they have strict limits", she said, "until they cross them".

Pt. 3: "... her little apartment on Capitol Hill became the sour-smelling cage of a big cat too depressed to groom itself."

4: "Isn't that why famous people marry each other? To have someone to talk to about the terrible pain of being famous?"      

5: "I laid my cheek on her chest and held her for a long time, not thinking anything, just being an animal that had lost its mother."

6: "The aim of the Internet and its associated technologies was to 'liberate' humanity from the tasks - making things, learning things, remembering things - that had previously given meaning to life and thus constituted life."

7: "Secrets were power. Money was power. Being needed was power. Power, power, power: how could the world be organized around the struggle for a thing so lonely and oppressive in the having of it?"

Thank you, Jonathan.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Tuesday's Sermon

Holding myself accountable for blogging most days has given me new respect for many things, including a few professions. Perhaps my biggest surprise has been how I now view members of the clergy.

Ever consider the effort it takes to develop and deliver a sermon or homily every single week? Think about it:
* You're often speaking to many of the same people each week (How soon can you recycle stuff?)
* You're drawing your material from the same (admittedly rich) source material each time.
* You're speaking in a very quiet space, so aside from an occasional crying baby, no one interrupts you. Net result: Every mispronounced or misused word is heard; lapses in logic or flow are noticeable; cliches are in high relief; etc.
* You're talking for 10-15 minutes non-stop AND you have to draw a compelling conclusion.

Look at that list. How consistently well do you think you could do this? I've been in front of people as a musician, teacher, speaker most of my professional life. But when I think about meeting all the requirements on that list, it gives me real pause. There are additional parallels with blogging - staying fresh, remaining relevant, keeping people interested/awake. Thank goodness I don't rely on people tithing to keep this gig.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Just Ten Seconds Left

I really like the traffic signals that count down the seconds left before a light will change. How cool would it be if vexing personal circumstances had a similar timer letting us know how long we had left to endure something unpleasant?

Since those traffic lights started showing up everywhere, I've frequently visualized a similar signal showing me only seconds remain in certain situations. Who among us cannot withstand thirty seconds of almost anyone? Using this visual has even helped me better tolerate the coffee shop locals and their insufferable political pontificating as I wait for my takeout order. Which relationship that is difficult for you to completely avoid or recurring situation that sometimes tests your patience might be more palatable with a blinking countdown?

I realize someone or something can trigger me only if I allow it. But while awaiting my Dalai Lama certificate, I'm happy using the countdown as still another tool to help mitigate my imperfections. And happier still if someone else finds the technique at all useful.

Friday, April 8, 2016

I Could Drink A Case Of You

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/04/celebrating-joni.html

When I published the above in late April 2011, my blog was just six weeks old. And I didn't start teaching music courses at local colleges until three years later. In two weeks - almost exactly five years after writing that post celebrating Joni Mitchell's music - I'll be sharing my unabashed love for her magic with a group of adults who undoubtedly share my passion. It's like I got into heaven without meeting the entry requirements.

My brother - perhaps the only person I know who is as familiar with Mitchell's music as I - was my unpaid consultant as I began developing my playlist several weeks ago. By far, my biggest challenge is having just seventy five minutes; Joni's massive oeuvre begs for more time. If I'd ever had the good luck to speak with her, my first question would have been how she landed on a set list for live shows. With so many incredible compositions, how did she decide which of her children to leave at home? Wouldn't you welcome a dilemma as delicious as this?

Because my presentation is for a women's conference, my main objective will be to tie the growing maturity of Mitchell's music and the expanding reach of her lyrics to the concurrent history of the women's movement from 1968 to the present. Suggestions or ideas are welcome, whether you share my enthusiasm for Joni Mitchell or not. In the meanwhile, pinch me, OK?            

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Making My List & Checking It Twice

"Biography is an exercise in context."

Since reading it weeks ago, I've been mulling over Susan Cheever's opening statement as she covered the well documented anti-Semitism of poet, novelist and playwright EE Cummings in the early to mid twentieth century. Where is the line in biography that separates giving context for the subject's era and making excuses for a subject's behavior regardless of the era?

With respect to artists whose work I admire, this disconnect has long troubled me. How successful are you at separating art and artist? Does it help when the artist in question is long gone? Put another way, is it easier to excuse behavior that is repellent to you by using historical context as Cheever does with Cummings? How about living artists? If one of them is overtly political and you enjoy their work but their politics disgust you, do you support the work anyway? More than once, my struggle with this disconnect has had the whiff of hypocrisy. Is my love of his exquisite tone reason enough to overlook the misogyny of Miles Davis?

And here's one to consider: When your posthumous biography is written, which behaviors or attitudes of yours will need "historical context"? I'll give you lots of time to answer; I'm pretty occupied with my own list at present.    

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Requesting A Real Time Assist

What percentage of the books you begin reading don't get completed?

As a semi-compulsive bookworm, my percentage is very low. And though I don't feel obligated to finish every book I begin - or to complete every book club selection -  it seems to work out that way most of the time. In addition, more than once I've been later pleased to have resisted an initial impulse to stop reading something that ultimately captivated me.

So, here's my hot-off-the-presses question - Exactly how do you decide which books will not get finished? Moments ago, I stopped at page one thirty five of a four hundred sixty nine page historical novel selected by one of my book clubs. The prose is serviceable and the story - about the wife of a well known 19th century author - has some intrinsic interest to me. Also, the chapters are episodic and short enough to sustain the interest of any reader; the book can be digested in morsel-size pieces.

OK, coy exposition over - I need an assist here. If you completed "Under The Wide And Starry Sky" (2013), should I continue? Either way you answer, please tell me your rationale. And, don't delay - too many other books await these hungry eyes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Needed: Etiquette Convention Board Contact Info

Which convention(s) of etiquette would you find liberating to disregard? What qualifications must the guardians of these conventions have? Who gets to decide when a convention has outlasted its usefulness? Do any of you have a phone # or e-mail address for the etiquette convention board? I've got a bone to pick with that august group, whoever and wherever they are.

After researching the evolution of the convention requiring men to remove their hats while indoors, I've decided this is one worthy of the trash heap. Call me a cretin but this throwback to medieval days when visitors to the king removed their helmets to show they were concealing no weapons strikes me as just as silly as wearing a necktie to work. My freedom to abandon that fashion convention six years ago will now be coupled with wearing a hat anywhere I please. If the prickly librarian who upbraided me for my indoor hat reads this post, be advised.

As soon as a reader provides me with contact info, my intense lobbying with the etiquette convention board to toss the hat-while-indoors nonsense will commence. So, be sure your guardian paperwork is in order. A library card does not count.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Musical & Magical Show And Tell

Remember "show and tell" from grammar school? What's your favorite memory related to it?

Until re-connecting with an old friend over the holidays, I had forgotten that when her younger son was in kindergarten I was his "show and tell". As my friend and I talked about her son's successful musical career, she reminded me about singing and playing guitar for his class. And suddenly I flashed to the song I performed for that group of kids that day in 1977 - "I Know A Lady Who Swallowed A Fly". My mother sang that same song to the four of us many times. I also sang it to my daughter throughout her early years just as my brother did for his two sons. My twenty seven year old daughter and both my teenage nephews are, each in their own way, fine musicians.  

A simple song - from mother to sons to show and tell to three grandchildren she never met. In my experience, music creates ripples like this all the time. What's your most recent experience of this magic?

Friday, April 1, 2016

Hanging Onto Those Cleats

Seems as though each time I begin thinking about hanging up my blog cleats, comments come along that convince me to hang in there. It would be difficult to over-state how buoyed I get when a post moves someone to share their story with me. And when the post that elicited personal comments was about something really important to me - like the one below - my heart swells.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/03/and-he-made-me-laugh.html

That post was from just a week ago and is also one of the rare ones I put on my Facebook wall so apologies to anyone who has already read it. In this instance, I feel OK sharing the link so soon after the original was published because I'm hoping folks will now return to read the comments - wistful, supportive, emotional. These people - two I know, two I don't - found something universal in this particular post, exactly as I envisioned, and were prompted to reflect from the bell curve.

Thank you.