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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)