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Monday, January 29, 2018

Completism Run Amok

Being able to eliminate an author's name from my list because I've read all their work fills me with compulsive glee. When the author has been gone long enough that no more posthumous stuff is likely to surface? Sweet, if ghoulish.

Though I may have read Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" many years ago, I can't be 100% sure; my book journals are a fairly new habit. But after recently completing that  - to help me decide if I'll use it as a modern-day "classic" for my book club - I way-too-carefully examined Capote's catalog. His oeuvre looks substantial, but I soon discovered significant overlap among the books listed. Many titles are simply collections of earlier pieces, all of which I was pretty sure I'd read. Turns out, Capote was less prolific than many of his peers. And the closer this obsessive completist got to scratching a name from his list, the more unhinged he became.

Still, even after satisfying myself that I had read all of Capote's work - the complete short stories, the novels and novellas, the non-fiction, even the "unfinished" and supremely bitchy roman-a-clef "Answered Prayers" - I didn't rest. Inside my own copy of "In Cold Blood" was an insert I'd saved, a new introduction written by Mark Singer, issued when the Book Of The Month Club used Capote's 1959 masterpiece as a selection in 1986, two years after his death. The insert mentioned Lawrence Grobel's 1985 book - "Conversations With Capote"- unread and staring at me from my bookshelf. What could I do?

Suggestions for medication?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

When I Most Need Help

Motivated by a reader comment, I recently re-read "The Four Agreements" (1997) by Don Miguel Ruiz. It's a straightforward and worthwhile read, anchored by four easy-to-remember tenets that - taken together - can help construct a solid foundation for anyone looking to build an authentic life: 1.) Be impeccable with your word. 2.) Don't take anything personally. 3.) Don't make assumptions. 4.) Always do your best.

In the weeks since my re-read however, a question about books of this type - many of which formed a significant chunk of my reading diet throughout the 90s - has plagued me. What prevents me from fully utilizing the sensible tools suggested in "self-help" books when I'm most in need of help? Put another way, when I'm angry or feeling threatened or under stress, why do I feel less able to recognize the benefits to be derived from these tools? Absent anger or threat or stress, the tools seem to be easily at my disposal. If any of you who have read more than one book of this type has made a similar observation about yourself and wondered what gives, it would be comforting to know I'm not alone. It's possible that comfort might extend to other readers of this blog.

I don't have to reach back to the distant past for illustrative examples of how my impulses frequently over-ride the common sense help offered by these books. Just last Sunday, in a pique of irrational anger when my wife and I missed a train to NYC, no self-help tool came to my aid. Later in the same day, I did it again. The threats? Those are mostly ego-driven although that often seems clearer to me after the fact, i.e. those "learned" tools are absent while I'm feeling threatened. Stress? Same thing, a great deal of the time.

Am I better off having read many of these books? Without a doubt. But on middling or low days, I yearn for a time when my bad behavior is more noteworthy than my good behavior. That would make me feel like I've turned a corner toward lasting growth and utilized the many tools I've learned of via all this reading. In the meanwhile, I begin, again.  

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Starting A Writing Practice

Over the holidays just passed, my wife and daughter and I pulled out the photo album from our 2000 cross-country driving trip. Those pictures - and the wonderful captions my wife added to the album - came vividly alive after I located a joint journal we kept during that five week journey. If any of you has used a technique like this to help preserve precious moments from your family life, please share it with me and others. Reading the words of my (then) twelve year old daughter and my (then) fourteen year old niece was priceless, truly. What a treasure.

How often have your own words helped you discover something about yourself? In my experience, writing is an optimal way to more clearly recollect events and the most reliable route to discovery. Though I'm not advocating any sane person attempt to maintain the number of writing vessels I do, I believe the benefits to be gained by the practice of writing can be as significant as those that flow from meditation or yoga. And it doesn't matter what form your writing takes. Begin writing and I promise you, past events will be sharper and you'll begin discovering.

The solipsistic irony of this suggestion coming from a blogger doesn't escape me. But when one of my writing vessels alerted me to the fact that publishing a blog post today would mean I'd done so on January 23 for seven consecutive years, only one subject seemed appropriate for such a milestone. If you decide to begin a writing practice of any kind, promise you'll share your first discovery with me.  

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Club Report: Year One

I'm pleased to report that year one of the No Wine Or Whiners book club exceeded my expectations. We've averaged about eight people per meeting, and the month-to-month toggling from novel to non-fiction is working as I anticipated it might - our percentage of men is higher than any other club I've been involved with. Our first meeting in 2018 was a 50-50 gender split; unusual, in my experience.  

My favorite part? Four of the five women who make up my reading posse are involved to varying degrees; my wife missed just one meeting. I'm prospecting all the time because, from the outset, I was confident the club would have drop-offs on our maiden voyage; 2017 had at least one. But as long as I continue to paint an accurate picture so prospects know what to expect, with a solid first year behind us, I'm now also confident the club will continue to thrive; our core is solid.

Gathering all those best practices from the twenty or so clubs I was part of from 2010-2016 turned out to be a wise strategy. Some of the feedback sheets returned to me after the December meeting also gave me ideas for selections for the coming years. Of those that I've since read, Lily King's 2014 novel "Euphoria" is now in the queue this fall. Books good enough for No Wine Or Whiners could easily become the subject of a future blog post, so for readers not in the club, stay tuned for more on "Euphoria". Me? I've got a rich conversation to look forward to.  

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A Patriotic Proposal From Mr. Id, Patriot

Having noted his long absence from the bell curve, Mr. Id took an opportunity during a recent shower to question his immodest better half about the radio silence. Among other unseemly details, the evil twin learned of the approval-seeking blogger's yearning for cyber notoriety for the posts published each January 13 since 2014. Apparently, the egotistic dunderhead irrationally believes the American public has ignored these four posts at their peril. Mr. Id caught the moaning short, offering the whiner a surefire way to ensure this year's January 13 post goes viral - let Mr. Id write it and use the word patriot at least twice in the title. So ...

Given the cretins unleashed throughout 2017, now moving into early 2018 - thanks to the incessant blowing of Agent Orange's dog whistle - Mr. Id proposes converting one of our fifty States into an independent territory. This new territory would welcome every white supremacist with open arms (pun intended). All those identifying with their views would be strongly encouraged to establish residence there. The current residents of the State selected for conversion who would no longer want to live in the yet-to-be named territory would be reimbursed for their re-location costs to the State of their choice. Future tax returns would include a line item for any taxpayer wishing to offset the reimbursement costs of those choosing to move to the new territory. Mr. Id and his twin would gladly contribute, provided the wall erected around that new territory was really big and the border guards have really big guns. Mr. Id shares Agent Orange's faith in really big stuff.

Further logistics:
* Though the territory gets no congressional representation or input into electing the President, it gets complete autonomy to establish its own laws and elect their own governor, again,  provided that wall is really big. Think Puerto Rico, except only white people live there.
*  Mr. Id and his meek doppelganger offer their services to help write the entry questionnaire cum psychological profile for anyone wishing to live in the territory. The Southern Poverty Law Center already has a huge data base of previously vetted candidates.

Mr. Id leaves it to other patriots and/or readers to further enrich his unquestionably patriotic concept. In the meanwhile, assist in the posts below going viral and help Mr. Id pacify his creator, will you?

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2017/01/preserving-republic.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/01/take-two-re-number-two.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/xxiv.html

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/01/xxviii.html

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Today's Visit To Chicken And Egg Land

Of the many components that - taken together- make up who each of us are as individuals, which would you willingly change? How possible is it to isolate any component enough to know if changing one would make a difference in the whole picture? Although this could be the ultimate in chicken and egg fantasizing, some of you have taken journeys like this with me before. How much would your answer to my first question be different if I asked you tomorrow?

Begin with the basics: Your age, gender, race, ethnic background, physical qualities and abilities, sexual orientation. Add in some important, impossible-to-change stuff from early in life: Where you land in the birth order, the way you were parented, where you were raised. Early economic bracket? Early education? Which of those basic or formative components would you willingly change, today?

Without muddying up the waters with the nature vs. nurture debate, now toss in a few of those fuzzier components like temperament and personality. And, although I assume many people would willingly change their intelligence given the opportunity, for me, that component is beyond fuzzy. The more I read, the less clear I am about which type of intelligence I would willingly change. Still, which of these three fuzzy or (beyond fuzzy) components would you willingly change, today?

Still left: Those critical components that often do shift over a lifetime, regardless of locus of control: Religious beliefs, economic bracket, later education, where you've lived, work history, your marital or parental status, friendships. Which of those critical components would you willingly change, today?

Today Pat picks willingly changing his place in the birth order. In a rare moment of clarity early this morning, I pictured how my life may have unfolded were I a middle or youngest child. As the day proceeded, I found myself liking this changed person I was watching. Then I began imagining the impact this change might have had on my subsequent experiences. It was an interesting day.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Privilege

It's difficult to express what it means to me when any reader says they've been moved by a book they learned of here. If my endorsement of "Between The World And Me" (2015) induces anyone to enter the world of Ta-Nehisi Coates, I want to know; please.

While involved with this tiny masterpiece, I found myself unable to read sentences aloud to my wife, a ritual we've shared for years. Then, after finishing it, a week passed before I felt ready to review my notes and compose an entry for my book journal. During that week, I masochistically reached out to folks I thought may have read it so that - through a conversation - I could sustain the painful glow of this author's words. Weeks later, I'm still processing, learning, hoping I don't forget. In case you're wondering if the book is for you, this passage from page 143 should assist:

"They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them the suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world."  

The book is a cautionary note addressed to the author's only child, a son "...in his fifteenth year..." Before reading "Between The World And Me", it did not occur to me what a privilege it was to never even consider having a conversation anything like this with my only child, in any year of her life.

          

Monday, January 1, 2018

Stop - Start - Continue: 2018

For the seventh consecutive year, today is your opportunity to publicly declare here what you plan to stop, start, and continue as the new year begins. Each January 1, it's been encouraging to learn of readers who have been inspired to use this model to plot their true north for the coming year. If you decide to join in this year, please consider making a comment - you might inspire others.

In 2018 I plan to stop avoiding some topics I've been hesitant to write about on this blog. What have I got to lose?    

I also plan to start aggressively seeking out local musicians to jam with as I approach the finish line of my memorization project, first announced here 11/22/11. Although my use of Craigslist this past year for this purpose yielded a semi-disastrous result, I've got other ideas of ways to find musicians in 2018.

Finally, I will continue heeding the ideas of my adult students as my playlists evolve in the music courses I teach. Doing so in 2017 yielded several wonderful musical surprises as well as reinforcing a lesson I've been trying to internalize my entire adult life - truly valuing the input of others helps me let go of my own ego.