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Monday, December 31, 2018

Best Of 2018

Please share with me and others some of your highlights from the past year; use my headings or create your own. Publishing a post like this every year since 2012 has been a great way to remind myself how fortunate I am.

1.) Best discovery: Burlington, Vermont. If not for the potentially harsh winters, my wife and I could move to this very cool city - which neither had ever visited before this past summer - tomorrow.

2.) Best musical documentary: Still On The Run. Jeff Beck has been a favorite guitarist for as long as I can remember. This documentary, loaded with explosive performance footage demonstrating Beck's total command of his instrument, is a revelation.

3.) Best time away: Our two Road Scholars trips to Hawaii (in the winter) and the San Juan Islands (in the fall). Three more National Parks, indescribable natural beauty, exceptional companionship.

4.) Best concert:  Karrin Allyson at Birdland. An evening of musical magic. The highlight: Allyson's understated delivery of "Something Wonderful".

5.) Best surprise: Tickets to see King Hedley III at the River Theater in Red Bank. A wonderful birthday gift. Seeing all of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle has been on my life list for quite some time. Eight more plays to go.

Happy new year!      

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Good Start At The Finish

So far, my recent birthday pledge to read only authors new to me over the next year has been a mixed bag. But with several non-fiction books already started and more waiting in the near-future queue, it appears the last novel I'll finish in 2018 - "Last Night At The Lobster" (2007) - was a good start with author Stewart O' Nan.

Joan Didion once remarked that she didn't know her opinion about anything until she began writing about it. The fundamental truth of Didion's statement really landed with me as I composed a book journal entry about "Last Night …" Side-by-side, my writing about and processing of O' Nan's short book proceeded in tandem. Until midway through my entry, I hadn't realized how skillfully O' Nan captured the hand-to-mouth lives of his working class characters by limiting his narrative to a single twelve hour block of time. A world in microcosm; crowding up the novel with back story would have been superfluous.

" .. a line of salted cars takes a left into the mall entrance, splitting as they sniff for parking spaces."

From page one of "Last Night..." and O' Nan's use of that caressing verb "sniff", I knew I was in good hands. Anyone else ever been similarly transported by other another O' Nan book? If yes, give me the title and tell me what moved you. But remember: It will likely be sometime after November 23, 2019 before I'll even begin a second book by him. A pledge is a pledge.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Before The Ball Drops But, 2019 Somewhere

So, are you one of those people who look forward to ringing in the new year? Or, do you avoid or perhaps even dread the one evening of the year when folks are most likely to be celebrating?

Probably because of all those years I spent as a teenager and young adult playing music at parties, bars, etc. as people reveled, I still prefer being part of the action on the last evening of the year. My wife has always preferred the opposite. What to do?

At 4:00 EST on December 31 it will be midnight, i.e. 2019, in Madagascar. At 5:00, the Finnish will finish 2018. It's new year in Nigeria at 6:00 p.m. And so on. So, beginning each hour at 4:00, we will enjoy a food or drink specialty from a country - including those three - that we haven't yet sampled in our almost eight-year-old "Eat The World" project. Our house is open for friends and family to join us, right up to midnight. Live music, food and drink from around the world, trivia.
   
Just forty one new years for us to find common ground. Better late than never.  
 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Notes From My Eighth Musical Life

I'm close; really, I am.

"Til There Were Two", a recording of original compositions - with my daughter as vocalist - was completed a year ago. Many thanks to faithful readers, friends, students who have since asked about it several times, prompted by my late 2017 announcement that it would be released "soon". Most of those folks have since given up asking, understandably. The long delay - made worse by a premature promise - has been tied to procrastination, mild paranoia re intellectual property theft, and a hefty dose of technological incompetence. I'm hoping a good friend who assisted in the recording process will be coming to my final rescue (dare I say?) soon.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/11/goal-for-year-62.html

Under the same heading - i.e. musical accountability - I'm now just seventeen jazz standards away from arriving at the first significant milestone for the goal announced in the post directly above from November, 2011. That early-in-my-blogging-life goal - also wildly over-ambitious - has no readers or friends or students checking in with me. But checking in with myself as the finish line nears, I've recently begun doing what any respectable goal-obsessed geek would do - sketching out Phase Two of the project. I'll spare you the details and more significantly, refrain from any more promises.

P.S. Had the most promising musical meeting of my post full time work life a few weeks ago. If things work out, there'll be some really cool musical stuff coming in 2019. Stay tuned, if you still trust me.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Reading Re-Cap: 2018

I realize there are still ten days left. Still, considering the volume of my reading in 2018, especially when combined with the reduction in my published blog posts, I decided this first ever reading re-cap - even if it is little early - might be a good way to ensure some of the gems I read this past year made it onto the lists of at least a few regular readers.

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers: "Standard Deviation" (2017) by Katherine Heiny. Please note: The word casual is NOT used as a sly elitist put down; this is a well written book that happens to be enjoyable on several levels and frequently laugh out loud funny.

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers: "Tortilla Curtain" (1995) by TC Boyle.

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: "Flight Behavior" (2012) by Barbara Kingsolver and "We Were Eight Years in Power" (2017) by Ta Nehisi-Coates.

Most worthwhile re-read: "Disgrace" (1999) by JM Coetzee.

Most intriguing: "Alias Shakespeare" (1997) - Shakespeare scholar Joseph Sobran's accessible book was a stimulating introduction to the long-simmering debate about the authorship of the sonnets and plays that form the backbone of English literature.

Most personally useful:  Asked to select just one book I would not want to have missed reading this past year, "American Audacity" (2018) by William Giraldi would be the hands-down winner.

I hope you'll share your 2018 selections with me and others, using my headings or ones of your own design. And, if need be, you can add anything you finish over the next ten days.  I might.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Comments By The Thousands

I recently discovered Blogger archives only the last one thousand reader comments. At present, that means I'm only able to re-read any comments made between when I began blogging in March 2011 and mid 2013 by scanning my earlier posts, one at a time.

Of course, that cap on the number of comments that can be easily viewed provided me with a neat, if solipsistic, rationalization for returning to those first several hundred posts. But solipsism aside, it was fun to recently read some of those early comments as well as to be reminded of the ebb and flow of this blog over almost eight years. A few early regular commenters still appear now and then; a few comment as frequently now as they did in 2011-2013. Others have stopped commenting publicly but write me offline. For some, the glitches in Blogger's comment feature discouraged them early on and even though much of that has since been fixed, they never tried again. The most intriguing part of this brief journey to the past was re-reading comments from 2011-2013 made by people unknown to me. I always wonder how those folks stumbled onto this blog. If their comment was a one-off occurrence, did they ever make their way back to the bell curve?  

Thank you to anyone who has ever taken the time to comment, even once. It would be hard to over-state the energy I get from your comments, even the crabby ones.  

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Discovering A New Treasure

Learning that Paulette Jiles, author of the 2016 novel "News of The World", is also a poet was not at all surprising. Her prose is economical, precise, and emotionally arresting. "News Of The World" is only a little over two hundred pages, but the two main characters in this rich and textured quest - seventy-one-year old Jefferson Kyle Kidd and ten-year-old Johanna - are masterfully sketched.  

Authors capable of creating magic like this astound and demoralize me; how much of each largely depends on my mood as I'm reading. "In her company he found himself also ceasing to value these things that seemed so important to the white world." Until reaching that sentence near the end of the book, I didn't fully appreciate how skillfully Jiles had involved me with these two characters; I did not want to part with them. Before resuming my reading, I recorded both a question ("How exactly did this author pull me in so deeply?") and a comment ("I'm so grateful I recognize this kind of skill") in my notes.

There is no doubt another book by Paulette Jiles is in my future. Which author, brand new to you, have you most recently decided is in your future?

Monday, December 10, 2018

Technology And Children

Opting out of the I-phone revolution has sparked a few testy interactions with my wife and prompted incredulity from others. But most of my recent reflecting and conversations about technology haven't been about my resistance. These days, it's the effect all these inescapable devices seem to be having on younger people that troubles me.

I wish last night's "60 Minutes" segment about this issue had assuaged some of my concerns. But the longitudinal studies cited on the show - research being conducted to measure the effect of ubiquitous screens on young brains - were sobering. The research is preliminary; several experts went out of their way stress this. Still, the researchers interviewed shared many of my concerns and also echoed what Sherry Turkle so expertly dissected in her excellent 2015 book "Reclaiming Conversation."  Watching those toddlers get seriously attached to I-tablets in that "60 Minutes" piece has stayed with me all day.    

If I were new parent, how would I protect my young child against this onslaught? How would you?            

Thursday, December 6, 2018

#53: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Aside from English, if you were asked to choose a language that has given you four indispensable words or expressions, which one would you select? For me, French has no close competition. For this iteration of my Mt. Rushmore series, please share which French words or expressions you wouldn't want to be without. Though I've purposefully avoided the ubiquitous food references - with one small exception - and listed my four alphabetically, ignore those guidelines constructing your monument.

1.) Je ne sais quoi: How can anyone get through living life in this wondrous world without using this expression all the time? Mon dieu!

2.) rendezvous: An irreplaceable word that begs to be sung.

3.) soupcon: a slight trace or flavor; suspicion; a very small amount. What a cool context-sensitive word! Use it with foods, novels, people.

4.) tete-a-tete: Special mention here for my partner in our book club of two. The monthly tete-a-tetes we've had since 2015 (starting with "The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit and most recently discussing "Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver) have been high points in my recent life.

Your turn. Parlez vous Francais?    

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Joining Memoirs On The Back Burner

As a genre, what is frequently labeled "historical fiction" used to give me much more enjoyment. Has my patience for this type of book worn thin? Have I not yet been exposed to the best practitioners? Has the genre deteriorated in quality over my reading life? What was your most recent memorable experience with a historical novel? Your most recent dispiriting experience with this same kind of book?

Fortunately, my most recent dispiriting experience had an upside. Before returning to the library the novel I'd abandoned - a book club selection for early next year - I copied the titles of four non-fiction books the author cited as sources. The subject of the novel - if not the treatment - was of interest to me. And despite the somber subject, soon after beginning the first of those books ("The Baby Thief" (2007) by Barbara Bisantz Raymond), I was pleased how this turned out. Thanks to the novelist's research, the horrifying story of Georgia Tann's mid-century reign at the Tennessee Children's Home Society is no longer unknown to me. I suspect the novelization of this sickening tale made it a bit easier to read. I wanted the story told to me straight.

Still, my growing disinterest in historical fiction aside, the authors of these books clearly deserve credit for shining a light on little-told episodes. And when either the plots they construct to make the episodes more compelling for readers, or, the prose they use to tell those plots don't work for me, there are other options. Also, many first-rate non-fiction authors - Jon Krakauer, Erik Larsen, Simon Winchester - weave compelling narrative lines using historical detail alone. I seem to be moving steadily in that direction. Notable exceptions: Got a few more novels by EL Doctorow to still get through and any posse-recommended historical novel could also find its way into my queue. Never say never, right?  

 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Yeah, This Is Crabby

Reassure me, please. Does anyone else ever get annoyed by the assault of commercials frequently preceding the feature film in many movie theaters these days?

Though I try hard to time my arrival at theaters nowadays to avoid this garbage, if a movie is popular, getting a seat sometimes goes hand-in-hand with enduring the commercial onslaught. On occasion, when I've been alone and this has happened, I've actually yearned for the distraction of an I-phone. Please do NOT share that confession with my wife or daughter.

An old theater proximate to my home - it has since been sold to new owners - used to play agonizing  music before showing the only coming attraction. Over the years we patronized that relic - great prices, BTW, and I'll miss that - I complained incessantly about that hokey music. But given a choice between that aural torture and the enticement of consumerism run amok portrayed by those loud nonstop ads - and I'm pretty certain that's what's in store for me when that theater re-opens - there's no contest. Isn't a TV (or fifty) in every public space invasive enough?

Friday, November 23, 2018

Goal For Year 70

I was surprised to discover that not one of the goals I've made here on my birthday every year since 2011 has been reading-related. Time to correct that oversight.

Between this birthday and my next, I'm aiming to read only books written by authors who are new to me. I'll make an exception only if a book club selection is by someone I've previously read.

Settled on this goal after realizing I've recently been relying a bit too much on my favorites. Surely I can make it for a year without repeating an author, and maybe find some new favorites in the process.

What have been some of your past reading-related goals, birthday or otherwise? And, who are a few of your favorite authors you think might be new to me? If by chance I've already read something by someone you suggest, no harm. There's plenty of time to return after November 23, 2019.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Key Learnings: Year 69

I'm confident there'll be a lot of folks on the bell curve taking a nap after tomorrow's repast so this post - usually published the day before my birthday - is one day early. Because despite knowing how scintillating I can be, my best bon mots are no match for tryptophan shock. By hedging my bets, I'm hoping at least a few folks will read this prior to the big gorge.

What were some key things you learned between your last two birthdays? Year sixty nine - at least the first 364 days of it - was a rich year of learning for me.

* During and after the three day summer workshop entitled "Race And Rage" that I helped facilitate, I learned how fortunate I am having three people in my life who give me unconditional emotional support. Each stays fully present when I'm overcome; they avoid filling up the emotional space with words; none of the three ever tries to "fix" me.

* Over this past year, watching the good cheer of an old friend caring for a loved one has been a profound lesson for me in the power of grace.

* "The moral certainty of my rage must be met with humility about the limits of my knowledge". More than a few times, author Phil Klay's words have helped me back up from the reflexive despair I can sometimes feel reading or watching the news. Whose words have recently given you that kind of solace?

I'll be back on my birthday. Happy thanksgiving!
       

Friday, November 16, 2018

Five For Five

I realized soon after finishing "Flight Behavior" (2012) that Barbara Kingsolver had now entered a rarefied realm among my favorite authors. I don't recall another writer ever knocking me out five times consecutively. At present, her closest competitor is Colm Toibin ("Brooklyn", etc.) who has recently gone four for four. Which author has thrilled you that consistently, at least among the books you've chosen?

Is it Kingsolver's prose? The richness and variety of her ideas? Her complex but wholly human characters? Yes, yes, and yes. Are Kingsolver's narrative lines compelling? Is her writing audacious? Does her work contribute to the novel as an art form? Affirmative in triplicate. If Kingsolver has a glaring weakness as a writer, I haven't yet detected it. Since my first exposure to her via "Poisonwood Bible" (1998) - still my favorite - she has thrilled and educated me in nearly equal measure.

How often does an author get you thinking about your own thinking? Kingsolver's deft exploration of the gap between coastal elite snobbery (with their "... smart mouthed comedians …" ) and rural provincialism (with their " … pastors, Dear Abby, and local talk radio …") in "Flight Behavior" - and the way that gap shows up in the acrimonious debate over climate change - stopped me cold. I re-read that passage - about a third of the way through the book - at least four times. Then I digressed, composed a long list of contemporary issues - immigration, guns, abortion, etc. - and thought about how I'd arrived at my opinions for those issues. How successful have I been filtering the chatter of those "...smart mouthed comedians..." while trying to develop my own views?  How successful are you? Folks on the other side: How successful are you filtering out the "...pastors, Dear Abby, and  local talk radio …"?

This kind of provocative writing - and the attendant introspection it can engender - is surely not for everyone. But if a novel doesn't educate or elevate me, it doesn't matter if I've been entertained.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

What Would Benjamin Say?

"A man who is not liberal at sixteen has no heart and a man who is not conservative at sixty has no head."  -  Benjamin Disraeli 

Sixty has come and gone. Am I perhaps a late blooming conservative? Though no one has yet told me -  to my face - that I have no head, my clearly un-conservative views have been called wrong-headed more than once over the years. When in a person's life did Disraeli envision the shift between liberal and conservative would occur?

Recently reflecting on my conservative college freshman best friend also persuaded me - from a different angle - of the conditional merit of Disraeli's pithy formulation. Again, I wouldn't say that friend had no heart, but it was a chilly one even before his seventeenth birthday. As his empathy deficit deepened over the subsequent years, the relationship eventually soured for me. Was he a cutting edge conservative or just old before his time?

I last saw this old friend briefly about ten years ago. Were Disraeli's oft-quoted words familiar to him? If so, was he wondering if I was ever going to catch up to him? In the end, I've liked the way my heart has felt from sixteen right up to the present. My head at almost sixty nine? Feels OK but Benjamin and that old friend of mine might have a different opinion.

Friday, November 9, 2018

50-50 And The Slow Learner

Aren't most of us usually pleased with even odds? I know I am although, those odds don't guarantee I'm going to predictably land on the right answer encountering one of the many either/or dilemmas each of us routinely face. Caught yourself hesitating when told the meeting will be on the bow? Wait, am I headed toward the stern? Never been on a ship? Forget I asked.

How about this: Ever felt a bit doltish thinking you might be confusing concave for convex? Would you be 100% confident describing a person as an ectomorph vs. endomorph? How about the whole longer winter Pennsylvania groundhog shadow deal? Which way does that go again?

OK, if I share a few of my 50-50 tricks, do you promise to share a few of yours? Nothing is too silly to offer, as you're about to soon discover. Think of the public service you're providing saving readers public embarrassment.  

Port vs. starboard? I think of LP (for youngsters out there, I developed this device during the heyday of long-playing records, aka albums). Left is Port, get it? Don't laugh, it's worked for over fifty years.

The stalactite is the one hanging from the top, vs. the stalagmite. Learned that never-to-be-forgotten tip from either a science teacher or another nerd.

Stationery is for letters, not stationary. I just figured that one out while writing this post. Who said I was a slow learner?

Monday, November 5, 2018

Between Ta-Nehisi Coates And Me

Right after finishing "Between The World And Me" (2015) late last year, I knew I'd be returning to the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates. What I didn't expect was to be more blown away the second time around. It appears I've found an essayist to fill the gap left by David Foster Wallace.

Soon after beginning the fifteen page introduction to "We Were Eight Years In Power" (2017), I knew only the necessities of life - eating, sleep, basic interactions with my wife - would interrupt my reading. The eight essays forming the centerpiece of the book - each written between 2009 and 2016 - are each preceded by a new introduction Coates wrote specifically for this collection. It's a skillful device that permits the author to retrospectively frame his work using the context of the Obama years and the 2016 election. And throughout the entire book the prose is as muscular as the insights are powerful. The passage below from the sobering epilogue may help you decide if this is a book you want to try.

"There is nothing done in the service of whiteness that places it beyond the boundaries of human behavior and history. Indeed, what makes the epoch of Indian killing and African slavery, of 'war capitalism' as Sven Beckert dubs it, so frightening is how easily its basic actions cohere with all we know of human greed and the temptations of power."

In the NY Times feature called "By The Book", authors are frequently asked "If you could require the President to read one book, what would you select?" "We Were Eight Years In Power" would be my selection.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/01/privilege.html

Friday, November 2, 2018

Benefits & Costs

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/11/counting-before-publishing.html

Although it's possible I was premature congratulating myself in the above post from three years ago today, many of the lessons I've learned over the last several years about being more judicious with my words are clearly linked to the discipline of regularly writing this blog. In some cases, the impact on my  personal interactions has been dramatic. What are your strategies for making your words less loaded?  

The other benefit of repeatedly whispering to myself - "Be careful, Pat"- has been how much more attuned I am when others appear to be using words that inflame rather than inform. It's easy to get caught in an escalating battle with people of differing views when distancing adjectives get casually tossed around. In my experience, as soon as I begin using more neutral language, the heat in most conversations diminishes. Your experience?

But, benefits are often accompanied by costs, right? So far I've detected two costs associated with the benefits I derive from being more careful in writing and in person. The first has been an occasional sense that I'm walking away from too many battles with intolerant people. The second cost is feeling like I'm sometimes being a bit too meek expressing opinions about things that matter to me. A partial list of those things: persistent racism, dog whistling by public figures who can wield significant influence with their coded messages, climate change denial. What costs have you encountered that go hand-in-hand with being more circumspect with your words?

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Person In This Room

Join me in a brief but provocative thought experiment. If any reader shares a response to any of the questions below - via a comment here or offline - I'll gladly reciprocate. I'm sure regular readers will not be surprised to know I've completed the experiment before asking anyone else to do so.

Imagine you are not yourself. You're looking carefully at the room in your home where you spend the greatest majority of your waking hours. You are not yourself. What would be your guesses about the person who spends a lot of time in this room?

Their hobbies?

Vocation?

Level of education?

Politics?

Relationship status?

Age?

Income level?

Other suppositions about this person?  Remember: You are not yourself.

Final question: What do your guesses about this person reveal about your thought processes?

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Magic And The Mystery

"Novel associations that are useful."

That definition of creativity - the most succinct one I've ever encountered - has been the guiding principle for my creative life ever since I stopped full time work in 2010. Without these words as my true north, I suspect my inner critic could have talked me into abandoning several creative endeavors, including this blog. How do you keep yourself creatively motivated?

The more time I devote to exploring these novel associations, the stronger my drive is to pay closer attention to them. That drive now has a primal feel to it, like eating or sleep. On the rare days I make no entries in any of my writing vessels - entries that can incubate indefinitely before becoming useful - I feel spiritually under-nourished or tired.

And on days when novel associations flow like an open faucet, energy and gratitude are released in nearly equal measure. It doesn't matter if the useful associations are minutes or years away. That's part of the magic and the mystery.
 

Friday, October 26, 2018

Giant Steps

Near the end of "Chasing Trane", author Cornel West comments on the difficult music jazz titan John Coltrane created during the last phase of his career. Although West does not deny Trane's avant garde explorations initially alienated him, he also speaks of how his struggles with Trane's late art are more about his own limitations as a listener. Many people I know would scoff at West's statement just as quickly as they would reject Coltrane's final recordings. But I suspect my own intellectual life would be richer if I routinely challenged my own thinking the way Cornel West does.

What did progress mean to Coltrane? And what is the alternative to progress when an artist reaches a level of technical proficiency like Coltrane had by the mid 1960's? Giants like Coltrane, Picasso, or James Joyce all could have chosen - as many have - to repeat their earlier successes, conserving their respective audiences via maintaining an artistic status quo. Instead, each began exploring the outer realms of artistic expression and accepted the commercial consequences. Brave, foolhardy, or both? Though not proud admitting it, in an alternate universe, I'm reasonably certain my own choices would have been conservative vs. progressive.

Still, I've repeatedly reflected on Cornel West's words in the weeks since watching "Chasing Trane". I'm now committed to holding onto his view the next time I uncomprehendingly stare at Picasso's late work or when I'm scratching my head attempting to crack "Ulysses", again. At least I'll enjoy my own company while doing so.


Monday, October 22, 2018

Tell Me About The Prose

Right after slogging through an atrocious memoir - recommended by someone who I'm sure meant well -  I began constructing a questionnaire for vetting all future book recommendations aside from those made by my posse. I welcome the input of any discerning reader who thinks they can help.

1.) Did you read the book yourself?

Third party recommendations can be problematic. I'm glad your sister liked it or … the NY Times praised it or … Philip Roth blurbed it but what, specifically, moved you?

2.) How long ago did you complete a book before the one you're now recommending to me?

I find it helpful to know how important reading is in the life of any recommender. Even more helpful is when the recommender can tell me what made a fictional character memorable - not whether they "liked" or could "relate" to the character - or, what made a specific non-fiction account provocative, challenging, elevating, especially for a recommended book.  

3.) How would you describe the prose?

At this point in my reading life, I'm OK with most subjects (I'll pass on the sexually abusive fathers preying on their daughters, thanks) and most genres (although fantasy, memoir, and historical fiction with the word "wife" in the title often go further down my list). My one non-negotiable is the prose. At the bottom of my hierarchy are books with groanworthy or featureless prose. If you didn't extract a single sparkling sentence out of a whole book, why would I waste my time? From there, we climb up to serviceable or sturdy prose. If a committed reader tells me most of the other elements in a recommended book worked, and the prose rises to those levels, I'll bite. Mostly, when someone describes the prose in a recommended book I long to hear words analogous to those at the top of my hierarchy like muscular (" We Were Eight Years In Power - Ta Nehisi Coates - comes to mind) rich ("News Of The World" - Paulette Jiles - for example) or masterful ("The Sense Of An Ending" - Julian Barnes).

Now if someone asks what I'm referring to when I say prose, well …

Friday, October 19, 2018

Lost

Because she's about my own daughter's age, my first thought is "...it must be so hard for her Father to see her like this."

But then I recall hearing of her Father's disinterest in her life during one of our conversations over the years we worked side-by-side before she abruptly stopped showing up, unresponsive to phone calls or texts. My sadness deepens looking at her dissolute state; a Father probably won't be intervening. And then I remember hearing of struggles with abusive men her own age. One of those stories involved a frantic search for a new place to live when she feared for her life.  

As she shuffles into the convenience store, I search for something, anything to say. I don't want my face to reveal how her appearance concerns me. At the same time, I don't want to ask trite questions or make polite conversation. The opportunity to interact passes. Ashamed, I start my car and drive away.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Enjoying The Feast

Finishing a recent re-read of my copy of Simon Winchester's "The Professor and The Madman" (1998) - a transfixing tale about the first version of the Oxford English Dictionary - I was pleased to see how few of the underlined words from my first pass through the book in 2005 remained unfamiliar to me. Growth.

Soon after, my pleasure was slightly mitigated while reading "American Audacity" (2018). As the top margins in my notes on William Giraldi's brilliant book filled with words like agon, thew, motet  - all three appear in my 1984 Random House Dictionary though the first two earn red underlining in my version of Spellcheck - gratitude supplanted my initial dismay. Thank goodness I gave up learning a second language. For me, the feast of the English language is a lifetime meal. My review of the unfamiliar words from "American Audacity" spanned an entire glorious morning.

And as that morning ended, I reflected on another indicator of my personal growth. A younger Pat - over-invested in ego and a misguided belief in my intelligence - would likely have been annoyed or defensive about a book as vocabulary-rich as "American Audacity". How wonderful to instead be challenged and energized by all that's left to learn, to be -  as Giraldi says -" … worshipping at the altar of the English language."

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Proposal For Cousin Stormy

With the season upon us, it recently occurred to me that the model for naming hurricanes is in need of revision. Think how the vocabulary of the American public could be improved by abandoning the convention of using proper names for each hurricane and substituting less frequently used adjectives, nouns, and verbs. I plan on submitting this proposal to my cousin, the head of the National Weather Service. If you want to get involved, all you need do is supply your suggestions to me via this blog. So, watch later this season for …

Hurricane Arcane (That particular adjective even rhymes; nice musical way to start, no?)

Hurricane Bombast (A perfect first noun to use, given its meaning)

Hurricane Concatenate (Though I'm partial to it, I'll accept a shorter first verb if you offer a good one)

Your turn. Pick it up with a "D" adjective, an "E" noun", and an "F" verb. For every reader responding with at least three names (matching the right part of speech), I'll immediately follow up with my ideas for the next three letters in the alphabet; I've already got fifty hurricane names ready to go. And, yes that was my cousin the Classics IV sang about and her vocabulary is decent so don't waste her time.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#52: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Your guesses why men's names have been featured less frequently as the title of great songs? I'll reveal my flawless theory only if at least three readers offer a Mt. Rushmore of great songs featuring women's names. My mountain looks like this, alphabetically:

1.) Alison - Elvis Costello: "I know this world is killing you." Over his forty year recording career, Elvis has rarely misfired. This jewel from his first album still sparkles.

2.) Aubrey - Bread: I'll gladly surrender my hip badge and stand by this choice. Further, I defy any one who calls this impeccably sung ballad corny to write something this harmonically rich; go ahead - try it.

3.) Gloria - Laura Branigan: With little effort, and without Google, I can think of four other songs, aside from Branigan's, using the same name. None come close to this 1982 rocker. Branigan was a world-class screamer.

4.) Susan - The Buckinghams: Approaching my fourth selection, there was a lot of competition - cue "Bernadette" or "Dawn" or "Wendy", to name a few. But in the end - for sentimental reasons - I had to go with this hit from 1968. Know what I mean, sis?

Want that theory? Get busy and build your Mt. Rushmore and then share it with me and others.          

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

American Audacity

"Books, like love, make life worth living." : William Giraldi 

"American Audacity: In Defense Of Literary Daring" (2018) is the smartest love story I've ever read. William Giraldi's fierce intelligence, passion for literature, and his own unequivocal audacity ignite nearly every page. Over five consecutive days, I eagerly anticipated the hours I'd be spending in Giraldi's company. 

"Tell me the books you read and I'll tell you who you are; tell me you read no books and I'll tell you there is no you." (from "A Single Shade of Grey" in section one - American Moments)

Particularly instructive for me was the way Giraldi continually cites cliches and tautologies that can drain the vitality from any writer's prose. Even his critical and literary heroes - Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, James Baldwin - get carefully scrutinized and held to account when tired formulations appear in their work. I challenge anyone to read "American Audacity" end-to-end and tell me they're not a smarter reader having done so.

"But there are no bad guys or good guys in literature. There are wrong guys and right guys, guys who write well and guys who don't." (from "Against Dullness" in section two - American Critics)

When exposed to a mind - like Giraldi's - able to think deeply and richly about what he reads, I'm often envious. And though envy is not a healthy response, it frequently motivates me. In this case, I'm motivated to become a more discerning reader and a better writer. If either outcome occurs, I'll have "American Audacity" to thank.

"...knowing what scientists now believe about the protean personality of memory 'I think I remember' is the only accurate way to preface our recollections."  (from "Truth To Spirit" in section three - American Stories)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Live! From Seattle

What were the key elements contributing to your most recent nearly perfect day? I had one of those magical days on Thursday.  

* Stunning, early fall weather - high 60's, light breeze, an unmarred blue sky

* A place of indescribable beauty and profound quiet - Crescent Lake in Olympic National Park

* My partner of forty years at my side 

I've often yearned for the ability to re-conjure all the elements of days like these anytime I need them. But I'll settle for remembering the gratitude that suffused me standing on the dock at Crescent Lake on my nearly perfect day.


(Still unsure what lies ahead, technology-wise, when we leave Seattle tomorrow by ferry heading to the San Juan Islands) 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

I'll Be Back

When we rendezvous in the San Juan Islands a week from today with fourteen people we first met on our 2015 Road Scholars trip to Alaska, it will be the fourth adventure we've shared with this group. Connecting with these folks has been one of the highlights of my post full time work life. If you're around my age looking for an active and educational way to vacation, as well as a way to meet like-minded travelers, I recommend checking out Road Scholars, nee Elder Hostels.

www.roadscholar.org

Before that rendezvous, my wife and I will hike for a few days in Olympic National Park, bringing us well past the 1/3 mark in our quest to visit all fifty nine national parks. The laptop will be packed soon after this post is published. But if past experience with wi-fi in some of the remote areas of the parks is any guide - never mind what service on the San Juan Islands will be like - it might be more quiet than usual here on the bell curve for the next few weeks.

In the meanwhile, you'll be needing recommendations, right? In order of amount of time required:
1.) Non-Fiction: "American Audacity" - William Giraldi (2018) (More in near future post, for sure)
2.) Fiction: "Less" - Andrew Sean Greer (2017)
3.) Film: "Juliet, Naked" -  adapted from Nick Hornby's novel; Ethan Hawke has never been better.
4.) Documentary: "The Center Will Not Hold" - re the national treasure that is Joan Didion.
5.) Recently uncovered music (thanks to a younger relative): Pearl Jam's rendition of "Little Wing"
6.) Cool new word just added to my vocabulary: hecatomb - any great slaughter. Extra points for any reader using hecatomb - appropriately - in a comment on my blog.

In words crooned immortal via Lennon & McCartney way before Ahnold grunted them - I'll be back.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

What Was I Thinking? What Were You?

Aside from opera, every musical genre is amply reflected in my collection of recordings. To keep my ears and mind open, I've tried to avoid getting stuck listening repeatedly to my favorite artists or to music from a specific era. I've also tried to frequently expose myself to niche artists - like the Roches or the Indigo Girls - interesting hybrids (e.g. country rock, fusion, etc.), and with the help of my daughter and others from her cohort, to stay reasonably up to date, musically.

That said, a recent project to listen to some old recordings that have not made it to my turntable in a long time has had me asking more than once - What Was I Thinking? What recording most recently made you wince in embarrassment remembering how you once swooned over it and recommended it to others? Some excruciating moments from my listening project have persuaded me that …

* The words progressive and rock are mutually exclusive.
*  Except for jazz, live recordings are mostly best when avoided. Double live albums? Doubly so.
*  Some versions of Great American Songbook standards by recording artists of my generation are        worth listening to; Ella Fitzgerald's and Frank Sinatra's versions remain definitive. Right, again,        Mom & Dad.

The winner in my What Was I Thinking? sweepstakes: The eponymous debut album of Vanilla Fudge. I sincerely cannot believe that once upon a time my ears told me their turgid version of "You Keep Me Hangin' On" was actually worth listening to, never mind choosing it as a song for my college band. And, as bad as their cover of the Supremes song is, it is, by far, the best thing on the album. OMG!  

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Fifty In Fifty! Next?

Readers who don't feel particularly driven by their goals might want to skip today's reflection. If you choose to continue reading, don't say I didn't warn you.

Which of your goals - met or unmet - has endured for the longest period of your life? I was twenty years old when I decided I would visit all fifty states. I'm pretty sure I didn't envision it would take me fifty years to do so. Alas, when I finally land in my last two states next February - Alabama and Mississippi - I will only be about eight months away from my seventieth birthday.

To celebrate this 50 in 50 milestone, I've promised myself a gigantic margarita sometime while my wife and I are traversing the Natchez Trace Trail. But, my addled brain has already begun conjuring new travel goals. Such is the fate of the goal-driven. Ready?

Since - at my current rate - it would take about 185 years to get to all the remaining countries I've yet to visit, my scaled-back goal is to visit 10% - approximately twenty - of the world's nations while still ambulatory. And - there's always an "and" with us goal geeks - the list of eight to ten countries to be visited over the next several years must also get me to the four remaining inhabited continents I've not yet been to. Current contenders - provided my travel partner agrees - are Kenya or Morocco in Africa, Thailand or Vietnam in Asia, Argentina or Ecuador in South America. Australia gets me a two-for-one country and continent bonus - cool.

Now, what to do about the remaining 90% of the world's nations I'm unlikely to visit? Well, at least our "Eat The World" project, initiated in March 2011 (see link below) has already gotten my wife and me to the cuisine of eighty-eight countries. Our latest culinary journey - in August - took us to South Sudan. Provided I retain my teeth and digestive system, at least my taste buds will eventually travel the entire globe. Still with me? What are your travel goals?

reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/03/world-traveling-via-food-to-be.html

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Crab Has Some Questions

Who else on the bell curve is as mystified as I at how inept the overpaid TV personalities - on both sides of the aisle - are at asking questions? It is so easy to ask open-ended questions, if a questioner is really interested in a nuanced answer. Each time I hear one of these expensive I-already-know-what-you're-going-to-say haircuts ask a leading question, I want to scream. How am I supposed to learn anything - aside from a scripted party line - if the smarmy interviewer is not doing their job?  Don't these people have assistants to help them craft their questions? And don't even get me started on the jackasses who interrupt their "experts".

Granted, the pundits being interviewed rarely vary from rehearsed narratives. Still, how about a few basic follow-up questions any college freshman majoring in journalism learns to ask given an evasive answer or talking point. Like, "What evidence can you offer to support that assertion?", "What data led you to that conclusion?", "What is the source for that statement?" Or, how about a simple technique like reading a short illustrative passage from a guest's book to give listeners context before asking about the views expressed in that book? This is not difficult. Pay closer attention the next time you listen to one of these elephant or donkey charades. It's infuriating.

My suggestion to the glamorous TV folks who read my blog for career-enhancing advice: Turn on NPR when Terry Gross is interviewing someone or … read her book. Listen carefully or read thoroughly. Rinse. Repeat. Maybe she's not as photogenic as you but she continually works at her craft. She also rarely asks a question for which she has an answer. FYI, that's how we all learn.

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

Monday, September 10, 2018

Every Day Is Earth Day

Begin by joining me in a harmless fantasy. Pretend you have the clout to persuade your Congressman or Senator to introduce legislation on the contemporary issue you consider most critical. What issue would it be?

Now back up from fantasy land. How did you arrive at your passion for this issue, i.e. who or what led you to care so deeply about it? What makes it more important to you than other issues we face as a nation? How long has it been at or near the top of the heap? Who do you rely on to help maintain your equilibrium when your passion collides with political reality?

Because I've spent time reflecting on the answers for those questions and more for my issue - the environment - say the word and I'm happy to share. And my final question is aimed at just the folks who share my passion. How do you make a difference?

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Optimist Has Not Left The Building

Although I've never actually done a tally, I'd estimate about 20% of my almost 1700 published blog posts have cited books that have moved me in some way.

I finished "The Death Of Truth" (2018) by Michiko Kakutani months ago. Ever since, I've wished her book was the first I'd ever mentioned here. My faulty reasoning? Perhaps, had Kakutani's book been my first unequivocal recommendation, more people would take my evangelism seriously and, in turn, read a book subtitled "Notes On Falsehood In The Age of Trump." I say this knowing well how confirmation bias steers all of us away from information that doesn't support our beliefs. But I'd be a moral coward if I didn't use this puny forum to direct more readers to such an important book.

" … a disregard for facts, the displacement of reason by emotion, and the corrosion of language are diminishing the very value of truth, and what that means for America and the world."

Aside from the historical perspective, erudition, and research that give it heft, this book brims with passages like the one above, many containing triptychs that can stop any discerning reader cold. And though Kakutani's subtitle is guaranteed to alienate those clinging to alternative facts, anyone who venerates the 60's - a nostalgic sinkhole I've fallen into many times - prepare yourself. This talented writer traces our cultural fondness for relativism - and the mendacity that fits that garbage like a glove - back to the "New" Left. Kakutani is even harder on the post-modernists. All this to say there's plenty of blame to go around.

I read "The Death Of Truth". Then, it wouldn't leave me alone but I couldn't figure out a way to do it justice. Then I read the Op-Ed in yesterday's NY Times by a White House insider. Hope returned and my strategy emerged.

Monday, September 3, 2018

It Was Twenty Years Ago "Today"

Early today when my wife asked me to get rid of at least one box of my old curriculum materials from our soon-to-resemble-a-hoarders garage, I pivoted into excuse-land. But a few hours observing her level of selfless Labor Day activity turned my world-class procrastination into guilt. Had I known the box I was about to select would send me plunging into a rabbit hole, the rationalizations I'd have invented for my continuing lassitude would have been epic. Damn.

What important event of your life took place in late summer, 1998? I received my Graduate degree from Fordham University almost exactly twenty years ago. Going through the stuff in the box I selected was illuminating and distressing in almost equal measure. I re-read papers, looked at class notes, underlinings and annotations from dozens of articles, re-took several of the assessments. It was sometimes difficult to decide what, if anything, I wanted to keep. What mementos have you retained from any of your important educational experiences?

The longer I stayed down that rabbit hole, the further I strayed from the program. I began reflecting on the man I was from 1996-1998, the state of my marriage in those years, my then young daughter. Just a box of stuff in the garage, right?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/09/ten-years-ago.html

Friday, August 31, 2018

From Fortunate To Entitled

I suspect many people with a personal history like mine have had fairly limited exposure to wealth. My parents had little formal education, a fact that helped steer their lives toward working class jobs. My early adult decisions to get an undergraduate degree in education and soon after pursue music as a career didn't aim me toward high remuneration or rich friends. My partner has been self-employed, a sole proprietor for most of our forty years. All this has added up to me having almost no close personal relationships with people outside the broad band of middle class until my seventh decade.

Now that my path has crossed more than a few times with people the tax code and demographers would categorize as upper class, I've begun to notice the way folks of significant means describe their circumstances. I try keeping my inner cynic at bay when someone says they feel "fortunate" to have so much. It helps when someone who calls themselves fortunate combines that good fortune with action, as in the case of a couple I know who use their wealth to support a stable specializing in therapeutic equestrian skills for people with disabilities.

Flip the coin. I'm guessing an unspoken social contract precludes anyone from describing themselves as "entitled" to wealth, unless, as someone once said of George Bush Sr. - "He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple." But even when the word isn't used, my own life has now put me within whiffing distance of people that exude a sense of entitlement. And, on the sad occasions when I've been exposed to entitled folks with disregard or disdain for less fortunate people, or even worse, resentment toward others of limited means, I often hear my mother's voice - "Patrick, keep your mouth shut." So far, so good.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

This Joint Is Jumping

As a filmmaker, Spike Lee has disappointed me as often as he has excited me. But he has never failed to educate me. I loved Lee's feature debut, "She's Gotta Have It". "Do The Right Thing" has earned a place as a modern-day classic, though it took a re-watch for me to fully appreciate it. I also enjoyed "Malcolm X" and "Inside Man", though Denzel Washington's charisma may be more responsible for that than Lee's writing and directing. Lee's first documentary -"4 Little Girls" - is in a class all its own.

"BlacKkKlansman" strikes me as Lee's pitch-perfect response to the ubiquitous racial dog whistles the tweeter-in-chief enjoys blowing. Based on Ron Stallworth's eponymous 2014 memoir, Lee's latest film is not subtle. But with Agent Orange prattling on about "... good people on both sides …" as neo-Nazis and white supremacists proudly wave the Confederate flag, who needs subtlety or nuance? As Woody Allen once quipped "Op-eds in the NY Times are nice, but with neo-Nazis, I prefer baseball bats." Apologies to Mahatma, Martin, and any reader who identifies as a pacifist.

I don't know if the scenes in "BlacKkKlansman" portraying the toxic David Duke - brilliantly played by Topher Grace - are at all authentic. I also don't care. Lee's film treatment of that smarmy tumor is priceless.

   

Friday, August 24, 2018

What My Angels Do For Me

What do you need from the group this moment?

It's been several weeks since I helped a friend facilitate his workshop entitled "Race And Rage"; my processing of what transpired over those three days continues to deepen. For the opening activity of day three, I asked the seventeen participants to reflect on the work we'd done to that point and try to describe what they were feeling that morning. There was a lot of rawness in that room. Some folks struggled trying to articulate their feelings while others remained silent for the entire activity.

When strong emotions surfaced, I employed a technique I'd watched my gifted colleague use the day before under similar circumstances. I suggested we all pause and allow the moment to happen before the next person spoke. When one person had difficulty regaining composure after unpacking some deep rage, I sensed the group was waiting for what came next. Though I myself was unsure what that would be, the question opening this post suddenly came out of my mouth. And the answer that finally came was heartbreaking - "I don't know; nobody has ever asked me that before."

Who in your life gives you what you need emotionally? I learned many important things over those three days. Foremost, I re-learned how fortunate I am to have a few people in my life that give me what I need emotionally. In my moments, my angels do the same kind of things for me that all the other participants and the facilitators did for that person in that room on that morning - they remain connected, they don't fill in the space with words, they don't try to "fix" me.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 6

Depending on response, a follow-up to this iteration of this series might be in order. There are so many fictional characters with first names that can only be matched with one surname and the novel from which it came. I'll get us started and await your ideas; surely, you have plenty. Characters from novels only, please; plays have been previously covered in the series, from a slightly different angle. 

I say Scarlett and you say ….

I say Holden and you say ….

I say Atticus and you say

Come on, how can you resist something as harmless as this?

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Dance Of Temperament

Although I try not to often exclude people without partners asking questions here, occasionally an interaction in my own partnership forces my hand. My apologies today to the unattached.

I've been called many things in my life; mellow or laidback have not been among the words others frequently use to describe me. If you share a partnership with someone temperamentally different from you in this respect - no matter whether you're the mellow one or the edgy, intense one - what challenges do those differing temperaments bring to the relationship?

I suspect those of you who - like me - have more edges than smooth surfaces will find it easy to answer this question. I'm also guessing many of you among my temperamental cohort have been labeled - by self and others - with some loaded adjectives. In ascending order of offensiveness, a few of those labels might include moody, difficult, obnoxious. And though I'm not certain my partner of forty plus years shares the perspective, one even-tempered friend of mine has a novel way to describe the dance of temperament he and his wife have managed to sustain over their many years: "Her edges mesh with my grooves."

So, what are some comparable loaded words that you easygoing, mellow, laidback partners hear or call yourself? In your experience - either temperament - how well do partnerships with this diverse dynamic thrive? If you have this kind of partnership, what strategies have helped you endure? And finally, for those of you in partnerships where - in this respect only - your temperaments are more alike than not: What have been the challenges that similarity has presented to you? Your strategies for enduring?

Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Anti-Facebook

Most days, with respect to where my innate talents meet my passions, I'm reconciled to my spot on the bell curve. That is, I work at getting better at my passions knowing I'm not exceptional. And from the inception of this blog, I've tried to speak of my place on the bell curve - and the quirks, flaws, and limitations that many of us share - in an attempt to build simpatico with others on the curve. More pertinently to today's reflection, I've tried to be genuine here without too much whining. So, forgive me Father, for I am about to sin. Try treating my confession as the antidote to Facebook walls that show unfailingly perfect lives unmarred by unmet expectations.

The one-two punch delivering a temporarily immobilizing blow to my self-image as a writer and a musician began on Thursday as I finished The Tortilla Curtain (1995) by TC Boyle. Then, on Friday night I saw guitarist Mike Stern in concert. Aside from a nice walk at the Manasquan reservoir and breakfast with my wife and daughter in the morning, yesterday went steadily downhill from there. Only a little more, I promise.

The blog post I began early yesterday afternoon was so sour and self-pitying I abandoned it. Boyle's total control of his craft wouldn't leave me alone. OK, I thought, pick up the guitar. But the moment Stern's prodigious technique began replaying in my brain, the only remaining option for me was a long nap.

I was so relieved my wife and I had dinner plans last night. I don't expect readers to put themselves out there and describe a similar bell curve experience. But it would sure be nice to know something like this has happened to someone out there sometime.  I'll keep your secret, I promise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Yesterday (The Boss & Elmore) & Today (Richard)

Richard Russo has been a favorite novelist since I read "Empire Falls" soon after its 2001 release. He is a top notch old-fashioned storyteller, has a pitch perfect ear for dialogue, and his deep affection for his world weary characters is refreshing given the reflexive cynicism and distancing irony of many of his contemporaries.

Russo's new collection of short non-fiction - "The Destiny Thief" - is a worthy companion to all of his earlier work. Aside from the eponymous essay (with that killer metaphor) introducing the book, each of the other eight pieces on "writing, writers, and life" has something to recommend it. I derived the most personal benefit from "Getting Good", re the value of tenacity. While reading "Imagining Jenny" I felt something shift in me as Russo describes a dear friend undergoing gender reassignment. And I was deeply moved hearing about Russo's admiration of Bruce Springsteen's music in "The Boss In Bulgaria".

Russo calls Bruce "the greatest singing storyteller of his generation." Normally, hyperbole like that is a turnoff to me. But when Russo writes "...it was Springsteen's voice that helped a weary nation through the bitter end of the Vietnam War, the AIDS epidemic, and the attack on the World Trade Center", it was hard for me to deny the impact "Born In The USA", "Streets Of Philadelphia", and "The  Rising" had on me and on the public conversation. Though Springsteen's music occupied me more in my rock n' roll years than it does now, a later song of his like "41 Shots" shows he's still got the goods. Springsteen was an earlier-in-life musical passion for me - much like Elmore Leonard was more about my reading tastes in my 30's - but Russo's continuing unapologetic love for these two giants in their respective fields is convincing and contagious. Thanks for the reminders, Richard.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

How Did This Catch On?

"Practice makes perfect."

Oh, would that this were so. Is there a maxim more in need of serious deconstruction than this boner? How close to perfection has your practicing gotten you? I'll start but if you leave me here all alone on this one, you're just being cruel.  

Practice the guitar, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. Perfection? Not even close. I'd settle for being satisfied with what I can do on the instrument 20% of the time.

Practice new behaviors? Assiduously. Perfection? What a cosmic joke. I'm usually just one ego threat away from regressing back to adolescence.

In order of when they were successfully integrated, here's a sample of other practices I've anchored into my daily life: Writing, exercise, meditation. Perfection? Please!

Practice makes sense? OK. Practice makes better? Fine. Practice makes crazy? Now that's a maxim that has the ring of truth for me, at least sometimes. But perfect? Come on. How did this ever catch on?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

National Immigrant Day

Every August 1 since 2012, I've used the massive reach of this blog as a forum to suggest ways to commemorate the month Hallmark has chosen to forsake. Most normal people would probably have given up after six ingenious notions had gotten as little traction as mine have. Ha! Normal is so over-rated, isn't it?

In approximate descending order of the amount of attention each often gets - no ethnic squabbling or quibbling, please - Columbus Day, St Patrick's Day, Rosh Hashanah, Cinco De Mayo, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan all have at least a small place on the U.S. calendar. Therefore, I'm proposing August 1 of each year be called "Immigrant Day". Which immigrants do we celebrate in this barren holiday-free month you ask? Any who do not easily fit with the groups that celebrate the holidays listed above. I can envision August 1 parades featuring - just to name a few (again, no squawking about who I left out, please) - Germans, Chinese, Brazilians. Maybe we even rotate and honor a different immigrant group on each day of the month; a free-floating celebration. Imagine the revelry, the wonderful food, the music!

OK, if you are not going to support my seventh brilliant idea, at least have the decency to tell me which of the others you like best. Those were: National Book Day, Sibling Month, Holiday For The 1% With Less Cash, National Conversation Day, Unsung Hero Day, or National Gratitude Day. All links below; you don't even have to search. Come on, give a guy a break.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/08/august-1-2014-national-book-day.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/08/in-case-i-forget-january-3-july-24.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/08/holiday-for-1-with-less-cash.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/08/batting-cleanup-national-conversation.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/08/unsung-hero-day.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2017/08/national-gratitude-day.html

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I Love Being Free; I Want To Go Back

Question: "Mommy, what will we learn in 3rd grade?"
Answer: "All kinds of things".

After overhearing this exchange recently, I began reflecting on my own childhood summers. Do you remember asking or wondering a similar thing? I do. Recalling my own delicious anticipation of the new learning of an upcoming school year made me wistful. Do you ever yearn, as I do, for someone to continually re-assure you that new learning is right around the corner?

What else was on your mind as a child as the summer stretched before you? Just after school let out in June, several young children on their bicycles converged on the convenience store I was leaving. Their joy and exuberance was so clear I found myself transported to the late Junes of my youth. Although it's possible their happiness had little to do with summer just beginning, it really doesn't matter. Remember your un-alloyed joy about having two+  months of freedom? For me, that joy and the anticipation of future learning went hand-in-hand. How about you?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Welcoming City

What city has ever had an I-can-see-myself-living-here appeal for you on your first visit?

Although this hasn't been a common experience for me, my first visit to Burlington,Vermont a few weeks ago was exactly that. Except for winters a bit colder than I prefer, everything about Burlington speaks to me. Start with the waterfront, including a bike & pedestrian path circumventing a good portion of Lake Champlain with the Adirondack mountains as a backdrop and a free beach. Several top notch independent bookstores, terrific restaurants - including numerous ethnic & vegan choices - progressive politics. College vibe, warm people with the right touch of New England reserve, a music venue the right size for mid-level acts located right in the pedestrian-friendly,vibrant downtown - we saw Joe Jackson during our stay. Great sound system in that theater, BTW.

I'm sure Burlington's not perfect; what is? But, check out the picture below - It's a list of guidelines posted at the steps leading down to the beach. The sign is printed in nine different languages! How many can you identify? How could I not love a place as welcoming as this?



Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Words For The Ages, Line Nine

"All that you're loved is all that you own." - Tom Waits (from "Take It With Me")

Of the lyrics chosen to date for this series, the one above comes from arguably the least well known song I've thus far used. The link below is for those who'd like to see all the lyrics for this great tune.

https://www.oldielyrics.com/lyrics/tom_waits/take_it_with_me.html

Tom Waits is more widely known as the composer of terrific songs covered by others (e.g. Ol' 55 by the Eagles, Jersey Girl by Bruce Springsteen, Downtown Train by Rod Stewart, etc.) than he is for his own idiosyncratic recordings. I first heard "Take It With Me" on a recording by Anne Sofie von Otter and clearly recall how moved I was by the poignant lyric. I especially like the phrasing in the middle of each "A" section.

It's possible I'd have chosen a different Tom Waits phrase - he's such a wise lyricist - if I hadn't just recently cried my way through "The Story Of Arthur Truluv" (2017) by Elizabeth Berg. But Berg's novel and Waits's nine words for the ages are like a shoe and a sock. Don't believe me? Try reading "...Arthur Truluv" while keeping those words close by. Feel those synaptic sparks? Even better: Put on a recording of "Take It With Me" as you re-read the final pages of Berg's beautifully realized book. Try to stay emotionally detached. I dare you.    

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Two Gifts For The Future Present

Words of praise feel inadequate describing the bold imagination on display in speculative fiction like Naomi Alderman's "The Power" (2016) and Mohsin Hamid's "Exit West" (2017). Each novel uses a central conceit permitting these gifted authors to explore the world we inhabit at the same time each of them peers at where we might be headed.      

"Power doesn't care who uses it." Those in power have always had the means to create a narrative we refer to as history. In the inverted world that Alderman invents - where women have always had that upper hand - every upside-down twist reveals a fresh and startling irony. As I finished "The Power", my head was spinning trying to unpack all the layers Alderman inserted into her cautionary tale. And the use of illustrations throughout the book took me back to the Power Point presentation in Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From The Goon Squad". Both these exceptional books use fresh devices to advance the novel as a form.
 
"Their memories took on potential, which of course is how our greatest nostalgias are born." Any of you who have some trouble suspending disbelief might struggle with Hamid's metaphor - i.e. a door through which someone can escape an oppressive homeland - as much as you do imagining what Alderman proposes. But try locating a novel with as much imagination as "Exit West" that also masterfully juxtaposes tender wisdom and unsentimental tenderness. Though a love story about two young refugees forms the core of Hamid's book, there is so much more - letting go as a parent; the need for solidarity as a survival tactic among people of color; the subtle seduction of nostalgia.

I look forward to discussing either of these terrific books with anyone who cares to - online or off.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Have Blog, Will Reflect

First, sorry for the baby boomer TV inside joke masquerading as the title of this post; Paladin fans will forgive me. Still, the curious among you should have some fun trying to guess the answers to today's questions; geography geeks may also be amused. And question #3 might appeal to those who fancy themselves logical. Ready? Answers below; no peeking if you want to qualify for the prize.

1. On a brief bike ride along the ocean passing through just two New Jersey shore towns (Spring Lake and Belmar), how many unique out-of-state license plates did your favorite blogger spot?

2. Which plate was from the furthest point west? South? North? Think outside the box for the last one.

3. Which out of State plate was, by far, the most represented? Put your logical thinking cap on for that.  

4. What was the first out of State plate this nerd spotted? The last?

Before revealing the answers let me reassure you. I was able to spot and count the plates easily along this four mile stretch - and still watch for pedestrians - because both towns have angle-in parking.

1.) Fifteen unique license plates. I lumped two states I couldn't readily identify into one so give yourself credit if you answered sixteen.

2.) Washington State; Florida; Ontario.

3.) Pennsylvania. Perfectly logical - aside from the outliers, like West Virginia etc., all the other usual nearby East Coast suspects I spotted (Maryland, Connecticut, etc.) touch the Atlantic. Among NJ's  neighbors, only Pennsylvania does not; those folks drive here in droves.

4.) New York; Tennessee.

I will trust your honesty - online or off - to tell me how many of these you got right. First prize? All expense paid trip to my house to peruse the Atlas with yours truly. Such a deal.
     

Monday, July 16, 2018

Thanks Mom, Again

I don't recall exactly how old I was when I first noticed the numbers tattooed on the wrist of the mild man who ran the grocery store in the Irvington neighborhood where I grew up. Once, after leaving the store together, I do recall my mother scolding me for asking Herman about those numbers.

I also don't recall many of the specifics from the conversation with my mother that followed, but I do recall this: She didn't ignore my follow up questions or deny what I'd seen. Then she told me a little about the camps.

More than sixty years have passed; Mom has been gone for almost forty one. This morning, right in the middle of an intense conversation about history and fake news, I flashed to that day and realized my Mom telling me that truth all those years ago was one of her most important early gifts.

Thanks Mom, again.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A Special Week

Under normal circumstances, seeing a documentary about the mild-mannered host of a children's TV show wouldn't be something I'd consider stimulating Saturday night entertainment. But these last four days have been anything but normal circumstances.

From Wednesday through Friday I helped a longtime friend - the former Deputy Attorney General for the NJ Office Of Bias Crime - to facilitate a workshop called "Race and Rage"; it was the first time the workshop has ever been delivered. We first began preparing for it in the spring of 2017, hoping to have our maiden voyage that summer - the first offer never materialized due to lack of enrollment. This time seventeen participants signed up; all systems go.

Since the workshop concluded late yesterday, many of the emotional moments have been replaying in my head. When my wife suggested we go see "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" tonight, the idea struck me as a good solution for halting the non-stop churn in my brain. Instead, the movie ended up being the perfect complement to the last four days of my life. The emotional wallop the film packs felt of a piece with the work I did this past week. Fred Rogers embodied grace; he was a gentle and loving soul whose legacy will outlive that of every foul-tempered, mean-spirited loudmouth who screams at us and scares children in our increasingly uncivil world. I couldn't have ended this special week any better than spending almost two hours with such a hero.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Such A Life

Each time I begin thinking I've reached bottom vis-à-vis the history of "...original sin from which the country  was born..." another sobering account upends my complacency. "Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI", David Grann's 2017 powerhouse, is destined to join Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" in our national conversation. Though neither of them are pleasant books to read, it's important many of us do so. Grann's book features painstaking research, muscular prose, and a keen sense of narrative to further recommend it.

Grann also manages a neat feat for a work of non-fiction. Many of the surprises the author uncovers in his research are found in Part Three (entitled "The Reporter"). As each new layer of treachery and deception is revealed, this closing technique packs a wallop not unlike the third act from works of classic drama. And he delivers these until-now-untold parts of this sordid story without flourish. It's breathtaking.

"History is a merciless judge. It lays bare our tragic blunders and foolish missteps and exposes our most intimate secrets, wielding the power of hindsight." Add this to the many benefits I've already derived from having my own book club: I can extend my processing of any book by placing it in the queue for my club. Sometime in early 2019, I now know I'll have an opportunity to discuss "Killers Of The Flower Moon" with a group of discerning readers. Such a life.
   

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Four Of Us

"Friendship is unnecessary like philosophy, like art … It has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things that give value to survival." - CS Lewis

I suspect the friendship my wife and I have with one couple is not unique. But, what we share - in all combinations - is unprecedented in my life. Have you and your partner had friendships like this with another couple?

The four of us have had many wonderful joint experiences - dining together, watching films, playing board games - nothing remotely rare. The original bond between the husband and me - music - has deepened as the years have gone by. Again, big deal.

When my wife and the other wife began doing stuff without the men around, no one felt obligated to alert the media. It did get a little more interesting when the husband alone began hanging out with my wife and me or I went to their home by myself or when the other two possible combinations of three ended up enjoying an experience without the fourth person there.

After the husband and my wife recently took a cooking class together, I recalled a One Day University event I attended with the wife and another time when just the two of us went to hear some musician friends of hers. In that moment of recollection, it occurred to me what a great gift it is to have friends like this. Two of us, three of us, four of us - it's all almost equally wonderful.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Some Less Than Peaceful Maxim Messing

"Violence is a tool of the ignorant."  - Mahatma Gandhi

Well, on the other hand …

Although I've lived my life believing Gandhi was essentially right - and with a notable exception or two, avoided being violent - I've recently been harboring some disturbing second thoughts about the oft quoted words above.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God." - Matthew 5:9  

Yeah, but …

I guess maybe I'm not headed to the pearly gates to join Gandhi or Martin. Here's the rub: Don't those evil oppressors get away with their garbage a lot longer partly because history has mythologized the peacemakers, especially the martyred ones?

"All we are saying … is give peace a chance." - John Lennon

John: Loved your music, admired your ideals. However …

With respect to war, I'm still with you. But, some of the ugly stuff  bubbling to the surface here in the land of the free is beginning to persuade me that John Brown's and Nat Turner's techniques got the focused attention of the cretins a bit faster than the methods you or Mahatma or Martin used. I get that the backlash John and Nat unleashed was brutal and probably hurt the cause more than helped it.

Still …

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Words For The Ages, Line Eight

"Meet the new boss - same as the old boss".

Which writer - from any medium - has ever so succinctly nailed the collective frustration many of us have felt about clueless people in positions of authority? I submit Pete Townsend's closing lyric from "Won't Get Fooled Again" - memorably sung by Roger Daltrey right after he caterwauls one of rock's all time greatest screeches - as words for the ages.

With respect to bosses over a long work life, I consider myself fortunate - most of them were decent, hard working, and well meaning. Still, at least for me, Townsend's formulation has serious resonance when applied to the political sphere. It's possible my disenfranchisement from the broken two party system is a function of age. But aren't others on the bell curve as tired as me of hearing the same old cliched promises made during the never-ending campaign cycle? If I hear another candidate use the word "change" as their focus-grouped tagline, my scream will top Daltrey's.

Rant over. Which aphorism-ready song lyric would you enshrine as words for the ages? Got another one about a boss? Bring it on.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Been Too Long

Not long after beginning "Standard Deviation" (2017) it dawned on me: It had been way too long since I laughed continuously while reading. What book most recently had this effect on you?

Katherine Heiny's riotous novel follows a NYC family of three - Graham Cavanaugh, his wife Audra Daltry, and their ten year old son Matthew - over the course of about a year. Graham is deeply in love as well as utterly baffled by Audra, for whom the word boundaries is an alien concept. And though Matthew's special needs demand constant attention - and provide rich comic possibilities - his parents are completely devoted to him.

Heiny adds a just-the-right-size cast of supporting characters - errant houseguests, origami devotees, Graham's first wife Elspeth - to round out her just-the-right-length book. Although each chapter had several laugh out passages - often featuring world class non sequiturs delivered by the irrepressible Audra - the standout for me was the Thanksgiving dinner gone awry in chapter four. Note to self: Resist any future temptation to eat deviled eggs prepared by a semi-senile neighbor.

The last really humorous novel I recall reading that had as much on its mind as this one, combining wisdom with quality prose, was Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" I read that in 2013; been too long.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Need For Approval Vs. Moral Courage

Upon hitting three years of blogging in March 2014, I announced an intention to periodically re-read my posts from the same date three years back. My stated aim: To see what, if anything, had shifted for me over the ensuing years. I asked you to join me from time to time, maybe via taking a look at your own journal entries etc. from the same date three (or more) years ago. Readers who have tried this and then told me about the experiences have variously described the exercise as "illuminating", "unenlightening" and in one cranky case, "dull".

reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/06/tonight.html

Few of these backward glances - now encompassing posts from 2015-2011 - caught me up as short as the one above. When I wrote on 6/22/12 of my sickening feelings the night the Sandusky verdict was announced, my struggle was so naïve. My concern? Not wanting to sound glib by "...adding to a glut of superficial news coverage..."

Six years later, I'm shamed by all the equally sickening news events I haven't had the moral courage to reflect on here. At the top of my list would be letting the travesty of Charlottesville - and the tweeter-in-chief's response to it - go by unremarked. And what stopped me? Simple - a need for approval.

Work to do, always.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Danger Of Minimizing

Among the courses I developed and taught during my years doing adult education was one entitled "Adolescent Depression and Suicide". I have a reasonably clear recollection of the content of that six hour course, the usual audience being folks who worked in child protective services.

"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem". That specific teaching point from the course - one I repeatedly delivered, reflecting the conventional wisdom about suicide at that time - seemed logical and appropriate, almost self-evident. The statement now strikes me as glib, at best. It is almost surely wrongheaded. How helpful can it be to someone in a suicidal crisis to be informed their problems are "temporary"? Even worse is teaching people who might be in a position one day to intervene in a suicidal situation to discount another person's pain this way. Were I developing the curriculum today for that course, especially considering recent events and the alarming increase in suicide among all age groups over the last twenty years, I would jettison that teaching point.

What might I use instead? I'd require all students to read the op-ed below, written by Kevin Powers - author of the transcendent novel "The Yellow Birds"- that appeared in this past Sunday's NY Times. Then I'd lead a discussion on empathy and the potential danger of minimizing.

https://www.newsstandhub.com/the-new-york-times/what-kept-me-from-killing-myself

Friday, June 15, 2018

More Than A Title

Whenever someone from outside my trusted posse of five recommends a book to me and it seriously misfires, a question invariably runs through my thick skull: When will I learn my lesson?

How often does this happen to you? Although I'm semi-obsessive about tallying things, to this point, I haven't kept track of the ratio of my non-posse hits vs. misses. But a recent very distressing reading experience has persuaded me it might be time to do so. Or, maybe I'll avoid book conversations with a select group of people.

Actually, that putative group might have already begun forming. Caveat first: I remain committed to not bad-mouthing any book by name until I finish writing one myself. Now, let me be clear to any potential non-posse recommender: Any book - literary quality aside - featuring sustained and graphic sexual, physical, and verbal abuse inflicted by a father on his daughter is not for me. I don't object, at all, to dark books. And I get the cathartic value of a monster getting his just desserts and the heroine surviving, perhaps even thriving, despite horrific circumstances in childhood and adolescence. But reflecting on this recommendation made by someone with whom I'd discussed many books, I had trouble escaping one disturbing thought: What exactly led this person to think I would want to read this?

Then, that dark thought morphed into some coaching for myself: Be more thoughtful about what you recommend to others, Pat, and ask more questions about things that others find upsetting. Some recommendations are about more than a book.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Game Changer

Until now, books about American history have not been a significant piece of my reading diet. "Mr. President: George Washington And The Making Of The Nation's Highest Office" (2013) is a game changer. Immediately after finishing it, I added several books by author Harlow Giles Unger to my queue. I'm so pumped to read more of this historian's work. End-to-end, the last book of history I was this excited about was "Founding Brothers" by Joseph Ellis.    

"Mr. President" and "Founding Brothers" share some salient features:

* At under three hundred pages, neither is as intimidating as many history books.

* Both make the familiar history breathe, courtesy of the narrative gifts of the respective authors.

* The use of spaced repetition in both books increases the chance attentive readers might retain some of the information. For example, in "Mr. President", each time Unger introduces what he terms a new "pillar of presidential power", he re-states all the earlier pillars, using slightly different phraseology, but always reiterating the pillars in the same order. Then his appendix lists all seven pillars, the dates George Washington first erected them, and the way each pillar expanded the role of the nation's chief executive.

I can't recommend this book enough. If you've read it, please share your thoughts. If you get to it in the future, remember to refer back to this post and tell me what you think.