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Friday, September 30, 2016

If You're Ready

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Journey To The Past

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Glass More Than Half Full

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Binge Is A Binge Is A Binge

What is your favorite binge activity?

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

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

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

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Will He Behave?

If the projections are even close to accurate, 100 million people could be tuned in to the Presidential debates tomorrow evening. Despite an admittedly perverse curiosity  - will he behave? - I didn't watch the primary sideshows (on either side) and don't plan to break my streak. Besides, tomorrow is a busy day and the circus starts around the time on Monday evenings when I sometimes sit down to write a blog post.

Anyway, my wife can fill me in. There'll also be no shortage of opinions bouncing around on Tuesday a.m. I'll probably eavesdrop on some local coffee shop punditry, scan the papers at the library, read a few rants on Facebook.      

If you're like me, i.e. one of the 200+ million who is skipping this not-to-be-missed event, what will you be doing tomorrow night instead? And what do you think - Will he behave?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

We, The 98%

It's taken me a while to formulate a response to someone who asked me offline who I'm trying to reach as an audience with my blog. When this person said my subject matter was "... all over the map..." - a polite paraphrasing of the expression used - I didn't disagree but I did react a bit defensively, saying the eclectic format has been my intent from the outset. I'm a guy on the bell curve talking to others on the bell curve, etc. But ... who is that, more precisely?

In the end, I've decided it's easier to say who I'm not trying to reach. I'm not aiming at the 1% who have personal assistants or other full time household help and I'm also not aiming at the 1% who deserve to be incarcerated long term. If, however, anyone from either of those edges of the bell curve wants to visit this tiny corner of the blogosphere, welcome.

All the rest of you, including my latest critic, thanks for reading and commenting.   

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 1

A quick quiz to see if you and I have that Spock mind-meld thing purring. I say movie and shower and you say what? If "Psycho" did not spring to mind, feel free to skip this post and all others in this series I'm launching today entitled "Pop Culture Triptych".

My contention: Except for some scholars and those who fancy themselves intellectuals, many of us are often immersed deeply enough in pop culture that many two word combinations will reflexively trigger an association completing the triptych. It's like that third item is etched into the collective psyche. And I don't mean movie and bird = "The Birds" - that's cheating. Try these three on for size:

1.) Movie and banjo =
2.) Movie and bear =
3.) Movie and dentistry =

My next installment in this series likely will not be movies and ... =  . It might be books and ... =  , or music and ... = , or something else that comes to my addled brain unbidden in the future. But I've got to start somewhere and see if anyone takes this initial bait. Even if you don't, I'm pretty sure I'm not alone on the bell curve here. My guess: You've got at least a few of these up your sleeve too. Bring 'em on for me and for others, OK?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

#44: The Mt. Rushmore Series

OK, I'm going to cheat just this once. Even though I've spent time in only forty seven of the fifty, below is my Mt. Rushmore of the States, in ascending order. I'm taking this liberty only because by the time I visit Alabama, Hawaii, and Mississippi I may no longer be blogging. In the meanwhile, I'd like to know which four States you'd enshrine and why. And I don't care how many you've seen.

1.) Massachusetts: Aside from the slightly-colder-than-NJ winters, the only other thing that's kept me from re-locating to the Bay State is the New England reserve of some residents I've encountered. Beats the obnoxious Jersey demeanor but not by much.

2.) Colorado: If I'd constructed this monument a month ago, Colorado may not have made the cut. But the combination of robust outdoor lifestyle, friendly natives, and staggering beauty has converted me.

3.) Oregon: Too much rain, true. But Oregon was the first State that ever tempted me to pick up stakes. Not as gorgeous as Colorado or as close as Massachusetts, but every trip to Oregon has solidified it's position near the top of my mountain.

4.) New Jersey: As I've repeatedly said, I sincerely hope every comic who has ever poked fun at my lifelong home continues making fun of us. If it prevents people from moving here, great; we've already got plenty of those, thank you. We've also got beautiful beaches, the Pinelands, and skiing (not Colorado quality, granted). We've got diversity to spare, strong environmental laws, an educational system that consistently draws accolades. NYC is a short drive or train ride away; the brave could reasonably get there by bike.

For the really attentive, below is an earlier iteration of Mt. Rushmore with four enshrined cities, three from the U.S. Though New Orleans and San Francisco made that earlier mountain, their respective States don't hold quite the same appeal as those above, although a beloved niece who lives in California could be a deal breaker. But Boston? Now you're talking.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/19-mt-rushmore-series.html

Monday, September 19, 2016

Restored By Quiet And Footsteps

There are few things in the world as restorative as spending time in the profound quiet of isolated outdoor spaces. Where do you go when you want an experience like this?

On our last hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, three of us stood apart from one another in an isolated meadow for about ten minutes. I closed my eyes; there was not a single sound to be heard - magic. I'm guessing my two partners were enjoying the silence as much as I because none of us spoke as we resumed the hike. For quite a while, our footsteps were the only discernible sound. I found myself paying close attention to the way our feet sounded beneath the subtly changing terrain.

Now I yearn for the next opportunity.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

On This Day In 1983

Although I told my wife I was going to marry her on our first date, she has never let me forget it took me a while to get around to it. But just as I was certain she was the one for me on that first date in April 1978, I was equally sure when we were married thirty three years ago today that we would grow old together. What I didn't fully understand on September 17, 1983 was how rich that was going to make my life as the years accrued.

I treasure many things about my wife. This past week as we hiked together in the Rocky Mountains, I continually reflected on two significant barriers she has not let dissuade her - chronic asthma that began years ago and a tibia fracture from a 2014 skiing accident. Either of these alone would be excuse enough for many people to never attempt this kind of strenuous high altitude hiking. She was the one who planned our hikes. Her moxie inspires me.

I can easily gauge how high an opinion I have of any woman I meet. If I think my wife will like her and want to introduce the two to each other, that new acquaintance of mine must be first rate.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Crossing The Divide

The last time my wife and I crossed the Continental Divide was in 2000, driving on "Going To The Sun Road" en route to/from Glacier National Park. That experience was, without question, the most terrifying time I've ever spent behind the wheel. Ever driven that road? If yes, has any driving experience you've had ever scared you more?

Over our thirty eight years together, the worst moments my wife and I have had have been connected to my driving. So as we planned our current itinerary - taking us across the Continental Divide again, this time from east to west in Rocky Mountain National Park - our dialogue included strategies to ensure our marriage survived this trip. Because "Going To The Sun Road" had so traumatized my wife as a passenger - and she only went one direction! - her taking the wheel across the Divide this second time was never an option. That put me in the driver's seat, again -  uh oh.

The benign name of this section of road crossing the Divide - Trail Ridge Road - was my first hint our marriage might remain intact. And as we ascended and I was able to see trees almost all the way up, I relaxed. I never removed both my hands from the wheel - even to change the radio station - but unlike my driving experience in 2000, this time when we arrived at the 12,000 foot summit, my arms weren't shaking. Better yet, my wife remained upright the entire time, leaning toward the driver's side only once and not one swear word was aimed my way. Of course, the hard-to-top views made the anticipatory stress - for both of us - all worthwhile. If you ever have an opportunity to cross the Continental Divide, be sure to take it.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

21st Century Couples

One of my first thoughts after finishing "Fates And Furies" (2015) and seeing the young face of Lauren Groff on the book sleeve was that this audacious author will be producing great literature after "...the cold meat..." of me is in the grave.  This is not morbid; it's the residual effect of being floored by someone so young who is this assured.

The deeper I processed Groff's ambition - embodied by this remarkable, profane and thoroughly modern novel - the more another "young" novelist came to mind - the late John Updike. Updike's early work was not universally adored but his impact on the world of 20th century literature is undeniable. And his ability to dissect the shifting landscape of American marriage sharpened over the course of his half-century career. I can easily envision Lauren Groff's work following a similar fifty year trajectory. "Fates And Furies" is the 21st century equivalent of Updike's "Couples" - raw, shocking, unsparing. I'm confident saying you will have trouble forgetting the marriage of Lancelot Satterwite and Mathilde Yoder or making up your mind until the final page whether Mathilde is someone you'd want as a friend.

"A speck on the slender child grows into a gross deformity in the adult, inescapable, ragged at the edges."

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Gratitude On 9/11

In all of our lives, there is so much that deserves our gratitude. What are you grateful for today?

I have no idea how many people are employed by different governmental entities to help protect us from future terrorist acts. But I do know that today, on the fifteenth anniversary of our national nightmare, I am sincerely grateful for the important work these mostly unknown people do. When did you last stop to consider the debt of gratitude we all owe these folks?

If you or someone you know has a personal connection to any of these people, I'd like to know. And if you could arrange to introduce me to that person, that would be great. I'd like to express my personal gratitude.    

Friday, September 9, 2016

That Sadistic Productivity Mojo

Every so often, I'm able to trick my body into functioning on less than seven or eight hours sleep. During these spells, my productivity intoxicates me. I read more, write more, practice my guitar more, even exercise more. The more I get to, the more I continue to get to. And sometimes I briefly succeed in convincing myself I'm about to become one of those folks who will heretofore need far less sleep than the average person, i.e. I've found a domain where I can step off the bell curve.

Unfortunately, the inevitable crash is usually close by. My body searches for what it needs and soon after a two or three day burst - during which I may have gotten to several long-delayed projects as well as deluded myself that I'm hot on Mozart's trail - the next few days are plagued by naps. If I then masochistically tally my weekly sleep total - for example, as I did when my most recent productivity jag had me in a grip - I'm right back on the bell curve. Shit.

A few years back, with respect to hours of sleep, a wise reader coached me to resist fighting what my body needs. I suspect his suggestion would be easier to implement if my productivity mojo never dangled those hot flashes in front of me.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On The Road Again, Etc.

Although this year will not end up being a record breaker, the year of my last cross country driving excursion (2000) is the one closest in time to topping 2016 for total days away from home. On a scale of 1-10 how much wander lust lives in you? If you're a "5" or above, where is that lust taking you next? I'm always grateful my wife and I are aligned in our mutual desire to experience new places. I'm doubly grateful doing so is within our means.

This visit to Rocky Mountain National Park is sure to be enjoyable because it was organized by one of our favorite couples from the 2015 Road Scholars trip we took to Alaska. These folks have run an environmental center near the park for many years and they pulled together a "reunion" of about ten people from that earlier trip. It's certain to be vigorous, educational, and fun. And, the organizer's daughter has volunteered her guitar for me to play. Hoorah!

Only one laptop is packed so blogging for the next ten days could be touch and go. If I'm MIA and you're pining for me, put on that Willie Nelson recording and sing along. FYI - but only for those who don't know me and need an accompanying visual- I've almost always got the beard to match and (sometimes) the hair. Depends on how diligent I've been about visiting a barber. So, "On The Road Again" but, "I'll Be Back". Sorry, "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)".

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

This Driver's Manifesto

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/09/passenger-or-driver.html

Of my earlier posts I've re-read to see what has shifted for me in the years since writing them, the one directly above from September 6, 2011 entitled "Passenger Or Driver?" triggered my most emotional response. When it comes to the vocational choices you've made over your working life, have you more often felt like a passenger or a driver? This is vulnerable territory for me.

In this case, the only thing that's shifted over the ensuing five years is I no longer need to qualify my answer to that question. After my singing voice gave out in 1978, the remaining years of my working life were spent as a passenger. Clearly, I was not an unhappy passenger, but equally clearly, I was not the driver.

How can I be sure? Because since 2010 the steering wheel has never left my hands. Six solid years has shown me what the missing element was in thirty two years as a passenger - creating as though my life depended on it. I now know that creating was never a hobby or something I did to relax; I created while I was a passenger and I create now because I must. My commitment to my creativity is fierce and unyielding. Whenever my life felt out of balance between 1978-2010 it was largely because I was in the passenger's seat. These days I write, I compose, I read all the time to help me write better, I play my guitar, I record my original music, I write some more. And I have never been happier, felt more fully engaged, been more pleasant to be around. I really like being the driver.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Barbara, Martin & Paul

Which artist's work have you followed closely enough over several decades to discern a clear arc of growth?

In each of the three fields that command my continued attention - music, literature, and film - certain artists jump out for me. Paul Simon's evolution as a composer of popular music is difficult to match. It was obvious from "The Sounds Of Silence" (1965) that Simon had few peers as a lyricist. Then as the 60's concluded, he began releasing his exemplary solo recordings, each one elevating his mastery a notch. Listen to "Still Crazy After All These Years" (1975) then "Graceland" (1986) then "You're The One" (2000) in that order; it's hard to miss Simon's growth.  

In literature, the closet analogue for me is Barbara Kingsolver. Her early novels like "Bean Trees" (1988) are literary yet totally accessible. "Poisonwood Bible" (1998) took her up another level. And the prose in "The Lacuna" (2009) springs from an author with total command of her craft. Try reading any of her books side-by-side with many popular bestsellers and notice how the clunky sentences and strained metaphors of the latter become more noticeable to you.

Martin Scorcese is not a filmmaker for everyone. His most well known movies - "Taxi Driver", (1976), "Raging Bull" (1980), "Goodfellas" (1990) - are graphic, profane, and violent. But his entire oeuvre end-to-end - like Paul Simon and Barbara Kingsolver's - never succumbs to complacency or formula. Watch "Alice Doesn't Live Her Anymore" (1974) or "The Age Of Innocence" (1993) or "Kundun" (1997). Even a film like the recent "The Wolf Of Wall Street" - which I found objectionable because it glamorized a reprobate - felt fresh. Scorcese always surprises me because he's always growing.

Curious to hear which artists you'd put in this rarefied company.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

New Worlds, New Words

Not long ago I was describing the volume of my reading since stopping full time work to an old friend. He asked me - "What's that doing for you?"  Although taken aback by his provocative question I don't recall exactly how I responded at the time. How would you answer his question? But shortly after having that conversation, Little Bee provided me with a partial answer.

"I do not know if you have a word for this kind of singing".

The eponymous narrator of Chris Cleave's 2008 novel "Little Bee" is a refugee from Nigeria. In the sentence above she is trying to describe the sound of a woman singing. The singing woman that Little Bee hears is trying to console a mother who lost her daughter during an escape from the chaos that ensued in Nigeria after huge oil reserves were discovered by the multi-national oil companies. Though Little Bee has a word for what she heard in her native language (Ibo), she cannot find a parallel word in English.

I first read "Little Bee" near its release and, as is my habit, collected sentences that shimmered and sharp insights. My friend's provocative question happened to closely precede a recent re-reading of sentences from several books I've read over the last ten years, all having to do with unfamiliar cultures. Suddenly that sentence above jumped out at me. Reading introduces me to worlds and words I might not have otherwise encountered. And to paraphrase Little Bee, I do not know if there is a word for this kind of magic. What would you call it?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A Searching & Fearless Inventory

Many of the people around my age that I meet seem to have gotten through most of their shit; it's one of the clear advantages of getting older. That said, I find myself regularly reflecting on what these same people were like when they were twenty or thirty. How about you? How often do you try to envision the younger versions of your newer friends?

Step four of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) code is to "make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves"The friends I have that are in AA have often shared their list of defects from this inventory with me. Almost without exception, I have difficulty reconciling the earlier picture they describe with my current experience of them. I suspect many of you who know folks who have been in recovery for a long time can relate to this disconnect.

But then, sometimes while still struggling with that disconnect, I turn to reflect on my non-AA friends. Did any of them ever do an inventory of any kind? If yes, what did they uncover? What work did they do to lessen the impact of their defects and become the person I now experience? And I wonder - How does anyone evolve unless they do some kind of inventory?

So, if many of the people around my age that I meet seem to have gotten through most of their shit, what were they like before the inventory? Absent an inventory, does the passage of time alone ensure people will evolve? Am I paying close enough attention?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Snowflakes

I hope I never lose the capacity to be delighted by the uniqueness of people. There's a lot of wisdom stored in that old expression "you need to get out more". Which of you has discovered a better way to alleviate stagnation or boredom than spending time in a group of people you've never met? Please share.

Even when a group is aligned by a common interest - like the thirty four guitar players gathered for the week long workshop I just attended - the richness and diversity of the individuals in the group is so energizing. Mind you, there were a few moments when I imagined an alien - or an accountant - eavesdropping on some of my workshop or mealtime conversations and thinking "what a bunch of geeks!". But many of those conversations also revealed another layer or shattered another stereotype. More significantly, each observation I later recorded in my journal about someone I'd just met said as much about me as it did about them.

When did you last spend extended time with people you've never met? What did you learn about yourself?