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My most recent single release - "My True North" - is now available on Bandcamp. Open my profile and click on "audio clip".

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.