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Friday, May 31, 2019

My Friend Ambiguity

I'm not surprised Wakefield escaped my radar upon its release in 2016. The film's ambiguous ending likely destined it for a brief run in theaters. Too bad; this movie deserves to be seen and discussed. If you happen to catch it on cable TV, please share your impressions with me and others.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's updated version of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story, the title character is portrayed - with predictable excellence - by Bryan Cranston. The central premise of escaping a life that has become routine is not new but Doctorow/Hawthorne spin that tale in intriguing, imaginative, and comical fashion. And who among us has never entertained Howard Wakefield's fantasy, however briefly?

Though films using a lot of voiceover can sometimes annoy me, that device worked beautifully for Wakefield. My guess? Much of the voiceover material - intelligent, insightful, and bitterly funny - was lifted directly from Doctorow. Soon after watching the movie, I put Doctorow's 2008 short story near the top of my post-November reading queue. I will be greedily devouring it right after my one-year resolve to read only authors new to me concludes. Anyone out there already read it? Is the ending ambiguous? I bet it is.


Tuesday, May 28, 2019

When No Problem Makes No Sense

Over the next week, pay close attention to what others say when ...

* You thank them for something or ...
* A person in the service industry responds to a routine request you make.

Using just these two simple and common situations, I'm curious to compare how many times you hear the phrase "no problem" over the next week vs. how often I do. When exactly did "no problem" replace "you're welcome" in the common parlance? In your view, is "no problem" more likely to be used by one generation vs. another? If you answered yes, which generation do you think is more fond of this ubiquitous modern coinage - baby boomers, Gen X, millennials, the iGeneration?

I'm usually neutral when someone uses this phrase in either of the situations I asked about above. At the same time, I am often struck by how inappropriate the same phrase can be in other situations. So, pay close attention to those other situations as well over this next week. Then let's compare examples of when "no problem" makes no sense.


Sunday, May 26, 2019

When Our Own Words Provide Solace

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

In 2014, I suggested some of you might benefit taking an occasional backward glance at something  captured in a journal entry you made on the same date three or more years back. In those instances over the last five years when I've used this blog to follow my own suggestion, my reactions to what I'd previously written here have been - perhaps predictably - a mixed bag. I've noticed both growth and backsliding. Some announced goals have been realized; others abandoned. I've been pleased with my honesty and cringed at my over-sharing. If you have joined me, re-visiting your younger self, I'd welcome hearing what shifts you've detected over the ensuing years.  

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/05/re-thinking-originality-in-my-voice.html

Before today I've never been tempted to print out a post - as I will do shortly with the one above from four years ago today - so I can place the printout somewhere easily visible from this laptop. I can hear you from cyberspace. What would possess even a solipsistic blogger - redundant as that phrase may be - to do something so obnoxiously self-referential?

The answer lies in playwright David Hare's wise words. On May 26, 2015 the conclusions I reached about being hobbled by originality - conclusions that surfaced as I wrote - were worthy of embracing and remembering. To be given solace by my own words four years later is a gift I will not let go of no matter how self-referential it may be. Please don't judge me. In turn, if you share written words of your own that you've chosen to print out and post somewhere, I won't judge you either.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Amount Of Stipend: To Be Negotiated

Here's a harmless project for you; I'm offering a stipend for any participants. Pay close attention to the next twenty conversations you're either involved in or conversations you overhear. (I'll resist saying eavesdrop because I know you'd never do that.) 

Part 1: Do an informal tally and report back here how many of those twenty conversations make no mention of the following: 

* family
* food or drink
* the weather

Be sure to listen for variations because these three favorites often overlap, e.g. "You won't believe how much my brother-in-law can drink!" or "Why do people feel the need to buy a year's supply of cereal when an inch of snow is predicted?", etc. If more than 25% of the conversations you're involved with or overhear have none of these three, that stipend awaits.   

Part 2: Try introducing into a conversation any of the taboo conversational subjects many of us were taught to avoid: Money, religion, sex. To those of you who would say politics belongs on that short list, I contend that in our overheated Sharpton vs. Limbaugh era, politics is no longer taboo. In any case, after introducing money, religion, or sex, note how long it takes for the conversation to either … a.) grind to a halt,  or ..  b.) get hot and I don't mean because of the sex. I posit one of those two things will happen within ten minutes. But again, report any contrary findings here to collect that stipend.

Note to conversational counter-revolutionaries: Please share here the topic of your last meaningful conversation as long as said conversation had no mention of family, food or drink, or the weather and didn't end abruptly or with a screaming match when money, religion, or sex were introduced. Sorry, sports lovers - Super Bowls and Hall of Fame inductees don't quite clear my meaningful bar. BTW, I encourage eavesdropping - aside from getting some juicy stuff, I think you'll get support for these reflections.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Magnet? Glue? Dessert?

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin) still has me aching more than a week later. If you're a reader, this 2014 treasure will speak to you on a few levels. At some point, I will devote an entire post to it. But first, I must recover.

In the meanwhile, ever since finishing Zevin's novel, inspired by the main relationship in her book, I've been continually reflecting on the life my wife and I have built together. Has literature played a significant role in any long term partnership in your life? Was it the magnet that drew you to an important person? Or, like my partnership and marriage, is it more like a glue that has helped bond the relationship? Or, is it perhaps more like dessert, i.e. an occasional treat you share with a special person in your life?

From my perspective, the magnet that first drew us together was music. My wife and I first spoke in April 1978 at a place where I was playing solo. Many of our earliest conversations were about music; she still recalls flattering comments I made about the cassette collection in her car at the time. And that music magnet still works its magic. Then, not long after we met, we discovered a shared passion for literature that has steadily grown over forty one years. In a moving passage in A.J. Fikry, the rapture two people can experience bonding over a book jointly loved reminded me of the first time I read aloud to my wife from Gore Vidal's Kalki. I also clearly recall the first hardcover she ever gave me as a gift - John Irving's The World According to Garp. I still have that book with her inscription - "A different author - I hope you like him!" And I did. Irving's novels were an early glue during our first fifteen years. Since then, EL Doctorow, Barbara Kingsolver, John Updike have all contributed to our bond.
   
Our dessert? Any regular reader will probably guess - movies. I'm much less discriminating in my choice of desserts - almost anything appeals to me. My wife? Most things British work for her; she steers clear of the gruesome stuff; and she tolerates my indiscriminate sweet tooth, bless her heart.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Bert Lahr's Vocal Heirs

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOCNY9pJ850

Play the You Tube clip above with your eyes closed. Which popular singers from the last sixty years would you say were heavily influenced by the Cowardly Lion's vocal style?

My top three candidates are Johnny Mathis, Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees and Aaron Neville. Don't believe me? Listen carefully to the three clips directly below.

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=johnny+mathis+chances+are#id=1&vid=b2eee68afa2ccc8f86e96c665d1dd90e&action=click

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=bee+gees+how+can+you+mend+a+broken+heart#id=0&vid=e63b4ad0a88aff73155efdf0804f0756&action=click

https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&p=tell+it+like+it+is+aaron+neville#id=0&vid=84e75e1d0be93dfa3394e152c967e384&action=click


I had a dream in which these guys were all featured in a musical entitled Vibratos Gone Amok. Admit it: Wouldn't any of the three be perfect warbling If I Were King of the Forest? 

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

This Bookworm's Church

To what do you turn to satisfy your craving for a jolt of intellectual caffeine?

Since stopping full time work in 2010, my local library has become my most reliable go-to source for this kind of stimulation. The women who work there are uniformly smart, interesting, and nuanced in their thinking. And, naturally, they're all readers. Consequently, it's common for me to leave that library juiced by a conversation and/or fired up to read a book one of them has recommended. A short list of the winners I've gotten from them over the past nine years includes Friday Night Lights ( H.G. Bissinger - 1990), Tortilla Curtain (TC Boyle - 1995), and The Wave (Susan Casey - 2010).

Most recently, the inspiring conversation I had with two of the librarians led me to this excellent NY Times article about the empowering effect of the word "no".

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/08/smarter-living/why-you-should-learn-to-say-no-more-often.html

That same conversation also left me buzzing with at least three ideas for near-future blog posts. My library is like a church for this bookworm.

Meanwhile, I'm scheduled to do one of my music classes (Did the Song Change the World or the World Change the Song?) at the library next Tuesday - May 21 - at 6:00 p.m. If you're local, why not stop by? There's no charge for the class and, added benefit - a conversation with any of my pastors will satisfy that craving for an intellectual jolt. Promise.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Mr. Id: In Memoriam (May 4, 2011 - May 11, 2019)

Anyone know the average life expectancy of a doppelganger? What is the human equivalent in years for an alter ego that has existed in cyber-space for eight years and a week? And who writes the obit, creator or evil twin? A shared byline, you say? You got it.

Mr. Id was created on May 4, 2011 when I was new to blogging. In those early days keeping any reader mattered to me so much that hiding behind an evil twin felt like a good idea if I was going to express a provocative opinion of any kind. Re-reading his maiden post reminds me how meek I was in 2011.
 
https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/05/introducing-mr-id.html

Over the years, my reach never exceeded my obsequious creator's puny ambitions. I'd like to think my most popular post - directly below - was connected to my trenchant view of the Presidential election that had just taken place. But the significant number of views this post received coincides with the late 2016 - early 2017 spike in views of the milquetoast blogger who invented me. What a wimp.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/12/a-christmas-chortle-from-mr-id.html

So, which of my posts are worthy of my name? Since you won't be hearing from Mr. Id anymore - the wuss writing this blog now tells you when he's crabby by including that word in his post titles - here are two I really like. If you ask your dog for kisses or you're a white supremacist, skip them both. Been fun writing my own obit but the nerd gets the last word so scroll down. I'm outta here.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2011/05/mrid-returns.html

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/01/a-patriotic-proposal-from-mr-id-patriot.html

Sharing this byline reminds me of the meetings Mr. Id and I had in the shower over the years. After thirty some posts, I'll miss hiding behind him but at almost seventy it's time to own my stuff, don't you think?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Keeping The Path Clear

What misstep did others make with you early in life that you've worked purposefully to avoid doing with others over the ensuing years?

Given the amount of encouragement and support I've received over my life - including in my early years - I'm sometimes caught short at the amount of power I gave to the small number of people who were not as encouraging. The outsize influence I allowed those few early naysayers to have over my subsequent creative pursuits turned out to be both foolish and counter-productive.

The good news? I've worked purposefully to encourage the creative pursuits of nearly every person I've ever met. Long ago, I decided to do for others as my parents did for me regarding my music - encourage folks to express themselves through this magical medium. I've also affirmed the budding efforts of most every writer I've come across - just as both my sisters did with my teenage poetry and my partner of forty one years has done with all my writing - songs, articles, memoirs, this blog.

Over my many years as an instructor, I've tried hard to be honest but kind with every beginning guitar student I've had. Even when I'm reasonably sure a life as a musician is not in a student's future, I keep it to myself. I recall well the negative bozos on my bus and the effect their barbs sometimes had when I played and sang. And I know that even if music is not the path that will help unleash the creativity of some of my students, I'd rather emulate the model of my parents, my sisters, my wife, my high school English teacher Mrs. Cavico; I assist in keeping the path to creative expression clear. How can it hurt to encourage someone else's creative endeavors? I'm not suggesting false praise. A simple, sincere statement of encouragement will do. In my experience, doing this can help people find their way to some method of creative expression. What has been your experience?    

Monday, May 6, 2019

A Reliable Feast & National Treasure

Over our forty one years, my wife has done so much to enhance my life that singling out any one thing is a fool's errand. But each weekend, when reading the NY Times, I am newly reminded of my gratitude for her. Given my past over-the-top frugality, this particular reading habit is one I might have missed via finding a reason not to subscribe to weekend delivery of the Times. No matter; my wife did so many years ago and my intellectual life has been immeasurably enriched by her simple act. If you read the Times, I'd enjoy knowing what has most recently moved you. For me, it is a reliable feast for the mind and heart.

This past weekend my bliss started while reading the cover article of the Times magazine, a moving photo essay about the closing of a General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio and the impact that has had on that community.
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/05/01/magazine/lordstown-general-motors-plant.html

Then there was Modern Love - a years-running favorite column - this one about the way social media has complicated the grief of a young woman.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/style/modern-love-sister-vanished.html

The capper was an essay by Jayson Greene in the Sunday Review section. The link will suffice as an explanation.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/04/opinion/sunday/child-death.html

Given the somber tone of the three above, I feel obliged to now include a light-hearted but equally smart essay about Mother's day gifts.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/opinion/sunday/mothers-day-gift-shopping.html

Partisans, please note: Nothing remotely political here. If you're not a NY Times reader, I can't encourage you enough to give this national treasure a try. And thanks sweetheart.  

Thursday, May 2, 2019

An American Marriage

"What happens to you doesn't belong to you, only half concerns you. It's not yours. Not yours only.'' - Claudia Rankine 

An American Marriage has it all - memorable, multi-dimensional characters, unstoppable narrative momentum, muscular prose. If Tayari Jones's 2018 novel has a weakness, it escaped me. I'm looking forward to a rewarding discussion later this year when it's a selection for my book club. Anyone had an opportunity to discuss this winner at a club you belong to? If yes, I'm curious about the main focus of the discussion.

Although An American Marriage has a classic three act structure, a few unconventional choices help the novel feel fresh. The first of these choices is using three first person narrators. Also, more than half of Act One are letters exchanged between two of those narrators - newlyweds Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport - while Roy is in prison for a rape he did not commit. I was well into Act Two before I realized how effectively Jones had used the letters as a literary device. I was as distanced from the newlyweds as they were from each other.

But every important life event Roy misses while he is unjustly imprisoned hit me with full force as Jones did her magic in Acts Two & Three. Did I mention the pitch-perfect dialogue, the richness of the family relationships, the heartbreaking but unimprovable ending, the simple fact that this novel could not have any title except An American Marriage?