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My most recent single release - "My True North" - is now available on Bandcamp. Open my profile and click on "audio clip".

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Gotta Love Those Bar Codes

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

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

Before impulsively answering my opening question, please consider:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 28, 2022

What a Difference a Decade Makes

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: The Raw Materials

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

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

Thursday, August 25, 2022

My Book Cup Runneth Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, back to Alice.   


Monday, August 22, 2022

Remember Her Name

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 19, 2022

It's Possible That ...

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Pointing In

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Always on the Lookout

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Home Run

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Another Maxim to Toss

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2022

RIP: Headline in Advance

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

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

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

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

Your turn.     


Thursday, August 4, 2022

Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 1, 2022

Recycling at its Best

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

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

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

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