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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Aristotle, Woody, You & Me

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

There are habits and there are habits. Which of yours has led you to excellence?

My scorecard is mixed. On one side, I've got swearing, impatience, and too much cheese. That partial list of habits not aligned with excellence does not include others of mine belonging in the over-share category.

That said, although not completely comfortable using excellent to describe my guitar playing, I have repeatedly played the instrument since 1971. My journal and meditation practice - both fully integrated into my life since 1991 - are also clearly habits that work toward excellence especially when contrasted with something like unthinkingly reading about celebrities. That's another one in my still-trying-to-kick-it bucket.

Which brings me to Woody Allen. Soon after my wife and I debriefed our reactions to his latest film - Cafe Society - I visited Wikipedia to verify something I'd asserted. Turns out I was almost right. Beginning with Annie Hall in 1977, Woody Allen has released a film he's written and directed almost every year since. What excellence-creating habit have you maintained for forty continuous years?

Friday, July 29, 2016

Another First (With A Side Order Of Guilt)

Feeling guilty about playing several guitars for a few hours at an out-of-town music store recently, I bought a new CD - a Shawn Colvin/Steve Earle collaboration - prominently displayed on the counter. It's been years since my last impulse buy of a full length recording. Like many of you, most of my music purchases these days are one song at a time via I-tunes.

The CD turned out to be just OK (best cut = a remake of "Tobacco Road") but listening to it did get me reflecting on the first recording I ever purchased. Do you recall your first? What was it? In what format? I'm guessing no one reading this had as their first a 78 RPM record. My first was a single (45 RPM) by the Zombies - "She's Not There"; it's in my basement, along with all my old 45's. I still own - and infrequently use - a turntable. Do you still own your first purchased recording? When did you last listen to it?

Why are new recordings still called albums when that coinage began with the advent of the 33 RPM "long playing" (LP) format? What was your first purchased LP? Cassette? Eight track? CD? I-tunes? Regular readers will not be surprised to know I remember each of my firsts for all those formats, except eight track; never had an eight track player. But how about you? Were any of those purchases as memorable for you as they were for me?

All this because of guilt about playing those guitars. Still, I know I'm not alone in that particular type of guilt. While waiting for a train a few weeks ago, my wife experienced a similar pang after asking to use the rest room in a local book store. The proprietor ended up with a sale; my wife's guilt was assuaged. I wonder how many impulse buys are tied to guilt.  

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Calling For Protocol Suggestions

Based on several ho-hum books I've slogged through over the past year, effective immediately I'm establishing a new protocol before committing any title to my list. I welcome your ideas to assist me in potentially screening out yawners or groaners. Aside from the five women in my posse, every future recommender will now be vetted as follows.

1. Is this book the last one you read? If yes, when did you finish the one before that? I've begun to suspect the proximity of a reading experience has a disproportionate impact on recommendations, especially for those who read sporadically. Even friendly bloggers/snobs are not immune to this tendency to sometimes get over-excited about a recent read.

2. For fiction recommendations: Which character spoke most to you? Why? For non-fiction: What was one of your main takeaways? If a book is that good shouldn't something stick in the memory?

3. Most importantly: Tell me a few of your other all time adult favorites. Not getting this obvious information from someone before putting a book on my "to read" list is foolhardy. I can no longer afford to be so cavalier - the list is long and Act Three is underway.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Bless Me Father (Again)

"Everyone lies."

I've been reflecting on that statement for several months ever since being riveted by a podcast that used it as its premise. Though absolutes can signal muddy thinking, the "everyone" here rings true to me. How about for you? Have you ever met anyone who doesn't lie? Not even the occasional white one - often viewed as harmless - like Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, tooth fairy, etc.?

What about the majority of your lies? Exclude the ones you tell yourself. Confine your exploration to those you say aloud. Are your lies mostly white or ...

The embellishing variety, i.e. trying to make your stories (or yourself) bigger? The cover-up type, i.e. spinning an embarrassing situation, hiding a shortcoming, etc.? In the gossip bucket, i.e. any lie - or its evil twin, the half-truth - that has the potential to do damage to someone else?

The list goes on. That podcast probably lodged in my brain because of my lifelong struggle sometimes telling the full truth. My preferred flavor? Embellishing, which I call green lies, i.e. those that are likely rooted in jealousy or envy, diminishing my credibility. Not a pretty picture but at least a truthful one. And publishing this blog has assisted me in my work - becoming a lifeline of sorts - because the written word is less ephemeral than its spoken cousin.      

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Sunday Of Solidarity

Spending regular time with others who share my concern about climate change has become an important element in my life. And the solidarity I feel when surrounded by people like this - as I was at a march yesterday in Philadelphia- reminds me how stressful the alternative has recently been.

For several reasons, I do not routinely bring up climate change in conversation, especially with certain people. First, although I'm confident the science is conclusive, our current political climate - including screaming matches about climate change disguised as dialogue - is more about polemics than facts. Second, my grasp of the science is still not strong enough; I'd prefer being silent vs. sounding ill-informed.

But mostly I bite my tongue - thereby allowing the stress to wear me down - because climate change denial is often blended, in a classic case of obfuscation, with jobs. In "American Catch" (2014), author Paul Greenberg - speaking about the way opponents of local fishing try to divert attention from the real issue says - "...that hallowed American tonic for happiness known as jobs..." No one who supports legislation limiting future use of fossil fuels in order to mitigate climate change is saying some existing jobs are not at risk. What we are saying is let's figure out a way to wean ourselves off those fuels - gradually - before the damage is irreparable.

It was soothing to be able to say things like this yesterday without worrying about the volume of my voice.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Telling Stories

Telling stories is a powerful human need, closely aligned with the need to create. That lesson is continually reinforced for me, moving into high relief each time I get involved with a new writing group. What is your preferred method for telling a story?

Although people can sometimes struggle when beginning their story, if you stay focused and ask pure questions - i.e. ones for which you don't have an answer - that story often slowly emerges. What have you observed about people who struggle as their story unfolds? In my experience, the quieter I remain after someone gets started, the deeper the storyteller goes.

Sports and work related stories can act as neutral territory for those not temperamentally inclined to share personal stories. I've met few people who don't enjoy sharing stories from these domains. And even most neutral topics reveal a great deal about the storyteller. Because telling stories - topic aside - is about tapping into what is inside of us, feeling heard, creating. How many people have you met who don't want those things?  

Friday, July 22, 2016

Deposits That Matter

Among people you consider trustworthy, what have you observed about their general tendency to trust others? If you consider yourself trustworthy, how would you characterize your instincts with respect to trusting others?

Ever notice how small words - love, fear, trust - seem to loom large? No meaningful relationship can begin, thrive or survive without trust. If trust is broken, the damage is often irreparable. And in my experience, there is a direct correlation between trustworthy people and their willingness to easily, though not unwisely, trust others.

Putting aside the author's politics, one of the most helpful books I've ever read was "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. In it, Covey uses a metaphor to illustrate the importance of trust. He asserts each of us must remember to make regular deposits in what he calls the "emotional bank account" of others. These deposits are then available if later we need to make a "withdrawal", i.e. ask others to trust us. This metaphor resonates strongly with me; I purposefully set about making those deposits and try to be careful not to overdraw my account with anyone. How often do you make those deposits?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Changed By 107 Pages

Words fail me.

Is there a more phony cliche than that? How many times have you heard someone say it and then stop speaking?

Soon after finishing "Signs Preceding The End Of The World" and starting an entry in my book journal with that tired phrase, I stopped writing. This cliche-free jewel deserves more.

Read Yuri Herrera's 2009 novel - translated by Lisa Dillman - and tell me, in your words, how you've changed as a reader.



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Re-Visiting Re-Framing

Although I can be as egotistical as the next person, it's still not unusual for me to sometimes use unflattering words when describing myself to others. Any of you share the latter tendency with me?

If yes, have you noticed how others can sometimes can help you re-frame some of your harsh self-descriptions? I was recently speaking to someone about the many vessels I use to capture impressions of the world and my experiences - my regular journal, my book journal, my movie log, etc. Before I had a chance to call myself obsessive - my default description of this harmless habit - she used the term "historian". I was initially taken aback. But within weeks, I began re-framing using her word instead of mine.

This historian has since jotted down several other unflattering self-descriptions and set to work re-framing each. Navel gazer = introspective or cerebral. Picky = selective. Cautious = deliberate. There's more. Which words or expressions do you sometimes use to describe yourself that would benefit from re-framing?

Arguably, the more important work is re-framing the way I sometimes describe others. In another recent conversation, someone else gently suggested my use of "unsavory" - discussing a third person we both know - could be re-framed to "colorful". After more talking, the two of us settled on "eccentric".

Sunday, July 17, 2016

#42: The Mt. Rushmore Of The Mt. Rushmore Series

Because the Mt. Rushmore Series was initiated exactly four years ago on this date, I'm hoping at least a few of my regular readers will indulge me for being so self-referential today. To the rest of you - apologies. Below are the links - four, of course - for the Mt. Rushmore of the Mt. Rushmore series, selected because this group has received the most views. Chronologically, they are ...

1.) http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/07/1-mt-rushmore-series.html

The maiden voyage of the series - my Mt. Rushmore of life experiences - is in the top four and also got four comments back in 2012. Nice symmetry, no?

2.) http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/12/18-mt-rushmore-series.html

I recall getting a lot of offline response when chiseling my four most memorable ending lines from film into the mountain. I often wonder why people are hesitant to be public about something like this; seems harmless enough.  

3.) http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/11/28-mt-rushmore-series.html

This post from 2014 probably benefited from a class I was teaching at the time; I'm a shameless promoter of my blog in my classes.  It was gratifying to re-visit it and still feel so passionate about these four timeless songs from the 1930's.

4.) http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/12/38-mt-rushmore-series.html

This was one of my favorites, four highly memorable if flawed Dads from literature. The fact that this post got so much attention makes it one of those rare instances when pleasure with something I wrote coincided with reader interest, making the post clearly Mt. Rushmore-worthy.

I won't push my luck by asking anyone to carve a Mt. Rushmore from my Mt. Rushmores. Even the most faithful reader would understandably blanch at something that solipsistic.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Life's Been Good (And Easy)

I'll start with the obvious - I was born in the US, had a stable two parent home as a child, and was the oldest of four. Oh yeah, a boy to boot.

Having a few of the cultural privileges - being white of Western European descent and straight - sure didn't hurt. Technically, I'm not a WASP but I am a close relative - a WASC - having been raised Catholic, clearly less fraught here in the US than the remaining far-in-the-minority alternatives. Although there wasn't much WASP-like money around, the stability and love more than made up for that one missing link in my early privilege-rich life.  

I'm an extrovert in a world that rewards that more than the opposite temperament; I have no physical or mental disability; I'm right handed. If my fellow righties think that hasn't made your life easier, try finding a guitar teacher who accepts southpaws for students. Or, consider these loaded references - left-handed compliment, out in left field (which makes no sense since right fielders see a great deal less action), two left feet, gauche, etc.

The linguistic bias against "left" is subtle and no doubt seems silly to many. But consider this: There are many insidious and hateful messages embedded in everyday language and our toxic political environment often exacerbates this, when it's not facilitating it. And this helps make life easier for some people than for others. For me, life's been good and much easier than it has been for many. I'm so grateful.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Leftover From The Itinerant Years

Which decade of your life has been your most itinerant?

Military brats aside, I'm guessing the answer for many of the rest of us would be our 20's, right? It certainly was for me.

I moved into my first apartment at twenty one. Through the age of twenty eight I moved an additional six times. If I include the different places I helped one of my sisters and my brother move in and out of during that same period, I'm sure I lugged one or more decrepit refrigerators at least ten times. Your building supplied the refrigerator, you say? Lucky you. I recall only one of my apartments so equipped and it was ironically in the only building that had an elevator. No wonder I was so buff.

And who knew stuffing all those funky vans with musical equipment starting at seventeen would come in handy and soon after be honed to a fine art? To this day, people marvel at how much I can pack into any vehicle. Admittedly not a real sophisticated skill, but everybody's good at something, no? Call this a leftover from the itinerant years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Last Time

"To be given a glimpse now was a bitter miracle, a ghostly caress that left more regret than solace."

The last time a single sentence knocked the wind out of me like that one did - from Bill Clegg's debut novel "Did You Ever Have A Family" (2015) - I was reading "Every Last One" by Anna Quindlen.

The last time the architecture of a book mesmerized me like "... Family" did, I was reading Daniel Woodrell's "The Maid's Version". Both these spellbinding novels conjure the magic of Kurosawa's film masterpiece "Rashomon".

" ... we've learned that grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it."

The last time I blogged about simple words painting intricate pictures I was speaking of "Room" (Emma Donoghue) and also citing the mastery of "A Lesson Before Dying" (Ernest Gaines). Clegg begins most of his chapters - each a character miniature - with sentences as simple as "She will go."

"They will be in love, or they will be lost, and they will have no words. And the waves will sound to them as they did to us the first time we heard them." 

The last time the final sentences of a book landed with me like those was when I re-read "The Great Gatsby" for the third time. Some books entertain us and some educate us. "Did You Ever Have A Family" - like all the others noted above - enlarge us.     

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Words & Pictures From The Road

Reflecting from the road can be a hit or miss affair. Spotty Wi-Fi, travel fatigue, and taking a welcome break from technology all reside on the miss side of the ledger.

Still, visiting new places - or returning to cherished ones - invariably fills me with wonder. When out of Internet range and unable to publish, my notebook gets jammed with ideas. But my experience of the past five years has also taught me that the luster of those ideas fades a bit if they languish. By the time I get home, what seemed inspiring on the road sometimes doesn't feel as fresh.

How familiar is this sentence? "The pictures don't do justice to the actual sights." Is it possible I'm experiencing a parallel phenomenon when words fail me like those pictures fail you?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Coping

Over five and a half years of blogging, there have been just a handful of times when the day's headlines persuaded me that publishing anything here unrelated to the breaking news would be superficial.

Like you, I've got opinions on the events leading up to, the horrific event itself, and what "should" happen following the travesty in Dallas last Thursday. Losing someone you love is hard enough; having someone you love taken from you before their time through violence of any kind is something I hope to never experience.

Like most of you, my life went on uninterrupted Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. My wife and I hiked in the Adirondacks, enjoyed spending time with an old friend, and spoke a great deal about the before, during and after of Dallas. I'm so grateful to have someone I can talk to openly about things so difficult to process. I'm not sure how well I would cope if this weren't the case.

Friday, July 8, 2016

116,799 To Go

My wife had a hint of what was in store for her on one of our first dates - a trip to Great Adventure. She's recounted the story many times of how I calculated how long we'd be waiting on line for one of the popular rides. It was easy to do - number of people in front of us on line, how many were admitted for each cycle of the ride, approximate length of time per ride cycle, including loading & unloading. I'm not necessarily proud this is how my mind works but work this way it does.  

Which brings me to the title of this post. With idle thinking time available to me while driving to the Adirondacks yesterday, I figured out I have about 116,800 waking hours of life remaining.  Twenty more years - a reasonable estimate based on my health and family history - 365 days per, sixteen hours each day, given my current sleep patterns. That's a lot of hours, especially if I continue making good use of them. And, if Malcolm Gladwell and others are onto something when they conjecture that doing anything religiously for 10,000 hours helps ensure your expertise in that anything, I've still got time to become a really good writer.

All right, doing the math is creepy; skip it. But unless you're a lot older than me, you've got multiples of 10,000 hours remaining. What do you want to get really good at?  

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Magic In The Message

"American Catch: The Fight For Our Local Seafood" (2014) is one of those books I want everyone I know to read. Author Paul Greenberg is an old-fashioned idealist, tireless researcher and very talented writer.

"What keeps Americans from eating from their local waters? The answer lies in an intricate interplay of ecology, economics, politics, and taste." Greenberg starts there and his subsequent description of that "...intricate interplay..." is revealed via the Eastern oyster ("...a miraculous natural architect..."), Gulf shrimp ("...the great delocalizer..."), and Alaskan salmon, a fish endangered by mining interests and shortsighted politics. Each of these main sections is educational, sobering, and energizing.  

"All that the sea asks is that we be wise in our harvest, recognize the limits of its bounty, and protect the places where seafood wealth is born. In return the sea will feed us and make us smarter, healthier, and more resilient. Quite a covenant."

Passages like that are proof of what I've repeatedly heard; the best writing is re-writing. This was Greenberg's seventh draft, per his acknowledgments. If you read those first two sentences aloud, their cadence is inescapable. And then his three word finale reinforces the triptychs embedded in the sentences directly preceding it. An important message delivered via writing magic.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Arithmetic Without The Reading & Writing

Add, subtract, multiply, divide. When did you last consider how those we routinely encounter frequently seem to be temperamentally aligned with one of these functions more than the others?

Who helps you add new music, experiences, foods, places, authors to your life? I gravitate to those who add to my life in these areas. And those people inclined to add new people to their lives inspire me to be more open to others. There is also something to be learned from those who judiciously subtract - shed possessions, downsize, eliminate negative people from their lives. But defaulting to subtraction via reflexively giving up things - "I can't anymore", etc. - can also limit those who spend time with people more inclined to subtract vs. add.

In my experience, the people most fiercely alive - and who clearly need to consider subtraction as an occasional ballast - are the multipliers. Hotter, faster, louder - in multiples. Still, I'll take that noisy intensity any time over those temperamentally inclined to divide. By definition, divide is the opposite of unite. Although multipliers can be exhausting, dividers find ways to separate people from each other. Some of my worst moments have been instances when I've been a divider and when I sense I'm with one, I give them wide berth.

How do you see yourself? What was the last instance where you added, subtracted, multiplied, or divided for yourself?  Did you take note of the effect it had on others?  

Monday, July 4, 2016

You Complete Me

* Helps make me more kind
* Reminds me intensity can be exhausting
* Rewards my curiosity

How does your best relationship complete you? A recent conversation about healthy marriages reminded me of a line of powerful dialogue from "Jerry Maguire". From there, compiling a list of the ways my wife completes me was easy.

Distilling my gratitude to three bullets - to keep the post brief - forced some deeper reflection. It was worth the effort.

Use as many bullets as you'd like to tell me and others how your best relationship completes you.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Cut Far Above

"I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. I will be heard." - William Lloyd Garrison in the first issue of "The Liberator" (1831)

Over our lifetimes, most of us are not fortunate enough to cross paths with anyone approaching the moral courage of Garrison, the unapologetic abolitionist writer and editor. With deviants like Hitler or Pol Pot getting their one shot at poisoning the world, doesn't it seem appropriate people like Garrison or Raoul Wallenberg would get two lives to help re-calibrate the moral equilibrium of the universe just a little?

Of all my fantasies, perhaps the most persistent is the one where I mature into a person with the iron will and commitment of someone like Garrison; I'll take those qualities even without his prescience. I can never learn too much about heroes like Garrison and I'm astounded how their words alone continue to move me to be more than I am. I hope someday to meet someone of his caliber and stand in the reflected glow of that kind of bravery. Have one of you ever been lucky enough to meet someone this courageous? I would love to hear that story.      

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Big Three - Three Years Later

Money, politics, religion. How many conversations centering on the big three have you purposefully initiated over the past three years?

I'm obliged to admit I've lost ground on my public pledge of July 1 2013 to be bolder about these topics. Not only have I barely touched on money or religion since a faithful reader gently chastised me for playing it safe on my blog, I've scrupulously avoided politics both here and in conversation. I'd like to say more - especially now that the donkeys and elephants appear to have chosen their nominees - but until I'm confident my approach will be more measured than much of the chatter surrounding me, it's radio silence.

Another aspiring writer in a group I just joined said he felt his thoughts on the current political climate were as "...valid..." as anyone else's. Though on the one hand I admire his confidence, I'll postpone judgment on how much value he adds to the current discourse until after reading his work or hearing him speak on the subject. In the meanwhile, there'll be no new pledge today from yours truly re the big three, three years later.  

 http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/07/the-big-three.html