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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

You May Say That I'm A Dreamer

Attentive readers might have noticed that I infrequently indulge in fantasy and encourage you to join me. Ready to participate in today's harmless dream?

When was the last time a stranger said "good morning" to you? Held open a public door for you? How about another driver waving you into traffic as you were waiting to exit a parking lot? Given the current ugliness of much of our public discourse, lately I've found myself fantasizing that a few of those simple acts of common courtesy have been accompanied by a civil political discussion. Scoff if you will but when I have the presence of mind to imagine a reasonable conversation when some stranger is gracious to me, it gives me a small measure of solace.

On some days the screaming, the name calling, the petulant tweeting are so wearying that a basic kindness - no matter how mundane - catapults me to fantasy land. There are surely worse things.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Glad To Be Unhappy

Which would you prefer to hear first about "The Fun Stuff" (2012) - the latest book of essays by esteemed critic James Wood - good news or bad news?

Good news, you say? OK, if you decide to tackle this book it's a safe bet you'll benefit because Wood might be one of the most well read people you'll ever encounter. He'll likely expose you to writers and books that might otherwise escape your attention. Of the twenty three authors featured in this feast for the mind, nine were names unknown to me. Among that group, the next new author I'm going to try - based on Wood's glowing endorsement - is Lydia Davis.

Bad news? OK, if you share even a portion of my day-dependent intellectual insecurity, if you decide to tackle this book it's a safe bet you'll be demoralized because Wood might be one of the most well read people you'll ever encounter. My first bad moment occurred as I read his scary smart essay on Edmund Wilson, perhaps Wood's closest analogue from the earlier part of the 20th century. Later came "Robert Alter and The King James Bible" when Wood compares several translations of the big book. Yikes. Lest I sound too pathetic, I'll leave out how my feelings of inadequacy nearly overtook me recognizing subtleties I apparently missed in several books we've both read.

But, I'll finish with good news. The title essay, the first one in the book and a finalist for the 2011 National Magazine Award, is about Keith Moon's drumming. It's a hoot and is also 100% accessible, thank goodness. "Rock music ... is noise, improvisation, collaboration, theater, pantomime, aggression, bliss, tranced collectivity. It's not so much concentration as it is fission." Wood's down-to-earth populism pulled me in right there and then sustained me during subsequent, if brief, spells on the pity pot. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

#46: The Mt. Rushmore Series

I've been fortunate to have spent time in all but three U.S. States. But so far, I've never been seriously tempted to leave the State where I was born and raised. This iteration of Mt. Rushmore has my top four reasons for staying put, at least for now. If you're a Jersey lover, I hope you'll tell me why.

1.) The beach in off season - Even before moving to my current home seven years ago - one mile from the ocean - my favorite time to walk on the beach was in the fall. New Jersey autumns are extraordinary; fall on the beach is unbeatable.

2.) The diversity

3.) The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) - Every time I see a show at NJPAC, I say the same thing - "Why don't I come here more often?". There are other good concert venues in NJ but nothing close to NJPAC.

4.) The Pinelands National Preserve - Five State forests, 22% of the total area of the State, amazing bio-diversity, phenomenal hiking, kayaking, and camping. A prime example of protecting open space for the good of all vs. providing profit for a few.

And here's hoping all those comics keep making NJ the butt of their lame jokes and those who are listening keep swallowing the stereotypes unthinkingly. If people decide not to move here, that's just fine - more for me and mine.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

History And History

Historical novels clearly serve an important role. Many people might never be exposed to a less told slice of history without them. Authors like Christina Baker Kline ("Orphan Train") or Tatiana de Rosnay ("Sarah's Key") deserve respect for bringing millions of readers to these portals to the past. 

That said, my experience has taught me I'm often better served reading non-fiction accounts of historical events. Not that I haven't enjoyed my share of historical novels - EL Doctorow's vibrant re-imaginings come first to mind - but my list demands continual culling. So, each time a non-fiction account like "Into the Arms of Strangers" (Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer) or "Beyond The Beautiful Forever" (Katherine Boo) takes my breath away using facts, I have less patience for the neat moralizing found in many historical novels and I'm able to easily eliminate certain titles from that pesky list. It's annoying when an author telling me a story grounded in history decides to end a chapter using a "cliffhanger" sentence, usually involving their fictional protagonist facing some soul-testing dilemma. Even worse are those scenes in historical novels when the author spoon feeds me the "big picture" via a vile character representing the "wrong" side of history.

Does this mildly churlish post have a whiff of maleness to it? Perhaps. But lest any reader lapse into stereotyping, I suggest you first peruse the Bell Curve Backlog, or just go back to early this month and read my back-to-back raves about "Olive Kitteridge" (Elizabeth Strout). Prose about the human condition frequently moves me and almost always teaches me; novels do that best. My male friends who tell me they never read any novels because they read for "information" only annoy me almost as much as authors who use history to try to manipulate my emotions.   

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Reconsideration

"Do not go gently into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying light." 

How old were you the first time that Dylan Thomas poem landed? How much has your perspective on his words shifted since that first exposure?

One of the few sentences I recall my mother repeatedly saying to me through adolescence and my young adulthood was "You're too serious, Patrick." That alone probably suggests how the poem first landed with me, even when that "good night" was more distant than near. And despite sincere efforts over the ensuing decades to integrate disciplines into my life aimed at tempering all the burning and raving, those who know me best would still probably not characterize me as mellow or light hearted.

I'm grateful beyond measure the rage has never been directed toward others. But on clearheaded days I also recognize how wearing my inner-directed rage must be for those who love me. That leads me to reflect on how going gently into that good night might have an upside I'd not considered, especially if I get around to it well before the dying light
 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Best Is Yet To Come

Every sentence can be improved.

If I'd known how long those five words would cling to me, I wouldn't have written them in my journal years ago. Several hundred blog posts and thousands of sentences later, it's safe to say ego superseded any latent perfectionism. Then recently, seven liberating words crossed my path.   

"A poem is never finished, only abandoned." - Paul Valery

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Key Learning: Year 67

To date, I've published fifteen key learnings, three each year beginning 11/23/11 and then followed on each subsequent birthday by three more. By streamlining the exercise to just one key learning extracted from my 67th year, I'm hoping to have more company on the bell curve this time. So, what have you learned over the past year that you're reasonably sure will stick with you?

My foremost musical gift is as an accompanist. This hard earned key learning revealed itself near the end of a thirty page journal entry I wrote upon my return from a weeklong guitar workshop in early September. Throughout the workshop all three leaders continually extolled the value of being able to locate any quality of a chord anywhere on a guitar. They also stressed the importance of thoroughly understanding inversions in order to be a well-rounded musician and soloist. So even though my experience at the workshop - featuring quite a bit of high volume soloing over rudimentary blues chords - wasn't real satisfying, the instructors affirmed that all the hours I've spent studying the instrument have been well spent.

This key learning will help sustain me, especially with any future opportunities I get to support my daughter's exceptional singing voice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Goal For Year 68

The first seven years of my post full time work life have been satisfying for many reasons, not least of which has been my progress on several longstanding goals. And this blog - itself a by-product of one of those goals - has assisted me in that effort. In a sense, announcing a goal here each year on the day before my birthday makes me accountable. This is so even when no one checks my progress because, not unlike the public declaration of their dependencies people make at support groups, the ante has been raised.

Inspired by the 88 year old tour guide who led my wife and I on a rigorous walking tour of Harlem recently, my goal for year 68 is to return to my pre-2010 bike riding level. Since stopping full time work, my exercise regimen has been good - mostly tennis and lots of walking - but guitar, reading, and writing have displaced much of my earlier cycling discipline. Obviously, something will have to give a bit - there still being only so many hours in each day - so effective immediately, any book or writing clubs dropped from the schedule will not be replaced. I'll also be more discriminating about how many college teaching assignments I'll take this next year; I love doing these classes but that tour guide really juiced me. I want to be that vital at 88.

Birthday aside, I hope some of you will share a goal of yours with me. I promise I'll hold you accountable, if that's what you want.    

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Repertory

Needing serious diversion, I recently re-watched Christopher Guest's hilarious "Best In Show". Soon after, it dawned on me that many of us have people in our lives that we routinely call on just as Guest does with the repertory of actors he frequently uses. Call it a network, a circle of friends, a gang, etc. Whatever you call it, how common is it for any individual in your posse to serve multiple purposes?

That is, aside from your partner - if you have one  - are there people in your repertory who can provide emotional support but also give you authentic corrective feedback? How effectively do people in your repertory toggle between emotional support and intellectual stimulation? How closely does your repertory mirror your politics, your economic status, your other group affiliations?

Struggling with these questions is not new for me, but it feels more urgent of late. More than once over the last six years, an urgent post has generated a helpful or empathic comment from one of you. Today that would be most welcome.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Don't Shoot The Messenger

After realizing my fiction to non-fiction ratio had recently gotten out of whack, I consulted my trusty list only to discover no non-fiction on there - clearly, time for a library drive-by. And the yield?  Immediately satisfying. Four intriguing titles by authors whose previous work I've enjoyed - Sarah Bakewell, Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, and Sarah Vowell - jumped off the shelves into my hungry arms. Then a book of literary criticism by the well regarded James Wood joined the pile. Ooh, goody. Stay tuned as I digest this feast.

How to prioritize this yummy meal? Decided I'd start with the shortest of the five which turned out to be Vowell's "Assassination Vacation" (2005). Though it didn't grab me as much as her more recent "Wordy Shipmates" (2008), I'm guessing the opposite would be true for most readers because the earlier book is about an inherently more interesting - if slightly morbid - subject.

This talented young author has attitude to spare, politics that match my own, and an irreverent sense of humor that is tough to beat. "One of John Wilkes Booth's many faults is that he did not have the decency to die within walking distance of a Metro stop."  Soon after seeing Stephen Sondheim's provocative show entitled "Assassins", Vowell drags her tolerant sister and her Pugsley-like nephew on a deranged road trip, visiting the perverse landmarks constructed and lovingly preserved by an industry that can only be described as ghoulish. Lincoln and Booth are names known to many of us, but how about Presidents Garfield and McKinley and their respective killers? Intrigued? I know I was in schadenfreude heaven even as my frequent laughter mortified me - a little.

Not your cup of tea? I get it. Take a look at my post below from early this year about "Wordy Shipmates" - more esoteric subject, for sure, but you owe it to yourself to check out this author.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/01/invigorating-and-intimidating.html

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Modesty Takes A Holiday

Sometime ago, an old friend and faithful reader asked why my blog put so much emphasis on my "...shortcomings..." As evidence, she cited a few posts from around that time as well as my now discontinued series entitled "My Grade So Far."

Though I'm not sure I agree with this observation, ever since receiving that e-mail, I have frequently reflected on which of my life choices have stood the test of time. I hope you'll join me today to pat yourself (ahem!) on the back.

1.) My unswerving loyalty and fidelity to my family and friends - a model my Father personified - has clearly helped keep me reasonably sane. I'm happy the people most important to me know they can count on me.

2.) My early-in-life decision to pursue my passions - even when doing so could mean material good fortune might elude me - turned out to be wise. It also helped mitigate work-related stress.

3.) My later-in-life decision to wait to have children until I felt fully ready helped me immeasurably as a parent. I can say without hyperbole I have never had a moment's regret about that decision. To be effective raising another human being, I had to wait until I felt whole.

Please take a moment to celebrate with me - publicly or privately - what you've gotten right so far.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Prognostication, Anyone?

How's your crystal ball? Let's give it a spin, shall we?

  • 2007 – Paul Simon.
  • 2009 – Stevie Wonder.
  • 2010 – Paul McCartney.
  • 2012 – Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
  • 2013 – Carole King.
  • 2014 – Billy Joel.
  • 2015 – Willie Nelson.
  • 2016 – Smokey Robinson

Above are the recipients of the Gershwin Award for popular song, issued by the Library of Congress. This award is given to living songwriters who work primarily in the popular vein vs. theater, etc. Care to don some soothsayer garb and guess future recipients? 

Only after challenging my current class with a similar question - that class happens to be about the first recipient of the award - did it occur to me that many folks who read this blog have good musical instincts. Let's test those instincts, OK? Pretend just for now that Bob Dylan is not qualified. Guessing him, considering his recent coronation, makes the exercise too easy.

For the record, I'll start with Jimmy Webb. Like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Webb's name is not as widely known as the others. But many of his compositions - "Up, Up, And Away", "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", "McArthur Park", just to name a few - make up the soundtrack of our times like the songs of all the winners.

If my guess turns out to be right - in any future year -  I'll be insufferable. If I'm wrong, only those of you with a really good memory will be able to gloat, if you can track me down. Of course, I've got more guesses up my sleeve but I'm saving them until one of you goes out on the limb. Fair is fair.      

Monday, November 14, 2016

Who Is This Person?

In which life pursuit does your inconsistency most frustrate you?

These days, it's a toss-up for me between my guitar playing and my tennis game. I have a lot more opportunity to get frustrated with my inconsistent guitar playing but only because I devote more time to it. On the other hand, my inconsistent tennis game is more likely to embarrass me because - more often than not -  others are on hand to witness my frustration.

The joy I get from both these pursuits outweighs the frustration with my inconsistency, usually. And when I allow my frustration with either to get out of hand, I recognize - cognitively - how readily that frustration can spiral into a counter-productive loop. But my internal conversation is frequently more connected to my emotional state than to any logic. I hear myself saying "Who is this person flubbing that passage - or that easy shot? You've made that same shot (or played that same passage) hundreds of times, for crying out loud!"

Sound at all familiar?

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Moonlight

Have you seen "Moonlight" yet? If so, please tell me what you took away from this movie. 

Did I see the print ads for this film before hearing a few people rave about it? Because I don't know for sure, ever since walking out of the theater last week, I've been reflecting on the likelihood of an understated depiction of a man supporting a boy's head in the water enticing me to see a movie. Unlikely - I don't like the water all that much. I also don't recall reading any film reviews or seeing any trailers for the movie, common means for a film to get on my radar.

Still, I do recall parts of my interior dialogue after hearing the raves and my first conscious spotting of that print ad but before committing to seeing the film. Specifically, I recall taking note of the fact that the man and the boy in that low key ad were both African American actors unknown to me. And I wondered: What does this film have for me? I'm not proud of these thoughts. But there's a higher cost to be paid by denying them.

In the end, I'm glad I transcended my shallowness and saw "Moonlight". Turns out there was a great deal there for me.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Again And Again

Each year when Veterans Day arrives, my Dad is frequently on my mind soon after I wake. If either or both of your parents are gone, which days of the year are likely to bring them back for you?

"Look at it, Patrick". That's what Dad would say whenever he saw I was frustrated by something mechanical. Probably because he was already in my head, I heard his voice earlier today while caught up in one of those frustrating moments at the stable where I volunteer. Though I did not solve the problem, I did slow down and "look at it" instead of letting myself over-react. Thanks again Dad.

On the long list of things I'm grateful for, my Dad is always near the top. And even though military service and I would likely not have been a great match, I'm also grateful for all the men and women - including Dad - who we honor today.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Awful? Really?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/11/stories-worth-hearing.html

Feet of clay, work in progress, one day at a time. On numerous occasions, I've used one or more of those hoary clichés to forgive myself for falling short. And each of those platitudes has worked to varying degrees - I can rationalize with the best of them.

But feeling sorry for myself has always been a flaw I've had difficulty rationalizing away, clichés or not. So after more than a day wallowing in my stink, I sat down to write a post. Several minutes of whining disguised as writing convinced me to try a new tack. I read my post from this date five years ago - no help. But the one above - from four years ago today - written soon after the 2012 devastation of Hurricane Sandy, began to lift me from the pity pot. 

Then I got in my car and drove on Route 35 through some areas still not recovered from Sandy. What was I complaining about again? Albert Ellis calls the human tendency to sometimes lose perspective "over-awfulizing".  How often do you succumb to this? Who or what helps you get a grip?       

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

For Every Shoe, There Is A Potato

I've often fantasized about artists from different fields who - in my mind - are meant to collaborate. The intelligent prose of Julian Barnes is ideally suited to Stephen Sondheim's challenging melodies. The haunting and mildly creepy literature of Dan Chaon is just what M. Night Shyamalan needs to revive his once promising film career. Tom Waits must write the score when Jennifer Egan's brilliant "A Visit From The Goon Squad" gets adapted to stage or film. Even if these made-in-heaven partnerships never materialize, I still get goosebumps imagining the possibilities.

But how about the opposite scenario? In your mind, which artists are so wildly incompatible that a collaboration makes you laugh, shudder and choke all at once? Let's call these mashups the shoe and potato partnerships.

What if Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, or Janis Ian got to do the soundtrack for a Michael Bay blockbuster or one of the Bourne films? Or Norman Rockwell paintings were used on the set of a Neil LaBute or Sam Shepherd play? Or the next time one of Cormac McCarthy's nihilistic books gets adapted to film, Chelsea Handler gets to write the screenplay and Abba gets to do the music?

Come on, use your imagination and have some fun with me, will you?        

Monday, November 7, 2016

Over Simplifying

In a recent conversation, I heard myself offering an over-simplified explanation to a complex issue being discussed. Although I know better, sometimes it's hard to resist doing this. When was the last time you caught yourself over simplifying?  

Like many of us, I've got some favorites. For example, when conversations arise about inequality in our economic system, too often I seem to rely on the tired cliché that greed is the root of the problem. If I heard someone in the media making a pronouncement like this, I'd call them a dunce. And if someone I was conversing with over-simplified to this degree, I'd try to point out some nuances that person was overlooking. Though I sometimes react defensively, I appreciate when others care enough to do the same for me. How can any of us expect to get more sophisticated in our thinking if people don't point out our over simplifying?

It's possible we fall into this habit because the problems in our world can be overwhelming. I know at times I crave simple answers as a coping mechanism. In the end, over-simplifying is relatively harmless so long as I remember to re-visit the issue later when I'm better able to handle complexity.  

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wake Me When It's Over

Regardless of who you'd like to see win, will you be as relieved as I am on Wednesday when this circus has left town?

Sadly, it could get worse. We could have a repeat of 2000 i.e. inconclusive final results, further prolonging the persistent ugliness of the past several weeks. Having to endure another month of this rancor - and the inevitable non stop coverage of it - would be a form of torture. If that happened, I'd pay a handsome price for a pill allowing me to take a long harmless nap. Just wake me when it's over.  

People who long for the "... good old days ..." usually annoy me. But when it comes to the state of modern politics and the seemingly insurmountable divisiveness that appears to have replaced civil public discourse about our differences, I reluctantly admit my nostalgia for earlier times.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Honest Tears

"No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader."  - Robert Frost

In almost six years of blogging, I have never written back-to-back posts about a book. But as my book journal entry for Elizabeth Strout's 2008 masterpiece "Olive Kitteridge" swelled to record length, I knew I was not done processing the effect these thirteen stories had on me. I can't get Olive out of my head. When did this last happen to you?

A reader of my blog who also read this remarkable book asked me which story was my favorite. Given the somber wisdom of these tales, better to ask which is most memorable. But even that is tricky. In just the week since I finished "Olive Kitteridge", the most memorable story of the bunch has shifted at least twice. Today, "Tulips" - #8 if you read the book in order - has popped into my head several times.

"She stood, waiting for the hug to end." That could be the saddest sentence I've read in the last year. It's Olive, describing her reaction when her husband Henry brings her flowers. "... not wanting to be reminded of what could happen to a family that had seemed as pretty and fresh as a blueberry pie." Olive again, thinking about the Larkins, whose son is imprisoned for life for committing a brutal crime. "You will marry a beast and love her, Olive thought. You will have a son and love him. You will be endlessly kind to townspeople as they come for medicine, tall in your white lab coat." There are two additional sentences describing Henry's life following those three but they contain a spoiler so I left them out. But in five crisp sentences, this talented author sums up a man's entire life.

And re-reading those five sentences as I selected the prose to use in this post, I cried for the second or third time. I would not be surprised to learn Elizabeth Strout did the same as she wrote them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Olive And I And Ouch

What reading experience have you had where your foibles matched those of a prickly character enough to give you pause?

Man, did I groan uncomfortably a few times reading ""Olive Kitteridge" (2008). But I didn't fully understand how much Olive and I shared until the final story in this remarkable book - entitled "River"- when she started bashing cell phones. Suddenly, I heard clear echoes of my own occasional crabbiness and stubborn resistance to cell phones. As the book ends, Olive is seventy four; I'll be sixty seven later this month - ouch!

The thirteen stories in Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize Winner all take place in Crosby, Maine and each can stand alone. Olive is central to seven of the thirteen; important in a few more (notably "Incoming Tide" and "Starving"); peripheral or incidental in the rest (in "The Piano Player" and "Criminal" she gets just a few sentences). Strout's shimmering prose brilliantly supports her stunning insight about human failings - "... she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter a pathetic fairy, but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment ..."

This is not a "happy" book.  But it is rich, funny ("Little tiny brownies. What was wrong with making a brownie big enough to sink your teeth into?"), and groundbreaking. And for better or worse - and there's a lot of worse, believe me - Olive Kitteridge is a force of nature. She is ferocious, complicated, kind, and sometimes cruel. Looking in the mirror can sometimes be unsettling, no?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

A Bridge Too Far

Among the things I cherish about my long marriage is how small a role TV has ever played in it. We've never owned more than one. It's never been close enough to watch from an eating area, even while we were raising our daughter. Our conversations rarely revolve around something one of us has watched. My newest favorite part? We agreed moving into our current home six years ago to put the TV in the basement, completely removed from our living space. With or without guests in the house, when walking in our front door, you might hear a conversation, some music, or quiet. But you will not hear a TV. I like that.  

Moving into the third act, maybe our TV habits will change. There are certainly worse things that could happen. My wife loves most things British and in recent years she has started to enjoy watching those good looking soccer players, especially the Italians. I'm a sucker for documentaries - especially by Ken Burns - and an indiscriminate film geek; for me, TCM is as essential as peanut butter. But even if our habits do change, don't ask me where the TV room is in my home. That's a bridge too far.