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The Cabinet, or, Better Living Through Chemistry

18 Sep

The Cabinet

or

Better Living Through Chemistry

by L. Stewart Marsden

 

I know I put them in here … somewhere
Underneath the whitening tooth gel;
Crammed beside the fat-burning oil;
Above the No More Wrinkles, My Friend;
Or the Gradual Gray-Away Hair-Coloring Brush;
Between the Sleep Deep Tonight and the Stay-Awake capsules;
Or the Breathe Through the Night Guaranteed nose spray;
And the Psoriasis Cream; or the Pain Go Away hot and cold bags;
Near the Gas-Away tablets, and the Warts-No-More stick-ums;
The Breath-O’-Mint gargle, and the NuHair in the Morning rubbing salve;
The ear-wax drops and the nose-hair plucker;
The Intimate Hair Begone; and the No-Leaks, My Lady underwear pads;
The No Sweat – You Bet underarm roll-on; or the Flab-Away Arm and Leg Lotion.
Where the hell are they?
I know I put them in here … somewhere.

 

 

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Perspective

2 Sep

Perspective

By L. Stewart Marsden

Anton Ego, food critic, is a character in one of my favorite movies: Pixar’s Ratatouille. A sophisticated version of the Grinch, he seethes venom with his condescending reviews of the restaurant industry in Paris.

He says,

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”

It is metaphor to our current and perplexing nationwide conflict. Too easy to slip in the word “media” where Ego is talking about food critics. Or, perhaps, the extreme Right, or the extreme Left.

If you are familiar with the story, you remember he goes to investigate the hullabaloo over a new chef at a once-thriving restaurant.

There, a waiter asks if Ego knows what he would like for his meal.

Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, in addition to its devastation and carnage of Houston and the surrounding area, we are also left with perspective.

Facebook abounds with quotes and images similar to “America is NOT Charlottesville; America is Houston!”

Well, we’re both. Unfortunately. The perfect among us cannot hide nor eradicate the imperfect.

As a nation, we show the world our best and our worst. From the vitriol of antagonists who can’t stand one another, and are dedicated to sniping at every opportunity (we thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and read), to belittling and bashing one another; to hitching a thousand boats and driving thousands of miles to help with search and rescue and aid.

As Dickens wrote,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Perspective. We say that in the aftermath of tragedy: it put things into perspective.

Why does it take a devastating hurricane, tornado, illness, horrific event to grab our attention, shake sense into us enough for us to see (some of us, that is) that we are better than whatever it is that brings us shame?

It’s like we’re caught up in an emotional maelstrom that dulls all other senses and sensitivities. Perhaps a quasi-mob mentality, only the mobs are at either end of a see-saw. The vast majority of us just want none of it. Content to let things play out. Please, we say, can we not go back to normalcy?

We are all afflicted in one way or another.

Perspective. Not sure which is worse: the radical ends of the spectrum, or the sluggish majority that separates the extremes.

With disasters come the stirring of wills to be involved in some helpful way. Who is helped at the time is not dependent upon nation of origin, color of skin, gender identification, religious value, primary language spoken, political affiliation, economic standing, outstanding warrants, meat-eater or vegan, educational accomplishments. Or any other attribute that would normally keep us from deigning to be involved with that victim.

For a moment, we will have experienced what it is to give emotionally and financially and physically to a cause without regard to anything but the betterment of those who have lost home and loved ones.

This, too, shall pass.

Houston and the area will eventually get cleaned up. The snipers and critics have already begun to crawl out of the water-saturated woodwork and begin what they do best. The nation will breathe a sigh of relief at not having more than half the nightly news centered on all of the problems that do and eventually will exist. We’ve done our heartfelt and pocket-felt due diligence, and can return to normal.

And the carousel will start up again, slowly at first, and crescendo to spinning speeds.

Until the next disaster.

When,  once again, we will be presented with the opportunity to gain Perspective.

Pain

19 Aug

 

Pain

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

When I was about ten years old, I began having intense attacks of pain on my right side under my rib cage. It was deep inside. The best way I found to describe it was it felt as though a double-bladed knife, triangular in shape from its tip to the hilt, was being slowly inserted into me. The pain would gradually increase over hours, and I did everything I could for relief to no avail. It got so bad I would force myself to throw up in order to empty my stomach. Again, useless. I even banged my head against the wall to distract my mind elsewhere.

I was checked and tested for a myriad of maladies, including hepatitis and ruptured appendix, during which time I must have drunk gallons of pasty, chalky “stuff” that would show up problems under x-rays.

Nothing.

The attacks repeated over a number of years, seeming to get more and more painful and intolerable. And the duration also lengthened, from several hours to a day and a half. The usual guess at a diagnosis was severe indigestion. So whenever I felt an attack coming on, I’d drain a bottle of Pepto Bismal – thinking it might lessen the severity. That’s what you get for thinking.

Finger down the throat. Head banging on the wall. Even had a pediatrician give me morphine once. Well, that worked, but it sure wasn’t going to be the normal treatment.

Over the years I suffered dozens of attacks. Only complete exhaustion and drop dead sleep helped me survive.

The spring before Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinkley, the attacks began to occur within weeks of each other. At the around the same time, I found out my older sister had her gallbladder removed due to having painful attacks.

Gallbladder!

A gastroenterologist told me I couldn’t have gallbladder disease, and my pain wasn’t the result of gallbladder attacks because I had been having them since I was ten.

“Improbable,” he surmised, having never heard of someone so young diagnosed with the malady.

This time the tests – for gallbladder – came back positive, and proved the doctor wrong.

The surgery took hours longer than was expected. My gallbladder had shrunk up under my liver, and the surgeon cut a large half-moon opening to the right of my stomach area in order to actually move my liver So he could get to the gallbladder.

It looked like a dried-up lemon, he told me later. And it was packed with dozens and dozens of BB-sized stones that had been produced over the years.

Pain.

It tells us something is wrong, and compels us to do something about it. I’ve heard preachers say metaphorically that it is God’s way of steering us in the right path. I have a response to that premise, but I can’t write it down in mixed company.

The solution for my pain over the years was first the diagnosis. And no one for the longest time reached a correct conclusion. At the time of those attacks, I was happy merely to have the pain go away, which they eventually did, but only to come back again.

There is no such thing as timeliness as far as pain is concerned, in my opinion.

I’ve been told that the pain of a gallbladder attack is at the same intensity as what women experience when in labor. I wouldn’t know. That could only be asserted by a woman, and I trust they would know.

We’re in a time of pain. The country.

Just shy of fifty years ago we were also in a time of pain not dissimilar to now.

Then, the sources of the pain were evident. On Sunday evenings when CBS covered the war in Vietnam on 60 Minutes. Kent State. Martin Luther King assassinated. The Black Panthers. The bombing of Hanoi. Bra-burning. Marches, marches, marches.

And like a gallbladder attack, it was like a two-edged knife being slowly inserted into the gut of the country, and there was no relief to be found.

We’re there once again. The faces are the same, only the names are different. Afghanistan. Syria. Al Qaeda. ISIS. Terrorism. Police brutality. Denial of rights to a different set of minorities. Racial tension. Political buffoonery. Fascists. Bigots. Racists.

For those of us who were around the first time during the 60s and 70s, it’s deja vous all over again. Ground Hog Day. Like the unseen gods are saying, “We’re going to do this until we get it right”-kind of scenario.

Is it just me? Or have I felt this pain before? And will we ever have a definitive diagnosis? Will we go into surgery to have this malignancy removed at last?

Were it only that simple.

In the meantime, we have the pain, which will persist and recur until solutions are found.

 

 

 

 

Get the shopping cart into the correct place … Dammit!

2 Aug

 

Get the shopping cart into the correct place … Dammit!

By L. Stewart Marsden

A post on Facebook this morning got me to thinking. I know, thinking twice in one month is rather astounding for me. And painful – like a brain freeze.

It focused on people who do and don’t return their shopping carts to a cart station in the parking lot (perhaps, even, to the front area of the store). You’ve seen those people who don’t return theirs. They tend to smoke and drive big pickups and have Confederate flags on the rear windshield and have mud flaps with a chrome naked woman and spit on the pavement and wear greaser T-shirts and probably voted for 45. They shoo their carts and let them drift aimlessly in the vast parting lots like maverick cattle, creating chaos and confusion. Shameful!

The writer asserted – with admittedly no science to back his thesis – that successful people tend to return their carts, and the lazy bastards of our culture (see above) don’t.

I’m not sure this doesn’t fly in the face of what might be more accurately deduced. For example, the shopping cart returners seem to me more like Stepford Wives than successful entrepreneurs. More like the vast crowds who shift and turn based on the movement of the masses – unthinking and mechanically reactive. Like those schools of sardines you see during Shark Week, rippling through the water en masse. And, sad to say, I’m in that vast population.

I’m not advocating total chaos in the parking lots of America, mind you. And while the data are truly lacking*, this is also one of my peeves, although not a pet one. Mine is more unrestrained and feral. The point is whether you return your cart or not, I don’t think it’s an indicator of much of anything success-wise. But the post – like I said – got me to thinking.

Today there are at least two sizes of carts at most stores (Dollar General is the exception – and Aldi’s): the hunka-munka-I’m-here-for-a-whole-s**t-load-of-stuff cart, and the dainty-just-gotta-grab-one-or-two-items cart. (I normally use the latter cart, then cram it full of oh-I-need-thats until it looks like one of those commuter buses in India where passengers are literally hanging off the sides.)

Which brings up another pet peeve (squirrel!): going through the Express check-out with more than “about 12 items.” But I’ll leave that for another day.

So I get my stuff; wheel the cart through the parking lot with the one wheel spinning uncontrollably; unload my stuff in the trunk (cold stuff near the door, non-perishables in the back of the trunk); and turn to put my dainty cart in the cart station.

Again, there are usually two lanes of carts in each of these stations. Now at Lowe’s Home Improvement, one of those lanes is for the flatbed carts, and is much wider than the one meant for the regular carts. But at the grocery store, the lanes are the same size! AND, horror of horrors, the dainty and the hunka-munka carts are MIXED TOGETHER!

AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!

So, I spend time fixing the mess, pulling out the two sizes of carts and putting them together in correct sizes, and rolling those cart trains back into the cart station lanes, nice and neat. I even wait in my car a bit if someone who has just rolled out and emptied their cart to see if they are going to screw up the order! If they do, I don’t normally roll down my window and yell, “Hey! Asshole! Put that shopping cart in the other lane!” But I sure do think it.

I’m not sure this qualifies me for anything other than the Coo-coo’s Nest Elderly Care Retirement Home located on a dead-end street marked at its beginning with a sign that says, “No Exit.”

But it might.

–––––––––––––

*I understand the Federal Government is funding a $2.6 million study on this very subject.

Compromise

26 Jul

Compromise

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

I love T-shirts. The kind with witty sayings. Over the last year or more I’ve become a sucker for eye-catching, cleverly worded cotton and polyester tees.

My favorite T-shirts are: “Irony: the opposite of Wrinkly”; “Hyphenated. Non-hyphenated. The irony.”; “You Matter, Unless you multiply yourself by the speed of light … then you Energy.” That last one might be perceived to have some racial undertones, so I’m careful where I wear it. I also have a neat yin-yang guitar design T, and one bearing the image of Eric Clapton. I wear those whenever I play my acoustic, or practice my mandolin.

T-shirts arrive where I live almost every week. I got Tees for all my kids. You know, “I’m the oldest child – the rules were written for me,” “I’m the middle child …” And I got them the “Thing I” and “Thing II,” ad infinitum tees. Ask me how many kids I have and I’ll answer “Five … that I know of.”

They rarely wear them. I don’t know why. Certainly not at the same time, which is what I wanted in order to take a group shot of the kids in their tees to put on a T-shirt.

I saw a T-shirt advertised on Facebook from my alma mater, High Point College, where I graduated back in 1975. The type read, “Never underestimate an Old Man Who Graduated from High Point University.”  (The school added some post-graduate degrees in an effort to separate from all the other small colleges that abound in North Carolina.)

Apparently I wasn’t the only disgruntled grad, and I added my comment of disdain: I’m an Old Man (nothing about women, by the way), but I DID NOT graduate from High Point University! I graduated from High Point College!!!

I also might have added some colorful commentary about how the school seemed to have lost its way, clear-cutting beautiful areas of 100-year-old oaks, in order to grow. Whenever I go back to High Point, nothing is the same. I think of the folk tune Greenfields, recorded by the Brothers Four back in the 60s:

Once there were greenfields kissed by the sun;
Once there were valleys where rivers used to run;
Once there was blue sky with white clouds high above;
Once they were part of an everlasting

The changes on the campus, going from a quaint college in a quaint town, (although some believe them to be good as well as progressive), to a super-modern, luxury campus, have signaled the end of an era to many others of us.

And so I refused to buy the T-shirt. Whenever I scrolled across the ad for a High Point University wearable, especially if it used the words “Old Man,” I would comment.

Like talking to a wall, I thought. No one is reading my comments. No one cares. The world is slowly draining down the eddy of a toilet flush. Suck … suck … suck go the old ways and memories down that drain. A forgotten man from a forgotten era.

Then, to my surprise, a new ad. The tune was the same, but the lyrics were changed! “Never Underestimate an Old Man who graduated from High Point.” Period. Not High Point College, but not High Point University, either.

While not perfectly what I wanted (and I don’t dare step into the area of coeds), it was … it was … compromise!

I know a little about the T-shirt printing process to realize that the manufacturer was going to have to burn new screens in order to replace the word University with College. So, why not merely cover the word University and avoid the added costs? After all, no telling how many Old Men who graduated from High Point were still alive, or how many of those curmudgeons, codgers, or skinflints would order a T-shirt?

Compromise!

In this day and age – what a concept! I think of Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), sitting down in his button-down sweater and smiling to the camera to calmly say, “Can you say compromise, boys and girls?

I almost had to look it up in Merriam-Webster. I had forgotten the definition, as have many others, apparently.

I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, but what I got was better for me than what was being originally offered. A win-win solution!

Where are the Richard Rogers when you most need them? Can you say compromise?

I bought the new T-shirt, by the way.

 

 

New Instruments — Part II

23 May

New Instruments — Part II

The piano. The trombone. The harmonica.

The Piano

Well before, and sandwiched in between my learning to play the baritone ukulele or classical guitar, were the good intentioned desires of my mother that I learn to play the piano.

I was probably somewhere between five and seven years old.

Dad had bought a mid-sized Mason & Hamlin grand piano from a friend who needed the money. It sat in the livingroom and occupied a corner. Whenever my sisters and I played tag or hide-and-seek, it was a favorite place to hide, sitting on the thin carpeted floor underneath. Many times I dashed around the corner and banged my head on the underside of that piano.

For a short while I would walk a couple of blocks to the home of a piano teacher, who, in vain, tried to give me the fundamentals of piano. I’m convinced had ADD been a diagnosis at the time, I would have had it. I had no patience, and my lessons were short-lived. I rue that to this day.

Instead, I would spend hours seated on the piano bench, tapping out my own music creations, and playing with the foot pedals for effect.

Dad also had a Hammond electric organ, which he would play infrequently. He only knew a few songs, and those were mostly from “South Pacific,” his favorite musical. Of course. It was about the war, which had impacted him so very much.

Through the years the piano went through some transformation. At one point my parents had the black glossy finished removed for a softer, chestnut-colored stain. For the majority of its life, it remained unused and out of tune.

My sister took the piano and used it primarily for a lamp stand. She said she intended her children to learn to play, but that never happened.

Years later I bought it from her, and commissioned a person to refinish the instrument. She was glad to have the piano stay in the family, but more happy with money to use to go on a trip.

Of the family, only my first daughter flourished as a pianist. To this day she plays fluently, and teaches chorus in public school. She has a white enameled piano in her house.

When I separated and divorced from my Ender Wife (I had two: a Starter Wife and an Ender Wife), she got custody of the piano. To my knowledge, it is still in pieces from her move to another city, stacked among other furniture that awaits final resolution and use. She does play the piano, and had an old church upright for a time when I first met her.

Like any instrument, I believe, pianos are only happy when they are played.

The Trombone

In high school and college, my dad played the trombone. He had a silver-finished simple slide trombone that sported a small bell. I saw an ad featuring a trombone brand — King, I think — endorsed by the great Tommy Dorsey.

The summer between elementary school and junior high school, I decided to learn the trombone, and to play in the junior high band. Dad proudly presented me his to use. By that time, what might have once been a shiny silver lacquer finish, was now more like a dull gray pewter.

I sat in a row with other trombonist would-bees, with their very shiny Conn trombones sporting HUGE bells, and the fuse of my continuing sense of inadequacies was lit. Their slides slipped effortlessly along the double-tubed track. Mine? It slid like a rusty screen sliding door — jerky and unpredictable. I hated my trombone?

“What’s wrong with it?” my Dad asked. In his day it was probably the finest instrument money could buy. To me it was like comparing a Model-T to a Corvette Stingray. He made it more difficult to explain when he told me that Dorsey had come to his fraternity once at the U of Minnesota and actually played the thing. I thought of the sappy story about an old violin being auctioned off. Do you know that one?

  • “Let’s start the bidding for this violin at $10,000.” No bids.
    He dropped it by half to $5,000. Still no bids.
    Once again, he dropped it to $2,500, and then to $1,000, and then $500 — until in exasperation he had reached $10 for the violin.
    “Wait!” shouted someone in the back of the grouped bidders. An old bent man shuffled forward and took the violin in his hands, tucked it under his chin, and drew the bow across its strings.
    The result mesmerized the room. It was beautiful, and the violin sang like a Stradivarius. He handed the old violin back to the auctioneer and disappeared among the amazed bidders.
    “Who will offer $50,000 for this violin?” said the auctioneer.
  • Yeah, well I was no expert, and still wanted a bright, shiny brass like-silk sliding trombone.

The trombone is a dirty instrument, in my opinion. To get a sound, you have to basically spit through pursed lips into the mouthpiece. After a time, enough saliva collects in the slide tubing that the “voice” of the trombone gets very gurgly-sounding. At the end of the slide is a spring valve that the player opens and blows hard — which forces the liquid yuck out. Next time you see an orchestra, watch the trombone players. They will quickly lean forward to empty the slide of spit onto the floor area next to their feet.

As with nearly every instrument, learning a brass instrument comes with a painful learning curve — painful to listeners as well as the player — who wants to sound just like Dorsey, or any well-known instrumentalist. Tone and pitch are nonexistent in the learning months. And practice? Well, my ADD tendencies didn’t allow for much of it. I did find that the acoustic reverberation effects of the bathroom made whatever I played sound much better, though. And louder. You were out of luck if you needed to go and I was playing my trombone.

To complicate matters, I wore braces. Pressing my lips to the mouthpiece to get a sound ravaged the insides of them. And so my career was short-lived. Plus I played football (better suited to an ADD kid), and so couldn’t march in the band.

My band teacher was great, though, and all the band members were fun. We were herded into the same homeroom so that we could be in band class. Teddy Harris, a tall, skinny guy, played a mean drum, and in home room, all of us pounded our desks to the beat of a favorite rhythm. Our homeroom teacher was a saint. Or should have been.

And who doesn’t like a man in uniform? Blue and white swirling down sleeves and pant legs. Stove-like hats with a plume shooting up at the front, and a shining black visor. Brass buttons. And you got to march down Main Street in the Christmas Parade! Although we were always positioned just behind a group of gaily-dressed cowboys and cowgirls riding Palominos who definitely had digestive problems.

While my skill levels and interest in continuing trombone definitely plateaued in junior high, the experience was great. AND, the strangest thing happened forty years later.

I was working at a hospital in Western North Carolina in public relations and marketing. One morning I received an email from a guy who had also played in the band back in junior high school. Back then he called himself Steven, and was kind of a squirrelly kid with big eyes and curly hair. He played trumpet. We will call him Steven C. Now, he addressed himself as Steve C., and he attached a photography of himself with his family.

Steven had grown up. He looked like a male model. His family looked like a perfect group. And Steve’s wife? Her name was Lisa, and she had played the part of Blair in a TV sitcom called “The Facts of Life.” He was now the music minister of a mega-church in California.

Imagine that?!

Within the year the couple were in the news — news like ET and such — as things unravelled for them. All the time I watched thinking, “Gosh, this will really help when I play Six Degrees from Kevin Bacon next time!”

The Harmonica

There was a time, when as a student in college who was majoring in fraternity, I came to my senses. It was such an about-face for me that I literally turned from everything I had known to that point.

I had grown reasonably adept at my guitar (Part III), and had begun to write songs. Lots of songs. Christian-oriented songs. Thank You, My Lord, For the Day came into my head while driving to my college apartment. You’ve never heard it, unless you knew me back then.

I even rewrote the lyrics to Killing Me Softly:

We met beside the water,
My life was ebbing low,
And I could go no farther
Till He began to show,
A way of quenching dryness,
The cup of Life
And he was … (Wait for it)
Filling me softly with His love,
Filling my life from above
Filling me softly with his love
Forever giving me new life
Now I am living his new life
Filling me softly
With his love.

The Jesus Movement. But not a lot of Christian groups at the time. Then came the 2nd Chapter of Acts and others.

So I had written all these songs. My father, always the fan but never the critic, encouraged me and another song-writer, Ken, to record an album he and another of his friends would finance.

Ken WAS a musician. Up through the southern beach music tradition, he too had turned from all he knew. And he too had written a lot of music, and had formed a Christian band.

So we recorded an album in a local studio. Jubilant Feet. You’ve never heard of it, unless you know either me or Ken.

The very first track of the album was a harmonica solo. You were waiting for me to get to this, right? A guy from California named Steve Humphries played it. Foot-stomping and lively. His rif bent notes and wailed as he literally provided drums with his feet. Hence the title of this song and the album.

He would sing between playing.

Well I ain’t been to heaven but I been told
Streets up there is lined with gold,
See me walkin’ down them golden streets
An’ dancin’ to da Lord with the jubilant feet!

The harmonica craze hit our little Christian hippie group like a hail storm, and everyBODY went out and bought a Hohner Blues Harp in the key of C and began huffing and puffing, trying to coax music out of that small reed instrument.

Kind of like the baritone ukulele craze.

Yeah, I got one too.

But one of the guys, who played drums on the album, and had come to Jesus from a time of drugs and hard living, did something with his. Not at first. At first, everyone begged Terry to quit the harmonica and stick to the sticks.

Terry traipsed off to Nashville, still blowing that harp of his the wrong way (he held it backwards from the way you are ‘sposed to play it). He ended up being — I think — discovered at an open mic at Roger Miller’s restaurant, and became one of the most sought-after harp players in the town. He rode with Jerry Reed and played on Ronnie Milsaps albums, and others, like JC (do I have to tell you?).

My harmonica sat in a drawer. Then, maybe twenty or thirty years later while checking out of Cracker Barrel after a meal with my family, I spied the familiar Hohner blue boxed harmonicas they had for sale, and bought another one.

I have played mine at a few places. But I have never bought a harp holder and played my guitar like Dylan did. I prefer the single-note tunes, like Moon River, and such, where I can create dreamy vibrato.

I think of Terry whenever I pick my harp up. Even wrote a story about a kid and his harp, based ever-so-loosely on Damn Yankees. You’d have to read it to understand.

Terry’s no longer here, but his music is.

Perhaps this love of new instruments and music is because of Terry’s legacy: music lives on. It’s eternal.

 

Part III: The Martin. The Acoustic. The Mandolin.

New Intruments, Part I

10 May

New Instruments – Part One

Anticipation. Disappointment. Delight. Devastation.

In my early teenhood, a fad swept our little southern town: the baritone ukulele. The baritone is a size larger than the small Hawaiian instrument known then for playing those island tunes, and little else.

Kids around the town were popping up as groups — some rather large — to play the popular songs of the day, which happened to be folk tunes. Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; New Christy Minstrels. Songs like “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Five Hundred Miles,” “Black, Black, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” “Green, Green,” and so forth and so on.

I wanted a baritone ukulele. Badly. It’s the one on the far right of the picture showing ukulele sizes.

So, Christmas Day found me — like Ralphie — shoving my younger brother aside under the tree among stacks of painfully-wrapped presents for that instrument.

It was not to be. Oh, there was an instrument, alright. A ukulele. A little small Hawaiian piece made from blondish woods with four plastic strings. The one on the far left of the picture showing ukulele sizes. Little more in my estimation than those plastic guitar-shaped toys with the crank jutting out of the end of the sound box.

Disappointment didn’t begin to describe my reaction. Mom and Dad couldn’t imagine why I was not overjoyed.

After the holidays, my dad righted the error and took me with him to the music shop, where I picked out a real baritone.

If you are a golfer, you know the sign of someone who is more than a duffer is when you shake hands, and you feel the rough callouses gloving their hand. They are players!

So it is with anyone that plays a stringed instrument and has to practice and practice and practice. The tips of their fingers blister to the point of agony if they are as avid as I was. From the time I got home from school to deep into the night I was strumming and fingering cords and learning songs. My sister, whose bedroom was adjacent mine, would pound on the wall and tell me, “SHUT UP!!!” repeatedly to no avail. My finger tips were toughening.

I took my baritone everywhere. I even made a protective case for it using thick mil plastic and sheets I cut up, which I sewed together. Strap, too.

Every song I heard was a project to master. Over time, my ear for chords and progressions developed, and I could hear a song and KNOW what the chords were. It really didn’t matter that most popular songs were little more than three standard chords. All rock and roll songs basically use the same chords.

After a while, I grew weary of the baritone with its tinny sound, and began to eye the next step up: a full guitar.

This time Dad knew well enough to take me with him when he shopped for the instrument.

It was a beauty! A Terraga classical guitar! Six strings a bit more difficult than the four-stringed baritone, but, once again, I was determined. Nearly all of the popular songs on the radio were folkish in nature, AND, they had song books with the chords and everything!

I went away to school in the tenth grade. My guitar was my solace for what I thought was punishment for some of my, shall we say, less-than-perfect behavior. Only knew one guy at the school who was also from my small southern town. Walter. Glasses. Skinny. Yep, I was one of those who shunned the early nerds before they became kings of the hill.

I and my guitar gently wept that first semester of school. I was homesick and hated being at the school. The seniors on my dorm were Dylan fanatics, and played their albums non-stop. I began to hate Dylan with his nasal talk-singing style. Never mind he was the guy who wrote nearly all the songs I loved that were recorded by other artists who could sing and play their instruments correctly. Who would have thought Dylan would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Not me.

It happened just before Christmas holidays. A guy who lived down the hall came running into my room laughing and giggling about something. Time slowed to a frame-by-frame recording. John Rust (not his fake name) was a portly lad with curly blonde hair and was always red-faced. Anyway, he ran into my room with a bound, and leapt onto my bed. On the bed was my Terraga classical guitar. As his arch peaked, I could see his expression of hilarity turn into horror. His landing was pin-point.

The destruction of the Tarrega classical guitar was complete.

“Oops!” said John’s body language.

He managed to get out of my room before I killed him.

Barely.

 

 

Part II: All is not lost and it is well with my soul

Opposite Poles

8 May

Opposite Poles

 

I had two related but poles-apart experiences today.

Experience One:

I read a post on Facebook that featured a picture of a rather large person tending one of those huge wood grill thingies where it looked like dozens of chickens were barbecuing. The gist was this is representative of Western North Carolina people.

The comments were varied to the extent those with something to say said the same thing from a different perspective. Red-neck came up often, along with colorful castigations of who the photo was being used to represent.

The Basket of Deplorables, no doubt. Those ignorant, overfed, racist North Carolinians. You know, the Andy Griffith type. Farmers. Factory workers. Hard-working people with bad teeth who like country music, apple pie and fly the American flag year-round, and not just on the 4th of July.

Why that grieved me so I’m not certain. I only have a college education — a bachelor’s degree. Plus I attended a summer class in screenwriting at NYU in NYC. And got my lateral entry teaching certification at Lenoir-Rhyne. You know … one of the ig’nant North Carolinians. Don’t have a Masters Degree. Don’t have a PhD.

Their bumper stickers read “My red-neck son can beat the hell out of your Honor Student.” Confederate flag covers the back cab window of their big-wheeled Hemi Dodge truck — a gun rack perhaps suction-cupped to the glass.

It grieved me. But no one else on that post, apparently. It was gang-tackle, pink-belly time. Dare I say it? Kind of a mob mentality.

Better than. Smarter than. More deserving than. Glad we’re not them.

Experience Two:

I went in for a weekly booster to help with my low iron counts. A very remote internist’s office in the North Carolina mountains where the physician (from Tennessee) and his PA take time with their patients, and know them by their first names. I sat across from a lady who preceded to hold church.

“I’m so glad I’m saved!” And went into great detail about her experience, down to the place (Pentecostal church), month, day, and nearly the time when she “died and came alive again! I ain’t been the same since!”

I had no reason to doubt her.

She flashed an eye my way and said, “God knows how many He is going to save before the end time.”

I’m thinking, but not saying, “144,000?”

“I’m so GLAD I’m SAVED and am NOT going to HELL, Amen?”

The others in the waiting room echoed, “Amen!”

She sounded like a familiar character out of a Stephen King novel. There’s one in each of his stories, if you hadn’t noticed.

Mercifully my name was called and I went into the back where I rolled up my sleeve for the stick.

“We were having church in the lobby!” I grinned.

The nursing assistant, pinched my upper arm skin and preparing to stab me with the needle, said, “That’s Mrs. Praise the Lord!” And she laughed. We all laughed and winked, then hushed ourselves so as not to be heard from the waiting room.

I did not fully recognize I was doing pretty much the same thing that was accomplished by the earlier post I had read on Facebook.

Better than. Smarter than. More deserving than. Glad we’re not them.

On the way home, it gradually dawned on me. And I grieved again — for different reasons.

BREAKING NEWS … !

20 Apr

BREAKING NEWS: Animal Federation employs MOAB* to send message to imminent domain residents.

SUGAR MTN, NC — The Western North Carolina Chapter of the Wild Animal Federation sent a definite message to residents of Chestnut Ridge in Sugar Mountain last night.

The message? GET OUT!

“We were here first,” said chapter spokes-“person” Pogo, an opossum elected by the Wild Animal Federation to represent their complaints.

“These interlopers, not to be confused with cantalopers or antelopers, forced their way onto our reservation without so much as a how-do-you-do. It’s gone on way too long. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to put up with it any longer!”

Bud, the bad-ass black bear who is the Enforcer of the group, volunteered to do the deed, which was under the cover of night.

“Sure, come sneaking up in the dark. Pretty cowardly if you ask me,” said one of two year-round residents.

“Fine with me,” said the other year-round resident, who asked to remain anonymous. “I got my 30-ought-6 loaded and at the window if they want to test me!”

“It’s not only the bears,” said the first residents. “Deer, raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks, and crazy-ass Robins have colluded to make this serene and picturesque area a place of potential carnage! What we NEED is a wall to keep these critters OUT!”

Both sides have been reluctant to come to the bargaining table.

“Just look at me!” complained Bud, the alleged perpetrator of last night’s melee. “I’ve put on 183 pounds this month due to all of the sugar and fat these humans have tossed! It’s not only unHEALTHY for ME, it’s a cruel kind of baiting I think has got to stop. Look at all the damn bird feeders, for crissakes! There’s not a wren or a titmouse for miles around able to fend for themself anymore. They’ve all become dependant. It’s like — here’s some free and easy bird seed — come and get it! Then, in the winter, these snowbirds fly south and take their birdfeeders with them! That’s as bad as giving away a free hit of heroine, if you ask me!”

The decades-old battle between squatters (how the animals refer to the humans) and animals is not likely to find resolution any time soon.

“They are just not like us,” murmured Bud under his garbage breath.

“Animals is what they are!” replied one of the year-round residents.

*Mother of all Bears

 

Garbage carnage as a result of MOAB attack during last night’s raid

 

Breaking news: The Great Beach T-Shirt Metaphor

4 Feb

BREAKING NEWS!

THE GREAT BEACH T-SHIRT METAPHOR!
(Or, what’s a meta for?)

image

Several years ago my DIL did a whimsical thing and designed a T-shirt for our annual beach trip during the week of the 4th of July.

What a great idea!

We all LOVED the shirts, which had a drawing of our cottage on the back, and other really neat stuff.

So, we meet at the beach, and my DIL passes out the shirts, and we wear them on the beach.

“Hey! Where’d you get THOSE?” asked a member of the extended family. (You see, I’m one of four children, and each of us have added children, and many of those children, children … so the number has grown exponentially over the years).

Oops!

An innocent oversight. We forgot to include about 40 others.

Sooooo, the NEXT year we INCLUDED everyone, and the design was somewhat generic and all names were stamped on the back and so forth and so on.

What began as my DIL’s fun, fanciful and serendipitous project had become, in the words of the somber and serious: AN INSTITUTION!

I can hear Zero Mostel singing “Tradition!” in my mind.

Fast forward a couple of years. We’re coming around Winter’s corner and will soon be springing through to summer, where all — with some additions — will once again gather at the beach during the week of July 4th.

I put out a letter to my siblings, asking if there is any interest in a T-shirt.

One of my daughters, who had told me months ago that she and her cousin wanted to design it this year. I had forgotten that one of my son’s had put in a bid as well to design it. Apparently, design it is a big deal. My GKs designed last year’s.

Last year 53 relatives showed up to suntan and play bocci and ladder ball for a week. Not in one cottage, mind you.

So my daughter said she really didn’t want to do it, but I should contact her cousin, which I did to no avail. Still forgetting my son wanted to do it, I began the process. The picture is the design. The line across the belly actually is supposed to go down the right sleeve. CustomInk doesn’t have a template to show that, however.

I sent out a request for sizes to my family portion (those of my branch). One of my daughters said she did not want a T-shirt. Ba-dum! Somewhat hurt, I asked if anyone else did not want a shirt.

You know that phrase, “If you build it …?” Well, it also works for “If you ask it, they will answer.”

Rapid-fire semi-automatic responses. I’m ducking left and right, pretending the wounds are only superficial, but am both surprised and hurt by the unexpected reactions.

So, I do bleed if scratched!

There is a flurry of back-and-forth texts. “What if we tweek the design?” “I don’t want to wear a line of type across my belly.” “I hate the shirt style.” Yadda-yadda-yadda.

Then, in the midst of the firefight comes an aside from one of my SIL’s (actually, he’s the ONLY SIL I have … so far):

“Let’s fix this T-shirt and make the beach trip GREAT again!”

You could hear the drum beat. Budda-bum!

There it was, in all its glory: the beach trip WASN’T the great experience everyone in the family pretended it to be. It was in bad shape. It wasn’t the T-shirt at all.

It was the fact that something I looked forward to as a kid — spending time on the beach and building sandcastles and cleaning blue crabs we had netted at Southport, and going down to Myrtle Beach to ride the rides and then throw up — all of that had morphed into a tradition.

My kids will tell you they love the trip because it’s the only time they get to see their cousins. But has it run its course? Has it lost the old zippety-doo-dah? Is the salt in the air a bit less salty. The waters filled with more sharks than before? The Calabash dinners a bit more oily?

Like the T-shirt, it seems to be something to do because we’ve always done it. Something to look back on. Building memories.

MayBE like the government. “Well, we’ve always done it this way …”

Until someone said, “Make the beach trip GREAT AGAIN!” no one stopped and thought about it and said “Wait! What? It’s NOT great?”

You need to know that the next generation beyond my siblings and me is, for the most part, politically liberal (“Oh, jeesh, Edith — did you HAVE to say THAT?)

You would expect some exciting and different ideas about how to get the extended family together periodically.

Like, a reunion? And maybe not for a whole week? But a long weekend? Maybe in the mountains? Or somewhere else.

AND, we could have a commemorative T-shirt!

Budda-bum!

The metaphor.

OR, mayBE, not have a T-shirt, at all.