Saturday, September 21, 2019

Stardust, Willie, & A Newborn Babe: The Physical Pull of Music

The Ken Burns' series "Country Music" led me to pull out an album I hadn't listened to in over 35 years. Willie Nelson's Stardust was hugely popular in the late 1970s and early 80s. Of course, it's the least "country music" album in the world, though it won all kinds of country music awards in its day. All of the songs are Great American Songbook standards - September Song, Sunny Side Of The Street, Blue Skies, Georgia On My Mind, and, yes, Stardust, among others. 

And these few precious days 
I'll spend with you 
These precious days 
I'll spend with you 

The beauty of the album, besides the fabulous songs themselves, is the gentle acoustic treatment. Nothing loud or brassy. Just guitar, keyboard, harmonica, gentle percussion for rhythm. Willie's voice is the main country element; the rest is light jazz, pop, folk. 

Evening summer breeze 
Warbling of a meadowlark 
Moonlight in Vermont 

So. This gentle album, with songs by the likes Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Fields, and Kurt Weill, brought back memories of a very specific time in my life. And it's all about love, but not the romantic kind. It's about dancing away the wee hours of the morning with my tiny baby girl on my shoulder. 

Missed the Saturday dance 
Hear they crowded the floor 
Couldn't bear it without you 
Don't get around much anymore 

Like most newborns, my Baby Kate got hungry in the middle of the night and then took some time to get back to sleep. So I'd put Willie Nelson's Stardust on the stereo, and with her slung over my shoulder, I'd keep time patting her back and we'd dance: 

Sometimes I wonder 
Why I spend the lonely nights 
Dreaming of a song 
The melody 
Haunts my reverie 

Maybe just a gentle waltz. Maybe a little quick step. 

Grab your coat and get your hat 
Leave your worry on the doorstep 
Just direct your feet 
To the sunny side of the street 

Even as new and tiny as she was and as sure as I was that she'd gone back to sleep, Kate's little head would bobble around between the songs and she'd look up to me as if to say, "When's the next song coming on?" And then we'd just keep dancing the night away. Swaying back and forth to the brilliant music.

Other arms reach out to me 
Other eyes smile tenderly 
Still in peaceful dreams I see 
The road leads back to you 

Playing this particular collection of songs again sent me straight back to being a new mother. Every wonderful song reminded me of those first uncertain nights of wondering if I was doing everything - anything - right. Wondering if she'd ever go to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time. 

I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood 
I know I could, always be good 
To one who'll watch over me 

Every song, every arrangement is just perfect. Soothing, beautiful, memorable. I swear I could almost feel my milk let down! That's the power of music. It's physical. It's emotional. It reaches places inside you that you'd forgotten were there. Example? In my first trimester, plagued by morning sickness, I used to play a cassette of Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld (don't ask!) in the car. Even 36 years later whenever I hear the "Can-Can" song, I get nauseous. That's the physical power of music. 

I need your love 
I need your love 
God speed your love to me 

I wonder if grown-up Kate knows Willie Nelson's Stardust album? I wonder if she heard those particular songs today she'd feel a weird little pang that she can't put her finger on? Probably not. But it's a damn fine album and perfect for soothing a newborn babe and dancing the night away. Give it a listen sometime.

Blue skies 
Smiling at me 
Nothing but blue skies 
Do I see

Sunday, July 07, 2019

My 5-Star Year (So Far) of Non-Fiction

I'm one of those obsessive-compulsive book-lovers who keeps a diary of everything I read. I'll admit to favoring a good Southern-or-New England-or-England-Scotland-Wales mystery over most anything else, and I've read some darn good ones so far this year that rate a solid 4-stars. But imagine my surprise as I looked over my booklist since January to discover that the only books I've given 5-star ratings are non-fiction.

All of the authors are true storytellers, making complex information very easy to digest. Let me grab you by the collar, give you a good shake, and beg you to read:

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep. This one has everything - insurance fraud, lots of murders, a "preacher" named Willie Maxwell, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, a lawyer/politician named Tom Radney, Alabama politics, writer-struggle, surprises around every corner. It reads like page-turner fiction, and isn't that the best kind of non-fiction? A great story.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. I wasn't sure I would like this one because of the complicated subject matter, but I was sucked in immediately. This is terrific storytelling by author Keefe and really digs into all sides of the "troubles" and people involved. I learned so much in the most - dare I say? - enjoyable way. 

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow. Who is this kid? Forget all the Mia Farrow/Woody Allen kufuffle. Farrow's just a babe (he's 31), but he's served as UNICEF Spokesman for Youth in Dafur/Sudan, a lawyer and member of the NY bar, interned in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, was recruited by diplomat Richard Holbrooke to help oversee relations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, won a Pulitzer for the Weinstein investigation. And that's not all. But. This book - another easy read -  investigates the weakening of Amerian diplomacy and gutting of the State Department in favor of military solutions. This has been going on for decades but it's certainly been on fast track for the last few years.  The scariest part is that long-honored diplomatic training avenues have been virtually destroyed. This will haunt us for years to come. 

Leadership: In Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Want to know how real leaders do things? Goodwin's book is an excellent case study in how leaders are born, how they think, how they make things happen, and how they lead in the toughest of times. Love 'em or hate 'em, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and LBJ all exhibited profound leadership abilities, albeit in very different ways. Each faced huge, life-altering failures but had the gumption to overcome them. It did, however, leave me sad for where we are with leadership in this country today. 

My conclusion: it's all in the writing. Diplomacy? Insurance fraud? Leadership? The troubles in Northern Ireland? Every one of those topics could've been deadly dull - and I'm sure many deadly dull books have been written about all of the above. But these four books have been written in such a way to make reading them effortless and engaging. Now, go get 'em!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Summertime Therapy: Shuckin' Corn and Shellin' Peas

Want to save $150-300 a week and eat really well at the same time? Cancel your therapist this summer, hit the local farmers market, and stock up on corn and peas in their nature-covered state. Whatever the shape of your emotions, work life, or finances, nothing will calm body and soul like shucking corn and shelling peas.

I'd forgotten the therapeutic pleasures of the squeak of the husks coming off the corn and the plink-plink-plink sound of peas hitting the bowl as you slide them out of the shell. Seems Daddy and I did those seasonal duties when I was growing up, along with stringing green beans (not quite so therapeutic to me), but it's not something I've done in a while. But a sack of corn and bag of peas brought back the simple delight of prepping these summertime treats.

It's a mindless operation, which is part of its beauty. If you have a shuckin'-shellin' partner or two, you can talk or not talk. If you're alone you can sort things out, make up stories, or empty out all the extraneous brain lint that's keeping you awake at night. It's a little bit physical, but not much - enough to keep your blood circulating, but not enough to earn you 10,000 steps.

All you need are some ears of corn and a bag of peas, big bowls for the fruits of your labor, and paper sacks for he husks and shells. Since the job isn't location-centric, you can sit outside on the porch if it's not too hot, or park in front of the TV bingeing on whatever gives you pleasure. Dress is really casual or, heck, optional. You can go as fast or slow as you want. And the cost? Just whatever you hand over to the folks at the farmers market. A lot less than $150/hour, I reckon.

I'm no therapist, but if you're feeling stressed, confused, and overwhelmed, I prescribe summertime shuckin' and shellin' therapy for the next couple of months. Put your hands to work and mind to rest. At the end of it all, you'll have some really good eatin'. And a calm mind.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Fine Art of Cussin'

In the wonderful series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the title character finds that some of the words deemed unseemly by society that she uses in her stand-up comedy act spill out into her off-stage life. Good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon four-letter words start flying out of this well-bred Jewish matron at the most inopportune times. In the middle of a wedding reception toast. During a game of Simon Says at a family Catskill resort. Yeah, she fuckin' lets it fly.

I can identify with Mrs. Maisel.

First, let me explain the difference between "cursing" and "cussin'." Want to damn somebody to hell? Put the bad juju on someone's career using colorful language? Confine someone to an everlasting roach or rodent problem with sharp words? That's cursing. Sinful. Wrong. Not nice in mixed or unmixed company.

OK, now, let fly with a "shit" when you forget something important? Give a resigned "fuck it" when you're not able to get through to someone during a conversation? That's cussin'. My opinion on this is if you're over 18 years old, let 'er rip. (Caveat: I hate hearing children and teens cursing or cussin'. They haven't earned the privilege because of lack of life experience. Also, I don't cuss in front of kids. Usually.)

Cuss words, especially those of the 4-letter Anglo Saxon hard-consonant persuasion, capture the anger and frustration of the moment. Nothing like a good old fashioned "shit!" when you drop something, stump your toe, or break a mirror. Admit it: shit = poo = poop = doodoo = cow patty = horse pucky. If you're using those words, you may as well just say what you really mean, and shit's a lot more satisfying. Same holds true for "fuck," though granted, the meaning is more adult than poop.

Those words are short, quick, and the "t" or "k" at the end bites off the words perfectly. I say short, but my mother could draw out the word shit to about 15 syllables - a Southern-style "shi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-iiii-t," completely defeating the shock value. I, however, stand by the punchy Yankee-version. I do want to make it clear, however, that Mother NEVER used the f-word. I mean, she had her standards (which I, obviously, don't).

Whether you say it or not, you're thinking one of those cuss words when you cut your finger or drop that cherished Christmas ornament. Times like those require a punchy cuss-word. I'm just going to say 'em when needed. Folks can attribute it to my having lived in New York City for eight years or perhaps plain old senility. I don't give a damn.

Now, if you feel you need something longer and more colorful to add to the 4-letter word, I suggest spicing things up with a string of Elizabethan insults. Brush up your Shakespeare and toss in a "poisonous bunch-backed toad," "knotty-pated fool," or "vile standing tuck" when necessary. Consider it part of your literary education.

So look around. If there are no children nearby and you're over 18, go ahead and practice the fine art of cussin' as the occasion calls for it. Like, say, when your coffee mug full of freshly made brew hits the Italian terra cotta tiles in your kitchen first thing in the morning. Or you open that jury summons. Or you get a paper cut opening that jury summons.

Just let it all out. You don't want that shit festering inside.