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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".

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Owning It All

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Key Learnings: Year 73

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always more fun when others join me in this exercise.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Goal for Year 74

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 20, 2022

An Incomplete and Disturbing Picture

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Is Eagle Scout in the Cards for You?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2022

Patriotism: 1968 vs. 2022

"America - Love it or Leave It!"

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2022


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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Plea for More Rescuers (Start at 29, Please)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Practice Makes Something, Anyway

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

The Cost of Deception

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

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

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