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Monday, September 26, 2022

ISS Hit Parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 23, 2022

TBC: Celebrating the Third Act

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

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

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


Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Allure of Completism

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Completism Run Amok

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

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

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

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


Sunday, September 18, 2022

Sustenance Through Encouragement

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: On This Day In 1983

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Better Late Than Never (Redux)

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Did I or Didn't I?

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

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

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

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Time Machine Words & Expressions

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

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

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

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Life Behind the Name

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, September 2, 2022

Exactly When Does a Classic Enter the Canon?

canon: any officially recognized set of sacred books.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Gotta Love Those Bar Codes

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

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

Before impulsively answering my opening question, please consider:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2022

What a Difference a Decade Makes

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Raw Materials

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

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


Thursday, August 25, 2022

My Book Cup Runneth Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, back to Alice.   

    

Monday, August 22, 2022

Remember Her Name

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2022

It's Possible That ...

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Pointing In

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 13, 2022

Always on the Lookout

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Home Run

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Another Maxim to Toss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2022

RIP: Headline in Advance

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

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

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

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

Your turn.     

   

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2022

Recycling at its Best

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

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

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

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


Sunday, July 31, 2022

... and After

Well, the drugs helped, kind of.  

I made it through playing Just the Way You Are on guitar as my beloved daughter walked toward her soon-to-be husband as the ceremony began. Passing her hand to his, a wise strategy suddenly arrived to help me conceal the flood: I grasped his head with both hands, whispering in his ear. I'll spare you the message. As others spoke during the ceremony - including the moving vows the bride and groom wrote - my weeping was subsumed by loud sniffles in the room. The five piece brass band escorting the newly married couple from the ceremony into the cocktail hour returned my composure, briefly. Onto the reception.

Our brief speech following the toast by my daughter's best friend had four parts. I held it together as my wife delivered part one. Part two? I paused a lot, took deep breaths, stuck to the script - so far, so good. My wife took part three and part four was brief enough that I almost got through the section about home unscathed. Almost.  

The two of us dancing to Til There Was You, the lullaby I sang to her as an infant, toddler and beyond? Don't ask. The good news? By the time that dance occurred, my jacket and tie had been on the back of a chair for a while, my shirt drenched from ninety minutes of non-stop dancing. Who would possibly notice my unstoppable tears given the state I was in at that point?  

 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Before ...

The day after tomorrow - Friday July 29 - my cherished daughter is getting married. 

Over the eleven + years I've published this blog - like many of you - my life has had ups and downs. I've tried to avoid oversharing the downs and invited you to celebrate many of the ups. For Friday's milestone - my most significant in over three decades - join me by toasting my daughter and her new husband. 

Among the things I'm most grateful for in my life is the partnership my wife and I have sustained for over forty-four years. I hope any foundation we provided helps our daughter as she begins navigating this new phase in her life. While she was growing up, we tried to model the importance of trust, compromise, and humor for her; I believe those elements were crucial in getting us through our choppy periods. I hope that modeling helps her as well. 

I'm reasonably sure pharmaceuticals will be required Friday to prevent me from dissolving into a puddle. I'll let you know how it went after I recover. Although our daughter was never ours to "give away", it does feel - at least this moment - like a piece of me is headed on a journey that is apart, somehow. I know this unease will pass. My daughter inherited her mother's kindness, her common sense, her good instincts. She and her new husband will thrive using those solid tools. Wish them luck.                   

Monday, July 25, 2022

1 +1 +1 = Groaning While Reading

Given how often my blog posts have literature as their subject, by now even irregular readers might have noticed I don't bash books or authors. My reason for resisting this unkind impulse is simple. Until completing and publishing my own first full-length book, I have not earned the right to trash the work of anyone who has done so. (Full disclosure: On rare occasions, I have succumbed to that unkind impulse when posting a review on Goodreads. But I have less than twenty-five friends on that site meaning there's little danger of any author losing sales due to my small "p" public churlishness.)

However, given the volume of my reading - and the number of groaners endured as a consequence of that volume - I feel justified saying more than a few authors frequently fall into the same trap as some recording artists and filmmakers - an over-reliance on formula. Now I realize many readers, music lovers, and film enthusiasts enjoy predictability, meaning formulaic books, music, and films have their place. But moving inexorably through Act Three, I yearn for freshness vs. formula. The list of over-used literary devices found in many traditional, conservative, predictable books - particularly those marketed as "historical fiction" - is long. I'll kick it off with a few that make me groan and then wait for you to join in. No book titles or authors, please.

* Exposition overload: Few things annoy me more than a writer who tells me what is about to happen, tells me again when it is happening, then reminds me what just happened. Set the scene once or not at all. Then give me something fresh, please. Don't chew the food for me.

* Epiphany alerts or ... cliffhanging final sentences to choppily episodic bite-size chapters: Books aimed at the mass market are supposed to be "page-turners". But suspense can be delivered in so many novel ways. Dangling shiny objects is a cheesy way to maintain narrative momentum. And it insults my intelligence.   

* The rotating narrator loop: 1.) Narrator #1 tells a story in the "present" tense via hearing, reporting, or re-counting to others ... 2.) the famous/infamous, glorious/disastrous, but always "unforgettable" past of narrator #2, from whom narrator #1 will be fed or arrive at one or more of the aforementioned epiphanies, often delivered as a cliffhanger at the end of a bite-size, episodic, page-turning chapter. If multiple narrators must be used, give me an author who resists the temptation to have every chapter toggle between narrator #1 and #2. Formula-loving writers: If you must do that monotonous toggling thing, please don't date every chapter in strictly chronological order. 

If you are a frequent reader, some of the above might feel eerily familiar. What groanworthy formulas are on your list?      

Friday, July 22, 2022

One Day's Battle with the "B" Word

Of the twenty-five definitions for the word balance noted in my dictionary - used as either a noun or verb - several could have served as a starting point here. I welcome your help deciding which of those definitions comes closest to describing the dilemma of today's reflection. To prevent any reader from recommending medication for yours truly, please note: This is not an everyday occurrence.

Set-up: Awake at 6:30 a.m. Morning ablutions and breakfast = 30 minutes. Onset of dilemma: 8:30 a.m.

Outline of dilemma: At 8:30, with approximately fifteen waking hours remaining in day, blogger in search of balance considers the estimated time required for two more at home meals - including prep and cleanup - briefly chastising himself for the ninety minutes already lost. As minutes tick by and no daily disciplines have yet been initiated, dilemma deepens. Which discipline first? Reading*? Guitar? Writing* (If writing, which vessel?) Meditation? Exercise*? Activist work? "*" = More complications ensue since three of the six disciplines have ambitious goal(s) attached. Tick, tick, tick ... 

Balance, blogger intones. Put disciplines aside - think of others. Pay more attention to the impending wedding of your daughter; your ailing sister who would welcome a visit; phone calls or e-mails to family, friends, fellow activists are all as important as any of those disciplines, with or without the goals. But wait a minute: How about the "to do" list, the errands, the stuff needing to be done around the house? Tick, tick, tick ...

Inadequate resolution of dilemma: The search for balance will always be with me. Any assistance you'd care to offer is appreciated. 


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Click!

Postponement of gratification is inextricably linked to being a musician. I'm continually reminded that the thousands of hours of solitary practice and/or the hundreds of band rehearsals will always be far removed from the moments when all that practice and rehearsing suddenly clicks - fleetingly - and some magic occurs in a performance.  

Since 2011, the year my most recent musical partnership of longstanding ended, my live performances have been mostly solo guitar. On more than a few occasions over these last eleven years, I wondered if solo work - without singing - was ever going to deliver enough of those magical moments to make it worth continuing to ply this particular musical model.  Even an expert at postponing gratification like me - performing continuously for fifty-eight years - has limits. 

Just in time, several weeks back, during my first set at the opening of a local bookstore - click! The moments didn't string together for the whole set - the whole thing lasted about the length of two plus songs - and my second set disappointed me in its entirety. No matter, although I do hope my next click is closer than years away. It's not like I've got an unlimited number of those to spare.      

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Life Is an Ellipsis ...

Some books are transformative. Upon finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan soon after its 2010 release, I knew I'd become a different kind of reader. I then waited for over three years before rewinding to read Look at Me (2001) primarily because I feared being disappointed. I was not.

Some authors stand alone. After finishing The Candy House (2022), I'm now convinced Egan has few peers among 21st century novelists. She is an astonishing stylist, razor-sharp observer of contemporary life, and an exceptional storyteller. Best of all, she is brave enough to acknowledge that life is one ellipsis after another. Our choices rarely lead to neat endings; many chapters in The Candy House are not real tidy either. Any demands Egan makes on readers are offset by astute insights, dazzling prose, and provocative ideas.

Some novels resist being summarized. The Candy House is a meditation on authenticity in an age when privacy is in peril. It is a post-modern treatise on the slippery nature of time, identity, and memory told in first and third person, via e-mail and instruction manuals. It rewinds effortlessly to 1969 and fast forwards to 2035 to warn of the collateral damage done to our relationships by inattention and technology. This is more than great literature - it is sorcery.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Attention: Sports Fans

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Still Playing Forward: Jennifer Egan

 

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A More Civil and Inclusive World

beyonddiversity.org

Among the many things I'm grateful for in Act Three of my life is the occasional opportunity I get to work with Beyond Diversity. Although loosely affiliated with this social justice organization for almost thirty years, each time I'm asked to work with them, I feel renewed. I encourage you to check out their website. 

Reading the background materials for my latest assignment recently, my energy surged. Preparing for this work is always a pleasure because doing so fortifies my commitment to the organization's mission at the same time that it deepens my own learning. Every project I've worked on with Beyond Diversity has helped me grow into a more compassionate and humane person.

Those personal benefits are deeply gratifying. Even better is walking away from each project knowing I've contributed - in some small way - to helping make the world a more civil and inclusive place. If something in your life gives you similar satisfaction, please share it here with me and other readers. How could it hurt to share a story like that?


Sunday, July 10, 2022

Politics V. Walt & Ralph

"Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes": Walt Whitman

Even with Whitman's wise words in my head, I've struggled my entire adult life trying to strike a reasonable balance between open-mindedness and having strong convictions. Each time I think I've made progress, I test it by putting myself in the shoes of a thinking politician running for office. Imagine: You've established a position on an issue and then you're exposed to information that persuades you to change that position. What to do? How do you explain to voters the shift in your views? Do you quote Whitman to those voters, perhaps? Good luck.

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds": Ralph Waldo Emerson

I've relied on Emerson many times. But an inconsistent elected official is a "flip-flopper", pure and simple, never mind the size of the mind. How do you as a voter know what an elected official stands for if that official is not consistent? Considering this dilemma, I'm forced to acknowledge my reflexive disdain for politicians might be a bit intellectually lazy. When was the last time you reversed yourself on something? What was that like for you? How did others react to your shift? How much courage must it take for an elected official to reverse a position even when the reversal is the result of serious thought? Our chances of losing a job, a friend, or much of anything when we contradict ourselves or act inconsistently are minimal. What about that elected official?   

On more than one occasion, I've begun writing my couple of paragraphs here only to recall having said something contradictory in an earlier post. Suppose someone catches me in an inconsistency? I'm safe in my multitudes and my hobgoblins remain at bay. And I'm grateful a life in politics was never in the cards. 

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Timing is Everything

Rewind to a random date in the 20th century, anywhere from the mid-60s on. Imagine someone in the orbit of yours truly recommending a documentary to him entitled Fantastic Fungi. Listen as he first cackles wildly before questioning the sanity of the recommender.

Fast forward to the present day. Consider the education slowly administered to yours truly by his life partner of forty-four+ years - horticulture major, master gardener, chairperson of the newly formed Monmouth County Chapter of the NJ Native Plant Society. Observe yours truly transfixed by Fantastic Fungi. Timing is everything.

As recently as 2015 - on the first vacation my wife and I took with Road Scholars - she had trouble persuading me to attend a lecture on fungi and lichen. But that was before she ...

* Told me I must read The Overstory, a Richard Powers novel that subsequently transformed my relationship with the natural world and ...

* Suggested a companion non-fiction book called Entangled Life (Merlin Sheldrake) that deepened my understanding of the critical role of fungi in the web of life and ...

* Continued demonstrating an unalloyed evangelism for the natural world via her involvement in the NJ Native Plant Society, thereby augmenting my education with her modeling. How could I resist watching Fantastic Fungi when she suggested it? I'm so glad I didn't.

Timing is everything.                

Monday, July 4, 2022

Happy Birthday

For me, our nation's birthday seems an optimal time to set aside where we have fallen short and celebrate what we've gotten right. 

Reflecting on our complicated history, I finally settled on the three elements below. In my view, none of these three need to be qualified with an "even when ..." or "however". For example, had I settled on the venerated value from our Declaration of Independence asserting "all men are created equal", it would be intellectually dishonest to cite that ideal without a caveat. The value is undeniably noble; we are still a distance from fully actualizing it. These three can stand, arguably, without any qualifier.

* The concept of free public libraries

* The establishment of a system of National Parks

* The freedom to practice religion as codified in the first amendment to the Constitution

What are you celebrating today?       

Friday, July 1, 2022

Sticking with Science and Books

Following a recent stimulating group discussion of Richard Powers's latest novel (Bewilderment), I stumbled across one plausible reason for the resistance the ex-tweeter-in-chief has shown to reading books. Let's say you delude yourself that you are the center of the universe, similar to the way Agent Orange repeatedly acts. Can you think of a better way to support that fantasy than ignoring all the evidence books have to offer?   

Two threads in Bewilderment led me to this insight. The first is the way Powers weaves the resiliency of the natural world into his incandescent novel. Long after we have done our worst, the earth will endure. The second thread is how astronomy - if we pay attention - continually reminds us of the vastness of space and our infinitesimal place in that space. 

Even if those two threads hadn't persuaded me that eschewing books and pathological narcissism are two sides of the same coin, on a bike ride soon after that book discussion, my monkey mind raced to the science of geology.  Recalling a lecture I attended earlier this year while in Death Valley, I was humbled anew considering how old the earth is and how tiny my mark on the earth truly is. Some days, thinking about the sciences in this fashion can make me blue; I can be as egotistical and self-centered as the next guy. But being reminded of my cosmic insignificance by science and books beats ignoring the evidence so, on balance, I'm sticking with both.   

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Her Choices

Had I read American Baby: A Mother, A Child, and the Shadow History of Adoption soon after its 2021 publication, I'm sure I would have been moved. Gabrielle Glaser is a fine writer, thorough researcher, and she never gets in the way of the powerful, deeply personal story she tells in her excellent book. 

But with the overturning of Roe V. Wade still a fresh and raw wound, when I finished this book days ago, I was reeling. It has been difficult to escape a sense that "...the shadow history of adoption" Glaser skillfully reveals could soon be supplanted by a different shadow history as some ramifications of the Supreme Court's reversal begin to play out. Overnight, my daughter's choices have been narrowed.  

Further contributing to my unease were historical examples - many familiar to me - that Glaser cites. As one after the other of these examples demonstrated the coercive pressure women have faced when their choices have been narrowed, my daughter's future in the post Roe V. Wade landscape loomed large.

I sincerely hope my concern for my daughter's future is misplaced. I am worried.                 

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?