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Sunday, May 28, 2023

Mission 3.0

Perhaps foremost of the benefits I've derived from years of long distance cycling are the occasional moments of clarity while on a ride. So it was a few days back. While on my bike, I realized it had been years since I  last reviewed the mission statement I constructed in 1994. As my long ride continued, a large portion of a new mission statement came to me clearly.

After getting home, with the new statement still percolating, I felt compelled to dig up that 1994 iteration as well as version 1.0, constructed in 1978. Setting aside how long it took me to unearth these artifacts, rereading them both was edifying. I'm convinced much of my personal growth between version 1.0 and 2.0, and even more so between version 2.0 and the present, can be linked to having a long-range vision of what I wanted my life to look like as the future unfolded. And though the three versions don't match up neatly with the years encompassing Act One, Two, and Three of my life, they're close enough. 

I'd welcome learning of your current mission, no matter which version. If you've never attempted to construct a mission statement, I'd urge you to try. I strongly believe anyone can benefit from the effort it takes.

Mission Statement 3.0: Pat Barton (Spring, 2023)

As I wake each day, I will approach the sixteen hours ahead - like a gift waiting to be unwrapped - by aiming for these things: 

* To ease someone's suffering - in some small fashion - and/or to make the world a better or more humane place, however marginally.

* To demonstrate in some way to someone I care about - via words or deed - that they matter to me.

* To meaningfully move my body, even if some would not call that movement "exercise". 

* To write or otherwise create something, if even just a journal entry.

* To read some portion of a book or books.

* To play my guitar.

* To meditate. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

Wait, Who Is This Person?

Wait, you like what? You want to go where? You're following who on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram?

I suspect I'm not alone in occasionally assuming things about people I've known for a long time. And though I try to guard against stereotyping, claiming my assumptions about others are not occasionally prone to that impulse would be nonsense. Last time I checked, I was still human. Making assumptions may sometimes be lazy thinking, but when coupled with people we think we know, it can also be about comfort. It's reassuring to feel we know someone well. For example, predicting what brings pleasure to someone we are close to forms the basis for thoughtful gift-giving.  

Having trouble remembering the last time you succumbed to the impulse of assuming things about people you know well? If so, turn it around and try recalling the last time you befuddled someone close to you in this regard, i.e., you mention something you enjoy doing and someone close to you responds with genuine surprise. Or, maybe you say you are thinking about trying "X" and the idea elicits shock in someone who has known you a long time. I'm confident saying most of us make assumptions about those we think we know well as much - or more than - others make assumptions about us.   

Although I don't surprise myself a great deal, I'm usually pleased when someone close to me is taken aback by something that strikes them as "not like Pat". I don't purposefully aim to shock and have no wish be enigmatic. Still, being occasionally unpredictable is kind of neat, even when assumptions - and even a hint of stereotyping - are in play. Case in point: I like Barry Manilow's music.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Transformative Literature

First, I'll get the bragging out of the way. I'm proud of myself for putting aside my oft-repeated bias about "historical fiction".

Because if I hadn't done so, West With Giraffes could easily have slipped by which would mean, in turn, I wouldn't now be recommending it - without reservation - to all of you. What a disservice that would have been to Lynda Rutledge's 2021 treasure. How I wish my blog had more reach; her novel deserves nothing less.

I'll begin with the pitch-perfect first-person voice of seventeen-year-old Dust Bowl orphan Woodrow Wilson Nickel. "Not having much practice with thanks, I didn't know what to say." Not hooked yet? Try this: "I straightened my spine and with the hubris of a selfish boy with nothing behind and everything ahead I said 'I can do it'."  The "it" in that sentence is driving a truck from New York to San Diego in 1938. Cargo? Two adult giraffes. Did I mention Woodrow has no driver's license?

A lifetime of reading has rewarded me with some memorable insights. This book is rich with gems like this one: "It's a strange thing how you can spend years with some folks and never know them, yet, with others, you only need a handful of days to know them far beyond years." Even out of context, that straightforward sentence rings true. In context, near the end of this quest, it is earned wisdom with the power to transform an attentive reader.

Other strengths: Superb use of period detail to catapult a reader into 1938 America, a solid moral core, fully-realized characters that will linger, an intriguing but not intrusive architecture. And, on page 339 a lengthy passage about the importance and enduring power of stories I copied word-for-word to ensure I can re-capture the warm glow of this novel anytime in the future that I wish. Instead of including that passage here, let me suggest you set aside some hours for West With Giraffes and discover it on your own. I'm confident you will thank me. Special nod to the three widely disparate readers who recommended this winner to me, all three recommendations coming within the space of two days. I'm convinced that was the universe's way of telling me to discard that nasty bias of mine.  



Saturday, May 20, 2023

How Many, You Ask? Well ..

Keeping track of how many - books finished in a year, songs in my repertoire, National Parks visited - is something I've done for as long as I can recall. And throughout my life, I've resolved to stop doing so many times, although I haven't - mercifully - kept track how many times. My resolve rarely lasts long. 

Although I've got a theory or two about the tenacity of this nettlesome habit, I'm curious to first hear your view. Those of you who do not share my tendency to keep track, what would you guess are some reasons that drive someone to do this? Those of you who do share my tendency, how closely have you examined what drives you to do so? What answers have come to you? More pertinently, anyone out there who once had this tendency and has managed to break free for an extended period? Your strategies?

As Act Three gallops forward, my tracking seems to be, if anything, accelerating. Were I to ever consider returning to therapy, this might be something worth exploring. But with the final curtain approaching, I think I'll forego a professional intervention and just stick with my meditation practice. Most of the time when I'm in that mindful space, the tracking dissipates. That is, as long as I avoid keeping track of how many times - in a given period - I've meditated. Oh boy.           

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

A Difficult Lesson in Perspective

Have you ever encountered someone who has faced so many hardships over their lifetime that you found it difficult to imagine how they've survived? 

Like all of you, I've known lots of people who have faced hardship. Also like all of you, I've had my own bumps, though considering how long I've been in the game, probably fewer than many. But I recently met someone whose story was almost beyond belief. As each new painful detail was revealed, I found myself thinking "that has to be it, right?" Were I to describe the hand this person was dealt and just a few of the experiences recounted - experiences that routinely accompany a hand like this one - I suspect you would be rendered as speechless as I was. Or, you might think I was exaggerating. Almost fifty years of abuse, marginalization, and cruelty. How does someone endure this? 

Would you believe me if I told you I detected no malice in this individual? No hate directed at abusers or anyone else for that matter. It took me a full emotionally draining hour to de-brief with my wife the experience of spending three hours with someone with this much grace. If I ever lose sight - for even a short while - of my good fortune for a life of minimal hardship, I hope my wife will remind me of that de-brief. Shame on me if I walk away from this experience without gaining at least a little perspective.            


Monday, May 15, 2023

Looking Forward to My Sandwich

I saw The Namesake not long after it was released in 2006 and can still clearly recall how much I was moved.  At that point, I had not yet read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri, the author of the eponymous novel upon which director Mira Nair based her film. But based on the movie, Lahiri immediately went onto my "to read" author list. I finished her Pulitzer prizewinning collection of short stories - The Interpreter of Maladies - not long after and then consumed her 2013 novel - The Lowland - in 2017, based on a long-simmering recommendation my wife had made to me. The post directly below traces my earlier journey with this gifted author's work. 


The journey continued recently as I returned to the source and read The Namesake, an unassuming yet masterful account of the challenges and triumphs of assimilation. As I read the novel, several searing scenes from the film came back to me whole, even though it's been more than sixteen years since I saw it. And, here's some great news I just discovered: A local library is sponsoring a showing of the film, to be followed by a discussion of the novel, both built around a potluck dinner with people encouraged to bring a dish featuring the cuisine of their country of origin. How cool is this?

I get to complete a Namesake Sandwich, having first seen the film in 2006, then reading the book, and now watching the film a second time while the book is fresh in my mind. For a bookworm and movie dweeb it just doesn't get any better than this. Ever had a movie-book-movie sandwich like this? If so, please tell me and others about it. 


Thursday, May 11, 2023

Now, About That Title ..

Although the ending is a little too tidy, The Bachelors is a film that I'm sure will stick with me. If you haven't seen this 2017 sleeper, put it on your list and contact me after you watch it.

J.K. Simmons is that rare actor who elevates every movie he is in. In this winner, playing a father having trouble navigating his grief following his wife's passing, Simmons hits every mark. And the young actor who plays his teenage son in the heartfelt story - Josh Wiggins - although previously unknown to me, is now someone I'll be looking for in the future. The last two scenes featuring just Simmons & Wiggins are perfectly modulated. I defy anyone to be unmoved in the penultimate scene when the two hug - whispering apologies to one another - at the conclusion of a cross-country race.

The supporting cast - Julie Delpy, Odeya Rush, Kevin Dunn, & Harold Perrineau - are uniformly fine, and Kurt Voelker's script and direction are top notch. I love stumbling across a treasure like this. Now, about that title ..     

Monday, May 8, 2023

Rewinding the Tape

Because my wife and I have always enjoyed meeting new people and entertaining, over the years we've interacted socially and shared meals with a fair number of other couples. If you and your current partner share our tendency to be social, what percentage of your interactions would you estimate have been "one-offs"? Set aside the reason(s) you interacted socially one time only with another couple and never repeated the experience. Just rewind your tape and see how many faces appear just once.    

When I recently asked my wife this same question about our experiences, her answer - 50% - genuinely surprised me. I'd had 30% or so in my head. Then I began rewinding forty-five years of tape, four primary residences, people we met via our jobs, or via our daughter as she was growing up, or via our hobbies. Couples either my wife or I guessed we might enjoy seeing socially, a guess sometimes made based on a pleasant interaction or conversation or two with one person or the other from the couple. And as the tape continued spooling back, my wife's higher estimate began matching up frequently with a question: What were we thinking when we decided on that particular get together? The tape revealed more than a few moments of awkward, unsatisfying, or just plain dull interactions at restaurants, in our home or another couple's home, or .. well, pick a location. Any of this sound familiar to anyone? Care to adjust your original estimate of the percentage of one-offs? 

Still, there's good news to report. Even if my wife's higher estimate of one-offs with other couples is closer to accurate than mine, we're way ahead of the game. After all, if we've meaningfully connected 50% of the time over forty-five years, consider how many comfortable (vs. awkward), satisfying (vs. unsatisfying), stimulating (vs. dull) interactions that means we've had. Besides, what would have been the alternative? Not trying to connect with new people? Living an insular life? I pass. I'm thrilled with our .500 batting average.               

Friday, May 5, 2023


"Friends half our suffering and double our joy": Cicero

Some powerfully intimate interactions over recent months have deepened my gratitude for the friendships that have always enriched my life. Why not join me in today's reflection? I'd like to better understand your story via hearing how your experience of friendship parallels or differs from mine.  

Start by reviewing your lifetime, focusing on your most enduring and significant friendships. Exclude any romantic partnerships you've had, no matter how long-lasting, and your children, if you have any. Stick with what have been commonly termed Platonic relationships. What is the gender breakdown in that group of your most enduring and significant friendships? More men than women or the reverse? Or, are you comfortable stating it's been reasonably even? Yes, I'm going first, been at this blogging thing long enough. But before I reveal my answer to the first piece in this reflection, please take a moment and tease apart some explanations you can offer for what might contribute to the balance being even or more heavily men than women or the reverse. 

OK, in my case, although the difference is not overwhelming, it is clearly true that more of the enduring and significant friendships in my lifetime have been with women. And for me the explanations are not real complicated:

* I grew up with two strong, intelligent, and independent sisters, close to my age.

* I was exposed early in life to feminist thought.

* Following my young adult professional years as a musician, I subsequently worked in fields where women were more represented than men. Most of my later-in-life mentors were women.

I've also observed that the older I get, the easier it is for me to make a new woman friend vs. a man. In other words, I suspect my gap will get wider as Act Three continues. I've got more but I'd rather hear your reflections now.   

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The Car Story

In my experience, those of us who have driven long enough invariably have at least one "car story" we've recounted to others more than a few times. The story might involve breaking down somewhere far away from help, or perhaps an accident or almost accident we once had, a long distance driven in one stretch, or something else. I don't recall ever meeting anyone who doesn't have at least one story of this type. What is yours?

Because my most recounted car story happened long ago - and stretches the bounds of plausibility - I recently decided it's time to publicly get it out there while a few witnesses who were with me that night are still alive. Soon after publishing this post, I plan to contact two of those witnesses so either or both can provide corroboration for my car story, if need be. Both are high school friends; one I still speak to occasionally. The other is a Facebook friend who reads my blog on those infrequent occasions when I put a post on my Facebook wall. I'm not sure if the third passenger in my Father's Dodge from that night is still alive, although I did see him at my 50th high school reunion several years ago and we talked about our long-ago misadventure that night. Ready?

Heading home to New Jersey after a night in Staten Island, my Father's Dodge - which had a push-button gear shift on the dash - stalled, either while we crossed the Goethals Bridge or very soon after. I'll depend on one of my witnesses to help me recall that detail. After getting the car started, I tried to put it in drive. No luck. I think I recall one of my not-real-sober passengers asking me to try reverse. Being under twenty years old at the time, this seemed like a logical suggestion. Reverse worked. What to do? Yes, yours truly drove backwards, perhaps over the last part of the Goethals Bridge but definitely through the streets of Elizabeth, N.J. until spotted by an incredulous policeman near a traffic circle. Because this car story would make most people question my honesty and my sanity, I'll stop there without claiming to remember approximately how far I drove backwards in a car containing four people. Why push my luck? I'm reasonably confident not many people can top this car story, at least with respect to sheer stupidity. 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Book Backlog: 3 Points from Half-Court, Game Over

Despite the alluring titles concocted for each of the four posts in this limited run series, I did not entice any sports fans to my blog over this past month; oh well.

Still, with today's three-point shot from half-court, I did accomplish my goal, i.e., gushing about twelve books I finished over the first three months of this year, all worthy of any discerning reader's time and, I left out the duds. With my book backlog now exhausted, I can return to devoting an occasional post to a single book, at least until the next time a surfeit of literary riches comes my way. And so the game ends - at the bell - with these three:

1.) Department of Speculation (2014) - Jenny Offill: Using a series of cryptic anecdotes, this wholly contemporary novel traces the arc of a relationship from inception through its early stages, then moves to marriage and quick parenthood, all in first person. The switch to third coincides with disillusionment; the conclusion is appropriately ambiguous. Easily read in one sitting but warrants extended processing. 

2.) The Bone Clocks (2014) - David Mitchell: A kaleidoscopic roller coaster by an author who points the way toward the future of the novel. Holly Sykes - fifteen as the novel opens, in her mid 70s as it concludes - narrates part one and part six. In between, the other four other narrators are closely linked to Holly in Mitchell's masterful mash-up of Faust and Dorian Gray. This book begs to be discussed, but not in a group. Two discerning readers going head-to-head is the only way to do justice to this marvel.

3.) Enemy Women (2002) - Paulette Jiles: Unadorned, unsentimental, unshowy. A great example of a talented author who sees no need to insert herself into the story. In the final, desolate days of the Civil War, a resilient young woman tries to reclaim her family home in southeastern Missouri. The use of actual documents and correspondence opening each chapter - Union and Confederate - sets this quiet novel apart from others in the over-stuffed "historical fiction" niche. No corny dialogue, no exposition overload, no breathy romance; just a compelling tale about a little-known slice of history. 


Thursday, April 27, 2023

Is "Esque" Good Enough?

Several months ago, someone who knows me well remarked that many of the reflections here were "vintage Pat." Although I'm sure the remark was made with little or no forethought, I've since turned it over in my brain repeatedly. Such is the curse of a good memory, augmented by a big ego, combined with a lifelong habit of writing down morsels I think might later be useful.  

Initially, I decided what this person really meant to say was that my blog is "Barton-ish". Then, as time went by, I decided that expression was selling myself short. My next conclusion: Surely these musings could be called "Bartonian". That elevated adjective - placing me alongside Henry James in the literary firmament - struck me as more appropriate, for a while anyway.

Most recently I've arrived at "Bartonesque". For the time being, that sobriquet strikes me as closer to the actual intent of the original remark. However, my groveling knows no bounds. What are your suggestions for turning me into an adjective? Please save the profane ones for a blogger you don't like. 

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Words for the Ages, Line Twenty-Five

"The game is never won by standing in any one place too long" - Nick Cave

Thirteen words for the ages, if ever there were. I hope Nick Cave will forgive me for suggesting an edit - ever so slight - to his phrase from 2008's Jesus of the Moon. I would have omitted just two words - "by" and "any" - only in the interest of greater concision.  

My quibbling aside, have you ever come across a more succinct lyric that better nails the risk of inertia? I'm certain I haven't. I'm also pleased to report Cave is slightly younger than the great majority of tunesmiths that have dominated this series since its inception in 2017. So far, if not for the help of my son-in-law - who directed me to a tasty morsel by Frank Ocean - this series could be subtitled "An Old White Fart Quotes Lyrics of Old White Fart Tunesmiths". Dear readers: Please direct me to some terse, stand-alone, pithy lyrics by younger non-white songwriters. 

In the meanwhile Nick, I apologize for the editing. It's infinitely easier to edit someone else's work - no matter how elegant the original words - than it is to edit one's own. If you happen to stumble across my blog, feel free to return my "favor". I won't be offended, promise.



Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Book Backlog: Patrick Hat Trick

Third period. Though response to Book Backlog has been muted, I've been emboldened to continue by one reader who added No One Left to Come Looking for You to his list after the leadoff triple was published and a second who told me she was ready to discuss A Pale View of Hills after the field goal that closed the first half. Underwhelming but good enough to unveil today's hat trick, the penultimate installment in this limited run series. Ready?

1.) The Testament of Mary (2012) - Colm Toibin: A novella as provocative as it is compelling. Mary is an old woman facing a crisis of faith, haunted by her cowardice years ago as her son was persecuted and then crucified. And her recollection of those events is at odds with the men claiming to be her son's disciples. Colm Toibin has now ascended into my authors pantheon (#30 for those keeping track) with this winner, the fifth book of his I've read in less than thirteen years that has knocked me out.


2.) Both Flesh and Not (2012) - David Foster Wallace: A posthumous collection of essays by arguably the best mind of his generation. Wallace will challenge your intellect on nearly every page, and then quickly pivot and make you laugh uncontrollably. Although I still have not cracked his novels, his non-fiction is so staggering it doesn't matter. I'll be re-reading his work for the rest of my days. I miss him deeply. 

3.) Motherless Brooklyn (1999) - Jonathan Lethem: Skip the film version and go directly to the source. From the opening sentence, Lethem's kinetic prose, sharp dialogue, and propulsive narrative grab you and never let go. Though at its core this is a whodunit, the unique and heartbreaking voice of Lionel Essrog sets it apart from that over-crowded niche. I promise you've rarely - if ever - encountered a narrator like Lionel. Trust me. 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Being Certain

Forty-five years ago tomorrow my world was irrevocably altered when I shared a first meal with the woman who would become my life partner that same day. 

Despite the predictable bumps all long term relationships must endure, I can honestly say I have never looked back. I told my future partner that I would marry her on that first date - dinner at a seafood restaurant in Atlantic Highlands followed by listening to some live music in Aberdeen - then took over five years to get around to it, an early misstep she has still not let me forget. But I was certain on that day forty-five years ago she was the one, and I remain equally certain today.

When have you been as certain about another person as quickly as I was on April 17, 1978?


Thursday, April 13, 2023

Three Firsts in One Day

On our final full day here in Utah, hiking at Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument delivered three firsts for me. A day like today reminds me how fortunate I am to be fit, to have a partner who loves the great outdoors, and to have the financial freedom to enjoy experiences like this. The firsts were ..

* Seeing quicksand up close and personal vs. seeing it depicted in a movie in a far-off exotic location.

* Seeing a live rattlesnake in the wild vs. in a cage. Our guide informed us that rattlers can only strike successfully if someone is within one half their length. Since this one measured about eighteen inches, as long as I remained more than twenty seven inches away, all would be well. I did NOT test this purported fact, i.e., I stood still - close enough to see the rattle moving rapidly - but a good deal farther away than twenty seven inches.  

* Hiking three-quarters of a mile through a slot canyon narrow enough that twenty extra pounds could have been a dealbreaker. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Defying Description

Each time I think the most recent National Park I've experienced can't be topped, the next one ups the ante. Which of these treasures has most captivated you, at least, as of this moment?

Arches National Park is otherworldly. It was easy to picture a dinosaur roaming the landscape alongside us as we hiked here this a.m. The primitive beauty of each vista was surpassed by the next. Still, nothing could have prepared me for what was just ahead as we rounded the final corner. Those two tiny figures in the picture below are my wife and me standing under Delicate Arch, a place that defies description.      

Friday, April 7, 2023

Book Backlog: Stunning Field Goal at Halftime

I'm pleased to report, but not at all surprised, several of the Road Scholar folks from the group here in Utah are avid readers. And, conversations with these bookworms since Monday have persuaded me the timing is good to publish this second installment of my limited run Book Backlog series. I'm so grateful my wife and I began travelling with Road Scholar in 2015. OK, ready for the field goal at halftime? 

1.) A Pale View of Hills (1982) - Kazuo Ishiguro: A quiet, understated, and devastating novella by one of our modern-day masters. If any reader of my blog finishes it, I must have a conversation - online or off - with you, please. In my experience, books about memory and remorse rarely approach the majesty of this one.    

2.) How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'N' Roll (2009) - Elijah Wald: Provocative title, wouldn't you say? But Wald's subtitle - An Alternative History of Popular Music in the 20th Century - reveals a great deal more about what this talented author is up to in his well-researched, smartly written, and persuasive book. Although books like this are catnip to a musician like me, Wald's approach will engage any reader willing to keep an open mind.  

3.) The Lincoln Highway (2021) - Amor Towles: An old-fashioned novel, in the best possible ways. Compelling and largely straightforward narrative line, rich characters, satisfying moral symmetry. The quest at the core of this roomy book and the relationship between the two brothers is guaranteed to satisfy most readers. A page-turner, again, in all the best ways. 

I'm now 50% done with my book backlog. Thanks to the readers who commented on my opening triple on March 29. Please let me know if you finish - or have already read - any of the six books featured so far in this series.  



Tuesday, April 4, 2023

#70: The Mt. Rushmore Series

I suspect I'm not alone in being able to recall pivotal moments from my life when something happened that fundamentally altered my way of looking at the world. Today, please share with me and others your Mt. Rushmore of epiphanies. I've listed mine chronologically; order yours however you choose and avoid getting bogged down if fewer than four quickly come to mind. Instead, rewind through your life and describe up to four experiences you now know for certain made you into a different person. 

1.) Sometime in 1962: The first time I heard the drum break in He's So Fine.  Before hearing that break in the Chiffons big hit, music had played a peripheral role in my young life. It's now clear to me how that single moment was the genesis of my most sustained and enduring passion. Over sixty years have elapsed and imagining my life without music as its central force is impossible. 

2.) Fall of 1967: Listening to my freshman English professor speak of his devotion to literature. When Mr. Larsen described how he liked to stroll through the aisles in the college library caressing the covers of books, I recall two things: 1.) The look of disbelief in the faces of some of my fellow students. 2.) The voice in my own head saying "I must be missing out on something special here." As both a young boy and adolescent I'd enjoyed reading, but Mr. Larsen's rapture in that moment kicked my interest into hyper-drive, where it remains to this day. A life-changing moment, without a doubt.  

3.) Late 1971, early 1972: My sister guiding me toward feminism. Although I'm not sure exactly when my sister pointed me in the right direction, I do know for sure it was her that did so, single handedly. I also recall how she did it: She lovingly but firmly corrected my chauvinistic, outdated language and then gave me an early edition of Ms. magazine to read. I've been a different person and better man ever since. 

4.) Summer of 1993: A work colleague helping me see my narrowness about gay relationships. This epiphany is the freshest because of when it occurred. During a three-way conversation, myself and a woman colleague were commenting how gay sex mystified us as two straight people. Our colleague, the third party in the conversation and another straight man, reminded us that sex is just one component in relationships, including all of ours. He then asked both of us if it wasn't true that an emotional connection between two people is more central to any important relationship than is sex. There is no reasonable explanation why these simple thoughts had not occurred to me before my colleague gently pointed them out. But I'm glad he did. And that moment altered me.   

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Five In One Shot

When my wife and I started our mission many years ago to visit as many National Parks as possible, both of us were still working full time. Then when I left the full time work world in 2010, we put our mission into higher gear, which was made easier given my wife was self-employed. Now that she's joined me in the every-day-is-Saturday life, we're crushing it. 

Over the next two weeks we'll enjoy all five of the National Parks located in Utah. For Bryce and Zion we'll be travelling with a Road Scholars group, along with the same three New Jersey friends we recruited to join us last year when we visited Death Valley. In the second week, one of those friends will then stay onboard as we hike and explore Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. I'm confident it will be a memorable trip. 

Now a little bad news. Wi-Fi service in the parks is sometimes spotty. Provided I don't have to chase down a signal, I'll be reflecting at my usual pace. But if the bell curve goes quiet for longer than normal, assume one of the following: 1.) The Wi-Fi let me down. 2.) I over-did it on the trail; a long nap took precedence over a reflection. 3.) Probably not lions, definitely not tigers, but bears? Oh my. Worst-case scenario? Other than an ursine encounter of the first kind, radio silence until April 16. 

Friday, March 31, 2023

More Than Just Dinner

Though I wasn't ready to be a parent until relatively late in life, it's impossible for me to now imagine a life without my daughter. She and her mother are my best friends.

I know feeling this way about a child is commonplace. But sometimes, the intensity of my gratitude for what my daughter has brought to my life feels anything but commonplace. Even knowing that parents from the beginning of time the world over have cherished and been cherished by their children does not diminish how special I feel. How can this be? 

Taking in her beautiful smile - a trait she clearly inherited from her mother - and enjoying the effortless interaction the three of us shared at dinner earlier tonight delivered me to my current state of grace. If you've been as fortunate as me in this regard, I'd welcome hearing of a moment from your story, no matter if it happened today or long ago.     

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Book Backlog: Leadoff Batter Hits Triple

Thanks to a suggestion made by a faithful reader, I have a plan for ameliorating the small "d" dilemma referenced in my March 23 post. Fair warning to readers not as passionate about books as me: Over the next few weeks, any post you see entitled Book Backlog, don't bother opening.  Like today's post - the first of four - each one will contain three brief paragraphs like those below, each gushing about a book I finished over the first three fertile reading months of 2023. I can recommend all twelve almost without reservation. After the bell sounds on the fourth post, my book backlog should be exhausted, theoretically, and my blog can then return to its usual ratio of about one in five posts being devoted to literature. The opening triple now awaits the hungry eyes of my fellow bookworms.

1.) No One Left to Come Looking for You (2022) - Sam Lipsyte: Grabbed in a pure library drive-by, i.e., I had no prior knowledge of the book or its author, this profane, funny, and sharply written suspense novel spends a few days on the grimy edges of New York City's music scene in early 1993. Remember when our ex-tweeter-in-chief was just a smarmy real estate snake? Lipsyte does, giving Agent Orange a plausible and priceless cameo in his gritty gem. You'll race through this, I promise. 

2.) On Critical Race Theory (2022) - Victor Ray: Piece by piece, this important and timely volume takes apart all the misinformation modern-day demagogues have been feeding to their echo chambers for years about the aims of critical race theory. Tracing the long line of scholarship that preceded him, Ray painstakingly outlines why critical race theory matters and why we should care. 

3.) The Sympathizer (2015) - Viet Thanh Nguyen: What is a book signaling when the sub-title on its cover states "A Novel"? The details in this harrowing tale are rendered with such precision, I find it improbable to imagine the un-named first person narrator and author as different people. In the end, this masterful meditation on memory, remorse, and the consequences of decisions made both by individuals and nations asks many questions but provides no easy answers. Take your time with this one.   

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Installment #1: How Can I Help?

There's little doubt that being more tuned in contributed to how many opportunities appeared before me over this past month to help others. Kind of makes me wish I'd made my February 27 pledge a bit sooner. My wistful wishing aside, did any of you join me after I published the post directly below? If yes, I suspect the people who read my blog regularly would welcome hearing your most recent story. I know I would.    


My most notable experience came while assisting an old friend working with a group of teenagers over the past four Sunday afternoons. The mission of these teenagers - an Interfaith group ranging from 8th to 12th grade across four counties in northern NJ - is advancing an anti-racist message to those open to listening. And though I was pleased to be asked to help, impressed by the work these young people have already done, and humbled by their commitment and willingness to learn from our presentations, the most rewarding part came when an opportunity arose for me to help one troubled young man during a break in our second session.

What did I do to help? I listened carefully as he spoke to me of his struggles in a world that has frequently let him down and treated him as inferior. How do I know I helped? Although I can't be certain I did, his armor visibly softened the more he shared. When I finally spoke, he listened and made direct eye contact with me. By the time our one-on-one interaction finished, I detected a lessening of some of the anger he'd brought into the room in week one when we all introduced ourselves. Mostly, I was honored by his trust.  

Would I have handled this situation differently had I not made my February 27 pledge? Again, no way to know for sure. But the pledge clearly made me more mindful about helping others throughout this past month. One thing is for sure: Remaining in this space will mean other opportunities are certain to come my way. Please save your next story for me and stay tuned for installment #2.    

Thursday, March 23, 2023

My Small "d" Dilemma

I've got a small "d" dilemma. Maybe one of you can offer some help? 

Although about 20% of my 2200+ posts have been about books and reading, it's always been my goal to reflect on a wide array of subjects aside from my passion for literature, mostly because I know there are folks who don't share that passion. Unfortunately, even though I skip any mention here of the ones that don't set me on fire, at present I've got a backlog of over a dozen books I'm anxious to gush over, going back to late in 2022 when I gobbled David Foster Wallace's remarkable book of essays entitled Both Flesh and Not (2012). What to do?

Spreading them out over the next few months won't solve my dilemma because more worthy books will surely come along in the meanwhile; I'll be right back where I started. Maybe list them all in a single post to "catch up"? Not fair to the authors. Start a new blog devoted to just books? My plate is already too full. Ask a reading soulmate to write a guest post here after they read one of the dozen+? Any takers on that one? But wait. What happens if my guest blogger is not as knocked out by a book as I was which, in turn, makes their gushing muted? Can't have that. 

Unless one of you offers me some sage advice, it could be my near-future book ratio might have to exceed 20% of my posts for a month or more. If I end up settling on that as a strategy, apologies in advance to any readers not particularly passionate about literature. I will return to that ratio as soon as possible. There is one other small impending wrinkle in this dilemma, however. In early April, I'm headed to the five National Parks in Utah. If experience is any predictor, a fair number of books will accompany me and be finished over those two weeks away. I guess those not sharing my passion for literature can hope many of the books I take will be duds I won't want to gush over. But, if more big winners begin accruing while I'm away, my small "d" dilemma could get stickier. Caveat emptor.       

Monday, March 20, 2023

First and Last

Ever have a first that, while you were having it, you were pretty sure would be your last? Yeah, for me that would be snowshoeing.

I'm not unhappy my wife arranged for us to hike up to the Red Hill Fire Tower in Dening, New York this past weekend, but if she ever booked a trip in the future involving snowshoes, she'd be hiking solo. It wasn't unpleasant, per se. And I was grateful for the ideal weather we had. But like my single experience skydiving, I'm satisfied with one-and-done. Ever snowshoed? More than once? Willingly? 

Because the hike up and back was on a brand-new trail, the twelve of us were single file in a "track" of sorts, making conversation challenging - both on ascent and descent - especially given the sound of the snowshoes. Consequently, the two and one-half hours it took to reach the tower - a gain of over 1,000 feet spread over two miles - was, at times, a bit tiresome. Only after I began practicing a walking meditation did I start feeling more centered. As I more fully took in the quiet around me - snowshoes aside - the trees blanketed with snow began to feel restorative. The descent taking just ninety minutes also helped.

And our day ended on an even higher note, despite my screaming thighs. We headed directly to our local pub and treated ourselves to a high-fat, high-sodium, empty carbs-laden dinner. Snowshoeing? First and last time for me. What first-and-last experiences have you had in life? Ever been tempted to try again?

Friday, March 17, 2023

This Patrick and Today

Patrick is a name that is easy to be neutral about, wouldn't you say? Easy to spell and pronounce, not all that many famous or infamous people - aside from today's saint, of course - that are easily conjured in people's minds, and most conveniently, it has the right number of syllables for that birthday tune. No need to elongate a one syllable name, e.g. Lee, to match the two notes in that melody or to scrunch a three-syllable name like Roberta into that same space. But even Roberta gives you the option of leaving out the "dear" that precedes the name to make that melody work. Don't get me started on fitting Anastasia, Bartholomew, or Victoria into that tune. But I digress. Back to today's saint, i.e., my namesake.

How fond are you of your name? I'm neither overly attached to nor detached from Patrick as such. I guess it's kind of neat that a holiday is connected to my moniker - especially one with lots of drinking involved - even if I've never marched in a parade. But today, I noticed my namesake's holiday only when I had cause for consulting the low-tech calendar hanging in our closet. If not for that, the day could've easily passed by unremarked as it has many times in the past. 

The whole green thing? I've forgotten about that tradition as often as I've remembered. I suspect my neutral posture toward my name and lackadaisical attitude about my ethnic heritage is related to how far back on my father's side I have to travel to connect to Irish ancestors who settled here. That part of my family history is so distant that calling myself anything except an American - or hyphenating my ethnicity - just seems silly. 

Still, this Patrick salutes the many other Patricks out there celebrating their holiday. I respect your fondness for or pride in your name. I'm pleased if you feel significantly connected to your Irish heritage. I hope you enjoyed marching in or watching the parade. I'm content with having a two-syllable name that fits well in the birthday song.      

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Some Milestones as Year Thirteen Looms

First things first. Thank you for your support, comments, and feedback through twelve full years and over 2,200 published posts. And I hope you'll indulge the self-referential nature of today's reflection as lucky year thirteen starts. Although none of the milestones below put me even close to viral territory, my tiny niche in the blogosphere has brought me joy and inspired some insightful comments from you. For those things I'm grateful.

* Record # of views for single post:  1,733Reflections From The Bell Curve: Walk On Water, Do You? Skip This Post, published January 3, 2017.

* Record # of total views in one month for blog: 7,899 in December 2016.

* Most posts published in one month: May 2011 - 27 posts over 31 days; in one year: 247 in 2016.

* Most unique commenters (not including my response) for any single post: twelve - a two-way tie for Reflections From The Bell Curve: #65: The Mt. Rushmore Series, published May 25, 2022 and Reflections From The Bell Curve: My True North, published January 12, 2023.

* Most comments made by one person on a single post: nine on Reflections From The Bell Curve: Plea for More Rescuers (Start at 29, Please), published November 8, 2022.

* Most unique comments made by one person in a single day (on different posts): four. (Bless your heart, RG.)

* Longest running comment thread: Four months on Reflections From The Bell Curve: Pop Culture Triptych: Countdown from Fifty , published August 4, 2022; last comment on thread: November 10. 

* Most enduring series: Mt. Rushmore, with the most recent iteration (#69) published in February. The series began in July of 2012.  

If you are still with me, I've saved the best for last. Care to guess which day of the year has had the longest consecutive run of posts? Yep, that would be today. On every March 14 since 2012 - twelve years in a row counting today - I've published a post. Most of them have been less self-referential than this one. Because the most important message I can deliver today is to thank anyone who has taken the time to read my blog since its inception on March 15, 2011. Can never say that too many times. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Words for the Ages, Line Twenty-Four

"Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

Although I've scoured my lyric-loaded brain for a while, I haven't yet been able to recall another lyric that captures the loss of innocence quite as tersely as those ten words for the ages. What would you nominate in place of Bob Seger's succinct phrase from Against the Wind?

One of the clear benefits of initiating this series almost six years ago has been how much more closely I've paid attention to the craft of writing lyrics. Keeping my ear tuned in to unearth these cogent, aphoristic, self-contained gems has continually reminded me how much wisdom can be packed into few words. And that insight has, in turn, helped my own songwriting immeasurably.

As always, I'm curious to know what you've unearthed lately. What terse, stand-alone lyrical gem with a kernel of universal truth stops you in your tracks like Seger's words do to me?      

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Our Free Press

Watching The Untouchable late last year made me soul sick. When that documentary ended, I felt sure I needed to know nothing further about the venal Harvey Weinstein.  Consequently, when my daughter gave me Catch and Kill as a Christmas gift, I wasn't looking forward to reading it. I knew Ronan Farrow had won the Pulitzer for his reporting and admired the role he'd played in helping end Weinstein's ignominious rein as the king of Hollywood. But I almost let his book languish.

Although I quickly overcame my resistance, several weeks have passed and I'm still trying to process this scrupulously researched and painful book. Each time I think I've reached the end of my outrage about the damage the rich and powerful routinely inflict, another searing detail returns to me. Of the many sickening things I learned from Farrow's book, the detailed descriptions of the army of people paid to protect, lie for, and hide the hideous misdeeds of reprobates like Weinstein just won't leave me alone. How do people like this justify the obfuscation, spin, and outright lies that earn them their living? Do any of the paid minions ever pause to consider the lives they've helped shatter by enabling their employers and then assisting those employers to escape justice? Shame on every one of them. 

Still, as demoralizing as it can be to read a cautionary tale like Catch and Kill, perhaps my most enduring takeaway is gratitude for our free press and their role in exposing evil and holding the perpetrators accountable. Thank you, Ronan.  

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Learning New Steps

Which components of keeping a relationship humming would you say have parallels to the skill required for effective dancing? In your experience, what can occur when one partner in a relationship begins changing in some way and the other partner isn't particularly agile about reacting to the change? 

Although I'm sure you'll agree that all relationships have to be able to endure bumps and collisions - just as dance partners do - I think you'll also agree there are limits. That is, if one or the other partner doesn't at least make an attempt to learn new steps - aka get attuned to the changes in their partner - isn't it more likely those bumps and collisions could begin getting wearisome? 

Given how long it takes me to learn new steps, I've been fortunate to have a patient life partner and almost equally patient friends. In my view, patience is another critical component needed for both humming relationships and effective dancing. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Class Dismissed

"...is in a class all of his own..."

Normally, when one sees or hears the phrase above used to describe someone, what follows is lavish praise for that person's skills, occupation or field notwithstanding.

On the other hand, couldn't that phrase be easily used as insult masquerading as praise? That was my first thought when I recently saw it - lifted from a review and out of context - referring to an author's new book. My own experience with this author has never challenged the widely held view that his work rarely rises above the formulaic. If anything, each desultory experience I've had trying to read him has reinforced my initial impression that what he creates - with or without a co-writer with high marquee appeal - is a commodity far removed from literature. His product serves a purpose, he is rich and massively popular, he'll get a big obit in the NY Times. 

Still, snarky as it is, seeing that author name attached to that phrase I wondered if the reviewer was having a little fun. Which class was he or she talking about?  

Monday, February 27, 2023

How Can I Help?

How can I help?

How much more humane our world might become if each of us took the time to ask that question of a person who appeared in some way to be struggling. What prevents any of us from doing such a simple thing? 

I've recently decided on a practical way to overcome my timidity: Pay much closer attention to people I know and begin by asking one of them. Starting this way is likely to make it easier to follow through on whatever is asked of me. And if I am able to then give the help asked of me, perhaps I'll be on my way to asking more often and broadening the mission beyond people I know. 

As soon as I complete the first thing asked of me, I plan to report back here. I've also decided to turn this question into my newest series. I know from years of experience that declaring a public pledge here on my blog greatly enhances my chances for getting started, which tends to be the hardest part. I hope some of you will join me. How can asking this question yield anything other than a net positive for our world? 

How can I help?

Saturday, February 25, 2023

For a Nickel (or Less)

Isn't it safe to say that all of us have felt stuck from time to time? Whether we describe being stuck as apathy, a dead-end, lethargy, or some other way, I suspect most of us would agree that being stuck - at least a few times in life - goes with being human.

For today's reflection, imagine an antidote of your making could assist others in getting "unstuck". Think of your antidote as a foolproof prescription for assuaging apathy, dead-endedness, lethargy, and the like. Caveat: I'm not equating being stuck with clinical depression or asking any reader to pretend they are an educated professional treating it. Imagine instead you are Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip with a booth set up on your sidewalk. Now if anyone wants to send me the nickel Lucy would have charged, I'm OK with that, but my RX is offered free of charge and I'm going first only because I've been at this blogging thing for quite a while.  

* Sit somewhere with the sun on your face.

* Look for something purple in nature.

* Listen to the birds, trying to differentiate between the songs each one sings. 

p.s. This post was directly inspired by a prompt recently given to my writers group by our capable and kind moderator.    

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Darn Her, Anyway

At times while consuming Lauren Groff's short story collection entitled Florida it was difficult to control my envy of her astonishing writing talent. This 2018 volume is more assured than similar collections by authors almost twice Groff's age. 

Although all eleven tales hum with intelligence and humor, I suspect the five that feature a distracted and conflicted mother of two young boys who is "...exhausting to everyone..." and "...buries all her failures in reading..." are the stories that will remain with me longest. The first four of these are told in the first person, pointing attentive readers toward concluding that Groff - the mother of two young boys - is using herself, mercilessly, as a subject. Only the last of the five - Yport, which closes out the collection and is the longest story in the book - is in third person. In that one, the writer/mother takes her two boys to France while doing research for her next book. She tries easing their uncertainty in the new and strange surroundings by telling them - "I won't let anybody hurt you, she says, and she is either lying or not, it is hard to tell, because this promise is so complicated, the future so dark." 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: 21st Century Couples

The post above was published soon after I finished Groff's 2015 novel Fates and Furies. Six and a half years laterI'm now more convinced that equating her with a young John Updike is apt. Her gift - like Updike's - is a rare one. Darn her, anyway.  

Monday, February 20, 2023

A Half-Century Ago

A half-century ago ...

For me, being able to legitimately use that phrase can be gratifying or unsettling. It depends on the kind of day I'm having and the context.  

Having a lot of life behind me has given me some perspective, I hope. Lessons I've learned can be useful to people younger than me who are willing to listen. With others in my age cohort who are grounded and thoughtful, discussions using that phrase can remind me of history we've all lived and the progress we've made. I'm grateful both for that progress and for all the good fortune my long life has given me.   

Though time was always a finite resource, that phrase also brings that inescapable fact into sharper focus. On some days, a half-century rewind reminds me of roads not taken and young-adult missteps. The news can leave me unsettled, especially when events I've already seen are repeating themselves and people around me - including some purporting to report the news - respond with denial.  

In February 1973 I was twenty-three years old, making my living as a musician. Today, being able to clearly recall myself a half-century ago is gratifying. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

The Challenge of Junk

I love Cheetos. I love the taste, the crunch, the salt. When I finish a bag - and I always finish the bag - I love licking the orange off my fingers. The fact that Cheetos have no nutritional value whatsoever has no effect on my enjoyment. But my unalloyed enjoyment doesn't mean Cheetos are good food. They are junk. Enjoying junk is everyone's right. Agreeing on what is junk - aside from Cheetos - now that's more challenging.   

For example, what was the last book you enjoyed that had little or no nutritional value, i.e., a junky book? How did you describe it to others? Guilty pleasure? Throwaway? Beach read? What was the last book you read that was high in nutritional value? How did your enjoyment of it differ from your enjoyment of the junky one? What does your self-talk sound like when a junky book captivates you more than an elevating one, something that happens frequently to me? How recently have you tried to persuade yourself that a junky book wasn't a junky book? Why do we do this? 

In my experience, out of fear of being labelled a snob or elitist, many people resist saying aloud when some manifestation or form of popular art - e.g., rock n' roll - has a junky whiff. I love rock n' roll as much as I do Cheetos. I have no qualms calling them both junk. Will Johnny B. Goode be played long after I'm gone? Without a doubt, but that doesn't place Chuck Berry alongside Mozart in the musical firmament. This is not snobbery. I enjoy - immensely - Johnny B. Goode and prefer listening to it over Mozart. But junk is junk and claiming otherwise - be it a book, a film, a piece of music, or a bag of Cheetos - doesn't make it less so. I say acknowledge it as junk, consume and enjoy it, and resist trying to claim it has any lasting nutritional value.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Killing Curiosity

Curiosity killed the cat. 

Of all the maxims de-constructed here on the bell curve since the inception of my blog, the one above is perhaps my easiest target to date. Who would seriously want to live by these words? Which of you parents think discouraging your children about being curious is a good idea? Does telling a child - telling anyone - they could die via curiosity strike anybody as wise counsel?  

While I'm at it, how did the inventor of this proverb - according to Wikpedia, that was Ben Jonson in the 16th century - figure out the cat was killed by curiosity? How did Ben - how does anyone - find out what it was that motivated something that's dead? And, even if someone thought to ask in advance, i.e., before the cat was actually dead, what was motivating said cat, who does the person to cat translation?

If enough of us continue to reflexively repeat this boneheaded adage for another five hundred years, one unintended consequence could be the killing of curiosity itself, felines aside. Which maxim, proverb, or adage would you nominate for the trash heap? I submit this one is well past its expiration date.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Two Adages Ready For The Trash Heap

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Messing With A Maxim


Saturday, February 11, 2023

#69: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Over its eleven-year lifespan, I've asked readers to join me by making four selections - from a wide array of categories - that they deem worthy of enshrining on an alternative version of Mt. Rushmore. The sixty-eight previous categories I've chosen have varied widely and I would say most of them - unlike today - have been a bit more ... earnest. For example, I've asked for four noteworthy performances or learning experiences; four memorable authors or places visited; four important films or qualities valued in a friend. Today's category belongs more in the spirit of the original inspiration for this series. The post appended at the bottom - published when Mt. Rushmore was under three-years old in June 2015 - provides more detail on the genesis of my oldest extant series for anyone interested. In the meanwhile, are you ready today for some frivolous fun?

Among the many varieties of cheese available today - and surely there are more than the number of presidents we've had so far which makes memorializing just four a comparable task - which varieties belong on your Mt. Rushmore? Mine are alphabetical; list yours however you choose.

1.) Boursin

2.) Brie

3.) Camembert

4.) Mozzarella 

Didn't realize until I began construction that my mountain has a distinct foreign flavor - heavily French, no less - to it. Maybe I need to consider calling it Mt. de Gaulle? Aside: One reader who is sure to wonder why it took me this long to erect a Mt. Rushmore of cheeses is my partner of forty-five years. She has often (and correctly) commented that getting me to eat anything is as simple as putting cheese - of any kind - on top of whatever is put in front of me. What's the harm, I ask? Aren't there much more damaging vices than being a cheeseaholic? How about you? Which four would you have trouble abandoning? 

  Reflections From The Bell Curve: #33: The Mt. Rushmore Series       

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

My Ian McEwan Thread

I suspect I'm not alone in wanting to learn the origin of movie scripts, especially for films that move me. And though paying attention as film credits roll has paid off several times - either via the discovery of a new author or some intriguing source material to further explore - it's possible that learning novelist Ian McEwan's name in 2007 through the movie Atonement has been the best gift of this kind I've received in the last twenty years. Which notable author has been a gift the movies have given to you?   

Within weeks after seeing Atonement, I raced through my first McEwan book - Saturday (2005) - which at the time was his most recent novel available in paperback. Then, in a classic case of schemata vs. scotoma, McEwan's name seemed to pop up everywhere I turned. At least one of his concise jewels is cited in Defining Moments in Books (2007), The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books (also 2007), 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2010), and The Literature Book (2016), four books that occupy a special place in the resource section of my home library. In addition, while immersed in my Christopher Hitchens phase, circa 2010-2014, I learned Hitchens and McEwan were good friends. Good enough for Chris, good enough for me. 

Fast forward to late 2022 and my wife's current project to read those books that have won either the Pulitzer or the Booker prize for literature. Soon after finishing McEwan's Booker-winning Amsterdam (1998), she implored me to read it so we could have a discussion. I did, then we did. Then, just a few days later - not unlike my Atonement/Saturday confluence - another reading soulmate suggested we read and then discuss On Chesil Beach, the 2007 McEwan novel that was available only in hardcover when I began my thread. With three clear winners in a row now under my belt, I'm confident more treasure will be unearthed as I continue following this thread. Next up: Nutshell, which has been on my radar since I first spotted it on the 2016 NY Times annual list of notable books. All this past and future reading pleasure because I paid attention to those film credits. Who says being a movie geek is a waste of time? 

Sunday, February 5, 2023

That Elusive "S" Word

Successful is the person who has lived well, laughed often and loved much, who has gained the respect of children, who leaves the world better than they found it, who has never lacked appreciation for the earth's beauty, who never fails to look for the best in others or give the best of themselves - Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson's words have guided and inspired me for as long as I can remember. And his definition of success - putting aside the hyperbolic use of the word "never" - stands with the best I've yet encountered. How do Emerson's measures of that elusive word match or differ from yours?

Though Ralph's formulation still resonates with me, it also seems that the deeper I travel into Act Three, the more my reflections about success intensify. How about you? When did you most recently take time to consider what a well-lived life looks like? I know after almost twelve full years of blogging to expect little in the way of response from readers unless I go first. But this time I'll be really disappointed if no one else follows suit. Please.

A few months into my 74th year I'm measuring my success by ...

The strength and durability of my relationships.

The satisfaction I derive from creative efforts.

My commitment to the active pursuit of social justice.    

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Deja Vu, Anyone?

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Setting a High Bar

One of the highlights of 2022 was a full-scale return to seeing live music. I didn't fully appreciate how much I'd missed that element in my life until I recently reflected on a few moments of musical magic from the past year. Those moments included seeing John Scofield at the Blue Note, Glen Hansard in Washington DC, and the amazing Django-influenced guitarist Stephane Wrembel at a free concert in Red Bank. What memorable shows did you see in 2022? 

And now Branford Marsalis so thoroughly transported me earlier this month I'm having trouble imagining I'll see a better show over the remaining eleven months of 2023. For almost two hours, Marsalis and the piano trio supporting him played at a nearly super-human intensity. Mixing originals with material by Duke, Monk, & Irving Berlin - interspersed with a few nods to traditional New Orleans jazz - these four exemplary musicians personified what it means to be at the top of your game. Their interplay, creativity, and fire never let up. In addition, because I was seated near the front, it was easy to see how much fun all four of them were having as each prodded the other to take another leap into the musical unknown. It was exhilarating to be close to excellence of this caliber. 

What shows are you looking forward to in 2023? In my case, I'm a little worried Branford and his band set the bar so high that disappointment could be difficult to avoid. I desperately hope I'm wrong; seeing live music is too important to me.     

Saturday, January 28, 2023



If you've not yet heard about Storyworth, I highly recommend you check out the link above with some frequently asked questions about it. Although I just began my experience with this new company's concept several weeks back when my daughter gave her mother and me a holiday gift, I know already it's going to work better for me than many of the earlier attempts I've made using a similar concept.  

Even though I write continuously and always have good intentions as I begin capturing memories in those books that you see everywhere designed for that purpose, what sets Storyworth apart from those books is the ease and convenience of their model. Because Storyworth was conceived in the digital era, the prompts designed to take you down memory lane arrive in your e-mail in-box. You respond like you would to any e-mail and after you do, Storyworth does the rest. At the end of the year - ours will end near Christmas day 2023 - a bound book, filled with the memories you captured using those prompts is delivered to you. No saving hard copies of anything; no need to worry that someone in the future will have trouble reading your funky handwriting; no feeling overwhelmed looking at a book containing hundreds of prompts - just one prompt at a time and you get to decide how often that prompt will appear in your in-box.

If you have already used or are currently using Storyworth, tell me and others about your experience. If you are unfamiliar with it, check out that link. I think you'll be intrigued.   

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

A Bookworm's Catnip

Foremost of the benefits I derive by frequently hanging out with people who share my passion for reading is being directed to treasures like Great Short Books: A Year of Reading - Briefly (2022)Each essay by author and literary scholar Kenneth C. Davis uses a simple, effective framework: first lines, brief plot summary, about the author, why you should read it, what to try next by the same author. His approach is sure to appeal to passionate readers as well as entice those with less leisure time who might be searching for worthwhile novellas. Both groups, and anyone else looking for an easy re-entry into the world of great literature, will enjoy Davis's intelligent explorations of the fifty-eight books he tackles in depth. In addition, he lists about eighty more novellas at the tail end of his useful volume. 

What worked best for me was how Davis transcended the canon with his selections. Alongside Voltaire, Stephen Crane, and Hemingway are more than a dozen short books published after 2000. Authors featured include several from countries under-represented on many lists of this type, e.g., Nigeria's Chinua Achebe. Sandra Cisneros, Yu Miri, and Toni Morrison are among the notable women included. 

End-to-end, Great Short Books was a peak reading experience. This bookworm is grateful for the other bookworms in his life who reliably direct him to catnip like this.          

Sunday, January 22, 2023

A Not Exactly One Hit Wonder

For today's exercise - which might appeal primarily to film buffs - begin by thinking of a movie that has remained in your mind or is familiar to you, for whatever reason. This post was inspired by my recent re-watch of Four Weddings and a Funeral. 

Step #2: Recall a powerful scene - length doesn't matter - featuring an actor/actress who is not a household name, i.e., someone who would likely not be widely recognized in public. Step #3: Describe briefly how or why or what in particular is seared into your memory about that performance in that specific scene. Think of the scene as the rough equivalent of a one hit wonder with no disrespect aimed at the actor you select. That actor may be continuing to reliably ply their trade today and perhaps he/she has delivered many equally credible screen performances before and/or after the scene you'll briefly describe.

About 2/3 through Four Weddings and a Funeral, the eponymous funeral scene features John Hannah ("Kenneth") using a reading of a W.H. Auden poem to eulogize his partner Gareth, played by Simon Callow. Hannah is a well-known British actor but hardly a household name. I suspect some people - especially we film buffs - might recognize him if we saw him in public but I also suspect he is rarely mobbed by adoring throngs. But that few minutes of Hannah's performance in Four Weddings is perfectly modulated; it is eternal film magic. Did the directing contribute? Of course. Is the scene well written? Without a doubt. Was the selection of the stunning Auden poem a stroke? Yes, in triplicate. But in the end, without Hannah, it could have easily turned into just another scene in another movie. There is no doubt in my mind about this, awards bestowed - or not - aside. Hannah can be proud the rest of his life for what he did in those few moments, just as the writer of Play That Funky Music can be for his role in that one hit wonder.  

Your turn. What's your nomination for an acting equivalent of a not exactly one hit wonder?

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #54: The Mt. Rushmore Series     

Friday, January 20, 2023

Becoming Someone

An unwritten but nearly inviolable rule most parents follow is to acknowledge - in some fashion - every birthday of their children. Twentieth century norms included cards or phone calls. Today, an e-mail or text might replace those minimal forms of acknowledgment. Making plans to be together on a birthday or giving a thoughtful gift takes the acknowledgment up a level. 

Failing to acknowledge the significance of January 19 in my life is unimaginable. Is this because I have just one child? Possibly. It's become a cliche to remark how much life changes when a person becomes a parent. And my life did change that day. But something more significant happened. I changed. On or near the day my daughter was born I began closely examining parts of the old me that needed to be discarded in my new role guiding a life as it evolved.  The stakes were too high for me to ignore those pieces of me that weren't ready for the challenge ahead.  

As the two of us talked on a long hike today, I tried recalling the me of thirty-four years ago. I had difficulty doing so. I suspect that is because the me that began forming soon after January 19, 1989 is someone I like better than the old version.       

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Book Club Report: Year Six

Gotta be honest; I'm disappointed no reader noticed there was no annual book club report published this time last year, looking back at the fifth full year of the No Wine or Whiners Book Club. 

And though I'm tempted to combine both year five and year six in this post, I know that would be pushing my luck. Consequently, what follows are some highlights for year six only. Best news: Except February, 2022 - when there was a slight uptick in Covid-19 - all of our meetings this past year were face-to-face. Sweet. 

Top prize for fiction: Bewilderment (2021) - Richard Powers. Powers has recently ascended into my top tier of authors, making the club's warm embrace of his most recent novel gratifying for me, given I select most of the books we read. 

Top prize for non-fiction: American Baby (2021) - Gabriele Glaser. One thing I like most about my club is how many of our members are discerning readers. This unqualified winner was recommended to me by one of those members. I knew immediately while ramming through it that it would generate a rich discussion. That discussion far exceeded my expectations. 

Including our first meeting in 2023 - discussing I Am, I Am, I Am (2017) by Maggie O'Farrell - the club has now met sixty-four times. Five of the six charter members are still fully engaged, our attendance has remained stable, and I intend to maintain the guideline of never repeating an author. I welcome hearing about any book club you're in, especially how you benefit from your involvement.  


Monday, January 16, 2023

Exploring a Tension

Tradition plays an important part in my life; I suspect this is true for many people. I enjoy most traditional American holidays and look forward to traditions my family of origin has, some of which are related to those holidays. And I also like many of the traditions, including the silly ones, that have helped sustain my marriage. 

Since preserving tradition is one important element of conservatism, I'm beginning an exploration of my long-held resistance to that word. To those out there who share my resistance, I'd like to hear how you deal with the tension between these concepts. To those out there who identify with the word conservative, which tradition(s) have you willfully abandoned? How difficult was that for you? 

In the nearly 2200 blog posts I've published, I'd estimate less than 5% have contained anything even remotely political. I've got no plans to change that. Politics have never had much appeal for me and these days I especially find the public discourse on politics too shrill as people become more and more tribal. But as I reflected recently on the tension between my enjoyment of tradition and resistance to conservatism, seeking help from all of you seemed a good place to start. Please share your thoughts. It's safer here than on talk radio. 

Thursday, January 12, 2023

My True North

After almost sixty years writing songs, one thing is clear. The most worthwhile ones are those that come to me nearly whole. 

Returning from meditation one day in late 2019, three words - my true north - wouldn't leave me alone. Almost immediately I recognized how that common phrase captures what my life partner has been for me since our first date on April 17, 1978. From there, the opening melodic phrase and most of the lyric and melody for the refrain came to me. Scheduled to visit an ailing friend that day, I was initially concerned about leaving directly from the spot where I'd been parked while meditating. I worried the rest of the song might get lost, something that frequently happens.  

My concern was misplaced. As I drove the nearly sixty miles to my friend's home, the remaining words arrived, accompanied by a melody that pleased me. By the time I got to my destination, the composition had nearly written itself. I got it down in my journal, confident the harmonies would reveal themselves as soon as I had a guitar in my hands. When I got back home, those harmonies - as well as an opening guitar riff - were right there. 


The journey from that day in late 2019 to the finished product above - with my daughter singing - ended in late 2022. On Christmas morning my daughter and I - along with her new husband - cued up the recording and played it for my life partner. I'm thrilled with my daughter's performance, grateful for all the help a good friend gave me to bring the song fully into the world, and proud of the song itself. There were more songs written between late 2019 and late 2022 but none arrived nearly as whole as this one. I hope you enjoy listening to it. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2023

#68: The Mt. Rushmore Series

The relationship between music and dancing is eternal. As long as artists continue to create music, there will be compositions that either mention or are specifically about dancing and there will be listeners who'll enjoy dancing to or listening to those compositions. 

In that spirit, I'm asking you to memorialize four songs containing the word dance that capture for you the magical synergy connecting music and dance. My Mt. Rushmore is listed alphabetically; order yours however you choose. 

1.) Dance: David Baerwald - Without question, the most obscure of my Mt. Rushmore selections, picked because of the exuberant scream "Dance!" beginning each refrain. Baerwald's composition from his 1990 recording entitled Bedtime Stories captures perfectly for me how music and dance are inextricably linked. 

2.) Dance Me to the End of Love: Leonard Cohen - I was first exposed Cohen's sly song via Madeline Peyroux, whose delivery of it seduced me immediately. Cohen's central metaphor reminds us of another elemental link in life. Many memorable moments with my partner of forty-five years have been on a dance floor. 

3.) Dance With Me: Orleans - It doesn't matter how much airplay this massive hit got. A song this great reveals something new on each listening. Most recently, when lead singer/composer John Hall wailed "I can take you where you want to go" at the end of the repeat of the middle eight, I realized I'll never tire hearing this gem. Unimprovable internal rhyme scheme. 

4.) Last Dance:  Donna Summer - The disco era - like many similar periods preceding it - made clear how strongly music and dance are connected. And though I wasn't a big fan of much of the music that was popular from this niche, for me, Donna Summer always stood apart. And this huge hit - written by Paul Jabara - belongs on my Mt. Rushmore. Disco haters: You get to build your own mountain. Just make sure the word dance appears in the title.              

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Released Into the Public Domain

You'd think that having a daughter in the film industry - one who has partnered BTW in writing and directing some funny stuff - would mean brilliant comic ideas like mine might find a home. For over ten years I've been telling my beloved only child that the confusion 21st century public restrooms present for those of us born in the preceding century has potential for a puerile comedy routine. Alas, my brilliance has gone unheeded. I've decided releasing my foolproof idea into the public domain is my best hope for posterity - however pathetic - though doing so could significantly reduce my daughter's inheritance. You've been warned, sweetheart.

Let's start at the entrance to a public restroom. Automatic door? If no, does touching the doorknob compel the germophobes among us to wash their hands before taking care of business? If yes - germophobe or not - is the soap dispenser hands-free? Do you flail for the water you need to be released from a hands-free sink or is it necessary to manually manipulate a quaint faucet? Is there a towel dispenser in addition to or in lieu of that deafening automatic dryer? Does the dispenser require the same hand flailing as the soap dispenser or the sink or is that manual as well?  

Onto the stall. How far into the 21st century will we journey before those doors are automatic? Will they lock by themselves? Toilet paper - manual or automated? How long does one politely wait while listening to an endless cell phone conversation before asking when the stall might be available? To whom do I submit a complaint about having to endure advertisements - scrolling or otherwise - while on the throne? Less delicately, both genders: How many times has the automatic flush mechanism done its business before you've finished yours due to a slight lift of your derriere? Men only: How easy is it to forget to flush the urinal, given how many are automatic? 

Out of the stall. Refer back to paragraph #2, starting at the third question, assuming you practice reasonable restroom hygiene. Are you in favor - as I am - of a statutory requirement that everything should be either automated or manual? I've lost count how many times I've flailed at sinks or hand towel dispensers before realizing one or the other required the use of my opposable thumbs. And then back to leaving the restroom. Automatic door or doorknob? Is another soap dispenser and sink and hand drying routine needed in the hall? Which one of the three are automated vs. lo-tech? How much can any reasonable person stand, especially those born before the new millennium began?   

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Grateful for the Mundane

 It recently occurred to me how grateful I am my dreams are innocuous.

Having been spared major trauma in my life, my dreams are the usual stuff - flying, being in a public place without clothes, getting back at someone who has hurt me, etc. And I have at least one recurring dream where I miss my final exams and consequently never receive my undergraduate degree. All mundane stuff, thank goodness.

Though I've never known anyone who recalls being abandoned as a child, like most people, I have known others who were abused as children. I've also known people who have never shaken off the stress of combat and women who have escaped violent marriages. Obviously, there are traumas worse than childhood abuse, combat PTSD, and domestic violence. But just limiting my imagination to the kind of dreams that could be engendered by those things stops me cold. I'm incapable of imagining the actual experiences, deepening my gratitude for my fortunate life.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Stop - Start - Continue: 2023

As has been the case since the inception of this series in 2012, this yearly exercise is more enjoyable when some of you share with me and others one thing you plan to stop, start, or continue as the new year kicks off. It needn't be all three; in at least one of the past ten years, I've skipped (or fudged) one of the three pledges. This year both my start and continue involve my physical state. This could be connected to an unrealistic wish to live forever. But what's the harm in indulging some harmless fantasizing to accompany my pledges? 

In 2023, I will stop dwelling on how long it takes each day to get started on any of my daily disciplines. Instead of being preoccupied about what time I begin reading, practicing my guitar, exercising, or writing, when I find myself over-thinking it, I'll take the time to re-center myself via meditation. 

In 2023, I will start paying more attention to my intake of carbohydrates, especially empty ones. 

In 2023, I will continue the exercise regimen I implemented at the start of 2022. Getting in four days a week consistently this past year contributed to my sense of well-being and also helped improve my score in the annual health assessment for my insurance that I complete in December each year. 

Let's get this party started!