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Friday, January 29, 2021

The Crab, Rt. 17, & Florida (Gasp!)

Of all the clogged roads in my beloved home state of New Jersey, Rt. 17 is one I try to avoid whenever possible. Predictably torturous traffic exacerbated by poorly designed on/off access is bad enough but the homogeneity of those endless strip malls can make me soul sick.   

While painfully enduring this depressing landscape recently, I tried to spot a store that was not part of a national chain. Miles went by. McDonald's blurred into Barnes and Noble, quickly followed by the Gap. On and on, as the agonizing orgy of sameness and runaway consumerism continued, it was hard to avoid thinking about all the independent businesses that have been casualties of Covid-19. I know, I know - what a curmudgeon this blogger is. 

The one thing that prevented me from sinking into further despair was remembering my last trip to Florida. Because as bad as Rt. 17 in New Jersey is - and it is bad - my driving experiences in Florida have been that much worse. What landscape fills with you dread like endless strip malls do to me?   

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

XXX (The Civics-Related Type)

Given how much we heard earlier this month about invoking the twenty-fifth amendment, I decided the time was right for my blog to return to an earlier civics-related theme. This post, and the two earlier ones from January 13 2014-2015 (links below), put us - i.e. me and any reader - in the company of George W. and those other dudes who aimed to create a more perfect union. Consider this your best shot at having a holiday in your honor or a bill with your visage. 

Because my 2014 & 2015 proposals for constitutional amendments XXVIII & XXIX already have bi-partisan support and both are poised to be passed soon, I'm clearly ready to begin work on XXX. But instead of my previous unilateral -  albeit undeniably brilliant - approach, this time I'm soliciting your input. 

My request: After marveling at my prescience when you re-read the two earlier posts, please ..

*Make suggestions to improve my versions of XXVIII and/or XXIX or..

* Propose a wholly new amendment, i.e. your own XXX.

I will then .. a.) consider your amendments to my unable-to-be-improved-upon amendments; and .. b.) compare your XXX to my own yet-to-be-developed XXX and steal anything you propose that is better than what I've begun considering. Such a deal.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: XXVIII

Reflections From The Bell Curve: XXIX


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Summoning Alexa

Until recently, I didn't fully appreciate the role music has played in my relationship with the sister who is closest in age to me. Our communion of listening over the last several months has taken me beyond the unwavering and affirming support she has always given me for my own musical efforts. Our bond has deepened singing along with tunes we grew up listening to, laughing at misheard lyrics, reminiscing about our shared history, much of it linked to the music playing as we sit side-by-side. 

I am grateful for how music has tied me to people I love deeply. Starting with my Mom - who had a nice singing voice and good ear for harmony - and my Dad - who accompanied Mom on the ukulele - through to my brother, an intuitive musician who recently delighted my sister and I singing a Randy Newman gem called Marie - our mother's name. Music was the magnet that drew my wife and I together forty three years ago. And accompanying my daughter's remarkable singing voice fills me with indescribable joy.  

My sister is neither musician nor singer. But she is something every musician needs - an unabashed music lover. Each time we summon Alexa we grow closer. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Searching For Hope

Although presidential inaugurations are more pomp and circumstance than I can usually stomach, this one felt different for me. It's possible all the turmoil in my personal life helped shape my reaction to today's events; I desperately need some hope. 

I'm not naive. The challenges facing our new President are daunting. The unhinged mob that attacked the capitol two weeks ago may represent the angriest of the misinformed people who rely on rogue websites and social media for their alternative facts, but those websites and the social media echo chambers trumpeting paranoid conspiracy theories are not going away. We are all - regardless of political belief - living in scary times.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Listening For Dangerous Words

As 2017 drew to a close, in the post above, I felt compelled to evangelize on behalf of Timothy Snyder's trenchant treatise On Tyranny. After reading his most recent NY Times essay - The American Abyss - I found myself briefly wishing there was a mechanism to get Snyder's words to every American. Would it change anyone's mind? Probably not. But as I said, I desperately need some hope.

 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/09/magazine/trump-coup.html

    

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Breaking Habits

Habit is a topic that has always intrigued me. Because the human brain is such an exquisite pattern-making machine, habits can be easy to establish but hard to break. Putting aside any judgments about them, what have been some of your longest running habits? Exclude any that are widely considered detrimental and any with a physical component - smoking, gambling, excessive drinking. Of those that remain, which of your long-running habits do you think would be easiest to break? 

Although I don't recall exactly when I abandoned the long running habit of reading the comics before any other section of the newspaper, I do recall it being easy to do so. In fact, it was so easy, I didn't recall ever being in that habit until recently when I watched someone search for the comics first, soon after the paper was delivered. As it happens, I also can't recall why I started reading the comics initially, harmless as the habit is. I only remember I did it for many years and then stopped with no difficulty.

"TV is very educational for me. Whenever someone turns it on, I go into the next room and read a book." - Groucho Marx

Although watching TV has never been a priority for me, I have been in the habit of watching 60 Minutes since it first came on the air. I suspect breaking that habit would be much more difficult for me than giving up the comics. How about you? Which of your long running habits do you suppose would be hardest to break?


Thursday, January 14, 2021

Therapy Without Therapist

 "Textual discussion is not the same as group therapy, although we would be among the first to claim some of the best discussions of a text can deliver therapeutic results."

That sentence is from the preface of "Great Conversations" (2004), an anthology of some classic texts ranging from essays by Emerson and Carl Jung to poetry by Walt Whitman, an Ibsen play, an Alice Munro short story. I wholly agree with the claim the editors of this book make.

In my experience, a well facilitated discussion deepens my understanding of both a text and myself. On more than a few occasions, the energy of a book discussion has compelled me to fill pages in my journal afterwards. Then, as I write, my insights become richer and an author's words come more alive. Nearly as often, I'll simply replay in my head what others contributed to the conversation. For me, just being around smart people who like to read is like being in therapy without a therapist.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Good News In The Reading Room, At Least

 Although 2021 has already dealt me some bad cards personally, and events unfolding in our nation's capitol are deeply unsettling, I'm pleased to report things have gotten off to a better start in the Barton reading room. 

Stones From the River has been on my "to read" list for over twenty years. Ursula Hegi's 1994 novel is a complex, compelling, and masterfully rendered tale. The main character - Trudi Montag - earns her place alongside revered fictional protagonists like Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, or Holden Caufield thanks to Hegi's formidable storytelling. Trudi's journey from 1915-1952 stretches from the damage done to her German homeland via the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, through the cancerous rise and fall of the Third Reich. Hegi tells her universal story about the power of secrets and the insidious way people can be slowly poisoned by lies using the people of Trudi's small hometown as a microcosm of the world - the poisoned, the brave, and the many folks - like me and you - that lie between those opposing poles. 

In 2015 - using my long-running Mt. Rushmore series - I enshrined four highly memorable but deeply flawed father figures from novels. After reading Stones From the River, I'm considering building a new monument to honor four father figures worthy of esteem. If I do construct a Mt. Rushmore like that, Trudi Montag's father Leo will be on it. Leo reminded me of my own Dad. I can think of no higher compliment to pay this talented author.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #38: The Mt. Rushmore Series

   

Saturday, January 9, 2021

A Prayer

 Who could have reasonably predicted that the title I used for my blog post on December 28 - Everything Can Change In An Instant - would be needed again so soon? 

That earlier post was a response to challenges remaining front and center in my life. Then, before I caught my breath, three days ago, a different life-altering event took place. This one was televised. And everything changed in an instant, again. 

Although I'm not inclined to pray, I hope anyone reading this post will consider joining me in prayer this one time. I pray that we get through this crisis without more people dying. I pray that our elected officials re-discover the meaning of the word compromise. I pray that we - all sane Americans - fully internalize Gandhi's words: "Become the change you wish to see in the world."


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Finding My Way

 "No man is an island." - John Donne

Almost four hundred years have passed since the opening five words of John Donne's poem reminded us of our interdependence. What might Donne have been facing when he wrote those words? 

Many of us are taught to not be dependent on others. I certainly internalized that lesson at a young age and as a parent I extolled independence while raising my daughter. Still, I wonder. When we lose sight - even temporarily - of the web connecting us to others, what price might we pay? Or, put another way: When we believe we achieve what we do without help from others, who are we forgetting to acknowledge?    

I've spent more than seventy-one years claiming independence as a credo. Today, interdependence strikes me as a more sustainable and humane path forward. I am not an island. If adopting that posture makes me more vulnerable, or susceptible to being hurt or betrayed, or looking weak to some, I'm OK with all that.   

 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Stop - Start - Continue: 2021

Beginning in 2012, my first post of the year has used the stop - start - continue model, one I learned about during my years as an adult educator. I've asked readers each year to share with me and others three (or fewer) actions they feel good about committing to for the coming year, using whichever pieces of the model seem most appropriate. Although past response to this annual plea has been lukewarm, I don't give up easily. I'm tempted to say that if I can make three commitments today - given the week I've just had - you have no excuse for not making at least one. However, I'm too evolved to resort to guilt trips. 

In 2021, I will stop avoiding playing songs from my old, i.e. pre-jazz, repertoire. I recently realized the reluctance to play songs that helped me earn a living from 1971-1978 was based on silly stories I'd told myself about that music after I began studying jazz. So many of those tunes - simple as some of them are - still give me immense pleasure. More important, other people love hearing them. 

In 2021, I will start phase two of my jazz repertoire project, i.e. the recording of the 300 standards I memorized from November, 2011 to July, 2019. And, as soon as Covid lifts, I will also start volunteering to play those same tunes in some local nursing homes.

In 2021, I will continue a new discipline initiated in 2019. For all of that year, my wife and I wrote short memory and/or gratitude statements on different color post-its that we then each placed in a jar in a visible spot in our kitchen. When we read all of the post-its aloud to each other as 2020 began, we were overcome recognizing how rich and varied 2019 had been. Imagine our joy when we read all the post-its we wrote over 2020 yesterday and - even with Covid-19 and all its restrictions - the year just past was equally rich and varied though we barely left Brielle. This is a discipline clearly worth continuing, don't you think?

How about you? What will you stop, start, continue in 2021?