About Me

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

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Best of 2023

Please join me by taking a moment to review 2023 and then share here one or more things that made this year memorable for you. If any of my headings gives you an idea or gets you started, great. Otherwise, use whatever comes to you. Your memory or idea for a heading could well inspire others. 

Most inspirational quote uncovered for future blog post use: "Success is not final; failure is not fatal." - Winston Churchill 

Best moment combining exercise and the natural world: A mid-August sunset over the Navesink River while kayaking with my wife. 

Best documentary: Chowchilla

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Chowchilla

Best party The surprise my daughter and I put together for my wife to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary. My new son-in-law earned points for suggesting the party be held at the same bar where my wife and I met in April of 1978.

Best reading-related moment: While browsing together in a bookstore, it dawned on me how lucky I am to have a life partner who enjoys spending time this way. Our mutual love of reading is such a gift.

Happy New Year!


Wednesday, December 27, 2023

No Goofy Picture Required

It's been both a lucky and a record-breaking year. 

Counting two here in Arizona on our current trip - Petrified Forest and Saguaro - and the five in Utah from this past April, we visited seven National Parks in 2023. That's a record for visits in a single year in our mission to experience as many of the parks as possible. I'm grateful to have a willing travel and hiking partner, and also for having the means to pursue this mission. The National Parks are - without question - America at its best. Why not take a peek at the Wikipedia website below, see which is closest to you, and plan a visit? I promise you will not be disappointed. 

And when you do visit, get back to me here and we'll compare notes. No need to take a goofy picture like we did. 

List of national parks of the United States - Wikipedia

Sunday, December 24, 2023

On The Day Before Christmas

On the day before Christmas, when starting this post - a Dickens-like carol appeared without ghosts.

Instead, right before me, my eyes did behold a landscape without snow and no winter cold.

No gloves on my hands and no hat, scarf, nor fire; with shorts and a T-shirt my only attire.

Stranger still than the weather on this day of cheer - the distance between me and some I hold dear.

My brother and sisters far from me this eve seems very peculiar. Now would you believe?     

On this day before Christmas for seventy years, three people in my life have always been near. 

You might think me foolish for wasting your time, and writing this nonsense, composing these rhymes.

But thinking about them and writing this way helped make me feel better not sharing our day. 

I thank you for reading on this day before. It's one of the things that I'm most grateful for.  

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Reading Re-Cap: 2023

Please consider sharing with me some of your reading highlights from 2023. You can do so by using my headings below - developed in 2018 at the inception of this series and used every year since - or make up your own headings. 

Novel most likely to be recommended to casual readers: Silver Alert: Lee Smith. Please don't be put off by my use of the word "casual" as it pertains to this 2023 gem. Like all the authors of the books I've recommended to casual readers for five years now, I'd be thrilled to have half of Smith's skill. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Library Drive-By

Novel most likely to be recommended to discerning readers:  Bone Clocks: David Mitchell. For those who are interested in the distinction I make between "casual" and "discerning", the post directly below might be helpful. I believe Mitchell is the modern-day author who best points us toward the novel's future. Use this 2014 Mitchell treasure to get you started, if you're willing to work at it a little.   

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Flavors of Worthwhile Literature

Novel and non-fiction that most deepened my experience of living: Middle Passage (1990) - Charles Johnson and The Brain That Changes Itself (2007) - Norman Doidge.

Most worthwhile re-read: Amsterdam (1998) - Ian McEwan.

Most intriguing: Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (2022) - Hal Brands & Michael Beckley I'm looking forward to my club's January discussion of this book, a fascinating read end-to-end. 

Most personally useful: The Living Legacy of Trauma (2022) - Janina Fischer. Though life-altering trauma has never visited me, I found the insights in this - especially when combined with what I learned in The Brain that Changes Itself - valuable and skillfully communicated. If you've experienced trauma, or you treat others who have, I highly recommend this as a tool. 

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Digital Footprint Paradox

Based on some spooky Internet rumblings, I've been wrestling with a disconnect for several months. Does my disconnect qualify as a paradox? I'll let you decide that for yourself, while stating up front that any offers of assistance will be appreciated.

Though I'm no Luddite, I'm not real fond of the attendant side effects modern technology hurls at me. To mitigate those side effects, I try limiting screen time, avoid over-dependence on a cell phone, refuse most requests for my e-mail address, and sparingly use the only social media platform aimed at old farts like me, i.e., Facebook. Obviously, my blog is a major exception to this selective disdain for modern technology. Therein lies the root of my current disconnect.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Words That Can Haunt Me, Part 1: Legacy

Because, as the thirteen-year-old post above demonstrates, reconciling myself to impermanence periodically haunts me. At the same time, the modern technology that I work hard at escaping as often as possible does, in fact, provide an avenue for leaving a footprint. And though my digital footprint is not permanent in any real sense - it is, after all, a footprint - it does dangle the tantalizing possibility that something, somewhere might still be around when I no longer am. 

I realize my disconnect will not resonate with some. For example, those who believe in the eternal soul and/or a spirit of some kind that transcends the material world might scoff. Those not self-centered enough to have ever devoted any mental energy to impermanence or those evolved enough to have considered it but come to peace with the whole ashes to ashes/dust to dust bit might also think me frivolous. But for anyone left - if you're not too embarrassed to briefly throw in with this disconnected blogger - I'd welcome hearing from you.   

Friday, December 15, 2023

Best of the Best

I'm grateful for many gifts in my post full-time work life. Among the most consistently satisfying of those gifts has been the opportunity I've had to share my passion about music with others via the twenty courses I've developed and delivered beginning in 2014. 

Not long ago I landed on a new course concept to commemorate my tenth teaching anniversary. Ever since, barely an hour has gone by without a deranged pinball pinging from song to song in my brain, overstuffed as it is with music. Partially as a consequence of this brain fever, I've decided to break precedent for this course and solicit help from the bell curve before I begin an early step in my long-standing development process, i.e., listing songs I may or may not end up using for my final playlist. Are you ready to assist me even before the announcement of this maiden voyage? 

The course will be called Best of the Best: Essential or Influential Songs from Essential or Influential Recording Artists of the 20th Century. What I'd like from you are songs you think most neatly fit that concept. And please tell me - briefly - the reason(s) for your choices. Because I'm already well into the list of 20th century recording artists I'll likely be featuring, please avoid focusing on who you would select as essential or influential and instead give me essential or influential songs. But consider this: I plan to cross musical genres liberally as my final playlist takes shape so give me what you think are essential or influential songs from the genre you most favor. That is, if you're more of a fan of what is typically called "folk" music than you are of "jazz", give me your "best of the best" folk songs.  

Compensation for your role as a bell curve consultant will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis.  

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Where Is That Line?

derivative: not original; secondary

I'm reasonably sure the line separating what is original from what is derivative will always remain elusive to me. What conclusions have you come to about this?

Because my abiding passions - music and literature - are frequently associated with these two words, the slippery distinction between them is more than an academic matter to me. I've never encountered a serious musician who has not devoted thousands of hours to listening to and then trying to copy other musicians they admire. The one common denominator in every great writer I've ever learned anything about is their insatiable lust for reading others. Serious musicians and great writers get to be that way - at least partly - because they've built a foundation by studying and absorbing, and then using, some of the techniques of those who came before them. How can some of what they've studied not find its way into their own work, at least to start? In other words, how do any of them escape being derivative, at least a little? What is original?

Though I don't know as much about filmmakers - and far less about painters, photographers, sculptors, and other artists - as I do musicians and writers, I suspect the same is true in every artistic endeavor. I do know Spielberg carefully studied Ford, Kurosawa, and Wyler. I also know Picasso didn't become the Picasso most of us are familiar with before going through early stages where his technique owed a great deal to several masters who preceded him. How can any thinking person dispute the fact that copying the technique of others when starting out i.e., being derivative, greatly contributes to artists developing their own original voice? And where is that line, i.e., who determines when an artist has stopped being derivative and begun to be original?   



Sunday, December 10, 2023


When you get around to seeing Chowchilla - a brand-new CNN documentary about the notorious 1976 kidnapping of a school bus filled with 26 children - please remember to return to this post and tell me what you think will most stick with you. I guarantee this: This is a film you will remember. 

Watching it together last night, my wife recalled the broad details of this horrifying story. I had no such recollection, probably because 1976 was such an upside-down year in my young adult life. But after the film ended, there was no doubt it would be the subject of my next blog post. Indeed, I have thought of little else since; this story and the people telling it are that memorable.

Foremost of the things that will remain with me is one inescapable conclusion. People born into immense wealth - as was one of the three evil kidnappers - have the ability to lease the best lawyers, helping them to frequently escape full responsibility for their crimes. And the rest of us? If caught, it's likely we will pay full price.   

Friday, December 8, 2023

Still Closing the Gap

Although I understand some of the reasons it's taken so long, it's a little disconcerting to be this far into Act Three and still closing the gap in my education about Native American history. Anyone share my dismay?

While reading A Council of Dolls, I began reflecting on how often since 2010 my reading journey has led me to the neglected history of the people who inhabited this land before Columbus "discovered" it. Although the ending of Mona Susan Power's 2023 novel disappointed me, her multi-generational story packed enough punch to remind me of the inadequacy of my formal schooling, not to mention the pervasiveness of stereotypes I've had to exorcise. Tonto or other "noble savages", anyone?  

"My father later said that Lala's death (the Native American leader we know as Sitting Bull) was the end of more than a sacred life, significant as it was; he said that waiscus (i.e., white folks) had pushed us so out of balance we were now capable of turning against each other, capable of betrayal within the oyate (i.e., the community)." 

Context for that powerful sentence: The purposeful method the United States government employed for years to forcibly remove Native American children from their families on reservations and send them far away to be "re-educated". That re-education involved the total obliteration of the culture, history, language, and customs of native people. Wouldn't you feel "...out of balance ..." if you had been removed from your family as a child, forced to speak a different language, punished severely if you tried to retain any vestige of your upbringing? 

Soon after finishing A Council of Dolls, I began writing an entry in a section of my book journal I call "free associative threads". I began doing this several years back to help me retain a little of what I've learned from books that share some connective tissue = subject matter, point of view, time in history, etc. I started this particular entry by connecting the themes in Power's book to two incredible novels I've finished since 2010 - Louise Erdrich's Round House and Tommy Orange's There There. But the harder I yanked the thread, the more tangled it got. I recalled lessons James Loewens helped me un-learn in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the horror Dee Brown described in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the shame I felt reading David Grann's breathtaking expose Killers of the Flower Moon. I paused after filling over eight pages in my book journal as the seed for this post began taking root. Which brings me back to my original question: Anyone share any of my dismay about how long it has taken to begin closing this educational gap?     

Monday, December 4, 2023

Sharing the Wealth

You walk away from an experience - any experience - and feel on fire with excitement and/or energy. Call it having a buzz or being pumped up or psyched. Doesn't matter. For today's reflection, begin by taking a minute to recall the last time this happened to you. Then, briefly describe the circumstances. 

Maybe it happened right after a stimulating conversation, a great workout, an encounter with a piece of art. Or something else. It also doesn't matter what set you on fire. I know you know this feeling. It's universal and one of life's greatest gifts. 

Now, a favor, please. After describing the experience, take some time to see if you remember doing anything immediately after to harness that energy. Think carefully. What did you do? Maybe you tried prolonging the moment somehow? How? Did you perhaps talk to someone about it? If yes, what specifically made you select the person you did? If no, why not? Did you imagine that holding onto it without sharing would help preserve the excitement? Did that work? In my experience, attempts to re-create moments like this are fruitless. However, that hasn't stopped me from searching for ways to harness jolts like these.  

And that's why I'm curious to hear about the way this magic has touched you. Perhaps by re-living your experience and briefly living with the questions above, you might uncover some useful harnessing technique you can share. Maybe your story alone will inspire me to seek out what gave you that juice. Maybe someone reading your response to this post will gain a useful technique, an idea for an energizing experience, or both. What's the downside to sharing this kind of wealth? 

Friday, December 1, 2023

Final Open Letter to Thomas Pynchon

Dear Thomas; I've tried. Really, I have. 

After failing on at least three separate occasions to crack V - your critically acclaimed debut novel from 1963 - I decided to switch tactics. Did some research and discovered in 2012 that one of my all-time favorite literary critics - John Leonard - had read you widely enough to quote passages from all three of your earliest books - including V - in his 1990 review of your novel Vineland. Although Leonard's review in Reading for My Life intimidated me, months after reading it - and writing you the first open letter on my blog - I tried V, again. Still only managed to get as far as page 61. But the remaining 402 pages of V was not the end of my Pynchon-quest. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: A Bookworm's Catnip

Although I can offer no plausible explanation for my behavior, after noticing The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) cited in the appendix of Kenneth Davis's Great Short Books (2022), I began lobbying a reading soulmate to help me prolong my quest. At just 152 pages, I guessed it wouldn't be difficult to coerce this discerning, adventurous reader and good friend to join me even if doing so might result in us crying in lot 49 ourselves. After she signed on, we invited another serious reader to join us, and the Pynchon-A-Thon was scheduled.  

The good news: 1.) We all finished The Crying ... and conducted our Pynchon-A-Thon amicably. 2.) The quest has ended, even though I took the easy way out via reading your shortest book, by a wide margin. I have one final question for you before I depart Pynchonstan forever. In 2014 - while still licking my V wounds, but years before being persuaded by Kenneth Davis to ask others to join me in my quest - I saw the film adaptation of your 2009 novel Inherent Vice. In your view, how well did director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson get your book? I know I asked you a similar question about John Leonard in my first open letter in 2012 but please indulge me. My two reading friends may also be interested, if indeed they are still my friends.

Reflections From The Bell Curve: Open Letter: Thomas Pynchon


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

A Welcome First

In a few weeks, my wife and I will fly to Arizona to spend the holidays with my daughter and son-in-law, who re-located to Southern California over the summer. In addition to spending time with them - along with our son-in-law's family, who are joining us - we'll visit the two National Parks located there and later connect with friends to celebrate the new year. That's a lot to look forward to but not the coolest part.  

This will be the first time in my seventy-four years that I'll not be spending Christmas eve and Christmas day in New Jersey. Though not 100% certain, this might also be the first time I'll be out of my beloved home state as a new year begins. (During my young adult full-time musician years, it's possible there was a New Year's Eve gig or two that put me elsewhere in the Tri-State area.

When I first realized a few weeks back the new ground being broken here, it caught me off guard. Being with my sisters and brother on Christmas eve or Christmas day - or both - has been a thread of love and continuity throughout my entire life. I'll miss them all. And the impossibility of a white Christmas and the weirdness of being in short sleeves outdoors this time of year also crossed my mind, briefly.

But the closer this particular first has gotten, the more welcome it has become. I'm grateful to be travelling as often as we do and pleased that cool new adventures continually present themselves. What first are you looking forward to? If you don't have one planned, why not start doing so today?  

Sunday, November 26, 2023

A Flickering Light

If you have a meditation practice - no matter how long you've had it - how has it helped you? How do you know it does? 

As a goal-oriented individual who has meditated faithfully for almost thirty-five years, these are not idle questions. I have continually mused about the benefits I derive from my practice - not to mention how to meaningfully measure those benefits - and I'm genuinely curious to hear any answers you have.

It's possible the time has now arrived for me to shift my focus away from those questions. In place of musing about benefits I derive via visiting myself on most days by sitting and paying attention to only my breathing, I've decided it's probably more useful to instead ask myself this: What is the downside to continuing to regularly meditate? How many of you with a practice - especially anyone as goal-oriented as me - have considered this?

I'm a bit chastened it's taken me so long to reach such an obvious formulation. Those of you with a regular practice might not be surprised to learn this self-evident insight came to me after returning from a recent meditation, not the first time I detected a flickering light under those circumstances. Might that be one of those benefits I've yearned to identify?     

Thursday, November 23, 2023

Key Learnings: Year 74

On my birthday every year since the inception of my blog in 2011, I've asked you to join me and reflect on one or more key things you've learned over the past year. Although reader response to this annual post has been muted, I'm grateful both for the things some of you have shared and also for comments you've made about a few of my key learnings over the past twelve years. 

* In my 74th year I learned a powerful lesson about compassion. One of the short videos used in some of the social justice workshops I co-facilitated this past year was my entry point for this key learning. Each time I watched that video I felt myself expanding as the narrator described what he calls the "angel that resides in all of us". How do we each activate that angel? Simple - take an action on behalf of someone else that has no possible payoff or benefit to you. In several of these workshops, it was clear to me that the message of that video had landed just as profoundly with one or more of the workshop participants as it had landed with me. 

* Good news should travel fast. In addition to being a key learning, hearing those words at an event centering on environmental stewardship was also healing for me. As the speaker emphasized how critical it is for environmentalists to share success stories, I immediately internalized her words. Then I decided it was time to commit to a search for promising environmental news any time I feel eco-grief.

Please consider sharing a key learning of yours with my readers and me.       

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Goal for Year 75

It's that time again, at least for me. Even if you're not beginning a new year of your life tomorrow like I am, why not join me here and declare a goal you'd like to achieve between now and next November 22? We can keep each other company as we mark progress. If you're feeling ambitious you can declare more than one goal. I'm sticking with one primarily because on November 22 over the past twelve years, I've had more success in those years when I've focused on a single thing.  

Remember: Make your goal specific & measurable, include at least one action step, keep it realistic, and state your time frame. Constructing a "SMART" goal greatly enhances the likelihood you'll reach it. 

Before my 75th birthday on November 23, 2024, I will participate in or initiate at least ten jam sessions as a way to ensure I can improvise confidently on any one of the 319 jazz standards I've memorized since November 2011. 

Wish me luck. And good luck with your goal, birthday aside.  


Saturday, November 18, 2023

Ooh Poo Pah Do

Today's challenge is for the musically hearty only. That said, I'm reasonably confident at least one old friend will throw his hat in the ring if he happens to read this post. This friend is ... 1.) the undisputed world's greatest non-musician music geek i.e., his insatiable lust has translated into a digital library with over 20,000 tunes and ... 2.) the person who first planted today's deranged notion in my head in May of 2022.  First, just a few, ahem, notes.

* I've limited the challenge to ten tunes even though I collected twenty-five over the eighteen months since my friend suggested a post like this. Consider yourself fortunate I limit the length of my blog posts. If you had any idea how many of my driving hours were occupied as I compiled a master list in my head, you might want to recommend medication. 

* For those who like keeping track, the scoring rubric for the challenge is at the bottom of the post. The song list itself is ordered by level of difficulty, easiest to most difficult. Only one recording artist is represented twice.  

* As always, using Google (etc.) is cheating. We're on the honor system here.  

Identify the artist who had the biggest hit with each of the following song titles. I've purposefully concatenated this ludicrous list to help you appreciate how pop songwriters have planted nonsensical ear worms into our heads for decades. Are you ready? 

Tutti Frutti - Da Do Ron Ron - Mony Mony - Da Doo Doo Doo Da Dah Dah Dah - Do Wah Diddy Diddy - Papa Ooo Mow Mow - Be Bop A Lula - Sha La La - Bony Moronie - Bim Bam Boom. 

Scoring Rubric: 1-3 correct = Congratulations, unlike me, you haven't wasted much precious brain space by allowing useless flotsam like this to reside in your memory. 4-7 correct = Caution, your conversations with others may be occasionally at risk. 8-10 correct = Danger, your social circle could soon end up being limited to just my geeky non-musician friend and me. Final caveat: If you noticed the song title preceding that list of lyrical gobbley-gook, or even worse, you know who recorded that one hit wonder, you're in serious trouble, socially.  

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Project Counterpoint

Care to join me in my latest project? After responding moments ago to a revealing e-mail from an old friend, I've decided that each time I find myself bemoaning one of my failures, flaws, or foibles - here on this blog, in an interaction with another person, or when alone with my thoughts - I'm going to pause and search for some counterpoint.

For most of my adult life, I suspect most people who have known me well would say I'm pretty adept at looking at myself critically. Which is exactly what happened when the naked vulnerability in my friend's e-mail touched me. Reflexively, I found myself pointing out my own flaws. I know an empathic response to someone else's pain is generally more helpful than problem solving or minimizing. But as I sent my response, I felt a tiny shift. Why is it easier for me to recall my failures, re-assure others by citing my flaws, use my foibles as examples of what not to do?

The counterpoint will be to search for successes and strengths, starting now. Instead of searching for even one more minute for a third "s" word to match the symmetry of the three "f" words that came to me while writing that e-mail, this moment I congratulate myself on the success I've had sustaining this blog for almost thirteen years and 2,300 posts as of November 11. Recalling that success today or some strength in the coming days if I'm wallowing in one of those "f" words is enough to get me started on this worthwhile project. I look forward to hearing from anyone who wants to join me. And, if you've got a third good "s" word for me, bring it on.         

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Thank You for Your Service

My closest connection to Veteran's Day is via my Dad who landed on Normandy during the second wave of D-Day. To this day, I get choked up even talking about the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. Watching that scene in the theater when the film was released, I was so overwrought I got out of my seat and walked into the lobby. I have never re-watched it. Imagining what my twenty-six-year-old Father experienced in that boat, on that beach, and over the hours he survived before feeling relatively safe, will always remain unfathomable to me. In every important respect, my Father was my hero and his status as a war veteran was a big part of my admiration for him. 

Yet somehow, knowing the little bit I did of my Dad's war history didn't automatically translate into a deep respect for veterans when I was a young man. Maybe it was because of when I came of age; Vietnam was raging, the streets were aflame, leaders who inspired were being gunned down. Maybe I was too immature. Maybe it was the fact that I didn't serve. But as I grew into a more reflective person, my reverence for the sacrifices of our veterans continually deepened.

I hope that reverence will continue to grow for as long as I live. I hope I will always be able to separate the mistakes our country makes, the demagogues we support, and the military misadventures old people dream up that get younger people killed, from those who proudly serve our country. All of them deserve no less. And I hope you'll join me today celebrating our veterans as well as applauding our President for his initiative to provide free nursing home coverage for any surviving veteran of WWII. If my Dad were still alive, he might have needed - and would have surely earned - that help.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Self-Discovery Via Writing

Author Joan Didion once remarked that she didn't know what she thought about something until she wrote about it. Since first being exposed to Didion's words, I have repeatedly found overwhelming evidence to support her remark, especially when it applies to my opinion of a book, film, or piece of music. 

Most recently, this happened while I wrote a book journal entry about Hotel Du Lac. Both at the halfway mark and immediately after finishing Anita Brookner's short 1984 novel, I scribbled brief impressions in my copy of what I'd read, a longstanding habit. And, as is also often the case, my wife asked me my opinion soon after I finished. My notes and my response to my wife's inquiry were decidedly lukewarm. Because even though I rammed through the book knowing I was in capable hands, while reading - and my first reaction after finishing - Brookner's miniature struck me as oh-so-British, i.e., a bit chilly.

But while writing a detailed entry in my book journal, I discovered several additional reasons that helped explain my unswerving involvement with the book, aside from Brookner's undeniable skill, which was apparent from the first page.

* Over its 183 pages, few readers will ever detect the presence of this gifted author. You are in the story from the outset. The universe Brookner creates is small but complete. 

* The third person narration provides perfect ballast for the letters the protagonist writes - but never sends - to her distant, estranged lover. The letters masterfully reveal what is in her heart, including things she will not reveal to the strangers who befriend her at the hotel.

* The slowly unfolding but skeletal back story of the protagonist's relationship with her deceased parents is a marvel of concision.

As further support of the wisdom of Joan Didion's remark, completing this blog post has pushed my esteem for Hotel Du Lac beyond what I had already captured in my book journal. What was the last instance when you wrote something that helped you better understand what you thought?              

Monday, November 6, 2023

Adventure in the Swiss Alps Ends with Mishap

Together, we were maneuvering the hairpin turns on a double black diamond trail in the Swiss Alps. As I masterfully handled the moguls while on a hair-raising turn that had foiled Olympic skiers in a recent trial for the winter games, I glanced over my shoulder and watched my wife tumble. The diagnosis? Broken kneecap. Ouch. She's now looking at a six-eight week stretch of limited mobility. Bummer.

Yeah, I made all that up. However, I'm encouraging my wife to explain away the immobilizing brace on her leg to anyone that asks using my exciting story. Because she is more honest and less flamboyant than me, I doubt she'll embrace the tall tale. But even if she doesn't, I plan to repeat it endlessly, if for no other reason than I was with her doing the hairpin turns before she fell. Tripping over a stool (i.e., the real story) vs. my glamorous tale? Sorry, no contest.

In the meanwhile, I recommend all of you strongly consider inventing your own tall tale for any future mishap that befalls you. And be sure to concoct your tale in advance to give yourself time to properly rehearse telling it. You don't want to hesitate or stumble on your words. Take it from me, your listeners will love it. Go on, tell me that first paragraph didn't grab you. I dare you.  

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Stay Tuned for More Good News

Although every music course I've developed and taught since 2014 has been memorable in its own right, the maiden voyage of my current course - Journey Through the Past: History Via Song - is destined to stand apart in my memory. And there's still one session remaining.  

First, fifteen of the seventeen participants have taken an earlier course of mine. One of the "new" students is someone I met years ago as a fellow volunteer at Meals on Wheels and who has since been to both my book club and my conversational salon. The other is a friend of two past students who are attending the class. There is no higher compliment than past students inviting their friends to attend one of my classes. 

Next, I learned at the first session that a few of the returning participants keep a notebook devoted to stuff learned in some of my previous classes. Catnip for my outsized ego.

But as must be the case, the most enduring memories I'm collecting are connected to the music. It's difficult to over-state how juiced I get when I can see a song deeply touching a participant. This is especially so when some piece of what I share about the craft of songwriting or the musicianship on a recording helps someone connect more meaningfully with a tune, a performance, or both. Icing on the cake are those times when a song that is new to a listener hits the mark in a big way. I've already had several moments of musical communion with different participants over the first two sessions.

I eagerly anticipate next Wednesday. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Rescue Me

Rescue me, please.

It's a beautiful day and the streets of an historic town are lined by trees in vivid fall color. I pass a group of seven teenagers. Each of them is staring intently at their phones. There is no conversation or interaction of any kind among them for the ten minutes I sit waiting for my wife to exit a nearby coffee shop.

I'm at a Jackson Browne concert at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J. In the mezzanine row directly in front of me are three middle-aged women. For the duration of the concert all three scroll the screens on their phones non-stop. Not one of them claps after a single song. As the audience stands hoping for an encore, they remain seated, continuing to scroll.

If you must, call me a crank for reflecting on the modern-day tableaux I observed in that town or for wondering about the women at that concert. Most days I avoid thinking about this inescapable fact of our current reality. Today, I long to be rescued. This too shall pass.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

An Old Friend

As my wife and I were planning our first trip to Africa - scheduled for February 2024 - we decided we'd like to read at least a few books beforehand about the four countries we'd be visiting. Because our traveling partners include a woman with whom I've been meeting every month since 2015 for one-on-one book discussions, the two of us also decided to devote at least one of our pre-February meetings to a book about the same area of the world. Happily, the path of those two decisions led me back to my old friend Paul Theroux.

The last time Paul thrilled me was in 1989 when I read My Secret History soon after its release. I'd read a few of his other novels before that, all based on first being blown away by Mosquito Coast in 1981. To this day, that book remains a peak reading experience in my life, enriched just a few years later thanks to the excellent film adaptation starring Harrison Ford as the infuriatingly unforgettable Ally Fox.  

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #7: The Mt. Rushmore Series

And now, after finishing The Last Train to Zona Verde (2013) - Theroux's exceptional travelogue about his trip to the same area of Africa I'll be visiting - I'm certain this old friend will be by my side on a more regular basis. That won't be difficult given his massive catalogue of over thirty novels and twenty books of non-fiction, many of the latter related to his insatiable wanderlust.

"But what did this all add up to except a traveler's tale, something to report, the I-did-it boast, newsworthy to those who don't travel?"  In my experience, writers of travel fiction rarely land on insights about themselves as penetrating as that. End-to-end, Last Train to Zona Verde is probably the best travel book I've ever read. I'm so pleased to have become re-acquainted with this old friend. When did this last happen to you?

Reflections From The Bell Curve: #38: The Mt. Rushmore Series

Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Champion

Join me in a brief and harmless thought experiment, using three simple steps:

1.) Think of some of your most commonly used and/or favorite expressions.

2.) Narrow those expressions down to those that have their origin in sports.

3.) Which sport has the greatest number of your most commonly used and/or favorite expressions?

As today's reflection began forming in my mind while on a long bike ride, I instinctively thought baseball expressions would easily win out, especially given my history. Struck out, home run, and out of the park came to me instantly. But the more I mused and the further I rode, the more likely it seemed that boxing holds this dubious distinction for me. Down for the count, on the ropes, and knockout are far more likely to come out of my mouth on a regular basis than those three baseball expressions. 

As I approached home, horse racing entered my mundane competition. After all, bringing up the rearlast leg, and final stretch are all expressions I use nearly as often as the baseball or boxing stuff. Then, saved by the bell came to me as I pulled into my driveway. For me, boxing is the champion. How about for you?

p.s. (October 27): Is it too late to add lightweight as #6 on the list of my most commonly used and favorite expressions, all of which have their origin in boxing? Oh well; my blog, my rules. In the meanwhile, I patiently await your #1 sport in this painless sweepstakes.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

The Bond That Books Build

Have you ever met a serious reader who wasn't read to as a child? Although I'm sure such people exist, I don't recall ever meeting one.

Over my just-finished time away, I asked my traveling companions - all serious readers - which books their parents read to them when they were children. As you might expect, their answers varied widely, although not a single one of them hesitated when answering. In my experience, this is not unusual. The bond built when a parent or other adult reads to a child is indelible. My own memories - both of being read to as a child and reading to my daughter - are among my most beloved. My Mom read most - if not all - of the Bobsey Twins series to me. Among many others, my wife read the first two Harry Potter books to our daughter. I'm certain I read Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti to her at least one hundred times.   

What did your parents read to you? What did you read to your children? I suspect few of you will have any trouble answering those questions and that most of you will enjoy re-living those memories.     

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Another Late-in-Life Gift

Next Wednesday, my newest music course - A Musical Journey Through the Past - will begin its maiden voyage. I'm looking forward to communing with the students who'll be strolling with me through history via song. If anyone reading this has a last-minute idea for a song they think might fit my theme, please send it my way. (Songs using an actual name, event, or place from either recent or past history are preferred.) To date, nearly every one of the twenty courses I've developed and taught has had at least one song added as the whistle is blowing. I've even added a tune after a course has commenced, frequently one suggested by a student taking the class.    

These classes have become a highlight in my life primarily because of the music lovers I've come to know since beginning to teach in 2014. The prep is arduous, the teaching is enjoyable, but the music lovers who repeatedly attend make it a total blast. A few of these folks have become part of my life outside the classroom. Like the traveling soulmates I met in Alaska in 2015, these once "students" - now friends - have been a wonderful late-in-life gift. I'm fortunate to have connected so meaningfully with all of these people. With respect to the music lovers who've become friends, I'm additionally humbled by the support they've given my courses, this blog, and other creative endeavors I've undertaken.

To those friends - and all the music loving participants I've come to know over the last ten years - thank you. 


Monday, October 16, 2023

Flavors of Worthwhile Literature

Despite the risk of being labeled a snob, I submit there is such a thing as worthwhile literature. And though I believe I'm far from alone asserting this, I do not expect anyone to publicly align themselves with my premise. Consequently, even though I always welcome comments, I won't be disappointed or surprised if today's reflection is met with silence by those who agree with my opening premise or what follows. At the same time, I sincerely welcome hearing from readers who disagree. 

All of us who read books widely and regularly - fiction or non-fiction, subject and/or size aside - do so for a variety of reasons. But whether we bookworms read to be entertained, educated, elevated, or something else, few, if any, of us want to waste precious time with bad prose. Snobs like me - and most of my reading brethren, even those who remain silent today - know what bad prose looks like. We may differ on how bad the prose is but, we agree that bad prose and worthwhile literature are, by definition, mutually exclusive. After a lifetime of dedicated reading, I recently decided worthwhile literature comes in three distinct flavors:

The casual: Books that do not tackle "serious" subjects - fiction or non-fiction - can be just as worthwhile - or more so - as books that do. Humorous, whimsical, and speculative books occupy an important place in literature. Authors who aim to engage readers in a casual fashion frequently have a lot more on their minds than the surface sheen of their work might at first indicate. In other words, there is such a thing as a "beach read" that is well written and worthy of a discerning reader's time.  

The in-between: Worthwhile literature in this flavor may or may not be about a "serious" subject but authors working this territory are not as casual or matter-of-fact. If they use humor it's more targeted and some of the literary techniques they use often prod readers to pay closer attention. When a technique reveals the presence of the author, bookworms will often disagree on how worthwhile the book is. But if the prose is solid, the difference here is between bookworms who value storytelling vs. those who don't object to occasionally suspending storytelling in favor of being educated or elevated.  

The intense: On the other end of the flavor spectrum is worthwhile literature that cannot be read casually. Most of the time, the serious subject matter or message in this flavor demands a reader's attention. This flavor doesn't aim at diverting or entertaining  a reader, like the casual often does and the in-between sometimes does. Intense books with bad prose are just as common as those with a casual or in-between flavor. Serious subject matter does not give an author a pass to avoid working at their craft. Tired writing, cliches, and strained metaphors are inexcusable in all flavors. 

I'm prepared to provide examples of worthwhile literature in all three flavors on request. I'd much prefer hearing your nominations for any or all flavors. Objections to my premise and what follows are equally welcome. Readers only, please.        

Friday, October 13, 2023

Autumn in Five Courses

Yesterday, following a brief walk in Blackwater State Park, I was treated to a feast for the senses. 

Gathered with my friends at Lindy Point Overlook, I first noticed the murmuring of a distant stream far below where we stood. Looking up, I was overcome by the endless blue sky at about the same time I detected a faint odor of fall decay. After feeling the gentle caress of a breeze on my skin, I realized all that was missing was some taste of autumn.  

Walking back to the parking lot, I picked a huckleberry, enjoying how it tickled my tongue. Dessert. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

The Folly of Neutrality

On the way to the first stop on our current trip - Harper's Ferry National Historic Park - I began reflecting on the complicated legacy of abolitionist John Brown. I wondered: How would the park and town portray this tortured piece of history?   

Imagine for a moment - as I did looking at the many exhibits in Harper's Ferry - that you're an historian writing about or speaking of Brown. Which word would you be most likely to use describing Brown and his desperate attempt to bring an end to slavery? Would you call him a patriot? A hero? Freedom fighter? Martyr? Radical? Zealot? Madman? Vigilante? Murderer? Terrorist? 

The more I reflected, the more clear the folly of neutrality became to me. None of us - historian or otherwise - can reasonably claim that our version of any event is free of the lens through which we view the world. Words like martyr or madman are chosen. And then, history is told, written, repeated. But history is not static any more than the historians writing it are neutral. 

When I published the post below, I'd never been to Harper's Ferry. Now that I have, my John Brown lens has shifted a bit; it's quite possible I wouldn't make the same endorsement these twelve years later. But I'm still inclined to use the term freedom fighter much more readily than I would the word vigilante.    


Saturday, October 7, 2023

Almost Heaven With the Tribe

Tomorrow, my wife and I journey to West Virginia to meet up with fourteen folks we met on our 2015 vacation to Alaska, our first with Road Scholars. A few years back, the sixteen of us branded ourselves "Rogue" Scholars, partly because our collective wanderlust has inspired us to reunite all over the country each year, beginning in 2016 when we did so in Rocky Mountain National Park. Since then, our travels have taken us as far west as the San Juan Islands off Washington coast and east to Acadia National Park in Maine. And, with seven states represented among us, we've re-connected at several points in-between - usually nearby to someone in the group - an element that adds to the pleasant anticipation I feel each year. 

But as enjoyable as visiting and exploring the diverse locales has been, it's the effortless interaction and stimulating conversations that invariably have me buzzing as one of these trips approaches. Among these fourteen smart, interested people there are two retired lawyers, a retired psychiatrist, and a Sanskrit scholar. There's an artist whose work has enough notoriety to have been shown as far afield as Berlin, the author of a cookbook, someone who has led white-water rafting adventures. There are two photographers so talented we have the work of both hanging in our home. There's a couple who ran a retreat center in Colorado hosting workshops on social justice, among other topics. There's a hiker who has done El Camino three times. There are two birders who could easily have acted as consultants on the Owen Wilson/Steve Martin/Jack Black film My Best Year. Care to guess how many languages - aside from Sanskrit - my fourteen newest friends are conversant in? See what I mean about stimulating conversations? If you're fortunate enough to have a tribe as interesting as this - no matter the size - I'd welcome hearing about it. I suspect some of my readers would also be interested. 

Before our reunion last year at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, I replaced Johnny Mercer's immortal lyric with the one below, set to the plaintive Henry Mancini melody of Moon River. Join me in a sing-a-long

Rogue Scholars - older than the dirt, with joints that often hurt at night.

We share stories; we laugh with such ease. Wherever we end up it always feels right. 

Some birders - some who like to cook; much older than we look (we dream!)

We're building this bond: something real, strong as any steel, each one of us can feel -

Rogue Scholars, our team. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

What Will You Miss?

Though the overwhelming majority of folks either never think about it or are in deep denial, I'm confident asserting that at some point, the grid - or parts of it - are going to go down. To anyone except those who disagree with my premise: When that inevitable event occurs, what will you miss most? 

Because I have frequently railed - uselessly - about the pernicious, divisive, and mind-numbing by-products of technology, my wife, daughter, and any regular reader of this blog may be surprised to learn that .. a.) I've  reflected on this scenario at all and .. b.) I'll miss anything when the grid crashes. Consequently, both as a gesture of solidarity with technology devotees and, to prove once and for all to loved ones that I am not a Luddite, directly below are the three things I'll miss most when that particular pile of poop hits the rotary, as it surely will. Alphabetically:

* ATM machines: Few things frustrated me more in the pre-modern technology era than waiting in a long line at the bank for my money. 

* Bar codes:  Only marginally less frustrating were those supermarket lines, notwithstanding the nearby tabloids you could skim during the interminable wait while the cashier phoned a manager about the price of rhubarb.  

* EZ pass: Ditto for the lines on any toll road.  (I know all three of these allow Big Brother Tech to track my everyday whereabouts but I don't have anything to hide.) 

That's it. If you were waiting for me to cite the Internet because it provides a platform for my routine rants, raves, and reflections, sorry to disappoint. My ego may be super-sized, but even my solipsism has limits. Because much as I enjoy blogging, regularly make use of a few websites like Goodreads and Wikipedia, and like the convenience of e-mail, I'd be happy to revert back to my other writing vessels, go to the library and use encyclopedias, and make more phone calls with my landline. Your turn.   

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Is There Enough Time?

Patience and kindness.

Nearly everywhere I look - including at myself - it seems to me patience and kindness are in short supply these days. The optimist in me wants to believe there's hope - both for me and the world - for an about-face on these two critically important attributes. On good days, I can even convince myself that there's still time.  


However, recently stumbling across the post above gave me serious pause. Because even if there's still time, more than a decade has passed since I gave myself a "C" for patience. And today? The best I can say is perhaps I've reached the "C+" mark. Given my glacial rate of improvement, I'll need thirty years or so to reach even an "A-". Lots of work to do, not a great deal of time. How about you? What grade would you give yourself for patience, considering the definition opening my January 2013 reflection? How much improvement have you seen in your patience over the last decade? Is there enough time for you or me to become the change we wish to see in the world? 


Kindness over everything. Though I used those words as a centerpiece, I'm not sure what progress I've made in manifesting that noble aspiration since the publication of that second post . Because today was a good day, right this moment I'm feeling like there's still time for me - and the world - to turn the corner on kindness. Still, that post was published four years ago. Is there enough time? And you? How well are you doing putting kindness first?

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

In October Alone

Before leaving the full-time work world, rich discussions about books didn't happen that frequently for me. In those days, when my wife and I overlapped reading something - not a regular occurrence - or the same thing happened with one of my sisters, which occurred even less often, I yearned to discuss whichever book was fresh in our minds. But as good as those discussions were, returning to a couple each year is now unimaginable to me. 

For example, just anticipating the discussion of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000) that is on my calendar for next week has me purring. Michael Chabon's prizewinning, sprawling novel of ideas begs to be discussed. I'm grateful my wife asked me to join the conversation with two of her friends. 

About a week later, my wife and I are meeting up in West Virginia with fourteen folks we've traveled with since 2015. This group chose Rocket Boys (1998) to discuss one evening during our seventh reunion. Fitting, given Homer Hickam's moving memoir takes place in almost heaven. Then later in October, a reading soulmate and I who have been meeting monthly since 2015 are tackling The Last Train to Los Verde, Paul Theroux's moving travelogue from 2013 about his final visit to Africa.  

What upcoming book discussions are on your calendar?  

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Make the Time to Visit This Museum


The last time I spent most of a day in a museum was on my first visit to the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2000. But it was equally easy getting lost in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture last weekend while my wife and I were in Washington D.C. If you haven't visited it yet, check out the website above and then make time for it on your next trip to the capital. I'm confident you will find it worthwhile. 

The history portion of the museum, which starts three stories below ground level, was the highlight for me. The elegant design walks a visitor up from the 15th century through the 21st, tracing an arc from the earliest days of the African slave trade through the eight years of the Obama presidency. Although never out of the spell, I lingered longest in the sections featuring the notorious Middle Passage and the dismantling of Reconstruction. I was grateful to have an opportunity to play more catch-up on both those pieces of neglected history. 

And there's no doubt the one display in the NMAAHC that will never leave me was the small room devoted to the murder of Emmet Till. As the ramp of history ended, I made use of a secluded room on the ground floor that overlooks a fountain and is set aside for quiet contemplation. 


Friday, September 22, 2023

Rescued by a Modern-Day Classic

Over the lifespan of my blog, I'd estimate no more than two months have passed without me either raving or ranting about a film. Not that surprising really, considering .. a.) how indiscriminate my movie jones has always been and .. b.) how frequently I reflect on the bell curve.


But since gushing about The Rescue in early July, your favorite movie geek has been unusually silent. It's possible that spellbinding documentary has - at least temporarily - re-set the bar for me. Because I haven't been turned on - or off - enough by any film since The Rescue captivated me, I decided a few weeks back to scan the streaming platforms for a re-watch to rescue me from the movie doldrums. Wise strategy.

If any film deserves the term modern-day classic, I stand by The Fugitive (1993). I've lost count how many times I've rhapsodized to others about the breathtaking train derailment scene early in the movie. But on this re-watch, Andrew Davis's astute direction, the airtight script, and the cat-and-mouse dynamic between the Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford characters deepened my admiration for this piece of cinematic magic. In my view, it's a nearly perfect film. If you haven't seen it, do so. If you have, put it on your re-watch list, today.

Now about that train derailment scene. When you watch or re-watch The Fugitive, tell me what other scene from an earlier movie starring Harrison Ford comes to mind. Hint: The earlier film where Ford is being chased by an inanimate object was released in 1981 and directed by Steven Spielberg. I would love to ask Andrew Davis if he was paying homage to another great director when he envisioned that train barreling down on Ford aka Richard Kimble/Indiana Jones.       

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Examining the Educational Disconnect

What percentage of the college-educated people you've known have actually made their living in a field closely related to their undergraduate degree? If you have a degree, how many of your subsequent full- time jobs have been directly connected to the education you received? Most of them? A few of them? None of them?

From graduation day in 1971 through 2010 - the year I left the full-time work world - more than half of my forty working years were spent far removed from the world of education. Only two months over all those years were spent teaching elementary school, my major in college. In my experience, my work history is more the rule than the exception. How does my experience line up or differ from yours? For every person I've known who has made their living doing work directly connected to their degree, I would estimate I've known two others whose work life took them far afield from that degree, either early on or in later years. And without trying real hard, I can think of several people who never made a dollar - let alone a living - in any type of job for which their degree was ostensibly preparing them. How many people have you known who fit that description?  

Although the elementary piece of my undergraduate degree in education got almost no professional use, the foundation that degree provided has been invaluable in many domains of my life. I'm guessing in that respect I'm like many of you who share a work history similar to mine, i.e., one not necessarily closely linked to our undergraduate studies. Wouldn't you agree the benefits of any college education will always mitigate the disconnect between that education and what's useful in a subsequent work life? 

Friday, September 15, 2023

Begin, Again

Which flaw would you say you've worked hardest over your life to overcome or at least to mitigate?

My tendency to judge others has been a lifelong struggle. It often feels like each step forward is followed by a step back not long after. Though I realize my struggle is not unique, knowing I'm not alone has rarely given me much solace. 

Under different conditions, my judging self would likely have been triggered by an individual with whom I recently spent several hours. But given my professional role, the rawness of this person's emotional state, and the naked vulnerability on display, I heard myself repeating several times - I'm not going to judge you - my volume increasing each time. And all the while I wondered: Am I telling the truth? 

Later that day, while de-briefing this intense experience, my facilitating partner re-assured me that in those moments he believed I was telling the truth. My partner also suggested that the repetition of those words had helped ease a tortured person's pain. Though I was relieved to hear those things, a more significant learning began to emerge as my processing deepened. Saying those words had helped me make them true in this situation. How then can I use it next time? What if I maintained the same posture - maybe even said those words to myself - when I feel myself reflexively judging someone who triggers me? Is it possible to shift the dynamic with people that trigger me by more clearly demonstrating I'm not judging them? 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

318 and Counting


In November 2011, I launched a mission to fully memorize 300 jazz standards by December of the next year, declaring it in the post above. In the end, it took me close to eight years to complete my mission, as memorialized in the post below from August, 2019. 


Early on, it became clear how wildly over-ambitious my initial mission was as I learned how these songs needed consistent review over a short duration in order for each to really lodge in my brain until the next review. Sometime late in 2014, I scuttled the haphazard review process I'd been using to that point and developed one that ensured each tune got played end-to-end regularly in every review cycle. 

Nine years on, I'll begin review cycle #100 later this week, marking another milestone in this project that is now almost twelve years old. Thanks to the more structured review process, I've now got 318 songs lodged in my brain. I've memorized at least seven tunes by eleven different composers. Richard Rodgers leads the pack with twenty-one tunes and Duke is close on his heels with twenty. Every one of the 318 feels like an old friend. I'm pleased and proud I've persisted; my playing has never felt better to me. Thanks to those of you who have checked in with me about it since the mission began in late 2011.     

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Acknowledging Our Tribe

On Friday, friends and family came from as close as the next town over and from as far away as California to help my wife and me celebrate forty years of marriage at the very place where we met forty-five years ago this past April. 

Looking around that room, I was again reminded how rich our life has been and continues to be. There were nine people - five family members and four friends - who celebrated our marriage with us in September, 1983. One of those friends has been part of my life for longer than I've known my wife. 

At the same time, several others who were present are recent and welcome additions to our tribe, including a couple who are part of our Rogue Scholar travel group, the new partner of a longtime friend - who we met for the first time earlier this summer - and my son-in-law's mother and sister. Those two made an eight-hour drive from Ohio to be part of our celebration. Others fought the ferocious Friday Jersey traffic travelling from all over the state as well as upstate New York and Connecticut. Both my wife and I are grateful for all these special folks who made such an effort to celebrate with us.

How recently have you paused to acknowledge your gratitude for people who enrich your life? Was that acknowledgment tied to a specific event? If yes, what was the event? 

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Over Vs. Under-Thinking

Since first learning of Goodreads several years back, I've enjoyed periodically interacting with other readers - some known to me, others not - on that popular website. I've also enjoyed keeping track of books finished, posting reviews, and a few of the recommendations made to me by the site's algorithm. If you use Goodreads at all, what benefits have you derived? If you're a reader and never taken a look at the site, I recommend you do.  

My one quibble with Goodreads are the simplistic statements that accompany the one-to-five star rating system used on the site. There have been occasions when I've published a review while purposefully skipping the ratings. For many books - non-fiction, in particular - declaring "I liked it" to go with a three star rating or "I really liked it" (four stars) strikes me as inadequate. I'd prefer letting the stars stand alone vs. being tied - however insignificantly - to an inane statement that risks trivializing an important book. 

For example, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (1947) is a book everyone should read but one only a masochist would "like". As my processing of Primo Levi's towering masterwork deepened and I prepared to mark the book as finished on Goodreads, the inadequacy of those accompanying statements - even the breathless one that goes with five stars ("It was amazing!") - felt intolerably trite. 

Books like Survival in Auschwitz deserve no less than painstaking attention. Am I over-thinking these Goodreads statements as it applies to Levi's book? Perhaps. In this instance, I'll stand by over vs. under-thinking. 


Monday, September 4, 2023

Time for a Correction, Perhaps?

Each time I observe a couple in public both staring at their phones vs. interacting with each other, I'm newly grateful for my wife. And that gratitude further extends to meal times together. When we're home, her phone is often in a different room. When we dine out, the phone remains in her purse vs. face up on the table next to her. It would be hard to over-state how happy it makes me knowing my wife is not so attached to her phone that she allows it to take precedence over our interactions.   

Because my daughter grew up in the I-phone era, her norms about having it nearby - often face up - are different than her mother's. But as attached as she can sometimes be to her phone, when the three of us are together - or when it's just the two of us - I rarely feel in competition with it. I know her livelihood frequently depends on rapid responses to texts or calls; I respect that and try to be sensitive. In turn, just like her mother, my daughter almost always shows me that our time together is more important to her than all those pings designed to distract her. 

I realize my distaste for cell phones puts me in a rarefied and cranky minority. However, I've been part of more than a few conversations over the past several years that have shown me there are plenty of folks who long to return to a few pre-cell-phone norms. Like enjoying a meal with friends or loved ones without multiple screens pinging continuously. Like waiting for a suitable amount of time (you define suitable but how about longer than ten seconds?) before someone uses a phone to Google an answer to something that someone in a group of three or more might come up with, if they had time to search their brain for longer than those ten seconds. Like the people we enjoy spending time with showing us our company is enough. 

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Buzzing at Seventy-Four (and beyond)

"I hope I die before I get old."

Do you suppose Pete Townsend is relieved his lyric wasn't prophetic? Based on all the good music he's produced since writing My Generation almost sixty years ago, I'm guessing Mr. Townsend is as grateful as I to be among the living in his eighth decade. Given how many of our contemporaries have already left us, either of us would be fools to feel otherwise. Just knowing I'll be playing music for people next weekend - no matter how much anyone is paying attention - has me buzzing in advance.  

Of course, there is buzzing and then there is BUZZING. This past week, watching the live show of two musical giants, I was buzzing as a listener. On Tuesday, Jackson Browne's vibrant show at the Beacon Theatre exceeded my expectations. And Bruce Springsteen's show in the Meadowlands last night was a reminder of why his reputation as a premier live act is well deserved. If I was buzzing as a listener, can you imagine the kind of buzz these two get before an adoring audience? Browne is seventy-four and Bruce is almost the same age. Any chance that lyric at the top of the page has any resonance for them? Based on the wistful tone of their between-song musings and anecdotes, and particularly based on a new song Bruce played called Last Man Standing, somehow I doubt Pete's words ring true for either of them.  

Mr. Townsend is four+ years older than Browne, the Boss, and me. I suspect that young-in-life lyric of his may sound a bit naive to him nowadays. But even if he never gives it a second thought, I further suspect he is just as pleased as I to be buzzing with his music, old age aside. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

A Kazuo Ishiguro Sandwich


Although I suspect no one except me cares about which authors have ascended into my one-year-old-constantly-evolving-destined-to-never-be-complete list of 100 favorites, it is a list. For any reader who hasn't yet figured it out, lists are semi-sacred to me. Thus, immediately upon finishing The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro was elevated into my august group. Anyone keeping track? Right. But just in case, Ishiguro is author #31, the fourth author added to that list since the post above was published last August. 

I'm guessing many of you have seen the remarkable film adaptation of Ishiguro's eponymous novel starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. If you revere that film as I do - and you are a reader - I urge you to return to the even richer source material. Ishiguro's understated prose and attention to the nuance of character cannot be over-praised. He is a master of detail, a shrewd observer of class, and an astute student of history. Each of the three books I've read demonstrate his total command of craft. And for my money, much as When We Were Orphans (2000) and A Pale View of Hills (1982) both floored me, this novel from 1988 is a notch above, fully worthy of the Booker Prize it won.   

To extend the glow of this peak reading experience, I'm planning to re-watch the faithful Merchant-Ivory film adaptation, soon. If you've seen the film once, why not read this brief but terrific book, then re-watch the film. Then we can compare our Kazuo Ishiguro sandwiches.   



Monday, August 28, 2023

A Legacy of Love

"The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough of is love." - Henry Miller

Over your lifetime, how would you say the love you've sought vs. the love you've given supports or refutes Miller's wise words? Pretend for a minute that a scale exists. much like the one we've all seen held by the blind-folded woman measuring justice. If you were able to put all the love you've sought on one side of that scale and all the love you've given on the other, in which direction would your scale tip?

Months ago, I first noticed that Miller quote under my new son-in-law's e-mail signature. Ever since, the questions opening and closing my first paragraph above have been gnawing at me. And I wasn't fully comfortable asking you what your scale might look like until I was ready to formulate an answer for myself.

I've always considered myself a person who loves easily and openly. But if that scale I'm asking you to envision actually did exist, I suspect mine might tip more on the seeking side vs. the giving. On the other hand, maybe none of us are capable of answering questions like this about ourselves. Instead, is it possible the people closest to us are the ones better equipped to provide an answer? If that is so, I've got some folks to talk to, and you can do the same if you wish. I'll look forward to hearing what you discover. 

In the meanwhile, I do hope this much: If, after I'm gone, those who were closest to me say my scale was at least evenly balanced, being remembered that way is a legacy I welcome. You?  

"And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." - Lennon & McCartney

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Please, If You Must Compare ...

The obnoxious groaning you heard in the movie theater watching that documentary was probably me listening as some pop or rock celebrity compared the music of one of their contemporaries to Mozart, again. How many of you are with me for establishing some common sense guidelines here to help us  avoid the ridiculous comparisons we've all endured? I'll start; please join in and offer either your ideas or your objections to mine.  

If comparisons must be made - and I'm not sure they must - how about we compare any artist's work - author, filmmaker, musician, etc. - only to their own work? For example, wouldn't it be preferable if an undeniably great song like If I Fell were compared only to other Beatles songs?  Overnight, we'd avoid the entire Beatles catalogue from ever being compared to third-rate pop mediocrities or .. to Mozart. Think of it: If I Fell = A+; In My Life = A; Why Don't We Do It in the Road = F.  We level the playing field by agreeing George Gershwin compositions be compared only to other George Gershwin compositions and not say, Steve Miller compositions. This way, if you want to declare Take the Money and Run a musical masterpiece, have at it, but don't stack it against Embraceable You.

OK, now about that word masterpiece. Unless I'm etymologically challenged - and I don't think I am - that word gets to be used just once across an artist's whole oeuvre. And actually, having an artist's masterpiece as a standard to assess all their other work against is a handy way to ensure comparisons are not made between say, Tolstoy and Tom Clancy. If you claim Anna Karenina as the Count's high-water mark, and Hunt for Red October as Clancy's, great. Start there, I say, and put each of those books against all the respective subsequent and prior work of the same author, but don't compare the two novels to each other. I'm also all for allowing anyone to change their mind about any author's (etc.) masterpiece if a newer work by that author (etc.) ups the artistic ante in the view of the assessor. 

Need to acknowledge the insights of a reading soulmate in helping me midwife today's reflection. In our recent discussion of A Line in the Sand - an astonishing new novel by Kevin Powers - my friend and I digressed a bit when she spoke of her love for author Lorrie Moore. Because Moore's most recent work has been slightly less satisfying to my fellow bookworm, our conversational tributary meandered to If I Fell vs. In My Life, briefly. From there, this post began to take shape as I recalled how The Yellow Birds floored me when I finished it. For me, that debut novel by Kevin Powers stands as his masterpiece. Which takes nothing away from A Line in the Sand, a book so assured I'd be beyond proud to have written anything even close to it. Just as proud as I'd be if any song I ever wrote approached the majesty of say, In My Life.  


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Sixty + Years of Evangelism

Could it be that I'll never run out of ways to evangelize about music? What passion of yours infects you enough that you can't imagine a time when you won't want to convert others?  

I've talked about it - to anyone who would listen - since the drum break in He's So Fine set me on fire in 1962. I've continually performed - many times horrendously, especially early on, i.e., a kind of perverse evangelism, I suppose - since 1963. I've made mix tapes since, well since people first started making mix tapes back when cassettes were the rage. And then I switched to making CD mixes and have done that - sometimes without being asked - ever since. I've taught privately for over thirty-five years. I've blogged about music here on the bell curve since 2010. (Rough estimate: 250 posts.) I've taught continuing education classes at local colleges - and elsewhere - since 2014. 

My latest evangelism began when a fellow hiker innocently asked me if I would recommend some jazz tunes to help ease him into that world. Poor guy - he had no idea what a mistake it was making this simple request of me. We are now about thirty songs - at three songs per week - into my most recent evangelistic endeavor. I'm confident saying this unsuspecting "student" is likely wishing he'd never had a conversation with the man he is now calling "professor". I can't help myself. (Wait, do I hear Levi Stubbs wailing?)

See what I mean?    

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Call Me Scab; Not!

Call me a crank - or something worse - but if you were going to invent a stage name for yourself, wouldn't you come up with something better than Flea

I mean no disrespect to this fine bass player from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And actually, until I was recently reminded of his stage moniker as the film credits rolled at the end of Babylon, this crabby thought had never crossed my mind. Then, I considered Archibald Alec Leach becoming Cary Grant

I know Grant had help making up a stage name. Still, even if suave Archibald/Cary had made up his own, somehow I doubt he would have settled on Turd or Scar or Snot - bass player in a semi-punk band or not - don't you? Seems to me there's a tiered system when it comes to invented names. See if you agree.

Let's start with classy, like say, Cary Grant. Who else would you put in the highest tier? A step down we get to semi-cool or just OK, like say, Sting. Although I've always been tempted to give Sting either the first initial "B" or the last name "Ray", to me, his alias is still a clear step up from the goofy/silly Edge. Again, a fine musician and probably nice enough guy, but how can anyone resist giving him either a first name like "Cliff" or a middle and last name like "Of Tomorrow"? Who are your nominations for stage names in tiers two and three? Or, would you place Sting and Edge - with or without the "the" - in the same tier? 

Either way, unquestionably, in the bottom tier goes Flea. Got any others you'd lump in with him?      

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Words for the Ages, Line Twenty-Seven

"We are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."

On occasion, I have no doubt the universe is speaking to me. When was the last time something like I'm about to describe happened to you?

Less than a week ago, I finished Wonderstruck (2011), Brian Selznick's captivating young adult novel, which was made into an exceptional film in 2017. I'd known immediately after watching the film that the book needed to go onto my "must read" list and said so in the blog post directly below, written just days later. I then promptly forgot my reading pledge until a few weeks back when a reader unearthed my five-year-old post. With me so far? 


Within hours of re-reading my post, I had the book in my hands and raced through it. Then came a Wonderstruck sandwich when I insisted my wife join me - she's my witness here - as I re-watched the film, loving it more the second time. OK, now get ready and try convincing me this is a coincidence. 

Yesterday, I'm driving and listening to the radio, and as is my habit, paying attention to lyrics because I never know when some words for the ages might jump out at me. A 1981 song called Message of Love - written by Chrissie Hynde, performed by the Pretenders - comes on, containing the words that open this post. Want to take a guess why Hynde's aphoristic gem stopped me cold? Because those words happen to belong to Oscar Wilde and are featured prominently in Wonderstruck, both the book and the film adaptation.  

Given the way this came together, doesn't the word wonder strike you as perfect for this particular iteration of words for the ages?     

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Still Here, Sort Of

Avoid labeling this thought experiment as morbid. Treat it instead in the spirit in which it is intended.

When you are gone, what signs would you like to send back to those who loved you to remind them you're watching their lives unfold? Put aside for a moment whether you believe in a spirit or an energy that transcends our physical beings and answer this: What tone would your spirit or energy take? For example, would you want loved ones to know you're watching by playing pranks on them, say, hiding their keys in a place they wouldn't think to look, like, next to a picture of you? 

Or, would you want your spirit or energy to manifest somehow via signs you send through the natural world, e.g., the orb of a full moon accompanied by a birdsong that you taught loved ones to recognize? Or, maybe your spirit or energy could hide itself in plain sight via an art form - music, literature, film? Even the most casual reader of my blog might guess this is my idea of an optimum way to let loved ones know I'm still here, sort of. Of course, this is assuming the choice is up to me. If not, I'd be happy being the prankster or signaling my presence via the natural world. Now that I've given you a few ideas, please tell me some of yours. 

Anyway, although I'm planning on being around as long as possible, it doesn't hurt to give this some thought. And in the meanwhile, if I drop enough hints to loved ones while I'm still around, regardless of the tone my spirit or energy ends up taking, they could start seeing me everywhere. Good deal.  

Thursday, August 10, 2023

PSA for Serious Readers

As I was introducing folks to each other at the most recent meeting of the book club I established in 2017, something dawned on me. Of the nine people aside from myself who came to discuss Rocket Boys that night, five of them were folks I'd previously met in three different book clubs. It would be hard to over-state how much my life has been enriched by the people I've met since joining my first club in 2010. 

Even clubs I belonged to briefly between 2010-2017 yielded benefits that outweighed their demerits. And though I didn't realize it over those years, what I was continually doing during my tenure in each of those clubs - winners and duds - was gathering best practices. That clearly ended up helping me shape my own club into something special. Four of the six charter members of my club are folks I met in three earlier clubs I'd belonged to, including the moderator of the first club I joined in 2010 and remained active in for over two years. The other two charter members of my club are my wife and me. Sweet.

Before entering the post full-time work world in early 2010 , I made a list (surprise!) of some new things I wanted to try. From that list, joining my first book club is the thing that's proven to have had the most far reaching impact. I would strongly encourage any serious reader give consideration to getting involved in a book club or clubs. Keep searching until you find one - or more - that meets your needs. If you persist, you'll be rewarded by finding people who you'll want to keep in your life.   


Monday, August 7, 2023

The Road to Comfort

What word would you use to describe your current financial situation? Forced to guess, I'd say many of the people I know - including most of my family - would say comfortable. But even if my guess is way off the mark, I'm confident saying this: The stories people tell about how they've attained a state of financial comfort frequently include some predictable variables. Which of those variables come first when you tell your story?

Hard work? Who have you ever known who thinks their hard work had little or nothing to do with what they've attained? Smart choices? How many comfortable people have you met who will willingly own up to dumb choices - financial or otherwise - that set them back? So, how much of your story centers on your hard work and your smart choices? Whenever I'm telling my story reflexively vs. mindfully, those are definitely my go-to riffs. 

How about luck and its close relative good timing? How much air time do those two get in your story? And what about privilege? Ever run across someone who was born on third base and thought they hit a triple? I have. Though I wasn't born on third base, my privilege has clearly played a part delivering me to my current level of financial comfort. Luck and good timing have also helped me. To deny any of those three have had a role is to tell only part of the story.

Here's a challenge: Listen carefully when you next hear someone speak of their road to comfort. Pay close attention to the story they tell. Then come back and tell me what has become clearer for you. 

Friday, August 4, 2023

Library Drive-By

Only those who have worked a long time on their own writing can fully appreciate how difficult it is to finish something as seemingly breezy as Silver AlertLee Smith's 2022 novel is charming, funny, and easy to zip through. But like many talented writers who make it look easy, Smith has more on her mind than entertaining you, if you're paying attention. 

First and foremost, Smith's prose is unfussy, ensuring a reader stays squarely focused on the plot vs. the writing itself. "They did not even say goodbye. What I think is, they may be real smart, but they are not real nice."

Next - as the passage above amply demonstrates - Smith is deeply wise. Using just two simple words longer than one syllable, DeeDee - the young, uneducated, but emotionally intelligent protagonist - delivers a universal truth about people. In this case, DeeDee is speaking of the daughter and pompous son-in-law of the other main character, eighty-three-year old Herb. Unlike his daughter and "ass-wipe" son-in-law, Herb sees DeeDee as a full human being, regardless of her reduced circumstances.

Finally, as she did masterfully in perhaps her most well known book - Oral History (1983) - Smith toggles back and forth in time seamlessly. And as she does so, it's easy for a reader flipping pages to miss tiny hints that Smith casually and skillfully drops, each revealing telling details about her characters. "...this is just a short visit, a little retreat to clear my head, you might say." I missed that nugget when I raced through Smith's unassuming treasure. But while composing my book journal entry about Silver Alert, I recognized how much this tossed off remark revealed about the privileged mentality of Willie (William Randolph Farnsworth III). Willie is another player in DeeDee's young life who unthinkingly treats her as disposable.  

As has happened frequently in the past, Silver Alert was selected in a pure library drive-by; all I knew was Smith's name. I'd read no reviews, heard no buzz, purposefully avoided reading the book jacket and the gushing blurbs on the back cover, i.e., I started the reading experience a blank slate.  I finished knowing I'd just spent precious hours in the capable hands of someone who has worked long and hard at her craft. What was the most recent instance when you came in 100% cold and the book you selected subsequently knocked you out? What a blast.



Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Act Three Day


I asked you to remind me. But no matter that you did not. Following a tradition established on this date in 2012, I hereby decree from this day forward August 1 be celebrated as Act Three Day. And even if Hallmark does not climb on board, post offices and libraries remain open, and many otherwise ignore my newest brilliant idea for a holiday in this barren month, I steadfastly maintain those of us in act three - especially the ones who get no attention on grandparents day - deserve to be feted one day a year. Got ideas for ways to get this party started? I do.

* We pay just 50% of admission price for concerts, movies, plays, or sporting events on this day. And no charge for refreshments.  

* We automatically go to the front of any queue. Proof of age offered on request but tread carefully you whippersnappers. 

* A one day moratorium is declared on all patronizing age-related remarks, e.g., "You're in such good shape for a 70 year-old", etc. While we're at it, how about just for August 1 we set aside some tired adjectives frequently used to describe people in act three, e.g., spry

Other ideas? Come on, help me out here. This is attempt #12 at bringing August into line with all the other months, each of which has at least one major holiday.   

Monday, July 31, 2023

Over the Jersey State Line

How can it be twelve years have elapsed without my blog offering assistance to readers interested in fortifying their New Jersey bona fides? To help rectify this oversight, treat the guidelines below - re attitude, directions, food, and music - as counsel from someone who has lived here for all but four months of his seventy-three years. Without these bona fides - be you resident, occasional visitor, or someone considering moving here - you could get caught short. 

Attitude: Learn immediately and embrace completely the ethos of going all Jersey on someone when necessary. This applies to situations where someone acts rude or disrespectfully toward you. It can be especially helpful in customer service interactions, when in a queue, or in visits to Motor Vehicles. 

Directions: Understand no self-respecting Jerseyan identifies themselves via their exit on the Garden State Parkway. It's acceptable to use those exits when asking for or giving directions but never identify a person by using their exit number. Pat does not live at Exit 98; he lives in Brielle, which happens to be near Exit 98. Violating this guideline could earn you a visit from Silvio, Tony, or Paulie. If that trio is unfamiliar to you, remedial work is required.       

Food: Although bagels are a major food group in New Jersey, be careful about recommending a bagel shop to any lifelong resident, like say, me Also remember Taylor ham is alternatively called pork roll and is the preferred meat to put on a bagel, provided the bagel originated in a properly vetted shop. 

Music: Remember: The Boss did not compose Jersey Girl; Tom Waits did. If you need to ask who the Boss is, you've already wasted your time reading this far. In addition - with no disrespect to the Boss - he is only one of many great musicians New Jersey has produced. Start with Count Basie and learn several other names. Fortify those bona fides. 

Your turn. If you are a longtime resident of my beloved home state, please offer to my readers one or more of your guidelines. Be as cheeky as you like. Longtime residents of one of the other forty-nine: If you feel inclined, please weigh in with some guidelines for your state to help me and others. Finally, any reader who loved Zach Braff's valentine called Garden State (2004) contact me here or offline. I want to talk with you about that film and all the things that make New Jersey special, bona fides aside.