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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Best of 2020

Between Covid-19 and events in my personal life the past week, having the word "best" anywhere near to the year 2020 is a bit ludicrous. But, the blogger and optimist in me have converged and decided to give this a shot. I would benefit hearing good news from any of you right now, so please consider joining in here, using either my headings or ones of your own design. 

Best Broadway show: Though Ain't Too Proud To Beg - which I saw in February - didn't have much competition in this crazy year, I'm convinced it still would have been the best show of 2020 for me even had I made it to the Great White Way as many times as any normal year. It was a mind blowing theatrical experience.

Best book club discussion: Thanks to ZOOM (anyone heard of it?), my club had its first ever book jam in June; it ended up being the best book club discussion - in person, virtual, or socially distanced on a library lawn or otherwise - of the year. Of the books rhapsodized about by the folks who attended, I ended up subsequently reading two big winners - So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell) and A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara).

Best Covid-19 distraction: Virtual games of Trivial Pursuit via ZOOM (anyone heard of it?)

Best sign of basic human kindness: At my Meals on Wheels location, the volunteer team never missed a beat ALL year. As a matter of fact, drivers and kitchen help were more dependable in 2020 than in any year since I began volunteering in 2010. It was inspiring. 

Best Saturday morning: November 7th.

Happy new year to all. I'm reasonably sure in saying 2021 will improve upon 2020.  


Monday, December 28, 2020

Everything Can Change In An Instant

Before today, the only time I seriously entertained the idea of abandoning my blog was immediately after being arrested for simple assault in August 2011. But as the shame of my impetuous behavior became more manageable weeks later, I resumed. Then, predictable rhythms and routines returned, that singular event grew less central in my thoughts, life plodded on.   

If today felt at all like any other day, today's post could have been like any other post - maybe glib, maybe crabby, maybe thoughtful. Instead, I'm struggling to picture how any predictable rhythms and routines will ever find their way back to me after today. And that includes my blog, even though it has been a continual source of solace to me. 

Everything can change in an instant.  

Monday, December 21, 2020

Reading Re-Cap: 2020

For the third iteration of one of my newest series, I've retained the headings invented in 2018 and used both that year and last. You needn't do the same; use any headings you wish to entice others to read a book that moved you this year, date of publication aside. If anyone tries one of mine, I'd welcome hearing your reaction. 

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers: Such A Fun Age (2019) - Kiley Reid. Like the first two novels cited under this heading, I'm not qualifying my enjoyment of this book using the word "casual". Reid's debut is assured, nuanced, and modern in its sensibility. And though it can be read quickly, a return visit would surely reveal how much is on this smart young author's mind. 

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers: First year for a tie under this heading: The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers and Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: The Good Lord Bird (2013) by James McBride and Socrates Express (2020) by Eric Weiner.  

Most worthwhile re-read: Lord of Misrule (2010) - Jaimy Gordon.

Most intriguing: The Library Book (2018) - Susan Orlean. A non-fiction author who never disappoints delivers this bookworm's delight - history, quirky people, bibliomania = catnip for a geek like me.   

Most personally useful: Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (2005) - Amy Krouse Rosenthal. It was deeply affirming to read a book by someone who would have understood why my blog is called Reflections From the Bell Curve. Via these ramblings, I've found a way to celebrate, like Rosenthal, my ordinary life. 

Celebrate with me. Tell me and anyone who is reading about you, 2020, and books. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

#60: The Mt. Rushmore Series

 In your view, which four lyricists - alive or dead - deserve to be enshrined on Mt. Rushmore? Your nominees can also be composers - as three of my four are - but they need not be. As usual, I've given this matter much more thought than it deserves. Don't feel obligated to be as geeky as me, but do join the fun, OK? My Mt. Rushmore of lyricists are listed alphabetically; put yours in whatever order you want.

Johnny Mercer: If there was a more consistent, prolific lyricist active during the Great American Songbook era, I don't know who it is. Mercer composed a few well known songs - Smile is probably familiar to some of you - but it's his lyrics I'm saluting here. I Thought About You (by Jimmy Van Heusen), Moon River (Henry Mancini), One For My Baby (Harold Arlen) represent a small sample of the great compositions immeasurably enhanced by the lyrical magic of the man from Savannah.

Joni Mitchell: What always blows me away is how preternaturally wise Joni was right from the start. She wrote Both Sides Now and The Circle Game before she turned twenty five. And though she took a couple of strident political turns mid-career, even her angriest lyrics were masterfully crafted. My favorite? A Woman of Heart and Mind from For the Roses.  

Paul Simon: To anyone who nominates Bob Dylan for Mt. Rushmore, I'll concede he has been more influential than Paul Simon. But I would argue that Mr. Simon has - song for song - been a more consistently excellent lyricist over the last half century than Mr. Zimmerman. At any stage of Simon's career - Sounds of Silence, American Tune, Father and Daughter - take your pick of the riches. 

Stephen Sondheim: Had Sondheim ended his career as Leonard Bernstein's lyricist for West Side Story, we'd still be talking about his lyrical masterpiece. Hell, just the lyrics to Somewhere are enough to get him halfway to Mt. Rushmore. But this national treasure has continued to create compelling stories with his words for almost seventy years. Picking a favorite Sondheim lyric is a fool's errand, but I'll start with the entire libretto of Sweeney Todd, the obvious but brilliant Send In the Clowns, and Sooner Or Later, which is arguably Madonna's best vocal performance. 

Ready to begin construction on your mountain? 


Monday, December 14, 2020

The Twist

On one side was Covid-19 and some pressing family issues. On the other was jubilation on November 7th and a bounty of great books. 2020 was the first year since its inception that made me sometimes wish my blog was dedicated to literature alone. I could have easily published forty additional posts this year and still not properly evangelized on behalf of every praiseworthy book I finished. What year of your reading life rivals my 2020?

OK, you twisted my arm. Here's four of the most recent I consumed that are worth your time, with an eye toward some different tastes.

* Like books based on real incidents or people? Call The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead) or The Cool Millions (Jess Walters) historical fiction, if you must. I'd say doing so is way too reductive because both these winners are more nuanced, better written, and much richer than most books from that ill-defined, frequently soapy genre.  

* Detective/crime story more up your aisle? Pick up Snow by John Banville. Although you'll feverishly turn those pages, you'll also learn about class distinctions and the stranglehold of the Catholic church in mid-century Ireland. And, if you like re-visiting characters, I suspect you'll be on the lookout for future Banville books featuring Chief Inspector St. John (pronounced "Sinjun") Strafford.   

* How about short stories? Saying Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout) isn't quite as good as its award-winning predecessor (Olive Kitteridge) is like saying In My Life isn't quite as good as If I Fell. I mean, it may be true, but it's beside the point. Both books - and all thirteen stories in each- are excellent, as are both songs. 

Glad to share more from this stellar year if anyone twists my arm some more.   


Saturday, December 12, 2020

A Cherished Legacy

Soon after reminiscing with my daughter about the many parties hosted in our home as she was growing up, I began reflecting on my own childhood. It's likely the tendency to make our home a welcoming place for my daughter's friends is yet another example of the legacy my folks passed onto me.  

Throughout my childhood - and that of my three close-in-age siblings - Mom was part of every activity involving any of us. She was on the PTA, a chaperone on school trips, a den mother for boy scouts and girl scouts, served on the board of the Little League. Her whistle - used to gather the troops at mealtime - was known to everyone in the neighborhood. I can't recall one instance when a lingering friend wasn't invited to join us. More important, all my friends wanted to be there; my mother's warm glow was comforting.

Like many men of his generation, my Dad could be stern and wasn't particularly emotional. But he shared my Mom's sensibility about ensuring other children knew our home was safe. Even on the rare occasions when Dad lost his temper with my friends there, he was careful to direct his impatience at one of his own children rather than at a guest. And most important, Dad was respectful to Mom, especially when friends were nearby. I tried to emulate his model on those frequent occasions when my daughter's friends were in our home as she grew up.    

What cherished legacy passed onto you by your parents did you replicate - consciously or not - when you began creating a life for your own children? If you haven't started a family of your own yet, but plan to do so, which cherished legacy have you decided is most worth preserving?        

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Back To The Future

 I vote because ..

How would you complete that sentence? When I took my first training-for-trainers class for "Get Out the Vote" in February, I was pleased to be a part of an important educational effort. While preparing to take a second training - virtually this time - I began reflecting on the record turnout in the recent presidential election. Until then, I don't think I appreciated how much I've missed teaching about issues that matter to me, issues that directly affect the kind of future our children will inherit.  

Teaching music classes at local colleges for the last six years has been exhilarating. My involvement in "Get Out the Vote" - as the recent turnout amply demonstrated - can make a difference. I've missed doing work like that.

Any reader interested in helping support this effort - sponsored by the League of Women Voters - let me know. Do so via a comment here, an offline e-mail, or a phone call, if I know you personally. I'd be thrilled to direct you to ways you can help. 


Sunday, December 6, 2020

For Me, No Competition

Deciding how I would react to that outstretched hand waiting to be shook, the last nine months of norm shattering behavior hit me with full force. It's safe to say 2020 will never be a year that blurs with others.

What was the last large public event you attended? When did you last dine in a restaurant, indoors? When did you last shake a hand?

In mid-March, I saw Invisible Man in a theater in Eatontown, NJ. Immediately following, my wife and I and two friends had a late lunch in a nearby restaurant, the last time I've eaten indoors. 

Yesterday was the first time I've shaken a hand - twice - since March. And this simple ritual being worthy of a blog post? What year of your life competes with 2020 for weirdness? 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Who Does The Grading? (Not Art)

Recently, when an author unknown to me referred to himself as a "B" level celebrity, I wondered: Who does the grading? How many times have you heard someone famous called an "A" level celebrity aka a "household name"? It quickly occurred to me that my blog - purposefully developed by someone with no fame or notoriety - is an ideal place to reflect on this inane matter. And who is more qualified to join this frivolous conversation than my readers, residents on the bell curve who, like me, are neither famous nor justifiably incarcerated? Let's get started, shall we?

In your view, which living celebrity deserves an "A" grade, i.e. is a household name? I'll abstain from nominating anyone until at least one reader comments. But let's continue using the school model as we move forward, OK? Who gets a "B"? And what does "B" stand for? This grader, your favorite blogger, proposes anyone living who can't venture out into public without some kind of disguise or bodyguard, or both, but is not an "A", is a "B". Though the author mentioned in my first sentence above may fancy himself a "B", I think he may be a self-inflicted victim of grade inflation, at least here in Bartonstan. 

For "C" level celebrity how about the Children of those from the "A" category who decide to follow in their famous parents' footsteps? Some of these folks have talent; some do not; Some decide to use the famous name; some do not. You know the drill either way. Those who keep the name - talent or not - claim they're making it on their own. Those who don't - talent or not - hire a sharp publicist who somehow gets the critical info on the parentage to the right people in whatever industry the offspring happens to be working in. Either way, the "C" level celebrity applies.

"D" level celebrity can be a stand in for Drug or Drink Impaired (sometimes leading to Diva behavior or Dead), or Dropped out (either because fame appears to have a high cost some are not willing to pay or because of some shameful sexual shenanigans, politicians aside), or Degrees of separation (like those famous sidekicks without any discernible talent, aside from their nauseating obsequiousness). 

"F" level celebrity is easy: Famous simply for being Famous. In this group, any individual who has ever appeared on a reality TV show and later gone on to capitalize on that dubious notoriety - can you say Kardashian? - gets an "F". 

My final grade is not school related. Give the "Stepped in Shit" celebrities an "SS". This small group of people were smart enough to partner with others with vastly superior talent. But, instead of having the good sense to not draw attention to the disparity in talent with the partner(s) who catapulted them into fame, this SS group spends energy trying to convince their fickle public that they still deserve that "A" or "B". In the few unfortunate instances when I've been exposed to Art Garfunkel's post Paul Simon whining - especially when compared to Ringo Starr's wise modesty - I'm reminded that being a never was - call me a "Z" level celebrity - has at least one upside. 


Monday, November 30, 2020

My Richard Ford Path

Of the many fine authors I've become newly familiar with since stopping full time work in 2010, a handful really stand out. I'm so grateful my reading path over the last ten years led me to Richard Ford.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: In The Midst Of Solitude

After first finishing Ford's memoir - Between Them - a short time later I made my way to The Sportswriter, the first of his four novels featuring Frank Bascombe. The entry in my book journal for that novel ended up being the longest one I've ever written largely because as I wrote, my appreciation for what Ford had accomplished kept deepening. His prose is so stripped down it sometimes feels as though he's reciting his straightforward stories. His magic is disarming and difficult to describe but few pages ever go by without a hard-earned, understated insight. And his dialogue has the ring of truth. There is more Frank Bascombe in my reading future.

Canada was the latest stop on my Richard Ford path. "First I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later."  Those sentences - the first two in Ford's 2012 novel - personify how matter-of-fact this modern-day master is. No fireworks, no silly surprises, no showy metaphors. Over the 400+ pages of Canada, Ford keeps the flame low, expertly maintaining the sense of quotidian doom clearly telegraphed by the novel's opening. It's extraordinary. 

Good literature has given me many gifts. Foremost among those gifts is a heightened understanding of people. Richard Ford's work has significantly enhanced that understanding.      

Friday, November 27, 2020

Conditional Maxim Messing

 "Don't judge a book by its cover."

With respect to people, I support that hoary maxim. But after a lifetime of reading, I cannot support it with respect to books. Paperbacks often give me more reasons to judge a book by its cover, but hard covers - especially as they are marketed nowadays - also give me ample ammunition.

First reliable judging criterion are the breathless and frequently cliched book jacket descriptions. If you doubt me, here's a challenge: Randomly select ten books from the shelf of a library or bookstore. I'd wager no fewer than 20% of those jackets will use the word "unforgettable" describing the contents therein. Go ahead, try this; I'll wait.

OK, if those gushing book jackets don't turn you off as they do me, let's turn to the blurbs. First off, if all the blurbs are written by other authors, i.e. none come from reviews, that's a sign you've got a turkey in your hands. But even if those sly marketers are savvy enough to intersperse reviews with the blurbs - BTW, did you know some authors accept $$$ to blurb for the authors whose book they're promoting? - look carefully at the source of said reviews. If not one review excerpt comes from a publication you've heard of - politics aside - even money the book you're holding can indeed be judged by its cover.

Still not persuaded that the maxim opening this post has little merit with respect to actual books? OK, I've failed in today's mission. Since that means all bets are off, I'll add a few cranky wholly arbitrary other reasons to judge a book by its cover or nearby neighborhood: 1.) If it's a novel, the focus is actual historical event(s), and the title includes the word "wife", beware. In the near future, I suspect the same will apply to the word "husband". 2.) With memoirs, be wary if the author had unfailingly progressive parents. This is not hard to figure out. That sanctimonious though often superfluous fact is frequently mentioned early in a memoir and I've even seen it in a few author bios on covers. Trust me here: If you see a mention like this, you are in for some serious shaming about the tarnished political bona fides of your parents, unless both your folks were conscientious objectors, marched across the Pettus bridge with MLK, and stayed "woke" until their dying days. 


Monday, November 23, 2020

Key Learnings: Year 71

Beginning with the inception of my blog in 2011, the post published on my birthday has been devoted to a few things I've learned over the previous year. I've particularly enjoyed those times when a reader has joined me, birthday aside. When was the last time you took inventory of some key things you've recently learned? Why not join me and do so today?  

* During this year it dawned on me that, for better or worse, I rarely use any of my three abiding passions - music, literature, film - for pure entertainment. Especially since stopping full time work in 2010, most of my listening, nearly all of my reading, and even the majority of my film viewing are aimed at educating myself, however marginally. If a song, a book, or a film is merely distracting, my inclination is to switch to something that could help me become a better musician, a more discerning reader, a more educated cinephile. Learning this about myself makes me neither happy nor unhappy. It is simply who I've become. 

* Given the challenges Covid-19 inflicted on all of us in 2020, recognizing how precious my family and friends are to me was a powerful, if obvious, key learning this year.

* I don't plan to give up on long form writing. But the more I read and write, each time I cross paths with a new excellent short form writer - essayist, songwriter, columnist - the closer I get to being happy with what I'm able to do with the short form. This may not technically be a learning from this past year. But the "getting closer to being happy" part is new, so I'm counting it. 

At the risk of being redundant, it's a lot more fun when one of you joins in on posts like this. I'm not  above begging. I began this blog with the sincere hope that I'd learn about some of you. Please? 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Goal For Year 72

Of the by-products I've derived from committing to the discipline of blogging nearly eleven years ago, one of the most beneficial has been to publicly declare one or more goals on the day before my birthday each year. It's possible procrastination would have won the day if I hadn't announced here some things I had postponed getting to in the years before I began blogging. 

Why not join me this year - as a select few of you have done in the past - and declare a goal of yours? Forget the birthday. What is something you commit to accomplishing by November 22, 2021? Either follow my lead and go modest - as I did in 2019 - or go big. I'm going small again this year primarily because I'm aiming to keep my ten year batting average in respectable Ted Williams territory - i.e. .333.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Goal For Year 71  

This next year, I will have at least twelve jam sessions with other musicians to help me more fully integrate the 300 (now 310) jazz standards I memorized between 2011-2019.  FYI, that memorization project was a goal declared on the eve of my 63rd year. See what I mean about the benefit of publicly declaring a goal? I hope you'll join me this year. What's the downside? 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Goal For Year 63


Friday, November 20, 2020

Words For The Ages, Line Sixteen

 "Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes.": Billy Joel 

Although both Paul Simon and Lennon/McCartney preceded Billy Joel with this sentiment (Paul Simon in the last stanza of Leaves That Are Green and the Lennon/McCartney composition entitled Hello Goodbye in its entirety), Billy's succinct phrase - from Say Goodbye To Hollywood - has more of an aphoristic ring to it. And that's what I've been aiming for since introducing Words For The Ages over three years ago. What terse Billy Joel lyrical phrase - one that can stand alone - would you nominate as words for the ages?

Despite the way the rock press has pilloried Billy Joel - and his crybaby response to the critics - his music has always appealed to me. Though he's not my favorite popular song lyricist - that distinction belongs to either Johnny Mercer, Stephen Sondheim, or Paul Simon depending on the day - he's in the top fifty for sure. End-to-end, my favorite lyric of Billy's is a tie between Summer, Highland Falls and Until the Night. How about you? Got a favorite end-to-end song - musically or lyrically - from Billy Joel's catalog?

While we're on the subject, which lyricist would you like to see featured next in my august series? So far, in order, I've covered Kris Kristofferson, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Carly Simon, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Pete Townsend, Tom Waits, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters, Don Henley & JD Souther, Paul Simon, and Dan Fogelberg. After listing those, it's hard to overlook how old and white that group is. I will rectify that in iteration number seventeen. In the meanwhile, keep your suggestions for lyricists and/or pithy phrases coming.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Open Letter To Joe

Dear Joe; Congratulations on winning the Presidential election. Over seventy eight and a half million Americans hope that voting for you was a good decision. I suspect a fair number of the over seventy two million Americans who voted for your opponent are unhappy at best; some of those folks are probably angry. And though I'm sure the people advising you are smart, I hope you'll indulge this unknown blogger as he offers one piece of unsolicited advice.   

When the Covid-19 vaccine begins being administered, and our country starts clawing its way back to something resembling normal, take the high road, please. Make it a priority to publicly and repeatedly acknowledge the role your predecessor's administration had in funding and supporting Operation Warp Speed. Do this not only because it's the right thing to do, but also because of how much we need to heal as a nation. If we continue demonizing each other and ignoring any progress we make instead of emphasizing what we have in common and lauding a job well done, I'm worried about the country my adult daughter and any children she may ever have will soon inherit. The political path we're on at present is unsustainable.

In the meanwhile, if you need live music for your inauguration, you can reach me via this blog.

Pat Barton


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

A Veteran I'll Always Miss

Although my late parents are rarely far from my mind, like many people, I get most lost thinking of them on their birthdays, on the day they were married, and on the day each of them passed away. And I suspect my Dad crosses my mind a bit more often because he was with me almost twenty years more than Mom.

I'm also frequently caught off guard when something conjures up Dad. Was he on my mind early today because it's Veteran's Day? Or, would I have noticed that pair of paint-splattered boots on the guy in my coffee shop this morning - flashing to Dad immediately - no matter what day it was? What was the last visual cue you recall noticing that triggered a memory of someone precious you've lost?

Grabbing my coffee, I briefly considered engaging the stranger wearing those boots. I thought to ask him some harmless question, perhaps share with him the way his boots gave me a wistful moment. It's possible my decision not to do so made my subsequent long drive to visit my ailing sister more lonely. I do recall not long ago engaging a different stranger - this one sporting a WWII vet's hat - in that same coffee shop. I don't recall how that earlier interaction went but as the day winds down, some small part of me wishes I'd engaged that stranger this morning, if only to make Dad seem more vivid, at least for that brief moment.    

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Friends I've Never Met

 

Each time I see this inspirational sign on a lawn, my addled list making brain goes into overdrive. If a mailbox is readily accessible without trespassing, I rejoice because ...  

Returning home, I peruse my book journals, consult my film log, scour my music collection. Then I compile a list that will allow me to anonymously commune with soulmates. 

Depending on the day, my schedule, and how many of the equally meaningful beliefs from the sign I want to address, my soon-to-be-inserted-in-the-mailbox list will vary in length. My next gift to friends I've never met - addressing belief #1 - will include these fortifying suggestions:

Suggested reading: Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead novel

Suggested viewing: 13th, Ava DuVernay documentary 

Suggested listening: American Skin, Bruce Springsteen song 

Your turn: Pick another of the beliefs and make your suggestions to these friends I've never met. 

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Don't Miss This One

Whenever I'm knocked out by a film more than a few years old, especially one I've never heard anyone mention, my first thought is "How did this get by me?" Aside from regular conversations with my actress daughter and reading any film review I come across, I also scan the movie selections on my cable stations way too frequently. All that movie geekiness and still Goldstone (2016) snuck up on me. 

It could be this winner escaped me because of its nondescript title. Or, maybe a film with no big names set in Australia didn't entice reviewers from newspapers and magazines I routinely read. It's even possible my own biases let this gem slip by. If I had read a review - though I don't recall doing so - and that review said the two main characters were police officers, I might not have paid as close attention. I'm not proud of this particular filter of mine, but denying it exists would be dishonest. 

Don't let any of your filters interfere with seeking out this sleeper. Nuanced script, superb direction, two charismatic lead performances by Aaron Pedersen & Alex Powell and a sly supporting performance by the criminally underutilized Jackie Weaver. I had one tiny quibble involving an automobile near the end of the film, but the climactic gun scene just prior to that and the stunning cinematography highlighting the wide-open Australian landscape throughout the film more than absolved the automobile misstep.

After you see Goldstone be sure to check back in with me. We movie geeks have to stick together. Who else will have us?   


Friday, November 6, 2020

Second Time Around

 As captivated as I was the first time, re-reading The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was an even richer experience. I highly recommend Hannah Tinti's 2017 novel, old-fashioned in all the best ways. 

The last time you enjoyed a re-read, what was most notable for you? This time I noticed how artfully the author created her secondary characters, made the first and last scenes thematically congruent, and I was less ambivalent about Samuel's unconventional parenting choices. It's possible that last piece is connected to some disturbing novels I've read since 2017 that featured some loathsome single Dads. 

I'm pleased about my deeper admiration for Samuel Hawley this second time around considering the book club I selected it for. Duly chastened when my last selection for this particular group was uniformly disliked, this year I opted for accessible, without any compromise re the quality of the prose. And though there are more likable characters in Tinti's novel than there were in my last selection, her book is not without its dark side. I'm anticipating far fewer groans at this discussion. We'll see. 


Monday, November 2, 2020

The Day After Tomorrow And Beyond

Even though in all likelihood the final results won't be known, the day after tomorrow could end up being a memorable one. Aside from hoping your candidate prevails, what else do you hope will happen or not happen on the day after tomorrow and in the weeks to follow?

* I hope the winner and loser accept the results with grace. I hope supporters of both, including myself, do the same. 

* I hope the winner sincerely vows to seek common ground with the opposing party over the next four years. If the next President gets a split Congress, I hope whichever chamber is the opposing party works in concert with the President and its sister chamber. If both chambers of Congress end up being the opposing party to the new President, I hope Congress does not reflexively obstruct everything the new President proposes. 

* I hope the consistent message the winner delivers in the weeks ahead is the need for unity and what we have in common as Americans. 

Is anyone else on the bell curve as weary with our broken system of governance as I am? Although the last four years have been hard, our slide toward demonizing the opposition and legislative entropy didn't begin in 2016. I remain convinced term limits for all members of Congress, combined with strict oversight over the influence of lobbyists, would be two big steps in the right direction. But I'm not naive. I'll settle for what I hope for in my three bullets above. What are your hopes for the day after tomorrow and beyond? 

Friday, October 30, 2020

Your Masterpiece

What subject has retained its allure for you for as long as you can recall? And what have been your most recent discoveries reflecting on that subject? 

Creativity - in all its manifestations - is endlessly fascinating to me. I'm unable to count the number of books I've read, lectures I've listened to, conversations I've had about creativity. Each time I think I've exhausted the subject, a new discovery awaits. The only certainty that has remained with me is an elegant definition of creativity I heard many years ago:  Novel associations that are useful.

I believe everyone has the capacity to be creative. But my experience has shown me that many people frequently choose to ignore creative impulses. Recently, whenever I think I might be succumbing to this impulse, I gently remind myself to welcome my muse. I started using this simple technique soon after beginning to suspect that the people who history venerates - be they composers, authors, visual artists - are likely the same people highly attuned to their muse, i.e. they follow most, if not all, of their creative impulses, wherever those impulses lead. Consider for a moment: Not everything any revered artist - alive or dead - creates is of equal merit. But those folks keep creating, putting their creations in the world anyway. The people many of us celebrate for their creativity know well that others will be the judge of what is worth remembering. 

How attuned are you to your muse? In other words, are you more inclined to ignore creative impulses or follow them wherever they lead? Put aside the fact that you, like me, are not "known" for your creative output. Just live in that question for a moment. I've discovered that when I'm in a black hole with thoughts about giving up a creative endeavor, reminding myself to pay closer attention to the muse helps me climb out. Call my or your impulse to create whatever suits you. But don't ignore it; your masterpiece is closer than you think.      

  

Monday, October 26, 2020

Amy: In Memoriam

What author has touched you so personally that you've sometimes wished you had that author as a friend? I know I'm not alone among readers on this although it's possible no one will admit it here. No matter.

I clearly recall reading the NY Times Modern Love column entitled You May Want To Marry My Husband in early 2017 when it was published. I also recall being sad to learn that the author - Amy Krouse Rosenthal - died soon after. When my wife gave me a book of essays culled from Modern Love - edited by Daniel Jones - last Christmas, I raced through it, crying when I re-read Rosenthal's piece. Amy and I became imaginary friends that same day. 

This past week a good friend and I were discussing a different book we both enjoyed when Amy's name surfaced somehow. The day after our discussion, this friend thoughtfully loaned two of Amy's books to me, based on both our conversation and the love of lists that my friend, Amy, and I all share. For the first time in my memory, I then read two books by the same author back-to-back. The Book of Eleven (1998) and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (2005) are both short, idiosyncratic, wonderful. If Michel de Montaigne were alive today, he'd miss Amy like I do.    

Have you ever missed someone you never met?

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/style/modern-love-you-may-want-to-marry-my-husband.html


Friday, October 23, 2020

Good News For Me - Jeffrey? Not So Much

 Anyone who has read my blog even casually knows at least a few of my foibles. Although I try to avoid excessive hand wringing, I aim for honesty here, hoping at least a few of you sharing the bell curve with me may occasionally see yourself reflected through my flaws.

Still, one flaw I am grateful to have sidestepped is my gender's propensity for routinely putting their lives in the blender via sexual shenanigans. When the Jeffrey Toobin story recently surfaced, once again I uttered a silent prayer of thanksgiving for what my Father modeled when I was a young man. Now my head, my heart, and even my intuition have failed me more times than I can count. But my private parts have thankfully remained right where they belong. Thank you, Dad, again. 

Throughout my life, I've had more than a few Jimmy Carter-ish lust-in-my-heart moments. And I would guess my list of stupid, ill-advised actions over the seventy + years I've been upright would rival the list of almost anyone. But today's reflection ends with good news, at least for me: So far, whenever those Jimmy Carter moments have occurred, my head, my heart, and my intuition spoke louder to me than my genitals.     


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Make Your Voice Heard

Watching the recent Netflix release The Trial of the Chicago Seven, my outrage frequently felt as intense as I recall it being when the actual events took place. I was a college sophomore when the Chicago police unleashed its collective fury on antiwar protesters in the days leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Had I been protesting the Vietnam war in Chicago instead of closer to home, the actual footage used in Aaron Sorkin's film could have shown me being tear gassed or having my head bashed in.

I was a junior when Judge Julius Hoffman had Bobby Seale chained and gagged in his courtroom toward the end of the sham trial of 1969 that was concocted by Nixon's first attorney general, the later imprisoned John Mitchell. Even my Father - not a political progressive or racial pioneer - was appalled by Hoffman's treatment of Seale. And just before sentencing, when Tom Hayden began reading the names of the soldiers who had died in Vietnam while the Federal Government wasted time and taxpayer money inventing a non- existent conspiracy (sound familiar?), I realized for the first time in my young life how important it was to make my voice heard. I've tried to maintain that commitment ever since. 

If you haven't yet voted by mail, please do so soon. Or, be safe and get to the polls on November 3rd. Just be sure to make your voice heard. 

       

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Wipeout, Anybody?

No doubt because of some evolving difficult circumstances in my personal life, recent weeks have found me emotionally raw. The most noticeable manifestation of my rawness has been how easily I've found myself triggered by passages in books, scenes in films and especially, penetrating song lyrics. When you are feeling raw, what are some things that can trigger an outsized emotional response from you?

So it was on a recent drive - with a Pandora station I call "Tunesmiths" playing - that Dan Fogelberg's  moving tribute to his father, Leader of the Band, delivered the first blow. And I might have recovered from the mournful closing horn interlude in that tune had Jackson Browne's Sky Blue and Black not immediately followed. As Browne repeatedly wailed "...that's the way love is, that's the way love is...sky blue and black"  in the coda, my composure began slipping.

When the often cryptic Bob Dylan came next, I thought I'd escaped. Alas, I'd temporarily forgotten the evocative final rhyming couplet preceding Bob's refrain: "I'll see you in the skies above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love; you're gonna make me lonesome when you go." The moment Dylan warbled that lyric, I pulled off the road. 

Although long ago I reconciled myself to having an emotional temperament, recent events like what happened on that drive have persuaded me it might be wise to concentrate on instrumental music, at least, for a while anyway. 


Monday, October 12, 2020

I Couldn't Have Done It Without Them

When my daughter wins her first award - for her acting, her writing, or her singing - and stands in front of the podium to speak to the gathered throngs, I expect to be acknowledged. Along with her mother, I'm not asking that we're thanked first - especially if the applause hasn't yet subsided and the audience will miss hearing us mentioned - but I am expecting the most effusive accolades she can muster. Fair is fair.

Yeah, I know artists thanking their parents at awards shows for the unwavering support lavished on them is a bit tired. Don't care; my wife and I warmly embrace the cliche - we earned it. Those of you in the adoring public who don't care who thanks whom, switch off the TV - plenty of others will hear about us. I've also already instructed my daughter how my blog URL must be noticeable on the glitzy red-carpet-ready outfit she's wearing. My preference: REFLECTIONS FROM THE BELL CURVE.COM  across the rim of a very large, very red hat.  

Self-centeredness aside, what floors me are those instances when award winners don't mention their parents at all. Have you ever wondered what's up with that?    


Friday, October 9, 2020

Your Questions, Please

 "The best judge of a person is not the answers they give but the questions they ask." - Voltaire

What are some of your favorite questions to ask others? Asking good questions was perhaps the most valuable skill I learned in my years as an adult educator and coach. And nerdy as it is, I made it a habit to keep handy a list of questions that I discovered worked well in the classroom. That list became useful in my personal relationships and in my role as a supervisor. I've retained it to this day. 

What did this class usefully confirm to you? That one is still among my favorites. It's easy to modify by simply replacing the word "class" with "essay", or "article", or "film", etc. Like all good questions, it is one for which the questioner cannot have an answer. It's all about the person being asked.   

I stole another of my favorites from Emerson: What has become clearer to you since we last met? I've rarely been disappointed in the answers I've received for that. Open-ended questions like those two favorites keep me in a pure listening mode and help me avoid confirming my own biases. 

Tell me what you are passionate about. Sometimes declarative statements are more powerful - and elicit better responses - than a question. From its inception, asking questions on my blog has been the gateway I've used to attain one of my goals: Learning more about anyone who takes the time to read me. Today, I'll learn about you when you share your favorite questions with me. Of course, one of yours could well end up on that trusty list of mine; just saying.   

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Words For The Ages, Line Fifteen

 "Where do you go when you get to the end of your dream?" 

Although that question, posed by the late Dan Fogelberg in Nether Lands, may not at first seem of a piece with the fourteen earlier lyrics used in this series, I can't recall a more unsettling question that's ever been asked in the context of a popular song. If you differ, I'd welcome hearing your idea. Bear in mind just one guideline I've adhered to since initiating words for the ages in June, 2017: Brevity. 

How many of you have ever been called a dreamer? It's possible the thirteen words Fogelberg put into his succinct question land with me as they do because my dreams continually elude me. It's also possible that some folks might call those dreams of mine unrealistic expectations. The distinction between the two has never been real clear to me, if one exists. Who gets to be the judge of when someone else's expectations are unrealistic, i.e. that person is a "dreamer"? When is it time to abandon a dream/unrealistic expectations when those dreams motivate someone to create, set goals, live fully? My mind travels to these cul-de-sacs each time I hear that question in Nether Lands. 

I suspect if I got to "...the end of..." any of my dreams I would probably begin dreaming again. You?  


Sunday, October 4, 2020

If You Really Want My Money

I hereby relinquish my intellectual property rights to any wily entrepreneur reading this post who turns my latest invention into the successful game show it would be. I have just two non-negotiable demands:

* Like a Supreme Court appointment, I get a permanent seat as a judge on the show. 

* My eponymous composition - If You Really Want My Money - gets to be the theme song. 

Given the number of baby boomers with adult children, the undeniable fact of our imminent demise, and our legendary self-centeredness, the show has a guaranteed audience. The basic premise:

Three teams of coddled offspring of baby boomer parents compete for their inheritance via answering questions that can determine how closely over the years they listened to their self-absorbed parents. To help ensure an even playing field, only children compete against one another on a different night. Team - or only child - who gets the most correct answers wins. The other two inheritances go to a charity chosen by the winning team or only child. One possible variation - though this version would eliminate only children from the competition - would be for siblings to compete against just each other. For this variation, game inventor would recommend having armed referees standing nearby.   

All answers - e.g. favorite songs, films, books, pieces of art, vacation spots, etc. - must be provided to game show designers in advance while baby boomer parents are still lucid, if not continent. In event of a tie between contestants, competing teams must fill in the blanks of a baby boomer parent origin story or any other that induced groans from offspring after they'd heard it a hundred times. For example: "Your parents met in .... in the city of     . On their first date they ---------------."  Or, "When your father/mother was in grammar school he/she won --------------".  Baby boomer parents can decide whether or not they wish to attend on the night their children compete against other teams. If more explosive variation is selected as the model, game inventor recommends escorts for any parents choosing to attend.     

Thursday, October 1, 2020

My Cloud Atlas Walkabout

I've recently spent a good chunk of time roaming around on Cloud Atlas

Based on its reputation, before even diving into the text of David Mitchell's 2004 blockbuster, I first examined the architecture of his novel. Via the page headers for the eleven sections, Mitchell's intriguing nesting scheme was easy to discern. Sections one and eleven have the same title, as do sections two and ten, three and nine, four and eight, five and seven. Only section six - dead center - has a unique title.  With no idea how this format would play out in the narrative flow - and not caring how long it would take to complete the book - I impulsively decided to read just one section each day, regardless of length. Thus began my eleven day walkabout, which ended about 3:15 a.m. yesterday. 

Cloud Atlas is now the most marked-up book in my bulging collection, surpassing another out-of-the-park winner I finished a few months back, Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life. But, aside from the excessive underlining, numerous folded-down pages, and crazy amount of writing in the margins and elsewhere, these two cherished friends in my book collection have little in common. I'm hard-pressed to name any book that has much in common with Cloud Atlas. It's a mystery, a philosophical tract, a literary marvel. 

Even after finishing the book, writing a brief "review" on Goodreads, and trying to further prolong the glow by capturing some of the essence of this modern-day masterpiece into my book journal, I still wasn't ready to leave Mitchell's mind-blowing universe. At about midnight - book in hand - I journeyed downstairs to spend three more hours watching the 2012 film, scribbling still more notes into my book. Though I was enthralled, I suspect many people would be confused, at best, and more likely frustrated by the film adaptation. But given the serpentine nature of the novel, the three co-screenwriting directors deserve kudos for trying. And, if a film - no matter how flawed - brings more attention to Mitchell's tour-de-force, all is well.          

Monday, September 28, 2020

To Shake Or Not To Shake

 OK, crystal ball ready? Ready to commit yourself to a few political prognostications?

Given Covid-19, when the candidates meet for their first debate tomorrow evening, will they shake hands? If yes, will one of them, both of them, or neither of them be wearing a mask when they do so? If no, will either of them later draw attention to the fact that they did not shake hands? 

Because I'm confident Joe Biden's handlers read my blog for its sage guidance, my suggestion to them is: Make sure your man strides center stage and offers his hand, without a mask. The gesture alone will sway few voters. But when Sean Carlson, Tucker Hannity, and all the other interchangeable dittoheads who initially said Covid-19 was a hoax - before 200,000 Americans died - see Joe unmasked with an outstretched hand, they'll have to invent a new narrative to replace the ones they've been feeding the tweeter-in-chief. They make plenty of money dishing out their swill. I say let them earn those obscene salaries.  

Note to Joe: Bring hand sanitizer. Your call whether you allow the audience to see you use it later. 


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Compassion Fatigue

Because I sincerely believe in the importance of bearing witness, I loved what Jesmyn Ward tackled in her 2017 powerhouse Sing, Unburied, Sing. I also liked - a great deal - how she used her formidable gifts to craft the heartbreaking story. Her prose, especially the way she captured the Mississippi vernacular, her three first person narrators helping sculpt the architecture of the book, and her command of the narrative line were all first rate. I did not uniformly enjoy the actual experience of reading this novel. 

Explaining this disconnect is messy. Did my mood on one or more of the days I resumed reading have an impact? Perhaps. Was it ill timing to choose to read this book several weeks ago? Bad timing is always a possibility. My best guess today - following an intense discussion about Ward's latest novel with a reading soulmate - is an occupational hazard social workers call compassion fatigue. Admitting compassion fatigue might have occasionally pulled me out of the mastery of Sing, Unburied, Sing is uncomfortable and embarrassing. Denying compassion fatigue could have been a factor would be worse. Ward did her job as a novelist. No manipulation or sentimentality, real and flawed characters in believable situations, a crystalline sense of place and time.    

Would I recommend this book? Were I to line up all the people I've ever encountered in my life, I'd say "no" to the majority of them. Were I to line up all the discerning readers I've ever known, I'd say "yes" to the majority of them. But even then, I'd issue a mild warning to those same readers. If some of your recent reading diet has been informed - as mine has - by voices many of us, readers or otherwise, didn't hear much of as we grew up and were educated, be prepared. Compassion fatigue could play a role in how Sing, Unburied, Sing lands with you.      


Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Adventures In Wordgeekland

 I plan to exhume the body but will wait for inclement weather before doing so.

Reading that straightforward sentence, I would guess many people would easily understand what was being said. Would you agree?

I plan to inhume the body but will wait for clement weather before doing so.  

How about that one? My guess here is that many people would have more trouble with that one. What do you think?

Though I've been reading since the first Eisenhower administration, my fascination with the ins and outs of the English language - or should I say the ins and exs? - is endless. Each time I stumble across a "new" word that turns out to simply be the opposite of a word I've used countless times, I'm enthralled. And then I wonder - Why did exhume take hold while inhume remains obscure? Can't be the number of syllables; inhume and bury - and inter, for that matter - have just two. Ease of pronunciation also doesn't seem to be in play. 

And how to explain the prevalence of inclement vs. the absence of clement? Have these wonderings ever stopped you cold? I suspect few people will come clean on this but I'm also reasonably certain I'm not the sole habitant of Wordgeekland. So, to my brethren only, I ask: What have been your most recent discoveries?


Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Social Dilemma

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/12/technology-and-children.html 

Although I've ranted here before about the pernicious side-effects of technology - and more specifically, social media - watching The Social Dilemma recently brought me to a new low. If you're easily depressed, or a Luddite, or already convinced, as I am, that these "tools" are wreaking havoc on modern life and tearing apart our already tenuous social fabric, you may find yourself temporarily immobilized after this Netflix film. 

Now, lest anyone accuse me of being obtuse, I am cognizant that a blogger prattling on about technology is, how to say it? Hypocritical sounds about right. So, if any of you take the time to watch this sinister film and then decide to abandon reading me, I'll understand. But perhaps, a middle ground would be to watch it, continue reading me - I am kind of charming in an opportunistic, solipsistic way - and then quietly evangelize to convince others to also watch The Social Dilemma

Who knows? Maybe a few of us will start a movement leading people to eat together without their phones, face up and buzzing, right next to the silverware.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

1+1+1 = More Than Three

Even though I've listened endlessly and carefully to the Beatles music for more than half a century, their magic still charms me. I suspect it always will.

Recently, for whatever reason, I've found myself paying closer attention to how well those three distinct singing voices meshed, no matter the combination. Do you have a favorite mix? If yes, which one? Paul singing lead with John & George supporting? Or do you prefer John or George in the lead with the remaining two on background vocals? If you think this is trivial, best not to tell me - could signal the end of future communication between us. Full disclosure: I don't have a favorite mix; there are treasures aplenty with each of the three combinations. 

For the record, this post started out as part of my long-running Mt. Rushmore series. But I quickly abandoned the notion upon realizing that picking just four Beatles songs featuring all three of those voices - in any combination - was a fool's errand. So let me start with Because from Abbey Road. If you can name another song with end-to-end three part harmony that tops this gem, please tell me. I promise to respectfully consider your opinion.

Paul on lead vocal with the other two lads in support? Today, I'm going with Paperback Writer. John up front with Paul & George? Got to be Wait from Rubber Soul, at least, right this moment. George stepping up with J&P on background vocals? Wait a minute: Should my selection for that mix be George singing one of his own, a Lennon/McCartney tune, or a cover? No matter, I've got all three covered: Think For Yourself, also from Rubber Soul, I'm Happy Just To Dance With You from A Hard Day's Night, and Devil in Her Heart from With the Beatles. Extra points to any reader who can name the original artist who recorded that last song. Googling is cheating.

OK, your turn. Bring on at least one Beatles tune for each of the three combinations. Remember: We need to hear all three voices. The mixing of just two voices is for another day, although it's a criminal offense to let any post about the Fab Four go by without mentioning the exquisite If I Fell. Ringo's vocals? Less said the better.         

Monday, September 14, 2020

Voyagers Redux

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/09/voyagers.html

Publishing the post directly above soon after our first Road Scholar vacation to Alaska in September 2015, I had little notion of how much fourteen of those thirty-seven voyagers would come to mean to my wife and me over the next several years. Which of you has shared my good fortune of connecting with a group like this? The last time I can remember meeting and enjoying this many people at once was during my undergraduate years. 

The sixteen of us had our first reunion a year later in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2017, we met again in Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks; the third reunion was spent in the Pacific Northwest on the San Juan Islands. Last year we journeyed to Amelia Island as well as exploring the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Our bond has deepened with each trip.

Had Covid-19 not interfered, right about now we would either be devouring delicious popovers at Jordan Pond, hiking up Cadillac Mountain, or traversing the carriage trails in Acadia National Park, my idea of heaven on earth. I'm disappointed missing the opportunity to spend time this year with my later-in-life soulmates.

But, even though we'd already decided we are Acadia-bound in 2021, none of us wanted to wait two years in between interactions. Hungry for an intellectual injection, we convened a virtual meeting - ZOOM to the rescue - to discuss James McBride's stunning novel The Good Lord Bird. It didn't take the place of being together but, no surprise, the conversation was as rich as any I've ever had with a group. The unanimous verdict at the conclusion? More virtual book discussions between now and reunion #5 next Fall. It would be difficult to over-state how much these voyagers have brought to my life.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Yearning For A Calmer Status Quo

status quo: the existing state or condition. 

How well does the existing state or condition of life in the U.S. suit you? Judging from the ugliness of today's bubble-infused political screaming matches, and my own experience with what passes for a civil political conversation today, I would guess many people in the U.S. - on both sides - might say the status quo is in the toilet. From my perspective, this miserable state of affairs is predictable given there are, in effect, just two sides. The political middle has become a relic, as quaint as my landline.

To those who want to make America great again, people who question the notion that "those were the good old days", aka let's return to some old status quo, are met with an array of epithets, repeated endlessly to suit the narrative du jour. The script on this side goes: "Anyone disagreeing with me is an anarchist, or a cancel culture-ist, or a socialist, or a snowflake"

Those on the other side, equally unhappy with the status quo, have their version of echo chamber, spoon-fed garbage ready to regurgitate, nuance and accuracy be damned. The opposing script - and rest assured it is a script, no improvising permitted - reads: "Those 'un-woke' lunatics disagreeing with me are (take your pick) - deplorables, fascists, racists, rednecks or all of the above."

Though I would assert my physical attractiveness, intelligence, and talent all have me solidly in bell curve territory, otherwise occupying a space in the middle, especially politically, has usually not been an enticement to me. Who wants to fence straddle?  But I may have to re-think all that. Because some peaceful calm in the status quo would be a nice change right about now.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

My Reading Community

" I can't remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

I remember clearly the first time a reader spoke rapturously of Toni Morrison. My wife and I were on vacation in Bermuda in 1980 and over dinner one night, a woman described Morrison's most recent novel Song of Solomon. If you're a reader, I'm sure you've had experiences like this, i.e. moments when you just know the author being spoken of is special; you know it by the glow on the speaker's face. Readers: When did this last happen to you? And which author did you discover as a result?

Upon our return from vacation, I raced to find Song of Solomon, thus beginning my multi-year love affair with one of our national treasures. I'm not sure when I then went back in Morrison's catalog and read Sula (1973) for the first time; no matter. As the Emerson quote says, when I picked it up for the second time a few days ago, I couldn't recall much about it; also no matter. Because I did know - as I've known with all of Morrison's work - Sula helped shape me as a reader. Re-reading it reminded me of Morrison's secure place in the literary firmament as well as the debt of gratitude I can never repay to that Bermuda dinner companion. 

How did you most recently find your way back to a pleasure-soaked re-read as I did with Sula? One of my most frequent blog commenters is a reader whose opinion I have come to value. So, when she recently recommended On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by poet Ocean Vuong to me, it went in my queue. Which means this time, unlike Bermuda, I can publicly thank a new reading soulmate. Thank you for the recommendation but a bigger thanks for bringing Sula back into my life. Of the many book references in Vuong's genre-busting debut novel, one harrowing scene he mentioned from Sula compelled me to pull Morrison's early book off my shelf.  I am grateful for these serendipities, thrills my reading community continually delivers to my life.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Add One More Less-Than-Ennobling Behavior

Readers who have visited this bell curve often over these nine and one-half years could have easily caught me being annoyed or frustrated at least once or twice. Anger, sadness, and shame have also also made infrequent visits here, though I hope not enough that anyone was ever tempted to deposit me in the over-sharing basket. Which of those five less-than-ennobling behaviors has been a visitor in your life? If you answer "none", I'm ready to watch you do that walk-on-water bit.   

Beware of those who use absolutes. Doing so usually reveals how little someone is paying attention to their words. For example, if I claimed I'd never been bored, I would expect someone to challenge that absolute. But I can say this: Boredom - unlike anger, annoyance, frustration, sadness, or shame - is so foreign to me, hearing someone use the word stops me cold. Wanting to be elsewhere, disinterested, unengaged, OK. But bored? Really? How?

Paraphrasing Augusten Burroughs, although being happy is nice, being interested is essential. New authors, new music, purple flowers. Old movies, old friends, children giggling. Birds singing, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a mystery car ride. That's my list. What's on your short list of things that keep you interested? In my experience, people who are interested are often interesting. As unkind as it may be to assert, the obvious corollary to that is that people who are bored are often boring. And now, Father, you can add unkind to Pat's list of less-than-ennobling behaviors.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Beware Of Tossed Instruments

Years ago, soon after discovering Pandora radio, I created a couple dozen customized stations, using that feature I've come to love. I called one of my stations Guitar Heroes, "seeding" it with several of  my favorite players to help Pandora's algorithm search for others - hopefully some new to me - that I might enjoy. Therein lies the nub of today's (almost) sweet and (not too) sour reflection.

Most days, listening to Guitar Heroes - walking, while at the gym, etc. - does not dissuade me from picking up the guitar later that day. Because, although the staggering technical virtuosity I hear is humbling, it's easy for me to make excuses explaining why - after a half century on the instrument - I'm still unable to approach some of what I've just listened to. A partial list of those excuses:

* Drums were my first instrument so I started playing late and also had no early guitar mentors.
* I spent the first decade + mostly accompanying my singing and couldn't afford lessons until I was thirty.
* When my singing voice gave out, forcing me to give up music as a livelihood and get a day job, practice time got compromised as life took over - that job, raising a family, mowing the lawn, etc.

On the days when those excuses work, I return diligently to the guitar, usually deriving some measure of enjoyment from what thousands of hours of practice has helped me be able to do. Alas, today has not been one of those days.

Instead, after ninety minutes of walking and Guitar Heroes today, some unanswerable questions would not leave me alone. And I'm confident other guitar players like me - i.e. those on the bell curve with respect to their abilities - have had similar wonderings. Like - When Steve Morse listens to Joe Pass does he have even a twinge of regret about not practicing more? Does Jeff Beck's admiration of Al DiMeola's technique ever cross the line into envy when he hears a passage he thinks he might have trouble navigating? Do Tommy Bolin, Joe Bonamassa, or Robert Fripp ever wish they had more speed?

Because here's the thing: Although I won't ever give up trying to become a better guitar player - bell curve or not - it would be a tiny bit reassuring to know these giants occasionally have their moments. What moments, you ask? Well, moments like that saxophone player depicted in the movie Bird had, soon after he hears Charlie Parker play something super-human. Moments when, as a musician, you simply want to toss your instrument off the bridge into the raging river below.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Trois (Covid-19 Iteration)

When a good friend - i.e. un bon ami - recently said crudite represented the extent of her French, my first instinct was to quote the lyrics of Lady Marmalade and Michelle to her. Voulez vous couchez avec moi, ce soir, ma belle? To preserve our friendship, I refrained from asking her that question but you get my point, non? Tres bien. And given how common French words and expressions are - in popular song and otherwise - my friend's statement gave me carte blanche to reprise a short-lived series from early 2015, in the hope of providing a socially-isolated frisson for a few of you. I doubt anyone will find this post too avant-garde.           

Food? Even in Omaha, "Bon appetit!" often follows the entree being served, no matter if everything is a la carte or if the whole meal is prix fixe. Clothing? Beret on the coat rack, negligee and other lingerie in the boudoir.  SexCaught on the chaise lounge in the chalet apres-ski, you say? Were there any voyeurs? How would any of us survive without the use of an occasional "Je ne sais quoi" to describe the indescribable? Isn't "Touche!" exactly the mot juste to exuberantly cry when someone has beat you at your own game? Now, a petit segue to the final paragraph's challenge before ennui settles in.

Not counting ordering French fries, I challenge any reader to try avoiding the use of a single French word or expression over the next week. Consult the first and second installments of this series - links directly below - if you're still not convinced how thoroughly vous parlez Francais. Which way should I sign off? Using my nom de plume or my nom de guerre? Vive la difference!

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/bonjour.html

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/01/deux.html

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Price Of Bro-Bragging

Although I welcome input from women on today's reflection, my opening questions are aimed at men only: In your experience with other men, how many have you ever heard say they are bad drivers? How many have you ever heard say they are not all that great in bed? What percentage of men would you say you've heard claim they have a great - or at least a good - sense of humor?

Guys, let's talk math for a moment. If your experience even closely resembles my own, the answers to those three questions would be as follows: ZERO, ZIP, 100%; I'm rolling in my own answers as well as yours. That is equivalent to a flat bell curve, meaning no man is either below average or even average at driving, sex, or being funny. I'm no mathematician, but I do know enough to know that's highly improbable, statistically.

After more than a half century of engaging in and listening to incessant bro-bragging, it's difficult for me to say with anything approaching reality where I would actually fall if there was a scientifically reliable way to measure these things. And truth be told, even if those metrics could be developed, I wouldn't want to know my results. I'm not sure about much but I am sure about this - I've yet to meet a man who would want to know his results either. The price of a lifetime of bro-bragging is difficult to assess. But when the time finally arrives that I'm able to laugh at my delusions - regularly - I'll be a little healthier, mentally.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Passing Along A Book Club Discovery

Although I've always been an insatiable reader, before stopping full time work in 2010, I'd never belonged to a book club. But beginning that same year - which coincided with moving to a new home and looking for ways to connect with new people - I joined my first club. Over the ensuing ten years, I've been in and out of about twenty clubs as well as starting my own in early 2017. My involvement in these clubs has ranged from one meeting - a quick exit there because of an obnoxious moderator - to several years. I've even returned to a couple that - for one reason or another - I'd left previously.

And though I've never done a tally, I would estimate more than 75% of the book club selections were books I'd never have picked on my own. If you've belonged to one or more book clubs, how does that compare to your experience? Of that group of books I wouldn't have picked, I'd guess about half were written by authors I've subsequently looked forward to returning to. How does that compare to your experience? I count Lily King as one of my book club discoveries.

King's 2020 book - Writers and Lovers - is a book even the most casual reader will breeze through. That is not damning praise. Through the voice of Casey Peabody - a thirty-one-year old writer whose life appears to be slowly unraveling - King artfully tells a story that will seem painfully familiar to anyone who wondered - as I did - if they were going to make it through their young adult years.

"There's  a particular feeling in your body when something goes right after a long time of things going wrong." Until I read that sentence, it's possible I didn't fully appreciate how meeting my wife when I was twenty-eight years old felt exactly that way. "It's a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone." Precisely. "Like many parents, my father wanted to give me what he didn't get, then he wanted me to get what he couldn't reach." I've read books twice as long as Writers and Lovers that grappled with the legacy that parents - for better or worse - leave their children. Some of those books did not have one sentence as wise as that one.

BTW, if you decide to read Writers and Lovers - and you love it as I did - be sure to go back one book in King's catalog and read Euphoria. Darker but equally skillful. King is a keeper and for that I have one of my book clubs to thank.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Judge - Let Me Introduce William And George

" A great number of people think they are thinking, when they are merely re-arranging their prejudices." - William James

Of the many anecdotes I collected during my years as an adult educator, the one I've recounted more than any other involved an administrative law judge who told me - with a straight face - "... all my prejudices have been taught out of me." I was speechless. How could any thinking person make such a claim? 

When someone tells you they don't "see" skin color, what is your first thought? Although I'm tempted to ask a person who makes that statement when they last had their eyes checked, I usually suppress the sarcasm and change the subject. Often that judge jumps unbidden to mind as I search for a neutral topic. Then later, I frequently wish I'd been less timid. "Picking your battles" begins sounding like an anemic cliche and a lame excuse for avoiding a teaching moment. 

If not now, when?

"Progress is impossible without change and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - George Bernard Shaw 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

#59: The Mt. Rushmore Series

With Covid-19 sidelining opportunities to teach music classes at local colleges, the mix tapes playing in my head have fewer outlets this year. By participating in this latest iteration of my most venerable series, you can help me get the volume of those tapes under control. Please?

Which four one-off vocal duets would you enshrine on your Mt. Rushmore? A few guidelines:
* Both vocalists must sing some melody, i.e. no fair using Paul Simon & Linda Ronstadt on Under African Skies; Linda sings harmony only.
* But, the two must harmonize at at least one point, i.e. Dr. John and Rickie Lee Jones on Making Whoopee doesn't qualify because they simply trade melodic lines. There's a lot of that nonsense on both the Frank Sinatra & Ray Charles duets recordings - cheating, in my opinion.
* Last, all four of your choices must be one-off deals, i.e. no Linda & Aaron Neville duets - they sang several songs together. I've listed my four alphabetically by song, but put yours in whatever order you like. Oh yeah, almost forgot: Both people have to have been alive at the time; sorry, Natalie & Nat.

 1.) I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me): George Michael & Aretha Franklin: Although I was never a big George Michael fan, having the musical sense to team up once with Aretha almost converted me, especially given this great pop song.

2.) It's Only Love: Bryan Adams & Tina Turner: Start with a power chord intro as pulverizing as early Kinks songs, add Tina Turner in the second stanza, then have Bryan & Tina harmonize in that crushing middle eight - 4:00+ of pure rock n' roll adrenaline.

3.) (I've Had) The Time of My Life: Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes: I know - the movie is so cheesy you have to check your cholesterol level after watching it. But anyone who doesn't get goose bumps as soon as Bill Medley starts this tune is probably not paying attention. And Jennifer Warnes takes it up another level. (Recall she rescued Joe Cocker's ass on their one-off duet - Up Where We Belong - a weaker song from an even cheesier movie.) Be sure to look for the extended version of this tune.

4.) Leather and Lace: Stevie Nicks & Don Henley: I'm even less a fan of Stevie Nicks than I am of George Michael but once again, it's all about the company you keep, even if just once. First Henley hides in the refrain, singing the harmony above Nicks. But when he takes the melody in that second stanza, the effect is as stunning as Bill Medley's opening. Henley elevates both Nicks and the song.

OK, what's on your mountain? I feel compelled just this once to award an honorable mention for the one-off version of George Harrison's Something that Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney did in the Harrison tribute film. If you've never seen or heard that, you owe it to yourself to do so at least once. Trust me.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xl-BNTeJXjw

Monday, August 17, 2020

Is It Safe?

https://lincolnproject.us/video/

I usually think of myself as someone with appropriate boundaries. I respect the privacy of others and try not to ask intrusive questions. And under normal circumstances, I'm not terribly interested in the lives of people in the public eye.

Still, I'm confident saying if someone were to invite me to eavesdrop on a conversation between Kellyanne Conway and her husband George following the release of the latest Lincoln Project video, my scruples about boundaries and privacy would be scuttled. Could you resist being a fly on the wall in this situation? If you could, consider yourself morally superior to me, at least in this circumstance.

What do you suppose the chances are of George getting a dinner invite to the White House? Speaking of dinner, how frequently do you think Kellyanne and George are breaking bread these days? Many long-term couples - my wife and I included - have, over the years, developed strategies to avoid making others uncomfortable. At one point we tried calling each other "Ward" or "June" to help us defuse such awkward moments. If you could suggest something - call it a "safe" word - to Kellyanne and George to assist them in their moments, what would you choose? I'd go for "tweet". What do you think?

Friday, August 14, 2020

Give And Take

Over your lifetime, what percentage of people you've met have shown you that they understand how important give and take is in sustaining a conversation?

Recently my wife and I were musing about someone who we'd both had regular contact with over the past twenty years. When she commented on how little she knew of this person - despite that contact - I had to agree; I didn't know a great deal either.

Then I began reflecting on the interactions I'd had with this person over the years. I recalled asking questions - about work, interests, family - and receiving polite answers. What I don't recall is ever being asked a question in return. And for this specific individual, it's possible my memory is failing me. Maybe there was a give and take.

But right or wrong in my recollection of this person, I've spent a few days more carefully considering this matter. I've scrutinized some recent and some older conversations; I've thought about people in my life and the models they've had or not had for give and take conversation, including the model I provided for my daughter; I've tried to be honest with myself about my own skills.

So far, the only payoff from this reflecting has been the certainty that I can get better at this. I believe it's worth it. What do you think? How much more rewarding do you suppose your conversations would be if you put additional effort into give and take?

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Words For The Ages, Line Fourteen

"The only truth I know is you."

If the rock n' roll era has produced a more consistently excellent lyricist than Paul Simon, that person remains unknown to me. Dylan is more prolific and arguably, more influential. Joni Mitchell can be more fearless and Elvis Costello can be more trenchant. But for my money, much as I often admire the lyrics of those three giants - and others - Paul Simon sets the bar that much higher.

One could reasonably ask why it then took me over three years to settle on a phrase from Simon's oeuvre to enshrine as words for the ages. And, why not a phrase from one of his iconic songs instead of this jewel from the more obscure Kathy's Song? Short answer? Because I spend too much time thinking about stuff like this. Beginning in May 2017, each of my fourteen selections for words for the ages has aimed for -

* A lyrical phrase that can stand alone. If surrounding or nearby rhymes are needed to prop up or complete a phrase, and especially if those rhymes make that phrase too long, I reject it.

* A universal truth. I daresay anyone reading the words opening this post who has ever loved another person would agree these are words for the ages.

* A phrase I believe most people will have no trouble remembering, both because of its brevity and its use of simple language.

All that aside, the purpose of this series from the outset has been to hear which lyrics you'd select as words for the ages. Today, tell me which terse Paul Simon phrase strikes you that way. Meanwhile, I've got a few dozen other lyricists to occupy my addled brain until next time.           

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Important Unfinished Work

Each time I learn another piece about someone from my Road Scholar tribe, my gratitude for having made these later-in-life friends deepens. And the added dimensions I've gotten from the life stories of these newer friends has reminded me how important it is to keep probing my older friends about their stories to see what hidden treasure I've yet to discover there. What did you recently discover about someone you've known for a long time that blew you away?

When Congressman John Lewis died last week, I learned that one of my Road Scholar friends had served on the board of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund for years. This friend informed me that John Lewis had faithfully introduced the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Bill to Congress each year. Had it passed, the act would have permitted conscientious objectors to direct the portion of their taxes that goes to the military to nonmilitary options at the discretion of Congress. Learning this not only enhanced my respect for the important unfinished work Lewis dedicated his life to doing, it also made me proud to be the friend of someone who aligned himself with an effort like this.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A Year Of Home Runs

"Wasn't friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?"

Over what remains of my life, I strongly suspect I'll never again read a book about friendship that will top A Little Life. But before you begin reading it, be advised: The intensity of Hanya Yanagihara's 2015 novel can be emotionally exhausting. If you avoid catharsis when reading, this book is not for you.

"I know my life is meaningful because I'm a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy."

And though the prose is - like that passage - utterly straightforward, this is now the most marked-up book in my collection. I kept underlining, folding down pages, returning to re-read my annotations, stopping long enough only to collect myself. How can a book of over eight hundred pages have not one clunky sentence? As painful as it could be, the richness and depth of the characters compelled me to continue. A Little Life might be my most immersive reading experience of the past ten years.

"...the only trick of friendship, ...is to find people better than you are - not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving - and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you , and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad - or good - it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well."

When my niece read that passage at my June book jam, A Little Life went in my queue. I'm pleased - despite my caveat about its intensity - I took the emotional plunge. It's been a banner year for novels - four home runs so far: The Overstory (Richard Powers), The Good Lord Bird (James McBride), So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell) and now A Little Life. And still five months left. Cool. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

National Movie Day (Beginning 8/1/21, I Hope)

Because of the runaway success of the eight brilliant ideas I've proposed here every August 1 since 2012, this month no longer stands alone as the only one without a major holiday. Yet, much as I've been gratified to see my stunning prescience appropriately rewarded - I'm now on permanent retainer with Hallmark for the additional business created by my holidays - I will not rest on my extraordinary laurels. It's now time to complete the trifecta.

Effective immediately, I declare August 1 National Movie Day, following National Book Day, which was announced on 8/1/12 with an effective date of 8/1/14, and National Music Day, announced on 8/1/19. (Links establishing these now widely celebrated holidays at the bottom of this post. If you doubt the power and reach of this blog, you need only compare the particulars outlined in each of those posts - or look at the other six announced on each August 1 -  with what subsequently ensued all across the U.S. Some have even been adopted by other nations.) 

The specifics for National Movie Day follow. Unlike the previous eight, this holiday will be administered on a state-by-state basis. Here's hoping we can begin the festivities a year from today.

1. In every movie theater of each individual state, only movies bearing that State's name, or ones in which all the action takes place in that state, will be played on August 1. Any movies played on State TV stations and all streaming services will adhere to the same protocol.

2. States having both a previously released feature film and a song with only its name can also play movies from bordering states. For example, with both an Alexander Payne film (2013) and a Bruce Springsteen song, the state of Nebraska can also play films from Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

3.  Movie theaters in any state with neither a feature film nor a song bearing its name (no additional words) are prohibited from selling popcorn on August 1. How many of those movie and song barren states can you name without Googling it? 
       
https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2019/08/national-music-day.html

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

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Gift Of True Intimacy

Many years ago, in a book from a series entitled Innovations in Clinical Practice: A Source Book, I was exposed to a model that helped me immeasurably to better understand communication patterns I'd noticed interacting with people close to me. The model - which can be found on pp. 377-78 of volume one - uses seven concentric circles. The outermost circle - called ritual communication i.e. the everyday platitudes we routinely exchange with others - moves toward the innermost, called true intimacy i.e. where two people withhold nothing from each other. In between the two are small talk, planned activities, shared bits and pieces, shared feelings, shared hopes and dreams. 

The model is an elegant, fluid representation of how each of us make many choices every day about what we will communicate and how vulnerable we will be with others. In healthy relationships, as trust grows, we move closer to the innermost circle. And then sometimes, we back up. Over the years, I've grown more mindful about which circle I'm in while interacting and also more purposeful about choosing my direction. When someone appears to be getting me, I'm more inclined to step in. I know this model has helped me pay closer attention when I sense someone wants to move in a circle with me. It's not hard; the words people use reveal a great deal.

I'm grateful a recent chance look at this model reminded me what a gift it is to be in that innermost circle with anyone for any length of time.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Essential Revisited

essential: absolutely necessary; indispensable.

As the Covid-19 crisis drags on, each time I find my patience wearing thin, I try to remember to ask myself: When did I most recently pause to acknowledge my gratitude for or show my appreciation to the essential people who have been helping me prop up my daily life since mid-March? When was the last time you paused to do this?

Because I'm flawed, this strategy works some days better than others. But lately my reflections on the word essential  have been shifting. What do you imagine when thinking of someone indispensable? Put another way, how likely are you to think of a hedge fund manager as absolutely necessary? How about your favorite sports star? A corporate lawyer?

Now before the uber-capitalists, sports fans, or anyone who spent hard years getting through law school comes for my blood, let me clarify: All of those people deserve to make a living wage, enough to provide food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their loved ones. Still, consider this: Don't the folks who empty bed pans and stock the supermarket shelves, you know, the essential people we're all depending on these days, deserve the same?

I'm not talking about a fair wage, or equitable pay, or even proportionately equivalent remuneration for all working people. Although that would be fine with me, were I to advocate any of those things, the dreaded "S" word would soon be hurled my way. But if other essential workers - e.g. police and fire personnel, nurses, doctors - can live comfortably raising a family on what they earn, isn't it reasonable for nurse's aides and supermarket cashiers to do so? If your answer to that question is "no, that's not reasonable" please explain it to me. Treat me like a dunce; I promise I won't get offended.

In the meanwhile, thank you again essential workers, for helping the rest of us to get through this.

Friday, July 24, 2020

A Worthy Goal

About two years ago, Won't You Be My Neighbor moved me so deeply I felt obligated to evangelize about it here, soon after seeing it. Yet, as touching as that earlier documentary about Fred Rogers was, the recently released It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood - with Tom Hanks as Rogers - is even richer. And before they begin, I'll beat the cynics to the punch. It's undeniably true no one would - nor is it likely anyone ever will - describe me as stoic. A good Marine I'm not. Overly emotional at times? Guilty as charged.

Still, I challenge anyone with a pulse and even a scintilla of good will to watch this new release and not get choked up at least once. Aside from Hanks - and who else could possibly play this role? -  a rock solid script, and the always reliable Chris Cooper in a small supporting role, Matthew Rhys hits it out of the park as a damaged, misanthropic writer unable to resist Rogers's empathy and humanity.

Fred Rogers made the world a better place. He personified grace. Aspiring to emulate his model is a goal I'm proud to call my own. Begin again, Pat.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2018/07/a-special-week.html

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

This Moment

When you've experienced a difficult time in your life, what specific strategies have helped you cope? Aside from the obvious - attending to your personal grooming, going to sleep at close to your usual time, making sure you nourish yourself - were any other of your normal routines particularly helpful to you during those times? If yes, please pick one of those routines and tell me what it was about it that helped you. Be as specific as possible. 

If you don't recall any other normal routines that were particularly helpful to you or, you have trouble identifying how one of those routines helped you cope better, I'm guessing one of your strategies was having regular contact with others. I'm not sure of much. I am sure this moment that the benefit of contact with others during difficult times is impossible to measure.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Next Time, It's Ego-Less Gardening

Few things more dependably get me buzzing than people reacting positively to something I play on guitar. With my ego, the intensity of that buzz has historically been roughly proportionate to the size of the audience. Consequently, these days - given the infrequency of my public performances and the predictably puny size of any audience I attract (a neologism may be needed here - "aud", perhaps?) - I've worked at adjusting my expectations. So far, my success doing so has been marginal. Add to this litany the effect Covid-19 has had on scheduling jam sessions and maybe today's reflection might not sound quite as whiny. 

As my ego-fueled buzzes have grown farther apart, I've lately been reflecting on the contrast between the joy my wife predictably derives from gardening and my time with the guitar. She creates a visual feast that others enjoy year after year; opportunities to share my music continue to shrink. Her main hobby and abiding passion produce tangible results - some of which we eat soon after - with minimal frustration; I'm still trying to get my damn pinky to stay closer to the fretboard. Rewards await her long hours and hard work; postponement of gratification is my most reliable companion.

I considered co-opting Poor Poor Pitiful Me as the title for this post. Cynic and misanthrope that he was, the late Warren Zevon would probably have appreciated my irony. Still, much as I expect no one to admit publicly they need as much affirmation as me, I also suspect I'm not alone on the bell curve with this pathetic admission.