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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Glen Has Your Back, Guys

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

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

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


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Delayed Empathy

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

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

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

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

      

Friday, March 25, 2022

Making Dad Proud

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Minimum Wage At Last

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Metaphor-Overdrive

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Can You Hear The Crab Over The Din?

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 14, 2022

Moving Into Adolescence

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

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

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

        Reflections From The Bell Curve: Maiden Voyage

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Anyone Home?

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

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

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

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

Your observations?


Wednesday, March 9, 2022

When A Student Is Ready

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

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

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

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

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

Work to do. Begin, again.   

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Miracles And Magic

"Marriage by nature"

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

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

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


Wednesday, March 2, 2022

A Formative Educational Experience

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

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

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

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

What film has done something similar for you?