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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Of Key Chains & Doodads

I can't remember the last time my key chain had just two keys. Having such an uncomplicated life makes me happy. One house key, one car key but no office, desk or filing cabinet keys. And nothing else in my world I ever have to remember to secure. I'm aiming to have my next car be one of those requiring no key. When that happens, unless I decide to lock the house when leaving, a key chain will be unnecessary. If my wife locks me out - unintentionally - I'll grab the key we hide outdoors.

Now like many of you, I have several doodads attached to my key chain that get swiped at the gym, supermarket, etc. But as long as I still have a phone number helping folks in those settings to identify me, a key chain-less Pat can also be doodad-free. Nice. How about that tiny flashlight lots of folks keep on their key chain for use in emergencies? Come on, does yours ever have fresh batteries? What thingamajigs are on your key chain that you'd have trouble parting with? Nail clippers? Itty bitty screwdriver for adjusting that teensy weensy screw on your eyeglasses? Bottle opener?

I'm ready to shed all this hardware and enter the brave new world. You?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

When "I Liked It" Doesn't Pass Muster

Reacting to a novel like "The White Tiger" by saying "I liked it" grossly trivializes its raw power. Finishing something as coruscating as Aravind Ariga's 2008 debut obligates discerning readers to develop a fresh way to describe the experience.

I had no epiphany, nor am I different in any fundamental sense having read this. But I'm certain I'll have trouble ever reading a newspaper or magazine article about India's booming economy without thinking of this book and scoffing. I'm equally certain any American who reads it without feeling their gratitude deepen is running on empty empathy-wise.

"... the poor dream of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor."

And here's something else remarkable about "The White Tiger". It's funny; really. The narrator - who happens to be a murderer (that's not a spoiler) - finds humor everywhere. Is this the author's device for providing ballast given the bleak surroundings, the sadness of the narrator's life, and the rampant corruption of India's politics? Does it matter when it's this funny?

"Like eunuchs discussing the Kama Sutra, the voters discuss the elections ... "

Read this book and try not to feel something. I dare you.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Risk Re-Visited

What is the biggest risk you've ever taken?

My relationship with risk has been a very mixed bag. With respect to money I have, I've been mostly risk-averse, aka conservative. But my career choices - which clearly had an impact on how much money I'd have in the future - have entailed a fair degree of uncertainty and risk.

Risks in relationships? Here again, the story is complicated. I've tried gamely to remain vulnerable and open to relationships with all kinds of people; that route is fraught with risk. But, I'm also fiercely loyal, a stance that has perhaps contributed to some risk avoidance with respect to new or untested relationships.

Creative risk? That path is littered with my ambivalence. In general, the more I avoid fruitless comparisons with other musicians, composers, writers, artistic giants, the more risk I take. One of the main reasons I've avoided reading too many other bloggers is directly related to this. But the minute any comparisons jump into my head, risk gets tossed. How long it takes me to recover and put myself out there again in the creative world is mood dependent.

Which other domains of risk occur to you? And what is the biggest risk you ever did not take?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Before & After

Of the day before, I remember two things. There were two busloads of noisy kids, including my daughter and many of her classmates, several of whom I knew. And at the campfire that night, some of the boys sang a popular Green Day song, accompanied on guitar by one of their teachers. Although I was nearing the end of my time at a job that was no longer making me happy, I'm reasonably sure I was in a good mood that day. It was fall - my favorite season in New Jersey - and I would be at a school camp with my daughter and her friends for two days.

About an hour before, we were all in the mess hall. Among the group of kids I was assigned to help supervise on the first activity of the day - rope climbing - was a boy who'd been to my home several times, including over the previous summer to swim in our pool. I remember laughing while asking him at breakfast about the white stuff under his eyes. He said something about his mother telling him to wear plenty of sun block and began smoothing the clotted patches into his face.

On the anniversary a year later, my daughter and her girlfriends gathered to visit his grave. The website his Father had established had stopped getting much traffic. I remember that made the girls sad. I'm pretty sure my wife and I spoke of his parents, as we had many times over that year. I think we posted a message on the website that day.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Game, Set, Match

I accept the apathy of basketball & baseball fans who have ignored my earlier brilliant attempts at bringing them into the bell curve stadium. My stunning metaphors connecting those sports to authors and books might have struck out with fans not as enamored with literature as I. But it is clearly advantage Pat with respect to tennis fans. How can any fan resist these winners?

Passing shot = An obnoxious comment made by a passive aggressive relative.

Unforced error = Which of us doesn't make several of these per day?

Double fault = Don't tell me you haven't made the same mistake twice - I'll need to see that walk-on-water certificate. Or how about foot fault for the dancing impaired?

And love being equivalent to zero? Only Bob Dylan has served up something equal to that. Come on - tennis fan or not - lob a few my way, wouldja please?

And BTW football fans, there is no excuse for you not to be on my bench. Click the link below or it's fifteen yards for you.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/03/referee-pat.html

Thursday, June 23, 2016

One In A Million

My oldest niece - who works in publishing - tells me over one million ISBN's are issued each year for newly published books. What an exhausting number as a reader and potentially immobilizing one as an aspiring writer.

I've read perhaps a dozen Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction - most recently, "Angle of Repose" (1971) by Wallace Stegner, a recommendation made to me by that same niece - and I'm farther behind on the Pulitzer non-fiction side. National Book Award, Booker Prize, the classics, and also a million new titles each year? I need a nap. Then I'll start reading, again.

One in a million? Why bother? Compared to my exhaustion as a reader, it takes even longer for the aspiring writer in me to shake off an initial bleak reaction to that daunting number. Stopgap measures are required - Attend a conference with other aspiring writers for inspiration as well as to re-gain perspective; publish a blog post for a temporary sense of closure; take a longer nap. Begin again.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The First Re-Constructed Mt. Rushmore

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/11/5-mt-rushmore-series.html

Although not yet convicted of a crime, the drugging shenanigans Bill Cosby has admitted to convinced me my Mt. Rushmore of comics from November 2012 needed a face lift. Who would you have nominated to join Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld, and Robin Williams on this first re-constructed Mt. Rushmore?

I decided it was fitting that Cosby the sexual predator lose his place on my monument to Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen provides the needed ballast - accompanied by Jerry Seinfeld - so that Pryor & Williams don't scare away the tourists with their foul mouths. Both she and Seinfeld are wry and non-profane observers of the every day. Pryor keeps us on our political toes; Ellen reminds us to dance.      
Took little effort for my demolitions team to turn Cosby's visage into a pile of pebbles. And I've invited all the women he drugged to my mountain, asking them to bring their dogs, the bigger the better. No poop bags required.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Changes

Changes in the way I show up in the world usually begin with small shifts. I'm curious if this is consistent with your experiences.

For example, at present I'm experiencing a shift in my thinking about pronunciation and spelling, two areas of language arts where my default position has always been conservative and, more often than not, inflexible. And though I arrived at that traditional position honestly - my parents stressed both, as well as standard grammar, at our regular dinner table conversations - my line in the sand is moving.

Because spelling was my only predictable "A" throughout grammar school, I suspect losing the judging monkey and getting more tolerant in that area will take longer than it will with pronunciation. But experience tells me losing that monkey in any domain of life has no downside. Is developing an open mind about the spelling and pronunciation of others a worthy pursuit?

Yes or no, a shift is underway in me.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Seduced By The Muse

So far, my life's creative output has fallen short of my expectations. For too long, I suspect I allowed myself to be seduced by some romantic idea of artistic inspiration, waiting for a muse (or something) to visit me. As I waited for inspiration, valuable time was lost. Sound at all familiar to anyone?   

In an article I read many years ago, the late John Updike said he completed at least one page every day, meaning at the end of each year he had over 300 pages written - a book. So does that kind of discipline trump the notion of a muse? Some would argue (I don't agree) that Updike's writing is cold or cerebral. Did the same discipline that helped him produce such a staggering output also make his output clinical?

Since starting to blog over five years ago, I've often thought of Updike's approach, attempting to write every day. It's been humbling; my current batting average is about .667 and most of my posts are smaller than a page. But even without Updike's talent & and only 2/3 of his discipline, I am feeling better about my creative output. More significantly, I'm no longer as seduced by the muse.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

My Goodreads Vortex

Put aside the irony of a blogger asking this. Which Internet site is most likely to steal hours from your life?

Although not immune, I've been pretty successful avoiding these time-sucking temptations. But it will surprise no regular reader to know that Goodreads is catnip to this book nerd. In a delusional attempt at "out of sight, out of mind", I initially resisted putting the Goodreads link onto my desktop when my previous laptop crashed. That lasted two weeks, maybe.

The problem for me with this book candy store is compounded because their fiendish designers understand how frequently readers are also list makers. I only stopped perusing one of their massive lists recently after my ass fell asleep. Sound familiar?

And the latest ugly turn in my saga? I recently began getting feedback on the book reviews I publish on the site. Ego stroked/attention paid = game over.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

So That's How This Can Be Right

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/06/can-this-be-right.html

Ever since publishing the above in late June of 2011 - the year I began blogging - I've reserved this date each year to re-visit my reflections on words that never sounded right to me. And reading Mark Forsyth's geeky book "The Etymologicon" (2011) early in 2015 inspired me to initiate a winter edition of my series called "Can This Be Right?"

But my list of previously befuddling words - which was long enough to last until June 14 2030 - has suddenly lost much of its mystique. Blame Dr. Anne Curzan, the lecturer for "The Secret Life of Words", my most recent purchase from the Great Courses series by the Teaching Company. With each subsequent lecture, I'm less bemused by English words that used to have me scratching my head. Looking at the first three words on that list - the ones I'd planned to have fun with today - all of them, thanks to Dr. Curzan, are now completely intelligible.

Given the fun I've had with "Can This Be Right?" - and some of the comments I've received on the seven iterations of it - I'm a little wistful letting it go. But I had an inkling the series had run its course when I recently heard myself using "prosaic" in a sentence, correctly. Thanks, Dr. Curzan, I think.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is what psychologists call the human tendency to pay more attention to information and people that support our views and overlook what does not. This well-documented phenomenon often happens on an unconscious level; few of us fully escape its grip. It's possible my own struggle with confirmation bias is exacerbated because of how much I think about my own thinking. Add in the fact that I learn best via listening - vs. looking or doing - and complicate that further with a 24/7 news cycle, including hard-to-escape televisions in the public sphere, and today's reflection is born.

How often have you heard others say "I love so and so (fill in the name of a favorite public figure) because he/she says what is on everyone's mind?" First off, everyone is one of those absolutes signalling muddiness in the thinking of a speaker. But even allowing for the use of an absolute - call it hyperbolic speech - how about a basic recognition of confirmation bias? Surely there are people who do not have whatever that public figure said on their mind, right? How hard would it be to find a different public figure saying the exact opposite of what that favorite of ours is saying?

Switch the channel; read a different columnist; have regular conversations with someone you disagree with more often than you agree. Note to Pat: Follow your own coaching.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

These Are The Good Old Days

Near the top of the list of reasons for rejoicing when it was no longer necessary I work full time was looking forward to less stress in my daily life. Who enjoys sitting in rush hour traffic even with company like Ella Fitzgerald, the Great Courses or NPR?

But as unpleasant as regularly facing traffic was - or as monotonously conforming as putting on a tie most days seemed - the bulk of my stress working full time was usually connected to my supervisory responsibilities. And the majority of my direct reports through the years were exemplary. But, oh those few.

So, when recently asked to briefly supervise a few volunteers at the stable where I myself am a volunteer, I was initially apprehensive. It's been over six years. I quickly rallied as it dawned on me that no performance appraisals were involved, there would be no scheduling issues, and most significantly - given the short duration of this supervisory assignment - high and ever-escalating drama might not have time to materialize.

The poop got mucked, the paddocks were mowed, the stress stayed manageable. Pat drove home - no traffic, no tie. Such a happy ending.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Crab & His Pimped Ride

geriatrics: the medical science dealing with the diseases, debilities and care of aged persons.

Ever since my medical writer wife told me that clinical studies put people my age into the geriatric demographic, I've had a few Jekyll and Hyde-ish moments.

First and foremost, being upright - and in my case quite healthy - slaughters all the alternatives and also renders my morbid introspection a little ... crabby. But ... , if that dictionary definition about medical science for my age group also included one reference to good health - actually one word would be enough - the word geriatric might not be as demoralizing. Is my geriatric status making my skin a little thin? Yeah, probably.

OK, so lexicographical adjustment to the word geriatrics is too far-fetched. How about this instead? How about if a bell curve denizen invents a science - giving it a shiny new word that mixes Latin & Greek, of course - dealing with us "aged persons" who are not diseased, debilitated or in need of care? I'm taking nominations for that neologism. The winner receives a walker outfitted with voice activated I-phone, GPS, and satellite radio with really loud speakers.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

For Everyman

Memoirs have mostly lost their luster for me. "Blood, Bones & Butter" (2011) by Gabrielle Hamilton is a clear exception.

"And that, just like that, is how a whole life can start."

That elegant sentence of one syllable words - describing how a random event led Hamilton to her calling - stopped me cold. I clearly remember thirteen year old Pat being told - not asked - to learn to play drums; my middle school friends needed to complete their fledgling rock n' roll band. And my whole life started.

"The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef" is the subtitle of this strong debut. How perfect is that? Although this human tsunami author appears to have a limitless store of energy, she regularly reveals her ambivalence, her vulnerability and - her word - bitchiness. No air brushing in this memoir.

"It's the way only someone in the industry talks about food. by almost not talking about it, but just throwing out a few code words and signals - like a gang member flashing you his sign."

Take that sentence and replace the word food with your industry or your passion. You see the way a talented writer makes the specific universal? What a gift.          

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The High Horse Avoids Editing

"Mark my words."

"I told you so."

Kind of the before and after of "See how smart I am?", don't you think? And how about the subtext attached to these two oft-heard phrases, especially when delivered with a smirk? Maybe my thin skin is showing, but infrequently I detect a whiff of " ... smarter than you ... " accompanying the words.
 
As someone who has been called both arrogant and supercilious more than a few times - sometimes in the same sentence - these are two phrases worth avoiding. I'm marginally more successful steering clear of the latter, probably because it's more clearly obnoxious and a surefire way to trigger defensiveness in others. And a quick keyword search of 1300 blog posts uncovered just two instances since March 2011 when I've claimed divine prescience using "mark my words." Unfortunately, one of the two occurred in the last month, another reminder of the need for constant vigilance lest my high horse reaches levels requiring an oxygen tank.

p.s. I considered editing out the phrase in both posts. Took the high road on my high horse instead.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Musical Journey

Following the amicable dissolution of my last partnership several years ago, I pondered my next professional musical identity for quite a while. Though there was little doubt I'd re-invent myself - again -  I also suspected my next incarnation would not involve other musicians. Jam sessions - OK; rehearsing with others - not.

Though I didn't know at the time, a goal publicly announced here near my 62nd birthday in November 2011 - to fully memorize three hundred jazz compositions and standards - was an important step in my musical life. As my repertoire and comfort with the songs grew, so did my confidence. In retrospect, that goal was both audacious and sensible; perhaps my greatest strength as a musician is my memory. Though I haven't yet reached it, the continuing attention given to the goal also inspired me to look for suitable performing venues.

Playing solo jazz guitar in art galleries now occupies the musical space that playing and singing acoustic music in bars did when I met my wife in 1978. There's a nice symmetry to a few of my musical lives: My wife helped me secure my first recurring art gallery gig not long after we moved to our current home and she was also the first audience (of one) I ever had performing my first solo jazz guitar arrangement in the early 1980's soon after my livelihood as a singer ended. I still recall her face as I unleashed my halting version of "Happy Birthday" on her unsuspecting - but always supportive - ears. I'm grateful she's been by my side for a significant chunk of my musical journey.        

Saturday, June 4, 2016

That Tricky Mirror

Carefully consider your close relationships. Ones that - if you chose to end - would result in significant changes in your life. Which of those relationships is the most challenging for you? What about that challenging relationship specifically vexes you?

I have few illusions about how difficult I can be for those closest to me. Preparing for a family Thanksgiving tradition where each of us say something we are thankful for, last November I realized how thankful I am my family has tolerated my most difficult moments. At that same time, old colleagues, bosses, close friends, and partners of close friends all crossed my mind. I suspect many of those folks could include me on their short list in response to the italicized question above.

Here's the rub. Since that moment of painful introspection late last year, I've also been reflecting on my most challenging relationship. And I recently concluded that what most vexes me with that person are behaviors uncomfortably close to my own.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Qualified Progress

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/06/waxing-waning-of-gratitude.html

The above was published when my blog was not quite three months old. Over the ensuing five years, it's gratifying to note how the consistency of my gratitude has steadily improved. One clear contributing factor? Blogging.

In an ongoing attempt to remain fresh here, I am clearly paying closer attention. Often, a single idea captured in my blog notebook - whether or not it becomes a post - is enough to make me feel grateful. Even noticing things as mundane as temperate days, license plates or street signs, a child giggling, can remind me. Comments - online or off - take me up another level. I'm grateful to anyone who reads or comments.  

As pleased as I am that my gratitude does not ping pong as much as before starting to blog, I am also fully mindful no major life challenges have surfaced for me over the same time period. I've had an exceptional five years. A real test of growth will be how I bounce back after facing the next boulder. If I can find my way back to being grateful after that - whatever "that" is - then it may be time to declare my days of waxing and waning gratitude are a thing of the past. That would be nice.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

When Silence Suffocates

I began revering the late Gore Vidal as a novelist after coming across "Kalki" following its 1978 publication. Then I admired his persona as professional provocateur, initially via his public battles with Norman Mailer and others, and even more as I later consumed his trenchant essays and blistering historical fiction. If the recent film "Lincoln" or the book on which it was based - "Team Of Rivals" - helped shape your current view of our 16th president, I don't recommend Gore Vidal's "Lincoln" (1984).

But if you have minimal tolerance for cage rattling, I do highly recommend you devote ninety minutes watching "The United States Of Amnesia". Aside from fortifying my esteem for Vidal's work, the old footage shown in this documentary reminded me how Vidal's young age crankiness and perpetual cynicism contributed to his uncanny prescience. Watching the film made me long for a fraction of his foresight, let alone moral courage. I'd lose about half my family and many of my friends publicly uttering just a portion of Vidal's provocations. But it would be liberating to do so. That silly need for approval can be suffocating.

Which artist of any kind prods you to speak your mind more, approval aside?

"Art is the enemy of democracy."  - Gore Vidal 

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-binge-is-back.html