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Thursday, May 31, 2018

Two Someones

Every movie that we end up seeing begins with someone. Could be a writer, director, producer, a person somehow connected to the movie business. Given the number of people, pieces, and moving parts involved in the making of most films, I suspect that initial someone often struggles to see their idea or concept reflected in the end product. In some cases, especially if a film ends up being a hit, the money no doubt takes care of any lingering concerns about that disconnect.

In other cases, hit or not, that someone may decide their ideas are better served outside the movie business. Or, they might negotiate for more control with future film projects. Or, they might seek out different collaborators. Watching "I, Daniel Blake" - a 2017 film directed by Ken Loach - I was struck by the singularity of vision of this little movie. Who was the someone who began the process that culminated in this intimate masterpiece? Did that someone imagine something with no bells and whistles packing such a wallop?

Reflecting this past few weeks on the quiet intensity of "I, Daniel Blake", I've found myself returning to my last experience with a Hollywood star vehicle. There was a lot of laughter in the theater the night I saw "Book Club". To keep my inner curmudgeon from taking over, I've been reminding myself how much we need that kind of laughter these days. All the same, I've also been fantasizing about an interaction between the two someones who brought these widely disparate movies to me. Wouldn't you love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?      

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Epics & Synaptic Sparks

Hearing the word "epic", what's the first thing that comes to your mind? A Tolstoy novel? A David Lean film? "Guernica"? I'm guessing I'm not alone saying a popular song wouldn't be the first thing. Even to a music geek like yours truly, that seemed a stretch, until recently.

 https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/eagles/thelastresort.html

Before deciding to use "The Last Resort" - the song that closes "Hotel California" - as an example of an environmental lyric for one of my music courses, I knew it was a spectacularly well-crafted piece of pop music. Even so, de-constructing the tune in the weeks leading up to my class, my appreciation for it kept intensifying; the word epic seemed unironically apt. Each of the eight stanzas stand alone; there's no need for a refrain or hook of any kind. There is no middle eight - commonly called a bridge - and it's never missed. Until lead singer and co-composer Don Henley begins singing the sixth stanza - starting with "You can leave it all behind … " - in a higher register, only attentive listeners will have detected the subtle and skillful key change that took place seconds before.

In the end, it was the intelligent lyrics that ignited synaptic sparks. Communing with the rapt listeners in my class as "The Last Resort" soared, my brain leapt from passages in "War and Peace" to scenes from "Lawrence of Arabia" to standing at MOMA looking at Picasso's masterpiece. What song has ever similarly transported you?

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Help Wanted: Saint Patrick's Namesake Survey

On a scale of one to ten - "1" indicating very little and "10" indicating nearly insatiable - where would you place yourself with respect to innate curiosity?

Like many people, I'm very curious about things that interest me and egotistically curious about myself. But when placing myself on a one to ten continuum of innate curiosity about everything, I'm obliged to allow myself no more than a "5" or perhaps "6", on a good day. Once again, Saint Patrick lands on the bell curve.

That aside, I'm invariably perplexed when I ask someone the reason their parents chose their first name and the person has no answer. How does something so basic to a person's identity as a name escape the innate curiosity of even those who would give themselves a "1" on that scale? I suppose I can understand if a David or a Linda is not curious. But if your name were Sebastian or Tara, wouldn't you want to know where your unusual moniker came from?

In my wholly unscientific and admittedly informal - but long running - survey, I would estimate more than 50% of the people whose names struck me as unusual have not been able to give me any reason why they were so named. Try this, using your own definition of unusual, and see if your survey matches mine. Then, report back here and let others know how well - or not - our results coincide.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Quickening Of Compassion

No matter how often I'm exposed to people who spend time doing anti-oppression work, I walk away enriched by the encounters. And invariably, I immediately begin to anticipate the next time my path will cross with folks like this. Who in your life gives you this kind of energy?

In my most recent experience with this community, I participated in a conversation where each of us was asked to help refine the beta version of a newly developed training tool. The tool is a deck of cards entitled "Quickening Of Compassion". Each card in the deck has a captioned picture on one side (e.g. one card has a 1935 Dorothea Lange photo of a migrant worker family) and, on the reverse side, a short statement (on that same card, the statement was - "Many people struggle and have met countless hardships."). The statement is followed by a simple suggested action any person can take, connecting back to the statement.

I'm honored to be asked to participate in conversations like this and thrilled by my association with this community. When the final iteration of this tool is made available, I'll be proud to have taken a small part in its evolution.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Making The Payoff Worth Your Time

Which first - bad news, good news or dilemma?

Bad news? If not for my recent re-read of JM Coetzee's "Disgrace", these past several weeks would qualify as the most dispiriting period of reading in my post full time work life. Several OK books and a few more that required some slogging, without much payoff; thank goodness for Coetzee.

Good news? The current drought gave me a legitimate excuse to review my notes from all the worthy books I've finished since last June. Why? Because of how many books from that pre-drought period went unmentioned here given my reduced blog post output.

The dilemma is, of course, what to feature today. Drum roll, please ...

Partial to memoirs? With or without a soundtrack? "Unfaithful Music And Disappearing Ink" (2015) by Elvis Costello and "Beautiful Boy" (2008) by David Sheff, respectively, should scratch those slightly different itches. Prefer novels with multi-cultural overtones? Straightforward or challenging? For the former I'd recommend "The Leavers" (2017) by Lisa Ko;"A Brief History of Seven Killings" (2014) by Marlon James takes a lot more attention, but the rewards are significant. Something light, but not lightweight? "I'll Take You There" (2016) by Wally Lamb combines a fantasy about stepping inside the movie of your life with a strong feminist message. Prefer gravitas in your novels? Walk on "The Green Road" with the 2015 Booker Prize winner by Anne Enright or "Salvage The Bones" (2011) with Jesmyn Ward. Non-fiction, you say? How earnest? "The Working Poor" (2004) by David Shipler is highly educational, flawlessly researched, deeply unsettling. "Complications" (2002) by Dr. Atul Gawande helps the learning go down a little easier.

More where these came from but, it's a start, right? Considering the significant exposition overload of the second and third paragraphs, giving you more for your money is the least I can do.

         

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Centennial Celebration (Better Late Than Never)

Using my wife and daughter as the centerpiece of my post to commemorate Mother's Day this past Sunday had a predictable effect - guilt about no mention of my own Mother, even in passing. Only a smattering of my Jewish friends have ever disabused me of the notion that we Irish Catholics are the World Series champions of guilt.

The idea of writing a redeeming post on May 30 - Mom's birthday - helped me get the green monster under control, briefly.  But, because thoughts of Mom are often accompanied by thoughts of Dad, guilt now had me back in its grip.

I've memorialized many dates on this blog over the past seven and a half years. But as March 25 2018 was approaching some time ago, the right tone to mark the centennial of my Dad's birth stubbornly eluded me. I tossed around dozens of ideas, started no fewer than fifteen posts, abandoned every one before hitting "publish". Too maudlin, too trite, too ... inadequate. When my sister commented a few weeks after March 25 that she was surprised I'd let that date pass, I offered my explanation, pushing back the guilt, again. And that months-old conversation with my sister came rushing back soon after I began thinking about what to say about Mom late this month.

Although I've frequently disdained "better-late-than-never" birthday cards and sentiments, it may be time to re-think that position. My Dad - my hero - deserves no less.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

That's Me You Don't See In That Brochure

Not long after our daughter embarked on her acting career in 2011, a modeling agency requested she bring her parents with her to a photo shoot. Imagine the fantasies I entertained in the days leading up to my time in front of those cameras.

Needless to say, none of you have subsequently seen my mug in any brochures like the one being worked on that day, let alone the cover of a magazine or two. In fact, after the first series of photos were completed covering all possible combinations - my daughter and I, my wife and daughter, the three of us -  the photographer returned to the waiting area and asked my wife and daughter only to return for round two. I was sure there was a mistake. The photographer politely- if a bit sheepishly - explained what he'd seen in those initial shots of my wife and daughter. And he believed others would see what he had if he staged the next round well. As the three of them returned to the staging area, I told him to expect a call from my lawyer. Then I continued nursing my wounded ego, alone. Even the yummy refreshments provided no solace.

Mother's Day, several years later. I watch my wife and daughter as they laugh and talk. My life has been immeasurably enriched by these two women with a bond so intense a camera readily detects it. Meanwhile, I anxiously await my first opportunity for a close-up.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Second Time Around

During the full time work years, re-reading a favorite book wasn't an impulse I often indulged. But doing so these past eight years has been one of the singular pleasures of my life. Which re-read has most recently given you a fresh jolt?

JM Coetzee's "Disgrace" has occupied a spot in my top twenty-five novels of all time since I first read it near its 1999 release date. What most struck me on this re-read is how the hard earned wisdom that infuses the novel is masterfully rendered yet, utterly matter-of-fact. For example, the chapters bookending the day of and the day after the attack on David Lurie and his daughter Lucy each begin with three words - "It is Wednesday." & "A new day." The author's restraint - contrasted with the brutality and ugliness in between those two simple declarative statements - is just one example of the command he has of his craft. The book brims with writing that never draws attention to itself.

Aside from a spirited conversation about the use of third person voice in "Disgrace", a good portion of the discussion at my book club centered on the moral of Coetzee's tale. No surprise - the discerning readers at the meeting could not agree what the author wanted us to take away. Have I ever read a truly great novel that led me to a single this-must-be-the-point conclusion? Have you? FYI, the ending here won't make you happy if you like books that tie everything into a pretty bow. Also, you may not care much for David Lurie. But I'm reasonably certain you won't forget him either.

BTW, this re-read convinced me David clearly still belongs on my Mt. Rushmore of flawed Dads from literature.

http://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/12/38-mt-rushmore-series.html

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Such A Simple Question

What recent experience taught (or re-taught) you how difficult it is to transcend your biases? Haven't had an experience like that lately? Allow me to suggest you volunteer - as I recently did - to register voters. If you pay attention to your thoughts while doing this, I suspect it will be revelatory.

Following a brief orientation and review of the relevant forms, I joined a few other volunteers at a local street festival. The simple question to be asked of people passing by our table was - Are you registered to vote? Although not instructed to do so, I responded to every "yes" with an enthusiastic thumbs-up. If someone was unsure of their registration status, the orientation had prepared me to ask clarifying questions. More experienced people were also nearby to assist me if need be. For anyone who was sure they were not registered, I had the necessary forms in hand. And our table was located about five yards from a US mailbox if any unregistered voter wanted to fill out the form right there instead of filling it in at home and mailing it via the postage paid envelope. Pretty straightforward, right?

Not so much. Not long after starting, I realized that although I was asking a lot of people if they were registered to vote, I was not asking everyone. My first thought was a logical and probably partially accurate explanation - no one would be asking everyone - some folks had to pass me by. But then I detected an emerging pattern connected to the folks I was asking vs. some who I let pass by. I also noticed I was paying attention to what was imprinted on the hats, T-shirts, etc. of certain folks. As my time at the table ended, I was exhausted from all the thinking about my thinking.    

Though what I'm revealing here isn't ennobling, I suspect my thought processes are not unique. But in my next turn registering voters, I'll be more on guard vis-a-vis my biases when asking others that simple question.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I Can't? Just Watch Me!

"The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do." - Walter Bagehot

This moment, I can't recall a specific instance when someone important to my development has spoken to me of things I couldn't do - another example of my good fortune. Are the people important to your development encouraging, discouraging, or somewhere in the middle?

And the rest of the voices over my sixty eight year journey? I suspect my chorus - a real mixed bag - has sounded a lot like yours. How successful are you at tuning out the naysayers? With me, it's all about timing.

I'm grateful for those times when Walter Bagehot's sage words come in handy. And he's right; it's a great pleasure to prove the doubters wrong. On other days, the negative chatter remains background noise; it may or may not interfere with what I'm up to. But infrequently - especially on those unhappy occasions when my own disappointment with what I'm doing coincides with a dissonant loud voice in the chorus - the "cannot" is more difficult to surmount. My strategy at those times? A quick nap.

Thankfully, that nap is usually enough to get me back on the job. Soon after, I hear my own voice saying - "I Can't? Just Watch Me!"