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

Tuesday, 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?