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Joel Speaks

A writer's online journal of

opinion, observation and musings.

Archive: July - December, 2001


Click on the date that corresponds to the topic, 
or scroll down for entries in chronological order.  

07/02/01    The Strangest Dream (On A Micro Soft Pillow)
07/29/01    Flight From Hell
08/29/01    A Plum By Any Other Name
09/10/01    Higher Education -- What A Riot!
09/13/01    911
09/23/01    This Machine Kills Fear
09/30/01    Uncle Dave's Blessing
10/16/01    The Color Of Nothing
11/01/01    HO HO Halloween
11/18/01    NO NO November
11/27/01    In the Book Store Today
12/17/01    Tradition!
12/24/01    White Christmas

Earlier  entries

Later entries

Return to the current "Joel Speaks" page


07/02/01    The Strangest Dream (Microsoft Pillow)

So I see that Microsoft is back together again.  The courts seem to have got a whole lot friendlier to VERY big business since "W" is in the driver's seat.

I'm no expert on monopolies nor on computer software.  I just wish they would make a version of windows that would work without crashing every third day -- or crash without a snide admonishment that I didn't close my windows properly! Maybe if they just fixed the old version before they launched a new one with just as many bugs -- hey, there's a business plan.

The news story reminds me of a dream I had a while back.  I am in the habit sometimes of courting sleep on wakeful nights with my radio earbuds tucked into my head at a low volume. It has to be tuned to a talk radio station. Music makes me pay attention and only keeps me awake. But murmurs of unimportant conversations send me to sleep better than any lullaby could. 

The night that the judge made the ruling in the Microsoft case that the giant must be split in two, was such a night of radio fare. I fell asleep to Art Bell talking about UFOs or crop circles or something silly.  But somewhere in the wee hours a news program was aired about the Microsoft breakup.  And in my dreams I mangled the story into something more personal:

I dreamed I had written a song that was hugely popular. So immensely popular in fact, that a federal judge ruled that the song had to be split into two.  He ruled that the chorus henceforth would be a separate song, and couldn't be sung with the verses under penalty of fine or imprisonment.  I woke up with my protests that "Hey, it's my song! I can sing it the way I want!"

Of course as soon as I woke up I realized what I was really dreaming about and actually laughed out loud.  I only wish I had actually heard the song I had written in dream land -- it might have been a hit!



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07/29/01    Flight From Hell

I just returned from a week of teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, right across the water from Seattle. And while that was a perfectly glorious time spent in the woods with guitars and fun people, it's the coming and going that I will tell here, except to say that a week of slight sleep deprivation (late nights & early mornings) bears somewhat on this tale.

The trip to Seattle was fairly unremarkable. Long and tedious, to be sure, as air travel is these days, but fairly routine. Except for my first airport wait.  Here at home in Kalamazoo we are blessed with a small, tidy airport.  (Yes an international airport since they've resumed the short flights to Toronto).  There is one terminal with three or four gates all next to each other, and usually one plane at a time.  So I was intrigued by a certain welcoming committee there to meet the small craft coming from Chicago -- the same turboprop that would take me on it's return trip to O'Hare. 

Turns out it was a local church group who were "adopting" a family arriving from Bosnia.  They had flowers, baskets of goodies, and a big paper banner with a welcome on it.  And lots of cameras, of course. It was easy to spot the immigrant family coming off the plane.  Not from their attire, but from their attitude. A look of bleak despair was on the mother's face, she clutching her smallest child. The father looked worn and wary, and drained of all emotion. Only their little girl could muster a smile.  They were warmly embraced by the good folks of Kalamazoo, while a translator kept busy.

I boarded my flight thinking of that family's long travail, and their hopes for a better future in the middle of America, strange as it must seem to them now.  But twelve weary hours later I arrived at my guitar camp in the firs of Puget Sound, and thoughts of the refugee family were soon put out of my mind by seven days of nothing but music and good times. Well, there was just a touch of abdominal distress, too. I seem to have met with a bad clam at one meal which bade me release him and his brethren. Let's just say I saw that chowder twice.

So being very sleepy and just a little sore in the gizzard, I was ready to head home on a flight out of Sea-Tac Airport on Friday.  A ride from a friendly fellow camper left me right at the United Airlines gate. After the familiar routine of check-in and the usual boarding rigmarole, I finally was wedged into a tiny bulkhead seat of a huge Boeing 767, looking forward to a nice nap and skipping the proffered meal.  

And I did nod off soon after take-off, just after seeing Mount Rainier out the left window.  When I stirred again about an hour later, I noticed that Mount Ranier was still out the left window.  I noticed, too, that the flight crew hadn't been passing out drinks either.  That's when the pilot came over the PA in his best Chuck Yager voice: CLICK "Folks, some of you may have noticed that we are not flying in the direction of Chicago.  We just need to straighten out a few things and then we'll be underway.  Crew, return to your stations." CLICK.

I dozed again. About an hour later I looked out, again, at Mount Rainier while the nonchalant pilot said: CLICK "Folks, the good news is we'll be landing shortly. Unfortunately it won't be in Chicago.  We'll be landing in Seattle... just a little faster than we normally would.  You'll probably see a few vehicles on the runway... well, they're rescue trucks, really.  I don't think we'll need them, but they like to be there for us in these situations. Crew, prepare for landing." CLICK.

I'll admit I had a few mortal thoughts cross my mind, but I frankly was too tired to work up a sweat.  I certainly was in no position to alter my fate in the next few moments, so I kept a good thought while the plane made funny noises. We landed in nearly normal fashion, except that we came in really fast and rolled a really long time while being followed by several really red trucks with fire hoses.  But after a round of applause from the passengers and a "Thank you, Jesus" from the back of the plane, things were normal again and our grim pilgrimage began in earnest.

When we deplaned in Seattle, the fates decreed I was one of the last off.  Therefore I was directed to the very end of a line of 250 anxious people waiting to talk to three customer service agents of "the Friendly Skies."  These agents held all my answers -- would they fix the plane? Would I fly today? Would I go on another carrier?  Nothing to do but stand in line and wait.  And wait. And stand. And wait.   

After exactly two hours and ten minutes of foot-numbing, bladder-stretching, mind-wrenching tedium, I found myself NEXT in line. At last, there was the counter. As soon as one of the current passengers was finished I would finally have my turn.  Yes -- I see that that one is finished.  I begin to step up to the counter and WHAT?!! 

Power outage.

The entire airport -- or at least our entire terminal -- went dark.  No electricity. No computers. No help. No answers. The agents at the counter phoned the experts somewhere.  Oh, power could be out a half hour or more. The customer service folks seemed happy.  Hey, they would be taking a break! I took the moment to offer the suggestion that United might have brought out a beverage cart from the downed plane and offered the hapless line of passengers at least a bit of comfort and good cheer instead of cueing us up like Soviet  peasants waiting for their monthly roll of toilet paper.  OK, I left out the Soviet toilet paper crack -- I was really trying hard to remain civil.  But the clerk -- the boss clerk -- just looked at me like Clint Eastwood on a bad hair day.

So here I am in Washington state, the land of cheap hydro power -- with no electricity. Here I am in Seattle, the city of Microsoft Systems -- with no computers. This city built by Boeing aircraft -- with no plane that can make it to Chicago.  (Maybe this is all a sabotage to keep Boeing from relocating it's headquarters to Chicago -- one plane at a time.)

Boss clerk says I can get help at the main terminal.  Just walk down those two flights of non-operating escalators, take the (hopefully operating) train to the next building, go up three flights and get in line with the other arriving flyers.

Which is what I did.  And the young woman at the end of that wait cheerfully told me I could leave on a red-eye flight just four hours from now, spend a few more overnight hours at O'Hare airport and fly on to Kalamazoo in the morning.

I had no rage in me, just a cold stare with the deliberate words -- "I'm not sleeping on the floor of an airport tonight." She paused for a rather long moment. "Well, you could stay as our guest at the Hilton this evening and fly out tomorrow."  And so those arrangements were made.

I suppose the Seattle airport Hilton is a nice hotel, but all I will remember is the scenery between the sheets. Then it was up early and start all over again.  This time it was just the average torture and insult of everyday air travel, instead of the special hell served up by United Airlines for me the day before.  I was treated to a seat in the very last row of the plane, right next to the toilet, which just put the icing on the cake.

After two days I'm home at last -- with a stony, vacant look on my face very much like that on the faces of that poor Bosnian family I saw the week before.  While there are surely greater horrors in this world, I had had a small but very personal taste of "man's inhumanity to man," these past 48 hours.  I know -- if this is the worst thing to happen to me, I should be so lucky, yadda yadda....  And I don't mean to whine, but I travel quite a bit in this business, and this "what's it to ya" treatment is steadily becoming the norm.  Is it any wonder there is an epidemic of "air rage" these days?  Not once, mind you, not ONCE, did a person from United Airlines look me in the eye and say anything like, "we're sorry for your delay."  In fact, of the two days travel, the only welcoming smiles I saw were from actors on the videos that demonstrated seat belts and oxygen masks. (I'm discounting the "buh-byes" from the designated "buh-bye" attendant as we leave the cabin. We all know those don't count as human contact.) What I DID see a lot of was the look of misery on the faces of the travelers I was shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder with for two days.  The airport is not a happy place, boys and girls, not at all a happy place until you hit the streets outside.

So the Bosnian family had their flight from terror and I had my flight from hell.   I wonder what their connection through Chicago was like?




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08/29/01    A Plum By Any Other Name

Been shopping for fruit lately?  You might have a hard time finding the prunes at your local grocery.  That's because the "Fruit Council" or "Fiber Food Advisory Panel" or some such group has decided that the word "prune" has bad connotations.  So now the sweet little darlings are packaged as "dried plums." Perhaps the "American Plum Board?"

Makes me think of the old commercial that bragged, "Today the pits -- tomorrow the wrinkles! Sunsweet marches on!"  That commercial from the 1960's was the brainchild of funnyman Stan Freeberg.  It was the same Stan Freeberg who poked fun at the name game of euphemism-in-packaging with his brilliant radio skit wherein he sang "Old Man River."  He was chided by his ever-interrupting  censor into singing it as "Elderly Man River" so as not to "offend our senior citizens."

Is "dried plum" really more attractive than "prune?"  Is anybody going to be lured into a purchase by this ploy? I shudder to believe it might be so.  I remember reading a Harper's Index a few years ago that stated "48% of Americans believe oatmeal is a wheat product."  So I guess it is true that you can fool some of the people all of the time.

This is old news in the folk music community.  For thirty years now, ever since the folk boom faded, there have been any number of "new" names for folk music -- roots music, acoustic music, new acoustic music, old wave, Americana, etc.  None of them has stuck, however, so the search continues. Then there are some who prefer to associate themselves only with their own little slice of the folk music pie. Thus country blues players, bluegrass musicians, world beat musicians, old-timey and Celtic players each wear their own stripes proudly but usually avoid the epithet known as "folk."  Others prefer to add a mollifying  measure of coolness by adding a "hyphen rock" at the end of their particular style, yielding the folk-rock, afro-celtic-rock, bluegrass-zydeco-rock, etc.  All this to avoid the nasty connotation that unadorned folk music might conjure -- pleasant people having a pleasant time with pleasant music.  Oh, the horror!

Ironically, about the time of life when you actively seek out prunes to add to your diet, you probably will enjoy folk music too. The tough part is figuring out what they are calling either one these days.




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09/10/01    Higher Education -- What A Riot!

Don't say it can't happen here!  This past weekend in sleepy Kalamazoo, Michigan, we had our first senseless student beer riot.  Western Michigan University (it started as a prim teacher's college years ago -- a "normal" school) had it's first beer-swilling, mattress-burning, tit-flashing, cop-bashing, hats-on-backwards riot.  Surprisingly, the community is shocked.

I'm not.  It takes a while for these cultural rituals to make it to the smaller schools, but WMU is growing bigger and more sophisticated all the time.  And our time has come.  Last Saturday night, 2500 kids at a block party off campus came of age the modern way.  They got drunk and destroyed stuff.  

That, in itself, is an age-old custom for adolescents -- especially males.  But it used to be in small groups -- a private thing.  A few guys would gather down at the dump getting blasted and wind up having a fist fight over a girl or a car or something -- kind of quaint, isn't it?  But the modern way is when huge numbers of white, privileged kids gather to "party" the MTV way.  Video cameras are necessary, as are bonfires and, of course, alcohol.  Beer is favored.  It just doesn't seem right to hurl wine coolers at cops.  A full beer can makes a much nicer brickbat. Affordable, too.

Of course, in my day (this is where I stroke my whiskers and peer over my reading glasses) we had riots too. We were trying to stop a little thing called the bombing of Cambodia.  Still, one of my buddies put a brick through the window of the student bookstore, not to further world peace, but because he didn't get a good resale value on his textbooks the term before.  And another friend bragged that he attended the riots only to "meet chicks and get laid."  It worked, too.  So, yes, I know how these things go. But, sadly for my horny friend, the war fizzled and so did the hippy riots.  The 80's came. The Reagan-era campuses turned once again to the hard work of training drones and clones to take their places in society.  Until the late 1990's when once again enlightened students began to fight -- for their right to party.

The big football schools started the trend. The students at my alma mater, Michigan State University, torched East Lansing a few years ago, memorably so.  It was after the Spartans lost a big game.  But it would have been the same if they had won.  (Even 20+ years ago, when Magic Johnson & company won the NCAA, my car was picked up off the street by "revelers" and very nearly flipped over -- with ME in it!) Now it's nearly a cliché -- the obligatory campus riot after the tournament-ending "big game."

What makes this weekend's WMU rioters different is that there was no "big game" Saturday night.  Chalk one up for student initiative. It was just the first boring weekend of fall term.  The weekend before was Labor Day and before that the big "welcome" celebration.  This was just a normal Saturday night with nothing going on except a block party.  Lots of beer, lots of hooting.  And lots of citations given out for illegal drinking.  Around midnight when one drunk kid threw a punch at a cop and ran away, the crowd cheered.  The cop ran him down on foot, and brought him back to the squad car, where the mob booed and hissed and started hurling heavy objects.  And thus the party really started.  An hour or two later the scene had escalated to concrete blocks and tear gas canisters. (This is what I am told -- I was safe at home listening to the song of locusts and tree frogs from my back yard.)

As I said, the community leaders are shocked and outraged.  But a TV interview I saw this evening was telling:  An "older and wiser" student -- a junior -- was asked for his sage opinion.  He was disappointed in the behavior of the younger students.  His head nodded in contemplation as he spoke, "It's one thing to party -- you know, burn a couch, have a few beers. But beating up cops is totally bogus."

And that, dear friends, is the real problem.  Early September is simply "good couch-burning weather." Get used to it.



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09/13/01    911

Thinking through the unthinkable this night, the morning of my 48th birthday. The scenes of the past two days belong in some bad movie, not the nightly news. Yet these are no special effects -- no model buildings blown to bits in slow motion. This is for real. The world has changed.

I came of age during the Vietnam war. I am of the generation ironically detached from patriotic fervor. Yet today I am oddly moved to hear some school kids singing "oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave" or my congress singing "God Bless America" out of key on the steps of the Capitol. Even George W. Bush is commanding attention as "my president," at least more so than ever before. The world has changed.

I take pride in my fellow Americans today.  New York has always gotten its share of ribbing from me, just as I, a "hopelessly midwestern" boy, have taken a few potshots from my east coast friends. But this week, "ich bin ein New Yorker."  And so are my midwestern neighbors.  The bloodbanks in Michigan are overwhelmed by donors out-the-door and down the block.  And even the small stories I hear from the big city -- like the shoe store passing out free sneakers to women in heels trudging past their storefront on the long walk home from lower Manhattan -- genuinely touch me.

As for the epicenter of the tragedy -- words fail me. Words simply fail me.

We are on the brink of something awful, I fear. War. Real war. But who is this enemy? If we are the new Rome -- the shining city on the hill overlooking and ruling the world -- then who are our Vandals? The Goths or the Visigoths? Babylon or Persia? Who will be the target of Caesar's wrath?

I am not a man without passion. Yes, I am angry tonight, like most Americans.  But is retribution going to make this a better world?  We have seen "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" turn Jerusalem into the city of the blind and toothless.  Is the whole world doomed to become the west bank of Jordan?

These are my fears tonight. The world of my youth seems so simple and dear this evening. Yet, on the eve of my birth exactly 48 years ago this hour, was my mother thinking of nuclear bombs? Was my father worried about world war III and communist conspiracies?  It all must have seemed such a fast and terrible place compared to their own childhood, when radio was a novelty and indoor plumbing a luxury. 

Maybe the world hasn't really changed. I suppose this world has always been an Eden and has always been a Hell. Tonight a single cricket chirps outside my window on a mild September night on a peaceful street where well-fed people sleep in comfortable beds. And at this same moment there are many on this globe trapped in the anguish of the pit. I imagine this is the way it has always been, since life has inhabited this planet -- terror for one creature, comfort for another, with the tables turning in the wink of an eye. 

It just seems more so tonight.



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09/23/01    This Machine Kills Fear

Much has changed these past twelve days.  It is nearly unfathomable.   Fear has become a palpable presence where it was only a shadowy threat mere days ago. Yet unity and hope have never been stronger.  Despair for the missing and dead is at the center of a storm surrounded by a larger swirling circle of passion and resolve. It is the worst of times. It is the best of times.  It is war, or some version of it.

I don't know what or when the next tragic consequence will be -- that is, the next strike or blast.  But I can believe, in a way I could never have understood before, what W.H. Auden wrote in 1939: that from those to whom great evil is done, expect great evil in return.

I hear blame on all sides of me.  The great idiot gasbag preachers have pronounced that this is the fault of homosexuals, feminists, abortionists and the ACLU.  Because of the godless among us, god is punishing the rest of us -- or at least lifting his protective skirt to let the devil strike.  In other words, they say "we had it coming."

At the same time, I hear from my old friends on the puritanical left, in slightly softer rhetoric, that America is finally reaping the whirlwind of years of capitalist exploitation and imperialist foreign policy. The world hates us because we are so despicable.  In other words, they say "we had it coming."

I disagree.

No one "deserved" this murderous act of terror.

The brave passengers on flight 93 over Pennsylvania, who physically wrestled their jet plane to the ground, included businessmen, straight and gay, doing the commerce of everyday life -- buying and selling.  The people sitting at their desks on a Tuesday morning ready for another day of office work were no different than any other workers anywhere, except that they worked in the biggest target in America.

You may tell me that god willed this evil.  Or you may tell me that this is the devil's work.  You may choose to portray this as high drama played out by demons and angels.  But I say this is the work of man.  This was caused by beings whose DNA has no significant difference from our own -- people who, in any other time or place, may have been normal constructive citizens. But these wretched individuals had become entirely consumed with bitterness, hatred and fear.  If we let ourselves be so consumed, so in turn will the evil grow.

Let us be consumed by other spirits. The heroes of the day, those who gave their own lives to save others, those who would run into a collapsing tower to save one more life -- these were not supermen. These heroes were not superheroes.  These are simple human beings like any others, except they be consumed by faith, hope, and mercy. When faith, hope and mercy are called to action, such is the very definition of bravery.  This truest bravery is the enemy -- and the only sure enemy -- of bitterness, hatred and fear.

I've been asking myself, "What can I do?"  What can I do? What can one simple guitar player do?

Here's what I've done: I went out and bought a brand new guitar on Monday -- bought it from an old friend who buys and sells guitars for a living.  It's a small-bodied guitar that will be easy to load on an airplane -- or ship ahead when I fly far from home.   It can be loud when it has to be, but can speak in soft sweet tones.  It's quite plain with no fancy binding or gaudy inlay, but it will do its job.  It was built in this strange new millennium, but is born of generations of tradition.  

This guitar made its on-stage debut last night at a benefit for the firefighters of New York.  The first song out of it was Woody Guthrie's old song of hope and wonder, "This Land Is Your Land."  The whole room sang along.  The next song was "We Shall Overcome."  Someday. 

For myself as much as for others, inside my new guitar I have pasted a large label that reads: 
"This Machine Kills Fear"



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09/30/01    Uncle Dave's Blessing

I was listening to a recording of Uncle Dave Macon the other day.  If you are unfamiliar, Uncle Dave was the venerable star of the Grand Ole Opry in it's very early days.  A banjo picker, story teller, and singer of old songs, he knew just how to flash his gold teeth, wink at the girls and tip his bowler hat to win over any crowd.

On this particular recording he began his song with a little recitation.  Surprisingly agnostic in content, yet spiritual in tone, with this little homily I can wholeheartedly agree:

Man comes into this life naked and bare 

He walks through this world with trouble and care

When he departs, we don't know where

But he'll be all right there if he does right here.


Amen, Uncle Dave.



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10/16/01    The Color Of Nothing

This week, in the midst of terrible troubles world wide -- wars and rumors of wars, anthrax mail threats, and the specter of a deaf Rush Limbaugh (notice he lost hearing in his left side first) -- I find I have a small personal problem.

I don't know what color my car is.

I'm not color blind. I can tell red from green, gray from blue, and even navy from black (in good light). And though every woman I know swears that all men are color deficient, I can actually discern the differences between "aqua," "teal," and "turquoise," even if I prefer to say "blue" to all three.

My problem is the Chevy I bought earlier this year is one of the current fad colors.  You know the names -- "timber frost," or "mountain mist" -- names that have no meaning in the world of reality. Only in showroom brochures do these smarmy color names seem at home.  Mine is "sandrift."  That's right, not "sand drift" but "sandrift."

I used to drive a white car.  Before that I had a red one.  Two shades of brown for the two before that.  My first car was yellow.  These are real English words that have real meaning.  Used to be you could ask me, "What color is your car?"  And I could say "Yellow."  And then you would know something.   Case closed.

If now I answer that my car is "sandrift," what are you going to do?  Of course, your next question will be, "What kind of color is 'sandrift?'"   And I'd have to shake my head and mumble, "I dunno."

It's sort of metallic and almost a tan or beige, but a little darker, and with a slightly golden cast in sunlight, but with gray undertones.  The closest description I can come up with is "metallic silly putty."   More apt is to say "the color of nothing."

But when I check into a motel and they want to know my car's make and color, it's hard to write down "2001 Silly Putty Chevy," even though that's what it looks like under the motel parking lot lights.  If I wrote down "sandrift" they would be sure to have my car towed away just to teach me a lesson in pretentiousness.  "Nothing" is not an answer, either. You see my dilemma. 

I see a lot of these cars out on the road - the colorless metallic beasts.  I want to ask the drivers what color they think they are driving.  Did they order the car this way?  Or was it like mine -- the last one on the lot with the sales price?



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11/01/01    HO HO Halloween

Well, the trick-or-treaters were down in numbers last night.  Although I must say the ones who came to my door were the best-costumed and most polite I've ever seen.  Mostly younger kids with parents close by. The ones who were brave enough to knock on our door got double fists full of candy this year, and we still had plenty to spare.  Too bad for the fraidy-cats.  It was the best weather ever and a full moon to boot.

Of course times are tense.  Some of the churches in our area (who have had the "evil" holiday of Halloween in their sights for years) staged big "harvest festival" celebrations at their facilities.  They got a lot of takers this year. But it's sad to see kids scared to go knock on their neighbor's door after dark.

But there is another problem with Halloween this year.  Competition.

This Saturday, November THIRD, our town is having their Christmas Parade, replete with floats and helium balloons and Santa & Mrs. Claus. Okay, they are calling it a "Holiday" parade, to be pc.  But just when kids are still digging into their orange & black colored candies, they will be bombarded with candy canes and chocolate Santas.

I know I'm of the old school on this one. (May I quote myself? "Silver Bells is on the hit parade/Moving up the charts since Halloween") But, jeez, can't we have one holiday at a time?  If it's too much to ask to wait until after Thanksgiving to start Christmas, can't we at least wait until after Veteran's Day

I give up! Maybe next year at Halloween, I'll just dress up as Santa Claus and give away Valentine's candy -- then set off fireworks at midnight, waving the flag and humming Easter Parade.



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11/18/01    NO NO November

If there is a month I can do without, it is November.  Certainly the bleakest month of the year -- at least in the northern hemisphere.  Each day's allotment of daylight becomes shorter by easily discernible degrees.  The colorful leaves of October are gone, and the weather becomes nasty without the showy sparkle that later winter months will display.  November is the month of death.

It starts at midnight on Halloween, a night of skulls, ghosts, vampires and all things grisly and horrible.  The party's over -- welcome to November.  A few days later we have our first official national holiday of autumn -- Veteran's Day.  America has been trying to put a good face on this holiday for the past 80 years, to no avail. I can dimly remember in my childhood people still calling it "Armistice Day" -- celebrating the end of The Great War.  The end of any war might be cause for jubilation.  But of course, once the "Great War" was amended with it's sequel, and became simply "WWI" in the record books, this whole business of "the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" seemed all the gloomier.

And so it became "Veteran's Day."  After all, we already had a day to mourn our war dead -- Memorial Day, which, of course, started as "Decoration Day" as mourners decorated the graves of our Civil War soldiers.  Veterans day was chartered to celebrate our living heroes.  But in recent years, it has become a day of reading names off the Vietnam wall, floating wreaths, 21-gun-salutes and so forth.  I believe this is because November tells us to mourn and visit our cemeteries, just as the 30th of May tells us to picnic, swim and go to the racetrack. 

It's just a law of nature: "Thou shalt have no happy days in November."

That holiday behind us, we proceed to Thanksgiving.  Although all countries have some sort of harvest holiday, be it "Harvest Home," "Oktober Fest," or what-have-you, Thanksgiving is uniquly American.  Our only national meal -- all faiths and classes are expected to engorge together. Turkey is universally prescribed. But not the ubiquitous sliced and preformed turkey breast that low-fat America eats the other 364.  No, it must be a plump, roasted whole bird, carefully air-dried in a hot oven.  We allow -- actually encourage -- familial variations on the trimmings:  Some families always have a crushed cranberry relish, while their neighbors always display a quivering can-shaped lump of cranberry "sauce."  Such delightful variations! This week in the Midwest there is the annual run on condensed mushroom soup and cans of Durkee's pre-fried onion rings. These to be added to painfully over-boiled green beans in the creation of the traditional casserole that blissfully has disappeared from our everyday diets. 

Of course the holiday is mostly about the gathering of family.  Eating is only the excuse.  The traditional foods are simply there to train our children -- for them to see firsthand what tortuous extremes we expect them to go to when they grow up and will need to host Thanksgiving dinner themselves.  

Thus rings the opening bell of "The Holidays."  Beginning with the day after Thanksgiving, our orgy of consumption accelerates  both literally and symbolically, un-embarrassingly un-impeded until X marks the spot on Xmas day.  Make that New Years Day.  Hell, make it the day after the football games end.

While many of us do bow our heads in remembrance of things to be thankful for -- and this year will likely see a bumper crop of folded hands -- what is usually at the top of my list is this:  Thank God November is almost over!




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11/27/01    In the Book Store Today

It's not enough to write a book these days. You've got to be part of a marketing series. Just take a look in any book store.  With this in mind I offer these titles for future publication:

Chicken Soup For The Vegetarian Soul

Ventriloquism For Dummies

The Complete Idiot's Guide To Enhancing Self Esteem

Harry Potter And The Shameless Promotion

Actually, one of these books really exists!  Can you guess which one?




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12/17/01    Tradition!

There's an old tale -- joke really -- about family traditions and how they get started.  I first heard Mason Williams (of Classical Gas fame) tell it on a TV talk show about 33 1/3 years ago:

"My mom always cut the bone out of her ham slice before she fried it in the pan.  After I moved away from home I noticed that a lot of other people leave their bone in the ham when they fry it, and cut it out later.  So I asked my mom why she cut the bone out first. 'Because my momma always did that, and her momma before her,' she said.  So I asked my granny why she always cut the bone out of the ham.  "Well, when I was a little girl all we had was the one frying pan and it was a might small for the whole ham slice, so something had to go!'"

I think a lot of our revered holiday traditions come about the same way.  We repeat our parents' customs without asking why, simply because it makes us feel good to run the old numbers, and gives us a vehicle to visit our childhoods again.

Here's my memory of Christmas when I was a child:

In our extended family, Christmas presents were opened Christmas Eve, as in many other German American households.  The morning after was, well, the morning-after.  We would have a big dinner on Christmas Eve at my Uncle Will's house.  Topping off the feast, we kiddies all gathered in the kitchen to eat my Aunt Jean's fabulous Christmas cookies, while Santa would sneak into the house and leave his boxes under the tree in the living room -- each wrapped in pretty paper and ready for us to tear into as the evening wore on.  Every year the details were a little different.  (Once we even heard Santa clomping on the roof.  Funny how my Uncle Will wasn't there to hear it.)  As I and my siblings & cousins got older and wiser the routine morphed a bit into something less theatrical.  But the night always ended in a starry-eyed mess of toys, wrapping paper, ribbons, cookie crumbs and a little spilled egg nog with the tune of "Silent Night" on our lips.

I thought this was probably how everybody did Christmas.  I knew that on TV all the sitcom families opened presents on Christmas morning.  But, hey, on TV all the dads smoked pipes & wore ties to dinner -- and nobody on TV had screens on their windows or flyswatters in their kitchens.  I knew what the deal was in the real world.

Years later, when I was 20-something and knee-deep in my first marriage, my erstwhile wife and I swapped our stories of Santa.  She thought my weird family customs were hilarious, while her family did things the normal way. 

Here's how my ex did Xmas:

In her family (West Virginian Italian-Americans transplanted to Detroit) the drill was simple.  Kids get up early on Christmas morning, come downstairs and eat a big breakfast.  During that breakfast, Santa visits upstairs and leaves your presents on your bed -- unwrapped and untagged.  (If its on your bed, its yours to keep.) So you go upstairs and claim your loot while your parents stay in the kitchen and nurse a mug of strong black coffee.  Of course the reason is so simple: Santa is much too busy, especially at this time of year, to wrap and tag every little present for each boy and girl. After all, he's been out all night and only has time to drop off your things and be on his way.  The wrapped presents under the tree are the ones your cousins send from West Virginia.  Everybody knows that!

I can't remember how her family cooked their ham. 



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12/24/01    White Christmas

It's no dream, this snow dream.  Here tonight, Christmas Eve's Eve, snow is falling in West Michigan.  A foot or more is expected by Christmas morning.  It has been an extraordinarily warm December until today, with the grass still green, and the ground only frosted, not yet frozen.  The warm season has seemed unreal to many native Michiganders.  I, a son of the mid-Mississippi river valley, saw many a green Christmas in my Southern Illinois childhood and so have quietly enjoyed the recent shirt-sleeve weather.  Snow for Christmas was more the exception than the rule down home.  But here in the Great lakes, a blanket of snow is a normal thing this time of year.  And this year, more than most, people are craving normalcy.

So here we have it.  Norman Rockwell & Irving Berlin time.  I must say, the first snowfall is a beautiful thing if timed right.  It's been an ugly year, so a little beauty late in the game is appreciated.

Here is a poem I wrote for the liner notes of my Christmas album, How Like The Holly, in 1998. (Yes, the CD came out in 1999, and the text was configured to look like prose -- but trust me, its a poem and was written in the Christmas season of '98.)  Wishing all herewith a joyous winter's day and a better new year:


When nights are longest 
And days are coldest 
Comes the time for telling stories. 

The time for fire against the chill, 
Light against the dark, 
Bread against the hunger - we huddle close 
And swab our fears with our finest and oldest comforts. 

Denying the storms of brutal nature, 
We make for ourselves a place 
Where it is safe to dream, 
Where it is safe to be a child, 
Or to become a child in dreams again.

This is a place 
Where bold myth and subtle mystery transpose, 
Where faith is born of legend, 
Where wide-eyed hungers feast on ancient certainties. 

A place with noble tales 
Spinning and weaving through the decades 
Like stout cords, 
Holding us fast 
To the bosom of humanity - 
This is the place we rebuild each December - 

This is the place I call my Christmas.




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[click here to read prior entries from 2001]

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copyright  2001 Joel Mabus