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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Best Of 2019

Although I still haven't fully recovered from the shock of turning seventy in November, 2019 was a stellar year. Why not join me and share with others some of your highlights from this year? Use my categories or invent your own. I promise you doing this will be good for your soul.

Best surprise, best party, best musical moments: The surprise birthday party my wife and daughter threw for me was so special I never had a chance to feel sorry for myself. The live music? Epic!

Best time away: Our time in Greece at my daughter's best friend's destination wedding was magic end-to-end.

Best book club meeting:  Discussing Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book was the catalyst for one of the few civil conversations about race I can ever recall having with a group of white people. Even though what some of us took from the book was not aligned with what others took, everyone left the discussion feeling heard.

Best family event (not counting my surprise party):  My youngest niece's wedding in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Best gifthttps://patrickbarton.bandcamp.com/releases

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Til There Were Two

https://patrickbarton.bandcamp.com/releases

Thanks to everyone who has asked me about the recording project I first mentioned here some years back featuring my daughter singing eight of my songs. If you click the link above you'll be taken to a website called bandcamp where those songs now reside. Anyone who would like an actual CD just let me know via a comment here or an offline e-mail and I'll get one to you. FYI, the song sequencing on the CD is different than the one on bandcamp.

The inordinate delay between first cryptic mention of the project and today's anti-climactic finale? A nasty stew of technology-enabled procrastination, ill-conceived paranoia about intellectual property, and old-fashioned creative fear which then morphed into semi-paralysis. Though what you'll now be able to hear was finished in late 2017, without my wife and daughter acting as midwives, all of this would have languished indefinitely as MP-3 files on this laptop.

I'm scared, excited, doubtful, hopeful, disappointed, proud. And that's just in the past ten seconds.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Cattywampus, You Say?

Among the by-products of being known to others as a word nerd, the most ostensibly benign one I've discovered to this point is the effort some folks put into uncovering words they hope will be new to me. Other word nerds out there: Does this happen to you? How often do you learn a new word this way? And, what percentage of the words you learn this way do you find useful?

At present, there are two people I see regularly who work assiduously at helping me keep my word saw sharp. At least, that's what I hope they're both doing. Someone more suspicious or cynical than I might just as easily conclude the two are either testing, taunting, or trying to torment me. I prefer to remain positive about their motives, especially since my estimate of the useful words I've gotten from both of them is greater than fifty percent. Aside from those two, there are outliers in my word life that appear now and then. The motives of those renegades? Harder to discern, suspicion and cynicism notwithstanding. 

Which brings me to cattywampus. When a gem like this is still not recognized by Spellcheck, I'm obligated to exercise a little restraint, no matter how much I love it (which I do). Until Christmas Eve, I'd never heard this mouthful said aloud; I've never seen it in print. It's a synonym for askew. But I'll be careful about casually tossing it around for a while, because in my experience, usefulness of any word is directly linked to its "What the hell did you just say?" factor. For now, I'll stick to amiss, askew, or awry, the latter being one of the most mispronounced words in the English language. Each of those substitutes has a meager two syllables, compared to the whopping four in cattywampus, but we word nerds must be circumspect to retain the loyalty of our testing, taunting, tormenting minions.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Reading Re-Cap: 2019

Decided the headings I invented in 2018 for this newest series did not need altering. But feel free to change any that don't work for you when you re-cap your reading year to share with others. And yes, I know there are still nine reading days left. So I reserve the right to replace any selection here should anything I finish over what remains of 2019 usurp any book noted, given these headings.

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (2017) by Gail Honeyman. My choice of the adjective "casual" is purposeful not snarky. I liked this popular novel because aside from being accessible and funny, it's also well written and wise.

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers: The Sellout (2015) by Paul Beatty. No novel I finished in 2019 even approximates the wallop this provocative powerhouse delivered. Even during passages when I was unsure what the author was getting at, his incendiary prose scorched me.

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: There There (2018) by Tommy Orange and Black Man In A White Coat (2015) by Damon Tweedy.

Most worthwhile re-read: Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver.

Most intriguing: The Gatekeepers (2017) by Chris Whipple. Probably because most of the names were familiar to me, this book - about the impact a Chief of Staff can have on a President - was fascinating end-to-end. And I'm not a political junkie.

Most personally useful:  Asked to select just one book I would not want to have missed reading this past year, Sapiens (2015) by Yuval Noah Harari - subtitled A Brief History of Humankind - would be the hands-down winner.

I hope you'll share your 2019 selections - regardless of publication date - with me and others. If need be, add anything you finish over the next ten days. I might.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Rescued Again

For any readers who treasure books, I hope you get to interact as regularly as I do with other readers. I am certain the regular interaction I've had with other readers over the past ten years - often in book clubs - has made me a more discerning reader. 

I've always been fortunate. Both my sisters, my wife, all four of my nieces, and my daughter are all avid readers. But our conversations about books don't often occur close in time to when one or more of us have finished a shared book. As a consequence, those conversations sometimes aren't as nuanced as the type that happen when a book being discussed is fresh in the mind of two or more people. I've gotten spoiled.

And as a sentence lover, my pleasure is amplified almost every time I discuss a book recently read with someone.  Almost without exception, other people unearth gems that might otherwise have escaped me. I love when that happens. Most recent example: From an enriching discussion of Old School (2003), Tobias Wolff's luminous first novel  - "Make no mistake, he said: a true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life." Thanks to a fellow reader and good friendI didn't miss that. What was a recent instance when a careful reader came to your rescue? 

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Can This Be Right? The McGaughran Iteration

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/06/so-thats-how-this-can-be-right.html

Isn't it annoying when someone pulls a Sinatra? On 6/14/16 I declared Can This Be Right? -  a blog series started five years earlier - had run its course and was being retired just like Ol Blue Eyes claimed he was doing perhaps a dozen times. But a recent conversation with another language geek (married to a word nerd - lucky guy!) persuaded me to revive my moribund series once more. The deal was sealed when - 1.) my new word soulmate told me to eschew obfuscation; 2.) he cited the word enervated - a gem I'd already used in Can This Be Right? - to test me. Would I be offended if he described our conversation thus? and; 3.) followed up our recondite talk by mailing me a letter (!) containing several esoteric words I'd not considered over the eight iterations of my beloved series. How could I resist such erudition, delivered via snail mail?

For the uninitiated, I posit the following three words - like all that have preceded them in my august series - have meanings that many people would not guess because the words simply sound like they mean something entirely different. Doubt any of the entries in what I call the McGaughran Iteration of Can This Be Right? Try an experiment. Use any of these in a sentence correctly and see if others don't question you about your use of the word.

fungible: being of such a nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable for another of like nature or kind. Huh? Can this be right? I'd bet even money that no one would correct you if you told them they had something fungible stuck in their teeth that was grossing you out.

miasma: a dangerous, foreboding or deathlike influence or atmosphere. This one belongs in the same league as prosaic. That is, I'd wager people might be flattered if you said their conversation was prosaic and their home had a certain miasma, even though you'd be insulting them, twice.  

noisome: offensive or disgusting, as an odor. I dare you. The next time someone passes gas, try telling them how noisome they are. What do you bet me they ask - "You heard that? Sorry!"   

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Two To Zero (So Far)

What film scenes are permanently etched into your brain?

Last night I was riveted watching Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, an excellent film, start to finish. But as good as it was, the extended scene near the end - featuring just Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansen - will always stand out. The acting, writing, and directing are equally masterful. The burn is slow as the recriminations between husband and wife grow more vile. Though I wasn't sure how the scene would end, I'll never forget it.

For me, no American writer/director working in film today is as skilled at depicting the fault lines of marriage than Noah Baumbach. Recently re-watching The Squid and the Whale I noticed how subtly Baumbach's script revealed fissures in that marriage, a less volatile couple than the one portrayed in Marriage Story. It also seemed appropriate to me that Baumbach used a lighter director's touch in his earlier film working with Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney. There was no climactic scene in The Squid and the Whale like the one in Marriage Story. Given the entropy of the marriage depicted in Squid, fireworks would have seemed out of place.

Considering my movie jones, I suspect regular readers won't be surprised to learn that exactly three years ago today, a scene from Manchester By The Sea hit me just as hard as the one from Marriage Story. So, now you've got two of mine. Your turn.  

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/12/recovery.html

Monday, December 9, 2019

My Acknowledgments Page

With 2019 nearing its end and this blog fast approaching the start of its tenth year, it occurred to me today that it's been too long since I said thank you to anyone who has ever taken the time to support me here. I appreciate every person - known to me personally or not - who has read even a single post, commented - publicly or offline - or spoken to me about what I've written here, or "liked" any of the irregular posts I put on my Facebook wall. Without regular, however infrequent, feedback from you I might have stopped long ago. I write because I must but without your support it would be difficult to continue.

That said, there's a tiny subset of readers, most known to me, who have been uber-supportive. To those folks: Pretend that what follows is the acknowledgment page found in many books. I'll pretend - briefly - that I'm an author and my 1805 published posts are a book you've immeasurably enhanced because you've read so much of it and given me valuable feedback. I'm sure I've forgotten someone who has gone above and beyond so, in advance, please forgive me. (Initials used below instead of names to protect privacy.)

Special thanks to: IA, PA, AB, SB, RC, CJ, DM, JM, LM (nee LC), KR.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Not That Story Again!

What is a reasonable number of stories any partner in a relationship should be able to re-tell, no matter how many times their partner has heard them? How about one story for each year the partnership has existed?

I'm guessing my wife will object to me having 41 stories I could re-tell indefinitely. Come to think of it, I'm tired of several of hers as well and 41 is a big number. So how about one story that can be told in perpetuity for each decade a partnership has been together? That would limit each of us to 4 stories apiece. Not bad, even if I do think my stories are better. Since I'm 4+ years older I think I also deserve at least one more story for my seniority. But .. How about for partnerships under 10 years in duration? I need your help there.

Next questions: Who gets to choose which stories get told - teller or pained listener? In our case, maybe I pick 3 of mine (+ 1 more for my seniority) and she gets to pick my fifth. Then she picks 3 of her own and I pick #4. That seems fair, right? Do all the stories have to be from the time period since we've been together or do we each get 1 or more that pre-dates the partnership?

Last: Should there be such a thing as an expiration date on any story? How old must that story be? For my wife and I this is not a major problem; some of our stories are now so old we have trouble remembering them anyway. And the really old ones have changed so much, they're new now.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

New Jersey's Achilles Heel

What is your favorite thing about living in your home state? Least favorite?

Aside from living in LA for a few months as a young adult, I've been a resident of New Jersey my whole life. I'm quite happy this has been the case which makes picking one favorite thing difficult. The diversity of the people who live here, the fact that I can hike or ski on (admittedly small-ish) mountains as easily as I can get to the ocean, the great public schools, and the Pinelands top my long list.

Identifying a least favorite thing is much easier. The time I'm most reminded of New Jersey's Achilles heel is on the infrequent occasions when I'm driving somewhere on Sunday morning. When the roads are easy to navigate - as they are on Sunday morning - it's hard to avoid thinking how nice it would be to live without the stress of New Jersey traffic. I realize traffic goes with high population density, i.e. New Jersey. So sometimes when driving on Sunday morning I've fantasized about living in a state with low population density - Idaho, North Dakota, Wyoming. I suspect even in the big cities of states like those, New Jersey's Sunday morning driving conditions are not an unusual occurrence.

The chances of me ever moving to any of the three I mentioned - as well as another two dozen "not on your life" states - are slim to none. Better than even money I'll remain in my beloved home state - traffic or not - unless my only child re-locates. If that happens, I could be persuaded to leave Jersey traffic behind. But, given my daughter's current vocation, her only other viable work market, aside from New York, is the Los Angeles area. I know from personal experience the traffic there can be as horrendous as New Jersey's. Is traffic my destiny? There are certainly worse things.  

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Toll I've Never Paid

Until scanning the bibliography of Damon Tweedy's Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor's Reflections on Race and Medicine (2015), I didn't realize how many non-fiction books about the medical field I'd read over the past ten years. And though there's no chance I'll be writing prescriptions in this lifetime, I'm gratified my reading journey has included books far removed from my own work life. Each one has deepened my experience of living.

What made this particular book worthwhile for me - aside from the sturdy prose - was the even-handed tone. Dr. Tweedy doesn't avoid tackling the racial challenges he has faced but also is unafraid to include sentences like the following:

"Depending on your perspective, affirmative action had done its job giving a working class black kid the chance for an elite education (Tweedy refers here to his full ride to Duke Medical School), or affirmative action had reared its ugly head, taking a slot from someone else more deserving while possibly setting me up for failure." And … 

"Like many stereotypes, this one had some truth behind it." (Here Tweedy speaks of being a 6'6'' black man frequently asked about basketball, which catches him off guard but does not offend him because " … NBA rosters are made up of more than 75% black men ...") And … 

"I could not imagine a white patient ever telling a white doctor that he wanted to switch doctors for no other reason than their shared skin color." This honest, revealing sentence comes after Tweedy recounts a sad anecdote involving a black patient rejecting him as his doctor. "In some ways, this rejection was more painful (vs. similar rejections Tweedy had from white patients who stated they would not accept a black doctor), given what it said about how we felt about ourselves as a race."  

Whenever encountering a person of color - whether an author or other public figure like Tweedy or someone from my personal life - who is unafraid of being vulnerable about their racial identity, my initial thought often turns to white folks. I wonder: How many of us ever squarely face our racial identity and the ways that identity plays out in our day-to-day interactions? I suspect fewer of us ever do - at least contrasted to how often people of color do - mostly because we're so infrequently forced to do so. In this thoughtful book, Dr. Damon Tweedy explores the toll that facing one's racial identity can take. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Gobsmacked

Being an inveterate word collector can pay off. I captured gobsmacked into my word treasure chest the first time I saw it in print some time ago. But until last Saturday at 6:30, I hadn't found a good use for it.

Saying I was surprised walking through that door? Too mild and common place. Astonished? Closer but still too predictable. Dumbfounded? Almost, but not quite fresh enough. Only gobsmacked  conveys the blissful shock I felt seeing sixty or so people gathered -  thanks to my wife and daughter - to celebrate the start of my eighth decade. In that room were folks from Saranac Lake, NY to Conway, SC to Lafayette, Colorado. I'm still not sure how my wife and daughter kept me in the dark and equally unsure how I managed to stay coherent making my way around that room greeting almost all my immediate family with their spouses and children and so many friends -  new, old, lifelong, friends of my daughter who are now my friends.  

And the music. For a few hours, the warmth that has infused my life filled that room. My brother did Harold Arlen's If I Only Had A Brain; two guitarists I've been honored to perform alongside wailed as I warbled Dylan's All Along the Watchtower; three talented singers - including my daughter - each caressed a tune from the Great American Songbook. Aside from my two sisters and my brother, there were five other people there who have been a part of my life for longer than the forty one + years my wife and I have been together. 

If you were there, thank you for being part of an event I'll never forget. If you were invited but couldn't make it or slipped through the invite cracks, I missed you. To everyone - including any readers I don't know personally - What happened to you the last time you felt gobsmacked? I hope whatever it was brought you as much joy as those hours last Saturday brought me. 

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Key Learnings: Year 70

What is your process for capturing key things you've learned over any given period of time? Aside from a mild obsessive streak, the main reason I use such a process is research I've seen that indicates capturing key learning increases retention. Supporting that research is the anecdotal evidence I've gathered over the years from many adult students in my classes who have told me writing things down helped improve their recall.

Please join me today - as some of you have on this date previously - and reflect on a few of your key learnings from this past year.

* I've grown more tuned in this past year to the adult dynamics at play in my relationship with my daughter. The catalyst for this key learning was a conversation with an old friend who, like me, is the father of an only child. And, as she was growing up, he gave his daughter the same kind of undiluted attention I gave to mine. The learning kernel: Every benefit comes at a price.

* Thanks to an excellent naturalist lecture while drifting through the Okefenokee Swamp, I re-learned how important it is to continually educate myself to the contributions all ethnic groups have made to the American success story. I can't think of a better way to counteract the limited view of American history most of us learn, in school, via parents & peers, from the media.

* As an amateur writer with disproportionate aspirations, two things this year got me closer to the writer I want to be: Reading aloud a NY Times article to a friend (nothing like reading aloud to help you better appreciate clear, concise writing and genuine journalism) and writing down tired phrases or clichés - including my own - whenever they surface in my writers group.

Your key learnings? Please don't make me beg.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Goal For Year 71

One would think that a lifetime of establishing difficult-to-reach goals would have taught me to be more realistic. If only.  But reaching my manageable reading related goal for year seventy gave me such satisfaction I've decided to use a similar model for another year. I hope a few of you will join me - upcoming birthday or not - in publicly declaring here a goal you have for the next year.

Between my 70th birthday tomorrow and my 71st, I'm aiming to read more books than I have in any year of my post full-time work life. Before anyone reasonably asks how I'll know if I've reached the goal, I'll remind you of the book journals - another of my way-too-many writing vessels - that I began using in 2010.

In my experience, non-fiction books typically take longer to complete than novels of comparable length. Consequently, to enhance the chances of reaching my goal, for the next year I'll abandon my longstanding practice of reading a non-fiction book alongside each novel. But considering all the "new" novelists I discovered thanks to last year's goal, it will be easy to find titles to occupy me. I'll resume my toggling on November 23, 2020. As soon as this post is published, I'm getting started. There's a tower of novels sitting on my bedroom dresser waiting to be devoured. Wish me luck.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/11/goal-for-year-69.html


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Magic In Simplicity

"We teach best what we most need to learn."

I don't recall exactly when I first heard that expression. But the wisdom of it has walloped me more times than I can count. When was the last time you were teaching something, formally or otherwise, and suddenly realized you were the ideal student for the lesson you were imparting?

Recently, just prior to playing a recording of Just My Imagination in a music course, I heard myself rapturously describing the simplicity of that old Temptations song. As I spoke, it became clear to me: Simple pop songs were my gateway into music almost sixty years ago. I may have grown as a listener and musician over the years but misplacing my appreciation for simplicity is just foolish. I love music unequivocally. If any snobbery interferes with my passion, I risk missing out. I can value complexity in music without requiring it. Equally important: Making complexity a prerequisite for enjoyment is pretentious and stupid.  

Evolving to love jazz and songs from the Great American Songbook as much as I do rock n' roll and simple pop gems like The Rose or Just My Imagination has been a gift. As I spoke to the participants in my class of the joy songs like those can unfailingly deliver - because they are heartfelt and simple - the words opening this post came to me unbidden.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Pledge Fruits

With just one week left on my pledge to read only authors new to me for a year - and a few books I've started waiting for me to return to them over this same week - today is a good day to pause and reflect on which "new" authors I'll be most likely to return to in the future. Which author(s) that you recently read for the first time are you anxious to return to?

* In my experience, when a favorite author likes a writer, that writer is worth my precious reading time. I discovered Alice McDermott - her 2017 novel The Ninth Hour was my first experience - via Anna Quindlen who cited McDermott in Booklist, my favorite column from The Week. Thanks Anna.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2019/03/words-only-parent-could-write.html

* I haven't stopped raving about Sapiens since finishing it in March. Yuval Harari's 2015 masterwork exceeds the claim of its subtitle: A Brief History of Humankind. And though I'm anxious to return to this author, I will change one thing. I'll buy his next book so I'm free to mark it up. I got hand cramps from copying large swaths of Sapiens.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2019/04/confesssions-of-page-numbering-book-geek.html

* Kate Atkinson's name had come across my radar many times before I got around to reading her 1995 novel Behind The Scenes At The Museum. On the strength of that book, Atkinson's Life After Life (2013) got placed in my reading queue months ago, awaiting the end of my one year pledge. That wait is now almost over. Yeah!

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2019/07/an-elevating-conspiracy.html

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Who Needs Perfection?

Before stopping full time work in 2010, mild obsessive that I am, I listed the things I would do on a perfect day when no job demanded my attention. Yesterday nearly hit the mark.

* Early in the day, I had a stimulating conversation with my partner of forty-one years.
* I spent the morning teaching a class to people who share my passion for music.
* After returning home, I meditated, read for a while, talked on the phone with one of my sisters.
* I had dinner and another stimulating conversation with my other sister and my wife.
* Soon after, the three of us discussed one of my favorite novels - The Poisonwood Bible - with a book club group I started a few years ago.
* Before bed, I got lost in my guitar for hours. The entry into my musical reverie began with a Kurt Weill tune called Speak Low.  

Missing from that list? Exercise, writing, some kind of charity work and/or volunteering. And, there was the minor annoyance of someone making an unwanted appearance at the book club meeting. No matter. End-to-end, yesterday was one for the books. What did your last nearly perfect day look like?     

Monday, November 11, 2019

Words For The Ages, Line Twelve

"With, without - and who'll deny that's what the fighting's all about?"

With the gap in the U.S. between richest and poorest being wider today than it's been since our first Gilded Age, the words above - from Us and Them - clearly qualify as words for the ages. Notably, Roger Waters wrote that prescient lyric back in 1973. It would be years before Michael Milken - the reprobate Oliver Stone used as his model for "Greed is good" Gordon Gekko in Wall Street - went to jail for his role in robbing people of their life's savings via the worthless junk bonds he was peddling at the time. And Occupy Wall Street came long after that; Dark Side of the Moon had already been on the "classic" rock stations for decades by then. Waters was clearly ahead of the curve.

But, the more things change … I recently read a NY Times article about the now rising fortunes of Milken - back in the financial field, of all places - and wondered: Did that turd ever apologize to a single person whose financial future he ruthlessly sullied in the 1980s? I doubt it. My soon-to-be-released re-write of Dante's Inferno will place people like Milken and Bernie Madoff in the ring of hell Dante reserved for flatterers. Recall the way Dante envisioned those folks suffering for eternity? Clue: It involved excrement.   

"Somehow, big banks lose billions and wreck people's savings and retirement accounts, yet their plutocrat executives still take home obscene bonuses. You don't have to be an economics major to recognize that something here does not compute."

Because those two sentences are not a terse lyric, they don't mesh with the eleven earlier iterations in my words-for-the-ages series. But reading those words in Michael Dirda's essay Rocky Mountain Low (2015) made me yearn for an opportunity to introduce him to Rogers Waters. I'm sure the two of them would find other common ground. How I'd love to be part of their conversation and tell them about my Dante re-write. I suspect they'd both approve.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Marketing Run Amok

Own a business? Display your ad to a captive audience. Right here.

First questions are for the men. Seen enticing words similar to those on the wall above a urinal lately? Ever think of yourself as a captive audience while urinating? If you're a business owner, how likely would you be to display your ad right here? What would you say is a reasonable expectation for a return on your investment? Business owner or not, if an ad placed in a location like this did entice you, would you rely on your memory for the particulars or would you return to the urinal in question with a writing implement or your phone? Or, do you already carry one of those with you when you pee? If yes, where do you usually place those items while doing your business?

Women - Ever since my recent experience with the ludicrous iteration of marketing run amok that opens this post, I've been wondering: Have any of you had a similar experience while in a bathroom stall? Or, are there already advertisements ambushing you on the inside doors you routinely face? Skip the question about being a captive audience. But, women business owners: What would you say to the two questions I asked of men? Finally, do you share my wife's habit of often taking a purse into bathroom stalls? If yes, then the last questions I asked of men about writing implements or a phone could be moot for some of you.

Leaving me with a final question for men and women: Available writing implements or handy phone aside - What are the chances you would patronize a business that advertises above a urinal or on the inside door of bathroom stall?

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Making Use Of The Useless

When my voice gave out before I hit thirty, a circumstance compelling me to shift gears and make a living doing something other than playing my guitar and singing, an early working fantasy was to become a radio DJ. My logic, unassailable to me at the time, went like this: I've been a musician most of my life; I know shit. Who better to play records and talk in between? Previous work experience, educational background? Immaterial. Had I ever gotten an interview no doubt I would've unironically described my musical knowledge as vast. Had an unsuspecting interviewer asked me which flash-in-the-pan band etched Dirty Water into pop music history I would have scoffed. Think you can stump me by asking who Al Jardine replaced in the Beach Boys or which Chuck Berry song was on Beatles 65? Child's play; I was meant for this job, you fool.    

Understandably, that arrogant thirty year old never found a way onto the radio. But an unquenchable thirst for all things musical - coupled with a sticky brain that holds onto what I'd always thought of as useless musical ephemera - began finding a small audience about five years ago. Each time I lecture briefly about a song I'm about to play in one of the courses I've been developing and delivering since 2014, that musical stuff in my brain - now almost sixty years of it - becomes useful to others, for at least a moment. As the song plays and the music washes over me and the participants, I can watch people as they close their eyes, nod, smile - a benefit no DJ ever gets. And after our communion, I can share any additional morsels the music has pried loose from my addled brain, if I think doing so will add value to the experience we just had. Lately, I've been thinking of this as making use of the useless.

But either way, useless or marginally useful, I'm eagerly anticipating sharing more of those morsels with others when my next class - entitled The Two Of Us - begins on November 5th. I am pumped. What gives you juice like teaching this stuff gives me?

Friday, November 1, 2019

Gang Of Five Reading Lessons

A recent stimulating and rewarding discussion with a reading soulmate about Ford Madox Ford's classic novel The Good Soldier (1915) has me reflecting what might have eluded me with other classics that I didn't get on my first read. Since great writers are invariably great readers, my current fantasy has me discussing classics from the canon with some literary giants. Which writers would you like to have help you become a better reader? From youngest to oldest to dead (this is a fantasy, after all), I'll take …

* Ta-Nehisi Coates
* Joan Didion
* Toni Morrison
* John Updike
* David Foster Wallace

First classic in the queue for discussion with my gang of five is Madame Bovary. To connect with Ta-Nehisi and Joan, I'm going with e-mail. For Toni, John, and David, I'm hiring a medium. Should my approach for reaching these folks fail, I'm open to suggestions. Anyway, the story will have a happy ending because that reading soulmate who helped me in teasing apart distinctions to appreciate the mastery of The Good Soldier is just a phone call away.  

Monday, October 28, 2019

Dumping The Dubious

Although enduring Some Kind Of Monster will probably not be the last two hours I waste in whatever time remains of my life, I am on guard: Music documentaries - at least the ones about bands, anyway - have now joined historical fiction (except for the remaining novels I've yet to read by EL Doctorow) on a short list of things to largely avoid in the future.

Have you tortured yourself watching this execrable film? I hope not. But if, unlike me, you're a fan of Metallica - a fact that could logically tempt you to squander one hundred twenty precious minutes  - allow this promiscuous, now chastened, movie nut to suggest you also watch Rob Reiner's 1984 debut This Is Spinal Tap. Reiner's film is, mercifully, much shorter than the Metallica Monster Mess.

If you watch Spinal Tap before Monster, have fun smirking at the subsequent whining on endless display in Monster. Alternatively, if you decide to watch Monster first, be sure you're not eating or drinking when you later watch Spinal Tap - there's some danger you could choke on your food while laughing. Less seriously, you could douse anyone nearby with whatever you're drinking.

Is it too soon to hope that Some Kind Of Monster has persuaded me to surrender my indiscriminate movie jones? Care to join me in dumping something similarly dubious from your life?

Friday, October 25, 2019

Come Together

Ever since reading the liner notes on Joni Mitchell's 1979 album entitled Mingus, I've trained myself to pay closer attention to what she calls "coincidences that thrill my imagination." The way I see it, if these little frissons tickle Joni's muse, keying into the coincidences in my life could help enhance my creativity. How could it hurt?

And so it came to pass a few days ago that I had my most significant breakthrough on guitar in years. Playing Am I Blue - a musical gem from the early 20th century - several techniques I've been working on for five years all fell into place. In the midst of my solitary rapture, I happened to glance at the clock. It was 10:23 a.m. on 10/23.

When did you last have a similar experience, i.e. a date and time converging as magic occurred in your life? I'm still buzzing.

P.S. A shout-out to Bette Midler is in order. My first exposure to Am I Blue was hearing it on Bette's 1972 debut album The Divine Miss M. I owe you, Bette.    

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Risk Of Political Complacency

Had I known what the next three years would be like, rather than wasting my time writing and then publishing a post as frisky as this on October 22, 2016 ...

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/10/is-ouija-moving-toward-c-or-t.html

 … I would have instead spent the time just prior to the presidential election helping get out the vote in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Anything that might have mitigated what occurred a few short weeks later. My glib attitude three years ago today shames me.

After re-reading it - part of a longstanding pledge to re-visit older reflections from time to time (and encouraging you to try the same using your journals) - I considered deleting that post from my blog archives. But I hope retaining this painful reminder will help me keep future political complacency at bay.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Kindness Over Everything

Kindness over everything.

Reading those three words on the shirt of a little girl while waiting in line at my local convenience store, I was so overcome I almost didn't say anything to the adult standing by her side. I was sincerely worried that if I spoke at that moment, I would inexplicably break down in public, running the risk of both scaring the girl and embarrassing myself.

But, following a few deep breaths, I told the adult how moved I was by the simple message that shirt conveyed. The little girl heard me and smiled. And I made my getaway before melting down.

Imagine the world we could live in if each of us took those three words to heart even for just a few hours every day.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Celebrating Lessons Learned

With my 70th birthday looming, I guess it's predictable some of my recent reflections have revolved around lessons all these years have taught me. And I also suspect I'm like many other people in that sometimes it's easier to berate myself for mistakes made vs. acknowledging ways I've grown.

So, why not join me today - milestone birthday approaching or not - and celebrate your growth? My lessons learned are grouped by adult decades but please use any framework that makes sense to you.

In my 20s, I learned to be more discriminating in my reading choices. My clearest memories in this regard involve a musician friend with a massive home library that inspired me and the influence of my two sisters, the charter members of my reading posse.

In my 30s, I learned about making wiser dietary decisions. When a job with an expense account led me to order dessert at lunch & dinner - and my waistline began expanding accordingly - I decided some changes were in order. Beer also stopped being a major food group for me during that decade.

In my 40s, I learned ways to better navigate and maintain relationships. I wanted my new daughter to have a father who got along better with others. My wife had always been an excellent role model for me to emulate in this domain. Starting a meditation practice and regular journaling also helped.

In my 50s, I learned how to appreciate my musical side. Although I'd been a musician since thirteen, I never really fully understood what it meant to be musical until I began regularly teaching guitar to others. Therapy and a patient guitar teacher were also invaluable to me in this part of my journey.

In my 60s, I've learned there can never be too many ways to tap into creativity. This blog, my reading journals, my social justice work with Beyond Diversity, my adult education classes on music, my writing groups - each contribute to the creative churn that keeps my muse on high alert.

Won't you please celebrate with me and share your growth stories? I'm looking forward to updating this post in ten years when the lesson(s) of my 70s become clear to me. See you then.    

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What Friendship Really Looks Like

How do you show your friends how much they matter to you?

Try imagining the following: A friend you've known your whole life has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. He spends almost thirty years on death row before being fully exonerated by the United States Supreme Court. You visit him every week, without fail, for those thirty years.

Prior to reading Anthony Ray Hinton's memoir - The Sun Does Shine (2018) - I'd always thought of myself as a dedicated friend. But Hinton's childhood friend Lester Bailey, who never missed a single visiting day at Holman State Prison during Hinton's unimaginable nightmare, demonstrates what true friendship really looks like. 

Learning of Hinton's otherworldly grace and Lester Bailey's unfailing dedication while reading this book was humbling. But the story would not have had a happy ending if not for the legal brilliance and unwavering advocacy of the Equal Justice Initiative, the brainchild of author, lawyer, and social justice wunderkind Bryan Stevenson, who also wrote the moving forward to The Sun Does Shine. 

(Final mention must go to Lara Love Hardin who assisted Hinton in telling his story.)    

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Gift Of A Lifetime

In my experience, stories of estranged siblings are fairly commonplace. It's probably no surprise that many of the stories I've heard often involve money. How consistent is this with your experience?

Although I seem to be taken aback each time I hear about siblings who have had a falling out or have drifted apart - for many reasons - I try to suppress my surprise and sadness. Though my befuddlement is more difficult to conceal when sordid money stories surface, that too gets supplanted by gratitude when I consider my story.

Given his lack of education and steady but unremarkable work history, neither I nor my brother and  sisters had any expectation about an inheritance when Dad died in 1997. We were then surprised to learn of a small estate to be equally divided between us four. At the time I fully expected - as executor - some further questions about Dad's will. I was never asked a single question. Their complete trust in me during this painful period in our lives was the most gracious gift the three of them have ever given to me, a gift I will never forget.

Recently listening to another heartbreaking sibling story, those difficult months twenty two years ago returned to me. How fortunate I am.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Growth Facilitated Via Writing

Since the inception of this blog in March 2011, there have been just a handful of dates - like today - where I've published a post every year. I've indulged myself on that handful of dates by re-reading the previous posts, primarily to see what might have shifted for me over the ensuing years. If you keep a journal of any kind, why not join me in this harmless, albeit self-referential, exercise? After doing so, if you discover a shift or uncover an insight you captured on a previous October 13 that you have since forgotten, please share that shift or insight here. If you're uncomfortable doing that, communicate with me offline. Either way, I'm interested.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/10/words-that-can-haunt-me-part-5-risk.html

Eight years later, the word risk does not haunt me nearly as much. And my improved relationship with risk has everything to do with this blog. Continually declaring my goals publicly here, and then  having others periodically remind me of those goals, has had an effect in other domains of my life. For example, in 2017 I took a financial risk that would have been unthinkable for me on October 13, 2011.

I'm confident I'll face risk even more squarely in the future than I do now. I didn't know it then but my progress with this fraught word began soon after publishing the post above. Yet another example of growth facilitated via writing.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Crabby Covers: A Musical

When listening to a musician perform a song they did not compose, can you readily identify what draws you to their interpretation of that song? Or, is it a little easier to pinpoint what is not working for you when someone covers someone else's material?

I enjoy both radical re-imaginings of songs - e.g. Joe Cocker's take on the Beatles song With A Little Help From My Friends -  as well as slavish re-makes like Simply Red's version of If You Don't Know Me By Now, a Leon Gamble & Kenny Huff composition first recorded by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes. Both work for me in a big way because each feels true to the essence of the original.

On the other hand, what plausible explanation could be offered for skipping a significant chunk of a lyric like Prince did in his version of Joni Mitchell's A Case Of You? I suppose the purple one - BTW, someone whose original music I like a great deal - could be forgiven had he chosen to cover a song by a lesser lyricist, like say, Steve Miller (he of the infamous taxes vs. Texas not-even-close-to-rhyming couplet). But if you're going to do a Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon or Stephen Sondheim song, is it too much to ask for a cover to include a majority of the original lyric? After all, A Case Of You isn't even close to being as lyrically dense as the average Dylan or early Bruce Springsteen song.

Though I've got plenty of other examples why some covers work for me and why others annoy the hell out of me, I'm keeping them to myself until I hear from at least a few of you.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Gifts From Friends

Tomorrow, when we rendezvous with five other couples we met on our first Road Scholar trip to Alaska in 2015, it will be the fifth year in a row we've vacationed with these folks. And though four others from our original group of sixteen cannot join us for the week we'll be spending on Florida's Amelia Island, three new people - friends of my new friends - are joining our fold this year.

For weeks, my energy has been surging as the time I'll be spending with these later-in-life soulmates has approached. Then an opening lyric and a melody came to me simultaneously ("It began in Alaska in 2015; a discussion, perhaps, of some places we've seen?" ) From there, I was further energized by the creative challenge of completing a song recounting some of our shared history.

At nine stanzas long, Ballad for Scholars on the Road far exceeds the average length of a reflection from this bell curve. Anyway, most of it would probably be of little interest to anyone aside from the sixteen folks (+ the new three) mentioned therein. No matter; I hope some new people in your life have given you at least one of the gifts these people have given to me - inspiration, energy, joy.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Nothing To Envy

Reading about the North Korean defectors in Nothing To Envy (2010), my mind kept searching for an adequate and fresh way to describe their plight. And although author Barbara Demick is too talented to fall back on that stale "triumph of the human spirit" tripe, that's the best this less skilled writer can summon this moment. From the late 70s to the present, North Koreans have endured hardship that reads like science fiction.

Like many first-rate non-fiction books, Demick's harrowing oral history of six "...ordinary lives..." is something I probably would not have picked on my own - a trusted reader recommended it to me. I also wouldn't describe it as a pleasant reading experience. But, each time I do read something like this - provided the author, like Demick, has worked assiduously at their craft - I try to learn a bit more about what it really means to be resilient. The obstacles we encounter daily in our privileged lives are so puny compared to what is described in Nothing To Envy. I yearn to be more consistently successful retaining this perspective in the future when faced with a minor, laughable inconvenience.

Strong and compelling, start to finish, Demick really hit her stride in Chapter 14, entitled The River. The defection scene in that chapter was perfectly modulated - tense, without being capital "D" dramatic; inspiring without ever crossing into mushy-land. If any of you decide to read this book, please share your impressions with me. You can do so with a comment here so others will know your thoughts, or write something offline to me if you're hesitant about being "public" with your thoughts. Either way, I'm curious to hear from you.  

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Can I Get A Do Over?

For the large majority of my full time work life, I was responsible for supervising others. And I'm speaking of real supervision, which includes doing performance assessments. Because until you've sat eye-to-eye with another adult to review the ways a job performance needs to be improved, you may have had a supervisory title but you've never really been tested. I directly supervised people in the private sector, the public sector, and in my own business.

Because I've been happily out of the supervisory game for almost ten years now, I've had a lot of time to reflect on those years of supervising. I had some success, worked hard at learning how to do better via formal and informal education, tried to be fair and treat people equitably. But because everyone is supervised - including people who themselves supervise - my reflections on my own performance as a supervisor have frequently ended with comparing how I did that job vs. the people who supervised me, i.e. those who were responsible for doing my performance assessments. And those comparisons often make me long for a do-over.

There were a few things my best supervisors did consistently that I didn't do with those I supervised, or, at least, I didn't do these things consistently:

* They largely let go of details, focusing more on the big picture.
* They were careful with their constructive criticism, i.e. they were honest yet tactful.
* Their egos were not easily threatened.

If you are or have ever been a supervisor, how do you think you stack up against the best supervisors you've had? What do they do well that you don't do as well? If you aspire to being a supervisor, my suggestion is to not wait until you're in the position before you begin thinking about the ways you can be effective in that role. May prevent you from longing for a do-over a half-century from now.

Friday, September 27, 2019

An Unimaginable World

Although Danny Boyle's current movie Yesterday disappointed this Beatles geek, I recently flashed on it when my writers group asked me for a prompt. Boyle's film in mind, I suggested we all write about a favorite Beatles song. Imagine my dismay when I was asked to provide examples of songs!

The last time I experienced a shock as severe to my sensitive music-began-with-the-Beatles system was several years ago. On that fateful day, I began one of my music courses - wordlessly - by playing just the chord that opens A Hard Day's Night. Scanning the room of ostensible music enthusiasts, I was chastened to detect only a faint glimmer of recognition and not much enthusiasm. Did I learn a lesson when the shimmering chord that rocked my world did not appear to rock the world of my students? Apparently, I did not.

Which brings me back to the silver cloud of inspiration emerging from the disheartening realization that I was the sole Beatles fan in my writers group. Directly below are three brief paragraphs. Each  contains only Beatles' song titles - with no filler words - concatenated to create a short but cohesive narrative. My first experiment with this model was in two posts entitled The Song Is You (Jerome Kern), published a year apart in June 2013 & 2014. In this third iteration, I've used only Beatles songs as a nod to Danny Boyle. His central premise in Yesterday - a world without the musical magic of the Beatles being unimaginable - is a sentiment at least he and I share. I'd welcome reading any attempt you might make at constructing a narrative using song titles. Mix them up like I did in 2013 & 2014. Or, use just the song titles of a favorite artist or band. Either way, you'll have some fun living inside  music for a while.


I want to tell you something. I've got a feeling all you need is love. I will help.

Hold me tight because do you want to know a secret? Tomorrow never knows. Yesterday, the night before? Let it be. Things we said today? A day in the life; we can work it out.

I need you, what you're doing, in my life. Wait; it won't be long - every little thing getting better.  Anytime at all, when I get home, I'm happy just to dance with you.

The End.


https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-song-is-you.html

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-song-is-you-reprise.html

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

That "I" Word

Ever notice the word you'll often use when someone says something that doesn't interest you at all is "interesting"? Pay closer attention to how many times you mindlessly utter that word, and how others unthinkingly say the same when you speak. I realize small talk serves a useful social purpose. At the same time, our ubiquitous use of the word interesting in fact reveals how totally uninteresting small talk really is.

Although tempted to scream "dull!" when someone's small talk is lulling me into a coma, so far, I've avoided doing that; my mother would be proud. But, lately I've also been avoiding reflexively saying "interesting" in those harmless conversational situations. I've switched to a non-committal  "huh" or an equally unthreatening nod or shoulder shrug,  meant to convey -  dishonestly - that I'm still paying attention.

I hear you out there - "Interesting, Pat." Translation of interesting this time = Get to the point. OK, the reason I've been reflecting on this and putting more effort into reducing my use of the "I" word when trapped in a small talk web is my concern that that meaningless word could find a way to sneak into conversations where it doesn't belong. I do not want to hear myself say "interesting" when offensive or insensitive statements are made or when an alternative fact is offered when a challenge or even a mild admonishment would be more appropriate.  And, more important, I want to be paying closer attention to the words others use when responding to me in any conversation transcending the weather, the latest Twitter battle, what someone had for dinner last night. In any non-small-talk conversation, I'm now on high alert if I speak and someone says "interesting."

Sunday, September 22, 2019

My Debt To The Future

Although I know it's pathetically naïve, young people around the world trying to make their voices heard about the issue of climate change this past Friday has given me some hope.

Of the signs I saw on Friday at an event in Red Bank, the one being held by a ten-year old that said "Respect Our Future" was the most powerful and the most heartbreaking. That sign prompted me to imagine a conversation with my future grandchildren should they ask me what action I took to draw attention to climate change. If you're already a grandparent, how would you answer?

Given the overwhelming scientific evidence, what reasonable explanation can any world leader offer for continuing inaction to begin addressing this crisis? My concern deepens with every article I read, every podcast I listen to, every rally I attend. But I'm committed to continuing to do the little I can and hopefully influence the small network of people in my life to do the same. I owe that much to the future.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/09/awaking-my-activism.html

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Beware: Runaway Adverbs Ahead

"When I wake up the dreams seem boringly predictable, but when I'm inside them they are terrifyingly - or orgasmically real." 

I'm guessing even an attentive reader might not notice a writer artless enough to use three adverbs in a sentence of nineteen words. But if you're going to write a groaner like the one above - and worse, your editor doesn't lunge for their red pen - at least make sure all three adverbs clear Spellcheck!

The crude clichés were unleashed early in this 2012 bestseller. Somewhere around page fifty "mental masturbation" gracelessly appeared; still more than two hundred fifty pages left. I distracted myself temporarily by reading the gushing blurbs on the back cover and wondered: Did these other authors - some of whom I've enjoyed reading - really read this book? If so, are they perhaps related to the author of this novel stuffed with tired phrases and runaway adverbs?

Until I finish my own first book - not to mention find a publisher and then make the bestseller list - I remain committed to my pledge to not identify by title any book with prose like this one that makes me shudder. However, if the editor of my first book overlooks any stupefyingly puerile, breathlessly anecdotal, or orgasmically overwrought prose in my debut, I hope one of you will come to my rescue. I will be truly, deeply, and eternally grateful.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Money And That Shifting Line

I'm not proud admitting it, but watching Felicity Huffman get her public comeuppance is giving me a little schadenfreude-tinged satisfaction. Still, I also believe no one knows what they'd do in a given situation until they're faced with that situation. I'd like to think I'd have made different choices if I had Huffman's $$$. But having a daughter in show business and no nepotism mojo has often been a real drag. Claiming the moral high ground from a cheap seat like mine is as easy as it is intellectually lazy.
 
So, my schadenfreude-tinged satisfaction aside, I'm inclined to credit Huffman's tearful statements of contrition above anyone who asserts they would "never" do for their child anything like what she did for her daughter. Who is kidding who here?

Where is the line in the sand? I could afford to give my daughter music lessons, send her to England to study Shakespeare, get her a math tutor when she needed one. I was happy to do it and didn't give much thought to the advantages that gave her over children whose parents could not afford the same. I didn't pay someone to take SATs for her, bribe anyone to get her into a college she wasn't qualified to attend, lie about her athletic abilities. But, with Felicity Huffman's $$$, which other lines might I  have crossed to give my daughter even more advantages?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Conspiring To Commit Beauty

"Music is a conspiracy to commit beauty." -  Jose Abreu

In a life filled with rich moments, I would estimate more than half those moments have involved music in some way. More than a half-century ago, I sat in front of my first drum set; the world just felt right. What has given you the kind of continuous joy music has given me?

And what a gift it has been being able to devote even more time to music since I stopped working full time almost ten years ago. I play guitar every day, teach guitar two days a week, develop and deliver music classes at colleges, libraries, etc., a wonderful addition to this domain of my life that requires me to read about and listen to music continually. I perform and jam whenever opportunities arise and compose even when my muse is stubborn. A few years ago - realizing a long-postponed goal - my daughter sang eight of my original songs and we completed a CD.

At nearly seventy, I'm grateful beyond measure to still be conspiring to commit beauty.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Being Purposeful With Adjectives

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/11/goal-for-year-69.html

I'm fast approaching the end of my one year resolution to read only authors new to me. Have any of you readers ever tried something like this for any period of time? Though it's been a bit harder than I anticipated, the joy I've derived discovering talented authors has made it worthwhile.

In his confident debut novel We Begin Our Ascent (2018), Joe Mongo Reid ushered me into the world of competitive cycling. The grueling rigor and moral compromises of cyclists competing in the Tour De France are framed by a wholly believable story of a young couple who are new parents trying to find their way. Reid's understated, muscular prose ably supports his solid narrative. I knew from the start this author would not disappoint.

"He gives an unsteady laugh, a laugh that suggests he is on the edge of some other emotion."

"I have worried about Liz being beguiled by Rafael, by his claustrophobic certainty..."

"We have given ourselves over to him, Liz and I, to this look of mild amusement at our plight." 

Each of those sentences reveal Reid's sure hand via his adjectives - unsteady, claustrophobic, mild. I have lost count how many books I've read with overcooked adjectives calling attention to themselves in bad sentences.

" ' So, here we are', she says". Using six one syllable words, the novel ambiguously concludes its tale, the elegance of those simple words meshing perfectly with the tone Reid established on page one.

Friday, September 6, 2019

I'm A Happy Man

www.roadscholar.org

Ever since being upbraided a few years back by someone who thought I was not-very-subtly bragging about my intellect, whenever mentioning my involvement with Road Scholar I now quickly interject "Not the smart people, the travel group that used to be called elder hostels." So, the website opening this post is for any reader who might have mistakenly - but understandably - mixed me up with Kris Kristofferson, Bill Clinton, Cory Booker.

Now that my wife is leading groups for Road Scholar (not the smart people, the travel group that used to be called elder hostels), I'm looking forward to joining her next week in the Adirondacks, her idea of heaven. And, if my last five years travelling with Road Scholar are an indication, the people in her group will be interesting, well read, stimulating company. Even though my time with them will be limited to meals, anticipating the conversations, book recommendations, and political camaraderie has me energized.

A week in the mountains with my wife - at least at mealtimes and later in the evening - my guitar, a bag of books, my bicycle, meeting new people. I'm a happy man.      

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Yeah, But ...

"Hey old-timer!"

Since being addressed in that fashion about a week ago, my brain and ego have been in a battle. My brain no sooner says "Face it, I am old", before my ego says "But I don't feel old."

Brain: "I'll be seventy in less than three months - that's old." Seconds later, the ego (via Hallmark) chimes in: "Seventy is just a number."

Ego: "I'll trim or get rid of the white beard." Brain: "My hair is almost as white."

Brain: "Who cares how old people think I look?"  Ego (Buddhist readers, mea culpa): "I do."

Ego: "What a rude thing for a stranger to say to me."  Brain: "Why the thin skin? Grow up!" 

Brain (via every self-help book ever published): "Every day upright beats the alternative." Ego: "Yeah, but …"

Friday, August 30, 2019

Bookonnection

bookonnection: a phenomenon frequently occurring for avid readers when they discover a passage that connects them back to an earlier beloved book. The new passage can be of any length and often assists the receptive reader to re-experience anew the magic of the earlier book. 

Although my experience with bookonnection pre-dates the book club of two that a reading soulmate and I began in 2015, while recently discussing the Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong (1993) with her, I decided a neologism was now necessary. Each time the two of us meet to discuss a book, the air gets charged with these reading-induced synaptic sparks. The bookonnections this time included ...

* When Faulks recounts the claustrophobic work done by English soldiers/miners in World War I - digging tunnels beneath the German trenches - I was transported back to the first half of Emma Donoghue's harrowing and brilliant 2010 novel Room. Each book so masterfully depicts a closed-in world that my breath grew a little shallow as I read.

* In one excruciating passage, a secondary character in Birdsong tries in vain to convey to his father the horrors he has endured on the front; his father changes the subject. That scene connected me to a single three page sentence from the stunning Yellow Birds (2012) by Kevin Powers. Different wars but a striking similarity in how the authors relate the inadequacy of words to describe combat as well as the cluelessness of non-combatants.

* Near the end of Anthony Marra's masterpiece A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena (2014), a doomed character rejoices in the knowledge that his daughter is alive. His life is about to end but he joyously screams his daughter's name to his captors. Near the end of Birdsong, a similarly doomed man speaks movingly of his love for his son. Uncovering this bookonnection during that recent book discussion - and re-experiencing the intense pleasure of Marra's book - was restorative.

I would love to hear about your most recent bookonnection. Please?

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

HIGH ALERT: Sports Fans Needed

I can understand someone not liking anchovies. But whenever I hear someone say they don't like sports, my reaction is about the same as when someone says they don't like music, i.e. what's not to like? BTW, I like anchovies.

That said, although I could be asked to relinquish my gender card confessing this, when it comes to discussing, reading about, or following sports I am, at best, indifferent. Being a spectator? Less than indifferent. Why then, this post, not the first of which has used sports as a hook in its title ? Simple - I will stoop to any level to attract readers.

So, as a less-than-indifferent spectator, I'd like the opinion of sports fans. With respect to watching, regardless of which sports you play or perhaps even excel in, I submit every sport has relative merit.  Let's call it that sport's excitement index. Sports fans, how would you rank - most exciting to least - the following five in my index? Basketball, bowling, curling, golf, tennis.

Once you've got those five ranked, unless curling is your #1, proceed to step two and slot these next five somewhere into a top ten: Baseball, figure skating, football, horse racing, skiing. The hit parade has top twenty so to get sports on an even playing field with music, add bicycle racing, boxing, ice hockey, lacrosse, long distance running, pool, racecar driving, soccer, swimming, surfing to round out the top twenty. If any sports fan has trouble ranking from #1 down to #20, let me suggest you pretend you have to pay to watch. I think you'll discover my excitement index, less-than-indifferent spectator or not, has some face validity.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Cast Away

Who would you hand pick to play the lead role in a movie made about your life?

Call this fantasy grandiose, if judging me makes you feel better. Although my answer is coming, I'm not expecting any responses to this question; I'm sure you have never harbored such a self-indulgent thought. And if you have, I'm just as sure you wouldn't admit it "publicly", a sin I'll soon commit. I'm even more sure I'm not the only one on the bell curve, i.e. someone whose life story has no chance of ever being so immortalized, to have ever entertained such a fantasy.

Just in case any reader is brave enough to own up to sharing my folly, below are a few guidelines I used to pick the famous face that others will see as me on a silver screen. Use or discard these - or invent some of your own - but I feel obligated as the deranged casting director for this exercise, to offer them, let's say, for your consideration.

* I selected someone of my own gender with moderately-difficult-to-pinpoint ethnic ancestry.

* The person portraying me had to have credibly played a musician at least once in their career.

* Since the film will feature my doppelganger recounting a riveting life story - flashback style as he sits on a porch, guitar nearby - the famous face should look about my age, give or take ten years.

My next task is contacting the manager or agent of Jeff Bridges. Anyone not yet looking down at me - wish me luck. To those lost in snarky and/or superior thoughts - keep them to yourself as I cast away. .    

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Private First Class Edward Barton

My Dad fought in World War II but, like most vets of his generation, never spoke of his experiences. In fact, although I'm sure my life's path has brought me into contact with people who've seen combat during a stint in the military, I don't recall ever having a single conversation about that subject. Has any vet who has seen action ever shared any part of their experiences with you? Imagining myself in those circumstances gives me serious pause. What could I possibly say? Would I have the good sense to say very little?

"Death had no meaning, but still the numbers of them went on and on and in that infinity, there was still horror." Reading that sentence about midway through Birdsong (1993), the best I could do was be grateful for a life that has never put me in harm's way. How does anyone find their way back to a life after the kind of combat trauma Sebastian Faulks describes in his graphic World War I novel?

"We forget we have very nearly died today as we wait to die again tomorrow."  The closest I will ever come to knowing the terror that must have gripped my Dad stepping onto the beach at Normandy is via a sentence like that one from John Boyne's 2011 novel The Absolutist, which also takes place in World War I. Books like Birdsong and The Absolutist and movies like Saving Private Ryan are useful vehicles for me to better understand my late Father's time in combat. How I miss him.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Air That I Breathe

What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success are irrelevant?

Some questions can be life altering. Since first coming across the one above in Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic in 2015, I've used it dozens of times to free myself from creative paralysis. What works for you under similar circumstances?

On frustrating days I've had playing my guitar since 2015, one thing is guaranteed to get me out of my head - that question. It also helps silence my inner critic when that voice second guesses the value of a blog post. Even if they're never played for anyone, songs get completed because that question reminds me how alive I feel in the act of creating.

"...leaving me with only two choices: I can resume the slog … thereby risking further failure and despair, or I can guarantee failure by not pushing through." That gobsmacking insight about the exquisite pain of the creative process is from Sally Mann's 2015 memoir Hold Still. When I unearth a gem like Mann's insight or Gilbert's question, I'm reminded yet again of the restorative power of the written word. Words like these are oxygen for my own creative process.      

Friday, August 16, 2019

Back To The Future

What habit most recently ensnared you?

For several years the town nearby had an independent coffee shop I liked a great deal; good coffee, friendly staff, nice vibe. Though disappointed when it closed a few years back, I quickly developed the habit of walking to a different nearby place even though the coffee wasn't quite as good and the employees rarely acknowledged me. Then the old place re-opened about a year ago, right across the street from their original location.

But until earlier today, sitting in the less-favorite coffee shop writing in my journal, I was oblivious to how totally my habit had ensnared me. One of my most dependable riffs during my years doing adult education was extolling the value of mindfulness. I've lost track of how many books, articles, and lectures have reinforced for me the notion that habit can trap all of us. But somehow, during all my recent visits to that less-favorite coffee shop vs. returning to the re-opened one, all that teaching and learning was lost.

Begin, again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Forgive Me My Trespasses

Considering what some critics have written and the mostly positive word-of-mouth I've heard, my view of several recent films prominently featuring music likely won't persuade many folks to join my bell curve minions. Will offering alternatives prevent a wide scale exodus? I live in hope.

OK, I'll concede the last twenty minutes of Bohemian Rhapsody - the part when Queen plays at Live Aid - are musically thrilling and dramatically moving. But, the preceding 3/4 of that film, especially the musical clichés and melodramatic meetings with the stereotyped suits stifling Queen's VISION, are nearly as over-the-top as some of Queen's catalog. Though it's not a perfect film, try I Walk The Line instead. And I'm not even a big fan of country or Johnny Cash's music.

Rocket Man's good moments are more evenly distributed than Bohemian Rhapsody's. I'm pleased, really I am, Elton John got sober and found a life partner. But there are about five too many crying scenes in Rocket Man. Listen, I cry at commercials but Bette Davis didn't shed this many tears over her entire film career. Also, some of the song choices (Crocodile Rock? Really?) are just wrong. If unlike me, musical biopics are your thing, try Ray instead; not perfect but, far less weeping.

Echo in the Canyon? Deadly dull, philosophically sophomoric, songs re-done in keys that drain every ounce of energy they ever had - a mess. If you like musical documentaries, try instead The Wrecking Crew or Twenty Feet from Stardom or Still on the Run.

Which brings me to strike four. I am an un-reconstructed Beatles geek. The trailer for Yesterday - Danny Boyle's recently released film, starring a charismatic newcomer and fine singer named Himish Patel - hooked me with its central conceit, i.e. a worldwide blackout erases all traces of the Beatles music. Of the four films here, this one almost worked the best. But, although Backbeat is not as high concept as Yesterday, you can re-experience the magic and energy of the Beatles more authentically via that 1994 release. Nowhere Boy, also a low key film with the Beatles at its core, is just as good as Backbeat. 

What are a few of your favorite films that prominently feature music or musicians? I hope if you're one of the folks who really enjoyed one of the recent four that didn't work for me, you'll forgive me my trespasses.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Seven Years, Nine Months, Three Hundred Songs

Which long-range goal have you most recently attained?

Back  in November 2011, inspired by the film Julie & Julia - a different recipe every day for a year - and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - Nina Sankovitch's memoir describing how she read a new book every day for a year - I gave myself one year to get my jazz guitar repertoire up to three hundred fully memorized songs. Although that number - at least in that time frame - turned out to be wildly over-ambitious, it wasn't chosen arbitrarily; I knew approximately three hundred tunes by heart when my voice gave out in 1978, forcing me at that time to abandon my acoustic guitar and singing act and get a day job. I decided late in 2011 it was time to fully commit to this music as I did to rock n' roll over the first half of my life.  

Today, seven years and almost nine months later, John Coltrane's Giant Steps was added to my list as song #300. Although dismayed it took so long to reach the goal, the positive by-products of all my   diligent practicing and memorizing on my playing are noticeable, even to me. On a recent gig with a good friend, I smiled at my improvising on the Richard Rodgers ballad You Are Too Beautiful. I know this might not seem like much to many people but being satisfied with an improvisational idea, no matter how briefly, is heaven to someone like me.

Phase two of the project - mum's the word on time frames this time - is recording myself doing all three hundred. Wish me luck.  

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

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

My Debt To A Great Writer

As a lifelong avid reader, many authors have given me the gift of their words. But the impact of Toni Morrison's words on me as a reader and thinker place her in a different category than most of those other authors.

Since Morrison's death two days ago, I've been reflecting on the debt I owe to her singular talent. Had I not read Song of Solomon (1977) - my first exposure to Morrison - it's unlikely I'd have soon after returned to the coruscating essays and painful novels of James Baldwin. If I'd not then gone back and read Morrison's first two novels - The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1974), my later appreciation for her masterwork - Beloved (1987) - would probably not have been as nuanced.

Throughout the 80's and into the 90's, Morrison's transformative novels and provocative essays informed my growing awareness of white privilege and the corrosive legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, as well as helping me understand how great writing can help shape an open mind. My favorite Morrison book, Tar Baby (1981), though one of her lesser-known, remains to this day the novel about race I'm most inclined to recommend to seekers. And, had I never read that, or Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992) or, most recently, God Help the Child (2015), other challenging but worthwhile books about the African-American experience by authors like Paul Beatty, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Marlon James could have easily bypassed, enraged, or confused me.

I can never re-pay the debt I owe to the extraordinary Toni Morrison. To which author do you owe a similar debt?

 https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2012/05/attention-sports-fans.html      

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Healing

"Writing is the act of self-discovery": David Hare

Even after a lifetime collecting pithy quotes, playwright David Hare's words remain the ones I most frequently cite. Both my journal and this blog have continually reinforced for me the wisdom Hare captures in just six words.

Case in point: Eight years ago today I published a blog post requesting assistance with a lifelong struggle. Though I didn't know it then, writing of my struggle - muted response to the request aside - was the critical first step needed to heal myself. Though the issue hasn't magically disappeared, I am better. And the only way I know I'm better is because of what I wrote on August 3, 2011 and how I feel on August 3, 2019.

What has been the most recent instance demonstrating to you the wisdom of David Hare's words?

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/08/help-wantedteachers.html

Thursday, August 1, 2019

National Music Day

Into perpetuity, I hereby decree August 1 will be known as National Music Day. Although all seven of my previous proposals to establish a national holiday in the month Hallmark has mysteriously overlooked have been ingenious, it's odd that this particularly irresistible idea was not the first one I proposed back in 2012. No matter - onto the details; your input is welcome.

* On August 1 beginning next year, concerts with multiple acts will be held in, let's say, two dozen major markets. Each market will feature a different type of music and on each subsequent August 1, the type of music in each market will shift. For example, New York in 2020 could feature jazz, San Francisco could feature country, Miami could feature opera. In 2021 New York switches to folk, San Francisco to R&B, Miami to rap. And so on, into perpetuity. I'd gladly make travel plans knowing in advance which market to head for each August 1.
* Every August 1, all U.S. television stations will feature only music all day. No news, no pundits, no sitcoms; music documentaries allowed. At least a few stations will be dedicated to broadcasting the concerts mentioned above - live - during this twenty four hour period.
* All satellite radio stations featuring music would be free all day every August 1.

OK, we need a national spokesperson for this holiday. I propose myself. But I'll defer to a famous musician - Bruce, Norah Jones, Beyoncé - provided he/she agrees to have lunch with me on National Music Day. Should banks & government offices close and mass transit go on holiday schedules? I vote no; too many potential obstacles. Nothing changes or closes on Valentine's Day - let's keep it simple like that. August 1 - no need to sweat school closings. What am I missing?

Ah yes, branding is everything, right? Your idea for a clever marketing slogan for National Music Day to ensure my brilliant idea takes off? Come on, that's the least you can do.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Open Letter To Miles Nadal

Dear Mr. Nadal;

Re your recent purchase of a pair of 1972 Nike Waffle Racing Flat "Moon Shoes" for $437,500 at Sotheby's. I was wondering - Do you plan to ever wear these rare sneakers? More importantly, are they in your size?

Assuming they are in your size and you do plan to wear them, allow me to suggest you do so only in broad daylight in places where a lot of people regularly congregate and police are nearby.

If you're not planning to ever wear this footwear, will you store it in a climate-controlled setting? Will interested spectators be able to view them? If yes, how much will you charge for admission? Would you consider a sliding scale for admission?

Last question: How much will shoelaces for these bad boys set you back?

Sincerely (and bewildered),

Pat Barton (White New Balance, on sale right now for $75.00 at DSW, in case you were wondering)