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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Doublespeak, Anyone?

With "alternative facts" now a matter of public record, I'd love to hear your ideas of expressions that might warm George Orwell's heart. How about ...

Selective reality? Optional truth? I love the way plausible lie rolls off the tongue. Credible falsehood has a nice ring, no? Save believable prevarications for more educated company.

And who can resist a factual hoax? How about those truthful canards or real fictions? Just remember - Once you tweet it, it's a verifiable fabrication.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

My Reliable Companion: Fourteen To Eighty Four

If you factor in the time I put into development, then add the $$$ spent enhancing my I-tunes library and photocopying participant handouts, I've essentially been paying - vs. being paid - to teach my music courses for the continuing education departments of local colleges since 2014. Though I was never any earnings powerhouse, you'd think at my age I'd be more financially savvy, no?

But now that I'm getting calls to reprise some of my earlier offerings (and approaching minimum wage!), a new benefit has appeared. Each time I prepare to re-do a course, the initial jolt of energy is magnified. It's my own version of the fountain of youth. I review my notes, listen to the music I first selected - sometimes making adjustments to the playlist - re-visit my sources, and suddenly I'm fourteen again. What gives you a similar jolt?

Even better, with each repeat offering, I'm more gratified with my original creations. And the musical niche I've discovered could well transport me to eighty four and beyond. How many of you have ever noticed how many eighty and ninety year old jazz musicians are still able to wail? It's possible that teaching about music - my lifelong reliable companion - will keep me close to the same fountain of youth that seems to keep those older jazz musicians so vibrant. The money? Oh well, that ship sailed a long time ago.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

A Prayer

What is the last statistic you came across that really landed hard with you?

Since seeing "Lion" around the holidays, I've had difficulty shaking loose a postscript shown on the screen just before the credits begin rolling - "Each year 80,000 children go missing in India". What can an average person like me do with information like that? How can anyone begin to process the toll exacted on the parents of those missing children?

I'm reasonably sure many of you support charities aimed at addressing the ample misery our world has to offer. On some days, my contributions to those organizations gives me solace. On days my life is narrowly focused on myself, those contributions and the people my money is supposed to assist never cross my mind.

Several days since reading that statistic following "Lion", there has been neither solace nor blissful privilege-laden oblivion. During the periods on those in-between days, like today, when I consider those children and their parents, only prayer can soothe me. If you're so inclined, please join me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Too Fascinated?

Is it possible to be "too fascinated" by what we notice around us?

Although I find the idea of being "too fascinated" a bit oxymoronic, I'm continually reminded that my interest in commonplace things is far from universal. Or perhaps my childlike enthusiasm for drawing the attention of others to these things is where I go awry. Case in point:

I have never been in a parking lot of any National Park - no matter how remote the park or the lot - without noticing an out-of-state license plate. Test this out yourself on your next visit to a National Park. Even in lots with just two cars, one of them is virtually guaranteed to be out-of-state. If the lot has multiple cars, it's almost as safe a bet that more than 50% will have out-of-state plates. Test this one out as well. How can I make this claim? Because I'm fascinated by the phenomenon. Sometimes I'll even walk around a parking lot to test my hypothesis.

Now, if right this moment you're saying so what? to yourself, you're not alone. When I shared my hypothesis with a fellow traveler last week after our van pulled into a parking lot, he said to me "You're kind of OCD about this, aren't you?" Though taken aback by the remark - which could have been meant facetiously, I suppose - instead of reactively firing back with a sarcastic rejoinder, I said, "I'd rather think of myself as fascinated or interested or engaged." And in that moment, I recalled similar comments tossed at me in the past like "Tone down the enthusiasm, will you?", etc.

Easily fascinated? Guilty. Too enthusiastic? You bet. Attentive to what's all around me? Beats the alternative.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

RIP (Give Or Take A Few Decades)

Though I've visited this morbid territory previously (note link at the bottom), a recent conversation with a journalist persuaded me my first visit to Grim Reaper Row wasn't thorough enough. So, who else on the bell curve has given thought to the wording of their obit, given that - unlike the rich and famous - no one else is writing your sendoff in advance? To marginally diminish the creepiness, treat this as a planning exercise. I'll go first, leaving out the obvious, the cuddly, and the biographical.

"Pat Barton lived a life of passion - for his family & friends, music, literature, film, travel, and learning"

That takes care of it for me. You?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/03/rsvp.html

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Not-So-Gifted (Or Talented) Reflection

Are you a book-as-gift giver? Do others regularly gift books to you? If you answered "no" to both those questions, skip today's reflection.

It will surprise no regular reader to learn that if I'm stuck for a gift idea, books are my default choice and friends and family often do the same for me. On my return home Saturday - having finished the books I took with me on vacation - one of the first orders of business was deciding what was next in the reading queue. Glancing at the books recently gifted to me, I immediately flashed to the ones I'd given. Don't judge, OK? A scorecard formed in my addled brain. 

What - you reasonably ask - was I tallying? It was not how many I'd given vs. received; I'm flawed but not mercenary. What I spent way too much time mulling over was how my book choices for others compared with what others had chosen for me. That is, over the coming years, how many books I've gifted will remain unread or re-gifted without ever being opened? And, vice-versa, of course. Don't feel obligated to toss any Hallmark sentiments, Buddhist bromides, or clich├ęs my way. I suspect I don't have a lot of company on the bell curve on this one. But if you've ever gone down this dead end, it would be comforting to know.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Anything Goes?

Call me callous but I have a lot of trouble working up any sympathy for the small business owners who appear on television crowing about having their massive tax debts forgiven via hiring a slick lawyer. My first thought? How the hell does anyone "fall behind" to the tune of $300,00? Would you hire a general contractor disorganized enough - I'm being kind here - to forget they owe that much money to the government? How much more cash has this "businessman" hidden over the years?

My wife has been self-employed for twenty five years. Her business always gets paid by check. Watching these smarmy actors  - you know the actual reprobates who dodged paying their fair share would never show their mugs on camera - brag about striking a deal and paying $15,000 on a tax liability twenty times as much, I get incensed. And yes, I realize I'm wasting energy allowing myself to be triggered by this malfeasance. But my inner Buddhist is elusive under these circumstances. It's not unlike how I feel learning some old fart rock star has magically moved to the front of the line for a new liver. 

Of course, with the example set by our Tweeter-In-Chief refusing to release his tax returns, who knows what other tax shenanigans will soon become the new norm. Cole Porter apparently had it right back in the 1930's - "Anything Goes". 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Walking For Margaritas

What is your preference when on vacation? Do you favor sedentary stuff like hanging on the beach, visiting the local watering holes, holing up with a book? Or, is an active itinerary more your default mode - cycling, hiking, tennis, etc.? Maybe an in between approach?

Perusing the Road Scholars program description en route to our current destination, I asked my wife to estimate the percentage of waking hours we've spent walking or hiking over thirty nine years of vacationing together. Though her estimate was higher than mine, we agreed it's been over 50%. We both enjoy the beach, like to drink, and love reading. But more often than not when on vacation, we seem to be on our feet and moving. The clear upside of this approach is the way it gives us wiggle room with our diets; more calories used, more calories we can consume. Though we rarely lose weight, we just as rarely gain any.

Today's hike is a long one but the view we're walking to is the one featured in Big Bend National Park's promotional video; it's said to be the best in all of Texas. And our reward tonight? A big Margarita.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Before, During, After

Which gives you greater joy - processing an experience you've had or having the experience? How does the anticipation of having the experience compare with the processing of that experience?

Of the three orientations - before, during, after - the one I most have to remind myself to pay more attention to is the during. My goals ensure I'm intensely focused on the before; anticipating an experience goes hand-in-hand with planning. The extravert in me enjoys processing experiences by speaking about them, the historian in me loves recording them, and my introspective nature assists me to process experiences even deeper. In other words, the after also gets plenty of attention.

The during piece is a continual work in progress. How to stay in a mindful state all the while I'm having the experience?  That is, how do I avoid planning another experience while having the present one or - worse - begin processing the experience I'm having before it's finished? Any of this sound familiar?


Monday, January 16, 2017

Straight Into The Top Fifty

Although possible, it's doubtful "My Name Is Lucy Barton" will ever be displaced from its new place among the top fifty novels I've ever read.

"It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down." 

At one hundred ninety one pages, Elizabeth Strout's remarkable 2016 novel is a model of concision. As the book nears its end, the author begins drawing impressionistic sketches via her use of increasingly shorter chapters. Each sketch is an exquisite miniature revealing how little any of us ever know of what another person is thinking or feeling, even those with whom we share a lot of history. And each of Lucy Barton's insights - like the one above - are as quiet as they are rich, delivered without flourish or metaphor. There is not a false note in this entire book.

"All life amazes me." Arriving at that final sentence, I wrote "amen" and then returned to page one to begin re-reading this jewel. What was the last book you felt compelled to re-read immediately after finishing it? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Big Room

Writing about the National Parks, I struggle to control my use of hyperbole.

It took about an hour today to wind down eight hundred feet - the equivalent of eighty stories - and arrive at the Big Room at the base of Carlsbad Cavern. The Big Room is the size of sixteen football fields. Walking around its perimeter and trying to process what we were seeing took longer than walking the mile long serpentine path that got us there. The Big Room is indescribable. Go on the website for Carlsbad Cavern National Park; try to contain your amazement. Then multiply that by one hundred to approximate the experience of being in this sacred place.

At the summit of our hike at Guadalupe Mountains National Park yesterday, we ran into four college students who are hiking all the National Parks reasonable driving distance from their hometown of Houston. After they gave us suggestions about what to see in Big Bend National Park - our next destination - we shared with them our goal of visiting all fifty nine parks. They asked us which has been our favorite so far. I answered Acadia National Park in Maine; my wife said Glacier National Park in Montana. That was before either of us saw Carlsbad Cavern. The more National Parks I visit, the more picking a favorite seems as much a fool's errand as controlling my hyperbole writing about them. Each one is a unique treasure.        
          

Friday, January 13, 2017

Preserving The Republic

Continuing a tradition established three years ago, January 13 is the date I set aside each year to ensure the preservation of our republic. If you doubt the power of one person making a difference, consider this: The two brilliant constitutional amendments I proposed here on 1/13/14 and 1/13/15 were responsible for subsequent Congressional action. And my incisive logic for revising the Second Amendment resulted in the heated battles you later saw on C-Span.

So, brace yourself for this year's indisputably astute modification to the way we run our great nation. And then comment on my sage advice or ... suggest your own changes. How can it hurt?

1.) Using the most widely respected and notable leaders in the field of geriatrics, ask them to arrive at a range representing the average age of onset for dementia in the US population. Be sure the group submitting their consensus is politically and culturally diverse.

2.) When the age range is submitted subtract eight years from the lowest point of the range. For example, if the expert group says the average age range of onset is 72-76, our baseline number becomes 64 (i.e. 72-8). That baseline now becomes the oldest age for anyone to be elected President, given a maximum of two four year terms is the limit. Our Constitution has a minimum age for the top job, so why not a maximum?

3.) As medical advances are made mitigating the effects of dementia, re-convene the group on an as needed basis to re-calibrate the age range.

I'll be back next January 13 to dazzle all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hitting A Triple

Most of the literature says the Wi-Fi in our National Parks is reliable. But I've been surprised to learn differently after arriving at a few of the parks over the last several years. Which makes near future reflections from the bell curve - the road iteration - an open question.

Now if things do go well in cyberspace, the next witty communique will be coming from either West Texas (Big Bend or Guadalupe Mountains National Park) or Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. Much as I love skiing and don't mind New Jersey winters, being in warm weather for ten days has a lot of appeal right now; it was punishing to walk this past weekend in NYC. And I never miss scraping ice off my windshield, do you? Besides, being able to visit three National Parks in one trip is catnip to a goal-oriented, love-to-scratch-things-off-a-list guy.

When you get a chance, look at a map of this part of the U.S. Although I've been out that way previously, it still astonishes me to see the distances between towns. Also, while doing our research, the city website of Carlsbad, New Mexico made it easy for us to decide how long we'd spend there. It said - "There are no events planned at this time." OK, I guess one night will do it.

Which National Park is next on your list? 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Kosher? Only This Bell Curve Maven Knows

Which group - aside from those with which you have a strong ethnic, racial, religious affiliation -  exerts a significant impact on everyday expressions likely to pop out of your mouth?

Oy vey, is this easy for me. Had I gone to school among only Baptists or been raised in rural North Dakota, what would I have grown up calling the schmucks, klutzes, and schlemiels I encountered? How about later in life when I had to schlep stuff around or wanted to kibitz with others? For me, the word shtick has always nailed it better than that oh-so-English expression "bit" and also sounds less hoity-toity than "trope".  When trying not to be crude, doesn't substituting chutzpah for cojones - or its English equivalent that rhymes with halls - work really well? There is no better word for torturous lounge music than schmaltz. Kissing ass = bad visual; schmoozing = harmless. Doing a good deed sounds nice but not as lofty doing a mitzvah, don't you agree? 

Continue my kvetching? Only a nebbish (aka schnook) would risk his readers - especially the goyim among them - doing so. I'd prefer to sign off and remain your bell curve mensch. Shalom.      

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Sadness More Honestly Earned

The majority of my extended interactions with young adults energize me. I walk away from most of these conversations with optimism for the future and the sense that these folks are on a path that will lead to some degree of fulfillment. What are some of your key takeaways talking with people who are in the early stage of their adult lives?

Possibly because my predominant sentiment is so positive, the infrequent conversations I do have that leave me with the opposite feeling - call it mild dread for the person speaking - really linger. When I detect a clear wistfulness in the personal or career story of someone much younger than I, it gives me real pause.

The most recent story I heard tinged with regret from someone very young brought me immediately back to another one very similar in tone - if not specifics - from many years ago. I was still a young adult myself when the new husband of a friend told me how he already knew how his entire life was going to look. As that conversation continued - becoming more like a confession when he used the word "trapped" - I recall reverting to silence. To that point, I had been speaking of my passion for music - my main source of income then - my cross country driving and hitchhiking adventures, my spiritual goals, etc.

It's very possible I was crowing in that long ago conversation before a feeling of sadness for this young man overtook me and I shut my mouth. In the most recent conversation there was no crowing from this slightly wiser sixty seven year old; my coaching hat was on my much balder head this time. And the sadness I felt was more honestly earned.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Chicken and Egg, Early 2017

How would your life have been altered had those most responsible for your development expected extraordinary things from you?

That hypothetical question has had me in a grip for some time. If it strikes you as unanswerable, consider this: In 1834, Transcendentalist Caroline Dall's father scoffed when his friends questioned his twelve year old daughter attending Emerson's lectures. He responded -  "I expect her to write abstracts."  How to measure the impact of a bar set that high? Who has ever expected so much of you?

My parents expected all four of us would complete a college education though they themselves barely made it through high school. By their Depression era standards that was an exceptional expectation; I can never repay them. And as my wife wisely coached me as Dall's at once inspiring and dispiriting tale became a recent topic of conversation, my latest dilemma is classic chicken and egg territory. That is, is it first the bar being set too low for some of us or ... is it that extraordinary is not a word meant to be used in the same sentence with some of us?

If I occasionally expect extraordinary things from others in the future, perhaps this iteration of my incessant navel-gazing will serve a purpose. When did you last expect something extraordinary from someone close to you?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Exploring, Appreciating & Uncovering

Since deciding to initiate my own book club, I've detected a small shift in my focus when reading fiction. Instead of focusing as much on the prose itself, while reading the last several novels, my attention has turned more to ideas I believe the author is trying to explore. Ann Patchett's 2001 novel "Bel Canto" is illustrative of my recent reading shift.

"Bel Canto" is easily summarized. An international group of notable guests at a lavish birthday party in an unnamed South American country are being entertained by the world's most beloved opera soprano. The guests are taken hostage by a group of terrorists who plan to exchange the life of the country's President for their demands. The President is not at the party. A stalemate ensues.

I was engaged - if not riveted - from the start. The prose was strong - if not luminous - from the opening sentence. More significantly, the quality of the prose never diminished - this is a talented author. So, turning the well written and reasonably compelling pages, I found myself digging deeper and feeling gratified each time I did so. About 2/3 in, Patchett uses a story told by a minor character to reveal one of her ideas - how appreciation for art enlarges life. But here's where authorial talent trumps even an important idea like that. The story is being told by a Russian to a Japanese translator so that he can, in turn, translate that Russian into English. Each time the translator struggles, Patchett is exploring a richer idea. The difficulty each of us have putting our appreciation for art into words.

Both of Patchett's ideas are central to my own life experience. And that's not all she has on her mind in "Bel Canto". If you've read or get around to reading this novel, please tell me what you uncover.     


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Pleasure, Heartache, The Past

Very shortly after I started to blog in March 2011, a friend gifted me a small journal called "One Line A Day: A Five Year Memory Book". It immediately became my latest writing vessel and a timely one; I've used it ever since to record the title of my daily blog post.        

I've been reasonably consistent using "One Line A Day" (I'm now on my second), but some days, the title of that day's blog post is my only entry. Such was the case exactly three years ago. On 1/4/14, all that is written there is "Pleasure & Heartache". Searching yesterday for something in that journal - and noticing those opposing words - got me wondering what might have prompted a reflection like that. Was it my guitar playing? A relationship? What gives you both pleasure & heartache? Would the answer be the same today as it was three years ago? If yes, what steps have you taken to mitigate that tension? 

Memory is so fragile. Give someone you love a journal. Even words that don't add up may help that someone hold onto a small piece of their past, including some parts involving you.

 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Walk On Water, Do You? Skip This Post

What book do you remember displaying as a public prop, i.e. one that you were reasonably sure you'd never finish but carried around anyway?

The reason you held onto that prop can remain your secret, unless you're brave enough to step into the bell curve confession booth. Maybe you wanted to impress an older sibling, a smart friend, or an observant teacher. Perhaps you hoped the book - if carried with sufficient flair - would prompt some object of affection to engage you in deep conversation, with that conversation a prelude to more erotic adventures. Keep your rationale secret, but at least own up to your chicanery via telling me and others what the book was. Then let us use our imaginations to imagine why you did it.

I'm just a little embarrassed to admit I did this enough early in my reading life that several of my own bogus titles popped into my head but only after my wife admitted that "The Odyssey" was her 6th grade prop. Weeks after abandoning "The Count of Monte Cristo" - a book my beloved Father told me I must read - I carted that classic around. And as late as my undergraduate years, Thomas Pynchon's first novel "V"  was a constant - though unread - companion. Pynchon was so cool - if completely inscrutable - in the wild late 60's. I'm saving my most recent book-as-prop tale until one of you comes clean.  

I'm guessing there'll be readers claiming they've never acted out this harmless charade. Remind me when I next see you to have you perform that walk-on-water bit, OK?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

(A Head) Start - Stop - Continue: 2017

This is the sixth consecutive New Year's Day featuring the start-stop-continue model. And though I got a semi-head start in 2017, don't let my tiny fudging dissuade you from declaring here publicly what you will start, stop, and continue this year. Most every year I get a few more pledges from readers. Why not join the fun?   

I began publicizing my own book club in early December. But since the first meeting is not until later this month, I am counting the club's kickoff as my start pledge for 2017.

In 2017, I will stop postponing the writing of a book that has been in my head for five years. I lost many of my notes for that book by not backing up my laptop before it crashed in November 2015. Then last September I somehow emptied a full water bottle into my backpack while in the Denver airport; more notes were destroyed in that second act of self-sabotage. It's time to get down to the business of actually writing the thing and stop pretending I need time to gather "more notes".

In 2017, I will continue the project of getting a CD made with my original songs featuring my daughter on vocals. We've finished the first cut of about half the material; the finish line is in sight. The really good news? This was the "start" pledge made in my first start-stop-continue post on January 1 2012.

Let's all wish one another good luck.