Saturday, May 30, 2009

Old Time Entertainment

I don’t know if it is just my perception, but Spring seems this year to have arrived with a lushness that is unusual even in this lush and blessed Eden. Every blooming plant I have seems to have three times the number of flowers it managed to produce last year – indeed, a lilac I was considering removing because it was so sadly skanky and miserly with its blooms last year has astonished me with lavish lavender clusters this year. My wisteria, planted only two years ago has thrown out its first-ever bud and my climbing hydrangea, a plant that is notoriously slow to establish itself, has at least three flower heads about to bloom. And so it goes; every plant on the estate has either tripled its display or has suddenly bloomed for the first time. Peony plants, which are everywhere in my demesne, are practically invisible beneath the loads of buds they are bearing – even some I moved after they had already appeared this Spring have departed from custom and thrown out buds.

Some months ago my sister Lucy sent me some photographs that she had been given by our cousin Annie who has probably never thrown away any memento she ever collected, including a paper cup in which an aunt once gave her a drink (I am not joking here). A couple of these pictures are from an event my sibs and I staged so very long ago, and one picture in particular shows us so happy, so lively, so united that it smote my heart just a bit. I have wanted to post it here for a while, but something more than my complete lack of know-how has held me back – although I must confess, the lack of know-how and even greater lack of will to learn anything new involving computers may do the trick, however I resolved the other issue.

Speaking of the lack of will in the matter of computers, I must say my team leader called me aside yesterday and informed me that my boss’ application to get me a third week each year of vacation from the rigors of work at Smallville Solutions has seem to be stalled and that he therefore has directed her to tell me that I am to take my third week on the DL, so to speak, and that I was to tell her when I was taking this extra vacation time, and she was to record it for the department’s eyes only, up to the full extra 40 hours, while the department blatantly lies to HR and claim I am at my post. I will entertain no remarks here on the possibility that there will be no noticeable difference in the amount of work produced. I do need to note that my desperation to retire and my hatred of all things job- or computer-related has nothing to do with this particular place of employment, where I have a great boss (as just demonstrated), and perfectly satisfactory colleagues. The distance of my work from my home is debilitating after driving it for more than two years through rain, snow, sleet, sun and traffic citations. But it is the lack of discretion over the disposal of my own time and life that is becoming unbearable. Living in two places as I do, I am unable to get a social life going, or to pursue real interests (if I have any) in either place. I could, of course, but I am far too inert and too easily discouraged or distracted. It is time for me to have a real life, instead of this mess through which I have sleep-walked for lo! these many years. Yeah, I know – cliché, there. I called a reverse mortgage lender this week, and I arrived in Reedville to find a fat envelope awaiting me with the info I had requested from him. I am afraid to open it thus far, because I have gone so far in my mental retirement (no clever cracks here!) that I can’t bear to be disappointed by what I find.

But I digress. What I was about to talk about was a time long ago when I was about ten or eleven, when there appeared in various locations around Reedville posters announcing the coming of something called the “Darktown Jamboree” to our local town hall. I had no clue what this was all about, but any break at all in the dailiness was a matter of great interest in sleepy, never-changing, rural Reedville. Indeed, if a cow farted, my siblings and I would be diverted for half a day or more. Our Town Hall had been built in the 1930’s and included, besides the garage for the local fire trucks, of which there were two, and the local library and town offices, a basketball court along one side of which was a fine stage with heavy purple curtains (in my memory they are velvet, but I am sure that was not actually the case) and overhead stage lighting and the works. This building, which was built by an agency as one of those projects that made up Roosevelt’s attempts to provide employment during the ‘30s, was a real center for town life: we voted there, held suppers there, crowned the annual Harvest Queen there, spoke to Santa and received gifts from him during the annual cartoon show and party for the local children put on by the Fire Department there – I even attended first grade in its basement. And once in a great while, chairs were set up on the basketball court and some show or play was performed there upon the excellent stage. These were memorable events; this Darktown Jamboree was to be another such show.

I had no clue what the name portended, nor would it have made any difference one way or another if I had. But this was nothing more nor less than a classic minstrel show with local citizens in blackface performing Stephen Foster songs along with other music commonly associated with what we invariably called “colored people” in those days. Of course the central feature of minstrel shows is the group of men sitting in a row telling corny jokes with various broadly drawn reactions by the group to the punch lines. I recall very little about the show itself, except that we were convulsed with laughter throughout, and a new interest was born in the hearts of the Shaughnessy clan.

I realize now that minstrel shows were disrespectful and demeaning to the black people they purported to portray, and I would not consider attending one now any more than anyone in our town would consider performing in one. As a child, and I think this is common to many children, I could know several conflicting ‘facts’ at once. I could know that this show was depicting black people as somewhat buffoonish without ever once seeing any relationship whatever between these portrayals and the only black kid that I knew, Clinton Parks, of whom I have written. It would not surprise me at all to find that Clinton could – or did – attend this event and may have found it as removed from his experience or as unreferential to him as did I. Or perhaps that would not be the case, perhaps he would have found it hurtful. I have known personally a number of black people who were highly entertained by Amos and Andy, (as well as others who were decidedly not) and the show Amos and Andy really was no more than an extension of the minstrel show idea.

I am straying into territory where I have no authority at all, but it is my guess that for a group in power, such as whites in the U.S. in the 50s, there is very little that is admirable about shirking work, or laziness, or getting by on trickery. But to a group who are powerless, whose members can work their asses off, behave on jobs with complete integrity, and who can be the absolute model of the perfect worker and still make absolutely no forward progress in life or in society, the image of a man who ‘gets away with’ shirking his duties, or who puts one over on the boss or company, or on society, is a far more admirable or heroic image. So where the white man sees someone like – was his name ‘Kingfish’? – I never saw the show, and only listened to snatches of it on the radio; I was too young to comprehend it – but I am referring to the slick, feckless character that provided so much of the humor in Amos and Andy as kind of useless and typical of the ‘laziness’ of a group of people whose best efforts brought no reward, who had no reason whatever to work hard for the benefit of white society; someone who is in the powerless class whom Amos and Andy and Kingfish represented may see such a man as something quite different. Amos and Andy was just entertainment after all, and the writers probably never gave deeper matters a thought, but I am guessing that the character that was kind of the ‘straight’, socially acceptable character – was it Amos? – was kind of a stand-in for white society. No one would have considered putting on a show at that time based on blacks duping or frustrating actual whites. Indeed, there has been a string of fiction back to Robinson Crusoe, through Gunga Din and Uncle Tom’s Cabin right up into the ‘60s and beyond where the admirability of a nonwhite character was based directly on his selfless devotion to one or more whites. (Spellchecker doesn’t like ‘admirability’, but I do.)

As I said, Darktown Jamboree struck a chord in the Shaughnessy hearts. This was particularly true, I think, of Gary. Throughout his life Gary was hugely drawn to the oddballs, which one could argue the characters in a minstrel show were. He loved Jimmy Durante and used to do routines for the family, imitating him. He liked in real life people who were somewhat weird, but who were authentically so – who had no clue to their own eccentricities; although they may be aware that they were not popular. If someone was goofy-looking or had odd ways, Gary was drawn as the proverbial moth to a flame. He did not champion these people, or plead their case – he treated them somewhat roughly (I don't mean physically) as he treated everyone, but he liked them, and they tended to like him. He could laugh at their oddities – and did so – but he did not bully or mock them in front of others. He would directly address eccentricities, and was neither put off nor intimidated by them, as I would be. He could and did like a number of non-white people, without at all having any predisposition to like such a group as a whole. In this (as in so many other things) he was my opposite. Whereas anyone more or less had to earn Gary’s affection or interest, I was predisposed to like anyone whom I perceived as different from me. I am sure we were sides of a coin. Gary’s last great enthusiasm of this kind for a portrayal of an oddball before he died about 14 years ago, was the character Ed Grimley as portrayed by Martin Short. I knew the second I saw this character that he’d be right down Gary’s alley, and so he was. I wish so much I could have shared Mr. Bean, whom I first saw on TV in Saudi, with Gary. I tried; I brought a video tape home that I purchased in Riyadh, but unfortunately the video format was not playable on our machines.

I am having a hard time working out the timetable exactly, because I know that once we decided to put on our own Darktown Jamboree version, I was learning the format and history of minstrel shows in school along with the work of Stephen Foster, and eleven seems awfully young for that kind of study. Maybe I was older – it seems I would have had that kind of course in sixth, seventh or eighth grade. I look young in the picture, but I always looked young for my age. I was last carded for buying alcohol in my forties. I know that I was the one who came up with such facts as that the traditional names of the endmen were Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones; that there was a traditional sort of break in the jokes where the characters performed a ‘walk-around’ and even some of the traditional jokes, the only one of which I recall now being:

Mr. Tambo: Why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Interlocutor: I don’t know, Mr. Tambo; why is a trip around the world like a cat’s tail?
Mr. Tambo: ‘Cause it’s fur to de end of it!

We deliberately made our jokes as corny as possible. We tried to hew to tradition as much as we knew how, but made two innovations to encompass our circumstances; we added a female (called “Sapphire”, of course) to allow Lucy to join in, and we added a moment for Liam, who was very young, to perform. We did this latter by announcing “a word from our sponsor” at which point Liam walked out wearing a sign that said (Wait for it!) “Sponsor” and he said, “Hello” and walked off. A word – get it? Get it?

Gary was the driving force; anything in which he did not interest himself tended to peter out among us younger Shaughnessys; although I was the eldest, he was usually the leader. In a rougher age where I would probably have inherited the land, he would probably have assassinated me and taken over; happily for me, we managed to all follow Gary's lead without the need for such strenuous measures. We worked pretty hard at perfecting our show. We boys dressed up in Dad’s old cast-offs including the amazing number of old felt hats we found around the house, while Lucy padded herself out to look fat and wore an Aunt Jemima style bandanna and a red satin blouse. We rehearsed for days – probably weeks; we thought we were exquisitely funny. Finally we were able to perform at a big family picnic at my Grandfather’s home. It was there that the photograph that Annie acquired was taken, although I doubt that she was the one who took it. Most likely it was taken by Aunt Cassie, her mother and my Mom’s sister. Our ‘blackface’ was skimpy; we had remembered to bring our costumes, but realized once we got to Grandpa’s we had forgotten whatever we had been using for black, so we used the greasy black deposits that had formed over the years on the woodstove in Grandpa’s kitchen – a substance that we were to discover adhered to everything we touched and was nearly impossible to wash off.

Our minstrel show was one of those childhood events that we all remember fondly. The picture was taken at one of those family picnics where all my Mom’s sisters would gather with all the cousins and we would break up into age groups and head out for a day of mischief. Lucy and I usually wandered off with Annie who lived in the next county and whom we saw not more than two or three times in a year. Gary, being more of a ‘real boy’ than I, had no use for the girl cousins and would be off with Rob and Jack and whatever boy cousins showed up. All of us cousins (many of whom now can barely stand each other) loved those picnics at Grandpa’s and enjoyed each other tremendously. Grandpa had a big old house with the gloomiest-looking tall evergreens in the front yard and along the side (we always called them ‘pine trees’ as we did all evergreens, once we outgrew calling them all ‘Christmas trees’, but I think they were firs) – those gloomy kind where the sub-branches, which grow out of each side of the longer limbs that extend from the trunk, droop down and look like they are just waiting to drip rain on a picnic. There were rooms off of rooms inside the house – one attic-type room could only be reached by entering a big old bathroom and going through a creaky door at the far end – and all kinds of places to play could be found, most of which we were not supposed to be in, and which were rendered attractive by that fact alone. The house had a haunted, lonely feel; by the time of the show Grandpa lived there alone. Outside there was an alley paralleling the driveway formed by two rows of overgrown grapevines – mostly Concords with a single vine that bore white grapes that you could eat skin and all, and there was an excellent pear tree which bore a huge number of pears each year, two apple trees which bore mild yellow fruit and a big patch of bushes of some kind of sweet black berries which we called ‘long johns’. There were also two neighboring barns which we were straitly forbidden to visit and into which we usually managed to go surreptitiously at least once each summer.

Anyway, here we are together, happy, blacked up rather sparingly (thank goodness) a long, long time ago when all was possible and nothing bad had yet happened. There’s Lucy, then me, then Liam wearing his ‘sponsor’ sign (upside down, you may note), then Rob, Gary and Jack, the last of whom in every picture was always the cutest kid you ever saw.

So don’t say you don’t know what I look like.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Memorial Day – and it looks as if it will be as beautiful a day as yesterday, which must go down in the annals as one of the fairest days since Time began. I was thinking that this is a perfect time of year to remember the young men – boys, almost – who have died for the Nation. The year is poised for Summer, everything is green with that freshness that fades in Summer’s heat, and all about birds are nesting, fields are being plowed and planted and everything speaks of possibility and promise; it is at exactly the point were these men were, just ready to begin their adult lives and their families, filled with the sense of perhaps. And it turned out that their harvest came early, although it was no less of a bounty to their fellow countrymen for that; each of them saved for the rest of us our way of life, which is at least as much as they could have done during lives spent in the farms, factories and offices of the land. But it is not what they hoped or planned, and thousands upon thousands of fatherless children and bereft parents and spouses too paid a heavy price. And we must remember, too, the thousands who did not die but who were condemned to lives with minds and bodies damaged. We see many tales of amazing vets who have risen above the loss of limbs to achieve great things, but so many were unable to do so, and these guys (and, increasingly, women) have pretty much given everything they had, too.

I said last week that my cousin Warren would visit me, fresh from his stint in Iraq, and so he did with his extremely cool wife whom I had not previously met. Marlena is German; although one of her parents was American, she was raised in Germany, but were you to meet her, you would never guess that she wasn’t raised just down the road. In fact she joined the American Air force where, I gather, she and Warren met although I didn’t think to ask for particulars. As usual when there are ears within the vicinity, I did at least 75% of the talking. We spent the day together, and both of them are so full of excitement at the life they are launched upon that they couldn’t help but bring a dim spark of hope into my life, too. First, Warren’s best friend is a writer who has already published two books. I had sent Warren copies of my early blogs on MySpace during his tour of duty; he told me he would lie in his bunk laughing out loud. I’ll have to go back and re-read them; I don’t recall what was funny about my tales of being in jail or in the nut house, but so it was,. Anyway, he said if I could get my writing together in some form, he’d talk to his friend who has an agent and well, you know. In addition, Warren and Marlena are both out of the service and said that people always talk about taking a year off to travel and they decided they could afford to actually do it, and that is what they are doing right now. As soon as they got sprung from the service, they launched this project with a tour of Asia, during which they both fell in love with Bali. Warren said it felt like home to him. So they are returning there in January and they’d like me to join them if I could.

So, wow! Probably something I can’t do, but still. Lots to think about, and only a job I dislike to stop me. Or, if I get my retirement going in time, there is the issue of money. Warren told me the family thinks I am totally loaded with the stuff, because they have this idea that I am some kind of computer guru (despite my many statements to the contrary) and even more that I made a fortune in Saudi, which a) I didn’t and b) I spent freely. The more you tell that branch of the family the truth the more they meet each other’s eyes and think they know better.

As to retirement, the new door I wanted to install before having my home evaluated for a reverse mortgage has been put in place and it looks spectacular. Where once I had a windowless black slab of wood, I now have a beautiful leaded glass extravaganza, with beveled edges on the glass insets and a series of circular prism-cut ‘jewels’ which let a flood of light into my foyer-type area. Every time I approach the area, I think I have left the door open. So Tuesday, I can start calling the places that give reverse mortgages and see what kind of a deal I can get. And if that goes through, I am on the threshold of my freedom at last.

I feel I owe my more devout reader(s) a survey of what’s going on with god’s work in the world. In Ireland, It has been revealed that the orphanages run there by Holy Mother Church have been, pretty much without exception, bastions of severe physical and sexual abuse for most of the twentieth century. Children were beaten for they knew not what constantly. The aim was to induce in them feelings of inferiority and submissiveness. A sense of their sinfulness. In Africa, I see that Sixty Minutes reports that the clergy there have found a money-maker in the general belief in witchcraft on that unfortunate continent. They declare that one child or another is a witch and for a fee, they agree to exorcise these children, which involves physical abuse, including biting pieces out of their bodies. The parents, devout Christians all, then turn the child out into the street as often as not, and the child, who often has not even been behaving badly, is left to become a street child. A significant portion of the street children in Kinshasa is innocent children whose parents are still alive, but who have been outcast because they are witches. And here in America another parent has taken her cancer-ridden child on the run so she can have him treated with Indian magic instead of a treatment with 90% success rate.

I personally am of the opinion that the mother in this last case should be allowed to treat the kid any way she wants. It is a win/win situation for society – if the kid is cured by a good dose of boiled grass, then we have found a marvelous new cure for cancer and we all benefit; if he dies, we are spared yet another religious wacko to blight society. Don’t get me wrong; I think religion is a great thing – but only if you are a member of the clergy. God help you if you are a child, though. But I figure that the clergy drains off many of the people who otherwise would become Bernie Madoff. People who pass their tithes to the various brands of theologists get what they paid for, just as does the man who gives a hundred bucks to a streetwalker. If he wants to believe her when she tells him he is really a great lover, well, what’s the harm?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Visitor

Well, I am all agog, because my first-cousin-once-removed Warren will be coming to visit this morning. He, as some of you may recall, was in Iraq until lately defusing IEDs and other explosives. I mentioned on my Spaces blog, before that organization drove me forth into the storm by becoming completely unfathomable, that Warren was the subject on a profile in a recent Penthouse issue under the rubric, “Bad-Ass Americans” or something similar.

Anyway, I dandled this lad on my knee as a babe (he was a babe, I wasn’t) and there is, somewhere in the archives, a photo of me holding him awkwardly, flanked by a couple of his Cambodian relatives who look as if they are wondering how they happened to be there. I have seen him only rarely as he grew up, but each time I have been impressed by his excellent, though easy, manners, his general coolness, and the pleasure it has been to be in his company.

While he has been serving in Iraq, we have corresponded sporadically – I copped out by sending him a few of my blog entries that I thought might amuse him. He told me I was the only one of his friends and fam that actually wrote at any length. He has had the misfortune to be born with a brain that can hold more than a five-word thought into the Twitter generation. Every time I think the modern communication has been reduced to the absolute minimum of content per connection, something comes along to prove me wrong. It appears that the ideal social situation now is to have about 10,000 friends without ever having been forced to spend a minute in the same room as any of them. How, I wonder, do teenage girls continue to get knocked up? If the pre-requisite for Messiah-hood is a virgin birth – or one that has all the appearances of fatherlessness – then I think we are in for a string of prophets. At least on can hope their Bibles will be a string of text messages. “Blesd r th pur”, perhaps, Or ‘R fthr hu rt in HVn’.

Anyway, Warren will be accompanied by his German wife whom he has managed to acquire somewhere along the way. He is out of the army no, and he and she have just completed a month or two of touring in Asia, during which only love, I gather, got her through a week-long trek in Nepal which Warren found necessary for his spiritual advancement. I shall be gratified to meet this compliant lady. If I were a better person I would be readying my house for their advent in a couple of hours, but as you know I am a river to my people, and if blogging means I can sit on my ass more than vacuuming would allow, then I am yours for the early morning.

Having a life that has pretty close to zero in the way of stimulation, I continue to be transfixed by Adam Lambert of American Idol who, although I think he will lose in the last round of voting, (Danny Gokey’s followers will NEVER move to Adam but, if they vote at all, are pretty certain to move toward the other crooner in the competition.) will be, I am fairly certain, the Next Big Thing. He is exciting and divisive and madly talented. He has swagger and balls. There has not been an authentic rock star since the brief light of Kurt Cobain was extinguished before he really could take hold. Freddy is gone, and the greats of the 70’s are either long gone (Janis, Jim, Jimi, Lennon) or rapidly aging (Tina, Mick, etc.). There is a steady stream of momentary flashes, or of crooners like Timberlake, who though talented and very popular, are NOT rock stars with all the flash and pushing of the envelope that requires. This guy is exciting and I am thrilled each week by his performances. I will miss Idol this summer like no other season before. I may even go to see the concert of the alums if it comes near enough to me this year. And there will be one reason why: Adam. Well, two maybe, since I think Allison is astonishingly gifted also – and if I were to see a live duet between her and Adam I might expire in my seat. (Are duets ‘between’ people? I never thought about the preferred preposition before now). When I see my rock stars, I want to be grabbed by the throat, have my heart ripped out still beating, and used to beat me around the head. I want to shake afterward. “Pretty” is not what I go to concerts for. Lately I have run across songs that enthrall me, but this I the first time in a long time that a performer has enthralled me, no matter what song he is presenting.

It is looking like a grey day, which is disappointing since I should have liked Warren and his frau to see my demesne in its best light. Yesterday was glorious and they were at Rochester’s Lilac Festival, which is a very large deal in Rochester. If you live within 50 miles or so of that city, you’d better have lilacs in your yard. I am not sure, but I think the police will cite you for some sort of dereliction if you do not. Certainly you will be regarded as a possible traitor to your country. If old Walt were to ask anyone, “When did lilacs last in your dooryard bloom?” he’d get a pretty much unanimous cry from us folks, “They are blooming right as we speak, buddy!” I myself have five main bushes with other odd bits starting up here and there. That makes me a mere piker by some standards hereabouts. Rochester is lilacs, Kodak and white hot dogs. And Wegman’s. No jobs, though. And not much Kodak anymore, either.

Anyway, speaking of pop culture, my first intro to the Great Divide was in grammar school when the girls on the school bus decreed that if you were an Eddie Fisher fan, you had to sit on the left side of the bus and if you liked Perry Como, you must sit on the right. I could have inferred the great divide from that point, although I didn’t. Sweaters and short hair to the right, leather and curly black hair to the left. Although both of these singers, who were huge back then, may seem much of a muchness nowadays, (although there WAS that Eddie/Debbie/Liz thing), the swinging versus mellow dichotomy is a permanent feature of the pop landscape. I am sure that if one were to trace the future careers of those who chose the right side of the bus, they would find folks who were still with their first wife, who are surrounded by great grandchildren that like sports and the outdoors (although they wouldn’t hold with them there tree-huggers), who love Jesus, and who stayed with the same company until retirement. The folks on the left will have been through rehab, will be with their second or third wife, or getting a divorce because of an affair, will not be sure how many grandchildren they have, and will never retire because they didn’t settle down and start saving until they were 50 in the first place, and will still remember Woodstock with great fondness.

This divide really showed up when Elvis arrived, I mean the bad-boy Elvis, although actually the lad had impeccable manners, was deeply respectful of his elders, had only one wife and was deeply devoted to his mother. Elvis was about sex. The left side of the bus had arrived. Overnight the rightsiders rallied around Pat Boone, a safe, sweater-wearing, short-haired, button-down pleasant singer who sang about love, not sex. Pat Boone made Bernardine, a film about a group of roomies in college who yearned for a telephone operator with a beautiful voice, Elvis made Jailhouse Rock. When the later sixties rolled around, the British invasion yanked the whole bus so far to the left-side that Elvis and Ricky and Conway and even Jerry Lee all found themselves relegated so far to the rightside, that they were on a whole ‘nother bus labeled ‘Country”, where they continued successful careers without having to change a thing. When Elvis or Pat made appearances on schooldays back in the day, girls told their mothers that they would just DIE if they couldn’t go; the difference was that the Elvis girls just might. Elvis girls cut school and ran away to see him, Pat girls cried in their rooms for hours, then finished their homework but didn’t answer the second part of question four on purpose and that would show them.

But even within the new sound on the ‘sex, drugs and rock’n’roll’ side of things, the dichotomy opened up. First it looked like the Dave Clark Five were going to be the right side of things as opposed to the Beatles with that hair and those screaming fans, but then the Stones emerged as even more S, D and RnR than the Beatles, and the Beatles themselves began to have just a whiff of the sweater and love of country, and once McCartney went to Wings, he was firmly on the mellow side of things. The rightside of the bus had its James Taylor and John Denver and Simon and G and the like, but as pop broke into tribes that didn’t even listen to each other’s music, once the seventies were over things had pretty much shifted over to the spiritually short-haired more and more. The great thing in the sixties and seventies is that one listened to them all, but one had one’s preferences. But pop became a series of boy groups and girls on the verge of a weeping jag, and although the greater female singers were predominately black, the music of Whitney and Mariah and the like was firmly in the mellow mode, while what had been seen as the ‘black’ element that Elvis had tapped into with its implication of late nights and high-living waned more and more. The left side of the bus pretty much dropped music altogether in favor of spoken poetry with music background relegated firmly to second place in Rap. Rap really requires no music at all. As music split into the various threads each thread became so set in stone that it all just got pretty boring – at least in the air-play world of things.

So I am hoping that we get another overriding left-side of the bus phenomenon, because just cannot spend another morning listening to Golden Oldies, and I really am thinking that Adam Lambert might be it. No matter who wins Idol this year, the buzz on Adam is phenomenal, he is being down-loaded way more than all the others. On the website “Television Without Pity”, last time I looked, the discussion thread on him is about four times as long as his nearest competitor – I have never seen anything like it. A lot of people can’t stand him, but they talk about him. Elvis’ records were publicly smashed, the Beatles were excoriated from pulpit and statehouse, and I just get a tiny whiff of the same sort of thing here. I hope so.

But maybe I am just getting old and finding small dim hopes under every stone – who knows?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Onward to the Shallow End

I can think of few inventions that have brought more benefit and peace of mind to mankind than the automatic dishwasher. My own model of this beneficent device is whirring and gloshing away as we speak. Without it I would be awash in dirty dishes, plates with odd blue-green growths, cups with the accumulated rings of a thousand servings of coffee, glasses with more rings than a sequoia tree to tell the archivist exactly how many servings of milky substances I have consumed since they were purchased. Because I hate doing dishes and I pretty much don’t do anything I don’t want to do anymore.

It is a lovely, albeit chilly, morning and I am contemplating my plans for the future. First I am going to install a very expensive new front door – not counting installation it has cost me just under $4000: a lovely beveled glass affair with a sidelight, rated highly enough in insulative qualities to garner a 30% tax write-off this year. Then I am applying for a reverse mortgage on my home (which will be raised in value, one hopes, by more than the $4K investment, since there is no one to leave it to anyway. All my relatives fall into two categories; either they have homes that suit them very well or they could not afford to pay of the rest of the mortgage and hold onto it. And then – do you hear it coming? – the sweet, sweet relief of retirement.

This business of living in two places with a 2-3 hour drive between is getting very old. For one thing, it reduces my time to do things around the house to one day a week. This is the same day in which I have to do any buying for the week, write my blog, conduct my social life and so forth. Oh – and rest, doing nothing. Guess which of these enterprises wins most often? I have observed that when I have that rare two-day weekend on Reedville, i.e., a three-day weekend overall, I get things done. Unfortunately, about half those three-day affairs contains a holiday on which I traditionally attend a dinner at a relative’s home – Christmas at Caitlin and Brad’s, Memorial Day at Joan’s and so on. So the extra day is lost so far as accomplishing tasks is concerned.

I have done the math, admittedly with a view to making it come out the way I want it to, and I think without my mortgage, even considering the taxes here and insurance and so forth, I can swing it. Anyway, I have lived my life acting on impulse and it has stood me in good stead. The man that I know who plans most carefully for his future is my friend Yan, and those of you who read my last entry know how that turned out. The life I am living is simply not worth the added money it brings in. I do a lot of spending which I recognize afterward is simply to atone for the deep malaise into which continuing to work has plunged me. There has been no real social life, nothing meaningful on the horizon for all the 14 years since my return from Saudi. I just cannot get up any enthusiasm for travel that must be rushed through in two weeks or less. Vacations leave me with less devotion to my job, not more.

One always hears of these freakish men who retire and find themselves at loose ends. I do not personally know any such men. Without exception, those many friends I have who have achieved retirement have found their lives more full of zest, energy and things to do. I have not been able to converse with any who have died still working, but my guess is that the number one answer to, “What do you think of that?” would be “chagrin”. And that presupposes that cussing in the afterlife is frowned upon. Or pointless.

Well, how boring was that? Let’s see – did you see the news article about the couple that wandered out of a pub and began banging on the Windsor Castle lawn in broad daylight, surrounded by tourists? That was fun reading. Although in residence at the time, the Queen was not involved so far as I can tell. Pity.

I have had occasion in the past to acknowledge how extremely shallow I am, and as further evidence of this, I now admit I am an avid watcher of American Idol. I have had my favorites through the seasons – there always seemed to be at least one contestant to whose performance I looked forward each week – not necessarily because they were the most talented, but because they usually delivered something a little unexpected or unusual. The five top finalists this year are easily the most talented of any season; any one of them would have been extremely strong contenders – and likely winners – in former seasons. But this year there is a contestant so supremely gifted both with voice and showmanship, that I can’t wait each week for Tuesday and my two-minute Adam Lambert fix. This guy has everything I would expect the word ‘Idol’ to imply. I find him thrilling – and when I listen to his singing without watching him (I have downloaded four of his performances, compared with two for all other singers in all other seasons put together) – I am as astounded by his gifts as when I watch him. He may well not win – he was one of the two lowest vote-getters this week - but I have never seen anyone before who I was so sure will be a major star.

Each year there is a division of sorts between voters on the show – many years it is pop v country, but the country contestant left early this year. The division this year is between crooners – boy-band types – and rock performers. There is a bit of church versus Satan in the ranks, too, and of course Satan’s followers have dates on weeknights and a life that is not on hold until Eternity rolls around, so some of them are too busy to vote. I don’t think there is a Mormon this year in the finals or a candidate who plays up his origins in a small state, or an ethnic favorite who is getting votes for that reason (I do not refer to black v white, which doesn’t seem to happen on this show, but more like when there is a Filipino or some smaller minority candidate), so the block-voting such contestants sometimes receive irrespective of their performances is not occurring. The preference for a crooner or a rocker, or an R and B or country singer is an entirely legitimate preference and seems to play heavily in the voting. In addition, physical attractiveness weighs heavily, as it does in all other aspects of life – although I am not sure that is not more the case among the judges than among the voters. Simon Cowell is incapable of seeing beyond looks, particularly in females (those of you who know to whom I refer when I say ‘bikini girl’ will recall how completely incapable of impartiality toward beautiful women he is), and Paula Abdul is also strongly biased by appearance, particularly (and unsurprisingly) in the men.

Mainly, I want Adam to last at least until the final two, just so my Tuesdays will be exciting for a while longer. I doubt that his success or failure as a performer from this point on will be much affected by how he fares on Idol. So I will still be able to buy his music and, believe me, I will.

And now, out into the sunshine – I hope you will be doing the same.