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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Your Assistance in Making Lightning Strike Twice

Even after over eleven continuous years of blogging, I remain unclear about how people will react to what I do here. For example:

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Walk On Water, Do You? Skip This Post

It's a complete mystery to me why that post - published in early 2017 - has been viewed more times than any other by a significant margin. If you read it and arrive at a plausible theory for its enduring popularity, please tell me here or offline. Subject line for your e-mail: How to Make Lightning Strike Twice, Dummy.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #65: The Mt. Rushmore Series

That recent post got me started on this thread because it has the distinction of having the largest number of unique commenters to date. Why the response to this vs. the other 2100+ I've published? I mean, the Mt. Rushmore series has been running since July,2012 and many of the earlier iterations had wider appeal, I think. Not that what I think seems to mean a great deal when it comes to accurately gauging what will land with readers. I'll stoop to any level to replicate these flukes so please, tell me what you think.

I've tried inserting disingenuous key words - like Justin Bieber - into my titles. Though I have little interest in sports - as a spectator, at least - I've cravenly appealed even to curling fans. No pathetic attempt to grab even the puniest slice of the blogosphere is beneath me. Please lend a hand.      

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Theme Songs for All

Based on longstanding tradition, I suspect most of you committed to a life partner have at least one song the two of you have agreed has special meaning for the relationship, even if you didn't use that song at a wedding ceremony or otherwise. In addition, there are several well-known - if wildly over-used - tunes we've all heard played at weddings to celebrate the bond between father and bride and mother and groom. My musical brain is no doubt riffing like this because my daughter's wedding is a little more than a month away. She and I are dancing to Til There Was You, my choice of lullaby to her as an infant and toddler. 

But impending wedding or not, what about songs to celebrate the many other relationships in our lives? What stops us from picking a theme song for each of our relationships, one that nails the essence of that relationship in our minds? Consider the critical bond between brother and sister, father and son, mother and daughter. And where is it written that a theme song can't shift as a relationship evolves, for better or worse? For that matter, what's wrong with having a revolving theme song for in-laws, good friends, neighbors, work colleagues? Imagine the fun we could have with this. Invite a relative, friend, etc. to your home and have their song cued up and ready to play as they walk through the door! Your choice whether to explain to that person the reason for your pick.  

No regular reader will be surprised to learn I've already begun selecting theme songs for many folks who are important to me which I'm happy to share with anyone interested. However, if you don't like the idea of celebrating someone who enriches your life by picking a song tailor-made for them, try this instead. Pick someone who vexes you and see if attaching a song title to them (e.g. Trouble Man) doesn't deliver some minor psychic relief. It worked for me. 

   

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Bearing Witness

Before visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama for the first time in May 2021, I was familiar with it, via a segment on 60 Minutes featuring Bryan Stevenson, the social architect and creator of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), who first envisioned the memorial. Also, not long before watching that segment I'd finished Stevenson's exceptional book Just Mercy (2014). 

But despite my familiarity with the memorial and Stevenson's important work, I was unprepared for the experience of facing over 6,500 suspended concrete slabs, each memorializing a black person lynched between 1866-1950 somewhere in the United States. Each slab represents a documented lynching. Indeed, many of the lynchings were publicized in the press of the time. Gruesomely, some were even boasted of in advance. I published the blog post directly below soon after my disturbing visit to the memorial.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: National Memorial For Peace And Justice

And though I felt numb with grief and shame walking among those slabs last May, I took small solace in one paltry fact. At the time, my beloved home state shared a dubious distinction with several others - no documented lynchings had yet been 100% verified as having taken place in New Jersey. Then I happened upon the front page of Asbury Park Press (APP) two days ago and learned about Samuel "Mingo Jack" Johnson in Eatontown, NJ in 1886.  

https://news.yahoo.com/murder-mingo-jack-eatontown-njs-090059339.html?fr=sycsrp_catchall

Given the current state of our disunion, with elected officials decrying the teaching of any history that might point to any shameful aspect of our national history, and deeply disturbed malcontents using assault weapons to wage war against an invented phenomenon called "replacement theory", drawing attention to the work being done by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice might seem to some a futile effort. I refuse to surrender to that cynicism. Visit the website for the memorial embedded in my blog post. Read the APP article about "Mingo Jack". Talk to others about what you've learned. Then, tell anyone who questions why you want to "re-visit" the past or denies that the scourge of lynching is a stain in our national fabric that you are doing what decent people must always do to avoid repeating our worst failures. You are bearing witness.


Thursday, June 16, 2022

An Antidote for Malaise

Diagnosis: Garden variety malaise, aka the blues. NOT the clinical strain that perpetually plagues some unfortunate people but the passing type of dip nearly all of us experience at least a few times in life. 

Prescription:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3yCcXgbKrE 

Listen carefully to the affirming lyric and joy-filled performance directly above. Repeat as necessary.

Prognosis: Excellent. If you're able to resist this elegantly simple lyric and unimprovable performance i.e. your malaise doesn't lift a bit - at least temporarily - I'll refund your money. But wait; you didn't pay me, did you?

To this secular humanist, the world was blessed with a sacred hymn when composers Bob Thiele and George David Weiss created this jewel. And Louis Armstrong - a national treasure with few equals - delivered a performance that acts as an antidote for malaise to anyone open to the healing power of music.            


Monday, June 13, 2022

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 18: Deadline

 deadline: the latest time for finishing something (as copy for publication). 

(Apology in advance for today's post to my devoted daughter.)

For the majority of my working life - as a full-time musician and otherwise - I suspect I handled deadlines no better nor worse than most of you. Sometimes I thrived because of the pressure, other times I buckled. They were an inescapable part of the rhythm of a work life - usually tolerable, oppressive, at least some days. 

Nowadays - in the midst of Act Three - deadlines can take on a slightly more ominous aura. Anyone out there who is either approaching or in the midst of Act Three relate to what I'm saying? If you don't want to come clean via a public comment here out of concern for dismaying young adult children or other loved ones, I get it. But for me, it's hard to ignore the dead first syllable in that word, at least some days. 

The good news: All my deadlines nowadays are self-imposed and there is little consequence attached if I fail to meet any of them. The not-so-good-news (sorry sweetheart): I'm reminded regularly - by the passing of peers and the undeniable reality of an expiration date not that many decades away - that deadline is a word that can haunt me, at least some days.         

Friday, June 10, 2022

All News, All the Time

In my next paragraph is a brief description of an experience I had recently, using just facts and the words of two men which I captured - nearly verbatim - in my journal as I listened. Before revealing my reaction to this experience - in my third paragraph - take a brief moment and formulate your own.    

I'm waiting in a bagel store that seats approximately fifteen people as my sandwich is being prepared. On the full screen TV hanging on the wall is a broadcast of a local news station. The screen headline says "late-breaking" news, which turns out to be a forecast of a storm gathering on the East Coast. Man #1: "This is why I can't stand watching TV. Late-breaking news? Who are they kidding? They said the same thing twenty minutes ago!" Man #2: "Yeah, that's goes on all day on every TV you see - it's all 'news' but it's all the same."

Listening to these two men, one irony about their shared complaint struck me as inescapable. What if there weren't a TV in nearly every available public space? Would a conversation like this ever occur? 


Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Mentoring & Being Mentored

A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors (2015) is a book I'd likely never have stumbled onto if not for the new writer's group I joined early this year. What has been your most recent experience of being enriched by a book that could have easily escaped your attention?

"Be kind. Pay attention. Err on the side of generosity." 

Those three simple suggestions - lessons George Saunders extracted from being mentored by Tobias Wolff - can be used by anyone who wants to be of use to another person. Think back to your own mentors. How closely did they follow this model? Now reflect on your own mentoring of others. How are you doing?

"Carve. Make your sentences sinuous."

Those five words - coaching that Edie Meidev got from Peter Matthiessen - is more specific to the craft of writing. But consider how readily those words could be applied to thinking or conversation. Which of us wouldn't benefit from distilling our thoughts to the essential? How could speaking more cogently ever hurt?

"Aren't you afraid your mind will dry up without a fresh flow of ideas and information?"

When Josip Novakovich told his mentor Terence Malick he hadn't read anything the day before, Malick responded with that penetrating question. I immediately recalled the great novelist Ernest Gaines's words when asked how to improve one's writing - "Read more."  But even if you are not an aspiring writer, Malick's question is worthy of reflection. Just as this volume of short essays is worthy of anyone's attention, writer or not. Start with the three essays above - of nearly seventy - and see if you don't want more. If so, jump to Henry Rollins on Hubert Selby Jr. or Nick Flynn on Philip Levine or Sabina Murray on Valerie Martin. Then write me here and tell me what you learned about mentoring or about being mentored. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: My Mentor


Saturday, June 4, 2022

Words for the Ages, Line Twenty-Three

"If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad."

Although many Puritans might scoff at me claiming that semi-hedonistic phrase as words for the ages, I suspect my Puritan following is meager. Anyway, those ten words from one of Sheryl Crow's most well-known songs strike me as a snug fit with the criteria I established when initiating this series back in 2017 - a complete thought that is terse, easy to recall, and contains a universal truth. Or in this case at least, something that feels like a truth to this heathen who is neither a criminal nor pathological. 

I trust regular readers will intuit that I am not sanctioning everything that makes anyone happy. But in case an irregular reader or someone new to my blog stumbles across this post, I'll clarify: Things that do clear and lasting damage to others - especially children - are 100% unacceptable regardless of how happy they make anyone

On the other hand, Crow's words strike me a worthwhile credo that can help assuage some of the self-induced guilt many of us routinely experience. We can all use these words for the ages as an adjunct to assist us in remembering that pleasure and joy are healthy pursuits, not "sins". Mea culpa to any Puritan who stumbles onto the bell curve today.

And you? A different terse phrase from Sheryl Crow's estimable oeuvre to nominate as words for the ages?


Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Poetry in the Soul

Maintaining momentum on my blog has been easier during spells when comments from readers have been consistent. Because the inspiration I derive from you often morphs into ideas for future posts - like today's - I cannot say thank you frequently enough to those of you who take the time to comment, here or offline.

What is perhaps most inspiring to me is the poetry in some of your comments. Acting as the conduit for your skill at expressing ideas thrills me. Recently, one loyal reader said he "...probably wouldn't earn that merit badge..." in response to a post quoting Thomas Paine about facing adversity with a smile. Fantastic!

Not long before that, one of my most frequent commenters described an adolescent character in a novel I'd cited - one this reader had also read - as being mired in "...hormonal soup..." Come on, try coming up with a more apt metaphor for what we all experience in our teens than those two words.

And here's a hidden treasure I recently uncovered when a reader directed me back to a post published in late 2013. This comment referred to some of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. In it, the commenter described seeing things that revealed "...the hidden beauty of nature embedded in its fury..." That one took my breath away.

I'm reasonably sure none of the comments cited above - or the many others like this I've received over the last eleven + years - were planned. Therein lies the magic. In my experience, most people have poetry in their souls. Thank you for sharing some of yours with me - and any of my readers - since 2011. I challenge all of you to listen carefully to the words of others and see how much poetry emerges if you are paying attention. The next time you hear some, share it with me here.      

Monday, May 30, 2022

What Am I Missing?

Like all of you, I've spent a lot less time in theaters recently. As a film buff, an unfortunate by-product of that has been being forced to watch movies on television, including all the Oscar nominees from both 2021 and 2022. Of the ten films nominated in 2022, I've still not seen the winner - Coda - or Dune. How many have you seen? Which has been your favorite so far? Be sure to answer that before reading the next two paragraphs.

In fact, two other best picture nominees this year need an "*" next to them - Drive My Car & Power of the Dog. I started but didn't finish either of these acclaimed films. In the case of the former, had I been in a theater, it's quite possible I might have left before that movie concluded. Anyone who knows my thrifty habits well will tell you this is most unusual. And I can't recall the last time I walked out on a movie, let alone an Oscar nominee. 

Because nearly everyone I know has raved about Power of the Dog, it's possible I'll give that one another try, an easier proposition via watching it on TV. Given how much I've enjoyed the earlier films of director Jane Campion and my high regard for the two male leads - Benedict Cumberbatch & Jesse Plemmons - I'm still not sure why the first hour + of this well-regarded movie felt so flat and lifeless. Hell, there's even been one person I respect who recommended the Thomas Savage novel to me. I must be missing something.

Has to be that damn TV of mine, don't you think?  

Friday, May 27, 2022

Begin, Again

"I love the man that smiles when in trouble, can gather strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection." -  Thomas Paine

How well do you routinely measure up to Paine's rigorous standard? How many people have you known who do?

Given the name of my blog and the focus of a good number of the 2100+ posts I've published, I guess I'm pretty solid with the "reflection" piece of Paine's formulation. And though I wouldn't go so far as to say I've grown "brave" with all that reflecting, doing so does help ensure I routinely look at behaviors needing to be tuned up. How do you integrate reflecting into your life? Would you say that reflecting has helped you grow braver?

As for the first two qualities Paine cites, let me say Thomas might have had some trouble loving me. I try to stay positive - if not necessarily break into a smile - when facing trouble but I fail a lot more often than I succeed. Gather strength from distress? Yeah, maybe sometimes after the fact but rarely when I'm in the middle of it. How about you?

Begin, again.


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

#65: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Ever since Eric Clapton's guitar solo on Go Back Home - from the first Stephen Stills solo album - set me on fire again a few months ago, I haven't been able to stop thinking about this latest iteration in my oldest extant series. Which four guitar solos from any musical genre except jazz - I plan to cite four of those in the future - would you enshrine on your musical Mt. Rushmore? 

Mine are listed alphabetically by the last name of the guitarist. I also chose not to repeat any names; put your four in whatever order you like and disregard my no-repeat guideline if you want. 

1.) Jeff Beck on Cause We've Ended as Lovers: There are two non-jazz guitarists on my mountain who could have easily had a few slots; Beck-O and Carlos. Actually, on the same Beck album as this little-heard Stevie Wonder composition - i.e. Blow by Blow - Jeff plays so ferociously I could have easily picked almost any song on that landmark LP to carve into stone.

2.) Doug Fieger on My Sharona: Fieger is the least well-known of my guys - yeah, they're all guys I'm afraid - but this song is the most widely known of the four, maybe even over-played. No matter. Fieger blazes on both guitar solos and his second is a musical marvel. 

3.) David Lindley on I Don't Know Why: Without exaggeration, I have wept nearly every time I've listened to Lindley do his magic on this Shawn Colvin tune from her recording entitled Polaroids.

4.) Carlos Santana on You Can Have Me Anytime: If it were to come out one day that Carlos and Jeff Beck were brothers, I wouldn't be surprised. After all Don & Phil, Nat & Natalie, Judy & Liza were blood, right? I have played this Carlos gem - from Boz Scaggs's Middle Man LP - for every guitar player I've ever known. Carlos - like his maybe brother Jeff - has total command of his instrument. The closest analogue I've ever come up with is to compare his skill on the instrument to the writing skill of Julian Barnes, Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler. His solos are of a piece with the novels of those three modern-day masters. 

I will excuse any reader who is not a guitarist from commenting here, although I'm reasonably sure I can predict at least two solos my non-guitarist wife will cite. But I will not forgive any guitarist who reads this and doesn't weigh in. Come on, guitar geeks - show me what you got. 


Sunday, May 22, 2022

If I'd Been Born on Third Base

If you had been born into immense inherited wealth - Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt type wealth - how do you imagine you would have lived your life?  

Years ago, I heard an heir to that kind of fortune described as "born on third base but thought he hit a triple." I've often wondered how someone with that kind of wealth avoids succumbing to a privileged mindset. How would you avoid it? Though I'd like to think I could, I could be deluding myself. If so, add this item to an already long list of ways my espoused ideals have not been tested.

I did feel it was important to raise my only child to recognize her privilege. In that small respect, I aligned my ideals with one modest action. If my name were Bezos, Gates, or Musk instead of Barton, would I have done the same? I hope so but I don't really know. If your children were heirs to that kind of wealth, what would you do to help them remain grounded?

     

  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Nurturing Friendships

My wife has always worked harder than me at staying in regular touch with friends we've shared over our forty-four years together. At the same time, given my contributions to those friendships, I'm reasonably confident none of them has ever felt as though I take them for granted. I can always give more but these longstanding friends know they can rely on me. And I know the same about them. 

That gift has been on my mind a great deal as my daughter's wedding approaches. During a recent conversation with my future son-in-law about our friends who will be attending the wedding, I was overcome with gratitude for my good fortune. I want the best for my daughter's future married life; I want her to be as happy forty years from now in her marriage as I am in mine. As I continue to reflect on what our friends have brought to our married life, one good way to sustained happiness in my daughter's future married life seems clear: nurture those shared friendships. 

Does it matter who does more of the heavy lifting in nurturing those shared friendships? I don't think it does. If both partners in a marriage agree it is worth doing and also agree to avoid taking any friend for granted, those friendships will likely endure. I'm not certain about much. I am certain the friends who will be joining us to celebrate my daughter's wedding have all contributed to me being a better person than I would have been had they never come into my life.     

   

     

Sunday, May 15, 2022

I'm Waiting ...

Had I crowed before Time Traveler's Wife aired moments ago, I could have ended up with egg on my face if my daughter's role were then edited out of the episode. Anyone familiar with how fickle show business can be will appreciate why I waited until now to say something.

However, I now fully expect everyone who reads this post to immediately get HBO Max - or at least borrow someone else's password - to watch my daughter's performance about thirty-five minutes into this first episode of the season. Then, feel free to use breathless language when you write about her via a comment on this post. I'll wait ...



What took you so long? 

ALISON BARTON (hialisonbarton.com)


Friday, May 13, 2022

Bookonnection #2

Given how much I read and how many novels deal with the horror of war, it was just a matter of time until a bookonnection appeared. Mesmerized reading the penultimate scene in Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers (1974), I realized my reading journey over the last decade has exposed me - in some fashion - to every major conflict the U.S. was part of beginning at the start of the 20th century. Each of these worthwhile books increased my gratitude for the men and women in uniform, each has something to recommend, and every author - except for Stone - was new to me. Best part: Every one of these talented writers is worth a return trip. 

My literary journey began with the Korean War when I finished Lark and Termite (2009) by Jayne Anne Phillips. Although Phillips makes occasional demands on her readers, she is a gifted storyteller with a startling command of her craft. I travelled next to the Iraqi conflict with Kevin Powers in The Yellow Birds and soon after to Afghanistan via Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (Ben Fountain) both published in 2012. These two novels will remain with me because of their uncanny depictions of the inadequacy of words to convey the madness of combat. Both taught me that a person who has never experienced war - like me - can ever fully understand its lingering effects. 

My bookonnection deepened when Sebastian Faulks took me back to WWI in Birdsong (1993), one of four books featured in the first iteration of this series. Then, weeks before the nihilistic but masterful Dog Soldiers reminded me of the price we paid for our Vietnam misadventure, Shirley Hazzard transfixed me with her WWII tour-de-force The Great Fire. 

Where did your most recent bookonnection deliver you?

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Bookonnection

  

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Hyperbole-Itis

As a lifelong music lover, I fully appreciate the enthusiasm anyone brings to their passion for the most ancient of the arts. Indeed, that enthusiasm and the attendant thirst for knowledge are among the things motivating folks who take my music classes.  

That said, there is one DJ on the Sirius station called Little Steven's Underground Garage, whose hyperbolic descriptions of every single song have more than once had me reaching to change stations as he gushes. I appreciate his enthusiasm, honest. But I do question how every single song can be "brilliant" or "groundbreaking" or, a "masterpiece". If every artist featured is "critically important" or "seminal" or, most breathlessly, "a genius", where is the middle? Without more attention to the words used and offering some middle ground, masterpiece, genius, etc. can fast become meaningless words. 

This DJ has clear musical bona fides - a fact he mentions frequently - and appears to know his stuff, or at least he has a good research team who feed him solid, usually pertinent information. What he seems to lack is the willingness to uncover more meaningful and precise descriptive words. When nearly every song is "amazing", almost all the performing artists are "unforgettable", either the solo, lyric, production, or the cowbell (!) are "unbelievable", I don't fully "believe" his gushing, I can easily "forget" the song he is extolling to the heavens, and the thing that "amazes" me most is his hyperbole-itis. Can this DJ be cured? Because I believe I just made up the name of his condition, there probably is no cure, yet. Unless, he stumbles across this crabby rant - pretty sure he'll recognize himself in this post - and then decides to work on his over-heated language a bit. If that happens, I'll look forward to listening to him without grabbing the dial as often and I'll more enjoy our shared passion for music.         

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Bring On the Handcuffs

Although others have raved about it, I could only endure one episode of Dopesick, the mini-series depicting the sleazy role the Sackler family played in facilitating the oxycontin crisis. I've similarly resisted reading Empire of Pain (2021) by Patrick Radden Keefe, a non-fiction account of the same reprehensible tribe, even though several readers I respect have recommended it to me. 

My resistance thus far to both the mini-series and the book - as good as each may be - is directly linked to a stomach-churning disgust I experience each time I think about one of these reprobates luxuriating in one of their palaces or sunning themselves on one of their yachts. Do you ever wonder when one of these plutocrats of our new gilded age will pay a price even remotely commensurate to their crimes? Do any of these creatures ever feel any shame for their role in destroying so many lives?

Recently, both my daughter and my wife have tried to convince me that the mini-series and book perform a valuable public service by shining a light on the heinous acts of these vultures. Although they haven't yet dislodged my resistance, their persuasive argument has my attention. But what will really inspire me to watch the Sackler misdeeds re-enacted - or read about their strategy to enrich themselves as lives were ruined - is watching a few of them taken away in handcuffs, a la Bernie Madoff. Even better, how about a nice group picture of the whole bunch sharing a jail cell?  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Clearing My Throat

I'm relieved to finally be emerging from the Covid cocoon. Until beginning to do so recently, I didn't fully appreciate how much I'd missed interacting with different groups of people face-to-face. What parts of your pre-Covid routine did you really miss during our long and enforced isolation?

My regular meetings with a group of aspiring writers abruptly halted in early March 2020. Because that group was loosely organized and had existed long before I joined them in 2015, when meetings were suspended that March, I had no idea if they continued to meet via ZOOM or otherwise virtually. I did know I missed learning from the people in the group. 

That gap in my life for two plus years left me so hungry that I lunged as soon as I learned a new group was being sponsored by a local library. I'm happy to report after just four meetings this group meets my needs better than the last. In no small part, this is due to the leader, an intelligent woman with an MFA in creative non-fiction. The readings she selects, the prompts she uses, and the kind feedback she gives to everyone all contribute to a solid learning experience. 

As our leader has said, reading work to others that you've created extemporaneously is an ideal way for a writer to "clear the throat." Until a few months ago, I didn't know how much I'd missed that.   

Monday, May 2, 2022

Daniel Woodrell

 Reflections From The Bell Curve: Authors To Savor

Although it may not be kind to say it, because I aspire to be as good a writer as I can be, some authors are worth reading and others are not.  

A quick search of my 2100 posts turned up five mentions of Daniel Woodrell's stunning novel The Maid's Version (2013) - including my first, at the top - and my most recent, from 2019, below. After just seven pages of Winter's Bone (2006), Woodrell ascended into a small group of authors I know will help me become a better writer. Except for the perpetual unruliness of my "to read" list, I can't fathom why it took me so long to return to Woodrell. 

"Ree tried to hold her Uncle's gaze but blinked uncontrollably. It was like staring at something fanged and coiled without a stick at hand."

With respect to books, I remain committed to a belief held since the inception of this blog: Until I complete and publish my own first full-length book, I have not earned the right to bash the work of any author who has accomplished what I have not, even if that author has little to offer me. In the meanwhile, I've got the future books and back catalogs of authors like Daniel Woodrell to help keep me growing as a writer. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Power Of Stories

  

Friday, April 29, 2022

Two Buckets, One Life

Join me in a thought experiment. Think about your years as an adult and retrospectively consider how your life during those years could belong in one of two buckets. Bucket #1 would contain years when you felt like you were climbing uphill more often than not. Bucket #2 would contain years when you felt like you were coasting more often than not. 

After putting the years from your adult life into one bucket or the other, try using these questions to deepen your exploration:

1. Which bucket contains more years? 

2. Pick one year that feels to you this moment as though it belongs in bucket #1. What were some of the things going on for you that year? Now do the same, substituting bucket #2 for #1. As you did that part of the experiment, did either year present a greater challenge for your recall?  

3. Pick a different year that feels to you this moment as though it belongs in bucket #1. What assisted you that year as you pushed uphill? 

During a recent meditation, as several of my uphill years pierced my focus, I was able to salvage my visit to myself by using the third item above. For example, reflecting on my steady uphill climb in 2020, I began to see how my reading and my guitar playing that year assisted me in dealing with pandemic isolation as well as several significant challenges in my personal life. 

I'd welcome hearing from anyone - online or off - who joins me in this thought experiment.          

Monday, April 25, 2022

Surprised To Be Surprised

There is an inherent risk in being a film buff, especially one as indiscriminate as I've been at times. 

Anyone who has seen as many films as me is not easy to surprise. After over sixty years of non-stop movie watching, I've become fairly adept at spotting formulas. For example, rom-coms nearly always have a "meet cute" set up, spy thrillers predictably feature double or triple crosses, film noir - classic or otherwise - are frequently populated with "types" like the cynical private eye and the femme fatale. I suspect longtime film critics treat being rarely surprised as an occupational hazard. There is some comfort in formulas and predictability, but I often yearn for more surprises.   

Though I didn't look before starting to write this post, my guess is that Her Smell surprised even the most jaded film critics upon its release in late 2018. At the time, I recall reading about it although I don't recall why it then quickly fell off my radar. No matter. If you haven't been surprised by a film in a while, check out Her Smell. But, be forewarned.

First, use captioning. Second, let yourself be annoyed during the first extended scene when there seems to be an infuriating amount of background noise. Trust me. The writer/director - Alex Perry - is taking you inside the head of his main character, Becky Something. Third, whatever you think you know about the acting talent of Elisabeth Moss, discard all of it. She does not portray Becky, she inhabits her. This is a performance of such full throttle intensity that watching it felt like watching an exorcism without the revolving head, the levitation, and the pea soup.

After you watch this marvel and recover, please contact me - here or offline - only if you weren't surprised. But then you'll have to show me that walk-on-water bit. 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Creepy Lurkers Need Not Apply

Since March 2011, I'd estimate I've asked more than a thousand questions here. Here are a few of the most common reasons people have told me - mostly offline - why the overwhelming majority of my questions have gone unanswered:

*  "I don't want to sound ..." (fill in the blank with an adjective of your choice, although most people are not kind to themselves.)

*  "Your questions are too hard OR ... too weighty OR ... too personal."  

*  "I prefer to lurk on your blog and remain anonymous." (OK, that reason isn't really "common" but it is something more than one person has said and also a little creepy so I included it here.)

Today's reflection - in the form of the three questions below - is squarely aimed at eliciting comments or responses from any reader that has used some variation on reason #1 or #2 above. Ready reticent readers?

* How long do you typically wait before discarding that sock that doesn't have a match?

* What is your record for longest retained jar of mustard in your refrigerator?

* Approximately how many pens and pencils would you guess are in your residence at present? 

Except for those creepy lurkers, I expect to be inundated with answers to this reflection.   

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Beatles Brain

Finally, a name for the affliction I've had since early 1964. Doesn't matter that I had to coin the name for this affliction myself. Please: Steal, borrow, or co-opt my neologism when you need an explanation for mystified family, incredulous friends, or anyone staring at you with disbelief as you begin waxing rhapsodically about the Fab Four's music. 

As I embarrassed myself - again - in front of a class by breaking down while extolling the divine magic of If I Fell, I began reflecting on a way to describe how this music never lets me down. That was after the first week's class ended. 

In week two it was And Your Bird Can Sing that ignited me so intensely I actually scared myself a bit. On the drive home, de-briefing my over-the-top enthusiasm while de-constructing this song for the class - one I've probably listened to at least five hundred times since 1966 - I still couldn't explain myself to myself.

Yer Blues and While My Guitar Gently Weeps were today's gateway to my rapture. I re-played Ringo's brief drum break in Yer Blues as he downshifts the band from 4/4 to 6/8 at least four times. If that wasn't deranged enough, I then moved into no-man's land after While My Guitar Gently Weeps ended while trying to get through a mention of Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton's performance of that George Harrison song in the Concert for George documentary. And then suddenly, I landed on the name of the affliction that has had me for almost sixty years. Please share with me here - or offline - what your most recent bout of Beatles Brain did to you. Nothing is too far-fetched, trust me.     

Sunday, April 17, 2022

To List Or Not To List?

For as long as I can recall, I've made lists. In fact, this compulsive habit pre-dates a lifelong pre-occupation with my abiding passions. Before I fully realized how much literature, music, and film meant to me, I constructed lists of dinosaurs, super-heroes, Olympic events. When we were quite young, one of my sisters once discovered a "list of my lists", something we laugh about to this day.

Only recently have I begun to recognize that making lists was likely an antecedent for another lifelong passion - writing. As a child, making lists of things - at least to start - probably helped me make sense of my world. But soon after, I remember wanting to absorb what was on those lists and be able to retrieve it later. I've now come to think that collecting stuff like a magpie on those early lists was a way I used to make novel associations that could be useful, somehow. Useful that is, in a poem, a song, a story.

No one in my early life - including me - saw a blossoming writer buried in my lists. One consequence of that: I was not encouraged to pursue writing as a vocation. Neither was I discouraged from doing so. The magic of my life since ceasing full-time work in 2010 has been the daily freedom to let my lists - which have continued unabated - take me where they will. What early habit of yours have you seen made manifest in later life? 

   

 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

A New View Of Old-Fashioned

On more than one occasion I've been known to reflexively dismiss a book, piece of music, or film that strikes me as old-fashioned. I'm not proud of this reflex because there's little doubt I've missed out on some worthwhile stuff. This sometimes misguided stance might be connected to my wish to remain in the here and now. And I suspect I'm also trying to avoid books, music, and film aimed at reinforcing that tired "those were the golden days" nonsense. 

But recently I've come across two excellent contemporary novels belonging squarely in the old-fashioned basket that I can recommend almost without reservation. The Great Fire (2003) by Shirley Hazzard and Miss Benson's Beetle (2020) by Rachel Joyce use a classic three act structure, tell their moving stories in a linear way, and use prose that never draws attention to itself, while exploring territory covered in countless novels. Hazzard's is a love story forged by the cauldron of WWII, Joyce takes the reader on a quest with two unlikely friends - each pursuing their vocation - to New Caledonia. Neither novel is perfect but both are easy to get lost in, a genuine pleasure to read, and delightfully old-fashioned in all the best ways.

What was the most recent old-fashioned novel that captivated you as these two did me? I have Richard Ford to thank for recommending The Great Fire and my younger sister - a charter member of my reading posse - to thank for Miss Benson's Beetle. If any of you get around to reading either, please let me know what you think via a comment here, drop me an e-mail, or ask an old-fashioned Pony Express rider to deliver a note to me. Whichever method you choose, I'm interested in your view.               

  

Monday, April 11, 2022

Self-Sabotage

We've all heard the conventional wisdom that criminals frequently return to the scene of their crimes. But aren't many of us who are not criminals guilty of a parallel type of self-sabotage? 

In my life, the closest parallel could be a long-standing propensity for often sabotaging my creative endeavors. Of late, each time I reflect on it, yet another way I've potentially undermined myself occurs to me. Most recently, I realized one of the best ways I could have steadily improved my craft as a composer or writer would have been to continually study the craft of the masters as routinely as I do now. What prevented me from doing so much more, much sooner? Easy - ego, arrogance, insecurity. A few of the optimum tools for effective self-sabotage.

I know there are many ways self-sabotage can destroy a life. I'm grateful to have avoided self-sabotage in my relationships, with my health, or my financial security. But pretending I've totally avoided it would be a lie. Even if the price I've paid has been small in the grand scheme of things, there's no question I have returned to the scene of the crime more than once. What part of your story do you see in mine?


Saturday, April 9, 2022

Songstrings: The Coda

Foremost among the reasons for declaring this being my last post devoted to songstrings is a wish to return to some reliable sleep patterns. But I encourage any of you who have enjoyed earlier iterations of this short-lived series to carry on and send me - online or off - your attempts. 

And so it goes, both sides now: Hello, beginnings, the best thing that ever happened to me; goodbye, the end, the worst that could happen

That's my magnum opus songstring = eight unique song titles concatenated - without a single filler word - to create a meaningful thought in sentence form. Reasonably sure many of you will recognize all eight tunes with Goodbye being arguably the most obscure, a Gordon Jenkins composition featured on Linda Ronstadt's What's New LP. When creating your songstring of two titles or more, remember: It's OK to Google the name of a composer or performer, as long as the song title itself comes from your head and not from Google. That would be cheating. 

Just so you know I'm not exaggerating, below is a file dump of just a few songstrings using two to seven titles each. The "*" denotes any song not widely known. All these tunes and many others - in varying combinations, melodies intact - have been interfering with my sleep for weeks, I swear.

Are you ready to love somebody?

How will I know if I loved you until the night?

And we danced all night long because* tomorrow never knows*. (* Beatles from Abbey Road & Revolver, respectively)

Life's been good if I'm alive* when the night comes tomorrow. (*Jackson Browne, from LP of same name)

At last, somewhere, there's a place* the beat goes on day after day, always and forever. (*Beatles)

Music, laughing, sunshine, friends, birds*, feelings; that's life. (* Neil Young from After the Goldrush) 


Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Have I Told You Lately?

Corny as it sounds, each time I think I've uncovered the last benefit I've derived from my partnership of over forty-four years, something else occurs to me. What are you grateful for that flows directly from a long term relationship?  

While recently sharing another reasonably healthy meal together, it dawned on me how atrocious my eating habits might be today without all these years of my wife's influence. Because eating for me has always been about convenience above all, TV dinners could easily have become my default had she not come into my life in 1978. 

From there, things might well have gone from bad to worse, especially following my decision to become a vegetarian in the early 90's. Because had the new vegetarian been left on his own, fruit and vegetable consumption would have remained confined to fruit juice or V-8 in the morning, an occasional banana - no slicing or other attention needed aside from peeling - and perhaps an ear of corn every July 4th. Just thinking about what would have been in my cabinets makes me shudder.

My arteries and waistline thank you, sweetheart.  


Saturday, April 2, 2022

The Risk Of Too Many Words

There is never a shortage of news stories worthy of comment. And I'm rarely without an opinion about what goes on in the world nor have I ever been accused of being shy about expressing those opinions when conversing with others.

But since the inception of my blog over eleven years ago, I have been purposefully circumspect about publicly expressing my views on current events. Asked about my uncharacteristic reticence - publicly or privately - I frequently dodge the question, which itself tells me it is something in need of further examination. 

A recent comment I received here - in response to a crabby post about leaf-blowers - mentioned Ukraine. In the days since, I've continually returned to that reticence of mine. Unfortunately, I'm no closer to an answer about it than I've ever been. I do know the scope of the current crisis in Ukraine is overwhelming to me; I'm sure most of you feel the same. I also know that - for me - becoming immobilized can follow the feeling of being overwhelmed. I fight that immobilization by donating money to the relief efforts, one small thing within my sphere of control.  

Will more words about Ukraine help assuage the pain of four million refugees? There are people out there with enough media reach to reasonably claim they're bringing the world's attention to the crisis with their words. I can make no such claim. Is it a stretch to say that more words from someone like me runs the risk of trivializing a crisis like the one in Ukraine?     

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Glen Has Your Back, Guys

Like many others, I was enchanted by Once upon its release. In the fifteen years since, what has most stuck with me is the touching story of two people falling in and out of love while discovering what will always bind them - music. Of the songs from the original soundtrack, the simple guitar, piano, and haunting harmonies of Falling Slowly never fail to move me. 

I also clearly recall the beat-up guitar Glen Hansard plays in that film while busking on the streets. And now, after recently seeing him live in Washington DC, I better understand how he wears holes into every acoustic guitar he plays. The last time I remember being as transfixed by strumming as I was by Hansard's was while watching Richie Havens pummel his Guild G-41. Only Fran McKendree from the criminally unheralded McKendree Spring could hold his own against Havens in his heyday. As a ferocious acoustic rhythm guitarist, Glen Hansard is a worthy heir to these two giants.  

Hansard's DC show, featuring his musical partner from the film - composer, pianist, and vocalist Marketa Irglova - was warm and generous. Three other fine musicians supported the main duo. Falling Slowly was, predictably for me, one highlight. Another? Alone and unamplified - in a 2500 seat venue - Hansard played All the Way Down, another song from Once. I was seated near the rear of the venue. I could hear every chord Hansard pounded on his G-41. Next time you watch the movie, notice those holes. RIP, Richie and Fran. Glen has your back.   


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Delayed Empathy

When did you last have a long-delayed reaction to a book you read? For the purposes of this post, consider long-delayed meaning more than a few months. 

I finished Matrix - Lauren Groff's latest novel - in mid-December of 2021. Muscular prose, compelling main character, intriguing story. But my initial reaction, one that changed little over the ensuing months, was lukewarm. I kept waiting for something to unlock my apathy and perhaps help me better articulate what felt missing to me. 

Fast forward to a few days back when I overheard part of a conversation two strangers we're having about a book both of them loved. "That character reminded me so much of myself!" " I could really relate to what those people were experiencing."  "I loved the familiar setting and the contemporary outlook."

I retrieved my notes and re-read my book journal entry on Matrix - ambivalence galore. Then I reflected on that overheard conversation, suddenly realizing how narrow my reading had been. What I'd been missing while I was reading - and for months after finishing Groff's well-crafted novel - was empathy. How does a straight old man in the modern age put himself in the shoes of a young gay woman from the 12th century who is banished to an abbey, spending her entire life devoted to improving the lives of her sister nuns? And how can I better retain this lesson the next time I feel distanced from a novel far removed from my life experience?   

      

Friday, March 25, 2022

Making Dad Proud

Every March 25, the date my Dad was born in 1918, I try to remember to set aside time to think about him. I suspect many of you do something similar to mark milestone dates in your lives. Honoring Dad and Mom is one small way to keep them close to my heart. What are your rituals for honoring the people who gave you life and/or nurtured you through childhood?

The direction my thoughts take on days like this vary from year-to-year. When it occurred to me I am less than seven years younger now than Dad was when he was taken from me, my reflections turned inward. What things that I do now - or will do - will make whatever time is left to me count? Though I'd love to have had an opportunity to ask Dad if he'd ever asked himself that question - in the middle of his 73rd year or ever, for that matter - I'm pretty sure he would have scoffed at it. Both he and my Mom said to me more than once in my younger years, "Patrick, you're too serious". 

They were right. Still, as my thoughts today bounced from Dad to myself and back, that question did give me pause. My family, my friends, my music, my reading, my writing, my exercise, my meditation, my activist and volunteer work, my teaching, my wanderlust. All are things that give me joy. And I believe each of them, to varying degrees, will help make my remaining time count. But each also require attention and commitment. 

So I must remain mindful that making my remaining time count has elements that don't readily fit into a perpetually focused, goal-oriented blogger's worldview. First, I must stop long enough to congratulate myself when I reach a goal and forgive myself when I don't. More important, I must never become so pre-occupied that I forget how critical it is to recognize, congratulate, and forgive others, especially anyone who is struggling. Making my time count by being that kind of person would have made my Dad proud. I've always aspired to that. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Minimum Wage At Last

Eight years after beginning to teach music classes at local community colleges and elsewhere, 2022 is shaping up to be the first year I break through and earn minimum wage. How would you suggest I celebrate this milestone? 

What factors in 2022 have contributed to my promotion? Well, several of the courses I'll be teaching this year are re-runs, which translates to little time needed for development and design. Also, re-running any course means I don't need to purchase nearly as many tunes for my digital music library; that investment came the first time around. Such a deal.

I'm also honored Brookdale Community College selected me to be in the first wave of instructors for their new partnership with Ocean County Community College, beginning in late April. That new opportunity will also help me crack the minimum wage because all future classes I teach at OCCC will be re-runs, given this will be a new audience. Cutting way back on development hours means most of my time this year - and hopefully in future years - will be spent with the fun part - the teaching. Such a deal.

Earning minimum wage (perhaps) in 2022 and beyond for courses I'd willingly do for no pay will be nice. But every opportunity to share my rapture and commune with the sincere music lovers I've met since 2014 has helped to deepen my own appreciation for the most ancient of the arts. And finally, a few former "students" have since become friends. One of those friends also occasionally acts as my muse de jour. Now there's a deal for you.  

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Metaphor-Overdrive

Learning about geology, whether via a book or spending time with folks well-versed in the subject - as I did these past few weeks while on vacation - frequently propels me into metaphor-overdrive. 

Primed by a few ranger-led talks about geology while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, I found myself referring to erosion in my first conversation with some folks from the Road Scholar group who would be our fellow learners hiking through Death Valley for a week. But my conversation with these folks was not about how rocks are eroded over time by water.

Instead, while describing how I've watched the slow deterioration of a relationship from my personal life, I heard myself using the word erosion. The more detail I revealed about what I've observed over the many years I've spent with the people involved, the more the word erosion felt totally appropriate. A divisive or toxic person has much the same effect on people as water eroding rocks. Fissures are created and grow slowly enough that sometimes the people involved don't notice the way they're being pulled apart from one another like rocks by water. Or, the growing distance seems just the "natural" process of time passing. Either way, as the chasm deepens, the water does its work with less resistance. Soon enough - if not in geologic time but in the time allotted to us as humans - the gulf gets so wide it feels unbridgeable. 

The folks watching the split - like me - can try to point out what they're observing to those involved, i.e. to the rocks, if not the water, which is simply doing what water does. But as the water inexorably flows, what once was solid is no longer so.   

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Can You Hear The Crab Over The Din?

Living a mile from the Atlantic Ocean is a privilege I do not take for granted. I know how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy Act Three of my life taking walks or bike rides on the boardwalk - especially in the off-season - activities that are restorative and peaceful, a luxury not available to many. 

Unfortunately, that peace is routinely assaulted by the cacophony of leaf blowers, and the onslaught is not confined to the autumn. Attempting to meditate in my car recently, my reverie was shattered when four landscapers spent fifteen minutes blowing natural detritus off of one lawn. Last year when one of my book clubs was conducting meetings outdoors as a Covid precaution, one meeting had to be concluded early because we couldn't hear one another over the infuriating buzzing.

To be clear: This annoyance is minor compared to the travails of people less fortunate than I. And I am not whining about the landscapers themselves, who, in many cases, are immigrants trying to make a living. What triggers me is the obliviousness of the owners of these homes, many of whom are conveniently and frequently not at home while the peace of neighborhoods is being decimated. Here - in one of the wealthiest states in the U.S. - these are often enough second homes. How would these absentee owners feel if they were sipping a morning coffee or an afternoon cocktail and I suddenly unleashed a racket that approximated leaf-blowing? What is your guess? 

I'll close this rant with an acknowledgment and a hope. If I were able to afford a second home - or perhaps, a bigger and more lavish single home - maybe another blogger would be right this moment crabbing about my insensitivity, absentee owner or otherwise. But I hope instead that I would be more cognizant of the din that leaf blowers create and the impact that din has on others.        

Monday, March 14, 2022

Moving Into Adolescence

When I published Maiden Voyage eleven years ago tomorrow, I had no inkling of how this blog would subsequently affect my life. Could this writing outlet help me tap into a creative reservoir I'd always felt churning inside? Would a public discipline assist me in being more accountable about producing something on a regular basis? If I remained committed and consistent, would my ability to express myself in writing improve?

As Reflections from the Bell Curve moves into its adolescence, the answer to the first two questions above is an unqualified "yes". Several posts have acted as the catalyst for other creative endeavors. For example, I've completed the writing of more songs since 2011 than in the twenty years that preceded the inception of my blog. Even better, some of those songs are actually worth recording. And being accountable in a public way has assisted me to extract more from other disciplines in my life, all of which I began years before I started blogging. My reading, my guitar playing, my meditation practice all seem richer. Even if I'm imagining these enhancements, what does it matter? 

As I do each year on - or a day before - this anniversary, please tell me how I can continue to deserve your support. What can I do more or less of? I can think of no better way both to retain readers and to improve my ability to express myself in writing than by continuous feedback from those who take precious time to read me. I welcome your feedback, always. If my blog makes it into adulthood - circa 2031 - let's be sure to celebrate together.

        Reflections From The Bell Curve: Maiden Voyage

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Anyone Home?

Spending time this past week with nineteen fellow travelers I'd never met ratified an observation I first made years ago with respect to how people interact socially with strangers  Please share with me and others how closely this aligns with your experience in similar situations. 

I'll start with group one, i.e. people who usually enjoy interacting with strangers. Put me in this group and label me an extrovert, if you must. Although I am genuinely curious to learn about others, I do try to avoid asking intrusive questions, I respect boundaries, and I stay tuned to the need that others have for space and privacy, especially those who I perceive to be much less extroverted than me.   

Group two is made up of people who may or may not enjoy interacting with strangers, may or may not be introverted, may or may not make an effort to initiate contact with others. If someone from group one engages them, and they perceive that person to be sincere and a reasonably good listener, group two folks will attempt to reciprocate, in their fashion. That is, an appropriate question asked of them will often prompt a group two person to ask one or more questions in return. From there, how far the interaction goes is frequently situation dependent. 

Group three can be extroverts, ambiverts, or introverts. I'm rarely clear about whether people from group three actually enjoy interacting with others. What I have observed is that no matter how many questions are asked of them - by folks like me from group one or, by the more reticent folks from group two - there is little to no reciprocity. I'm not referring here to folks who will not respond to any question in the first place. Group three are people who will tell you where they live, what work they do or did, how many children they have, where they've traveled previously, what their hobbies are, etc. But in the end, people from group three will know next to nothing about their questioner. 

Your observations?


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

When A Student Is Ready

 https://reflectionsfromthebellcurve.blogspot.com/2015/08/intersecting-roads.html

Soon after reading a NY Times excerpt from The Road To Character, I raced to the library and picked up David Brooks's 2015 book, then published the post above. His central conceit - how we as a culture have put "resume virtues" above "eulogy virtues" - rang true to me from the moment I read the Times excerpt. The book then skillfully reinforced the conceit.

Unfortunately, as often happens, most of the lessons imparted by Brooks in his book faded quickly from my mind. But as the Buddhist expression wisely extols - "When a student is ready, a teacher appears." The student/blogger finally got ready, almost seven years later.  

In this case, the student let his arrogance - once again - trump both his manners and his common sense in a conversation with a good friend. Soon after my unkind words were directed at my friend, some of the wisdom from The Road To Character rushed back to me during a walking meditation.

I apologized to my friend for my arrogance. What had been revealed to me during that meditation - thanks to teacher David Brooks - is how much I yearn to be remembered for my kindness, my grace. During my remaining days, if I can remember to let go of my need to be "right" - even a little bit - perhaps the words kind or gracious will make it into my eulogy. 

Work to do. Begin, again.   

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Miracles And Magic

"Marriage by nature"

That expression is one that naturalists use to describe the mutualistic relationship existing between yucca moths and joshua trees. Isn't that wonderful? Being consistently reminded of these miracles in the natural world is one of the best reasons I've discovered for spending time in the National Parks. I'm not sure how often I'd otherwise stop to consider these things. How often do you?

Waiting for my hiking partners a few days back, my solitary reverie was pierced by a woodpecker. One needn't be in a National Park to marvel at the sound of a woodpecker. But the contrast between the profound quiet engulfing me moments before and that percussive rattle turned that into a magical moment. I was still laughing as my partners caught up. When did a sound from the natural world so enchant you? 

I'm grateful beyond measure for the miracles and the magic the National Parks have brought to my life.


Wednesday, March 2, 2022

A Formative Educational Experience

Until walking on the trail near the Oasis Visitor Center at our first stop in Joshua Tree National Park and beginning to read the signs accompanying the exhibit lining that trail, I hadn't thought about the movie Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here since the first and only time I saw it upon its release in 1969. But such is my movie jones that after reading the first of those eleven signs, it was almost like the fifty plus years since I've seen the film hadn't happened. The plot came back to me whole.  

I immediately recalled Robert Blake as Willie Boy and Robert Redford portraying a reluctant lawman sent to pursue Blake into this desolate landscape.  Though I couldn't recall the names of either of the actresses who played Blake's and Redford's love interests, a back-to-back scene from the film that juxtaposed the different dynamic between the two sets of lovers jumped into my brain almost as though I'd watched it just last week.  

When I shared some of this with the friend who is with us on this first leg of our trip, she asked me what made the film so memorable. And until I answered her straightforward question, I didn't fully appreciate how formative a learning experience this movie was for my twenty year-old brain.

After a childhood and adolescence filled with a different narrative, I'm reasonably sure Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was the first time I ever saw a portrayal of an Indian as someone human. Not an enemy to be vanquished, not a scalp-hungry beast, not a noble or other type of savage. A man - possibly innocent - on the run and in love. Those eleven signs on that trail - told from the point of view of Willie Boy's lover Carlotta - helped me to see that this film had marked a turning point in my young adult life as a critical thinker. Before I'd read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, before I'd visited the Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota, before I'd learned of the many atrocities Native Americans have endured throughout American history, Abraham Polonsky's film started an important piece of my education.

What film has done something similar for you? 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Oh Well

The mission my wife and I established in 2010 to visit all the U.S. National Parks has become one of the main highlights of my post full-time work years. As we head out to hike in Joshua Tree and Death Valley over the next two weeks, we're excited to have three friends joining us. Though we're confident these friends will enjoy their first experience traveling with Road Scholar - as we have enjoyed all our Road Scholar trips since our maiden voyage to Alaska in 2015 - I admit to being a little nervous since it was our lobbying that partially persuaded the three of them to give this a try. Kind of like when you recommend a restaurant to someone and feel a bit responsible for the quality of the meal, you know? Oh well.  

Meanwhile, our National Park mission is a bit of a moving target. Five new parks have been added to the list - bringing the current total to sixty-three - since the year we started. With only two of the newer parks east of the Mississippi - and most of the other thirty we haven't yet visited even more distant - it's clear we'll be spending a lot of time in airports in the coming years. Oh well; lots of time to read.

As in the past, given the spotty service in the National Parks, it's difficult to predict how many reflections from the bell curve will be forthcoming until March 14 or thereabouts. Because these places never fail to inspire, I'm dismayed whenever I open my laptop to reflect on something only to have the technology stymie me. And though my notebook is always nearby - and frequently gets jammed with ideas for blog posts while we are in the parks - fully re-capturing those magical moments after some time elapses is never guaranteed. Oh well.  

Stay tuned in case the technology comes through for me this time, OK?    

Saturday, February 26, 2022

Darn Him Anyway

"In fifty years, or five hundred, or five thousand, music will still do to people what it does to us now."

Soon after finishing Utopia Avenue (2020) a few weeks back, David Mitchell joined Richard Powers on a short list of contemporary authors whose work I plan to follow indefinitely. Having now read three novels by each of them - all six in a little over two years - I can say without exaggeration my life has been enhanced by the gifts of these two modern-day masters.

"Time wins in the long run. Books turn to dust, negatives decay, records get worn out, civilizations burn. But as long as the art endures, a song or a view or a feeling someone once thought worth keeping is saved and stays shareable. Others can say 'I feel that too' ".  

As was the case after I finished The Overstory - Powers's 2018 Pulitzer prizewinner - trying to nail down what makes Utopia Avenue so special challenges my descriptive abilities. I do know the last novel I read that captured the topsy-turvy world of music as perceptively as Mitchell's panoramic opus was Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). Both Mitchell and Egan are unabashed music fans. In Utopia Avenue Mitchell takes that passion up another level, using an inventive architecture - album titles for his three acts and songs as his chapter titles - to tell his captivating story with authentic characters that felt immediately familiar to this lifelong musician.   

"If a song plants an idea or a feeling in a mind, it has already changed the world."

If Utopia Avenue is ever made into a film, Steve Kloves is the perfect choice to both adapt the book into a screenplay and to direct the movie. The characters Kloves created for The Fabulous Baker Boys - still the best film I've ever seen about musicians - are of a piece with Dean Moss, Jasper de Zoet, and Elf Holloway, the three songwriters and main characters in Utopia Avenue. Several times while reading this exceptional novel, that terrific film jumped into my mind and that got me wondering. Is there anything beyond David Mitchell's grasp as a writer? Darn him anyway.

  

(As promised, here are the answers to closing questions from my 2/22/22 post: 1.) Room 222; 2.) A tutu; 3.) Desmond Tutu. BTW, did anybody notice what day of the week 2/22/22 occurred on?)


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

To Two (Too)

If I were a gambling man, I'd wager today was a big day for people - especially superstitious ones - to put money down on some combination of twos. Though briefly tempted to do so, I'm not a gambler nor am I superstitious. 

But letting this date go by without noting its numerical magic was not an option. After all, over my entire lifetime only three dates - January 11, 2011, November 1, 2011, and today share five identical consecutive digits: 1/11/11, 11/1/11, 2/22/22. Though I wasn't blogging back on 1/11/11, 11/1/11 somehow escaped my attention. Ten days later, I made sure to correct that oversight, especially because November 11, 2011 holds the distinction of being the only date over my lifetime with six identical consecutive digits: 11/11/11.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: At The 11th Hour....  

Joni Mitchell once remarked about these "...coincidences that tickle the imagination..." So even though I wasn't awake at 2:22 a.m. today, I made sure to look for that tickle at 2:22 p.m. Alas, that minute came and went - I was working out at the gym - with nothing noteworthy occurring. What were you doing at 2:22 (a.m. or p.m.) on 2/22/22? 

OK, with no magic, I'll resort to a brief quiz to keep 2/22/22 fresh. From easiest to most difficult:

1.) TV show? 2.) Dresswear? 3.) Statesman

(Answers provided in next post if no one [or two] steps up)

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Hippie, 2.0

I don't think I'll ever lose my capacity to be surprised at the way some people that have known me for a large portion of my life appear to have little idea of the things that have shaped me into the person I am today. I suspect I'm far from alone in this regard. If you relate, i.e. you've wondered how some people close to you don't seem to really get you, I hope you'll tell me and others whichever part of your story you are comfortable sharing here.    

To cite my most recent experience with this phenomenon, I was dumbfounded to hear someone close to me say they never considered me a hippie during the years that word was widely used to describe the youth of that era. In fact, at my core, I've never stopped being a hippie, particularly with respect to my values. Without a doubt, there were a few superficial tenets of the mid-late 60s that I rejected: free love, recreational drug use, "dropping out". And though I did not support the Vietnam war, I didn't demonize returning soldiers. I also never did battle with law enforcement or unthinkingly followed any misguided leaders. 

But foundationally, I embraced the ethos of that time and have tried to live the last half-century of my life aligned with values I was first exposed to then. Free love? No. Women's equality and agency of their own bodies? Yes. Recreational drug use? No. A belief in legalizing drugs? Yes, especially in light of how governmental agencies - State & Federal - support and/or subsidize the tobacco & alcohol industries, both known to wreak havoc on far more lives. Revolution? No. The need to continually re-calibrate capitalism, a commitment to never-ending social justice, supporting an unapologetically progressive agenda? Yes, yes, more yes. What are the alternatives to those three beliefs, all of which I adopted in my first iteration as a hippie?

Without continual re-calibration, unregulated capitalism is a voracious, unsatisfiable beast. Growing economic inequality festers, environmental concerns and justice are ignored; return on investment is paramount. Without a never-ending commitment to social justice, the status quo reigns supreme. How does institutional racism or sexism ever get dislodged? Who benefits when the voices of marginalized or poor or oppressed people are silenced? Supporting a progressive agenda helps ensures that these concerns remain on the radar of my elected officials. How else to hold them accountable as stewards of natural resources, champions of the collective good, believers in the sacredness of education? 

OK, call me a hippie, 2.0. I've clearly been called worse.      

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 17: Conformity

"Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth." - John Fitzgerald Kennedy 

My first instinct stumbling onto that quote several months ago was to capture it in my notebook. After all, having always considered myself a non-conformist, keeping JFK's admonishment nearby might assist me whenever I was feeling sanctimonious - itself not a rare occurrence - and needed a way to kick off a blog post. Never hurts having a self-righteous quote ready to go, especially when the words are attributed to a good-looking martyred national hero.  

But as time passed, my better angel emerged, just a little. As my reflections on JFK's words got less self-congratulatory, the questions I began asking myself grew thornier. For example:

* How useful has it been labeling myself a "non-conformist" for so many years? How useful is it for anyone to label themselves as anything? How easily does self-labeling spill into labeling others?  

* What precisely have I not conformed to that I would choose to so label myself for all these years?

* In which domains of my life has conforming hindered my growth?

I'll save the "jailer of freedom" piece of JFK's formulation for another time. Because the thornier my questions get - and I expect they will get more so - the more I suspect I'll struggle to sort out what JFK himself might have said if someone asked what exactly he meant by "conformity". Conformity to what, Jack? For now, let's just say conformity is a word that haunts me. And until I get a better handle on that loaded word, I'm refraining from labeling myself a non-conformist and steering clear of being sanctimonious when citing that pithy quote. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Songstrings (Cont.)

I've not been possessed, exactly. But waiting much longer to unleash a few of the songstrings that have been keeping me awake for several weeks now is probably the right thing to do. Mea culpa. 

As before, I hope some of you will join in by concatenating two or more song titles - no filler words, please - to create a few of your own songstrings. This time I'm starting with five, six, and seven titles, then reverting back to two, three, and four like the January 7th post. Be sure and separate your titles - as below - and cite* artist or composer of any tune you think may not be widely known. Remember: The tunes must come from your head - as these have (unfortunately) from mine- not Google. But, using Google to locate an artist or composer you can't recall is OK. 

Five tunes: No matter what - under the boardwalk, on the street where you live, up on the roof I'll be there for you.

Six: If I can't make you love me night and day, more today than yesterday,then you can tell me goodbye tomorrow. 

Seven: Hard to say* where or when you really got a hold on me girl**, but it's alright***, we belong together, always.    

* = Dan Fogelberg; ** = Lennon/McCartney; *** = JJ Jackson (top 40 hit in 1966)

Let's dance until it's time for me to go. (song #2= *Buffy St. Marie)

How can I be sure it's over by the time I get to Phoenix?

Send in the clowns, the boxer, the entertainer, the gambler.  

p.s. Shoutout on my four tune songstring directly above to those commenters from January 7th who took their own songstrings into more adventurous lyrical territory. This both inspired me to get out of the cul-de-sac of love/relationships and, contributed to my monkey brain over the past several weeks. Darn you all anyway. And yes, next time I'll be up to eight concatenated song titles, God help me.     

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Songstrings


Friday, February 11, 2022

Revisiting My Grade (So Far): Intentionality

intentionality: doing things deliberately or on purpose.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: My Grade (So Far): Ambition

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Cap & Gown Optional

The two posts above are the bookends for one of my earliest blog series. By the time My Grade (So Far) ended in December 2015, I'd graded myself on forty-one different attributes. To date, only my Mt. Rushmore series has more entries than My Grade (So Far). 

It's likely I'd have not thought to resuscitate this moribund series had I not had a conversation with a new friend about wanting to remain in touch after she leaves the area to begin a new job. But as she and I made plans to ensure our relationship would survive her move, I realized intentionality has become a clear strength of mine over these past several years. More gratifying? Intentionality most often shows up for me with respect to people. I'm intentional in the efforts I make to connect with those I'm drawn to, and equally intentional about not letting go of anyone who has become important to me, like this new friend.

I've learned it's not enough to say "We should get together" or "Let's stay in touch".  Whenever I feel a connection, I try to make something happen. If someone rejects an initial advance or a later outreach, so what? How do initial connections or staying in touch happen if no one is intentional? And what's the alternative to being intentional? 

Over six years after My Grade (So Far) had its graduation ceremony, I've returned to give myself an "A" for intentionality. What grade would you give yourself (so far)? How much would that grade change, if at all, if you took intentionality regarding your relationships with people out of the mix? If the grade changed what does that tell you?    


Tuesday, February 8, 2022

One For The Books

By now even the most casual reader of this blog knows of my unalloyed reading evangelism. But even for this bibliophile, today was one for ... the books.  

As breakfast unfolded, my wife and I had a conversation about three books. The first was an esoteric non-fiction book I just finished that she'd recommended (Entangled Life - Merlin Sheldrake), the second was the novel a reading soulmate and I are discussing later this month (Apeirogon - Colum McCann). We then briefly discussed an offbeat treatise that is the subject of a book club meeting we'd be hosting later tonight (What We See When We Read - Peter Mendelsund.) (See below.) 

I'd already decided yesterday that David Mitchell's latest act of sorcery (Utopia Avenue) would be how I spent my morning. That is precisely what occurred next. (Look for a near-future post on this literary marvel.)

Although not planned, after reluctantly putting down Mitchell's gem, I decided it was time to "catch up" on my reading journal by making entries for several books recently finished, before any one of them faded too much in my memory. First, I completed an entry - started some time back - on Apeirogon (see above), then wrote two others (for Franny and Zooey & Oh What a Paradise It Seems, J.D. Salinger & John Cheever, respectively), pausing my entry on Entangled Life (see above, redux) as my hand began cramping. I also belatedly realized I'd skipped lunch.

Late lunch/snack, some time with the guitar, off to WAWA for coffee - with a side trip to the library (honest!) to pick up some books ordered for me from the county. Uh-oh. Forgot I needed to prepare a bit for tonight's discussion of Mendelsund's book (see above, hat trick.) Quickly perused it - first read several years back - Googled the author, prepared questions. While on the laptop, figured I'd update my Goodreads page and publish a few book reviews. Just before 6:30, I realized it was time to prepare some dinner while logging onto ZOOM to moderate the discussion of What We See When We Read. 

Ever have a day when one of your passions highjacked you from the time you got out of bed until you were ready to get back in that same bed? That bed is exactly where I'm headed after pressing "publish" on this post. Before you ask, I have no plans to read myself to sleep. Enough is enough. 

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Crawling Out Of The Covid Cocoon Via Music

Listening to live music this past week for the first time since Covid shut us down in March 2020 has me cautiously optimistic that we may finally be crawling out of our collective cocoon. Is my optimism misplaced? Any of you been to a concert - or anything resembling one - recently? 

I'm not cavalier about the ongoing threat and I'm mindful the Omicron variant is more contagious than what came earlier in the pandemic. Those considerations played in my head this past week listening to John Scofield. But seeing how scrupulous the Blue Note was checking vaccination cards made me rest a bit easier as I reveled in Scofield's astounding guitar wizardry. And, optimistic as I am, the next show I'm scheduled to see is not in a huge arena. That's a bridge too far just yet. 

Next up is John Fogerty in my first trip to the Count Basie theater since late 2019. That venue - with great sound and not a bad seat in the house - has been a favorite since we re-located to the Jersey shore in 2010. The one tune I'm most hoping Fogerty does that night is Bad Bad Boy from his 1997 recording entitled Blue Moon Swamp. Although Fogerty is not as technically accomplished as Scofield, his guitar playing can be just as moving. Take one listen to Fogerty's solos on Bad Bad Boy and see if you don't agree.

Man, how I've missed live music. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Over-Easy, Year Seven

Considering how many people outside of Punxsutawney ever pay attention, does it strike anyone else as odd that of all the movies ever made about holidays few have come close to being as good as Groundhog Day?  What would be your nomination for a holiday film that is the equal of Harold Ramis's goofy 1993 masterpiece?

Although I'm not a big Bill Murray fan, Groundhog Day is on the short list of films I've watched more than once. Of the several priceless bits in the movie, my favorite is probably Sonny & Cher warbling I Got You Babe on the clock radio that awakens Murray's character as he endlessly repeats February 2nd - brilliant song choice. What alternative tune would you pick as a way to aurally depict a nightmare you can't escape? My top nominations would be either one of those treacly ballads Michael Bolton screamed during his brief but painful popularity or the musical torture inflicted on us by I-get-paid-by-the-sixteenth-note Kenny G.

Musical snarkiness aside, which bit from Groundhog Day plays over and over and over in your mind? And, if you were able to repeat a single day from your life which one would you choose?

(Special shoutout to three of my most frequent commenters - IA, RG, SM - for chiming in here last year on this date. I figured their regular contributions year-round entitled them to at least be in on today's joke.)


Monday, January 31, 2022

Reading Integration

Foremost among the gifts in my life in the post full-time work years has been the varying ways that book discussions have enriched my time. I'll take initial credit for getting the ball rolling via joining several book clubs in the early years. Some of the tributaries that flowed from my time in those clubs led me to several bookworm soulmates. I've met ad hoc with a select few of them for discussions.    

But then, serendipity, as opportunities for book discussions seem to open up in unexpected places. A distant friend and I - both of us newly familiar with ZOOM because of Covid - decided to use that technology for a discussion of The Great Bridge, David McCullough's account of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Our next virtual discussion will be about Hanya Yanigahara's magnum opus, A Little Life. 

More recently, the fourteen travelers my wife and I first bonded with in Alaska began a hybrid book discussion group. Our first two meetings were online (James McBride's The Good Lord Bird and Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separateness), and our third took place live this past October when we reunited in Acadia National Park and discussed Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night. That same group is now "discussing" The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) by capturing our individual reactions into the book itself, which is being circulated via mail all over the country; the sixteen of us reside in seven different States. When the group re-unites this October for the sixth time, everyone's comments will be compiled into a document, distributed to all, discussion to follow. How cool is this? 

In the meanwhile, the "Pats-only" cl - i.e. not big enough to be a club and including only people named Pat - is now in its eighth year. The two of us most recently discussed Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind. And the club I started at my local library in January 2017 continues to thrive. Our last meeting centered on Future Home of the Living God (Louise Erdrich). I've got more reading riches to share but would like now to hear from you. What are some ways you integrate your love of reading into your life?      

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Let It Snow, Please

I'm immensely grateful Act Three of my personal life is as rich as any reasonable person could expect. I'm healthy, financially comfortable, and my support system is strong. 

Despite that, my reflections about our collective future have recently curdled a bit, a disturbing turn for a lifelong optimist. I'm not pessimistic, per se, but a few trends of modern life are giving me serious pause. Is my search for solace today a "misery loves company" plea? Or, is the clearly visible blizzard bringing on an early case of cabin fever? Either way, I'd welcome knowing at least a few people share my concerns.

* How disturbed are you by the increasing isolation the Internet is bringing to modern life? And how ironic is it that many of the things helping to create more distance between people are grouped under a rubric called social media? 

* When did you (or anyone you know) most recently settle a dispute about some fact via consulting a dictionary, encyclopedia, or Almanac? How do we ever return to a consensus about facts? 

* Without that consensus, what hope is there that we will collectively face the threat of climate change? 

If you are near my age or older, it's easy to put the last concern out of mind, given the years that remain to us. So perhaps it's the snow and visions of playing in a future snowstorm with any grandchildren I may have that is preventing me this moment from being that selfish and present-day focused. Today, I want a different future - one where the Internet brings people together vs. dividing us. A future where we can disagree about politics but not about facts, particularly scientific ones. A future where my daughter's children get to play with their grandchildren in the snow. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Tough Line To Recognize

What strategies work best to help you avoid becoming inflexible in pursuit of your goals? 

Funny how the line between discipline and rigidity is clear when I look at the approach others take toward their goals. I suspect I'm not alone occasionally describing others as "anal" or using pejoratives like "gym rat", "fanatic", etc.

But that same line gets muddy when this goal-oriented blogger stops to examine his own approach. Nearly everyone would agree that the best way to get accomplished at something is via practice. But I sometimes struggle knowing clearly when one of my practices has begun to interfere with moments, with joy, with spontaneity. Sound familiar to any other goal-oriented folks?

I'm not planning to abandon my goal orientation. But erring more on the side of flexibility does strike me as a worthwhile endeavor. I welcome your ideas on getting better at that. 


Sunday, January 23, 2022

When To Start Or Not To Start?

As someone who didn't feel mature enough to have children at a younger age - I was thirty-nine when my beloved daughter was born - it's hard now to remember that earlier reticence. Today, I'm proud I overcame my younger selfishness. Because if I hadn't, I'd have missed out on knowing the remarkable individual my only child has become. My gratitude for what we share - especially our musical bond - is beyond measure.   

As we were skiing together over the last few days while celebrating her birthday, my reflections shifted. I began to realize how glad I am at having maintained a commitment to remaining physically fit. When my daughter told me on our first day we'd logged in twenty-two miles, I was pleased, if not over-the-top pumped. Then, after her watch indicated we'd topped thirty-three miles the next day - despite a high of -1 degrees - I admit my head swelled a bit. Not half-bad for an old fart, I thought.

If you started your first family later in life - as I did - what benefits did doing so confer on you? If you decided to start earlier, what were some of the main reasons for your decision? If starting a family of your own has never held any appeal for you, which pieces of your life give you the most joy?     

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Wishing

I wish I were able to persuade everyone I know to read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

More than that, I wish I had the ability to summon at will some of the staggering research Michelle Alexander cites to support her convincing positions. How satisfying it would be to recall her research when face-to-face with someone who buys into the folly of the prison-industrial complex. Even more satisfying would be if I could present an educated case calmly and dispassionately, without misquoting facts, and never get highjacked by my emotions. How I wish. 

As long as I'm wishing, might as well go for broke. I wish I had the influence to ensure this 2010 book was on the required reading list for every high school in the U.S.    

Sunday, January 16, 2022

67% Schadenfreude

As far as I'm concerned, 2022 has gotten off to a strong start, with respect to some folks about to pay for their crimes. If you share some of my schadenfreude seeing these miscreants headed for jail, it would be comforting - in a perverse way - to know I'm not alone in my uncharitable thoughts.

I'll start with Elizabeth Holmes. White-collar crime so often goes undetected and even when it is detected, the wealthy people caught can often buy their way out of being punished. If you haven't yet seen The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley - a documentary about Holmes and her greedy scam - watch it soon and then tell me: Do you hope, as I do (forgive me, father), that this person spends at least a few years locked up to give her plenty of time to think about her misdeeds? 

I won't be asking that same question about the near-future fate of Ghislaine Maxwell. Frankly, if you don't think this enabler deserves to spend some time in a small cell, you and I can agree to disagree. Yes, I would have preferred to see the actual predator pay for his crimes - rather than his high-paid and willing assistant - but I won't lose sleep over what the next few years of Maxwell's life will be like. Mea culpa.

I have no qualifications whatsoever about the life sentences the McMichael morons just received.  

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Unforgivable

Weeks later and I still haven't been able to shake off The Unforgivable. If any of you have seen this recently released movie, I'm curious to know your reaction. This is an instance when pinpointing what I liked best about a film is difficult.  

I'll start with Sandra Bullock's exceptional portrayal of a recently released convict imprisoned for killing a police officer. How this career-defining performance escaped getting any Oscar attention is a genuine mystery. The rest of the ensemble cast is also first rate, especially Vincent D'Onofrio and Viola Davis. 

The multi-layered script expertly juxtaposes several themes - the effects a violent death can have on survivors, the ways the criminal justice and adoption systems can wreak havoc on people caught in either, the lengths people will go to protect those they love. And the final twist is believable and morally satisfying. 

But I suspect what will most remain with me is the skillful depiction of the overlapping lives and competing concerns of four different families. Each family is touched by the central tragedy and each must find its own way through that tragedy. If you haven't seen this winner, put it in your queue; you will not be disappointed.