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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".

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