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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, March 30, 2024

Dangling Conversations with Music Lovers

What a gift it has been teaching serious music lovers these past ten years. 

A few months back I received an e-mail from one of these music lovers. She wrote me upon learning of the impending release of a two-part documentary series about Paul Simon. If you love his music - as I do almost without reservation - I strongly recommend In Endless Dreams. Though it's possible I might otherwise have learned about the series, I'm still grateful this music lover thought to contact me, especially with The Dangling Conversation - my own six-hour course about Simon - scheduled for a late April reprise at a local college. I can now add material learned from the series, including rich insights director Alex Gibney coaxed out of the modern-day master as he described his process while creating Seven Psalms (2023). Had this music lover not contacted me, much of this fresh anecdotal material about Simon's most recent recording might not have made it into my reprise. 

Developing and delivering these music classes since 2014 has been energizing and rewarding. And the frequent offline interactions and conversations I've had with music lovers have significantly enhanced that reward. Excuse me now as I track down a recent interview Stephen Colbert did with Paul Simon. Want to guess how I came to hear about that?    

Monday, March 25, 2024

Another Tribute to My Hero

I've often wondered what my Dad would have had to say about my blog. Although not an overly private man, he also wasn't temperamentally inclined to be public about many things. That fact alone makes me uncertain how he would have reacted to some of the more personal stuff that I've reflected on here.

On the other hand, from the start, Dad was unreservedly supportive of my interest in becoming a musician. He couldn't provide much financial help but he was often the one who volunteered to drive my high-school band to gigs. And he and my Mom allowed that band to rehearse in the "dining room", a tiny space in our railroad flat on the second floor of a house we shared with Mom's brother and his family on the ground floor and her mother on the third. To this day, I marvel at the tolerance it must have taken for my parents to listen to five out-of-tune teenagers - at close range - loudly playing songs neither one of them probably liked, over and over. Did I mention I learned how to play drums - practicing incessantly - in that same flat?   

I wonder what Dad would have thought about me sharing this family story. Aside from today, his birthday, I've recalled him many times here - on Veteran's Day, D-Day, etc. Sometimes a memory is dislodged, another instance of his unwavering love, and I feel compelled to write about him, my hero in every meaningful way. If he were still with me, perhaps he might have tried to talk me out of this and all my other public tributes to him. I suspect I wouldn't have listened. 

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Reviving Our Moribund Mission

Another gratifying by-product of our recent trip to Africa was the opportunity we had to sample the cuisine of several countries that we hadn't yet experienced in our Eat the World mission. That mission began thirteen years ago when I published the post directly below. 

Reflections From The Bell Curve: World Traveling Via Food (To Be Continued)

With the eight new nations added to our list in February - six of which were added visiting one restaurant in Cape Town - we hit a significant milestone: Since March 2011 we've now sampled the cuisine of 102 nations. And for two of those eight - Botswana and Zimbabwe - we ate at local restaurants in the actual countries (South Africa and Namibia were already on our list before the trip), which clearly enhanced the authenticity of the eating experiences. My personal favorites were the Malawi sweet potato cakes and the Zimbabwe amasi herb dip. What was your most recent unique eating experience?

I'm pumped our African adventure helped revived our moribund mission. With about ninety countries left to try, I'm feeling renewed confidence that we might eventually reach our goal. Please let me know if you're aware of a local restaurant serving an off-the-curve cuisine. One helpful hint: Forget North, Central, and South America; we've covered almost all that culinary territory. Best bets for stuff we haven't tried would be obscure, smaller Asian nations, or some landlocked African countries. Next in the queue is a Nepalese restaurant in NYC I've had my eye on for quite a while. What a blast.    

Friday, March 22, 2024

This Is Happiness

My travels with Road Scholar have proven to be a reliable way to learn about worthwhile books. This Is Happiness (2019) is the latest example of an exceptional novel that otherwise might have slipped by me if one of my Road Scholar companions in Africa hadn't recommended it. Not only was I intrigued because author Niall Williams was unfamiliar to me, the more my companion described authors, novels, and short stories he admired, the more certain I felt I could trust his instincts. I didn't have to wait long when reading This Is Happiness to know I was in capable hands

"I sometimes think the worst thing a young person can feel is when you can find no answer to the question of what you are supposed to do with this life you've been given." When a sentence grabs me at page thirteen (of 380), I'm all in. "I'm at an age now when in the early mornings I'm often revisited by my own mistakes, stupidities, and unintended cruelties. They sit around the edge of the bed and look at me and say nothing. But I see them well enough." With a narrator able to see himself that clearly, it didn't matter to me that this was going to be another coming-of-age story. It was apparent from that second passage - also early in the book - the wisdom here would be well earned.

Although I raced through This Is Happiness, I don't recommend you do. Savor it. Enjoy the characters and the humor - "...but for the muffled artillery of his gas" - track the luminous prose describing the Irish countryside - "...you stood in the revelation of so many stars you could not credit and felt smaller in body as your soul felt enormous" - marvel at the effortless way this gifted author juxtaposes his bildungsroman with a tale of modernity coming to an insular community. Gather gems like this: "In this life, I-could-see-that-coming and I-couldn't-see-that-coming amount to the same thing, because in neither case did you make a difference." And avoid being put off by what sounds like fatalism in that sentence near the conclusion. In context, I promise, those words help deliver the well-earned wisdom in this timeless and beautifully realized story of love, redemption, forgiveness.   


Wednesday, March 20, 2024

#71: The Mt. Rushmore Series

It's been eleven months since Mt. Rushmore last made an appearance. Please fib and tell me you've been anticipating this latest iteration of my longest running, most prolific series. Today's monument enshrines four transformational musical moments. What shook you enough the first time you heard it that you'll never be quite the same? 

1.) A voice: All it took was hearing that two-syllable name - Roxanne. I even remember saying - either out loud or to myself - Who the hell is that? In my life, the only close competition for a voice that immediately grabbed me like Sting's was the first time I heard Saving All My Love for You. What happened for you when you first heard either Sting or Whitney Houston

2.) A guitarist: In the quaint days when people listened to commercial radio, a DJ would often wait until a song was over to tell you the title and - if you got lucky - the artist. Upon first hearing Sultans of Swing, I recall hoping the DJ would give me that minimal information. After learning this new band was called Dire Straits, it was up to me to discover Mark Knopfler's name. His playing has mesmerized me ever since.

3.) An ensemble: Seeing the Mahavishnu Orchestra perform soon after they released their first LP - The Inner Mounting Flame - was as close as I've ever come to having a mystical musical experience. The way these five extraordinary musicians played their impossibly complex compositions was breathtaking. But amazing as that was, when they then began to improvise at breakneck speed - simultaneously - I was changed at a molecular level, musically. 

4.) A bass player: Of the moments on my mountain, my initiation to Jaco Pastorius, did not - unlike the other three - coincide with his explosion into the musical firmament. Jaco had already blown away legions with his earlier work in Weather Report. But when I heard his otherworldly bass playing on Joni Mitchell's masterpiece Hejira, particularly on Refuge of the Roads, I knew a musical comet had just passed. Jaco's early death still saddens me. 

How about you? No need to erect a full mountain or to use any of my categories; it's your monument. But please share with me and others at least one musical moment that rattled you as the four above did me.  

Sunday, March 17, 2024

St. James Day or Bust

As 2024 began, I decided my blog should mark - in some fashion - all major holidays over the coming year. Unfortunately, that resolve evaporated when both Valentine's (sorry sweetheart) and President's Day (ditto George and Abe) passed by unremarked. Although spotty Internet service while we were in Africa over most of February was largely to blame for that lapse, the mojo has now returned. Pardon the holiday solipsism that follows. 

Patrick, Martin, Christopher, and Jesus. That's some company my namesake is keeping, right? Today's holiday - using my moniker - has outlasted those commemorating Washington & Lincoln's birthdays; they were demoted to sharing a day and their title. Honor the blasphemous substitution of "Xmas" for Christmas, do you? That brings us down to three names associated with a major holiday = Patrick, Martin & Christopher. How about this? When people mention the holidays celebrated on the third Monday of January and the second Monday of October, are first names generally cited? Aren't you much more likely to hear MLK or Columbus Day? That leaves Patrick standing alone. Nice.    

The parades, drinking, and celebrating that help keep my name on lots of lips today are catnip to an ego like mine. But I'll not be fully satisfied until a holiday with my middle name is formally declared. To that end, I've retained the services of a flock of high-paid lobbyists, bribed a dozen members of Congress, and begun a grassroots campaign to have August 1 declared St. James Day, effective this year. I haven't yet settled on whether post offices and banks should close but Hallmark is gearing up and other noteworthy people named James have donated funds to my cause. With August being a barren holiday month, success is all but guaranteed. And as soon as St. James Day is codified, Barton is next in the queue. Posterity awaits, you'll see.                  

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Getting the Hang of It

After thirteen full years of blogging, I might be getting the hang of it.

When Maiden Voyage was published on March 15, 2011, I was sixty-one years old and had stopped working full time almost exactly one year before. How old were you? What were you doing for a living at the time? Are you still doing that, something different, or have you left the full-time work world?

My abiding passions then were music, reading, and film; that hasn't changed a great deal. But initiating my blog helped me bring into sharper focus another passion that had always sustained me even if the necessities of life - like making a living - had frequently pushed it into the background. That until-then subsumed passion was a lifelong drive to organize my world via writing. What passions drive you? Which are lifelong vs. more recently discovered? 
Before this blog became essential to my life, my writing had taken many forms - poems, songs, essays, reviews, never-finished books, etc. Once I began blogging, I quickly discovered the discipline of being public and accountable for producing something routinely had been a critical missing element in my creative life. On a few occasions when I've had cause to re-read an old post, I've cringed. But more often, I've been pleased with what I've written. More important, many of my other finished endeavors - several of which I've been quite pleased with - would have likely never materialized without this blog acting as a catalyst. What recent or long-time discipline of yours has opened you up as blogging has done for me? 

If you are a first-time visitor to the bell curve - accidental or otherwise - welcome and I hope you return. If you're an occasional reader - no matter how occasional - thanks for checking in. If you're a regular reader, thank you so much and be sure to let me know how I can keep you engaged. If you've ever made a comment, please know - as I alluded to in Maiden Voyage - every comment or incipient spark of an online conversation helps ensure the bell curve will remain open for business. 


Monday, March 11, 2024

A Rocky First

If only I'd put my guitar back in its case after finishing the second song. 

Besides getting there early enough to chat with the other musicians before beginning to play - and quitting while I was still feeling good - I'm struggling to extract other pertinent lessons from my first experience participating in a public jam session. I made some music on Body and Soul with the piano player and held my own leading the quartet through Out of Nowhere. From there, things went awry. Quickly.  

The next three tunes I played on were all quite familiar, but first my hands and then my brain let me down. My anemic soloing on Alone Together disappointed me enough that having to transpose Night and Day and How High the Moon to different keys on the spot sent me into a musical tailspin. My brain freeze was followed by mortifying solos on both those songs which, in turn, sealed the deal. Though I'd waited too long, it was now time to pack up. 

This first will not be my last, despite my D+ performance. I plan to set aside my embarrassment and return to this session, provided the leader will allow me to sit in again. Perhaps I'll do so as soon as this week. But it will be a while before I invite anyone to attend and listen. When did you most recently put yourself out there? Did you fall on your face as badly I did? If so, how long was it before you got back on the horse?              

Friday, March 8, 2024

I've Got Your Number (#2)

First off, congratulations to the smarty-pants who quickly cracked the first installment of this newest series when I kicked it off in early February. Although this second iteration may not be a big enough challenge for that showoff, I've got a few more cooking that may foil even a geek like him. In the meanwhile, apply the same guidelines used for installment # 1. Those are ... 

* Identify the one title that is correct as stated.
* Identify three of the five having incorrect numbers in their title as stated and then transplant the correct number from a title that is elsewhere on this list of five.
* Identify one title having an incorrect number in its title as stated and supply the correct number without using Google. Then, take the incorrect number from that title and slot it into the title of a book later turned into a series of films. Ready? 

1.) When I'm 69
2.) 1:01 to Yuma
3.) Summer of 55
4.) Ol' 64 
5.) Sixty Years On   

Extra challenge for smarty-pants/showoff: Which artist (author, filmmaker, musician, TV personality, etc.) is most closely associated with the item having the correct title as stated? 

As with installment #1, if no comments/answers are forthcoming in due time, I'll supply a hint to help grease the wheels. Good luck.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Practicing on People I Love

The dynamics of human communication are endlessly fascinating. While listening to a friend describe the difficulty he has communicating with his brother, I began reflecting on predictable breakdowns I have with my own siblings. I love them all at the same time as I frequently wonder how little they seem to get me. And I'd be surprised to learn that all three of them haven't had similar thoughts about me from time to time. Any of you with siblings ever had similar wonderings?

I'm guessing most of you would agree that our earliest communication models are those we learn by observing our parents speaking to each other. Then, if we have siblings - and especially if they are close in age to ourselves, as mine are to me - we begin building models with them that become highly influential in our early development as communicators. In effect, we're practicing. What works? What doesn't? What will elicit a positive response? What will annoy? Which of the techniques I'm trying out on my sisters or my brother will endear me to other people? Which techniques seem to alienate? Which will make me popular? Which should I avoid?

All that ran through my brain as my friend continued bemoaning the communication breakdowns with his brother. I re-played breakdown after breakdown with own my siblings from childhood, through adulthood, right up to the present day. Then my mind moved to lasting friendships I've built over those same years, friendships based on respectful communication. My final wondering: When will I stop practicing on people I love?        

Saturday, March 2, 2024

A Reading Posse That Delivers

Throughout your reading life, who has had a major impact on the books you subsequently chose to read?

I've been quite fortunate over my entire reading life. Early on, both my sisters infected me with their passion for reading. Next was my wife; our shared love of literature has been a glue binding us for almost forty-six years. Then, as she grew into an adult and discerning reader, my oldest niece became the newest member of my reading posse as the century neared its end. I would guess more than a third of the novels I've read over my adult life were recommended to me by one of these four women.

I met the fifth member of my posse in 2010, soon after leaving the full-time work world. She selected the books and moderated the meetings for the first book club I ever joined. Five years later the two of us began meeting every month for a 1x1 book discussion. (February selection: Renata Adler's Speedboat, discussed on Rovos Rail as we journeyed from Pretoria, South Africa into Zimbabwe.) Because I began using a book journal in 2010 and have recorded ever since who or what directed me to a particular book, I know for sure that she has pointed me toward almost 25% of the novels or authors I've read since meeting her. How's that for a major impact? 

Of the excellent novelists introduced to me by this newest member of my reading posse, Louise Erdrich is near the top of the heap. Her evocative prose, superb storytelling skills, and memorable characters have helped me better understand the importance of bearing witness to Native American history. After finishing Four Souls (2004) - the fourth Erdrich novel I've devoured since 2010 - I realized anew how lucky I am to have a reading posse that consistently delivers. Who do you rely on like this?