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Friday, June 30, 2017

Two Reading Dilemmas

"Prisoners Of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About The World" lives up to the hyperbole of its sub-title. End-to-end, Tim Marshall's 2015 book is the best non-fiction I've read this year, holding its own alongside some of my all time favorites.

The ten countries or regions Marshall uses as the centerpiece of his book each get between seventeen ("The Arctic") and forty pages ("The Middle East"). The most informative? Difficult to say. The most thoroughly researched? Harder still. The most nuanced politically? Impossible to single out just one. If another book of non-fiction has taught me more in the last five years, the title escapes me.

"But so far. although we have broken free from the shackles of gravity, we are still imprisoned in our own minds, confined by our suspicion of the 'other', and thus our primal competition for resources. There is a long way to go."

Current dilemma #1? Which work of non-fiction already selected for my book club will be replaced when I put "Prisoners of Geography" on that substantial list? Dilemma #2: Given my recent decision to scale back the number of blog posts I publish - a decrease not coupled with any change in reading consumption - which books will be featured here? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how will I decide what to leave out? Uh-oh. Not evangelizing on behalf of  "Prisoners Of Geography"? Not possible.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Birth Of Which Nation?

I have a clear recollection of the heat author William Styron took for "Confessions Of Nat Turner". Even now, many years since the book was published and enjoyed its heyday, and Pulitzer Prize for historical fiction aside, some people continue to call the notoriety Styron gained via telling Turner's story a blatant example of cultural appropriation. Reading "Confessions Of Nat Turner" in college was a critical piece in my early development as a thinking person. And the uproar surrounding the book confused me in 1967 and still does today. I remain grateful Styron exposed me to this piece of history when I was young; it's one of those little told episodes that might otherwise have easily escaped me in my white world. Cultural appropriation or not, I'm planning to re-read the book, inspired by my recent viewing of "Birth Of A Nation", the directorial debut of Nate Parker.

Nat Turner's story - through the lens of Nate Parker or William Styron - is a deeply disturbing one. I suspect the insane cruelty inflicted on slaves as depicted in Parker's film will remain with me longer than the word pictures Styron drew. On the other side, Styron's prose as he describes Turner's ill-fated and bloody march across Virginia's Southampton County in 1831 had a narrative momentum I felt was missing in the concluding section of Parker's film. Still, directing yourself is tricky. For my money, Parker pulled that off quite well.

Because of its revered place in film history, it's unlikely the 1915 "Birth Of A Nation"  - basically an advertisement for the Ku Klux Klan - will ever lose all its cache. But effective today, my one-man campaign is to convince other film buffs, history students, and human rights advocates to begin calling that earlier racist rant " The Clansmen" - the source material for that abhorrent piece of movie propaganda. From now on, Nate Parker's "Birth Of A Nation" is the film that deserves that title.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Turn Is Coming

How long will it be before I become the doddering driver that currently triggers my impatience?

Are you a patient driver, no matter the situation? If yes, ignore today's perspective question. But I suspect only folks who walk on water and the delusional will have too much trouble substituting a different circumstance where people older than you test your patience, at least sometimes. Sitting still recently in a long line of cars waiting for a driver who appeared to make no distinction between yield and stop, I allowed myself to get frustrated.

After the throng finally got on the Interstate and I passed the individual who had remained motionless until there wasn't a single car within line of sight of the on ramp, I wasn't surprised at what the driver looked like. My holier-than-thou attitude toward the pokey codger gave me roughly two minutes of condescending satisfaction. And then suddenly I realized - unless my eyesight had let me down, that confounded slowpoke was no more than ten years older than I. Shit.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Extracting Wisdom

The good news about starting my own book club and having it take off so nicely? More connections with people who share an abiding passion of mine. Bad news? My "to read" list - which was already a little unwieldy - is getting harder to manage.

Still, if I hadn't connected with one of these discerning readers via my club, Simon Van Booy could have easily escaped my radar. "The Illusion Of Separateness" (2013) is one of those tiny gems that compels you to finish it in one sitting. And though the novel's title telegraphs its theme, like many small reading treasures, the greatest joy is derived by luxuriating in the prose and extracting the wisdom in the words.

"He realized that what people think are their lives are merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know."

"In a sense we are all prisoners of some memory, or fear, or disappointment - we are all defined by what we cannot change."

What wisdom have you extracted from a novel you've recently read?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Gail Is Happy I'm Not Her Editor

As I was finishing "When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey Of American Women From 1960 To The Present" (2009) by Gail Collins, I couldn't stop thinking about how this book would have treated Hillary Clinton's defeat in the 2016 election. What historical lesson about the journey of American women would this smart author have extracted from that debacle? If her treatment of the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 70s in this book is any indication, her tone about the results of our national sideshow last November would have been even-handed and sanguine. Though her politics and sympathies are clear, Collins is never strident and this is not a polemic.

"When Everything Changed" is insightful, well written and - probably because all the history Collins covers occurred during my lifetime - my attention never wavered. In addition, the anecdotes used throughout are revealing and often quite moving. I'm still not sure if the book as a whole works as long form non-fiction, but it's possible my quibbling is tinged with suggestibility. I've enjoyed Collins immensely as a NY Times columnist, and maybe that's interfering with my enjoyment of her in this format.

Oh yeah, I also love how the author leavens learning with humor - " 'Feminist' simply means someone who supports equal rights and opportunities for women. But there have been very few periods in American history when it didn't wind up being linked to images of crazy man-haters in unfashionable footwear."  Were I Gail Collins's editor, I would have suggested adding two parenthetical questions following each of those sentences. After the first - (MICHELLE BACHMAN - ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION?); after the second - (DITTOHEADS - SOUND AT ALL FAMILIAR?) As you can see, stridency and I are close friends.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What Mark's Maxim Missed

"The harder I work, the luckier I get." - Mark Twain

I've quoted those pithy words more times than I can count. That would be OK were Twain's maxim not frequently accompanied by my knowing smirk and snarky inner conversation. You'd welcome more luck, you say? Ha! Work harder, loser.

But my daughter has me re-thinking the price I might have paid living by Twain's words. Being so consumed with hard work can leave less room for joy. And it's also possible Mark's ethic made it more difficult for me to recognize signs pointing to abundance and the role of serendipity in life. It's clear - and totally understandable - that my Depression-era parents influenced me to look at the world through a lens of scarcity and that their focus was on unremitting hard work. But it's equally clear I can shift both that lens and focus. More important, any future coaching I offer my daughter will benefit if I add some ballast.

So, although I'm not retiring this particular Twain maxim, I'm turning down the volume. I'm also going to give more attention to how luck can enrich my life. Thanks, honey.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Two

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

Well, all you lyric geeks had almost a month to think about it. In your view, which other John Lennon lyric is likely to outlast the one above (from "Beautiful Boy") as wisdom for the ages? 

The day this new series was inaugurated, I had no inkling my blog would soon be relegated to a tier two activity. But, on May 12 I did have an idea which aphorism-ready John Lennon lyric to offer a month later, as promised in that earlier post. Irony, anyone?

There's no way to know what I missed in my own life from May 12 to today while I was "...busy making other plans." What plans? Knowing which lyric I'd probably feature also meant excessive reflecting - beginning on May 12 - about what I'd write on June 12. All that ruminating? There's no doubt stuff escaped my attention. Which of your daily routines keeps you from paying attention? In the end, I decided to give my addled brain a rest; waiting until tomorrow to publish this was silly.

For the record, I'm avoiding giving any thought to which aphorism-disguised-as-song-lyric I'll feature here in a month or so. Honest. But you think about it, OK?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Time Inventory

I only recently realized - from a mental health perspective - that using math to calculate how much time I need to accomplish some of my ambitious goals is not a good idea. Maybe it never was?

Still (MORBIDITY ALERT!), doing some of that math did force me to more squarely face the finite amount of time that is likely left to me. In turn, that unflinching look has me reflecting on the relative importance of some of my day-to-day activities. When did you last take an inventory of this type to assess which things add the most value to your life? What were your conclusions?

I hope, as always, at least a few of you will respond to those two questions. And some wistfulness is attached to my hope this time. Effective today, there will be fewer questions from the bell curve; my blog is moving to tier two, a demotion prompted by my own inventory. I'll keep earlier promises made here, continue a few of my long-running and newer series, provide updates regarding any project for which faithful readers have expressed an interest, etc. Among those projects, the recording with my original songs - featuring my daughter on vocals - is nearly complete; I plan to make it available via the blog. Thanks to those who have repeatedly asked about that.    

I'm not going away completely so you won't have a chance to miss me. And any time you comment on a post - no matter how old - I get a notification, so keep doing that; please. Thanks for being a part of my daily life for over six years. It would be great knowing you're still there, so if you make a visit to the bell curve in the future, be sure to let me know.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Level Three Crabbiness

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-crab-out-of-water.html

My first crab pledge promised to let readers know how grouchy any future installment in the crab series would be. I figured this was a good way to help people decide if they wanted to read a specific post. So, today's gripe is neither a rant about a pet peeve (Level One), nor is it a crabby judgment of mine about what many people would call a lifestyle choice (Level Two).

But, I really don't get why anyone carefully reads the obits all the time. My mystification about this (Level Three in my flawless taxonomy) does not include folks who take an occasional glance (that would probably be most of us) or anyone monitoring the obits because someone they know has been ill for a while. And of course, many of us will from time to time read a specific obit of interest. (Full disclosure: This past weekend I read Gregg Allman's). I also do get why very elderly people would be in the obit habit. As I recently heard ninety five year old Carl Reiner remark - "If my obit is not in the morning paper, I know it's time to eat breakfast."

But anyone not in at least their ninth decade scouring the obits all the time - including those in the local papers - and also not fitting any of the qualifications from the previous paragraph, enlighten me: What is the appeal?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Getting Better?

I'm not sure when my evolving mindset about spending a crushingly dull Saturday night at home began. Did I start getting too old to make excuses about my more frequently boring Saturday nights? When did past excitement about the magical night begin to dull? Why? Was it connected to the fact that Saturdays spent playing live music for others were farther and farther apart now?

I have no misplaced nostalgia for my years of playing almost every Saturday night. It's still easy for me to recall the uninterested faces of most of the people in those bars, etc.; few were there to hear my music. But even as my full time playing years ended, Saturday nights - even without a gig - still had a sparkle. See a friend, find a party, go to NYC. How long has this shift into a begrudging acceptance of Saturday night ennui been underway?

In my search for a silver lining, I have only this to offer. Not long ago, had someone told me they'd passed part of a Saturday evening as I did last night, I would have been insufferably smug. You were paying bills on a Saturday night? On a good day, I would have smirked at this pitiable situation. On a not-as-good day, I can hear myself snarling some sarcastic remark. Do I count it as personal growth that I'm no longer inclined to be as condescending now that my Saturday nights can be as numbing as last night was? Depends on how many neat rationalizations I need on a Sunday morning, I suppose.
  

Friday, June 2, 2017

Did My Parents Plan This Too? God Bless Them!

The melody of the song we all know as "Happy Birthday" came from an older song entitled "Good Morning To All". According to Wikipedia, the first published version of "Happy Birthday" used the name John to follow the word "dear" in the third line. Sing the song using that name and tell me if you share my suspicion that whoever chose it was not a musician. If that person was a musician, I pray that individual was not a drummer. 

The original lyric in the third line of "Good Morning To All" had "dear children". And that is what leads me to today's profound question. In your view, which names are most ill-suited to that third line of "Happy Birthday"? I'll get us started on this critical philosophical inquiry.

First off, one syllable names - like "John" - are not good. Try "Grace" and feel how uncomfortable it is having that long "a" stretched over two notes, regardless of the tie indicated in the music. Names with two syllables, if the accent is on the first - like "Patrick" - are a good fit. "Nadine" or "Yvonne"? Yeah, not so much.

Three syllables? Well, if the accent is on the second syllable - like "Rebecca" - then you have two choices. Either leave out the word "dear" or go with a two syllable version like "Becky" or "Becca". A name with three syllables can keep the "dear" if the accent is on the first. Try "Alison" and tell me how that feels rolling off your vocal cords. What's your opinion on unshortened four syllable names like "Victoria"? To me, singing "Happy Birthday Dear Penelope" just sounds so ... busy. It's a little better without the "dear", I suppose.

But my top contender for most ill-suited to "Happy Birthday" is any one syllable name, unable to be elongated - e.g. like how "Jack" can become "Jackie" - and also ending in a long vowel. Every time I've sung "Happy Birthday" to a person named "Lee" has been a painful musical experience. And, its even more torturous if you leave out the "dear" for a name like that. Don't believe me? Try singing it aloud and get back to me.  

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Words That Count

When in your life have the kind words of others really meant something to you? How often do you acknowledge aloud how much someone means to you?

The more I tune in, the more I notice how much kind words can mean to others. And though I've always been proud of my willingness to tell people dear to me how I feel about them, my growth edges in this area are to be more specific and more concise. I want to be certain my words of love, esteem, or condolence really count.

My awareness about this was renewed after watching a video made at my March 2010 retirement celebration. The kind words said about me that night later helped me in my words of condolence to a friend just a few weeks later. The two situations had nothing in common except those words that count.