Thursday, September 15, 2016

"The man who invented casual..."

That's how Bing Crosby, no slouch himself in the relaxation department, described Perry Como (1912-2001) and I've been listening to Como a lot of late and learning as I do, not just about good singing and good taste, but about attitude and self-awareness.

Como, being the guy he was, would have scoffed at the thought of being a great example of being self-aware, as his entire approach to his work and life were of steady, committed and still easy going consistency. He was not Crosby or Sinatra, but he was the first exponent of an approach to pop music that would be adapted by Andy Williams and James Taylor (that's right, James Taylor). He began his singing career at about the same time as Sinatra and followed a similar path during the 40's, but was as different a man as could be from his friend from New Jersey and not just because Como was born and raised in Canonsburg, PA.

His parents were Italian immigrants from Abruzi and little Perrylucia spoke only Italian as a child. He and Dean Martin maintained their fluency to the end, although Como didn't sing many Italian songs, other than an album made in Rome I'll reference later. Como was also a skilled musician, having played in the Canonsburg town band and mastering at least three instruments. His technical musicianship, again unlike Sinatra, but like Crosby, gave him a leg up often, as his pitch rarely wavered and he always sang from his core.

After the usual road beating time on band stands (with Freddy Carlone and Ted Weems), Como struck out on his own as a radio star, hosting the Chesterfield Supper Club beginning in 1946, then moving it to television in 1949. Como was a mainstay on TV with a regular show until 1963, then moving on to specials for Christmas and Easter until, by the mid 70's, he stopped. He continued to tour, however, well into his elder years and, until his last concert year of 1994 (ironically also Sinatra's last concert year) stayed clear and strong vocally. I saw him twice in the 80's, but more about that later.

He was not a Vegas mainstay, finding the tone of the town not to his liking as much as Reno, which was more sedate, several times. He also found that Nashville was a great place for him to work and record, primarily due to the persuasive efforts of Chet Atkins and Steve Sholes, the men that ran the RCA shop in Nashville. Atkins, of course, was a giant on his own, but was also a superb record producer. He asked Como to come down and record a sorta country album, backed by the Anita Kerr Singers and with a band that included Atkins and Floyd Cramer, who had just perfected his unique way of creating country chords on the piano that propelled Cramer to solo fame soon after. It was also Atkins that brought a major hit to Como's attention with Don McLean's "And I Love You So" in 1972.

He was in almost every respect the polar opposite of what a pop music star is as a human being, in that he and his family lived on Long Island for years and then Jupiter, Florida until his death. His children and 13 grandchildren were never heard from, had nothing to do with show business and his wife of more than 60 years, Roselle, was completely devoted to him, as he was to her. Upon her death in 1998, Perry pretty much gave up.

He was a huge pop star from about 1949-70 and had an Indian summer from the mid 70's through the mid 80's. Despite the complete opposites in persona, Como and Sinatra were close and performed together a number of times during the 80's, twice at the White House. I have a recording of one of those concerts and it's really something to hear.

His last performances were in 1994 and he then just stopped, spending the last several years quietly until Alzheimer's disease took him away in 2001 at the age of 89.

Some of you at this point might be wondering to yourself, "so what?" and I can understand why you might. There is a point to all this, however, and it's mostly musical.

There were a lot of jokes made about Como's seeming somnombulance while performing, appearing mostly in cardigans (which he hated) and spending a lot of time on a high stool crooning. He was not demonstrative in his work and dramatic only when he sang to a crescendo, which he could and did in a round, burnished way that was never harsh or even the slightest bit sharp. But his skill was in conveying the essence of a tune by not putting himself into it. He could be defined as the anti-hero of pop singing in that regard, because Como never thought of himself as anything other than another instrument required to present a song in the best light. And it was not false modesty that brought that about, it was, rather, a self-assured confidence in his own practice and seriousness.

As a singer, he handled ballads the best, could swing when he felt like it and was comfortable in what Sinatra used to call "rhythm ballads", a good example of that being this late concert performance of  "Where or When", by Rodgers and Hart, arranged by Nick Perito. You'll hear what I meant about singing to a crescendo as this one goes along, completely unforced, and Como was 68 at the time. This recording comes from a now re-released disc called "Como on Tour", which highlights a typical Como concert from the 1970's through 1992. There have been quite a few great re-issues of Como material from the 40's through his last sessions in 1987 and I've been snatching them up as they appear, as they will not exactly fly off the shelves and will no doubt be discontinued within a year of release. Sad, but true.

I met the man once, in 1983, which was a remarkable year for me as it relates to meeting people. As I have written before, growing up in Saratoga Springs, NY, with its' fine performing arts center (SPAC) and celebrity-studded horse racing season, gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful artists I admired. That summer I was able to meet and visit with Sinatra, Como, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme'. Just writing that blows me away.

My visit with Como was relatively brief, but memorable. A buddy of mine was the night manager of the hotel at which Como and his troupe were staying and, when Como ordered dinner from room service, my pal called me and told me to get my ass to the hotel quickly, so he could have me bring Perry his dinner. It was a great set-up and I dutifully knocked on the door of his room, with the dinner servette before me. Como said hello, let me in and gave me a look, as he must have guessed I wasn't a hotel staffer. "Mr. Como," I said, "I had to pull this gag to meet you, as I'm a great admirer of your work." Como smiled and said, "Thanks very much, that's very kind of you. Would you like a glass of wine?" "Only if you let me pour it," I replied, and then sat down and had a glass of Chianti with Perry Como, for Chrissakes.

I immediately asked him if he enjoyed touring, given the fact that he certainly didn't do it for the money, and he let me know that it meant a lot to him that there were still "elderly people" that remembered him and that a lot of younger folks like me came along, too. I then asked him about my favorite Como album, a record titled "We Get Letters" from 1956. I asked because the album featured Como and just a small combo, six pieces, which was unusual for him. "How the hell do you know about that record?", he said, laughing and told me he loved making the album and three of his favorite tunes were on it. Those tunes are "I Had the Craziest Dream", "Somebody Loves Me", and "S'posin". After a few more minutes, I begged my leave and thanked Mr. Como profusely for letting me disturb his evening. He, in turn, thanked me for being a fan and wished me good-night.

Listen to that recording of "S'posin" again, which features the late Tony Motolla on guitar. Motolla, by the way, was the favorite guitarist of both Como and Sinatra and he played with both of them right up to the singers' respective retirements. This is the way to let a song just flow from yourself. It's not an especially profound tune and is usually swung, but the way Como just lets the thing effortlessly, but purposefully, wind its way around the melody is fantastic. Not a bump in the road and, I think, the way one would sing to a girl you love. That kind of naturalness, not casualness or lethargy, is the mark of a musically gifted and confident singer.

As I mentioned above, there was an album of Italian (Neapolitan) songs, made in the early 60's in Rome, at RCA's then huge European studios. The orchestra was that of the RAI (Italian Radio) and the chorus that of the Rome Opera. Like many Italian Americans of first and second generation, not much was made of speaking Italian when this country's unofficial language was English (note I used the word "was", please), as assimilation was the key to success. Still, Como made this record and did so lovingly. On it is my favorite Neapolian song and one I know by heart and love to sing, "Oi Marie",  which I have spelled correctly, unlike the link on YouTube. You'll hear Como sing the title phrase in both its' Italian pronunciation, as well as the Americanized version ("whey Marie"). Again, just a beautiful record and for those of us that still revere our lineage, happiness to hear. Listening to this reminds me of a lot of people and years loved and long gone.

And Como could and did swing, although never in a pile driving way as Sinatra did. One of my favorite tunes is Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies", which Como sang frequently, but no better than in this broadcast from the Chesterfield Supper Club in 1946. Mitchell Ayres wrote the chart and leads the band, as he did for Como until Nick Perito got the job in 1963. Even when he's punching a lyric, his glove is made of felt, not leather. Great band, too. Nobody plays like that now, they just don't. Como's biggest decade was the 1950's and an album called "Como Swings" (well, not really), featured another good example of the man's civilized swaying on "Route 66".

But it was the ballad that had a great friend in Perry Como and I have a few that I particularly turn to again and again. From the 50's comes a tune that is not only charming and beautifully scored, but carries a message taken for granted in decades past, but perhaps forgotten now - "When You Come to the End of the Day". Do you think the tune is hokey in 2016? If you do, that's too bad. I love it.

When Chet Atkins and Steve Shoales convinced Como to come to Nashville and record an album, the singer was apprehensive, as country was just not his thing. But Atkins was a smart man and put a sound around Como that not only worked up a hit or two, it took advantage of Como's uniqueness as a singer. The tune is a soft 2/4 ballad, sexy and with just enough of a country feel to be a natural for Como and the Anita Kerr Singers - "Dream on, Little Dreamer".

Atkins struck again in 1972, when he heard Don McLean's tune "And I Love You So" and suggested Como wax it, which he did and promptly became a hit. A great, deeply felt love song and another one that I could sing every day, and often do. An irresistible tune, with a fine chart by Don Costa.

I'll wrap this one up by going back to the lessons I learned from Perry Como. First, to sing songs in good taste and well-written, even if they're novelty tunes that reflect whatever sound of the day happens to be (the man was incredibly adaptive). Second, to sing honestly and with care, knowing how to use the voice to the advantage of the song, not the singer. And finally, to sing simply and clearly, knowing that the deepest meaning doesn't have to come from something loud or full of pathos. It takes a class act to pull that off and Como certainly was.

Another song I love is Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns", from his 1973 musical "A Little Night Music". It's really a beautiful, wistfully sad song and it means a great deal to me. People have been hacking up the damn thing for years and, up until I heard what follows, the only one that tried to stay true to the tune was Sinatra, who sang the song often and most effectively with just Tony Motolla backing him up on guitar. From the 1980 concert recording referenced above comes this performance, with Como backed by Nick Perito at the piano. I've listened to it at least twenty times over the last month and am not ashamed to say this performance is so simple, straight and unaffected that it brings tears to my eyes. Extraordinary.

By all accounts Como was a nice guy, a solid citizen and a kind man. He was also modest and, when asked late in life how he would sum up his career, said simply, "I started out as a barber, then became a singer. That's it." Well, I should think that was plenty.





Monday, August 15, 2016

Is it morning in America? Is it midnight in America? Actually, it was 8:45 in the morning ...

It was, yes it was. Right there on the corner of Constitution Avenue and 13th Street, NW. Washington Monument to my left, Museum of American History to my right, White House at one o'clock.

8:45 a.m. is high noon at the OK Corral for traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and buses, not to mention rickshaws, wheelchairs and those stupid stand up things that allow you to zoom down a sidewalk and think you look cool while wearing a helmet right out of the first Star Wars picture. That intersection is one of the busiest and if your window is open or top down, the sound is all of a racket, in several languages.

The IRS building is on that block of Constitution and there's always folks pitching the "Watchtower" magazine and attendant denomination of believers along with it. They are ignored. A lot is ignored on that corner and at that intersection, even by the tourists. It being August, the tourist flow has slowed to a trickle, but there are always some folks that come here and, based on my observation of how much time they spend thinking about what they see (measured by what I call the "linger factor" - more about that later), they might just as well head straight to Ebbitt's for a lousy lunch.

But last Monday was different. I came to a stop just before the corner of Constitution and 13th, coming down 13th. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a lady and her son standing on the corner. The lady appeared to be late 20's/early 30's and pleasant enough looking and her little boy couldn't have been more than 10, if that. He was a little fella, with moppish blond hair and, clutched in his hands, held close to the chest, a teddy bear. As they stood at the corner, I saw the lad's mom point over and up to the Washington monument and saw the boy's gaze follow her finger. She was saying something to him, what I cannot say, because I wasn't close enough to be nosy and was two cars behind.

But for some reason, those two captured my mind and I made a vehicular half-nelson into a sorta parking space in front of me. This annoyed the guy behind me, but he was driving a BMW, so I cared even less than if he had been driving anything else. I turned off the music (Bach, third Brandenburg Concerto) and watched as mom and her son crossed the street, walked up toward the monument and stopped several times along the way to look at all the eye-catching things around the edifice. There are the 50 American flags (one for each state - duh), the Air Force band shell off to the side and the full expanse of the mall as it slopes toward the Lincoln and World War II memorials. On a clear day, which this was, it's really quite beautiful - if you stop to think of it. But I confess that I rarely stop to think of it. I, like most of us, I suppose, am usually too busy thinking of myself.  

I had had the radio on for a while, listening to the latest news about, well, anything really; which sounds remarkably like the latest news I heard yesterday and the day before. All just a drone now of how much everyone loathes each other and, if that weren't enough, murdering each other, too. But I digress into moralization (there he goes again ...), so let me get back to the kid and his mom.

First thing I thought of was, where's his father? Does he work in DC, or is he off buying frozen yogurt for his little tribe? Maybe there is no father, or a father that is absent, so once again I see a single mother going it alone. That thought quickly evaporated and then something particularly sudden and surprising flashed in the pan. What was this boy and his mother talking about? What were the three of them (can't forget the bear) thinking as they stood before this magnificent structure. What was she telling him? I hoped that what she was telling him was more than just the pablum the park rangers (nice people all) yadda to all the tourists.

I thought maybe she told him about what the monument stood for in the first place. That it's a symbol of not just a truly great man - and Washington was, by all accounts, a truly great man; our Moses, I suppose. It's a symbol of the strength, like the marble and granite from which it was hewn, of a nation of greatness past and to be. I hoped she told him that just as an earthquake could not bring the monument down, so, too, the foul stench of stupidity and ignorance could not bring his country down.

I hoped she told him that the monument, like so much of the symbolic Washington, DC, is meant to remind him that his is a land of opportunity (and it still is), of freedom and tolerance (and it still is) and of the most reasoned and well-constructed system of government ever conceived by the minds of men (and it still is). I hoped she told him to be proud of what his nation has birthed, endured, suffered and gloriously achieved. That his nation saved western civilization twice in the last hundred years alone, and will again. That his vote does indeed matter and to treat that holy grail as if it were a dixie cup is a sin. That he doesn't need to worry about the lack of elegance, dignity, hell, even intelligence and honor, that swirls about his politicians and candidates, so long as he knows the Constitution, really knows it, and holds it dear, so dear that he would die defending it.

I hope she told him that the flags, the monuments and the rotundas of his country are not so large as to be unable to fit in his heart and mind, and that for every Trump and Clinton, there's a Reagan and Roosevelt and that all will work out just as it should, so long as he keeps his eye on his prize, whatever it is, and stays true to the principles George Washington and so many others lived and died for.

Then I snapped out of what seemed like an hour of thought, which was only five minutes or so, and made the right turn to the left on 12th and into my parking garage. As I walked to my office, I chided myself for being too dramatic about these things (there's always someone to tell me I'm "too much" of something), but then straightened myself up and smiled inwardly, knowing full well that it's never wrong to think the best of anyone, or anything, without being a Pollyanna.  

And finally, as I entered my office and looked, as I always do first, at the photos of those I love so much, I hoped one more thing.

I hoped she told him that she loved him, and that he told her that he loved her, too.... and the bear.                  

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The songs of summer ...

Yes, it's here, that hottest time of the year. I mean the election year, of course. Why, just the other day we had one helluva week. It seems that everybody's getting into the act and everybody is getting to be more crude and stupid on a daily basis. So, naturally, it's time for me to mock them all. Hell, I might even poke some fun at myself.

With all the varied personalities crowding center stage this election cycle, and with their shreiking all beginning to meld into one enormous dissonance (look it up), I think it's time we found some unique identifiers for each of these folks, or as many as I can think of today.

Since I love music, and obscure tunes at that, I'm going to assign what I think are obvious choices to identify each personality that comes to mind. Think of this as a stream of consciousness excersize and yes, the choices are bound to offend ... and I couldn't care less.

Let's begin with Senator Warren, the famous psuedo-New Dealer from Massachusetts. Hypocrisy abounds in this lady more than most, even though some of her premises are valid. Still, she lowered herself the other day by stooping to Donald Trump's level and wasn't even funny about it. Tsk, tsk. But let's not forget the Senator's dubious heritage, which Mr. Trump mocks (unkindly ... Pocahantas deserves better), and Senator Warren has attached to herself, ironically using language that some would find racist (really, listen to what she said). Anyway, here's to the Senator and her new best friend ever!

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House and, more recently, the self-appointed Greek Chorus of the Republican Party, has made it his mission to know everything about everybody, point out their faults (without ever identifying with them himself) and chastise all around for being unprincipled. In other words, he's being a namby-pamby. When I was a kid, guys like that got beat up. Frequently. Again, like all the others, the Speaker has many valid points and suggestions, some are even actionable. But spouting principles and acting on them with both feet firmly planted are two different things. Careful where you whack that gavel, Mr. Speaker.

Bernie Sanders has a voice and personality that is so easy to recognize that he almost doesn't need a tune, come to think of it, he kinda' is a toon, er, cartoon, I mean. However, folk, one must be fair and give everybody equal treatment. And if Senator Sanders is known for anything, it's giving everyone the equal treatment, which is to promise everyone Utopia without having to pay for it. No, I take that back, I would pay for it. And probably most of the people I know would pay for it and pay for it, and pay and pay and pay .... This fella has no chance of getting his party's nomination, but give the man credit for acting as though he doesn't believe that. I'm beginning to think that Sanders got the bern a little too much. Maybe it's time that Bernie and his throng return to their roots.

It's too soon to pick on the Veep nominees, but I'm sure they'll be real pips, so it's on to the MAIN EVENT. And the main event it will be. We got two real rock 'em, sock 'em robots in this ring this year, folks. I'm almost relieved of my dismay by the fact that this is going to be hysterically funny, like Don Rickles and Joan Rivers doing joint stand-up as the Titanic sinks.

Funny thing is, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump have been most accurate in describing each other. They're both con artists, both veteran scratchers and survivors in tough arenas and both willing to do just about anything to stay in the game. Admirable traits, if you're a felon. I like my presidents a little cleaner than that, though, so I find myself in a quandry. What to do? What to do?

President Obama is right once in a while (a very long while), so when he says that Mrs. Clinton is the most qualified person to ever seek the office, he' close to being technically right. She is the ultimate "insider", her protestations to the contrary and by handing over the management of the economy to her husband, the former president, we could be sure of several things. The Chinese would get more industrial and military secrets, the Russians would take advantage of an administration certain to be distracted by scandal and ongoing doubts about Madame President's integrity and the continuing turmoil in European society would be co-opted by all of our pals in the near and middle east to speed-up their "plant a seed or cell" program. Would Mrs. Clinton be all that bad? I dunno, ask somebody else.

And then there was one. The cheese stands alone. And this little piggy .... ok, that's enough. Donald Trump. Truly a remarkable fella. A combination of P.T. Barnum, William Jennings Bryan and Lyndon LaRouche all rolled into one guy that can't decide from day to day whether he's a Republican, Democrat, Populist or just a cad. I confess there's things about his personality I like and a few of his positions (I mean the ones he's said more than once) make sense. I appreciate it when he says the government has been led by "stupid" people, cause it has. I agree that there is no discernable system by which people can emigrate to this country in an orderly fashion, as was true in decades past. By the way, it was Lyndon Johnson and Congress in 1965 that screwed up the immigration system and Republicans went along for the ride. Oh, and if you're here illegally, you're not an "immigrant". Being an "immigrant" implies legal status. You're an "alien". Jesus, get your nomenclature straight folks.

But, the guy just doesn't strike me as what we need. Ever. The Europeans have made a lot of noise about what an idiot Trump is, but most of them (especially Mr. Cameron) are looking fairly well idiotic themselves at present. No, I don't think Trump is an idiot, quite the contrary. I think he's too smart for our own good. But, how to describe this guy? The theme from "Rocky"? Naw, too easy. "My Way"? Nope, wouldn't insult Sinatra like that. I've always liked Roger Miller's tunes, they are silly but often sharply poignant and I think I hit on the one that describes the whole nature of the Trump campaign (if you want to call it that).

The man just believes that it'll all come together, every shred of evidence to the contrary.





Saturday, June 18, 2016

Father knows best ... from time to time

I had to qualify it, after all. I am one of those fathers that is looked to for answers that are obligingly given, which are then sometimes cheerfully, but usually, dismissively ignored. Several people have suggested that it's been too long since something appeared here, so it makes perfect sense to write about fathers, given the holiday. Using the word "holiday" to describe Father's Day is inaccurate, at least in some instances, as it implies that the day is one of celebration. It was for my father and perhaps his father, too. For myself, I've yet to see the value in it.

It's better to write about other fathers, I think. There's the big Father, then there's Washington, father of our country; Father Brown, who solved many great mysteries in G.K. Chesterton's wonderful stories; Father (later Archbishop) Ronald Connors, my favorite pastor and a man responsible for passing along to me brilliant observations and thoughts that only crystallized in my mind years later; Edison, the father of invention; also Henry Ford, the father of modern industry. And let's not forget Bach, the father of counterpoint and western music. And so on ...

My father. Well, I've written of him here several times before and there's little to add at this point. While I miss him terribly, it's just as well that my father is now with the Boss Father, as I'm sure he's having a much better time of it. And I sincerely doubt he'd enjoy being a father in this culture, in this time.

"Oh, no", you say, "there he goes again, off on some meandering screed about how ungrateful the world is and how stupid and unfeeling people have become in the general sense." Well, yes, and thanks for saying it for me. Now I can set it aside. But it is true, don't you think, that being a father in the wild, woolly 21st century is a task not for the faint of heart? Those of you readers that are fathers, or single mothers (as you have to be both sides of that coin), consider -- would your parents have allowed you to speak at and to you as your children do now? Were you at least somewhat grateful for the immense sacrifices made by your father to not only feed, clothe and house you, but perhaps even have fun with you, impart some knowledge to you and, with luck, maybe even teach you a thing or two about what it is to be a caring, thoughtful person?

Experts have said - and we all are experts (people on Facebook think so), that a man's entire self-esteem is determined by how well he views himself as a good worker with a successful career and whether or not he is a good provider to his family. Must be all that "hunter, protective instinct" stuff that feminists claim to hate and yet crave in the worst of my gender (I still know my gender, thank you very much). Folks, that's not a lot to go on, what with the state of today's economy and workforce, not to mention that wages have experienced a real decline over the last 20 years. But, that's where they say we have to place our chips, so, by God, I and the rest of the fathers I know, with a few exceptions, will do everything possible to get the job done, or die trying ... and some of us just might.

Here's the good news, and it is truly good news. There are enough genuine experts to help us get this stuff, fellas. James Altucher is a "thought leader" (hate that), who writes a fine daily column that appears on LinkedIn and elsewhere. He recently wrote a piece HERE that summarizes a lot of what a good dad should impart to his kiddos. There's also another place, called The Art of Manliness that offers daily tidbits of practical and philosophical wisdom and today's piece, which is HERE, is one of those bits that will stand not just the guys, but the ladies, in good stead.

Finally, look to books that teach all children what it is that makes a strong character, preserves integrity and keeps despair at bay. Some of these texts might even inspire a child to live and love with both feet firmly planted. If the kids won't read them, over and over, may I suggest you should dad, and moms, you, too.

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Everything you'll ever need to know about human nature can be found in this novel.
  • Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Written in 1927, this book teaches you how to keep your mind focused on a goal and achieve a dream by believing it is anything but a dream.
  • Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. One of the best novels of the last fifty years, that tells a tale about knowing the difference between what happens when greed and desire blot out humanity. Think of it as a companion to Fitzgerald's Gatsby, which has been hackneyed.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The best manual yet written on how to get along with others. Period.
  • Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson. 'Nough said.
  • Everything Shakespeare, Dante, Hemingway and Steinbeck wrote. Especially Steinbeck's The Pearl, a little novel that teaches giving till it hurts and then some is, ultimately, the best way.
  • Poetry. Poetry. Poetry. 
  • The Book of Proverbs, by King Solomon and friends. I'm certainly not the best Christian - I'm much more of a Roman, but good advice is good advice.
My father told me to never stop learning and being better; that nothing is ever as good as it can be and that you can never love someone too much.

As nearly always, he was right and I sincerely hope you fellas are almost always right, too.  



Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"The Happy Warrior"

That moniker was attached to New York Governor Al Smith, by his junior and sometime protégé Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the 1928 presidential election, in which Smith was running against Herbert Hoover, the brilliant (and he was) Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge. There was no question that Hoover would win the election. Harding and Coolidge had been popular, done little to interfere with the booming American economy and, in spite of Smith's opposition to Prohibition (well, the man was Irish), came across as reasoned, quiet and measured leaders. Smith was a loud, profane, cheerleading Irishman from the wrong side of the tracks who spoke with a thick New Yohk accent and ... he was Catholic! Nope, Smith didn't have a prayer.

But Smith didn't give a damn what anyone thought of him, he was a hard-nosed New York pol and proud of it. He was always laughing, encouraging and regaled the crowds with can-do speeches and frequently had a good size cigar clenched in his teeth. So, FDR dubbed him "The Happy Warrior".

The key word in that title is "happy", by the way, and it's the singular word missing not just from our political life; it's missing from so much of many lives, in many ways. The struggle to be happy and to achieve some level of self-satisfaction is an age-old Gordian knot as we struggle to find that happy existence among people, things, accomplishments, prayer and devotion, avocations and hobbies - anything to distract us from all around us that are daily battering rams to the spirit and heart.

FDR later became the true Happy Warrior and, regardless of your politics, outwardly reflected that gleeful fight in every campaign, through the Depression and World War II. All of this, by the way, while suffering from polio, a loveless marriage and a longing for the kind of friends with whom he could be emotionally open and honest without fear of backlash. The last few years of his life were made joyful through his reuniting with his great love, Lucy Mercer, with whom he'd had an affair in 1918, then ended on the order of his mother and, reasonably enough, Eleanor. Lucy went off and married another fella and, after her husband's death (really before), she and FDR got back in touch and found that their affection and love for one another had settled into a bond of complete understanding and empathy.

Lucy was with FDR when he died and I like to think, my admiration for Eleanor Roosevelt notwithstanding, that it was right that she was there when he slipped away. Perhaps, at the end, he found himself more "happy" than a "warrior".

Often warriors are alone, even when surrounded by other warriors. They go their own way, often fight for causes that others find absurd and a waste of energy, but they are also often proven right in the end.

I certainly don't wish to appear arrogant, but I'd like to think of myself as a "sort-of Happy Warrior", meaning I have goals, purpose and resolve and that, while I pursue the fight, I can hold myself high in my own esteem and hopefully that of others. I would also hope that we all strive for that place in the conduct of our lives.

The reason this is weighing on my mind at this time, well, for some time, is because that as I consider FDR's problems, Eleanor's problems and Lucy Mercer's problems, not to mention the problems of American citizens from 1929-45, I can't help but consider the problems of what I suppose could be called that great group of the modern day aimless middle class. Maybe "suckers" is a better word, or "rudderless", or as Rodgers and Hart wrote, "vaguely discontented".

Warriors need troops. Warriors need support and warriors need belief. We had those things in 1941. I don't know that we do now. Not just for principled and reasonably argued political philosophy and positions, but for those things which couldn't be aired and bandied about in 1941 as they are now.

I arrive home most evenings to be told a litany or problems, a miasma of misery, disappointment and unmet expectations. All the ills and challenges of today's working and middle class come crashing around ... autism, poor grades, arrogant disrespect, a lack of faith, crushing mental illness, debt, a litany of bad news on the television and over the radio and a general demand that I, as captain of the ship, "fix it".

It makes me think FDR didn't have it so bad, after all.

Because, when in this day and age, Fox will report that a mosquito farted in Brazil within five minutes of the event and consider it news, it's impossible to avoid the sea of noise and information, almost all of it useless, that crush the "happy" out of being a warrior.

There's been a lot of talk (there's always a lot of talk) about how angry the American people are at "the system" (in the 70's, it was called "the man", just in case you wondered if this phenomenon is new ... it isn't), how the "establishment" of the political parties have the fix in for their candidates and that polls show not one of these contestants are a favored choice of the people. Well, that's happened before, too. Many times. We'll be fine, folks, as long as there are a few of us left that still think there are beliefs and principles worth all we have to give, including our lives.

Over the last few weeks, I've had conversations (really monologues) about history, music, art and literature. In spite of expressed good intentions, the truth of the matter is that no one really gives a damn about these things. Mentioning on Facebook that it was Bach's birthday and linking to a glorious bit of his music results in a resounding thud of silence. Attempting to share a knowledge and wonder of the great and always revolutionary (in the best sense of the word) history of this country is met with blank stares of disinterest. I can't remember the last time I went to an art museum with anyone other than myself and, if a poignant set of prose or sincerely expressed sentiment brings a tear to the eye, it is met with a look of near disgust.

This is why a campaign manager grabbing someone's arm takes on the status of an international incident. This is why we are mesmerized by men publicly insulting each others' wives. This is why the President's attendance at a baseball game, or dancing the tango, while poorly timed, are spoken of as akin to consorting with criminals. It's why so much is made of so little and so little is made of the stuff that matters.

There are some that have come to the specious (look it up) conclusion that happiness can only come from within the self, that it has to be manufactured, or that it's merely a matter of deciding to be happy. But, just as a flower will die without sun and water, so to happiness is a organism to be nurtured, cultivated and guarded by external elements. When those elements are missing, or withdrawn or conditional, the flower will often times die.  

Sometimes, as corny as it may sound, what matters most is just to have a quiet dinner, to take a walk and listen and perhaps even to express, without fear, love and a happiness that there is, after all, a shoulder to lean on and warmth in which to bask.                      


Thursday, March 17, 2016

In the words of Albert Schweitzer ...

For those of you in Rutland, Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), was a great philosopher, organist, theologan and physician. In other words, he was a fairly busy fella. Late in life, he was asked by an interviewer what Schweitzer thought was the greatest problem facing the world at that time. Schweitzer paused a moment and answered, "People just don't think."

It's remarkable what one thinks about after having not slept for three days. Well, as Frederick the Great was fond of saying, "there it is". That thought about non-thinking has come to me several times as I listened to Republicans, Democrats, the pundits and any number of other experts on the state of the nation, how political parties are going through revolutions and Donald Trump is analogous to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Pol Pot. In fairness, it was wrong to leave out Mao, Ho Chi Min, Franco and Stroesser (he ran Bolivia for a time). This doesn't suggest, by the by, that I'm a fan of Trump or support his candidacy. It isn't that he's unqualified to be president, because historically, none of them have been "qualified". None of the men that have wound up with that gig have ever had the slightest idea of what was going to hit them when the inaugural parade was over. No, I correct myself - Washington, Grant, TR and Eisenhower had a pretty good idea.

No, it's not that Donald Trump isn't qualified, it's that he's not dignified. I give more thought to the concept of dignity now than I used to, probably because I've put my own on the line too many times. Dignity and thinking go together, actually, because it takes a lot of thought to maintain one's dignity. Expending that energy, concentrated energy to say the right thing, do and feel the right things are exhausting just in daily living. Imagine what it must be like to have to pull that off when you're running a country (which, by the way, the president doesn't do). 

At this very moment, the latest season of "House of Cards" is running in the background. The entire premise of the series is that no one, not one, of the characters has any dignity whatsoever. Last week it was suggested that I watch "Downton Abbey" by someone with an English background. She raved about the show and what I noticed in her words was an admiration for the elegance, order, style and, oh yes, dignity of those characters and those times. Her arguments were convincing enough that I watched part of the first season over the weekend, when I was on an enforced rest (which did no good because I haven't slept since). And she was right, actually she's right quite a lot. I like the show and will continue to watch it.

"House of Cards" I'm putting aside, not just because the whole premise of the thing is ludicrous, but because I think I rather like it better a century ago. I like that, even if just for appearance sake, people thought before they did something stupid or hurtful. They were qualified to be upper class, whether upstairs or downstairs, dowager or maid, duke or butler, because they were dignified.

Programs like "House of Cards", "Scandal" and others of that ilk are becoming much too much like today's reality. Some may consider people like me to be just another Walter Mitty, living in a world of daydreams and a reality of my own making. That isn't true, but, considering what I have been thinking about the last couple of weeks, it seems to me that hopes and dreams, however much they are dashed by all the Trumps of the world, are a much better sphere in which to exist.

I recently heard something about "hearts that are missed". They are, they are indeed.               

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

There was (as I remember) always snow ...

By Thanksgiving. Sometimes quite a lot of snow, which, if leaves had not been cleaned up by then, would mix with the remaining pine needles, twigs and leaves to create a decoupage that was worth a quick glance and a "huh", just before hurling oneself down a hill on an aluminum snow dish, or Flexible Flyer. Later would come a toboggan, and one helluva toboggan it was. Six feet, solid maple and most carefully waxed and waxed, then waxed again.

Snow was a fundamental for a successful childhood where I come from. It formed the basis for existence for nearly half the year and so skills were required to manage. The speed with which one could get into and out of winter gear, for example, was a daily challenge of physical and mental endurance for a youngster, especially if snow and ice happened to make its way below the zipper at the top of the neck, work its way down to the chest and then melt about the torso, thus giving the feeling that an insidious ooze had made its way into your nether regions. After removing hat, scarf, gloves/mittens (mittens were the worst, they weighed ten pounds when wet), boots with those stupid clasps that would freeze over, then a couple of layers of clothing and finally underwear and socks that had bonded to your waist and feet, there you stood, naked in front of a tub or shower, knowing that when you stepped in, the shock of the warm water against your red flesh would cause the howl of a stuck pig to come out of your mouth.

Yes, those were great times.

They were, really. I wrote the worst first, because there is so much more good than bad about snow and ice. Age and reflection have caused me to probably magnify the volume of snow, how white it was and how long it lingered before turning to brown slush, but not how it looked, felt and insulated it could make you feel. There are sounds common to all weather and unique to each variety. For snow it was silence. A muffled silence that wouldn't even carry a normal shout or whistle past the person next to you. If you watched snow fall from inside the house, its appearance would soften and bring in the walls of the room, so that the enclosure from which you watched was a quiet blanket of security, serenity and sometimes contentment. Watching snow fall could make you sleepy and, should you fall asleep before a deep snow, cause you to feel wonder when you awoke to mounds of what had been a dusting only a couple of hours before.

Often the sight of a light snowfall would signal a walk to the east side recreation field, "the rec", where there was an outdoor skating rink, quite large and across the street from my elementary school and the general store - Davis's Market, not to be confused with Pepper's Market a few blocks down, which was a bookie joint and had a badly off center, slanted red roof. You could make the walk from my house in about fifteen minutes, by which time the hot chocolate served was most timely. The warming hut, which was actually a fairly large one room building, was all rough wood with splinter-laden benches on which you would struggle to put on and take off skates, while bending over in the aforementioned snowsuit that strangled your midsection, fingers struggling to reach the laces at the bottom of the boot.

A lot of youthful drama took place on that skating rink, especially once later middle school had been reached, for it was then that you realized you might get a sideways glance from that girl (hell, any girl back then), causing you to crane your neck and body slam anyone within a five foot radius. Knowing how to skate helped, of course, even if you had to use your hockey skates, as a lot of us played hockey back then, when it didn't cost a small fortune to do so and you could get a pick-up game together in a half hour. It's just sticks and a puck, folks. Ice skating as the snow fell was great for all the senses and a reminder that there is always freedom in movement, which made the walk back home after a leg-aching experience.

Age has made me loathe snow for more than a day and cold weather even more. Still, I find myself missing it now that the El Nino we're experiencing will give us a 72 degree Christmas. Like many other things we take for granted, we don't realize how fond we are of it until it's gone. Hence the journey back to a snowy landscape, red cheeks and the stinging wind that confronted you as you made your circles on the rink, or down the sledding hill, or tumbling from the top of the enormously high snow wall.

Tchaikovsky's first symphony carries the title "Winter Dreams", and it used to work like magic when I would listen to it in those days, causing snow to begin to fall during its 40 odd minutes. I know that magic won't happen this year, as it hasn't happened for many years, but I think I'll listen to it on Christmas Eve as a comfort. an all too brief winter journey.