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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Some Gifts Are Worth The Wait

Some gifts are worth the wait.

Two years ago - on the first Road Scholars trip my wife and I ever took - we connected in a big way with more than a third of the forty people travelling with us to two National Parks in Alaska. The bond with these folks was so strong that last year fourteen of us had our first reunion in Rocky Mountain National Park. And that trip was so magical we began the planning for this year's reunion after just three days in Colorado. We settled this time on a late summer trip to the Adirondacks.

Had anyone had told me just two years ago that one day in my near future I would willingly sign up for a trip focusing on birding and local flora, I would have told them they needed their meds adjusted. But these last four days have focused on exactly those things and I couldn't have been more happy. I have not become a birder. Adirondack region or otherwise, I'll continue to need my wife by my side to identify anything aside from grass or daisies. But the twelve folks we just spent four days with - ten of whom were also in Colorado last year - are such an interesting, enriching, and affirming group that I eagerly anticipate 2018's adventure. We've already started a conversation about the Pacific Northwest, my second favorite place in the US, and home to one couple who joined us in Alaska and Colorado but were unable to be here this year. I am seriously pumped to have all sixteen of us in the same place next year.

The last period in my life I can recall connecting so genuinely with a group of people this large was when I was an undergraduate. What comparable gift have you received that was worth a long wait?


Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Story Writer With Few Peers

Since early June - when I scaled back on the volume of blog posts I publish - one of my challenges has been deciding which worthy books I've recently read will go unmentioned here. But from the moment I finished the title story of "Tenth Of December"  (2013) by George Saunders weeks ago, there was no doubt. I've never read a book of short stories by the same author anything like this. Many compare Saunders to Chekhov. Except for their economy with words, the comparison doesn't ring true for me. Saunders's twisted imagination makes him sui generis.

Because the ten stories in this singular volume can be read in any order, I suggest starting with "Escape From Spiderland". If you're not immobilized by that gruesome tale of science run amok, then move next to "Puppy"; if you're a parent, prepare yourself for that one. But parent or not, you'll need a break, so rewind now to the opening story called "A Victory Lap". It's not warm and fuzzy but the three voices telling this story are brilliant and you need to brace yourself for "The Semplica Girl Diaries". I'm reasonably certain I'll never forget this penetrating story of class. It reads like perverse science fiction. Pretend Philip K Dick and Edgar Allen Poe collaborated to turn one of JG Ballard's weird stories into a parable about keeping up with the Joneses. It is an indescribable masterpiece.

After those first four, go back to "Sticks" and read everything in between. Just be sure to save the title story for last. The first time I get around to re-building my Mt. Rushmore of short stories, "Tenth Of December" will be replacing one of my original four. George Saunders doesn't do happy or cuddly but he has few contemporary peers in real, redemptive, and relevant. He is an unmitigated treasure.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No Rush On That App, Brad

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/08/stories-stubbornness-stupidity.html

Writing the post above five years ago, I was pleased to have overcome some of my stubbornness regarding cell phones, specifically texting.

Still, despite some newly acquired technology skills - permitting me to be more reliably in touch with my millennial daughter - it would be a stretch to call me hyper-connected. Given what I've noted over these ensuing years, I'm happy this is so, especially observing restaurant behaviors of couples.

I've lost count how many times I've thanked my wife since 2012 that she - despite her ease with technology -  is not so tethered to her cell phone that our restaurant conversations compete with her texting fingers. When the two of us are together, I'm apparently still more interesting to her than someone's latest Facebook bulletin about what they ate for lunch. It appears I'm able to hold my own, at least with her, vs. the latest rant from the tweeter-in-chief.  It would seem my interactions with her are not in competition with anything the cyber-world offers, at least not yet.

Now when that Brad Pitt live app becomes available, I could be in trouble. Until then, I'm good.    

Monday, August 21, 2017

Edgy Vs. Everyday

At the conclusion of the short stories of James Joyce, a character often experiences what literary scholars later termed an epiphany. In educational settings, teachers long for times when they induce something similar in their students - an "aha" moment. Whatever these moments are called, they are magical.

For years I've kept a little notebook to record my own. While recently re-reading some of those notebook entries, I noticed there were far fewer during periods when my life was going along routinely. And during rough patches, but especially following an edgy experience of any kind, the number of insights I captured increased, sometimes significantly. Is this consistent with your experience of "aha" moments? That is, does the edgy yield more insight than the everyday?           
    
I'm avoiding giving this particular observation any more attention than writing about it here. And I'm clearly not anxious to repeat some of those edgy experiences just to have more in my notebook. But I am going to try to tune in a little more to the everyday for future insights. Why not try that with me? Then we can let each other know how it goes

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

25 Years Of Sustenance And A Motto

"Thanks, I already have one."

To be useful, a motto must ring true and be terse. I found the above - now my latest greatest motto - in a chapter entitled "Stuff" from Anna Quindlen's 2012 wise memoir "Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake". What a terrific reminder to help me avoid mindless consumerism.

Evangelizing on behalf of Anna Quindlen has become a habit. She has never disappointed me as an essayist, novelist, and now memoirist. Over a lifetime of avid reading, two of my most vivid reading memories involve her work.

The first is how I felt while devouring "Thinking Out Loud" (1993), my first exposure to Quindlen's incisive mind. As each essay in that book pulled me in deeper, I began fantasizing about how great it would be to have her as a friend. It's uncanny how much our way of looking at the world overlaps.  

My second clear memory is how profoundly her novel "Every Last One" (2011) shook me. As I finished it, I recall being able to do little else aside from taking a shower and going to bed. And now that I know more about Quindlen's husband and three children, thanks to the chapters called "Next Of Kin" & "Push" in "Lots Of Candles ...", I'm compelled to re-read the earlier novel about the delicate dynamic in that fictional family of five.

Which author has been as steady a source of sustenance for you as Anna Quindlen has been for me?

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Words For The Ages, Line Four

"These are the good old days": Carly Simon 


I'm guessing "Anticipation" was not a contender as theme song for the tweeter-in-chief's campaign last year. Carly Simon's affirming words for the ages - suggesting we treasure life as it unfolds - don't mesh real well with a slogan that says things were great in the old good old days.

Because nostalgia has never had a lot of appeal for me, Carly Simon's aphorism captured me the first time I heard it. It has the ring of truth. The more I learn about history, the less I fantasize about some glorious past. When someone begins painting their picture of a bygone era they're attached to, I begin tuning out. Even when a soul mate begins extolling the late 60's, years very close to my heart, I'm not buying it. I was there; those weren't the good old days. These are.            

Got another lyric from Carly Simon's oeuvre you'd like to offer as words for the ages? Bring it on. 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

50 Ways To Leave The Bad Stuff Behind

My 50th high school graduation celebration is about one month away.

OK, that's a scary sentence. But since committing to attending - partially due to the intense lobbying of an old friend who played organ in my high school and college bands - my obsessive mind hasn't had much rest. Most of that lunacy ended up in my journal - and one never-to-be-heard song - and then ... a worthwhile and semi-sane exercise came to me. I hope you'll join me, no matter how long it's been since your high school graduation.

Take your number of years and list that many things you've done since graduation that you're proud of. Or, if you have trouble getting to that many sources of pride, complete the list with stuff you're grateful for; these two often overlap  I plan to ask every classmate I encounter on September 9 this same question - might help keep this extrovert from blabbing ad nauseam. Now, after six and a half years blogging, I know no one will comment here unless I go first so here's three from my list. All fifty are available upon request - as if.

1.) I'm proud of completing my Master's Degree at forty eight years old.
2.) I'm proud of sticking with the guitar through these fifty years.
3.) I'm proud of helping to raise one solid human being.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Not A Pretty Picture

What is your first thought when approached by a panhandler? If I'm honest with myself, I'm obliged to admit these scenarios frequently test my patience. And my reactions to panhandling - impatient or otherwise - lead me to reflect on my compassion.

Though the conversations I have with myself - as I'm initially approached and after these interactions - vary, there are some predictable elements in the way I deal with panhandling. I avoid eye contact. Almost always, I wonder why I so rarely part with any money. My guilt is short-lived.

When approached while driving, and I give nothing even after glancing down at the spare change in my ashtray - eye contact successfully averted - my shame increases. What did I just spend on a cup of coffee for my drive? My self-image as a compassionate person is tested in each of these situations, and even more acutely when I'm stingy, which is the norm. Does the recognition of my base instincts contribute to the impatience I experience? What do your inner conversations sound like in these circumstances?

Friday, August 4, 2017

Score! (Thanks To Assist)

How often do you have trouble arriving at a firm opinion of a book you've finished weeks ago? I'm not referring to a book you're still processing long after you completed it nor am I asking about one that left you indifferent - that qualifies as an opinion.

Although this may have happened to me before I began using a book journal in 2010 to record my views - and I'm just not remembering - because of that journal, I can say for certain that "The Little Red Chairs" (2015), by Edna O'Brien, was, for several weeks, the first book earning an undecided verdict from me in over seven years. Consequently, I was grateful it was the book a good friend had suggested we read for our book club of two. I was confident my struggle arriving at a firm opinion would end after our always rich conversations. And that discerning reader/friend did not let me down.

Now I knew from the start of "The Little Red Chairs" that I was in skilled hands; the prose is nearly flawless. And O'Brien's finishing sentence - containing the irreplaceable adjective "savage" - rivals the iconic final words of novels as timeless as "The Great Gatsby" - "You would not believe how many words there are for home and what savage music there can be wrung from it."

Yet, in between the eerily foreshadowing epigraphs O'Brien chose and her assured start - when a charismatic stranger arrives in an innocent and sleepy hamlet in the Irish countryside- and her perfect final sentence, I couldn't make up my mind. How well did the two dream sequences - one near the start that revealed the stranger's vile past and the second near the end (no details - spoiler) - work as a literary device? How about the toggling between first and third person narration? What did the chapter entitled "Penge" - also near the end - contribute to the narrative? Is adding to the narrative a "must"? With respect to books - and music and film for that matter - I'm no wuss, opinions-wise. But in this unique case, much like a soccer or hockey forward, I clearly needed an able assist. This ever happen to you? Who do you have in the wings when you need such an assist?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

National Gratitude Day

Each August 1st since 2012, I've been lobbying here to establish a national holiday for this month. Doesn't it strike anyone else as unfair that we celebrate so little in August? And though disappointed my five earlier ideas - brilliant though each has been - have been met with indifference, giving up is not an option. My newest proposal is to declare August 1 National Gratitude Day.

How great it would be if each August 1 we were all reminded to publicly acknowledge our gratitude for the abundance in our lives. Imagine the positive energy that would be unleashed. I hope some of you will join me by commenting here on some things for which you are grateful.

* I'm grateful for the gardens my wife has created in each home we've shared together.
* I'm grateful my regular bike rides take me alongside the Atlantic Ocean.
* I'm grateful my post full time work life is rich and full.

I think this holiday is going to catch on. Hallmark - Are you paying attention?