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Monday, October 31, 2016

The "Good" Student & Critical Thinking

Except during my Masters studies - and I suspect those professors were not concerned with rigorously grading an almost fifty year old - my school grades have put me solidly on the bell curve: A few "A's", a fair number of "B's" and "C's", a few "D's" and at least one ''F". Obviously, the Ivy League didn't beckon and my grades as an undergraduate didn't move me from the muddle of the middle.

Grades aside, however, I've usually been an attentive and willing student, despite having an otherwise contrary nature. In addition, I enjoyed school from a young age and usually found that most of my teachers deserved respect. And much of what they taught has remained with me.

Still, some years back, I became aware of how this innate tendency to be a "good" student has one downside. Sometimes, my critical thinking skills get a little dull. That is, in some situations - formal school and otherwise - I've allowed things taught to me to become difficult-to-dislodge dogma. Ever detected anything like this in yourself? What do you do to dislodge an old no longer useful learning?

I'm hyper-aware of my responsibility from the other side of this equation, i.e. teaching others. I make a real effort to stress the importance of critical thinking, especially when faced with a "good" student like myself, grades notwithstanding.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Two Down, Four To Go (Continents, That Is)

It's official. After the Guyana/Paraguay/Suriname/Uruguay feast we recently hosted, we've now tried the cuisine of every independent nation in South America as part of our five-year-old mission to "Eat The World". We tasted Australia sometime ago. Also, once we sample a few remaining Central American countries, we'll have eaten our way across North America. Soon the only nations left to taste will be from Africa and Asia and a handful from Europe.

This last repast was interesting. The cuisine of Guyana and Suriname - Caribbean with a decidedly Asian-Indian influence - combined with the traditional Spanish-based dishes of Paraguay and Uruguay to make the dining experience more eclectic. Nice change from some of our other cooking experiences - our culinary trip to Laos & Cambodia comes to mind - when regional similarities between the recipes of different countries rendered moot any national distinctions in the dishes themselves.

Know of any ethnic restaurants in the NYC metropolitan area - especially from Africa and Asia - we might have missed? Let me know, preferably while our teeth and/or digestive tracts are still intact. And thanks for your continued interest in our project; it's been a blast!

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Rest Is Noise

"Revuelta's 1939 work 'La Noche de Los Mayos', originally conceived as a film score, has found a second life as a Mahlerian symphonic canvas, moving from purposefully kitschy dance episodes to stretches of open-hearted Romantic lamentation and on to a scary Mayan bacchanal that spills over into polyrhythmic mayhem." 

Alex Ross is a writer of dazzling musical erudition. "The Rest Is Noise: Listening To The Twentieth Century" (2007) is an astonishing book about the intersection of music and history. Re-read that sentence above from page 274. In about fifty words - no lectures from English composition teachers, please - Ross references Mahler, the Romantics and polyrhythms. And kitsch and Mayan culture. Out of context, the sentence could strike a casual reader as showboating.

But Ross prepares the devoted and attentive reader by spending time with Mahler, the Romantics, and polyrhythms before unleashing a tour-de-force sentence like that. He does this repeatedly while also regularly slipping in jewels like "... scribbled lightning in the air ..." to describe Charlie Parker's saxophone playing. Powerfully descriptive, educational sentences that unwind like a comprehensible labyrinth, along with metaphors that shimmer; what a gift.

I'm obligated to conclude by giving a small sample of how Ross expertly weaves the tumultuous history of the twentieth century into his narrative. "Black and white categories make no sense in the shadowland of dictatorship. These composers were neither saints nor devils; they were flawed actors on a tilted stage."  Please talk to me if you read this book.
  

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Good Enough

"I'm an excellent driver."

Remember Dustin Hoffman repeatedly saying that in "Rain Man"? Which mundane activities are you convinced you do well? Or excellently? Try limiting your answers to activities that would be difficult for others to refute.

For example: Are you a good (or excellent) parent? Are you good (or excellent) at sex? Are you a good (or excellent) conversationalist? How many people do you know who would say they were average (or worse) at any of those three things? Consider that number for a moment. So, what does it mean to be good (or excellent) at parenting, sex, conversation, driving?

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

#45: The Mt. Rushmore Series

If you read my last post, at least one of my selections for this iteration of Mt. Rushmore might not surprise you. That aside, as always, I'm curious which four duos - musical or otherwise - belong on your mountain. And for any nitpicker quibbling about there being only four Presidents on Rushmore and eight people here, you need a new hobby. In alphabetical order, my four duos are ...

1.) Abbott & Costello - If they'd only done "Who's On First?" and then disappeared, these two would  deserve a place on my monument. Has there ever been a better straight man than Bud Abbott?

2.) John & Abigail Adams - I'm sure their marriage was as imperfect as all marriages. But if historian David McCullough's account of this ahead-of-its-time partnership is even close to accurate, Abigail Adams was a feminist before there was such a word. And her husband was lucky to have her as his closest adviser.    

3.)  Ella Fitzgerald & Joe Pass - Although they made just one recording together, these two jazz titans created a template - yet to be surpassed -  for all vocal/guitar duos that followed.

4.) Simon & Garfunkel - If just a portion of the quoted statements I've seen attributed to Art Garfunkel are true, he's an arrogant ass. But he's got the voice of an angel and was fortunate enough to partner with one of pop music's true craftsman. When work begins on my mountain, I'm requesting Art's visage includes a gag in his mouth, removed only if his stone face gets to sing.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Joy Of Re-Discovery

When was the last time you re-discovered a piece of music or song that had once knocked you out but then somehow slipped away? What brought it back to you - the radio, someone playing it in a live setting, a movie soundtrack?

Given the size of my collection of recordings, many songs are bound to slip away. Factor #2: I'm far more likely these days to listen to my I-pod or Pandora radio vs. spending time in front of my stereo, a habit that consumed countless hours in my past. Third: Most of my car time is now spent listening to lectures from the Great courses series. Net result? Great songs go dormant.

But without fail, each time I begin developing a music course - starting with constructing a playlist that purposefully avoids being a "greatest hits" regurgitation - old gems get unearthed. If you were observing me when this occurs, you might be tempted to recommend medication. I whoop, I cry, I go into a musical trance, all frequently in the space of moments. Then I upload whatever kicked my ass onto my I-pod.  

Having regular opportunities to re-discover music that has enriched my life may be the greatest benefit of doing these courses. My direct inspiration here was recently being re-floored by a stunning Paul Simon song called "Teacher" from his 2000 CD entitled "You're The One". Check it out - you won't be disappointed.    

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Is Ouija Moving Toward "C" or "T"?

My parents have been gone for some time. Although I'm not sure if she voted, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were on the ballot in 1976, the last Presidential election of Mom's life. And the last time my Dad was around to vote for President was 1994 when Bill Clinton was running for re-election against Bob Dole. I don't recall either of my folks ever telling me who they voted for. Did your folks tell you about their politics? My only clear recollection was hearing my Father repeatedly gripe that politicians were not to be trusted because they didn't look out for the "...little guy ..."

I believe a candidate's positions on the issues mattered to my folks; they weren't superficial. But they weren't real sophisticated or urbane either. My guesses? Mom would have voted for Ford in 1976; I suspect a Georgia peanut farmer would have been a little exotic for her. Ford also had that guy-next-door demeanor my Mom would have liked. Dad? Would likely have chosen Dole in 1994; Clinton's sexual shenanigans would have put him off. Dole was also a WWII vet like Dad. My guesses aside, I never got the sense my parents voted strictly Republican. Now one of my siblings might disagree but I think any party affiliations my parents had were flexible, especially when contrasted to what seems to be the norm nowadays. Anyway, let's face it, Republicans and Democrats were not as far apart then as they are now.

What got me started on this was all the brouhaha about people voting from the grave this year. Maybe it's time for me to break out the Ouija board and get word from Mom and Dad on their choice for this election? How about you? Would you like to hear from any departed loved one about who they would choose in this year's circus?  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 2

Although I got only one public comment last month for the first iteration of this new series, it was a doozy - check out the link below. But several people did respond offline to that maiden post so I've now got some good ideas for future installments. Thanks to those offline folks and to Mr. or Ms. Anonymous. So ...

I say novel and phonies and you say ...

I say novels and Baltimore and you say ...

I say novels and Scotland Yard and you say ...

Keep your ideas coming, OK?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/09/pop-culture-triptych-volume-1.html

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Introducing Willy And Babs

What makes us English speakers routinely add an "e" sound to the end of so many names? John becomes Johnnie, Ruth becomes Ruthie, Scott becomes Scotty, etc. Why not an "a" sound instead? Jack = Jackay. Or, how about "i"? Kim = Kimeye. "O" or "u", anyone? Jeanoh or Georgeooh have just as nice a ring as Jeannie or Georgie, don't you think?

It's also weird how we often elongate one syllable names but just as regularly shorten those that are two, three, and four syllables. We do this even for names that sound bizarre when shortened like Eileen becoming "I". Worse than that, we truncate an elegant name like Victoria to Vickie. And how does Maureen become Mo? Where did that "O'" come from? How has your name been shortened or elongated? Does it ever annoy you? Don't even get me started on how being called Patty traumatized me in my macho years.

I'm requesting you submit your favorite case study in how this re-naming thing can get really out of hand. I'll start with a respectably named couple, William and Barbara. From there it's a short distance to Bill and Barb. But there are those among us who might go further. Allow me to introduce you to Willy (or Billy) and Babs (or Barbie).   

Monday, October 17, 2016

Caressing Those Vibrant Verbs

During my years in Graduate School - when non-fiction comprised my whole reading diet - I decided to start implementing at least one idea from every book I finished. Many of the disciplines resulting from that resolve remain with me to this day. How do you ensure something you learn from a non-fiction book sticks with you?

"Writing From The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" (1986) by Natalie Goldberg is packed with worthwhile ideas. The format of very short sections - the largest is about four pages long - invites the reader and aspiring writer to browse, find something to try, then return later. Weeks after finishing Goldberg's book, I still haven't settled on which idea I'm going to permanently incorporate into my writing practice. At present, the top contender comes from her section entitled "The Action Of A Sentence" where she suggests an ingenious activity to help writers unearth more vibrant verbs.

The creative people from whom I seem to learn best often demystify their process. In his memoirs, Stephen Sondheim describes composing as analogous to making a hat. In one section of her useful book, Goldberg extols the importance of details in writing. Her pertinent and demystifying metaphor about how those details help the finished product shine is to compare the details to the quality ingredients you use when "Baking A Cake". And then Goldberg puts on the icing by quoting Nabokov - "Caress the divine details". Caress? Now there's a vibrant verb.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Demanding Our Supply

What was the last film you saw based on real world circumstances but so far removed from any of your life experiences that much of what was depicted in the movie felt like science fiction?

If you don't relish being shaken up while watching a film, I'd recommend skipping "Sicario". Before  beginning to watch it, I "knew" there were vile people inhabiting the higher echelons of the drug cartels. I "knew" corruption, violence, and amorality were inescapable components of that world. And I "knew" the folks fighting the "war on drugs" on our behalf know it's unwinnable. "Knowing" all these things hardly prepared me for the graphic way this disturbing movie made its point. I was horrified and mesmerized in equal measure. And I couldn't help repeatedly saying to myself  "Thank goodness my life experience never put me anywhere close to this world."

Near the end, one of the "good" guys - played by Josh Brolin - tells Emily Blunt's main character, an FBI agent, that until Americans give up illegal "recreational" drugs, the two of them, and many thousands more, are guaranteed job security. Depending on which source you believe, the latest estimates on recreational drug use by the US adult population go from 10-20%. I recall very little about any class in economics I've taken, except supply and demand. What am I missing?

Friday, October 14, 2016

Back To School, Again

Rewind to grade school, again. If you're anywhere near my age, the rewind mechanism could break down doing this exercise but try anyway. Which subject consistently gave you the most difficulty? What lingering effects of your struggle with that subject - if any - do you detect now? Or, did your grasp or mastery of whatever be-deviled you early in life later improve?

Next question is for regular readers of my blog only. What grade school subject would you guess was Pat's bugbear? Hint: PCs made my nemesis largely irrelevant. That's right, it was handwriting. I'm still unsure what most contributed to my difficulty and/or resistance to penmanship and the resulting abysmal grades. Impatience? Poor hand-eye motor skills as a youngster? Requiring a clear auditory learner to continually drill an almost exclusively visual skill?  Or, given penmanship's subsequent elimination from school curricula, was soothsaying one of my hidden talents? What can you pinpoint as major contributing factors for your grade school white whale?

As long as I print - and don't try speaking at the same time - my still horrendous handwriting has no ill effect on my life. It's mildly intriguing that my best grade school subject - spelling, which also is no longer taught - has similarly had little discernible benefit for me. So my worst subject and my best made no difference and both are no longer taught. Hmm.

Is your worst subject still taught? How about your best?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Learning Via Exploring

Sharing my passion for music with others in an educational setting is a blast. Teaching cultural competence helps make the world shine a little brighter. Spending time with people who want to do the work it takes to be more culturally competent helps prevent cynicism from overwhelming me.

https://socialwork.rutgers.edu/centers/institute-families/new-jersey-victim-assistance-academy

Until a good friend recently asked me to co-facilitate a cultural competence workshop with him, I'd never heard of the New Jersey Victim Assistance Academy. A visit to their website gave me a glimpse of the scope of their mission but little idea of what to expect from the participants who would attend training. In my head, I began going through a model I was first exposed to in my early years doing adult education. Would any of the participants be prisoners, i.e. told to attend the workshop and unhappy having been told so? Would any of them be vacationers, i.e. told or not told to be there but in either case likely to treat the educational experience as mostly a day away from their regular work routine? How many of the participants might be explorers, i.e. told or not told to be there but willing to be present enough to do the activities as well as examine the material being presented?

It was clear early on - mandatory training or not - that this group had a healthy mix of all three. From there, it was up to the two of us to ensure no explorer became a vacationer or prisoner. And, if we tuned in well, maybe we could enlist some prisoners or vacationers to explore a bit, for however long we could positively engage them. Not an easy task but not much that's worthwhile doing is real easy, right?

Thanks again, Robin, for trusting me enough to let me do this important work at your side.

 http://beyonddiversity.org/


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

London Calling

If any of you has read either "Life Class" (2007) or "Toby's Room" (2012), the first books in Pat Barker's trilogy that concludes with "Noonday" (2015), please educate me: Does Bertha Mason - the spooky medium in the final book - make an appearance in either of the first two? If yes, I've got a serious bone to pick with whoever wrote the book jacket for the hardcover version of "Noonday". If no, I've got a tiny quibble I'd like to discuss with the talented Booker Prizewinning author.

Reading someone who has writing chops like Pat Barker is exhilarating to me - as a reader- at the same time it is dispiriting to me, as an aspiring writer. Not one clunky sentence in 300+ pages, dialogue that hits all the right notes, texture to spare. "Noonday" takes place in London during the Blitz that almost decimated that great city at the start of WWII. Barker is nearly flawless juxtaposing the relentless tension of those extraordinary months vs. people going on with their ordinary lives. Anyone recall the great John Boorman film from 1987 called "Hope And Glory"? "Noonday" is that movie's literary soul mate.

And once again, I have one of my reading posse to thank for introducing me to an author worth re-visiting. If I don't hear back soon from one of you about the exceedingly odd Bertha Mason, my first Pat Barker rewind will be to read "Life Class" and/or "Toby's Room", even though I now know the fate of all three principals introduced in those earlier installments.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

What's Your Name?

"A name is what we carry our whole life. We respond to its call in the classroom, to its pronunciation at a graduation, or to the sound of it whispered in the night."  - Natalie Goldberg from "Writing Down The Bones" (1986)

I'm not sure when in life I decided to work hard at remembering names. Maybe it was when I heard my own name in a classroom or at a graduation or when it was whispered to me in the night. But at some point I did make that decision. It was probably one of the smarter things I've ever done.

I've lost track how many times I've heard people say "I'm not good with names." I've also lost track of how many times people have remarked positively about me remembering their name. Although I wait until asked, I've willingly offered counsel to those who say they're " ... not good with names ... " if they ask me "How do you do that?" I get that question frequently, especially after someone observes me remembering a group of names. Because I try doing it for the classes I teach, no matter the size. I try when involved for an extended time with a group of folks I've never met before, like the guitar players from the weeklong workshop I attended in August. I try in the most mundane settings - a party, a family gathering, a book club. It's worth the effort; people invariably appreciate it. And although I have techniques I'm happy to share with anyone, the bottom line is I almost always make the effort.   

How often do I flub the first attempt? All the time. However, it's amazing how few times I'll use an incorrect name twice, even with a big group. I'm sure there have been times when someone hasn't corrected me after a failed attempt at recalling their name; I suspect that situation is rare. After all, who doesn't want to be called by name, especially when someone got their name wrong the first time? Am I embarrassed when someone corrects me? No I'm not. A name is what we all carry our whole life.   

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Forgetting My Lines

guideline: any guide or indication of a future course of action.

Harmless enough, right? Guidelines are offered to us for many situations. I use the word myself all the time teaching guitar; it's a gentler and less restrictive word than "rule".

Still, lines are lines and lines can suggest shapes. Even that innocent definition above mentions a "future course of action". And when I'm trying to create - a process that thrives on unconscious thought - lines that can point me toward already existing shapes or direct me toward a future course of action have the potential to prevent me from seeing a new shape or, a different future.

Lately, I've been paying more attention to barriers, linguistic or otherwise, that may circumscribe my creativity. Aren't the ropes and buoys used to indicate swimming areas a guideline of sorts? I'm all for that kind of box to keep children safe while they're swimming. I just don't want to allow guidelines to create a box that could restrict my creativity. There's a fine line between that kind of box and a cage.   

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Philosophy As A Guide To Living

Which philosopher has given you useful guidance about living a meaningful life?

Of the legendary thinkers I've been exposed to over my ten years listening to the "Great Courses", the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche seem to be the most consistently helpful to me. I'm very grateful for the way Dr. Stephen Erikson from Pomona College distills Nietzsche's work into manageable chunks I'm able to absorb. My attempts at trying to read the source material have not been real successful.

Most recently, I've been struck by Nietzsche's guidance about treating one's life as a "masterpiece", a creative project in need of constant re-invention. Also - paraphrasing Dr. Erikson's paraphrasing - Nietzsche's doctrine of "Eternal Return" counsels us to " ... say 'yes' to the totality of life without qualification ...", an easy pill to swallow when things are going my way. It's the suffering, cruelty, and misfortune - all included in the same doctrine - that often derail me as I'm creating my masterpiece. But it's worth all the effort I can summon.

If I've piqued your interest in Nietzsche, I'm thrilled. If however, listening to the Learning Company's lectures about his work or trying to tackle his dense writing does not appeal to you, a little seen film from 2007 called "When Nietzsche Wept" is worth tracking down. And Irvin Yalom's novel of the same name is also fine. In the meanwhile, why not tell me and others about a philosopher who has given you some useful guidance? 
   

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Restaurant Etiquette From A Wanna Be

Though it's less than ennobling, I reluctantly admit that fantasies about achieving some degree of notoriety have crossed my mind from time to time. Fortunately, the delusions pass quickly. And when a tsunami of coverage descends on some celebrity - Brangelina, anyone? - I'm belatedly grateful for my anonymity.

Living in the public eye has to be an epic nightmare. Mistakes in judgment or missteps in a relationship are photographed and endlessly scrutinized. Imagine having to apologize for something stupid you did as a young adult well into your seventies. How many of us on the bell curve don't have at least one Hanoi Jane moment from our impetuous early years? Sure, she screwed up but who hasn't?

I know it goes with the territory. I also suspect most people don't have a lot of sympathy for the rich and famous, nutso paparazzi notwithstanding. I do wonder how many of us can agree to let these folks eat in peace in a public place.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

I Hope There's No Quota

epiphany: an experience of sudden or striking realization (Wikipedia).

The word epiphany was originally connected to religion. My 1984 Random House dictionary has the word listed only as a proper noun, defined as "an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity". But in my view, the word is best utilized sparingly either way, sharing sacred linguistic ground with a word like genius. At the same time, I hope there's no such thing as an epiphany quota.  

What was your most recent epiphany? Mine seem to be linked to books, often novels. So whenever several novels in a row pass without some insight jarring me, I feel under-nourished intellectually. During my most recent stretch like that, I re-visited James Joyce, knowing the ending to the stories in "Dubliners" to be rich in wisdom.

Has any music ever led you to an epiphany? A piece of visual art? A film? Or, was your last epiphany the result of an interaction with someone? I'm curious about the source - if you're able to pinpoint it - as well as what you suddenly realized.        

Monday, October 3, 2016

Put Me In Coach

If people are willing to pay a personal trainer to help them stay in shape, surely there are folks who would spend money for someone that could help them stay intellectually limber, right?

The over-crowded field of personal coaches no doubt has specialists like this. If you were shopping for a coach of this type, what would you look for? Aside from the obvious, like educational credentials, good references, and samples of writing, I'd want someone who spoke more than one language. I'd also be looking for a person with high emotional intelligence.

And since I'd be paying, I'd make sure my quirky needs were met. Any coach I'm considering would have to provide me with their Mt. Rushmore of four favorite novels, non-fiction titles, feature films, documentaries, jazz artists, and recordings. Although I wouldn't be looking for a one-to-one match with my own choices, if all the other stuff were copacetic, someone with such impeccable taste would have a real good shot at sealing the deal.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Work To Do

How often do we learn how to improve by recognizing some of our own bad habits or behaviors in others?

The place I'm most likely to learn this lesson is when I closely observe my men friends interacting with their wives or partners. Whenever one of them interrupts, finishes a sentence or story, or steals a punchline, I'm reminded how rude it is, i.e. how rude I can sometimes be. And that's not the worst behavior I've observed in others that chastens me.

I think of myself as a good listener. When my wife and I are alone, I'm much less inclined to engage in some of the poor listening or disrespectful behaviors I find obnoxious in others. But clearly I've still got some work to do. I don't relish the idea of becoming an example to others of what not to do.