Monday, November 29, 2010

Modern Times

There’s a bunch of men hanging around the church parking lot after the 12-step meeting, it’s an acceptable November day and they’re in their thirties to their sixties. They know each other pretty well; have gone through divorce and job losses, the birth of children and the death of parents; they get together for a few minutes’ chatting once or twice a week.

During the meeting it was mostly women who shared about their lives, about their husbands and boy friends who do or do not drink, and how they’ve been working at acceptance at best and rejection at worst. One woman in her 40s is leaving her husband of 17 years. The man has been in and out of sobriety but mostly out, and after all this time she’s decided it’s time to go. She’ll be moving out in a week or two, her sister has a spare room and there are no children, thank god.  But she hasn’t informed him yet, she plans to have The Talk in a couple of days, and it’s going to be hard.

That’s what the men standing in the church parking lot are talking about now, how they were told, because each of them was, in one manner or another, sometime in their varied pasts.

“I got a letter,” a 50-year-old with a year round tan. “I was at Fort Benning and she sent me a letter saying it was over. I went nuts, asked for leave and it was denied which thinking back was a good thing. I was still drinking back then. It coulda gotten ugly.”

“Phone call,” said another. “I had the feeling she had made a list and was reading it to me. Her mom was with her.” He shakes his head. “Her mom really disliked me. She never once said my name. It was always ‘him’.”

Heads nod. Two men who’ve officially quit smoking light cigarettes.  One’s wife left him recently, announcing her departure with a brief text message on his Verizon Droid 2. Another recalls that his 18-year-old son was dumped by his girlfriend after an exchange on Yahoo Messenger.

Three of the guys exchange looks. One starts humming Roberta Flack and the two others join in, “Hey, that’s no waaayy to say good byyyyyyye…”

Then they get in their cars and return to work.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Death by Caroling

I never have an easy time of the holidays. I don’t know why but it’s always been like that; it’s a struggle and invariably something happens to darken the already gray mood, so that an event tolerable during the summer months is markedly painful to deal with in November or December. True to form, the bad came to pass a day or so ago. It was foreseeable but no less unpleasant for being so.

I am not helped by the caroling, the cheery pap that erupts and covers everything within reach with cloying treacle, making an already difficult time well-nigh intolerable.  At my favorite coffee shop this morning (owned, I might add, by a Lebanese Muslim) the ceiling speakers were blasting out Jingle Bell Rock loudly enough to sour the little plastic containers of Half and Half. At Million Dollar Books, where I get my weekly supply of cheap novels and biased histories, it was Holy Night, followed by Three Kings and capped off with Little Drummer Boy, which rat-tat-tatted my ass right out of the store.

It’s hard to get away from the caroling, since we have made Christmas—a one-time pagan celebration—the centerpiece of the holiday economics. A totally unofficial (and vastly prejudiced) survey I carry out each year among my friends tells me perhaps one in ten likes Christmas music, and six in ten really detest it. One woman friend told me the sheer repetition and sandpaper effect of Noels make her want to cry. Another said she turns off her car radio from Halloween to January second, at which time she thinks it’s once more safe to tune in, but sometimes she gets fooled.  “January 4, 2005,” she recalls. “NPR ran a three-hour special of Christmas music from all over the world, narrated by Garrison Keillor. I stopped sending them money after that.”

The auto parts store that is an essential stop during my Sunday meanderings had a chorus of lumberjacks singing about partridges in pear trees, and when I asked the manager about it, he shrugged and said the company headquarters had ordered all stores to air the company radio, and that programming switched to Christmas tunes the Saturday following Thanksgiving. It has something to do with the franchise agreements. 

Bad events cooperating with bad music create the soundtrack for a hellish Sunday.

It’s my belief that carols are a deterrent to spending money. One is tempted to save in order to give one’s beloved all the gifts described in 28 Days of Christmas, or is it 12 days. No matter. It feels like 28 days.

Stores would be wiser to pipe in The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary or anything by Enya or Dvorak. But they probably won’t. Marketing, we all know, is the wide-ranging application of the lowest common denominator.  So tra la la la la to you, and happy deficit. 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Black Friday

Silly me!  I thought Black Friday was the day after Thanksgiving when we’re somewhat disheartened, having, despite our best resolve, blown the diet by 5,000 calories. We’ve also come to terms, as we do each year at this time, that we do not like our twin cousins Eddy and Betty, or their mother, Aunt Trudy. We realize Uncle Pat will forever be getting drunk before the turkey is served, and there’s not a thing we can do about it. We are, as they say, powerless over people, places and things and we have to accept it. If we don’t, we will be very angry and depressed indeed. Thanksgiving is an odd holiday, a celebration of excess sugar, meat and fowl, strange tubers and gratitude.

The day of over-indulgence is followed by Black Friday, the holiday of over-spending.  Some stores open before dawn and promise savings such as are not seen in the lifetime of an average human. Indeed, these places, boiling over with the milk of human kindness, are almost giving away their wares, and who are we not to appreciate such sacrifices? If we are good, smart and discriminating shoppers, we will forthwith and without a second’s pause rush to such establishments, and partake of their kindnesses. Never mind that a recent survey showed that an alarmingly high number of us are still paying off the 2009 Christmas debt.

The newspaper in our driveway weighs eight pounds this morning, but only has five ounces of news. All the rest is catalogs, broadsheets, invitations to partake in the above-referenced incredible bargains, and if we go to the mall and spend a few hours (and dollars) there, we might be lucky enough to return after our houseguests have joined the crowded roads and airspace to return to Idaho, Maine or Florida.

Me, I’m always sort of lonely on Black Friday. I avoid taking the leftovers proffered the night before—tasty as they might be, they have no place in my fridge. I’m fairly certain most of the people I know are dealing with a bad tryptophan hangover. It’s hard to find someone to have lunch with. And it’s hard to find someone not dreading the next holiday, scheduled for less than a month from now. And people are moody after Thanksgiving. It simply never unfolds as it is supposed to. A friend calls it the most bitter of holidays. I suspect that long-term and short-term relationships end at Thanksgiving, possibly suffocated by the food, the environment and the resentments. It’s that kind of a day.

Going shopping on Black Friday is anathema. Really, I have nothing I need to buy, and I’ve already selected the presents I will give my friends. This being said, the 36-inch (diagonal) hi-def surround sound flat screen TV is tempting at the new, low low price. There will be a rebate too, and maybe even a few months’ of free cable access (basic subscription only). And a six month membership to Net Flix, a free copy of Avatar 3-D with accompanying glasses, a set of NFL mugs, 12 packs of microwave popcorn, a case of Diet Coke or Mountain Dew so the young ones can get really wired, and a big plastic bottle of mild salsa. This is almost too good to pass up; I could easily justify the purchase since they’re more or less paying me to take the thing home. It’s sort of like walking by a bar that’s offering free booze.  Who would pass such a deal?

So me, on Black Friday, I rake leaves. I go to one or two twelve-step meetings. I commune with my cat and vacuum the spent fur accumulated under the sofa. I think of friends both here and gone, and parents and siblings who’ve passed on. And I do give thanks for remaining at the top of the foods chain and realizing I don’t need any new doodad to appreciate being there.   

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Le Jour de Merci Donnant

For decades prior to his death three years ago, Art Buchwald's column Explaining Thanksgiving to the French ran in The Washington Post on Thanksgiving Day. The Post will not run it this year, so I will.

This confidential column was leaked to me by a high government official in the Plymouth colony on the condition that I not reveal his name.

One of our most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as Le Jour de Merci Donnant. Le Jour de Merci Donnant was first started by a group of Pilgrims (Pelerins) who fled from l'Angleterre before the McCarran Act to found a colony in the New World (le Nouveau Monde) where they could shoot Indians (les Peaux-Rouges) and eat turkey (dinde) to their hearts' content. They landed at a place called Plymouth (now a famous voiture Americaine) in a wooden sailing ship called the Mayflower (la Fleur de Mai) in 1620. But while the Pelerins were killing the dindes, the Peaux-Rouges were killing the Pelerins, and there were several hard winters ahead for both of them.

The only way the Peaux-Rouges helped the Pelerins was when they taught them to grow corn (maïs). The reason they did this was because they liked corn with their Pelerins.

In 1623, after another harsh year, the Pelerins' crops were so good that they decided to have a celebration and give thanks because more maï was raised by the Pelerins than Pelerins were killed by Peaux-Rouges.

Every year on the Jour de Merci Donnant, parents tell their children an amusing story about the first celebration. It concerns a brave capitaine named Miles Standish (known in France as Kilometres Deboutish) and a young, shy lieutenant named Jean Alden. Both of them were in love with a flower of Plymouth called Priscilla Mullens (no translation). The vieux capitaine said to the jeune lieutenant: "Go to the damsel Priscilla (allez très vite chez Priscilla), the loveliest maiden of Plymouth (la plus jolie demoiselle de Plymouth). Say that a blunt old captain, a man not of words but of action (un vieux Fanfan la Tulipe), offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier. Not in these words, you know, but this, in short, is my meaning. "I am a maker of war (je suis un fabricant de la guerre) and not a maker of phrases. You, bred as a scholar (vous, qui êtes pain comme un étudiant), can say it in elegant language, such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers, such as you think best adapted to win the heart of the maiden."

Although Jean was fit to be tied (convenable à être emballé), friendship prevailed over love and he went to his duty. But instead of using elegant language, he blurted out his mission. Priscilla was muted with amazement and sorrow (rendue muette par l'étonnement et la tristesse). At length she exclaimed, interrupting the ominous silence: "If the great captain of Plymouth is so very eager to wed me, why does he not come himself and take the trouble to woo me?" (Ou est-il, le vieux Kilometres? Pourquoi ne vient-il pas auprès de moi pour tenter sa chance?) Jean said that Kilometres Deboutish was very busy and didn't have time for those things. He staggered on, telling what a wonderful husband Kilometres would make. Finally Priscilla arched her eyebrows and said in a tremulous voice, "Why don't you speak for yourself, Jean?" (Chacun a son gout.)

And so, on the fourth Thursday in November, American families sit down at a large table brimming with tasty dishes and, for the only time during the year, eat better than the French do. No one can deny that le Jour de Merci Donnant is a grande fête and no matter how well-fed American families are, they never forget to give thanks to Kilometres Deboutish, who made this great day possible.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I’ve been writing songs every since I was a little kid. The first one I remember, I was six or seven years old and Babette, age nine, whom I loved with fierce if uncertain passion, announced she had started taking singing lessons. I reasoned a song might be an appropriate way to impress her, but it didn’t turn out that way. I remember that she used the word anodyne, which is the same in French and English, and I thought it had something to do with mercurochrome, but it didn’t.

I wrote songs in my teens, but mostly I focused on other people’s stuff and quickly figured out that knowing a total of seven chords was more than enough to play 90 percent of what was on the radio. Then, in my late 20’s, I joined a bluegrass band and realized that bluegrass calls on three chords. I wrote a couple of instrumentals and learned to play them badly on the Dobro.

I estimate that by now I’ve written maybe 100 tunes. Most are pretty simple progressions though I occasionally like to throw in a C dim or an F#minor 7th just to keep things interesting. They’re both great and seldom used chords. I also spent time learning to play the pedal steel guitar, an insane instrument with two necks, 20 strings, eight pedals and five knee levers, plus a volume pedal. The instrument is devilishly hard to play but makes wonderful sounds and offers an unlimited range of chord changes.

For me, a song starts with a couple of words, perhaps a fragment of or a whole sentence, an image, a brief event, an interesting turn of phrase. Someone might make a comment, unexpected in its clarity or scope, or unwittingly use a phrase that causes a spark. Recently, an acquaintance told of fighting “sad little battles,” and it stuck. I’ll be doing something with that. Some time ago, a friend from whom I hadn’t heard in months called to say, “Dixie and me, we’re doing fine!” Dixie is her 15-year-old daughter and it was such a wonderful phrase that it became the refrain to a song about the slow death of a small town and the endurance of its survivors.
Occasionally, I come up with what I think is a good double-entendre. Then, invariably, tiny grappling hooks become embedded up there in my brain and stay determined not to let go until more words are found, until a story is told in its entirety. That’s what happened with Lucky Tonight, the tale of a philandering husband and his bingo-playing wife. And then sometimes it’s straight theft. An image from an existing song will beget a new and different concept…

All in all, it’s an enjoyable quest. I like the challenge of interesting rhymes (and it’s true, nothing rhymes with ‘orange’ unless you’re Cockney, then ‘door hinge’ sort of does) , the play of the meter, the cadence and intonations. When the first stanza has taken life, I type it out on an index card that I keep in my wallet.

By this time I also have a basic idea of the music itself. I’ve played long enough to have heard (and copied) unusual riffs and progressions, as well as special instrument tunings. Drop the high E string of a guitar to a D and you have a built- in chord machine used by just about everyone from Muddy Waters to the Stanley Brothers to Bowie to the Stones. I have a slide guitar using that tuning and can play some very cool licks just by barring the neck with my index finger.

I’ll never get rich at this. My stuff lacks the hook of pop music, but that’s OK. I’m perfectly happy being a basement player with an occasional open-mike outing. A decade ago, a bunch of friends and I formed a band recorded a CD, and it’s there for posterity. Want to listen? Go to the iTunes Store, look for Idylwood, and download December Light. At .99 cents, it's a bargain...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Who Are We?

Are we who others think we are? Or are we who we think we are? Or something in between the two?

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a Starbuck’s having coffee. One table away, an argument was raging between a man who appeared to be in his thirties and a slightly younger woman. I will take some editorial liberties remembering the exact words, but here was the gist.

He: “What makes you think you’re always right?  Most of the time you’re not. You’re wrong about almost everything.”

She: “No, I’m not. You think everyone thinks you’re really smart and have all the answers, but most of my friends don’t think that at all. They think you’re stupid and stuck up!”

He: “Everybody knows your friends are all idiots.”

She: “My friends think you’re an idiot, even if you boast about being a PhD. You know what PhD Stands for? Phony Dummy!”

He (gets up): I’m outta here!

She (stays seated): “And you think you dress well? You think you’re a male model? You get all your clothes at Sears and you smell like Hai Karate!”

He: “F*ck you!”

She: “No, f*ck you!

Throughout the debate I tried very hard to appear as if I’m not listening, assiduously stirring my coffee and staring into space. The young woman turns to me, makes a face and says, “He’s such an asshole!” Then she leaves, going in the opposite direction.

Well, now. Here are two people who really had difficulty buying into each other’s images of themselves. I have no idea who these folks were, though I can attest that the man did indeed look as if he dressed at Sears or maybe Home Depot. I did not get close enough to smell the alleged Hai Karate, which is just as well.

I know even less about the woman. Maybe her friends are all idiots, but I doubt it. Most people have at least one friend smarter than they are. I have several; in fact, just about everyone close to me is way smarter than I am.

I guess the point to all this is the realization that whatever image I have of myself is probably false. There may be a core concept that has some value but most of what I may see as both assets and shortcomings is probably inaccurate. My leaving a dollar in the Starbucks jar does not make me a big tipper, even though I might think it does. What I take as wittiness may be incredibly boring to others, and a head full of worthless trivia does not make me the fascinating person I may think I am. Nor, for that fact, do my limitations define me though for years I thought they did. Now I try to live with them as best I can, while working to mitigate their effects on others. I’m not often successful but at least it’s worth a try.

So. Who are you?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Fall is setting in, winter is a corner away. The sun leaves early and comes late, there’s frost on the windshield of my car and the defroster doesn’t work.

This is a bad time for a lot of people. Whether it’s the loss of light, the downward spiral of the temperature or the holidays galloping toward us, this is the season of lost expectations. Many of us haven’t accomplished what we wanted to during the year. We didn’t go skydiving, we didn’t end a non-working relationship, we’re still living in the one bedroom apartment over-looking the parking lot. We didn’t write the book, record the song, go back to school for our masters of doctorate, and we didn’t get around to painting the fresco. Hell, most of us haven’t even gotten around to painting the desperately shabby bathroom yet and, let’s be honest, it’s not going to happen in December because nothing good happens in December.

It’s not quite Thanksgiving, the Great America Holiday of Wretched Excess, and already the Christmas ads have hit the papers and TV. Catalogs are invading the mailboxes, promising the great joys of purchasing largely needless things—stuff, as George Carlin used to say. And, it turns out, one out of five Americans apparently suffers from the winter blues, and 17 million are affected by seasonal affective disorder. The term, now shortened to SAD, was coined in the mid-80s by psychiatrist Normal Rosenthal and his colleagues at the National Institute of Mental Health. There isn’t a clear cause for SAD, but there are many theories. A prevalent one is that serotonin, the brain chemical that helps us feel happy and satisfied, dips when there is no light. This would be particularly meaningful in a place like the DC area, where in the midst of winter there are 15 hours of darkness and only nine hours of daylight. Another possibility is that the production of melatonin, a secretion that tells our bodies when to sleep and when to rise, is also partially regulated by light changes.

Certainly, in the ancestral part of our brains, we are programmed to sleep more in winter than in summer. We want to hibernate, since the hunting and gathering season is over and we need to conserve energy. Our bodies haven’t changed much in tens of thousands years, but our social systems have. Most of us work year-round, and outside of farming communities, the call of duty has little to do with the seasons.

So here’s some advice if you suffer from winter blues. Exercise more and eat less carbs. Let more light bathe your home—keep the blinds open, go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and get a a couple of cheap floor lamps. Throw a party, have guests over, get involved in some sort of community activity. If you truly suffer from SAD, go see your doctor and get more drastic—a light therapy box isn’t cheap but it’s not much to pay to avoid depression. And remember, December 21—the shortest day of the year, is not that far away.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Study schmudy...

A recent study performed in England discovered that booze does more harm to humans than do drugs. I hope the Brits did not spend millions of pounds on this one. The United Kingdom recently announced some serious cutbacks in almost every social program across the nation, and in this case, the researchers could have gone to any Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in the world and probably come up with the same findings.

Here’s the deal: Heroin, crack cocaine, crystal meth and methamphetamines may be more lethal to individual users than alcohol, but the latter so suffuses families and societies as a whole that the harm done to groups trumps that caused by other chemicals. And since alcohol has a negative effect on every organ in the body from the skin in, the liver, brain, kidneys, the stomach and digestive track, all take a hit. Continued use, as they say, leads at best to the emergency room and at worst to the grave or the asylum.  Even if the disease is caught in time, unless it is professionally supervised, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, which can’t be said of any other drug withdrawal.

The study also found that alcohol is connected to higher death rates and is involved in more crime and fatalities than any other drug, because drunks do stupid things. They drive and kill people; they hunt and kill people; they get mad and kill people; they get depressed and kill people… And of course hospitals spend unreimbursed millions of dollars treating end stage alcoholics, even as clinics and community-run rehabs are the first to lose funding when budgets run low.

Is there a solution? No, not really. Prohibition failed, and future attempts to ban alcohol will never succeed. Drinking is a part of social mores, and the alcohol lobby is easily as powerful as the NRA. Additionally, it would be completely unfair to remove from society something that gives harmless pleasure to a majority even as it may be fatal to a minority. Education makes a difference, and the acceptance of alcoholism as a disease that is treatable may, in the long run, mitigate the effects. More studies are unnecessary. Most of us know where alcohol abuse leads and many of us come from disintegrated families that were victimized by drunks.

Now a lot of us simply don’t drink, and in this way at least try to stay sane, connected and useful. It’s a small number, probably no higher than one or two percent of the people who shouldn’t drink, but it’s a start…