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Friday, December 31, 2021

Best Of 2021

As the second year under the Covid cloud comes to its end, I hope some of you will tell me and others what made this year memorable for you. Adapt my headings for your year and/or invent some of your own.

1.) Best family event: My daughter's engagement in April.

2.) Best city visited on May's Southern States Swing: Given how eerily empty many cities in the South felt during our jaunt this past spring, Montgomery, Alabama was hands-down our favorite. The Equal Justice Memorial & Museum, a Montgomery Biscuits baseball game, and some of the best food we had during our road trip were a few of the highlights.

3.) Best teaching-related moment: A few days after finishing a class I called Three Albums That Helped Shape the Musical Future, I received one of those e-mails every teacher cherishes. A participant told me one of the Neil Young songs I'd selected for the course - Expecting To Fly - reminded her of her beloved brother. She then thanked me for temporarily bringing him back to her through the magic of music.

4.) Best (long-delayed) decision: Buying a new Guild to replace the first good acoustic instrument I ever owned - purchased in 1973. Thanks to Alan, Michael, and Scott for accompanying me as I dithered and for pushing me to the finish line.  

5.) Best book club discussion: Back-to-back meetings tie: November's discussion of Colson Whitehead's searing novel Nickel Boys followed by December's discussion of John Steinbeck's evocative travelogue Travels With Charley.

Happy new year to all.   

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Better Late

That faded NYC Metro Card had been in my billfold since late 2019, at least. How can I be sure? Because I haven't been on NYC public transit since before Covid-19. How much was left on this antique I'd carried around now for more than two years? Given how worn it was - meaning it had been used at least several times pre-Covid - the fact that I never laid out more than $20 on any Metro Card since they began being widely used and, my normal habit was to spend each one I purchased down to as close as possible to $0 before buying another, maybe $5, max?

And yet, there that Metro Card remained until I had this conversation with myself a few days back:

How long are you going to carry that old thing around? Until I can use it up.

And when will that likely be? Doesn't matter, it's still got $$ left.

Can't you afford to sacrifice $5 (or less)? Well, Dad or Mom would say money doesn't grow on trees, it pays to watch every penny, and getting through the Great Depression was no walk in the park. 

Yeah, but wait, haven't they both been gone a long time? And, aren't you more than financially solvent? Yeah, they're both long gone and .. well, OK. 

Even after that conversation concluded, it still wasn't easy for me to discard that relic. But I did. It made me neither happy nor sad doing so. It made me glad Dad and Mom taught me about money, proud of what working hard my whole life has given me, grateful for my good fortune and any role luck has had in where I've landed. Good enough. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Reading Re-Cap: 2021

Although turmoil in my personal life curtailed the volume of my reading in 2021, completing the fourth iteration of this series was not difficult. I had more than enough worthwhile reading experiences over this past year, despite all the upheaval. 

Please join me and tell others about some of your 2021 reading highlights, without regard to when a book was published. Use my headings or create your own.

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers:  American Dirt (2019) - Jeanine Cummins. Since this series began in 2018, I've used this heading to recommend a well written novel I'm convinced will have wide appeal. Ignore the controversy about cultural appropriation that engulfed the talented author and just allow yourself to be swept along by the pull of her unstoppable narrative.

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers: Bewilderment (2021) - Richard Powers.

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: The All of It (1986) by Jeanette Haien and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) by Annie Dillard.

Most worthwhile re-read: Our Souls at Night (2015) - Kent Haruf.

Most intriguing: How To Change Your Mind (2018) - Michael Pollan. Of the six headings I've used for this series since its inception, picking a book I read this past year to fit under this heading was the easiest. Pollan's journey into "what the new science of psychedelics teaches us about consciousness, dying, addiction, depression, and transcendence" was fascinating beginning to end. 

Most personally useful:  Old Age: A Beginner's Guide (2016) - Michael Kinsley. Another easy pick, for obvious reasons.  

Celebrate with me. Tell me and anyone who is reading about you, 2021, and books. As always, I reserve the right to change anything above should any book I finish between now and December 31 trump any of these selections. 


Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Modern-Day Plague

"Comparison is the thief of joy." - Theodore Roosevelt

On good days I try my best to live by these wise words. I approach creative endeavors and my passions with audacity, attempting to forget about recognition, reward, legacy. Not coincidentally, on these days I'm also more generous and forgiving to others. After all, aren't labeling and judging akin to comparing? 

When I struggle being mindful and forget how comparison can steal joy, I'm invariably less kind and frequently less happy. On these days, if a creative impulse strikes me, I'm as likely to discard it as put it into the world.

Anyone taken note of current research linking the deterioration of self-esteem in teenage girls to overuse of social media? Theodore Roosevelt's words - uttered almost one hundred years before Facebook etc. was unleashed on us - presciently predicted this modern-day plague. How can young girls - or old men - avoid comparing themselves to others when the number of "friends", "likes", "views" are so ubiquitous? On bad days - i.e. if I dwell too long on one of these poisonous platforms - I feel my own joy dissipating. Create? No way. Enjoy a process rather than a destination? Forget it. Appreciate someone more fully? I can barely muster the grace. 

"Comparison is the thief of joy."  Begin, again. 

   

Thursday, December 16, 2021

An Age-Old Question

Are people capable of fundamental change

I believe in free will. I consider myself an optimist. Logically, those two elements should put me in the "yes" camp - at least more often than not - when answering that age-old question. If you share those two elements with me, please tell me: How frequently do you find yourself toggling to "no"? All the time? Often? Sometimes? Rarely? Almost never? 

If you answered "rarely" or "almost never" then tell me this: What evidence have you uncovered that leads you to answer "yes" more often than "no"? If you answered anything else, your equivocation puts you closer to this fellow free will optimist aka your favorite blogger.   

Given the persona I've carefully constructed for myself, my frequent journeys into the "no" camp on this question are a source of regular cognitive dissonance. However, on days I remember to include myself among the "people" in the question, that cognitive dissonance morphs into something more unsettling. When you first looked at that question, did you include yourself as one of those "people"? Puts the question into a slightly different light, no? 

Back to my question in the second paragraph with a few twists: What evidence would you offer to support a "yes" for how you are capable of fundamental change? More pertinently, how much would others who know you well agree you are capable of fundamental change? OK free will optimists (or otherwise), those in the more "yes" than "no" column (or its opposite), any cognitive dissonance - or something more unsettling - brewing now that you are part of the question


Monday, December 13, 2021

Words I've Never Heard: Speak Up

Which of your lifelong behaviors do you most readily trace back to your family of origin? 

Before offering my answer - and I do so first only because I've learned over eleven years of blogging that if I do not, no one else is likely to participate - please note: My non-cringeworthy answer flows directly from a recent animated conversation. If this same question had occurred to me a few days earlier or later, it's easy to imagine a much more humiliating answer would have come to me. I'm grateful for the timing.  

No one I've ever met with hearing ability falling within the normative range has ever asked me to repeat myself. Put another way, I speak LOUDLY.  For me, it seems beyond dispute that this lifelong behavior of mine - something that has been beneficial and off-putting, situation-dependent - arises directly from my family of origin, specifically, our mealtime dynamic.

Like many from my generation and socio-economic group, I grew up eating most of my meals at home. There were six of us around the table on most nights with only forty-nine months between me - the oldest - and my brother, the youngest. If you're from a smaller family - or a quiet one - try imagining the ever-increasing volume level at that dinner table when I was sixteen, my sisters fourteen and thirteen, and my brother twelve, each of us longing to be heard. And neither of my parents were particularly shy. 

OK, your turn. No need to over-share, unless you wish to. I refuse to believe you can't come up with anything.   

Friday, December 10, 2021

The Limitations Of Knowledge

"I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction."

"And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?"  

"But Charley doesn't have our problems. He doesn't belong to a species clever enough to split the atom but not clever enough to live in peace with itself."

Sentences lifted from a 2021 op-ed? Observations of some contemporary pundit? Overheard in a recent conversation? Guess again.

In 1962, John Steinbeck penned those prescient words in Travels With Charley: In Search of America.  Page after page of Steinbeck's stunning insights from his cross-country road trip with his dog Charley sixty years ago demonstrated to me why this literary titan will likely remain required school reading well into the twenty-first century.

Full disclosure: Though Steinbeck's travelogue was recommended to me by a trusted discerning reader, based on my recent track record with authors and books from the canon, I was still initially skeptical. But he had me from his first page when referring to "...the virus of restlessness...", then cemented his grip two pages later with "...and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir." And try this on for size and see if it doesn't describe some people you've known: "Strange how one person can saturate a room with vitality, with excitement." No? Then how about this? "There are others who can drain off energy and joy, can suck pleasure dry and get no sustenance from it."  

The sentences opening this post amply illustrate Steinbeck's wisdom about the issues facing America, in 1962 or 2021. The last paragraph brings into sharp relief his wisdom about people. But, in the end, this sentence sealed the deal for me: "Perhaps my greatest wisdom is the knowledge that I do not know." I'm invariably more drawn to those with enough self-awareness to know the limitations of knowledge.   


Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Let's Talk ..

With the sophomore jinx now out of the way - this evening's animated conversation included eight energized participants discussing moral courage - my initial trepidation about this newest adventure has mostly faded.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Harnessing My Trepidation

In addition to my gratitude to the local librarian for suggesting I moderate this monthly salon, I'm also thankful to the folks who've signed up so far, either for the maiden voyage in November discussing film noir, or for this second outing. Special thanks to those who've been at both conversations. And pleased as I've been to see a few familiar faces at one or the other event, I'm even more pleased to meet new people interested in the topics I'm selecting. I now eagerly anticipate January's discussion on memoirs. 

In the meanwhile, I want to re-extend an invitation to any local reader interested in getting involved. You can contact me either via a comment here or reach out offline however you wish. I'll get back to you immediately so you can join whichever future conversations pique your interest.  

Saturday, December 4, 2021

#64: The Mt. Rushmore Series

As Covid raged last year, I erected a Mt. Rushmore using four great movies having single word titles. Though I received no online response asking readers which films they would enshrine on that iteration of my long-running series, several people did write me offline. And because some of those ideas were worth saving, I then did what any self-respecting film buff would do. I made a list. 

After stumbling across that list the other day, I realized a second Mt. Rushmore with a related theme was now needed. Which four movies with just a single name would you nominate for Mt. Rushmore #64? My monument is alphabetical; construct yours however you wish.

1.) Brubaker - I'm unashamed admitting films about idealism have a lot of appeal to me. Years after first seeing it, what has remained with me about this movie - aside from Robert Redford's earnest portrayal of the eponymous prison reformer - is its downbeat ending. The message: Lasting change in a corrupt system occurs glacially.

2.) Bulworth - I don't understand how this brilliant, cynical, coruscating Warren Beatty movie didn't get more attention at the time of its release or in the years since. Make it your business to uncover this hidden treasure. Be sure and check out Halle Berry early in her career to see what all the later fuss was about.  

3.) Emma - I'm not real fond of period pieces, Jane Austen is not a favorite author, and Gwyneth Paltrow can annoy me as much as any modern-day celebrity. But this film - including Paltrow's luminous performance - works in every way. Perfect casting, flawless script, a score I wish I'd written. 

4.) Philomena - I make it my business to see every film Stephen Frears directs. In this real-life drama - based on a Martin Sixsmith book called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee - Frears will lift your spirit as he breaks your heart. Judi Dench is predictably exceptional and Steve Coogan is nearly as good. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #58: The Mt. Rushmore Series                 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Selling Vs. Informing

Each time I hear someone I know thoughtlessly regurgitating the words of a favorite radio or TV pundit, one thought seems to settle me. The personalities spewing that hateful, toxic, divisive bile to a susceptible audience - even when the audience are people known to me - are NOT thinkers. They are salespeople, pure and simple.

By definition, salespeople have something to sell. Keeping that thought in mind usually settles me. Because even when these individuals entertain me - however perversely - I'm not buying the hate, the toxins, the misguided attempts to divide. I'm in the market for good will, hope, and unity.

That doesn't mean I seek out rosier-than-thou information. Nor does it mean I'm unaware of the difficulties all of us face every day in an increasingly complex, interdependent world. But I will continue to search for thinkers who inform me vs. salespeople aiming to entertain me. I'm certain of little but I am certain that taking that path is better for me, for the people around me, and for the tiny piece of the world over which I have some influence. 


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Words For The Ages, Line Twenty-Two

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."

At twenty words, that phrase represents the longest entry in this series dating back to its inception in 2017. In addition, all twenty-one earlier entries have used a lyric containing no part of the title of the song chosen.  

But despite its slightly longer length and the fact that the lyric above includes the "hook" of this Rolling Stones tune, I stand by my choice. This particular Jagger/Richards lyric will stand as words for the ages. It is terse, able to be easily recalled, and embodies a universal truth. Which Jagger/Richards lyric fitting those simple criteria would you nominate in its place

Although admitting it may tempt some of you to recommend medication, I freely own up to spending way too many hours examining other Rolling Stones lyrics before settling on this gem. But this is my blog, that lyric snugly fits the criteria, and nowadays I actually get paid to talk about stuff like this. Such a deal. 


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Key Learnings: Year 72

Of the series I've created over my eleven years in the blogosphere, this particular one has been among the most gratifying.  Although it's been instructive to take note of my own takeaways from the year between each birthday, even better have been those times when some of you have shared here what you've learned since last November 23, birthday aside. I hope to see something this year from you as I have in many of the previous ten iterations of this series. My key learnings from year seventy-two:

* I've learned how reflexively repeating any story can limit my ability to see new situations clearly. The trauma my family of origin endured over this past year was the catalyst for me as I begin trying to avoid repeating a story I've re-told many times - to many people - over my entire adult life.

* I've learned that unleashing positive energy - via a blog post, a class on music, reading evangelism - is a gateway to deepening the pleasure of any day, regardless of what my life has hurled at me that day. 

It's invariably more fun when some of you join me in this exercise. In any case, I'll see you here same time, next year.

  

Monday, November 22, 2021

Goal For Year 73

I started out big. A recent novel I finished inspired me to complete Marcel Proust's seven volume, 3200 page long magnum opus In Search of Lost Time over my 73rd year. Then I got more grandiose, telling myself I would also read the even more gargantuan Dance to the Music of Time - twelve volumes that took Anthony Powell twenty-four years to write - alongside the Proust. I actually started looking for Goodreads groups tackling both these leviathans over the next year. Honest. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Re-Calibrating, Eventually

Then I recalled publishing the post above mere days ago. Backtracking now seemed prudent, if I cared at all about preserving any semblance of credibility, at least for anyone who might have recalled my earlier pledge. However - impending birthday or otherwise - I've no wish to stifle anyone who cares to join me, as many of you have in past years on the day before my birthday, by declaring a goal of yours for the next year. Please: Be as bold as you wish, despite my modesty.

Now that we appear to finally be crawling out of the Covid cocoon, over my 73rd year, I'm re-visiting the goal I declared here a year ago today:   This next year, I will have at least twelve jam sessions with other musicians to help me more fully integrate the 313 jazz standards I've memorized since beginning my memorization project on November 22, 2011. 

Unless another variant creeps up on us, this goal is clearly more attainable than the Proust/Powell bit. Which doesn't mean I'm abandoning that reading goal; just re-calibrating the time frame. 


Sunday, November 21, 2021

What A Ride

Around a campfire months ago, I overheard a woman speaking rapturously of Cloud Atlas. Given how transformative that 2004 novel was for me as a reader, I was anxious to hear what else she'd read that approximated the reading experience of David Mitchell's masterpiece. Before she finished describing A Tale for the Time Being, it was added to my over-stuffed list. Like many bookworms, I cherish these moments when another passionate reader directs me to a hidden treasure like this 2013 novel by Ruth Ozeki.

" .. the world was cracking open to show me something really important underneath." 

That phrase - near the end of A Tale for the Time Being - aptly describes the effect this book had on me from the start. Page after page, this gifted author cracked open the world, exposing me to Zen Buddhism, quantum mechanics, Marcel Proust. Ozeki showed me something important underneath each of her two parallel stories. Though Nao and Ruth meet only via Nao's diary, they are deeply connected in their search for lost time. And their search continued to crack open my world, taking me back to the words of Dogen Zenji in the 13th century: "To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by a myriad of things." 

What a ride.


Reflections From The Bell Curve: My Cloud Atlas Walkabout

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Maid

Having gone for almost eleven years without ever dedicating a single post to TV, I hope most of you will indulge me as I recommend Maid to you. If not for my actress/writer daughter, this realistically acted, well-written mini-series would definitely have passed me by. I sincerely hope those of you who learn of it here and then watch it will share some of your impressions with me and others. Please. 

Even more, I hope those who moan about "government giveaways" will stumble across some portion of this ten hours of worthwhile TV long enough to gain a little empathy for victims of domestic abuse. If there are heroes in this difficult, need-to-be told story, they are folks who work in domestic violence shelters. Where would women escaping abusive men go to begin anew if these places did not exist? Did you know the FCC provides free untraceable cell phones to women caught in the cycle of abuse who are housed in domestic violence (DV) shelters? Even though I taught DV classes during my years as an adult educator, I didn't know this. My reaction when I learned the government supports these women in this way? Profuse tears and immense gratitude for living in a country as humane as the U.S.

If I promise not to recommend another TV show until I publish another 2000 posts, will you promise to watch this one and tell me what you learned? I'd really like that.


Monday, November 15, 2021

Re-Calibrating, Eventually

Do you recall the first adult goal you ever set for yourself that you subsequently achieved? How old were you when you set it? How long did it take you to achieve it? 

I'm reasonably sure one of my first goals in adult life - set in my early twenties - was to visit every state in the U.S. Regular readers of my blog may recall I reached that milestone this past May, about a half-century later. Truth be told, I can't recall any extended period in my life when I haven't had at least a few, sometimes several, long-range goals stretching out before me. Unfortunately, I'm all out of half-centuries. And equally unfortunate is the fact that setting goals, including wildly ambitious ones, has always been integral to how I see myself, i.e. a man on a mission. I'm not yet ready to scuttle that persona, but, is it perhaps time for some re-calibrating? After all, Act Three continues to inexorably unfold.

Cull my reading list? Trim the number of places I want to visit? Revise my goals for my guitar playing or my writing? Since even considering any of these things feels to me this moment like surrender, I better give myself more time to re-calibrate.      

       

Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Value Of Collaboration

It doesn't take much for me to get briefly lost musing about the road not taken. This is especially true when I'm around young people involved in creative pursuits. For instance, my daughter.

When I see how effectively my daughter collaborates with her writing partner, it's easy to get wistful about early missteps in my creative life. I wonder: What if I'd been a little less invested in doing it on my own? How might my songwriting or other creative pursuits have evolved had I collaborated - even occasionally - with someone else? Although I don't get mired in these hypothetical scenarios, watching how effortlessly my daughter manages her creative life does give me pause. 

Extracting value from creative collaboration goes hand-in-hand with high emotional intelligence, another of my daughter's innate strengths. Knowing that about her provides ballast for my brief wistful journey down the road not taken.   

Monday, November 8, 2021

Anticipating The Divine

A novel as uniformly excellent as A Children's Bible (2020) could spoil me, if I let it. Lydia Millet's dystopian tale is so transfixing I was initially worried after finishing it that my tolerance for tedium might be permanently altered. What was the last novel you read that grabbed you by the throat with its first sentence and then never let you go? 

Having several discerning readers in my life is a gift. If not for a recommendation from one of those readers, Millet's ripe and compelling book could have gotten by me. And the discussion I had with this same reader deepened my appreciation for the author's mastery and command of her material and chastened me as we spoke about being spoiled by a great book like this. I decided being spoiled could easily curdle into cynicism if I'm not careful. 

For every poorly crafted, tedious book - and there are plenty of those - my friend gently reminded me there are many divine ones - like A Children's Bible - waiting to be discovered and discussed. I was elevated by her words. I look forward to a reading future full of divine treasures awaiting discovery. 


Friday, November 5, 2021

2021 Head Scratchers

Recently, not long after burning myself grabbing a still-hot pot and then applying burn ointment onto my fingers, I had occasion to use my wife's laptop. When she saw I had a paper towel nearby and asked me why, I responded - "Because after I finish typing, I'm going to wipe down your mouse."  As soon as that sentence left my mouth, I felt myself step into a virtual time machine.  

Because, although most everyone in 2021 would understand my response, how far back in time would we have to travel for someone to instead say "huh?" "Wipe down your mouse?" How many other statements that we routinely utter these days would befuddle a listener just a few decades back? How about ..

"Has anyone seen my cell? Or ..

"What was the name of that app you told me about yesterday?"  Or ..

"Google it, will you pleaseWhy are you wasting time trying to remember?" Or..

"Text the directions to me. My GPS is offline."

Chime in here with a phrase or two that you guess might make a listener circa 1990 scratch their head.     

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Cost Of Indifference

Though it would be hard to pinpoint the biggest benefit I've derived from teaching music courses at local colleges since 2014, my interaction with enthusiastic music-loving participants is near the top. 

Recently, that interaction rose to a new level when a participant invited me into her world via sharing a powerful personal story connected to a song I'd used in class. The trust this person invested in me via telling her story moved me enough that I felt completely safe reciprocating in kind. I shared with her some of the ways music has assisted over the past year with challenges my life has hurled at me. And doing so reminded me - for perhaps the thousandth time - the way music can help heal even gaping psychic wounds. My brief interaction with this participant re-focused me on the mystery and joy of music. What would my life have been like had I never been delivered to it?  

Ever met someone who described themselves as indifferent to music? The first time I heard that self-description is possibly one of my life's most vivid memories. After moving beyond dumbfounded, I don't recall what I felt next; I hope I felt sad. But ever since, I have lingered on wondering what someone misses in life being indifferent to music. If I were to ask you what you would have missed, could you formulate an answer? What would you say is the cost of being indifferent to music?  

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Hereditary Habits

No way I'm weighing in on the perennial nature vs. nurture debate. But, when did you last consider your most ingrained hereditary habits? And which of those habits have you had the most trouble shaking? I'm not asking anyone to step into the confession booth and reveal any heavy stuff. But surely there are at least a few mundane things you are certain you inherited from your parents that are safe to share here. 

I've been driving my wife to distraction for over forty-three years - and doing the same to my daughter for thirty-two - via my undeniably hereditary habit of turning off the lights in any room, hallway, or foyer as soon as it becomes vacant, Truth be told, sometimes my hand involuntarily reaches for the light or lamp switch even sooner than that. There is only one possible explanation for this reflex - my father did the same thing for as long as I can remember. 

Dad has been gone for twenty-four years. But as long as I'm still standing and there are lights to be turned off, his spirit remains fully intact. How about you? Which hereditary habit(s) won't let you go? How much do you want to let any of them go?

Shoutout to my sister, who reminded me of this hereditary habit earlier today when she asked me to turn the light off in her bathroom seconds after she'd left it. 

  

Friday, October 29, 2021

To Squirm Or Not To Squirm?

How far would you go to protect your children? Are there lines you don't think you'd cross

To readers who are not parents, my apologies. But the central premise of The Lie landed so squarely on these primal questions - questions I've asked myself countless times over my thirty-two years as a parent - that watching this 2020 film had me tied up in knots almost from the start. And though you don't need to be a parent to appreciate the acting, writing, or the brittle energy of this movie, if you are a parent, I feel confident saying you'll be oblivious to its craft as it moves inexorably to a biblically tragic conclusion.

Recommending a disturbing movie has backfired on me more than once. Given my meager following, I also don't relish the idea of losing readers. How about I qualify my endorsement? Like happy endings? This film is not for you. Don't mind being challenged down to your bedrock values? This movie is worth ninety minutes of your time. Parents: On a scale of 1-10 - breeze to horror show - how would you say you navigated the adolescence of your kid(s)? Anything less than five, I suspect you won't relate real well to this plot. All others, there's a chance you'll recognize some of the nightmares depicted here, but you might feel better knowing how you did vs. how the film parents fare. Idea of reliving or even recognizing some of that adolescent angst - and your reactions to it - make you uncomfortable? Skip the movie. Not frightened by catharsis? Sit back and enjoy. Actually, sit back and squirm is more like it.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Words For The Ages, Line Twenty-One

"Fear is the lock and laughter the key to your heart."

One of the most rewarding by-products of teaching music classes these past seven years has been how closely I've re-examined the lyrics of songs from my formative music years, including some tunes that have clearly suffered from over-exposure. Since 1969, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes from the first Crosby, Stills & Nash LP - the source of those italicized words for the ages above - has saturated the airwaves to the point where some listeners groan when it plays. That's unfortunate because, using just eleven words, Stephen Stills - not known primarily as a lyricist - nailed an essential and undeniable truth about love. 

I've been writing lyrics to my own songs for about a half-century; I'm proud of some of them. And I remain hopeful that one day I'll create a lyric of my own that can stand next to the twenty-one I've selected since 2017 for inclusion in this series. What lyric would you nominate? Remember: Your selection must be able to stand alone, it must reflect a universal truth, and it must be terse enough to be easily recited. The longest lyric to date in this series has been just seventeen words. Forget about how "over-played" a song has been. Instead, listen carefully to lyrics and find me some gems you would nominate as words for the ages. I think you'll be surprised - as I have been - at what you'll uncover.   

  

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Behemoth And Me

Although I haven't counted, I'm guessing my percentage of blog posts from 2021 featuring books is the lowest since the bell curve opened for business in early 2011. I've finished plenty of notable ones this year but from early January until mid-April my life was so upside down, concentrating on a book was  problematic. 

Those spare months of reduced reading resulted in a dilemma any lifelong bookworm will understand, i.e. a longer-than-usual list. To manage what remains of my 2021 behemoth, I've adopted some extreme measures:

* Even books recommended by my trusted reading posse of five are being more carefully scrutinized. And those recommended by the two members of that posse with current batting averages under .500 undergo a rigorous interview about the book in question before the monster list is fed. 

* No pending candidates for inclusion in my reading posse are being accepted until early 2022, and only then if the monster has lost a good deal of its roar. 

* Book club selections -  except for those I pick for my club - are being routinely rejected, especially  celebrity memoirs, historical fiction (particularly those with the word "wife" in the title), or anything with breathless author blurbs above the title on the front cover. Before you ask, yes, I skip meetings when I haven't read the book. Few things annoy me more reliably than a book club participant who talks about a book they haven't finished. 

(Since this post is "about" books [sort of], feel a need to sneak in a recommendation for the bookworms, especially those who like mysteries: Try Midnight Sun (2015) by Jo Nesbo. And, good luck with your list, behemoth or otherwise)                  

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

I Remain Busy For The Rest Of My Life

It's not as though I haven't heard several terrific podcasts and want to check out others. And I surely could learn a great deal if I watched more Ted Talks. That website you're recommending because you are sure it will be worthwhile for me? I have no doubt you're right.

Here's the issue: The hours I've been allotted - like yours - are finite. How can I get to it all? I can't. Flip that coin: How is it possible for anyone to be bored given all the world offers us? I submit only boring people can be bored. The corollary to that? Being interesting to others often flows from being interested. 

Which delivers me directly to my immense gratitude to anyone who uses any part of their precious, finite time to read my blog. I cannot say thank you often enough. I will never take you for granted.

https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2016/02/im-busy-for-rest-of-my-life.html


Sunday, October 17, 2021

Calling All Probability Nerds

As the women introduced themselves, I was relieved my wife was there as a witness. Because if she weren't, I suspect few readers would ever believe what happened to me yesterday.  

There were twelve of us on the hike. The leader's name was Merry. Four of the other women were named Hildred, Kathy, Mary, and Suzanne. The other five first names? The same as my two sisters, my daughter, my youngest niece, and my sister-in-law. Because my oldest niece shares a name with my older sister, this means that on this hike with ten strangers only two names of my closest living female relatives were missing. Ten women - five sharing a name with six of the most significant women in my life. 

Any probability nerds out there? Please weigh in.  

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Mystery Continues

How frequently are you a mystery to yourself?

I'm pretty sure most people who know me well don't think of me as mysterious. My needs are simple, my passions obvious, and though I try not to be unkind, I'm not shy about expressing opinions. And I don't often surprise myself. "What you see is what you get" is arguably a good way to describe the way I show up in the world, at least most of the time. 

It's possible that my innate predictability is the biggest reason why my outsized emotional reactions to random events can sometimes render me a mystery to myself. There I am - composed, rolling along, laughing. Then, in a flash, I'm a puddle. The things that can trigger profuse tears are often numbingly mundane. I've been this way as long as I can remember. I still don't get it. Neither of my parents were particularly emotional and my three siblings reside on what I would call a normative continuum with respect to how frequently they emote.  

In the woods of Maine last week, I tried to unravel this mystery to my partner in the de-brief following a simple exercise we'd done, an exercise that had unleashed another inexplicable torrent. The unraveling was unsuccessful. As I began weeping uncontrollably - again - the only word that made sense to me as I spoke with my partner was mystery.   

Monday, October 11, 2021

Who Deserves A Holiday?

As someone who received his public school education in the 50s and early 60s, was raised by working-class parents with predictably traditional politics, and grew up with no exposure to and limited knowledge of Native Americans, Columbus Day has long been a holiday I've taken for granted. With no Italian ancestry in my family, we did not formally celebrate the day but still, I knew a few things: Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, there was no school, big parades were held in NYC and nearby Newark, NJ. 

Growing into my adult years, I came to better appreciate the importance of the day to Italian-Americans though I didn't recall my childhood friends with that cultural background making a big deal about it at the time. Could easily be a gap in my young memory or maybe their celebrations were more private family affairs. By this time, I'd grown to respect the need of people to have pride in their forebears.   

And so it went for me until I read James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995) about ten years ago. I strongly encourage you to pick up this scrupulously researched text and tell me what shifts for you when considering Columbus's complex legacy. If he deserves a national holiday - a notion I support - I would submit it's fair to consider giving a similar honor to others, even if we don't close the post offices or libraries on that day. Where to draw the line? After reading Loewen's book, you tell me. Based on what is in his persuasive text, I'd start with honoring one prominent Native American. If not that, then how about ..

Reflections From The Bell Curve: John Brown Day


Friday, October 8, 2021

Help From Others

Isn't it wonderful the way different people help you experience the world around you in ways you might have missed if you'd never met them? If this has happened to you, please share an instance of it here with me and others.   

While recently walking with a friend who has taken the time to educate me about what he looks for when taking pictures, I suddenly realized how closely I was paying attention to the reflections clouds create in water. It felt momentarily as though I was looking at the world through his eyes. This made me grateful for how he has educated me and - at least for that moment - reminded me how rewarding it can be to take in the world visually. As a person who is more inclined to pay attention to sounds vs. sights, this is no small thing.

Friendship confers so many benefits, doesn't it? 


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

A Sacred Place Via New Eyes (And Richard Powers)

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Sacred Place

Before I began my blog over ten years ago, I'd already made three trips to Acadia National Park. Then, in 2014, after blogging for more than three years, I visited this magical place again, this time writing about my experience on Schoodic Peninsula in the post above. Returning to that sacred section of Acadia with my late-in-life soulmates from Road Scholars yesterday allowed me to re-experience that part of the park via the eyes of these fourteen people I've come to treasure. 

None of these folks have ever been to Schoodic; six of the fourteen have never been to Acadia. For me, the highlight of our day was when a park ranger led us on an experience called "forest therapy". Over the whole two hours, The Overstory would not let me go. Each time the ranger asked us to distill our thoughts down to a few words following a guided exercise she'd given us, the essence of that 2018 novel jumped into my head. The prose of Richard Powers has transformed my relationship to the natural world, trees in particular. The forest therapy exercises deepened my transformation. I'm still recovering more than a day later. 

This could well be my last trip to Acadia National Park. Almost certainly this will be my last visit to Schoodic Peninsula. If you've never visited either, I highly recommend you put both on your list. And, if you plan to try forest therapy, be sure to read The Overstory beforehand. I promise it will deepen your experience.           

Reflections From The Bell Curve: To Be Continued


Saturday, October 2, 2021

#63: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Though I've always enjoyed listening to what is commonly called "classical" music, I have spent fewer hours doing so than I have listening to jazz, rock, folk, or even pop music. And among the musical hybrids that have sprung up over my lifetime, my least favorite is the genre that was called "classical-rock" during its brief heyday. Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer are all immensely talented musicians. But none of the ELP recordings I bought as an impressionable young musician spent much time on my turntable after classical rock faded. The same goes for my recordings of other bands from this genre, e.g. Yes.

That aside, I was inspired recently to erect a Mt. Rushmore of popular songs with a strong tie to compositions originating in the world of classical music. Which four would you enshrine? Mine are listed alphabetically; order yours however you choose. 

1.) Because: Aside from being some of the richest Fab Four three part harmony, this John Lennon song owes a debt to Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. I'd like to claim I was musically precocious enough to identify this link when Abbey Road was released in 1969. Alas, I was not.

2.) A Lover's Concerto: Although I was never wild about the vocal on this hit record by the Toys, I do recall being immediately entranced by that majestic melody, a direct lift from a Bach minuet.

3.) This Night: Of the four tunes on my Mt. Rushmore, composer Billy Joel is the only one who gave a co-credit to his writing partner - LV Beethoven - for this terrific tune from An Innocent Man. 

4.) A Whiter Shade of Pale: The organ interludes - played by Matthew Fisher of Procol Harum on this massive hit - are courtesy of Johann Bach. The terrific Gary Brooker vocal - delivering that cryptic Keith Reid lyric - is memorable but, without those sweeping interludes, I suspect this tune might not have been nearly as popular. I'd wager most non-musicians could readily hum those interludes. 

p.s. As I began construction on this iteration of Mt. Rushmore, I realized there was enough meat on these bones for a to-be-developed music course using this theme. Any local readers who already have taken one of my courses - or those who plan to - stay tuned.             

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Adaptations In A Post-Covid World

Through evolutionary history, the human race has adapted in many useful ways. Our posture eventually became upright, our thumbs opposable, our level of melanin adjusted relative to the intensity of the sun where we settled.  

Given how many of us have been wearing masks since March, 2020 has anyone beside me wondered if we might look or feel a bit different when Covid-19 finally loses its grip on us, the human race? For example:

* Will we have permanent facial tan lines - like what happens with bathing suits - where masks have blocked the sun for the last eighteen months? 

* Will the shape of our ears be irrevocably altered because of the tension of the strings holding our masks in place? 

* Will breathing unobstructed ever feel the same again? While on that thread, do those folks with serious halitosis now better understand what it's been like for the rest of us?

 

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Gifts From The Universe

Although Covid-19 still has hot spots around the U.S., I'm happy to report a trip to Maine which we were forced to postpone in October 2020 is coming off this year. Along with visiting some old friends in southern Maine, this extended road trip will also mark our fifth visit to Acadia National Park, one of the only places my wife and I have chosen to re-visit more than twice. 

Even better, we'll be reuniting - also for the fifth time - with the late-in-life soulmates we met on our first trip with Road Scholars to Alaska. These fourteen people have been the best gift the universe has sent me since 2015. Each of our previous four reunions - to Rocky Mountain National Park, Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks of New York, the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State, and Amelia Island in Florida - has deepened our connection with these friends, travelling companions, fellow bookworms. Even while Covid-19 raged in 2020, we met twice - virtually - to discuss The Good Lord Bird (James McBride) and The Illusion of Separateness (Simon Van Booy). At this year's reunion, one of our evenings will be devoted to discussing Our Souls At Night (Kent Haruf). And I can't wait to hear what this group of smart readers has consumed since we all last met face-to-face in 2019. 

What has been the best gift the universe has given you since 2015? How about in the last year? The last month?       

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Words For The Ages, Line Twenty

"What does it avail a man to gain a fortune and lose his soul?"

I clearly recall how that closing question from Golden Ribbons struck me the first time I listened to Loggins & Messina's second album. Not long after, the song became a favorite in the repertoire of the cover band I belonged to at the time. 

What I don't recall is when I first learned that composer Jim Messina had modified a slightly longer passage from Mark 8:36 to use as a fitting conclusion for his 1972 antiwar song. If any reader knows of another instance when a biblical passage has been so seamlessly converted into a succinct phrase for use in a popular song, I'd welcome hearing about it. 

Given Messina's source material, I'm guessing only the most militant atheist questioning this terse phrase as appropriate for my Words for the Ages series. And here's a juicy piece of useless musical trivia for even those militant atheists: Golden Ribbons was a pivotal reason behind Jim Messina leaving Poco, the band he had co-formed with Richie Furay from the still-warm ashes of Buffalo Springfield. Soon after Poco rejected Messina's majestic composition as "too political", Messina left the band and went on to work with Kenny Loggins. The rest .. 

"What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" 


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Continuing Education

I'm confident saying that any reader sharing my passion for film has found the last eighteen months a bit weird. Aside from the obvious - i.e. not regularly communing in a dark room with a crowd of strangers - for the first time in memory, I did not see a single one of the eight Oscar nominees for best picture in a theater. Even more demoralizing for a movie buff than being forced to watch films on a TV has been the long delay between the announcements of those eight films and actually seeing them. And, I've still got two to go - the horror! How many of the eight have you seen? Got a favorite?

Now the semi-good news. Although I would have preferred to see Judas and the Black Messiah on a big screen - especially for the few electrifying scenes when Daniel Kaluuya, as Black Panther Fred Hampton, is speaking to a crowd - watching it at home was still a powerful experience. I recall how the Black Panthers were demonized and vilified in the late 60s. As a young white man, I fully accepted the narrative of the mainstream press, my working-class parents, and many of my peers at the time. Fifty additional years of education, including becoming more discerning about what the mainstream press regurgitates, growing independent of the view of my parents and peers, and being purposeful about not confirming my own biases, have all brought me to a different view of the Black Panthers and their legacy. This movie has deepened my resolve to continue that education.   

Judas and the Black Messiah has a strong viewpoint. I suspect Tucker Hannity or Sean Carlson or any of the other interchangeable dittoheads will not be putting it into their Netflix queue. But, though I condemn the wanton murder of police - or anyone else, for that matter - that one piece of the Black Panther legacy - depicted in this film - is not the whole story. I'm pleased some alternate voices are getting wide attention telling more complete stories, even if I'm forced to watch them on a TV. 


Monday, September 20, 2021

Fuddy-Duddy Discovery

Much to the chagrin of people in my life, especially my wife and daughter, until quite recently I resisted texting. And even after a serious family situation made this modern-day communication method more useful, I continued my futile fuddy-duddy battle to enter the twenty-first century. 

Imagine my delight when I discovered a clear benefit to texting, one directly linked to becoming a better writer. Want to know which phrases are tired or cliched? Get your phone, start a text, and use an adjective of your choosing. See which noun the auto-fill feature selects to follow that adjective. I'll wait.

So, if the auto-fill suggests "student" or "reader" to follow "avid" what does that tell us? As an avid reader who also wants to be a better writer, it tells me to avoid the phrase "avid reader". I can hear you from here. Big deal, you say, especially if sounding stale as a writer is unimportant to you. How about as a speaker? Any interest in sounding fresh - or at least, less predictable - when conversing? Try typing in other adjectives or adverbs you're fond of using and see what noun or verb or adjective is auto-filled. Better yet, try "trials and.." or "tried and.." or  "recipe for.." I'll wait.

Recognize any of your oft-used, automatic pilot phrases? I bet you do.   

Friday, September 17, 2021

Does Every Happy Family Have Its Own Coward?

If no member of your immediate family has ever been offended or alienated by anything you've written, you have yet to be genuinely honest with your writing. 

I've had difficulty tracking down definitively which writer first made that observation, paraphrased for the purposes of this post. Some sources claim Ernest Hemingway first said it, others say Tennessee Williams, still others attribute it to Gore Vidal. No matter; the essential truth of it stings me as an aspiring writer. This became clear to me as I recently realized how hard I've worked to not offend or alienate anyone in my immediate family while publishing over 2000 blog posts since March 2011. 

I can't claim kindness has motivated my meekness; I'm not that kind. Nor can I assert tact has limited my candor; my foot has been in my mouth a good portion of my adult life. The more I reflect on it, the more inescapable the conclusion. I'm a bit of a coward. Not ennobling, but probably true.

It's not as though I haven't written dozens of posts about members of my immediate family. But in all my posts laying bare any fault lines in my reasonably functional family, I've been purposefully vague. Contrast those veiled posts to the ones where my family are the good guys. In the latter I'm clear who is the subject. But in the former, references are oblique, specific details that could identify any individual are avoided, generalities abound. Coward? Maybe, maybe not. Dishonest? No question. More work to do.  

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Act Three Dilemma

A lifetime of being in love with literature has brought with it a fair share of dilemmas. Aside from those that originate with my posse, how to weigh the relative merit of a book recommendation? When is it time to abandon an author? Which genres have grown tired for me or, are no longer useful to me as a thinker or, don't have much to teach me as an aspiring writer? 

Finishing John Banville's masterful 1997 novel The Untouchable helped fortify the newest dilemma in Act Three of my reading life: How many new-to-me authors can reasonably be added to my list of "keepers"? I mean, without being too specifically morbid, at seventy-one + years, it's probably time to begin making my keeper list manageable, no? I knew right after finishing Snow - Banville's most recent novel as well as my first exposure to him - that he deserved a return visit. But after two gems in a row, my newest dilemma loomed large. Do I now place Banville on that more select list? Those of you sharing my literature lust and residing in Act Three, please give me some help here. Act Two and share that lust? Be forewarned of what might lie ahead. Pretty sure I have few readers in Act One but just in case - see Act Two. 

" I am aware of a ceaseless hubbub of voices loudly saying things no one seemed in the least inclined to listen to." In my experience, if an author doesn't provide a sparkling or wise sentence like that early in a book, no matter how good the story or how rich the characters, that author is not going on my keeper list. So Act Three dilemma aside - given that sentence is on page thirteen of The Untouchable -  Banville is now on my not-so-manageable keeper list. At least, until the first time he disappoints me.

 Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Twist

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The Lunacy Of Fashion

 

I'm tempted to say that only in America would a pair of jeans like these attract customers. But I suspect other countries have their fair share of privileged people who would pay $128.00 to look like they can't afford to replace their tattered clothes. I'm not kidding - $128.00.

The lunacy of fashion is foremost of the things that have always mystified me. I realize admitting this renders me culturally irrelevant to the chic among us. But irrelevancy aside, I still wonder: Do the people who peddle this "I'm so poor" pretense to the consumers who are willing to swallow their swill ever stop to consider the message being conveyed to people who are truly poor? How many mouths can be fed by $128.00? 

Who is this cranky, fashion-challenged blogger trying to reach with his crabby rant? I'd settle for anyone who has seen an ad like this and had an inkling of wondering about what it says about unthinking consumerism. 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Postponing Gratification

Spending any time thinking about how many hours I've devoted to my guitar is never wise. I'm better off just continuing to be purposeful, disciplined, and staying open to rare moments of transcendence.

There were perhaps two dozen people present as several of those moments occurred recently at my first post-Covid gig. I'm reasonably sure no one in that art gallery - except me - recognized my moments of fleeting musical rapture. That predictable circumstance did not diminish the experience at all. My solitary communion with the music I was creating - no matter how brief - was magical.  

As my second set began, I was back on more familiar ground - happy to be sharing music with others, proud of how my practicing and memorizing allow me to be flexible about what songs to play, pleased with my level of comfort. What single discipline has occupied the greatest percentage of your time? What lesson have you extracted from the hours you've spent practicing that discipline? I've learned many things via thousands of hours spent with the guitar. Today, being able to postpone gratification tops my list of the lessons I've extracted from more than a half century living with an instrument. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Recapturing Exuberance

While being enchanted by the unalloyed exuberance of a group of young children frolicking on the beach recently, I began reflecting: When did I begin losing that kind of boundless joy? How difficult would it be, really, to recapture that exuberance? And, what is preventing me from doing so? 

Although this is hardly the first time my wondering has travelled down this path, in the few days since watching those children, the time I spent recalling my transition from childhood to adolescence brought a fresh insight to me. Have you ever witnessed a group of teenagers tapping into uninhibited exuberance? I am quite certain I have not. More to the point, Pat as an adolescent would no sooner have acted like those children on the beach than he would have scaled Mt. Everest. Think of what any teenage cohort would say to one of theirs caught acting like those children - "Grow up!", "Act your age!", "You are so immature!", etc. 

Truth be told, even as a thinking adult, I've probably said - or at least thought - similar things on those occasions when I've observed an adolescent acting child-like. And there's the answer to question #1 in my opening paragraph above. Part of the price paid for becoming an adolescent is a diminished ability to tap into boundless joy.

This moment the second and third questions from my first paragraph are not as hard to untangle. It will not be at all difficult to recapture that exuberance if I stay in today's mindful space. The only thing preventing me from doing so is me. If I let go of all the stories attached to "grow up", "act your age" and "you are so immature", in no time at all I can be just like those children again, wide-eyed and immersed in the wonder of the beach, myself, and the magical world that surrounds each of us. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021

Revisiting The Six Word Memoir

Stable start, eclectic "career", still searching.

Call me a solipsist if you must. But when the widget on my home page called popular posts recently dug up my six word memoir, I felt oddly compelled to re-read it. 

Four and a half years later; I wouldn't change a word. (Now call me an egotist if that gives you solace.) But obnoxious self-satisfaction aside, with new readers having joined me here since March, 2017 and enough additional folks who now qualify as frequent commenters, I feel justified re-visiting this idea, especially given the quality of the entries others made when the post was initially published. 

So, after taking a quick look at those entries, why not give this exercise in concision a try? And allow me to issue another challenge: What clever approach did your egotistic, self-congratulatory, solipsistic yet still favorite blogger take replying to most of those entries?         

Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Six Word Memoir

 p.s. Aside from my two sisters and my brother, there are only a handful of people who have been an essential part of my life longer than my partner of forty-three and a half years. One of those people, an infrequent reader of my blog, recently vowed that he would make his first public comment here when the year - 2021 - matched my 2021st post. OK "almost" oldest friend: That day has now arrived and this is an ideal post for making good on your vow, given the six word limit.  


Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Harnessing My Trepidation

"I cannot remember the books I have read any better than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me."   - Ralph Waldo Emerson

In my experience, nearly every new adventure brings with it an almost equal measure of excitement and trepidation. Although some might say those are two opposing forces, for me, each gives some fuel to its counterpart. Anyone out there relate to this? 

Which brings me to my newest adventure, scheduled to begin in early November. Directly below is a brief description, in case any local reader decides they'd like to participate, at least for the maiden voyage. Let me know of your interest either via a comment here or with an offline e-mail or phone call; I'll supply some particulars. And wish me luck harnessing my trepidation into excitement. 

Join a community of interested people who will share ideas and gain insights on a different topic each month. Our facilitator Pat Barton will ignite the conversations using readings, music, and film as a means of exploring different perspectives on subjects like joy, belonging, and courage.


Saturday, August 28, 2021

Marking The Eighth Decade

2019 marked the start of my eighth decade. And this post, my 2019th, marks the end of this limited run series initiated on March 3 when I matched my 1949th post with events from 1949, the year that kicked off my first decade. This is your last chance to share something in this series. What was significant for you about the year 2019?

Aside from the out-of-the-park surprise birthday party my wife and daughter pulled off to mark my 70th birthday on November 23, I think 2019 is destined to be the "year before Covid". Oddly, my wife and daughter and I had decided 2019 was going to be the last time we hosted my family for Christmas Eve. No drama was associated with our decision; we simply concluded that hosting for almost forty years was long enough. And then, because Covid was still raging when Christmas 2020 rolled around, everyone in my family hunkered down and did their own thing. That rendered our abandonment of the longstanding family tradition a non-issue. I'm still not sure if anyone in my family will pick up where we left off on Christmas 2019 when the holiday arrives this year. And with only one of my four nieces still living nearby, it's quite possible my whole family may not get together for Christmas Eve ever again. 

If that becomes the case, 2019 could be additionally memorable as the year of the final Barton family Christmas Eve hurrah. I will miss it.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Gobsmacked

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Testing My Endurance

After describing the dilemma I've endured for almost half a century, I hope anyone who has faced something like it will share their story with me. It will help to know I'm not alone whining about this.

I was born on November 23, 1949, my wife on June 11, 1954. Over our forty-three plus years together, any time age comes up, my wife invariably says I'm five years older.  Call me over-sensitive if you must, but even during the five plus months from June 12 until November 22, somehow I remain five years older than her. I'm so accustomed to this mathematical sleight of hand that when she last made her bogus claim in early August, I stopped and did the math. Her chicanery aside, facts are facts. Until November 22, I am seventy-one and she is sixty-seven. Dear reader: Please reassure me after doing the simple subtraction.  

If just once I could be four and a half years older or, if my wife accurately stated that subtracting her birth year from mine equals five, perhaps my fragile ego could be temporarily mollified. But I ask you: How much distorted arithmetic must one man endure? 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

I Can Never Repay You, Hal

What is your earliest-in-life recollection of an experience that pointed you toward a passion that has sustained you ever since? Put aside whether or not that life-sustaining passion later ever turned into a way to make money or became a career. Focus instead on the experience, describe it to me, tell me how early in life it happened to you. 

As my wife recently described to me again her four-year-old self being transfixed by the underside of flowers growing in her childhood backyard, I was thirteen. Each time "Do-lang, do-lang, do lang" signaled the start of He's So Fine, my world came to a standstill. I remained anxiously glued to the radio awaiting the brief drum break just before the Chiffons sang "He's so fine (oh yeah), gotta be mine (oh yeah)". I didn't learn until many years later that the drum fill that rocked me to the core was played by the legendary session drummer Hal Blaine. But I do clearly recall thirteen-year-old Pat knowing he would never be quite the same. When a childhood friend and good musician asked me a short while later to learn how to play drums and join his junior high school band, I lunged at the opportunity. 

Over fifty-seven years have gone by. I often reflect on what my life would have been like had I never heard that Hal Blaine drum fill. I sometimes wish I'd had the opportunity to thank him for helping me discover what I now know was my destiny. I suspect he would have appreciated knowing he helped shape my life. 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

The First First In Quite A While

Those of you fortunate enough to have life partners who share your love of literature: When was the last time you & your partner were reading the same book at the exact same time? What was that experience like for you? How closely aligned were you in your views of the book?   

Even though both of us are almost always reading a book, until quite recently when each of us got immersed in Rebecca - Daphne DuMaurier's 1938 classic of romantic suspense - my wife and I had never overlapped. Yes, we've both read many of the same books and later discussed our reactions. Yes, we've been close in time reading several books, a predictable circumstance given we've been in the same club since January 2017. But over our forty-three years of intense shared passion for literature, turning the same pages of the same book at the same time? This was a first.

On my first visit to Manderley, I extensively marked up our owned copy of the novel. On her second visit - the first taken when she was a young girl - my wife used book darts to note passages in her library copy. As we compared our notes on and reactions to the book, we also discussed our recent viewing of the 2019 film. And we quickly agreed the time is ideal for seeking out the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock original. Neither of us is quite ready to leave Manderley.    


p.s. Of the many blog series I've created since 2011 to entice readers to return to Bartonstan, this one - devoted to "firsts" - has laid dormant for perhaps the longest period.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Another First (With A Side Order Of Guilt)


Monday, August 16, 2021

That Thorny Word

 opinion: a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce certainty. 

What other noun in the English language screams more for a modifier than "opinion"? Like all of you, I've heard it said many times that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. And just as I've often yearned to hear adjectives like "educated" or "misinformed" placed in front of that thorny word, I've also often wished that hoary entitlement cliche be accompanied by a less-heard caveat each time someone utters it: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; no one is entitled to their own facts. 

For anyone objecting to the need for a modifier to precede the word opinion and/or a caveat to follow the entitlement platitude, I refer you to the dictionary definition opening this post. I hope we can find common ground in saying a dictionary reflects a set of widely agreed-upon, neutral, non-political facts, i.e. how words are defined. So if my judgment in the paragraph above did not produce for you sufficient grounds for certainty, reject my minimally informed opinion. Additional facts: I'll survive that rejection. I'll be back on the bell curve again soon. Any educated opinions I offer will be grounded in facts that are not alternative.  


Friday, August 13, 2021

Becoming A Better Man

Although I'm still some distance from fully re-establishing my equilibrium, over the last few months I've begun to better understand how I coped when my life turned upside-down starting late last year. It comes down to a simple fact: Having the partner in life I have helps me be the best man I'm capable of being.  

As tumultuous as my life was for several months, it was much easier for me to unselfishly do what I did because my wife fully supported the hard choices to be made, choices requiring sacrifice for each of us and for our marriage. But having watched her example for forty-three years - doing the right thing more often than not, being kind above all else, usually thinking of others before thinking of herself  - helped make those choices much less difficult. The closer I followed her model, the more I liked who I was becoming, despite the significant stress of our living situation.  

I've had enough exposure to toxic people to last a lifetime. Having a toxic partner during the recent turmoil in my life might have de-railed me. Worse, if the person by my side begrudged the help they gave to me, damage could have been done to the circumstances I was trying to ameliorate. I'm grateful beyond measure to report that instead, I emerged from the tumult a stronger, more worthy person. And that occurred largely because of my partner in life.       

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

RX For Reducing Crow: Less Dismissing

At this point in my life, I've swallowed enough crow that it's now a major food group for me. Though I don't expect anyone else to admit they share this flaw - at least not publicly - I doubt that I'm alone on the bell curve in this respect. 

My most recent crow meal occurred as I finished The Silent Patient (2019) by Alex Michaelides. After a long reading life turning up my snobbish nose at thrillers and/or mysteries, this adroit psychological whodunit forced me to look squarely at some of the stories I've told myself about books of this type. I'll spare you the excessive self-flagellation. But if you are looking for a gripping page-turner, read this book. I recommend it especially for readers - like yours truly - who have foolishly let a few clunkers from this over-stuffed genre dissuade them from seeking out gems like this.   

While still digesting, let me mention two additional thrillers finished not long ago that kicked my ass, setting the stage for today's crow entree. Both The Devotion of Suspect X  (Keigo Higashino, 2005) and I Let You Go (Clare Mackintosh, 2014) are worthy of any reader's time, including recovering snobs willing to own up to that. These three wholly immersive novels will captivate any open reader. Since I have not yet been able to perform alchemy anything like these talented authors have, I'm now out of the business of dismissing thrillers. Enough crow, already. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Off The High Horse


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Pause Before Curdling

Thanks to a thoughtful gift I received last Christmas, the last eight months have turned me into a hardcore devotee of Little Steven's Underground Garage, one of the many stations available via Sirius satellite radio. If you have satellite radio, which station is your most dedicated jones?

Since late last year, one of the pleasures for me has been little Steven himself, even when he prattles on too much. But recently, my enjoyment of Sil's patter (with a nod to the Sopranos fans among you) has begun to  dissipate a little. I started out marveling at little Steven's depth of knowledge, however esoteric. Then I began wondering: How many research assistants are likely behind the scenes feeding stuff to him, helping him sound uber-cool and informed in the process? I know I sound churlish and maybe little Steven does all his own research. But I don't think so. If you've listened to this station, what do you think?

I have no plans to stop listening to little Steven. Some of the musical ephemera he routinely dishes has already come in handy in music courses I teach. And I want to believe he has a hand in some or most of the songs used during his segments on the station. Was the original concept for the station his? I hope so. I don't want to be too much of a skeptic or worse, curdle into reflexive cynicism. 

Open note to little Steven: If all that patter results from your own hard work, apologies in advance from this churlish and unknown blogger. And, even if you knew just 50% of that rock n' roll flotsam before you became a DJ, can I buy you lunch and pick your jam-packed brain?  

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Words For The Ages, Line Nineteen

"Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone."

What lyric has more succinctly captured the wistful quality marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood? The phrase above from Jack and Diane is terse and easy to remember and has the unmistakable ring of truth, three attributes shared by all the lyrics I've selected as words for the ages since initiating this series in 2017. 

Mark my words: When JD Salinger's novel Catcher In the Rye enters the public domain thirty years from now and becomes a movie, a smart director or screenwriter will resurrect John Mellencamp's 1982 anthem to use on the soundtrack. Those words for the ages are destined to be the tagline for a film that has been waiting to be made since Salinger's iconic book landed in 1951. 

Because my young adult daughter is involved in the film industry, I'm requesting she remembers her dear old Dad's prediction, ensuring my name gets into that future movie's credits as a consultant. Of course, should I make it to my 101st birthday, I'll take care of this detail myself. 


Sunday, August 1, 2021

National Charity Day

I've now used every August 1 since 2012 to propose a new national holiday here on my blog; safe to say no one can chastise me for a lack of persistence. If this year's unquestionably brilliant idea for National Charity Day lands with the same deadly thud as my earlier nine holiday proposals have, I'm forced to conclude August is doomed to forever remain the only barren month. Hallmark, do you realize what an opportunity you're missing by ignoring all my sage proposals?

What are your ideas for turning August 1 of each year into a day of national charity? How about we start with all charities being given unlimited free advertising to solicit for their organizations on that day? TV, radio, the Internet, direct mail - all free. Imagine how many new potential donators could be reached.  

How to appeal to people to open their wallets more than usual on the holiday? What if corporations agreed to a dollar-for-dollar match for any donation made by their employees on August 1? And to help preserve the spirit of the day, the corporate dollars are donated with no strings attached, i.e. no tax write-offs? 

Full disclosure: Some of my original ideas for marking this holiday were cynical and punitive; a few involved the IRS. I scuttled the first draft of this post soon after realizing my initial impulses were .. uncharitable.  

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Marking The Seventh Decade

What stands out for you about the year 2009?

Matching the start of my seventh decade with this, my 2009th blog post, was never in doubt as I initiated this limited run series. Because, as years go, few in my life have been more memorable than 2009, my last full year working full time. If you're as fortunate as I and have been able to build the financial security that has allowed you to leave the world of full-time work - no matter what decade of your life it began - you'll understand. It's difficult to over-state how liberated I felt in 2009, with the knowledge that beginning March 2010, all my time would belong to me. 

I spent many leisure hours that year making lists. Books to read, new authors to try, old favorites to further explore. Songs to learn on guitar, music from my collection to get lost in, workshops to attend. More time with family & friends, more travel, more learning, more everything. Well-meaning people spoke of the challenges this passage often presented; I wasn't concerned as act three beckoned. As long as I added a modest home-improvement item to my list from time-to-time to ensure domestic peace, and barring any big curveballs life tossed at me, I was confident the years ahead of the one marking the start of my seventh decade were going to be great.  

Since 2009, my life has had some bumps; no surprise there. But today I feel more fortunate than I did back then. That's a nice place to be.  

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

A Useful Tonic

"Remember: You must die."

As someone who has too frequently taken himself seriously, Muriel Spark's 1959 novel Memento Mori acted as a useful tonic. The sentence opening this post are the words an anonymous phone caller repeats to a group of elderly English people. As her characters react to this undeniable truth in a host of ways, Spark sculpts universal truths from a simple story, creating literary magic in the process.

While reading, I tried to imagine how much less angst my life would have had if my temperament were more like Charmian Colston. Her even-handed and gracious response to the anonymous caller reminded me that acceptance of the inevitable is not the same as surrendering to fate. 

"If I had to live my life over again, I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs." 

While trying to uncover the identity of the mystery caller, the police inspector's remarks above are met with a range of reactions - outrage, appreciation, obtuseness. Finishing this novel of manners, I made a resolution to try being more like the characters who embraced the police inspector's credo. I believe I'll be healthier doing so.   

Monday, July 26, 2021

For Music Nerds Only

Until 2014, I was confident most of the nerdy musical ephemera residing in my addled brain for the previous sixty-five years would languish unused until my demise. But that year, as I began getting paid to deliver courses featuring some of this useless information, it began making a sort of perverse sense to pay more attention to - and perhaps even start collecting - this stuff. In addition, the inception of my blog, occurring three years before the useless began becoming useful, gave me another outlet for any musical flotsam I couldn't somehow jam into one of my courses.

All of which brings me to today's scholarly musical question. What single song title that has been used at least four times has the best group of unique songs associated with it? Before answering, please consider: 

1.) The song title must be exactly the same. For example, do not include I'm On Fire - or anything like that -  if you decide Fire is your nomination. Yes, there are at least five songs, although the five I've collected are not all great, using just that one word as their title. Your nomination must have four great songs using the exact same word(s). This also includes anything in parenthesis - it must be a complete match.   

2.) Using Google is cheating. 

3.) I plan to construct a future iteration of Mt. Rushmore with sixteen songs (4 X 4) using just four song titles. Because at present I have just eight (2 X 4) of my sixteen ready - Fire is not among them - there is an honorarium awaiting any reader who supplies me with another title, i.e. four great songs using the exact same word(s). If any single reader supplies me with two titles (i.e. eight songs) that I subsequently decide to put on my monument, I'm buying dinner, in addition to the honorarium. 

OK, get to work. Consider this nerdy assignment consulting research for one of my future courses.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Making Use Of The Useless


Saturday, July 24, 2021

Coen Brothers Completism (Insecurities Included)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coen_brothers

Do I have any company on the bell curve admitting it's often difficult to differentiate between what is popular and acclaimed vs. what our own opinion actually is about an art form? Take the eighteen films the Coen Bros. have released between 1984 (Blood Simple) and 2018 (Ballad of Buster Scruggs), for example. Because I've seen all eighteen once or more, my view is at least minimally informed. But starting there and then arriving at my own opinion of which film works best - given the whole popular/acclaimed thing - is tricky. I'm forced to instead rely on the less-than-erudite notion of which film I enjoyed most. And even that can get muddied by what was popular and/or acclaimed.      

If you share my film geekiness and semi-obsessive completism - i.e. you've seen all eighteen Coen Bros. films - which of them did you most enjoy? Burn After Reading tops my list. Many of the laughs from the Coen Bros. oeuvre can lodge in your throat; not so in this 2008 release. Add to the humor an incisive, timely script and unimprovable ensemble acting - topped off by Brad Pitt's portrayal of a dim-witted personal trainer - and you can't go wrong.

OK, now let me ease you into the danger zone. Provided you've seen them all, and putting aside the two most popular/acclaimed (Fargo & No Country for Old Men), which of the eighteen works best end-to-end? I'm going with Inside Llewyn Davis. It's possible my view is biased because the protagonist is a musician. But today I'm holding fast to my opinion that this 2013 release works as well or better, end-to-end, than the two more widely known and acclaimed films. Watch it and tell me what you think, my insecurities aside. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Stepping On Dreams

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Here And Now? Now And Then

Do you recall what age you were when you stopped wishing you could be older? What were your reasons for wanting to turn the clock ahead?  

Though I don't recall how old I was when I stopped, I do remember at least one reason for that irrational wish - wanting to be old enough to be able to drive. I suspect I'm not alone on this. I also have a vague recollection of wanting to be old enough to not have to obey my parents anymore. Because although my folks weren't as strict as the parents of some of my friends, they were far from permissive. I yearned to make my own rules.  

Now, put it in reverse (apologies to any reader more skilled than I at the here-and-now bit): That is, how old were you the first time you wished you were younger? Reason(s) for turning the clock back? 

Here my memory is clearer. I had my first premature mid-life crisis at twenty eight soon after my singing voice gave out. Because I was emotionally unprepared to support myself doing something aside from playing music, at the time I vividly recall wishing I could start college all over, i.e. be seventeen again. In an impulsive attempt to postpone the inevitable - i.e. find a job - I then stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked across the country, hoping my singing voice would return with some rest. It never did; twenty-nine loomed.

I'll spare you the details of my other premature mid-life crises. Suffice to say each was accompanied by a similar, short-lived wish for a do-over. I've had long stretches being good with the here and now but there are probably no medals awaiting me for being a good Buddhist, at least not in this life.   


Saturday, July 17, 2021

This Crab's Request: Keep It To Yourself

 "I'll be there when I get there."

That statement does not snugly fit the dictionary definition of the word tautology. But it is close enough. And on the occasions when some chronically late person has said it to me, I try to remember to respond with an equally nonsensical quasi-tautology of my own like "If I'm there then I'll be there."  

"It is what it is."  

Now, given how ubiquitous this second tautology is nowadays, I'm prepared to be off the bell curve asking any reader who is fond of this expression: What else can something be other than what it is? When another person experiences a loss, or is in pain, how helpful is it reminding them that their loss or pain is what it is? If this tautology showing no empathy is helpful to you, great. Repeat it over and over to yourself. 

I know - it's only an expression. I guess I could suck it up if I could suck it up.


Thursday, July 15, 2021

And The Moral Is?

If any of you are planning to see the recent Hulu documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, I suggest preparing yourself before beginning to watch it. Several weeks later, I'm still processing my disbelief, disgust, and outrage. If you've seen the film and found it ennobling, probably best to stop reading right now.  

For weeks, I've imagined the chortle that would follow if  the venal founder and CEO of WeWork ever overheard one of us suckers saying crime doesn't pay. I'm also guessing the movie line both he and his equally mercenary wife would be most likely to cite as inspirational would be "Greed is good", irony be damned. And I suspect I'll never hear the phrase "golden parachute" again without re-experiencing the foul taste this film left in my mouth. 

As dispiriting as this tale without any discernible moral was for me, I watched it and walked away whole. Not so for the thousands of employees of WeWorks who worked tirelessly for this narcissistic reprobate and were all left empty-handed. If you've seen the film - or decide to watch it despite my distaste - I am curious to know your takeaways. I'm equally interested in knowing which modern day celebrity comes to mind listening to the disingenuous doublespeak of this snake-oil salesman. 


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Snob Takes A Vacation

One of the reasons I have always respected the massively successful Stephen King is because he has never claimed to be more than what he is - a popular entertainer. And though my main motivation for reading is usually not to be entertained, books like Daisy Jones & The Six remind me how much fun it can be to just go along for the ride. Taylor Jenkin Reid's 2019 romp is wonderful on several levels, but mostly because it succeeds on its own modest terms, i.e. it is pure popular entertainment. 

Written in the form of an oral history, the novel traces the fictional career of a 1970s band bearing some resemblance to the Stevie Nicks/Lindsay Buckingham iteration of Fleetwood Mac. But Reid's assured hand prevents her book from devolving into a cheesy tale with the stale whiff of rock n' roll memoir. The book has as its coda the lyrics to ten songs from the band's final recording (Aurora). Because each of these songs have previously been an integral part of the narrative, reading them as stand-alone pieces closes the book with a unique touch of authenticity.  

Recommending a book like Daisy Jones & The Six is easy for the same reason as recommending much of Stephen King's work, or a film like Saturday Night Fever, or an album like Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits. Each shows attention to craft while aiming squarely at entertaining. And each succeeds, even with a snob like me.  

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Let Me Be Me And I'll Let You Be You

There's no way any of us can escape pain in life. I'm not sure of much, but I am sure all of us share this reality.

In the spirit of that universal truth, I recently landed on something that helps me better cope with my pain and assists me when I begin judging how others react to a painful situation. Let me be me and I'll let you be you. I offer this simple formulation with the sincere hope it might be of use when someone you know is in pain and you want to help. It doesn't matter what the circumstances are that caused the pain. Nor is it of any consequence the form that pain takes in the person you want to help. The person might be angry, in denial, sad, or something else. Let them be them while you be you.   

When another person is in pain, empathic listening can frequently be helpful. But not everyone has that skill. Minimizing or trying to fix or explain away someone else's pain - often because it doesn't show up like your own - is downright unhelpful. Why not just agree your way of dealing with pain is no more helpful to me than my way of dealing with pain is to you?     


Tuesday, July 6, 2021

M & M

Although I dislike being predictable, it's fair to say frequent or attentive readers who visited the bell curve on my last stop might have guessed my next reflection would celebrate a milestone - today's post is my 2000th. 

"Only connect". The immortal words of EM Forster captured the modest goal established on my maiden voyage into the blogosphere in March 2011. That goal remains intact over ten years later. I still believe we - the non-famous and not incarcerated - are more alike than dissimilar. Consequently, things many of us have in common often become the subjects I reflect on here, hoping to build that connecting bridge to you. 

In preparing to publish this celebratory post, I was encouraged when an informal tally of my first 2000 posts clearly pointed to many of those connecting experiences. Literature, music, film, family, conversation, and wondering represent a large percentage of the topics on which I've opined, ranted or raved, sought your views. I'm always hungry to hear more from you and I'm invariably thrilled when anyone responds to me in any way. 

Please let me know some ways to keep you engaged for another 2000 posts. Because although I spoke of my 2000th post when I reached #1000 on 4/21/15, I don't think I really expected another 1000 posts were in my future. Go figure. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: M Marks The Spot

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Maiden Voyage


Friday, July 2, 2021

Marking The Sixth Decade

As this post - #1999 - lines up with the year that started my sixth decade, it's difficult for me to get that Prince song out of my head. What milestone or memorable event from your life took place in 1999? This limited run series has helped me learn a fair amount about readers who have shared parts of their stories with me. I hope more of you will join in as the last three iterations are published. 

After sixteen years living in our first house - the house where we were married in 1983 and our daughter was born six years later - in 1999, the three of us moved to Montgomery Township. We timed our move for over the summer, hoping the disruption for our daughter might be diminished if she began fifth grade at the start of a new school year. You'll have to ask her if our strategy was effective. 

The start of my sixth decade is additionally memorable for me because I recall that as the year started I began recognizing something was amiss in my work-life balance. My e-mail inbox was constantly full, my guitar playing was suffering, there were too many employee performance assessments to complete, I wasn't exercising regularly. Something had to give. The radical path I ultimately took a year later began taking shape in my head as 1999 unfolded. With over twenty years of hindsight I now see clearly why my wife thought I was losing it. Sorry sweetheart and, thanks for hanging in there.  

"Life too, is like that. You live it forward but understand it backward." - Abraham Verghese (from Cutting For Stone"  - 2009) 


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Shedding Old Skin, Ambivalently

Although it defies logic, each time I review a curriculum I wrote during my twenty years as an adult educator, my ambivalence about this stuff deepens. I'm still unsure what prevented me from getting rid of all these boxes eleven years ago. And though I know teaching about domestic violence, adolescent suicide and depression, inclusion in the workplace, etc. ended when my full time work years ended, my interest in the subjects and commitment to making the world a better place via education continue to be an integral part of me.  

At the same time, I owe it to my daughter to begin shedding some of this old skin. I don't want her to be burdened with making a decision - hopefully years from now - about what to do with mountains of her father's curricula. It's bad enough she might be stuck with hundreds of journal pads, book journals, film logs, etc. Still, each time I plow through a curriculum, I find some kernel worth resuscitating; at least it seems worth it to me. I also fondly recall how delivering a class of my own was satisfying, even when the class was sparsely attended and ran just one time.

That's right, hundreds of hours developing a course - most recently reviewed and then discarded was my 1994 course entitled Awareness of Disability - for under a dozen participants, a class destined never to be repeated. Was it worth all that effort? Again, there's that ambivalence. I remember being juiced learning about the subject, excited as I developed the course, looking forward to sharing my passion for the topic with others. Then I was disappointed at the meager response and the fact that it never ran again. Then I saved my curriculum, storing it in a box moved from my last house to the one I've lived in since 2010. Then I recently reviewed it and relived a few meaningful moments from the only time I delivered it. Then I decided it was time to let it go. Then I found a few kernels worth saving and added those kernels to the mountains of my other past writing. Then I wrote this post thinking maybe at least one reader/writer might relate.