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Saturday, December 31, 2022

Best of 2022

Though many of the headings in this series have changed since its inception in 2012, one thing has remained the same - the gratitude I feel looking back at all the joy each year brings, even the tough ones. I hope you'll join in this year and tell me and others what made 2022 memorable for you. Use my headings or your own.

1.) Best family event: No competition here. My daughter's July wedding was equal parts beautiful, moving, and exhausting. If I hadn't had on my Fitbit, people would surely have thought I'd exaggerated in saying I never left the dance floor. But the 28,000 steps my Fitbit tallied that day are proof there's life left in these Act Three bones. And that five-piece brass band at the cocktail hour?  Ass kicking! 

2.) Best news: Also no competition. Over the recent holidays we learned my daughter and her writing partner will soon be directing their first feature length film. Stay tuned for future bragging. 

3.) Best addition: My new writing group, a much better experience than previous groups I've been in of a similar nature. Good moderator, useful insights, great fellowship with other aspiring writers. 

4.) Best moment telling me there are people who know the true value of money: Some years back, after reading the backstory of Yvon Chouinard, I felt like I knew the man. Learning this past fall what he has decided to do with all the future earnings of Patagonia - the company he founded - is beyond inspirational. I hope I'd do as he plans to, were our positions reversed. I'll never know.  

https://nypost.com/2022/09/15/patagonia-founder-yvon-chouinard-to-give-away-his-company/

5.) Best re-discovery: Music & movies are perfect together. The link below to my Mt. Rushmore series was written before I recently re-watched Pretty in Pink and laughed aloud as Jon Cryer danced to Otis Redding's version of Try a Little Tenderness. Cinematic magic & musical splendor joined at the hip. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #67: The Mt. Rushmore Series (Re-Visiting #10)

 Happy New Year!


Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Dog Whistle by Any Other Name

Being a latecomer to documentaries has me wondering how many worthwhile ones passed me by in the years before I became a convert. If you have any recommendations for documentaries made before 2000, please pass them along. Added bonus: Some readers of my blog may benefit, especially those that have not yet gotten bit by the documentary bug. 

As you might guess from its title, The Uncomfortable Truth (2017) is not for everyone. In his searing film, director Loki Mulholland explores the role his family played in helping create the institutional racism that continues to plague the United States. Mulholland's honesty and vulnerability can be difficult to watch but the rawness is the element setting this documentary apart. The filmmaker's aging mother Joan Trumpauer Mulholland dedicated her life to civil rights advocacy. She joins her son on a journey to rural Georgia, where many of their ancestors are buried, as he tries to piece together the secrets and lies in their family's tangled history.  

The second key player in the film is Luvaughn Brown. As Mulholland tries to comprehend the incomprehensible, Brown's no-nonsense narrative traces a warped lineage beginning in 1619 and extending to the present, i.e., white supremacy's long and painful history. The Middle passage, slavery, the systematic dismantling of Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of a Nation, Jim Crow, the burning of Tulsa, redlining, white backlash to the gains of the Civil Rights era, Emmet Till, Martin and Medgar, the war on drugs, Willie Horton, mass incarceration, "shithole" nations. The dog whistles rallying the mob may be more subtle in our "post-racial" era, but they remain dog whistles.  

Can't recommend this documentary highly enough.       

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Tis The Season to Be ... Dithering?

Given the ease and convenience of technology, it's possible that e-cards and letters will soon be the default method for reaching out to others for the holidays. Who among us will mourn the soon-to-be-quaint tradition of using the U.S. mail to send out a lo-tech card or letter vs. its digital companion? As a member of the resistance against modern-day technology - with my blog being a notable and highly contradictory exception to that resistance - most people who know me would logically assume I would be among those mourning those lo-tech cards and letters as we continue our inexorable march toward being technologically subsumed. 

However, in this instance, logic does not wholly apply. Although I don't necessarily welcome the day that digital cards and letters become the norm, I must begrudgingly admit I'll be relieved when the torturous process of going through my manual address book (!) to try and decide who will receive a card or letter finally comes to an end. Sending a digital version could put an end to my hours of dithering over these simple decisions, something that seems to get more convoluted each year.

When e-cards and letters finally take over, all I'll have to do is construct an e-group of recipients and then add or delete names from that group each year. No more remembering to save the envelope and write down the snail mail address of someone who sends me a lo-tech card so I can reciprocate and not appear rude. No more scratching out an old address and writing a new one in that address book when someone moves. No more over-thinking about what I'll write in the card or add to the form letter to ensure my holiday communication is more personal. With a digital version, few people will expect anything personal; technology, almost by definition, renders most things impersonal.

Are my days of holiday dithering about cards and letters about to end? If so, I'm reasonably sure I'll find something else to dither about each year as this season rolls around. 


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Reading Re-Cap: 2022

What were some of your reading highlights in 2022? Use my headings below - developed in 2018 at the inception of this series and used every year since - or make up your own. Either way, I'm interested and some of my readers will probably be as well. Please share your reading wealth.

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers:  The People We Keep: Allison Larkin. As mentioned in all four previous iterations of this annual series, my use of the word "casual" is not meant in any way to demean this engaging, well-written novel. Although I am clearly not the demographic the talented author was aiming for in her 2021 coming-of-age tale, she had me from the start and her heroine is a memorable one. 

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers:  Candy House: Jennifer Egan. Nothing resembles competition for this heading when put up against Egan's 2022 tour-de-force. If you loved A Visit from the Goon Squad as much as me, you'll thank me for directing you to this companion.

Novel and non-fiction book that most deepened my experience of living: The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003) - Yoko Ogawa and The New Jim Crow (2010) - Michelle Alexander.

Most worthwhile re-read: Midnight Sun (2015) - Jo Nesbo.

Most intriguing: Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (2014) - Carlo Ravelli. Yes, I was out of my depth but what good is reading as much as I do if I'm never going to challenge myself?

Most personally useful: The Seven Sins of Memory (2001) - Daniel Schacter. Not an easy read, and not an elegantly written book, but Schacter's framework is a reassuring antidote for anyone who worries about "senior moments", age aside.          

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Uncovering Another Artist

I considered saving Reading Turgenev for inclusion in my annual reading re-cap, due to be published before the year ends. But limiting this exceptional treasure by William Trevor to a brief mention in a post that typically cites several other books would be wrong. 

Trevor is widely recognized as a "writer's writer"; this short 1991 novel amply supports that description. It would be difficult to over-praise his unshowy prose and straightforward account of a woman who realizes too late that her new husband will never bring a thing to her life. The price she subsequently pays is steep. As the chapters toggle from the "present" - i.e., the early 1980s - to 1955-1959, the four years of a loveless marriage, Trevor's undeniable gifts are readily apparent. His characters breathe, his dialogue is organic and wholly believable, his insights are rich. And yet, all the while, you never "see" the author. The story is all.

My previous exposure to William Trevor had been limited. However, sitting on my bookshelf right now is an omnibus entitled The Collected Stories of William Trevor, a 2021 Christmas gift from my wife. Based on my unqualified love of Reading Turgenev, I'm certain that many hours in 2023 will find me dipping in and out of the 1,261 pages of that collection. There are hacks, there are writers, and there are artists. For the years remaining in my reading life, I'm committed to reading as much of the work of the last group as I can uncover. Why waste time wishing I'd uncovered Trevor sooner? Too much to read. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Codgerhood's Unwelcome Firsts

Some firsts mark great moments in a life - first kiss, first concert, first child. Other firsts are ones I could do without. I'll avoid oversharing by not listing here a few of the embarrassing firsts life has hurled at me in recent history. But my most recent unpleasant first cannot go by unremarked, especially since it was closely followed by a bonus insult of like kind. 

I'm standing in a crowded shuttle headed to pick up a rental car in Albuquerque Airport. A young man asks me if I would like his seat. Really? I'd like to say my first thought was how his polite gesture reassured me that common courtesy is alive and well. Instead, my first thought was "Do I look feeble?"

Before you ask, yes of course I thanked the young man. And his offer - no matter how uncharitable my first thought - would have probably slipped my mind had a second unpleasant reminder of my codgerhood not occurred a few days later. 

A group of six of us - all quite obviously in Act Three - are nearing the end of our hike to the peak of Chimney Rock while at Ghost Ranch. Headed up as we descend is a youngish group, stopped at the trailside, perspiring. As we pass them headed down, someone in our group overhears someone from the youngish group say "Hey, if they can do it, we can.

That most recent unwelcome first and its not-long-after bonus insult got me to my annual quota of reminders of codgerhood. One bright side: Both unintentional barbs landed by late October, making it unlikely I would exceed quota. I'm hoping to make it through the remaining days of 2022 unscathed. Wish me luck.  

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Cautious #1, Adventurous #2

cautious - timid - scaredy-cat? adventurous - reckless - foolhardy?

Inspired by a recent conversation with my sister about the temperamental similarities between her two granddaughters and our brother's two boys - our nephews - I'd enjoy hearing how your experiences match or differ from ours. 

Consider the two groups of italicized words that open this post. Each group uses three words ranging from dictionary neutral to slightly negative to clearly pejorative to describe a temperament. In our case, we agreed that her two granddaughters and our two nephews lined up in temperament with the older in each pair better described as children and adolescents by the group one words and the next born better described as children and adolescents by the group two words. From there we tried to remember if our temperaments as children and adolescents - me the oldest, she the next born - followed a similar pattern. Of course, in the absence of any corroboration, we can't be sure. But given my sister's childhood and adolescent propensity for scaring our parents half to death with her tree climbing and other "un-feminine" antics, she and I unscientifically concluded the same model applied to us. That is, the older and first born - me - was more cautious than his younger sibling. (BTW, we didn't check in with #3 or #4 about all of this because doing so wouldn't fit neatly with the final paragraph's questions.) 

Your experience? If you are one of two, what do you recall about your individual temperaments as children and adolescents with respect to which of you was cautious vs. adventurous? Any parents still alive and available to provide corroboration? More pertinently, if you are the parents of just two, how about their temperaments as children and adolescents? Was the older more cautious and the younger more adventurous? And just so only children or parents of only children don't feel left out, which of those two groups of words better describes you - or your only offspring - as a child or adolescent? As you've gotten older - or as your child grew into an adult - how much did that particular element of your temperament - or your child's - shift, if at all? This last question has a high degree of relevance to me because I've always fancied myself an adventurous adult. But maybe not as adventurous as my sister, who definitely started out that way.      

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Music's Role in Life

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Let's Talk ..

Let's Talk... - a conversational salon I moderate at my local library - celebrated its first anniversary early last month. Since November 2021, I've led discussions on film noir, moral courage, memoirs, living with intention, social media, and joy for a group of interested and interesting people. Each of these conversations have enriched my life. 

To kick off 2023, my next Let's Talk... is on music's role in life, a topic that any reader of this blog will know is like oxygen to me. And though I've not previously solicited your help for this endeavor, it's quite possible one or more of you could offer a pertinent insight about this subject that I might be able to use in some fashion to ignite or propel January's conversation.

What specific musical experience most recently touched you in a profound way?

Please use that question as a way to frame the way music has had a role in your life. Your comment or answer can be any length. If it's helpful to you, use my next paragraph - describing my most recent experience - as a way to get started. Or not. But please strongly consider helping me. Thank you in advance for the assistance you will give me to enrich the next Let's Talk... salon. 


While driving a few weeks back, Poco's well known song - In the Heart of the Night - began playing on the radio. Although I've probably heard this song hundreds of times since its late 70s release, I had never carefully listened to the rhyme scheme of Paul Cotton's well-crafted and touching lyric. Those lyrics brought me close to tears and then, the majestic sax solo began. I was forced to pull over as a wave of emotion washed over me. After composing myself, I started to re-live similar moments of musical rapture that have occurred throughout my life, beginning when I was a teenager and first heard the brief drum break in He's So Fine. Hearing that Poco song anew transported me back through more than six solid decades of total immersion in the most ancient of arts.  

Monday, December 5, 2022

Theresa & Terrence, etc.

How many of you ever considered that avoiding certain first names when choosing a potential romantic partner could be prudent? Love being what it is, I'm not suggesting anyone be so calculating, superficial, or cold that they would reject or select a potential partner solely based on that person's first name. Still, doesn't it seem as though certain combinations of names could be potentially confusing to others?  

Let's start with the least potentially confusing combination. That would be partners whose first names begin with the same letter. I myself have two nieces as well as a few friends from this first group, by far the most common of the three I outline. I don't recall ever being confused nor have I ever heard anyone else say they were, although stale jokes about M&M's in my family are pretty frequent. Still, doesn't it seem plausible that partners named JoAnne & John (or JoAnne & Josephine), Lois & Leo (or Leo & Liam), or Maureen & Matthew (or ... oh, you get the idea), could confuse the easily confused among us? No? OK, then how about combination #2?

In this second potentially confusing combination, I put two types, using straight couples' names only to make the point. In type #1 would be Don & Donna, Eric & Erica, or Paul & Paula. Come on, you can't tell me there is no potential for confusion there. Type #2 in this combination is more subtle, i.e., requires more thought as you are falling in love, but see if you don't agree. Just pretend my partner's name was Patricia. See where I'm going? That's right = Pat & Pat. Same thing for Christian & Christine, Gerald & Geraldine, or Martin & Martha. Still not convinced that avoiding certain first names could be prudent when choosing a romantic partner?

Any reader named Lee or Robin out there? I submit the potential for confusion rises exponentially for the androgynously named among us. I suspect some of you have known men and women with both of those names. If the Lees and Robins decide to ignore being prudent and choose partners named Lee or Robin - man or woman - they surely would be wise to prepare themselves for ... a.) confusing the easily confused; b.) enduring an endless onslaught of tired jokes, including a few insensitive ones with a homophobic bent. Don't say you weren't warned.   

Friday, December 2, 2022

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 19: Progress

progress: development or cumulative improvement, as of an individual or a civilization.

Dictionary definition aside, try an experiment: See if you can get a consensus among several people you know about what progress looks like to them. Start by asking them how much progress we've made as a species in the past twenty-five years. How about as a country? Good luck.

The concept of progress gets personal for me when considering the intersection of technology and art. I first became concerned about this years ago when music sampling began growing in popularity. It is now so ubiquitous that casual listeners enjoying a riff or rhythmic figure in a "new" song often don't realize that riff or figure was sampled, i.e., lifted from an earlier recording. As digital technology has advanced, the sounds non-musicians can patch together with little more than a laptop are sonically astounding. All without ever having spent an hour practicing an instrument. Progress.

Lest you think this reflection on the word progress is just sour grapes from an old fart musician, how about this? Available today is an artificial intelligence application called Sudowrite that can assist authors in writing their books. Think I'm making this up? Google it. Better yet, read the closing essay in the September 23 edition of The Week, entitled The Novel-Writing Machine. If that article doesn't shake you up a little, we can agree to disagree on what this thorny word progress looks like today. I desperately want to believe that great musicians, writers, and other artists are destined to prevail despite technology's inexorable march toward art. In the meanwhile, add progress to the growing list of words that can haunt me. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Owning It All

Is anybody keeping score which religion has made the most serious blunders over its history? How about just looking at the monotheistic trilogy, i.e., Christianity, Islam, Judaism? Which of the big three would you say has fouled up most consistently?

Over and over, my reading journey has reinforced the wisdom of my young adult decision to abandon Catholicism. Small Things Like These (2021) never raises its voice. But the misguided, secretive machinations of the Catholic church scream hypocrisy in Claire Keegan's spare masterpiece. My previous exposure to the infamous Magdalene Laundries, where the Catholic church of Ireland enslaved thousands of young women until 1996, did not adequately prepare me for the quiet horror of Keegan's concise gem. In Bill Furlong, this talented author has created a memorable everyman, an unassuming but mythic hero. I'm reasonably sure Furlong's final act in this novella will remain with me for many years.  

For me, temptation to re-join the fold has been out of the question for a long time. Stories like the one told in Small Things Like These fortify that resolve. Now to be fair, over its long history, the Catholic church has had its bright moments. I submit that the right to celebrate those moments must go hand-in-hand with a full acknowledgment of those pieces of the Catholic legacy - like the Magdalene Laundries - that have been unquestionably toxic. Until that message resounds loud and clear, I'm keeping score.  


Saturday, November 26, 2022

#67: The Mt. Rushmore Series (Re-Visiting #10)

Early in its lifespan, my Mt. Rushmore series asked which four great songs prominently featured in a film you would enshrine on your mountain. I'm re-visiting this concept only because the one comment I got back in April 2013 - which I recently had cause to re-read - reminded me that there is much more to explore here. Construction specifications:

* No great songs featured in any musical, please. Movies like Singing in the Rain, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music simply have too many great songs.

* No great songs from films that are "about" music in any significant fashion, including musical biopics. Much as I loved The Commitments, The Fabulous Baker Boys, & Ray, using great songs from those kinds of movies is just too easy. I myself cheated this way back in 2013 when I picked Michelle Pfeiffer's steamy rendition of Making Whoopee (from the second film above) as one of my four.

* No film performances of great songs by an accomplished singer, no matter the subject matter of the movie. Again, I took the easy route back in 2013 enshrining Whitney Houston and Meryl Streep from The Preacher's Wife & Postcards from the Edge, respectively. 

What's left you ask? Oh, there are so many. I'll start with my impeccable four - including one repeat from my Mt. Rushmore #10 - and then it's your turn. Remember: Great song that cannot be separated from the film in which it was featured, even if the film was less than great. Although my monument is alphabetical by song title, order yours however you like.

1.) Chain Of Fools from a little seen 1996 movie where John Travolta, playing a dissolute angel named Michael, dances (surprise!) in a bar. Wisely, Director Nora Ephron used Aretha Franklin's original version of the tune, without doubt the greatest one chord song ever written.

2.) Rhapsody in Blue played during the opening shot of Manhattan, one of Woody Allen's earliest and best films. Say what you will about Woody; I won't disagree. But he has unimpeachable - albeit highly conservative - musical tastes. 

3.) Twist and Shout played during a closing scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. No doubt I'm showing my white Baby Boomer bias by saying I'm glad Ferris lip synced the Beatles version of this Isely Brothers tune while atop that float.

 4.) Unchained Melody from the cheesy but wildly popular Ghost. Much as most of the film makes me cringe, I cannot deny that choosing this undeniably great song is now inextricably linked to the film and its over-the-top romantic story. Who can argue with Bobby Hatfield's magnificent tenor being introduced to a new generation of music lovers, silly movie aside? 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #10: Mt. Rushmore Series

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Key Learnings: Year 73

What have you learned over the past year that you are reasonably sure will remain with you?

I'm pretty sure the key learnings below - all internalized between my 72nd birthday one year ago and my 73rd today - are with me for good.

* A Drew Harwell essay entitled The Enchantment Machine that appeared in the November 4th edition of The Week affirmed that my decision to avoid Tik Tok from its outset was a wise one. The essay - which originally ran in The Washington Post - expertly dissects how the algorithms of that social media platform have ominously seduced millions of users. No thanks.

* After facilitating a White Caucus this past summer - work I did as a consultant for Beyond Diversity - I felt my spirits lift via learning about work being done by white allies who share my commitment to anti-racism. I want people like this to come live with me. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A More Civil and Inclusive World

* Thanks to a valued member of my reading posse, with an able assist from author Alice McDermott, I learned this past year how to more readily embrace writing that a jaded literary critic might reject as sentimental. Despite this new embrace, I'm confident I'll still recognize when an author strays into cloying territory. 

Always more fun when others join me in this exercise.  


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Goal for Year 74

Before beginning today's post, I reviewed the goals publicly declared here on this day before my birthday starting back in 2011, the year I began blogging. That review was gratifying and humbling in almost equal measure. How often do you review any goals you've set for yourself? The last time you did so, what did you discover? Were you too ambitious, not ambitious enough, somewhere in the middle? 

Although I'm tempted to declare having no goals for year 74 as my goal, I realize that's lame. At the same time, it would be nice to coast a bit, at least for a little while. I pushed myself hard this year, especially with my exercise regimen. How about this?

In year 74, I will re-visit all unmet goals from 2011-2021. For each unmet goal, I will take at least one action step that will move me closer to reaching that goal. And I will congratulate myself each time I take an action step. 

Birthday aside, what goal(s) do you have for the next year?        

Sunday, November 20, 2022

An Incomplete and Disturbing Picture

It's been six months since I was an eyewitness to a disturbing incident in a local public library that will not leave me alone. 

Because I don't know what happened before I arrived, I don't know what prompted the librarians to contact the local police about the young man quietly seated in front of a public access PC as I walked in the building. This makes my description of what I subsequently observed incomplete. But I did hear the entirety of the exchange between the police officer - who arrived just after I did - and the young man. 

The police officer remained polite and non-confrontational when the young man asked - at a slightly elevated volume - why he was being accosted. When the officer responded that the local police routinely do "drive-bys" at the library, the young man scoffed. He then asked the officer if the librarians - both of whom were standing nearby and never made eye contact with the officer or the young man - had called the police. Remaining polite and impassive, the officer didn't respond to that question as the young man grew increasingly irritated, asking if other people in the library were ever asked to show an ID. Soon after, with no further exchange between the two, the young man picked up his backpack and left the library. I listened to a brief interchange when the librarians thanked the officer for coming and left before the officer did.

I then drove to the park directly adjacent to the library. As I continued processing what I'd witnessed, I noticed the same young man in front of me on the basketball court shooting and retrieving his ball, the backpack nearby. After watching him for about fifteen minutes - wondering what he might be thinking or feeling - I drove home and tried describing to my wife what I'd witnessed. I'm still not sure I know. The young man was black.   

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Is Eagle Scout in the Cards for You?

Brave, clean, cheerful, courteous, friendly, helpful, kind, loyal, obedient, reverent, thrifty, trustworthy

Quite a list, right? Putting aside gender for today, how close are you to being a good "boy" scout, considering that list of twelve attributes that every good scout must possess? Let me suggest each gets an equal weight of ten points, meaning a perfect score would equal one hundred twenty. Based on publishing almost 2,200 posts - and asking for reader participation here for nearly twelve years - I'm confident no one will put themselves out there unless I first take the plunge. So here goes:

Brave? Three out of a possible ten. I can think of only a few instances when I've put myself enough on the line to claim brave as an attribute. Clean? A five or six, at best. Better than some, way behind many others. Cheerful? Clearly depends on the day and my mood, but I'd be pushing it giving myself more than a six on that one. Courteous? Uh-oh. Four, maybe? Friendly? Seven, unless I detect a narrow-minded vibe or you try to compete with me. In those cases, I'm more in two territory. Helpful? Refer to cheerful directly above. 

Kind? Ouch. Three, if I'm kind to myself. Loyal? Had this been the only attribute listed, I'd be an Eagle Scout before even starting work on my first merit badge. My only ten. Obedient? Two, but at least here I'm not unhappy with a low score. Reverent? Unequivocal one. Thrifty? I get a solid eight on that one, although the line between thrifty and cheap is a tricky one, isn't it? Trustworthy? That's another solid one for me - seven or eight.   

My total score? Somewhere between 57-64. Got some work to do, although when one takes into account the scandals that have recently engulfed scouting, it has significantly less appeal today vs. when I was a boy. Putting that aside, what's your score look like? Which attributes are strong suits for you and which others need serious attention?    


Monday, November 14, 2022

Patriotism: 1968 vs. 2022

"America - Love it or Leave It!"

Those of you who came of age - as I did - in the tumultuous late 60s might recall seeing the statement above on automobile bumpers at the time. More ominously, you might have had it snarled at you - as I did - if you spoke out against America's involvement in Vietnam, marched when King was shot, or otherwise expressed an opinion that the self-styled patriots of the time found offensive. 

Though that particular statement isn't seen or heard as often today, Ayad Akhtar's Homeland Elegies (2020) makes a persuasive case that the sentiment behind it has never fully left our public discourse.  Akhtar's searing book is a first-person account of the aftermath of 9/11 and how easily a reactionary undercurrent in the American psyche can be unleashed. After 9/11, that ugly side of our national id found a new "other" as its target - Muslims. Akhtar makes a convincing case that the 2016 ascendancy of the tweeter-in-chief with his jingoistic, Lindbergh-co-opted MAGA slogan is more of the same. It's no leap.

Remember the never-substantiated claims of Muslims celebrating on NYC rooftops? How about some of the so-called "Gang of Four" being told to "...go back to where they came from...?" Though I would never have suspected it could be so, Homeland Elegies almost made those bumper stickers and snarls from the late 60s seem quaint. Akhtar's account is not a comforting read but it is a worthwhile one. Now, if your patriotism is of the reflexive variety, don't bother.   

Friday, November 11, 2022

Signaling

Rewind three days. Imagine you were in line to vote and spotted another waiting voter sporting either MAGA or Black Lives Matter attire. Assuming you're aligned with one of those viewpoints, how likely would you be to make it clear in some way to that voter that you support or disagree with their view? Regardless of which view is yours, what is your opinion about that type of overt signaling in a public polling place? 

What about more subtle signaling? Is there a continuum? Where does that continuum begin, i.e., what are the most subtle signals? A flag lapel pin? Wearing red or blue? On Tuesday, I was already waiting on line before realizing I'd worn a National Parks T-shirt. Would it cross your mind that I was sending a signal wearing that shirt? What signal would that be? At the precise moment I began wondering about my shirt, I noticed another voter in line with a PGA hat. Signal? Leaving the polling place, my reflections deepened spotting someone entering the building with a PBA windbreaker. Signal? Or did those PGA and PBA voters don their attire as innocently as I did my National Parks t-shirt? 

As soon as it arrives, I'll proudly signal the message of a new t-shirt I recently ordered that proclaims "Equal rights for all does not mean fewer rights for you. It's not pie." But wearing it while standing in line to vote is not in my future. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Plea for More Rescuers (Start at 29, Please)

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty

Initiating the challenge above three months ago, I had high hopes of being the hero in my own story. Or at least I didn't expect to get stuck for long or have much trouble filling in gaps in the descending order when readers couldn't come up with a piece of pop culture to match whatever number we'd gotten to at that point. Quite obviously, I was mistaken.

Just a cursory look at the eighteen comments appended to the post above will tell you who the real hero of my superficial saga is. Not only was he first out of the box - and not with one or two entries but a triptych to start - but then when I fell silent for a few weeks, he came up with a second triptych leaving me to scramble to re-start at thirty-five. When I revealed to this hero that all I had to offer was a pop culture tidbit with a thirty-three in its title, he took pity and supplied me with a thirty-five and thirty-four. He also threw in a different thirty-three than mine, the showoff.  

If you read the comment thread, you'll see my rescuer made his most recent contribution (his fourth triptych!) several weeks ago leaving the ball in my court - or yours if you decide to join or re-join the fray - at twenty-nine. Once again, the hero who became a zero - that would be me - has now been stuck since early October. I've got a twenty-eight lined up (HINT: It's a film), but no twenty-nine OR twenty-seven up my sleeve. I could have cheated all along and used Google but I promised on August 4th not to do so and asked all of you to maintain the same integrity.  

At this point, I'm confident about just one thing as this challenge gets to its halfway mark. If I need a rescue, I know who will be riding in on his white horse. Now if someone else - commenter #2 or #3, maybe? - jumps in as we get closer to the finish line, my rescuer can take a brief break. Remember: Not every comment has to be a triptych. Only my contributions must have three pop culture artifacts. If you've got one or two in the right descending order, that's good enough. Take it from me and don't try to compete with my rescuer. I suspect he's already got the whole enchilada cooked and ready to serve from twenty-nine all the way down to one. 


Saturday, November 5, 2022

Practice Makes Something, Anyway

Soon after leaving the full-time work world early in 2010, I made two resolutions connected to my reading life. The first was to start keeping a book journal and the next was to join my first-ever book club. In turn, implementing those two resolutions led me to begin - almost immediately - a new practice of taking notes on most of the books I read. I hoped that doing this might help my journal entries be more cogent and also ensure any comments I made at book club meetings would remain grounded in the texts. In addition, from my years as an adult educator I knew that writing things down enhanced my chances of remembering them.    

What I didn't realize when beginning that new practice was how handy those book notes would end up being when I decided to kick off my blog about a year later. In a textbook case demonstrating how the law of unintended consequences plays out, both my notes and my book journal helped me immeasurably in the nascent days of my blog, providing ideas for some early posts. But that benefit was just the beginning.

After almost thirteen years writing down the words of others, I have a treasure chest of adjectives, nouns, and verbs. My collection of startling sentences, fresh metaphors, and rich insights helps me every time I write a blog post, a song, or work on the full-length book I hope to finish. I'm only about halfway through Maggie O'Farrell's 2017 memoir - I am, I am, I am - and look at what I've already uncovered: "...a tiny rhomboid of a garden...", "...inert as argon...", "The town lies across the bay, a necklace of lights strung along the sand." 

Will I remember any of O'Farrell's beautiful language? Doesn't matter. How can it do anything but help me to write down her words? I'm far enough along in Act Three to recognize any acclaim as a writer is not in my future. But I can continue to steadily improve if I keep up this practice I began in 2010. What steps could you take to help you steadily improve at something as important to you as being a better writer is to me?   

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Cost of Deception

After nearly twelve years of blogging, I've lost track of how many benefits this discipline has conferred on me. But foremost of those benefits has been the effect being public about my life has had on a lifelong habit of exaggerating accomplishments and embellishing experiences. Although I have no illusions about how much readers will recall of what I've published here since early 2011, putting myself out there over two thousand times has immeasurably helped me to curb that silly habit.   

And now that I've turned the corner on that habit, my reflections on the cost of deception have shifted a bit. The price I paid for self-deception? Embarrassment whenever I was called on an exaggeration or challenged about an embellished experience. But whenever I see, hear of, or read about damage that is the inevitable by-product of deceiving others, I'm perversely grateful my flaw was never of that stripe. I had enough trouble remembering what I'd said to others about me, let alone trying to cover up something I'd done and then come up with a story to tell others that I'd then have to remember and repeat when necessary. I'm certain that had I ever tried to cover up some intrigue, the people I care about would have had little trouble unravelling it. Deceiving others about an infidelity, hiding a gambling problem, covering up some financial chicanery? That is hard and thankless work.  

The distinction I'm aiming for here is probably connected to the process of forgiving myself for years of self-deception. I've often told myself that the only person who was hurt by my silly habit was me. Still, I'd welcome your thoughts on the cost of deception. Do some of us pay a steeper price than others? 


Monday, October 31, 2022

A Skin Crawling Treasure

Two factors made October an unusual month for your favorite blogger/movie geek. First, I was away for a few weeks and second, I've been busy focusing on a few long-postponed goals. Each of those things contributed to the whole month going by without me seeing a single film. Until Saturday night.

How I wish every break from my movie jones could end with seeing a film as well written, acted, and directed as The Good Nurse. I had no prior knowledge of this Netflix powerhouse - my time away and focus on those goals also pushed aside my normal habit of reading about upcoming new releases - so I came upon it as a tabula rosa, which amplified my pleasure. I'd discovered a hidden treasure.

Though the subject matter of The Good Nurse is deeply disturbing, the skilled direction by Tobias Lindholm - a new name for me but one I'll pay attention to in the future - never loses its way. The tension Lindholm builds throughout is intense but never manipulative. The script by Charles Graeber and Krysty Wilson-Cairns - two more names unknown to me until thirty-six hours ago - never loses its way. I wouldn't be surprised to see this director/writing team working together in the future. Actually, I'm looking forward to it. 

Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne are both predictably excellent in the main roles and there is not one weak link in the supporting cast. As it ended, my only reservation about the film was a wondering about how true-to-life the script was, given the film was based on actual incidents. But when my wife and I watched an old 60 Minutes segment yesterday (reported by Charles Kroft) - one that included interviews with the actual people who were portrayed in the film - that reservation completely dissipated. Do yourself a favor after you watch The Good Nurse - cue up that 60 Minutes piece. And then wait to see how long it is before your skin begins to crawl. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Normal People

The plot of Normal People is totally linear, the setting is unexceptional, and the cast of characters is small. But the life force in Sally Rooney's 2018 bestseller hit me so hard that several months later I'm still in its grip. It's been a while since a novel so straightforward has lingered with me like this one.

Connell & Marianne are classmates with home lives that have little in common. Each struggles - as most adolescents do - with fitting in. They are both unsure how to navigate their growing fondness for one another. Complications ensue. It's a timeless story oft told, made fresh in Rooney's capable hands.   

"For a few seconds they just stood there in stillness, his arms around her, his breath on her ear. Most people go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close to anyone."

From the outset of my blog, I decided to keep posts terse. That decision has forced me to tame the hyperbole that could have otherwise overtaken me when recommending a book as rich as Normal People. If you've already read it, I hope you'll share your opinion of it with me here. If you haven't read it, I hope you do.    

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Getting Out the Good Word

I've always been disinclined to express any of my political views via a bumper sticker out of concern that a malcontent with a differing view might be tempted to key my car. Worse - especially given the over-heated nature of today's political climate - it's not hard to imagine some lunatic directing their road rage at me because of a bumper sticker that challenges their worldview or offends them. 

For a similar reason, I've also avoided politically oriented lawn signs that an easily inflamed cretin might use as an excuse to deface or damage my home. Am I being mildly paranoid? Perhaps, but why take a chance that anyone I live with might be approached or menaced by a fanatic? Not worth it, no matter how aligned I am with the message.

Recently I've settled on a new strategy for being more public about my views = clothing. I know there are similar risks, i.e., there is nothing to prevent some neanderthal from confronting me or worst case, being hateful or verbally assaultive about something I'm wearing. But I've decided to take my chances and purchase a T-shirt I first saw months ago that proudly proclaims: Equal rights for all does not mean fewer rights for you. It's not pie. And I'm now on the lookout for additional attire (jackets, hats, sweatshirts, etc.) that could assist me in getting out the word. It's also possible that wearing stuff like this might lead me to connect with like-minded souls. Thinking of that possibility vs. focusing on any naysayers I could encounter is a more positive use of my mental energy. 

In the meanwhile, I'll leave it to others to continue using bumper stickers and lawn signs to get out the good word.    

Saturday, October 22, 2022

#66: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Inspired by my stay at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, this latest iteration in my longest-running series memorializes four brilliant casting choices for supporting roles in movie comedies. Think of four instances when you've said to yourself and others - "No one else could have possibly played that role." My Mt. Rushmore is listed alphabetically by actor. Order yours however you wish.

1.) Jackie Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit: Although this Burt Reynolds vehicle is no more than popcorn fare, Gleason is a perfect foil. Who else could have played this role and made you laugh as hard despite Burt's too-frequent winking at the camera?   

2.) Fred Gwynne as Judge Haller in My Cousin Vinny: I submit no film actor in history could have pulled off this performance as well as Fred Gwynne. His best line comes when Joe Pesci identifies Marisa Tomei as his fiancĂ© and Gwynne deadpans - "Well that would explain the hostility."

3.) Catherine O'Hara as Lydia in Beetlejuice: O'Hara is a gifted comic actor and invaluable member of Christopher Guest's repertory company. But her portrayal in this Tim Burton film stands as one of those times when it's near impossible to see another actor portraying the delusional Lydia.      

4.) Jack Palance as Curly in City Slickers: When I learned on my first day at Ghost Ranch that this Billy Crystal feature was filmed here, I tried to picture someone else playing Curly's role. No luck, although Clint Eastwood today might be able to match the gravitas Palance had back in 1991. 

Your turn to direct others to some classic comic performances that could not have been played by anyone other than the actor who did so.        

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

25 Miles To Go

https://cumbrestoltec.com/

It's late, I'm not sure how long this signal will last, and the description and images on the website above are an adequate way to begin conveying a little bit of what I experienced today.

I'll add only this: I am grateful to have the means to have an experience like this and enjoy it with people I love. 


Sunday, October 16, 2022

Feeling Safe

"There is no desire deeper than the desire of being revealed." - Kahil Gibran

Each time my wife and I re-unite with these fourteen people we first met in Alaska in 2015, my gratitude for these late-in-life soulmates deepens. I reveal myself more to each of them and they do the same with me, reinforcing the wisdom of Kahil Gibran's words.   

Those revealing interactions often flow from enriching conversations about books, current events, and art that seem to occur anytime two or more of us are in close proximity. On a hike or in a vehicle, whenever we break bread together, or while just hanging out, our conversations are effortless and stimulating. And because the work backgrounds represented by the group vary from education to the law to psychiatry and beyond, the direction any conversation can take is thrillingly unpredictable. It's hard to over-state how energized I feel around these folks.   

When that energy surged early today, I reflected on its source. It could have been my recollection of an instance when someone in the group revealed themselves to me. Or it might have sprung from recalling how safe I felt revealing myself to a few of them at the same time in one of those far-ranging conversations. In either instance, the vulnerability on regular display with these people is a gift I do not take for granted. Aside from a life partner, to whom are you inclined to reveal yourself? How do you respond when others reveal themselves to you?    


Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Rogue Scholars

As is the case often when away from home, any reflections from the bell curve between tomorrow and October 25 will depend on WIFI service. Because even when fingers and brain are ready, in order to entertain you with pithy observations, annoy you with cranky rants, or otherwise enthrall you, a signal is required. 

The last time we re-united with the late-in-life soulmates we first connected with in Alaska in 2015 was in Acadia National Park around this time last year. This time the sixteen of us are meeting at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, a magical location noted for being the site of many of the landscape paintings featured in Georgia O'Keefe's work. 

This reunion - #6 for our newly dubbed group, the Rogue Scholars - promises to be as varied and stimulating as all our previous outings. In addition to the hikes, presentations, and fellowship, I'm excited about moderating a book discussion on Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) for a group as smart as this one. And if a guitar ends up finding its way to Ghost Ranch - as one of my new friends has said it might - I'll be leading a singalong to the melody of Moon River using the lyrics below. 

Rogue Scholars - older than the dirt, with joints that often hurt at night.

We share stories; we laugh with such ease. 

Wherever we end up, it always feels right.

Some birders - some who like to cook; much older than we look, (we dream!)

We're building this bond: something real, strong as any steel, each one of us can feel -

Rogue Scholars, our team. 


Hope to be reflecting while on the road but if not, I'll see you later in October. Do you miss me yet? 


Monday, October 10, 2022

That Sweet Spot

Which kind of novel is more likely to linger with you - one that takes residence in your heart or one that provokes or even unsettles your mind? In your view, which author has ever found the sweet spot in the middle of that continuum with a novel that engaged your heart while also challenging your head? 

Before finishing Young Mungo (2022), I knew Douglas Stuart's heartfelt novel was going to stay with me for a long time. Stuart creates rich and believable characters, uses a straightforward chronology delivered in an inventive fashion, and drops glimmers of hope into his frequently bleak story set in gritty Glasgow. 

When the stunning surprise on the penultimate page of Young Mungo knocked the wind out of me, I was instantly reminded of the first time I finished The Sense of an Ending (2011) by Julian Barnes. Aside from the shocking but wholly plausible endings in both books, they share little else. And yet Barnes's book has now haunted me for over eleven years, as I'm sure will be the case with Young Mungo. 

The Sense of an Ending is a remorseful meditation on the arrogance of youth and a melancholy treatise on the faultiness of memory. Welcoming Tony Webster, the first-person narrator of Barnes's novel, into your heart is thankless work. But Tony - and the novel, which I've now read three times - will simply not leave me alone. Both have lingered in my mind longer than any fictional character or novel I've encountered in over a decade. I suspect the eponymous Young Mungo - and the novelmay end up taking residence in my heart for nearly as long. Check in with me in 2032. In the meanwhile, I'm on the lookout for an author who has found the sweet spot on that continuum. If you've located one, please share the name of that author and his/her novel with me and others.    

Friday, October 7, 2022

Musical One-Night Stands

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #59: The Mt. Rushmore Series

OK music lovers, time to assist your favorite blogger. My newest course - Musical One-Night Stands - will soon take its maiden voyage. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to supply me with the songs you would expect to hear in a course like this. The post above from August 2020 can get you started since the four performances therein - my Mt. Rushmore #59 - exemplify the caliber of material I'm looking for in this new class. Read the post, look at the one excellent comment, and then give this your best shot. You are NOT limited to four suggestions a la Mt. Rushmore. Two other considerations before you get started.

* Unlike the Mt. Rushmore post, your musical collaborations need NOT be just vocal duets. For example, two one-offs that will definitely be included in this course are the Bill Withers/Grover Washington Jr. collaboration (vocal/saxophone) on Just the Two of Us and the one-off singing quartet of George Benson, Jon Hendricks, Al Jarreau, and Bobby McFerrin on Freddie Freeloader. 

* And, as the second example above shows, this course will include one-off collaborations by jazz artists and/or artists from any genre, provided the one-off performance meets the standard. 

Although I haven't asked for much input from readers when developing past music courses, I decided this time to do so for primarily one reason. My music-obsessed brother has lost sleep on the occasions when I've asked for his suggestions. Figured it was time to give the poor guy a break.

Please note: If any song you suggest ends up making the final cut of this course, consider yourself a bell curve consultant. We'll negotiate your compensation at a mutually convenient time. Now get to work.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

Recently my wife ran into a man she'd met several times. In a conversation soon after, she berated herself because his name escaped her. Instead of his real name - Peter - she found Joseph was lodged in her head. Sound familiar? Many people lament their inability to recall names and conflating one common name for another seems pretty widespread to me. Following some reflecting, I have a theory on this conflating thing.   

Caveat first: My theory is not aimed at giving any reader an excuse for making a sincere effort to recall names. But while trying to re-assure my wife about her Peter vs. Joseph dilemma, offering first the old standby that perhaps this Peter looked like a Joseph she once knew, followed quickly by the logical but boring explanation that both are classic men's names from the Bible, I realized neither of those could reasonably explain my own trifecta of perpetually conflated women's names: Janet vs. Karen, Kathy vs. Nancy, Laura vs. Sarah. 

If any reader shares my pain, i.e., has already mistaken a Janet for a Karen, or a Kathy for a Nancy, or a Laura for a Sarah - as I have many times - my apologies for re-hashing your past embarrassment. But please note: Each name in these devilish pairs has five letters, two syllables, and at least two shared letters. Come on, you have to admit there is ample room for confusion. OK sweetheart - scrutinize Peter vs. Joseph one last time. Two out of three ain't bad.  

The next time any of you conflate, take note of what your two names share and report back to me. Unless what you note does not support my theory. In that case, keep it to yourself and develop your own theory.


Saturday, October 1, 2022

One Hundred Years

"One hundred years from now - all new people."

A trusted friend claims author Annie Dillard is the source of the observation above. Though I've been unable to verify that claim, ever since the words were unleashed on me, they have lingered. What was the last instance you recall when something so self-evident landed as hard with you as those words have with me? 

Although I've resisted ever actually tallying how many books that I've read were published during my lifetime, I'm also reasonably sure any guesstimate I make wouldn't be real far off. How about you? Are you more inclined - as I clearly am - to read mostly contemporary literature, or at minimum, mostly books that have been published during your lifetime? If you consider reading a passion - as I do - and yet you read mostly contemporary literature - as I do - what is your educated guess about people who read fewer books than us? Isn't it highly probable those folks also favor contemporary literature vs. the "classics"? I suspect it is.

Which brings me back to a likely reason why Dillard's words have lingered. It's no accident that the word temporary makes up 80% of the word contemporary, a percentage that closely mirrors my now-vs.-then diet in books, tally or not. And one hundred years from now - all new people. This sobering reflection on how ephemeral popular literature can be is likely not consoling news for contemporary authors with an eye on posterity. Apologies, folks. But before licking your wounds, try walking in this unknown blogger's moccasins for just a minute. Ouch.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Exactly When Does a Classic Enter the Canon?


Thursday, September 29, 2022

A State of Grace

Although there's no way to know for sure - unless I were rude enough to intrude on a stranger's privacy by asking - when I notice someone around my age acting in a service role in either a fast-food restaurant or a convenience store, on occasion I wonder if the person works there out of some kind of necessity. Though I am familiar with how assumptions are often reductive (you know that bit, right? i.e., assumptions make an "ass out of u and me", etc.), that cliche is beside the point here. First off, I'm not assuming I'm right about any stranger. I've noticed something and now I'm wondering about it. Second, soon after, my wondering morphs to curiosity about what - if anything - has ever crossed your mind, given a similar circumstance?  

In my case, the wondering has recently led quickly to gratitude. Because if that person behind the counter is working just to feel useful and/or engaged - something I'll never know - I'm still grateful for my life because working to get paid is no longer a necessity of any kind for me. I'm not rich, nor will I ever be. But I am able to live comfortably in the State I grew up in and still love, close to most of my immediate family. I have adequate food, clothing, and good health. My health insurance is excellent. I have a terrific network of friends, hobbies/passions that fully engage me, and I feel useful without going to work every day. And yet, my background and skills are still such that I can make a few extra dollars either teaching, playing guitar, or doing social justice work. But only if I choose to do so.

In about two months, I'll be seventy-three. This has been my life since 2010. Like all of you, my life has had its share of bumps, including a few big ones over the last twelve + years. I guess those bumps have shaped me, for better or worse. Although I don't wish the necessity of work on anyone my age, I do hope I keep noticing people in those roles. Perhaps doing so will assist me in maintaining today's state of grace about all my life has given me. If that happens, I suspect my next bump could be easier to endure.  

Monday, September 26, 2022

ISS Hit Parade

After almost two years steadily listening to Sirius, I've become an unapologetic evangelist for satellite radio. My favorite stations for popular music are Little Steven's Underground Garage and Deep Tracks. If you listen to satellite radio, what are some of your favorites, popular music or otherwise?

Despite my evangelism, I've recently started to succumb to what I now term ISS - instant station switching. This syndrome is triggered primarily by three bands. I've tried, honest, to give each of these bands their musical due over the past two years. Now, before losing patience with my musical rant, consider which bands can induce ISS in you. Come on, be honest. I'll start this crabby riff with the band that triggers me most quickly and then work my way "up" to the bottom. 

* The Ramones: For two years I've searched for any of the following in any Ramones song: 1.) An infectious or mildly captivating rhythmic flourish, an interesting chord change, a memorable melody. So far = no, not one, less than zero; 2.) A wise, clever, even a worthwhile lyric? No luck. Truth be told, I'd settle for a useful rhyme or two. OK boys, if you can't give me any of that how about ... 3.) a charismatic lead vocalist, a decent harmony, a solo that indicates you practiced your instrument? I defy any reader to point me to a Ramones song containing any of those let alone any elements from #1 or #2. What exactly is supposed to dissuade me from ISS? The late 70s punk-rock energy, you say? Give me the Police, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson from that era. Each of them delivers that jolt as well as enough elements from #1, 2, and 3 to make it worth my time as a listener.   

* Rush:  Three exceptional musicians who write rhythmically complex and musically challenging tunes, despite the groan-inducing, Yes-inspired, Yoda meets the Spaceman in Hobbit-land lyrics. But their musical and rhythmic virtuosity simply does not provide enough ballast for their only singer whose voice prompts involuntary teeth-grinding in me. If I happen to stumble onto a Rush tune during a startling instrumental passage - maybe after Ramones-driven ISS - I continue listening; these guys are astonishing players. But as soon as the vocal resumes, ISS. BTW, this is the only band of these three who are NOT darlings of the musical press, meaning this is one instance when I agree with the critics. 

* The Grateful Dead:  Over the almost sixty years I've been performing, I've known only one worthy musician who is a fan of these 60s stalwarts - my beloved brother, an innately talented guitarist and singer. As a consequence, I must admit there must be something to their music, all those stoned non-musician Deadheads aside. But after two years of giving them many opportunities to persuade me otherwise, I submit their best songs - they've written several - would be better served if someone less chemically impaired were playing them, especially on any one of their many interminable live records. And the less said about the out-of-tune ISS-guaranteed attempts the Grateful Dead make at harmonizing the better. Not one of the three lead vocalists in this revered band is great but at least when they don't try to harmonize, ISS can sometimes be temporarily avoided. 

Your turn. I simply don't buy it if you tell me there is not at least one recording artist who drives you to ISS. 

Friday, September 23, 2022

TBC: Celebrating the Third Act

OK, I begrudgingly acknowledge my life's accomplishments are not worthy of Kennedy Center Honors. And my meager baseball skills mean no one will ever cheer for me at Old Timer's Day. Chances are if you're reading this blog, you too don't see yourself being celebrated at Lincoln Center or any baseball stadium.

But if you are a grandparent, you get a day each year - I've even seen situations where celebrations for those folks last a week - to be feted. Does this mean that the rest of us on the bell curve in our third act - however we define that - i.e., those who are not grandparents, are destined to be uncelebrated as we move inexorably toward codger-hood? Isn't it enough we have hips and knees with a limited warranty, libidos with a lower flame, and new liver spots appearing in unexpected and always visible places? Call me a whiner, but this seems cosmically unfair. To hell with that "with age comes wisdom" crap. I've reconciled myself to going unrecognized by the President and baseball fans but this is a bridge too far.

Regular readers who are not grandparents, take note: When I publish my annual August 1 holiday post in 2023, I plan to remedy this injustice and will be enlisting your help. We, the uncelebrated, need a new national holiday and I'll be asking all of you to ensure my 2023 harebrained proposal gets some traction. If I forget before August 1 - oh yeah, there's another thing to add to the hips/knees, libidos, and liver spots older age trifecta, the memory slippage - please remind me. Not you, grandparents; I can hear you gloating from here. 


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Allure of Completism

Although my reaction to his work has changed some since I first encountered him as a young adult, my admiration for J.D. Salinger's talent as an author remains undiminished. Recently, after finishing his final full-length book - Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction - it dawned on me that Salinger had entered an exclusive club other book nerds may relate to because I've now completed reading the famous recluse's entire catalog. This places Salinger alongside Truman Capote, the only other author of note who holds that dubious distinction. Given neither was terribly prolific, this is not a particularly noteworthy achievement, unless being a completist holds any allure for you. I suspect regular readers will not be surprised to learn it does hold some allure for me. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Completism Run Amok

To fully appreciate Salinger's gifts, Raise High ... is best read alongside two of his other books - Nine Stories & Franny and Zooey. Four of the short stories in the former feature the fictional Glass family to varying degrees, and the two eponymous characters in the latter book are the two youngest members of that same family. Buddy Glass narrates both novellas included in Raise High ... and each involves Seymour, the eldest of the seven Glass children. The way Salinger weaves in the Glass family's exploits throughout the three books - toggling back and forth from the parent's years as vaudeville performers right up through the mid 1950s - is a literary marvel. And I can say with 100% certainty that the final paragraph of the first story in Nine Stories - A Perfect Day for Bananafish - will linger with you long after you've finished it. 

J.D. Salinger is arguably best known for his first book - and his only novel - Catcher in the Rye. But every story contained in his three other books mentioned above is worth any discerning reader's time. 

(BTW, before you make fun of me for being a completist with authors, be sure to check yourself out. Do you have to own every recording made by a specific musician or a performance of every piece written by a specific composer? Same thing. Seen every movie starring a specific actor or directed by so-and-so? Uh-huh, that's being a completist. Stamps, coins, Hummel figurines, commemorative anything? See what I mean about the allure of completism?)

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Coen Brothers Completism (Insecurities Included)


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Sustenance Through Encouragement

Of the pursuits that have energized me over the last decade, my guitar playing and this blog are at the top of the list. Even though both have provided plenty of frustrating moments, it's difficult for me to describe how each has enriched my post full-time work life. That enrichment is enhanced every day by the woman I married thirty-nine years ago yesterday. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: On This Day In 1983

A few weeks before our anniversary, I was reflecting on my evolution as a guitarist. Without my wife's unwavering support and encouragement, I'm not sure how I would have navigated the musical low points I've encountered since we met in 1978. She has never failed me in this regard. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Reminiscing Re Routines, Rituals & Riffs  

For a long time after the maiden voyage of this blog, my wife and daughter were the only people who pushed me to persist. Eleven and a half years later, it's hard for me to imagine what my days would feel like without this creative outlet that energizes me. It's even harder for me to imagine a life without a best friend whose encouragement sustains me daily. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Better Late Than Never (Redux)

Although there's no chance of me becoming a musical household name in my community, 2022 has become the best year in many for the number of live performances I've had. And despite my long-held resistance to being called "background music" - an oxymoronic expression because music is always in the foreground for me - the years have softened the edges of my ego enough that my resistance to that expression no longer gets in the way of my enjoyment when I play for others. Usually. As I've often mused here, better late than never. 

My next live performance will be at the centennial celebration of my hometown library on September 22. This first-of-its-kind advance announcement of a gig marks another musical - and personal - breakthrough for me. My reticence about publicly announcing where others could hear me play solo guitar is directly connected to the aforementioned nasty ego and its evil twin, insecurity. I'll spare you the self-talk that blocked me from making an announcement like this over these past eleven years. Better late than never, right? 

Now the big challenge looms. On September 22, can I let go of the nonsense about "background music", at least for the two hours when I'm serving that purpose? If yes, can I relax enough into my playing to find a few moments of magic? If yes, will my self-talk about my limitations as a player allow me to recognize those magical moments and bathe in that light? If yes, then indeed it will be better late than never.        

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Did I or Didn't I?

Even with the habit of recording the titles of my posts in one of my journals and the robust search engine provided by the site that hosts this blog, with 2150 posts, it's become increasingly difficult to locate a specific one about a subject I'm sure I've covered. That is, I think I'm sure I covered it. Because to further complicate things, before pressing "publish" over the last eleven+ years, I've aborted dozens of posts I'd started. And then there are those I'd thought about writing but never started, although, until using the not-yet-perfect search engine, I'm also uncertain about that whole starting/not starting thing as often as not.

Did I or didn't I? If I did - and there were no proper nouns in my text - how to find a specific post without scrolling through 2150 titles or scouring years of journal entries? I realize how little concern this is to you, dear reader. Indulge me for a moment more. 

Try imagining you are as self-centered as me. Now extend that egotistic fantasy to include being as desperate as me to have others read your reflections. Complete the solipsistic dream via deluding yourself that a reader - any reader - will notice if you've ever repeated yourself. If doing the above has allowed you to wear my pathetic slippers momentarily, you've approached today's dilemma. Did I or didn't I? Readers - especially "newer" regulars and those of you who have frequently hung out on the bell curve since March 2011 - I'm depending on you to help me stay fresh. Please tell me. Did I or didn't I?          

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Time Machine Words & Expressions

What was the most recent instance when someone used a word or phrase you hadn't heard in a long time and the hearing of it sent you racing back as reliably as any time machine could take you?

I challenge anyone over sixty-five to hear va-va-voom, and avoid thinking of Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren, or Jayne Mansfield. What picture would your mind immediately conjure if someone called something or someone groovy? I'm guessing an elegant website, a hedge fund manager, or a dish of sushi wouldn't be among the first things your mind's eye would see.  

Thirty or forty-year-olds - if any of you read this post - which frequently used words or expressions from your formative years sound to you like quaint etymological relics in 2022? Will awesome end up next to va-va-voom and groovy someday, becoming what I've started calling time machine words? Or is it there already? If so, what haircut goes best with it? I'm confident saying most people could answer the haircut question for groovy. 

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Life Behind the Name

Although I enjoyed the Talking Heads at the height of their popularity, I wouldn't call myself a fan of their music. Consequently, even though many people recommended David Byrne's American Utopia to me upon its release, I didn't rush to watch it.

It's now been several months and I still haven't shaken the effect that the sobering conclusion of that show had on me. On several occasions since hearing that long list of names intoned one after the other, some questions have returned to me unbidden. 

* How did it escape me that every victim of police brutality across the U.S. had a life story? 

* What can help the grieving families of those victims ever feel whole again?

* When did I first become so de-sensitized to this sad but undeniable modern-day reality that a reading of names was needed to return my humanity to me? 

Much as it pains me to say it, I cannot envision what it will take for this carnage to end.    


Friday, September 2, 2022

Exactly When Does a Classic Enter the Canon?

canon: any officially recognized set of sacred books.

classic: a work that is considered definitive in its field.

Book nerd that I am, one of my first thoughts upon finishing Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) was - How old must a book be before it is deemed a classic? Is there perhaps an agreed-upon number of re-printings required before a book earns that distinction? If no such quantifiable criteria are used, then who decides a book is "...considered definitive in its field" and how much time must elapse after the book is published before some august group of deciders makes such a proclamation? And what happens when someone in that group dies? How does the deceased's replacement get chosen? Once a book is deemed classic, how long does it keep that sobriquet, i.e., is there an expiration date? If a book wins a major literary prize - Pulitzer, National Book Award, Booker, - is it automatically classic? Does it stay so even if it is no longer in print?  

The book nerd's reflection deepened. Putting classic aside, he wondered: Is Willa Cather's ninety-five-year-old novel part of the canon? Consulting his usually reliable source - the dictionary - didn't help, much. First: Who are the officials doing that recognizing? Are they connected to the august body that deem a book classic? If yes, some concerns from the last paragraph require further examination. But before that, this book nerd - and hopefully, a few of you - need to tease apart what to make of that tricky word sacred. After allit is included as a modifier for "books" in the definition of canon

Can you feel my pain? As slippery as the word classic is, I respectfully submit the word canon is the most criminally overused word we book nerds routinely encounter. Its only real competition is the breathy "unforgettable" that is used on countless book jackets to describe many forgettable books.

I'll leave you now to grapple with my titular question. You know how to find me. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Gotta Love Those Bar Codes

On balance, would you prefer a life with or without the conveniences that computers provide?

(I fully acknowledge the inherent irony of this question being posed by a blogger.)

Before impulsively answering my opening question, please consider:

* Automated voice prompts instead of human beings responding to phone calls.

* Meandering, exploratory conversations grinding to a halt when someone uses a smart phone to provide THE "answer".

* Spam, robo-calls, bots, phishing, viruses and scams, social media influencers, meaningful discourse being compressed to 280 characters (or less), our personal data commodified and sold to any bidder by unregulated platforms that were supposed to make lives better, "alternative facts" and conspiracy theories peddled to billions of people who rely on their "smart" phones and rogue websites for information. In other words, before answering my question stop and evaluate the above and then add two other factors: The daily pain-in-the-ass quotient we all routinely endure because these "tools" are so ubiquitous AND how our utter reliance on these tools can render us oblivious to the downsides. Yes, that obliviousness has visited yours truly from time-to-time; recall the irony I mentioned?

On balance for the aforementioned irony-challenged blogger: Could I get along without computers and their nefarious progeny? Without a doubt. Would I choose to? Jury still out. Do I want to return to the pre-computer era? No way - love those bar codes and the way my supermarket wait has been shortened.   

Sunday, August 28, 2022

What a Difference a Decade Makes

Infrequently, for reasons mostly unknown to me, a reader stumbles across an old blog post from my archives. These unusual circumstances often prompt me to re-read the stumbled-across post, usually in a cursory fashion, in a frequently futile attempt to understand what attracted a reader to unearth such a relic. Like this one. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Raw Materials

For me, this post is a rare beast. After giving it more than my usual cursory attention, I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed reading it, but derived even greater pleasure via recognizing my growth as a human being over the decade since publishing it. How many of you have ever had a similar pleasant surprise via feedback from others, re-reading an old journal entry, or by any other means, that is, something that assisted you in comparing your current self to an earlier iteration of yourself? If you have had such an experience, I'd welcome hearing about it. This discovery literally made my week. 

Specifically, the growth I speak of has been in the domain of stepping up to adversity in the life of someone dear to me. The decade-old post above extolled a good friend who I commended for caring for his frail mother, unselfishly. I wondered aloud in March 2012 if I had the "raw materials" I saw in that friend. Over the past two and one-half years, I am proud to say that I now believe I do. It took the wayward discovery of this post to help me see myself this way. Like I said, made my week.


Thursday, August 25, 2022

My Book Cup Runneth Over

What are some factors that contribute to the joy you derive from a favorite hobby

While discussing with my wife an essay from Alice McDermott's most recent book - What About the Baby? (2021) - it dawned on me how my life in books could scarcely be improved. 

* My intense passion for the written word has been with me since - as a teenager - I first noticed my two sisters completely immersed in books. Almost without doubt, both of them got the reading bug from our mother who read to all four of us as young children. Thanks Mom, again. 

* My partner of forty-four + years shares my passion for books, all kinds of books. 

* My life - at least now in the post full-time work era - allows me mostly unfettered time to swim in my passion.

Add to this enviable list a trusted reading posse of five who direct me to many winners, Booklist & By the Book - two reliable features from The Week & The NY Times respectively - to further assist me when I'm on the search, and the book clubs I belong to, and it's easy to see how my book cup runneth over. Even when a book selected by a club is not to my liking, there is frequently a likelihood that it will lead me to another - somehow - that knocks me out. And, there is the added benefit that club selections will direct me toward subject matter I might not have explored on my own. Such a deal.

OK, back to Alice.   

    

Monday, August 22, 2022

Remember Her Name

Chanel Miller's searing memoir Know My Name (2019) is an appalling, infuriating, wholly necessary reading experience. As the talented young author describes a harrowing journey through our warped legal system following her sexual assault, I lost count how many times I shook my head in disbelief. Although Miller could have chosen to remain the anonymous "Emily Doe" indefinitely - a name given to her in the police report following her assault, the same name she used in her victim impact statement, later read to her convicted assailant at his sentencing hearing - in the end, she chose a more courageous path. 

By using her real name to bravely describe the dehumanizing treatment she endured during her multi-year ordeal, Miller gives others who may experience similar trauma a road map for navigating the treacherous terrain awaiting them as victims at every turn, if they decide to confront an assailant in a courtroom. Start to finish, Know My Name is a stark reminder of why so few women choose to do so.   

Miller's account of a life-altering assault and frustrating pursuit of justice - even with an open-and-shut case - is powerful, articulate, and sometimes unfathomable. Two eyewitnesses pursued and then tackled the assailant, waited for the police to arrive and arrest him, and later testified in court. But somehow, Miller ends up having to defend herself as the predator dissembles, his friends and family bemoan the "ruined future" of this star athlete, and the judge doing the sentencing shows more empathy for the attacking animal than for his damaged prey. The less said about the tactics of the bottom-feeding defense lawyers - the best that money can buy - the better.

No more details. I sincerely hope this post piques your interest enough for you to read this book. Chanel Miller deserves no less. Tell others you know about her story. Remember her name.  

Friday, August 19, 2022

It's Possible That ...

Try an experiment with me. Over your next several conversations, keep a running tally of words or phrases you or others use to stand in for the word "but". 

In my experience, people who think about their own thinking are inclined to qualify their opinions and observations frequently via using words or phrases that demonstrate they view the world in shades of grey. Listen for words like still, however, although. Phrases like on the other hand or to be fair or that said each add nuance to what a person says. I'm not advocating here for being wishy-washy or milquetoast when expressing a view, especially when it's something you are passionate about. 

But I am suggesting that stating an opinion in black or white terms limits meaningful dialogue and reveals a more closed-off worldview. If you doubt this, try listening to one of the noisier talking heads on either side of the political aisle. Then try a final experiment and tell me what you observe. How many times does that talking head - or any closed-off person you know - use the phrase "It's possible that ..."? Starting a thought that way - thank you Ben Franklin - has become the most useful phrase I've added to my conversational repertoire over the last decade. Try it out and tell me what you think. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Pointing In

Foremost among the things eleven + years of blogging has taught me is how important it is to use my own shortcomings whenever trying to point out how misguided we as humans can sometimes be. It's possible this pointing in vs. pointing out - as difficult as it can be, especially for an egotist like me - is one of the reasons comics often get their biggest laughs using themselves as the butt of their jokes.

I've aspired to be a good improviser on guitar for a long time. But only quite recently did I begin to understand why that aspiration has continually eluded me. And that understanding came to me as I prepared to write a blog post, one that could have easily ended up in the "pointing out" camp if I hadn't stepped back. 

My aspiration to be a good improviser on guitar has been thwarted because of one simple fact: I have not spent enough time studying, de-constructing, and then assiduously copying the great solos of world-class improvisers. Thousands of hours spent practicing the instrument and additional studying of many other aspects of the guitar have helped make me a better overall player. But not devoting the needed time to learn great solos - guitar or otherwise - has left me with average improvisational abilities. Painful lesson? You bet. But arriving at it honestly beats using examples of the aspiring songwriters or memoirists I've met to make the same point. Pointing out their shortcomings is lazy. Better to state the obvious: Unless an aspiring artist from any field is working from recognized models while honing their craft, that artist is bound to come up short, just as I have as an improviser.        

Acclaimed novelist Ernest Gaines was once asked the best way to become a writer. His elegant answer: "Read, read, then read some more".  There is no shortcut, magic bullet, or other way. Take it from me, the one pointing in: Study, deconstruct, copy. Then be patient and await your emerging voice.  


Saturday, August 13, 2022

Always on the Lookout

Although it was not easy doing so, I recently decided to abandon my list of 100 favorite books for a few reasons:

1.) My favorites keep shifting as my reading discernment deepens.

2.) Like many of you, a favorite from a different stage of life - especially those cherished when we were young - can sometimes lose its luster on a re-read. 

3.) There are simply too many great books. Limiting my list to 100 has outlived its usefulness.

Even casual readers of this blog might appreciate the trauma induced for this semi-obsessive list-maker via this abandonment. Although I could have avoided that trauma by expanding my list to more than 100, after finishing Jonathan Franzen's towering, most recent novel - Crossroads (2021) - I instead settled on a strategy that seems more sustainable, given the likely number of reading years remaining for me. My list of 100 favorite books has now been officially superseded by 100 favorite authors, with Franzen occupying slot #27. BTW, this list - like the one it is superseding - is not hierarchal. 

Why is this strategy more sustainable? Because finding seventy-three more authors worthy of my list before I run out of time is unlikely. Why not abandon the list without replacing it? Next question. How does an author ascend to these lofty heights? There must have been at least one string of three consecutive knock-me-to-the-ground books I've read - novels or non-fiction (though not necessarily read chronologically by publication date) - before that author can climb into my top 100. Directly below is a blog post from 2016 marking Franzen's sophomore entry in that trifecta. His first entry was for The Corrections, which kicked my ass upon its release in 2001, a decade before I began blogging. My list of the twenty-six authors preceding Franzen? Available on request. But I'd prefer instead if you would share with others which authors are on your list, no matter its size. I'm always on the lookout. If you do share, please include at least one title by any author you name. Thanks. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Home Run

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Another Maxim to Toss

What did you most recently learn about yourself? I'd like to claim I react to these frequent late-in-life learning experiences by saying "better late than never" to myself. Instead, what I'm more inclined to say as Act Three continues to unfold is "How the hell did it take you so long to figure this out?" 

Case in point: Preparing a joint speech for our daughter's recent wedding taught me three things that could have made my lifetime's creative output more rewarding and my life in general a little easier:

* Collaborating on creative endeavors usually improves the quality of an end-product. 

* When collaborating, avoid writing down too much. It dawned on me as we worked together over several sessions: When I write something down, I'm heavily invested in my words. That means I'll fight to keep what I've written, even when changing my words could result in a better end-product.

* I'm a much better public speaker when I resist the temptation to improvise my remarks.

Bottom line: This old dog can learn new tricks, despite the hoary maxim claiming otherwise. And I am grateful the old dog keeps trying, steep learning curve notwithstanding.   

Sunday, August 7, 2022

RIP: Headline in Advance

It's safe to say that when my time is up, the NY Times will not be featuring me on its obit page. That inescapable reality has not prevented me from occasionally fantasizing what the headline of an obit in the Times would say. Why not join me today in some harmless fantasizing?

Pat Barton, world-renowned vehicle packer and refrigerator organizer, dies at 102 (Told you it was a fantasy, didn't I?)

Each time I pack a vehicle of any size, whether it's to help someone move or when going on vacation or, most recently, de-camping from the resort where my daughter was married, anyone observing me marvels at my world-class skill doing so. It's no mystery how this dubious talent came to be - many years packing rundown vans and/or U-hauls during my rock n' roll road era. So much for skeptics who've said my dissolute young adult life conferred no long-lasting benefits.  

My equally extraordinary ability to fill a refrigerator to its total capacity is of a piece with that packing skill but comes in handy far more frequently. Anyone who doubts this talent is worthy of a half page NY Times obit, invite me to your next Thanksgiving dinner and try not to be dumbfounded watching me do my magic. 

Your turn.     

   

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty

My Pop Culture Triptych series - initiated in 2016 but dormant since 2018 - got a recent boost in the days leading up to my daughter's wedding. Challenging my wife, daughter, and her soon-to-be-husband to come up with a song title containing the numbers eight down to one as the big day approached - without using Google - I formulated a way to revive my moribund series by counting down from fifty, in threes.

Here's the challenge to readersWithout using Google, identify a song, movie, book, TV show, etc. - i.e., any item of pop culture ephemera - that uses in its title one or more of the descending numbers beginning at "47" going backwards. I will then follow any reader contribution(s) with three items using the next three descending numbers, i.e. a triptych, beginning wherever the last contributor leaves off. I promise NOT to use Google. If there is a long-ish delay in my response, that simply means I'm having trouble coming up with a piece of pop culture containing one or more of the next three descending numbers. But together, we will get down to "one", I promise, no matter how long it takes. Every post in the newest variation of this series will countdown from wherever I'm obligated to begin based on reader input. I'll wait at least a month between my posts to publish the next three descending numbers to give you time to think and join the fun. (Be sure to read the comments of other readers to maintain the orderly countdown.) The more of you who participate, the faster we will get to the end, i.e., a piece of pop culture ephemera having the word "one" in its title. Ready?

50: Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover - hit record by Paul Simon

49: 49 Bye-Byes - closing LP cut from Crosby, Stills, and Nash 

48: 48 Hours - blockbuster film starring Nick Nolte & Eddie Murphy

Your turn. Start at "47", anyone. Give me one, two, or three (a triptych) items, but no more than three, please. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 1

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Pop Culture Triptych - Volume 6

Monday, August 1, 2022

Recycling at its Best

Exactly ten years ago today I proposed August 1 be declared National Book Day. My unassailable rationale and a few guidelines for kicking off that new holiday are included in the blog post for that date, appended below. I even provided a two-year window so things could get started by August 1, 2014.

When the expected groundswell of popular support didn't begin materializing over the next year, I was undaunted. Instead, on each subsequent August 1 since, I have proposed a different new holiday for this barren month. Remarkably, none of the ten - including National Book Day - has yet taken off. More's the pity for greeting card companies - barely limping along in the e-card era - and the liquor industry; both are missing out on a golden marketing opportunity.  

As I frequently used to tell those folks who used me as coach, when anyone says "no" to any idea you propose, resist the temptation to hear "never".  Instead, re-cycle any idea you believe has value as many times as it takes until you hear "yes".  And so, ten years to the day since first proposing National Book Day, I'm pleased to report this holiday is currently being discussed in committee in the U.S. Congress. OK, not really, but don't you think it should be?     

Reflections From The Bell Curve: August 1, 2014: National Book Day