Monday, December 29, 2008

Bad Luck, Good Luck, No Luck

The end of the year is just a few days away. While I am in the choir singing Good Riddance, I'm also starting to feel a bit annoyed that I spent the last four weeks of the year doing mostly the same thing at work instead of drawing the line I should have drawn. I can see what is going on around me, and so if my results are lower than my expectations, I've only myself to blame.

What combination of skill, hard work, and luck do I need to change my game? I'm not a good gambler, so this is tricky. I'm not sure what the proper ratios are, given that I've always worked hard and consider myself skilled. So it would appear that I'm left with luck, which for me has been typically fair but never what one might call, "good".

If it weren't for the Shuffle feature on my iPod I might miss out on some of my favorite Greg Brown tunes, like this one, appropriately titled, "People With Bad Luck." After the many posts and comments back and forth over the last few months about what the right course is and whether or not this bailout or that one was fair, I was totally struck by how brilliant this tune is in summing up most every exchange that's centered around the nagging theme of money and luck, Wall Street fat cats and Main Street bums. At the end of the day we're all pretty much in the same boat. Unfortunately, it's the Titanic, and a lot of unlucky passengers are going down with the band.

I hope you thoroughly enjoy this tune from one of my favorite singer-songwriters, a big dude who looks like a biker but sings like a whipporwill. I do love Greg Brown and his smart, funny, tender songs from an America other than the one hopped up on post-holiday retail sales and white-knuckling rides up and down the Dow. This one is from a terrific album, "In The Dark With You."

"People With Bad Luck"

People with the bad luck
Lookin at the people with the good luck,
And they're goin, "Ooooo-ooh-ooh...."

If you got the good luck
It's hard to figure out
What the one with the bad luck
Is carryin' on about
What would just enough of the good luck and money
Or the lack of it do
Make a young man of 40
And an old man of 22

Maybe someone you thought was very kind and true
Turned around and did somethin just plain mean to you
And it might make you cry, and it might make you real mad
And it might get you to thinkin about the kind of luck that you both had

People with the bad luck
Lookin at the people with the good luck,
And they're goin, "Ooooo-ooh-ooh...."

Don't we all want to laugh a little,
Don't we all want to cry
Don't we all want to live a little before it's time to die
If ya got the good luck
It sure might seem that way
But if you got the bad luck you
Just cannot make it through the day

People with the bad luck
Lookin at the people with the good luck,
And they're goin, "Ooooo-ooh-ooh...."

Once I had me a good friend,
He was funny and full of cheer
But his luck was always so bad
And he's no longer here
Sometimes in this world I'm wonderin that
We ain't grateful for every breath
Sometimes in this world I'm wonderin that
We don't all just drink ourselves to death

People with the bad luck
Lookin at the people with the good luck,
And they're goin, "Ooooo-ooh-ooh...."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Ah, the holidays are waning. I have always loved Christmas, but in a quiet way, not in the manic, get it all done way. I love being alone in the kitchen late at night concocting something, or even doing dishes, with the radio humming low with an old carol of some sort. I don't love the constant work that admittedly I make for myself -- someone has to cook and clean up and in this house, 80% of that work goes to me and the other 20% is farmed out to an underage crowd, who complete about 10% of it. But that's ok. We had a glorious time making cookies and enjoying a little down time. Yesterday was indeed a bit magical. And last weekend at the end of a day of baking we made a beautiful pot of turkey soup and watched "Silent Night", a movie about a little German boy whose mother moved them closer to the American lines and found themselves with a houseful of American and German soldiers one Christmas Eve. That got us to thinking how lucky we are to have such a bountiful feast all the time.

The last few days were hectic though wonderful, and now that all is quiet and I am finally back to my usual lower-wattage existence, I'm reflecting on this life I have alone. It has many perks to be sure, but drawbacks, like no extra person to run an errand or wrap Santa's presents. But most of the time I just worry that I'm not making the most of it and merely growing old while trying to keep my kids from turning into tyrants or misfits or serial killers. I just want them to be, you know, morally centered. And to help clean up without my asking once in a while.

Other than that, and trying to navigate the very murky and choppy waters of what started to be a fine career before I entertained the corporate sector, there isn't a lot left over for much else. It's only 8:30 now and I'm fairly exhausted. We had a lovely breakfast with family and to my surprise, rather than fighting the movie crowds, the kids elected to hang out with me and play a new game from Shameless and her family (Shameless, tell D and the girls that the kids "opened up a big can o' whoop-ass" on me!) before I delivered them into the hands of their worldly father.

At some point this morning I was alone and in the car and listening to one of my favorite albums, Darrell Scott's 2006 effort, The Invisible Man. It's a terribly painful album but beautiful despite its edge. I adore Scott, love to hear him sing and his songs get me every time. They call to my own Shadow with the way they shed their light on some of life's most difficult but meaningful experiences.

Growing older, now matter how we spend the time, is one of those experiences. Not difficult in its own right, it becomes moreso as we look down the barrel of the years unlived and behind us at the life we let go of every day. As Scott says in this song, we still have trouble living in the moment and taking in the "today" part of the deal. I've come a long way with that, but worry still comes a callin' now and then.

I wish there were a bailout for singer-songwriters. What AIG flunkie has ever given us something as pure and perfect as this song? Where is Darrell Scott's $4 million retention bonus? Oh, he doesn't need a retention bonus, because he knows we'll still love him and countless artists will continue to record his songs. He's actually one of the best at what he does and is excruciatingly underpaid. Those AIG guys, those Wall Street jackasses, they've never done anything this beautiful. They're all dead inside except for the bright shiny objects that catch their pitifully short attention once in a long while. I wonder what they must see when they look into the looking glass. It is not, I imagine, what the rest of us see.

This song is an end-of-year wish of begin-again hope for everyone -- especially Blueberry, Don, Pie, Fearless, Shameless, Shannon, Boring, Yarn Slut, Shadow, and Ipsissimus, and a few silent unnamed readers, friends and family who I'm grateful are out there somewhere.

Looking Glass
Darrell Scott; from The Invisible Man, Full Light Records 2006

Feels like someone's looking over my shoulder
I turn around, and no one's there
Lookin' glass is looking older and older
Lately I don't care
Looking Glass, can't you see what I've been through?
Slowly giving myself away
Run from the past, run for the future,
Miss the sweet smell of today

I play this song on my own piano
Helps make sense of the shape I'm in
I open the doors on a cool rainy morning
Songs come riding on the wind
Take me away on the clouds of sorrow
I guess I'll write it one more time
Go through the deluge to get to the promise
Songs are rainbows in the sky

Human longing, inspiration,
A woman painting canvas across the street
Got an old slouchy hat and a coat like Renoir
I think I'll bring her a cup of tea
Maybe light is the absence of Shadow
Maybe Shadow needs a place to sleep
We shine as much as we're going to
The rest the cats and angels keep

Me and this song we got a lot in common
Neither knows quite how to end
Just follow along, like a leaf on the river
We always can begin again

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grateful (Humbug) Still

It's been a manic week. I'm working as hard as ever, but the nagging reality of not getting paid is starting to work on my psyche which occasionally lashes out. I'm terrible at setting boundaries so I pay the price in dread. On top of the workload, the holidays are barreling down, so I've tried to make sure things are in order before the kids arrive home. Trying to stay merry, but mostly I'm a bit frazzled, and under the weather, and worried.

This evening I committed myself to making a small dent in the clutter and mess. In the process of tossing what seemd like a ream of unimportant papers, I managed to unearth some family treasures that were simply hiding behind the mess. An old plate from France, two very old handpainted teacups from England (with some kind of fancy bird painted inside the cup!), a fist-sized ringerless brass bell bearing the names of the evangelists, a beautiful hand-blown bottle/vase from a friend I no longer hear from. Pictures of friends, children of friends, late parents and grandparents, great great grandparents.

On the top shelf of my hutch, a 1950s Pennsylvania House colonial piece that, along with the dry sink and dining room table and chairs, is a piece of wood on which is painted, "IMAGINE."

That's what we all have to do. First, imagine. Second, act.

I've chucked my Thursday evening "ER" time in favor of a computer, one small light, and in the background classical holiday tunes on WKSU. I'm sitting at the same dining room table that for so many years was host to long evenings sitting around drinking coffee or tea or George Dickel, talking late into the night and listening to music of all kinds. I know that my brothers spent Christmas Eve 31 years ago around this table with my mother, the first Christmas in 30 years without my dad. Years later, many summer afternoons and evenings were spent around this table playing cards with friends who would make the pilgrimage with us to spend weekends with my mother, who adored the company and the opportunity to make something delicious when she still could. And always, always Christmas eve, Thanksgiving, so many holidays. Thanksgiving was always homemade Mexican at mom's, and then the coffee, too much dessert, and then the drawing for the grandkids gift exchange only a few weeks later at Christmas.

Tomorrow evening this table will be called into service again, host to just a small pre-holiday, catch-our-breath dessert mostly in honor of Shannon's birthday (we couldn't make it to Vegas, but you can relive the whole thing on his blog!) and just to be together to say, isn't it good that we can be together?

So sure, I am frustated, and a little underemployed, but grateful that I can still sit around this table, with all its ghosts to lead us on into these winter evenings of quiet conversation with dear company. I wish you could all come to my table, so many of you whom I miss and so many I'd enjoy getting to know even better. My table is a place where I don't have a lot to offer but we all have a lot to say, not the least of which is how good it is, still and despite all, to be here.

My mother's favorite holiday phrase was "Bah, Humbug." It was used many times around this table. So I consider it a sign that when I went to look up a good Tim O'Brien song to go with this blog, this tune was LITERALLY the FIRST ONE at the TOP of the list. So how could I not share it with you? I even had to call my sister! It's just the kind of song that we might have listened to, sitting around this table, over and over again, like the way our parents were obsessed with "Santa Claus and His Old Lady." This is WAY better. Oh Tim, bless your heart and Merry Christmas to you and your sweet family. If you knew how much we loved you and how happy we feel to know we all came from the same place, you could fire up Stifel Center with all those happy vibes. Thank you for this. (See you Jan. 16 at the Stage!)

Ok, where was I? Oh yes, the perfect Holiday tune, from my table, to yours.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Merry Nonetheless

Boy, was I pissed off this morning. Actually, I was pissed off last night after reading this and other articles about the GOP rejecting a Big Three Bailout because it didn't include enough auto worker concessions. The CEOs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler, beggars in blue suits, fly to Washington on private jets to ask for an allowance, and the Senate wants the line worker to take a paycut? I'm sorry, Senator? I don't think I heard you. You see, it might be that American autoworkers for Nissan, Honda, and Toyota have a different arrangement. They also make fuel efficient cars that are extremely reliable. I haven't driven an American made engine in 14 years. And that's not the fault of some guy on the assembly line. Try the folks up in engineering, or marketing, or general accounting. They'd be who you need to talk to.

Anyway, I was already riled up when this morning, this little tidbit came across my screen. The Fed Reserve says it doesn't have to tell you or me who got $2 TRILLION of our tax dollars. Um, excuse me, YES, YOU DO.

As a reminder to readers, please do not forget that despite all that's been shoved down our throats, it doesn't have to be this way. We pay for the government. And every day, we are closer to, if not upon, taxation without representation.

At the end of the day, Mr. Bernanke works for us. You, and me, a petite middle-aged, single mother of two who just took a haircut herself and is hanging on by her fingernails along with most of the rest of America to see what Bernanke, Paulsen and their minions of geniuses do next. So far, most of us aren't impressed.

I recommend everyone take a minute to think about this. You know, maybe just make an adjustment. Add an exemption. Or, several. Just three months. Send a message to Horton on the other side. "We are here! We are here! And we have your revenue!"

Once I got to thinking about this after a conversation with my sister, I started to feel downright merry. I don't know what's holding us back. There are kids in this country with no food or healthcare, good workers with no jobs, and ordinary people all over getting closer to the edge that their less fortunate neighbors were shoved over months ago. We should be making some basic demands. If the GOP can say no, well, sure as hell so can I.

And it's with that thought that I skipped out and finished most of my holiday shopping, followed by the procurement of most of the ingredients I'll need to commence the holiday baking. Despite myself and the best efforts of The Powers That Be to put a bullet in my will to wassail, I nonetheless look forward to wrapping the little presents I am grateful to have bought today, hiding some of them, sending others away. Nothing fancy, just a few small and I hope meaningful reminders to stop once in a while to think of all that is possible, to find out all that we are capable of, whether it's through solving a puzzle or reading the inspirational words of a leader who changed the world.

Both can be you this Christmas and all the time.

Upon returning home with my festive bounty, and before I made myself a beautiful salad with pecans, figs, and blue cheese -- a gourmet treat I have been denying myself in the tradition of Bob Cratchet -- I gifted myself with Mary Chapin Carpenter's first holiday effort, Come Darkness, Come Light. It's quite an album of the times. I share with you one titled simply, "Christmas Carol." I don't know if anyone could have given us a song so timely -- as if months ago in the studio she could see this past week coming with all its dreary and otherwise unbelievable news.

So after a little tidying, I will open a Sam Adams winter lager, drag out the paper and bags and bows and tape and scissors, and turn up the music. I hope that as you begin to create your own kind of holiday, you'll find a way to reinvent the things you want to change, all the while finding that little piece of candy in your stocking.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Come Darkness, Come Light: Twelve Songs of Christmas

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hopin' for Brighter Days Ahead

Consciousness sucks. Anyone who's ever experienced it during a downturn knows that. Now that I am poised to lose up to half my earned income before taxes, consciousness means choosing. I can choose to take a chance on the same horse, or I can change horses, or enter an entirely different race altogether.

I'm really at a crossroads. Yogi Berra said that when you come to a fork in the road, take it. I've just learned that's not as easy, or as funny, as it sounds.

I took some new uncharacteristically holiday-ish tunes with me tonight to work out. Yo-Yo Ma's recent Yo-Yo Ma & Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace called to me a while ago, at a time when maybe I thought there might be writing on the wall but I couldn't see it clearly. I'm glad I caved in and ordered it because it is an absolute delight. It's really sort of a winter album draped around recurring versions of the "Dona Nobis Pacem" hymn tune. There are a couple of notable exceptions such as the Ma and James Taylor rendition of the classic "Here Comes the Sun".

I hope it will lift your spirits as it did mine. It is going to be a long, hard, cold winter, but spring always comes, and with it hope and renewal. And in between we have things to celebrate, like our freedom, and love, and dignity, and our creative spirit, and the magic of watching all kinds of things unfolding -- kids growing up, our own ripening in mid age, little kids in the White House again, the Ford CEO getting paid a dollar, people finding jobs again, bread and milk at reasonable prices. Today I passed my usual gas station and the price of regular unleaded was $1.63! That's both good and bad news -- we live in an age of paradox. But no doubt through it all the sun will continue to rise and set in a dance with the moon. Enjoy this dance between two American treasures, Ma and Taylor, to warm you from the inside out with visions of joy and peace. (Note: especially therapeutic when combined with a purring cat on lap.)