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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.