Sunday, December 31, 2017

Seven Eves

We are told that the onset of the new year is the time for fresh starts and looking forward. Given the nature of time (or at least the human experience of it), looking forward is not really an option. We are driving in reverse gear in a car with a stuck accelerator, no shift, and no brakes; further, all the glass is painted black except the windshield in front of our eyes, so we can see only where we’ve been. We do have some steering control, but we merely try to surmise what’s ahead based on what’s behind. Most of the road hazards we encounter are complete surprises. We often miss the ones about which we’re most worried only to slam into something we never seriously considered.

We all know this, which is why nostalgia outweighs expectations on New Year’s Eve. The song, after all, is Auld Lang Syne, not New Times A-Comin’. True, there are some years that we are happy to see come to an end – more than a few people felt that way about 2016 – but that, too, is a retrospective way of evaluating things. At this stage in my life, I’ve had far too many retrospective New Year’s Eves to recall each of them individually; even if I could, I’m far too lazy to write about them all – and am kind enough not to try to inflict such a tome on a reader. I’ll be unkind enough to recall ones at decade intervals, however.

1957: I still sometimes wear suspenders
but I've given up on bowties
1957: I truthfully can’t say I recall this New Year’s Eve, and I would have been in bed as 1958 arrived at midnight anyway. However, I do recall specific events (and presents) from that holiday season which includes the Eve. I can’t say I yet had acquired a reflective nature either. At age 5, upon how much is there on which to reflect? If I had thought about it, I probably would have recalled my first day of school, which was a major life event of 1957. In those benighted days (though somehow we still tested better 12 years later on SATs than today’s students) they didn’t really teach us anything academic in Kindergarten. It was just about getting socialized to the school experience and to other kids. At the end of the first day I got on the wrong bus. I’ve been searching for the right one ever since.

1967: I was a sophomore and suitably sophomoric. To the extent I had a Holden Caufield year, this was it. There was much teen angst and awkwardness on which to reflect. I did win my one and only blue ribbon earlier that year in a horse show event. Mostly, though, it was a year of re-evaluation – which is to say one of finally accepting that I wasn’t as exceptional as I would have liked. I actually remember watching on TV at home the ball drop at midnight in Times Square as 1968 arrived. I don’t know why: I remember few of the others specifically, but that one sticks.

Eyes across the table
1977: This was the high point of my youth. At 25 I was as fit as I’ve ever been and my adult life was coming together in a hedonistic decade that only those who experienced it would believe. Moreover, there was that one. You know the one. We all have the one, even if we didn’t end up with her or him and are glad we didn’t… yet still the one. I don’t remember New Year’s Eve specifically, but a few days earlier I was at PJ Clarke’s with those eyes across the table. 1977 was a good year.

F150 parked by my cabin in the
1987:  For me, 1987 was a mixed bag, congruent with broader events that included a booming economy terminated by an epic stock market crash that was worse than 1929 or 2008, albeit with far milder aftereffects than either. I didn’t own stocks then, so the market movements didn’t affect me directly, but they did indirectly. I had a pleasant but fragile relationship (not live-in) that already had lasted more than a year and wouldn’t end until ’89. I owed a substantial (for me) mortgage sum, but I owned my home and it was a good investment. I still had my favorite vehicle to date: a simple 1979 Ford F150. The truck did have a quirk though. The shift on automatic transmissions in that model year sometimes would hang up between P and R so that you could think you were in Park when you weren’t. One time I slid the shift into what felt like P and left the truck to open a garage door. Suddenly the F150 was off backwards. I ran after it yelling, “Stop!” For some reason the truck didn’t listen. It arced off the driveway, slipped between two big black birches, and smacked into a flexible young cedar. The cedar bent enough to stop the Ford without significant damage. I scolded the truck for running away but praised it for its choice of trees. I don’t remember what I did for New Years Eve that year so it must not have been very memorable. 1987 was OK.

1997: Storm clouds brewed in 1997. I really can’t explain that further without being more boorish than I want to be even 20 years later. The year wasn’t without excitement, true enough: stormy weather rarely is. But 1997 is a New Year’s Eve I remember, and the year closed with a deep sense of foreboding that proved well-founded.

2007: The almost decade-long rough weather (including deaths of friends and family) subsided in 2007. The year ended with a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in years. I looked forward to more of the same as the clock ticked toward 2008. I don’t remember exactly what I actually was doing that particular Eve, but I’m sure of the feeling because it had lasted a month. Favorite memory: just sitting in a chair doing nothing but enjoying not being swamped by immediate worries. In the event, 2008 proved to be tumultuous financially, as it was for so many other people, but not in other ways, so my prognostication was mostly right.

Imposing on poor Samantha Fish after
a 2017 NYC concert
2017: Well, (as anyone who has done the math so far knows – though I can’t imagine who would have troubled to do the math), there is Social Security, isn’t there? There are also senior discounts at movie theaters, but, since the ticket sellers sometimes give me the discount without my asking for it, the discount comes with a bit of a sting. That happened to me for the first time last spring and a couple times since then. 2017 was a good year for me: not as good as ’77, but nonetheless a good year. I’m very aware that my life clock is no longer in the wee numbers, of course, but that’s OK, too.

What of 2018? Well, as mentioned up top, all we sense of that is guesswork based on the road behind. With any luck, next New Year’s Eve 2018 will have counted as another good year. I hope it is for you, too. Happy New Year.

The Offspring – Days Go By

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Raiment under the Tree

I am not a clothes horse and never have been. This is unlike my dad who enjoyed being a natty dresser. As a builder he wore plaid flannel and work jeans on most days, but he enjoyed the opportunity to spiff up in tie and jacket at Rotary meetings and Builders Association meetings and other occasions when more casual attire would have been perfectly acceptable. He left behind a walk-in closetful of jackets and dress shirts – even a tuxedo.  Even in my trim days they didn’t fit me, so I don’t still have them. Nor did I inherit the natty gene. Once out of prep school (where tie and jacket were required by the dress code) I tied a half-Windsor so seldom that whenever my mom spotted me with one she took my picture.

Autumn 1970. If the items
still fit I'd probably still wear
them, bell bottoms and all. 
I was not (and am not) actually averse to the notion of donning semi-formal or formal attire. I just don’t bother much. Moreover, like many long-single men, I keep and wear clothes not just for years but for decades, and so look typically a bit rumpled. When the garments eventually are tossed out or donated, it is not because they are out of fashion. It is because they truly have frayed away or no longer fit. Save for one overcoat, I don’t believe I have anything in my closet remaining from the 1960s but there is more than one item from the 1970s. These items remain because they still fit, meaning they were considerably too big at the time they were bought.

The reader might remember being disappointed as a small child when a gift under the tree turned out to be clothes instead of toys. Those days are long gone, for in 2017 I’m gifting myself with more clothes than in any year in the past decade – maybe more all other nine years of the decade combined. I’m happy to get them, even if I begrudge the cost. Not that the budget for them was high: just high for me. This splurge was because I’ve finally accepted that I will not fit into 1997 clothes ever again. 1997 was the last year I could wear something from 1972 without straining buttons or fabric (though perhaps straining taste). I think 20 years is long enough to sustain the fantasy that my corporeal dimensions of 1997 are recoverable. So, I emptied out much of the closet and acquired apparel that fits. I still won’t look natty, but at least the buttons will button.

People have been donning fashions for a very long time. Prehistoric and ancient clothes don’t survive well in the archeological record, so we don’t know what the earliest ones were like. Though ancient garb is depicted in early historical art, we don’t have many samples of the actual articles; those few come only from sites extraordinarily well suited to conservation such as Egyptian tombs. We can’t know for sure why people started wearing clothes in the first place, but we can make a pretty fair estimate of when thanks to lice. Lice are persnickety creatures. Each species of louse prefers a specific species of host. Though uncommon, it is possible for a louse to jump host species, but when this happens it quickly adapts over surprisingly few generations to become a new species itself. Nearly every mammal species has only one cohabiting louse species. Humans are rare in having three species of louse that are ours alone: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice. DNA studies can show how long ago species diverge, and body lice diverged from head lice some 107,000 years ago. (DNA shows pubic lice diverged from gorilla lice; the less said about that the better.) “Body lice” is a misnomer, for they do not cling to the body. They instead have claws specially adapted to cling to the interior of clothing, which means clothes have been around for at least 107,000 years. That is some 40,000 years before modern humans spread beyond Africa, so warmth probably wasn’t the prime motivation for dressing up.

Sumerian catwalk
What fashions looked like for the first 100,000 years or so is anyone’s guess. We have 5300-year-old remains of cold weather attire from Ötzi, a middle-aged fellow whose body was found in the Alps where it had been frozen in ice for all those millennia. He had a sheep hide coat, goatskin leggings, bear fur hat, intricately made deerskin and string shoes stuffed with hay, and a woven grass cape. A man after my own heart, he repeatedly had repaired his well-worn coat. He’d probably owned it for decades. Had Ötzi not died a violent death in his mid-40s – a flint arrowhead is lodged in the body – he might have kept it for a decade or two more. Middle-age spread was less of an issue with residents of Europe’s cool climes back then, so he wouldn’t have needed tailoring or a replacement.

Not being Ötzi – and on the whole I’m pleased with that – I do need replacements, but now I should be good for another 20 years. 

ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Cold Facts

It is not yet officially winter but winter weather has arrived as it usually does by the onset of December in these parts. Due to the vagaries of scheduling, it seems that musicians and shows I want to see live are at nearby venues during December, January, and February more often than the 25% of the time one expects by chance. Last night I was in NYC to catch Samantha Fish at The Cutting Room. (She was there last July, too, so winter has no monopoly on my preferred performances: just an outsized share.) The show was good, of course, yet, strangely enough, standing in line in the cold for doors to open (late) is not as much fun as it was when I was 18.

Frankie waited in line too long
Fortunately, the temperature last night was just borderline freezing, which is positively balmy compared to those of some of my line waits in the past. Two stand out in particular. One was in 2004 outside The Bottom Line in the Village where Richie Havens and Janis Ian were on a double bill. It was a windy January night with temperatures in the negative single digits (Fahrenheit). By the time the door opened I had ceased to feel my feet; my fingers – despite being deep inside pockets of a fleece-lined coat – felt as though they were pierced by needles. The true winner, though, has to be the night of a Motörhead concert some 30 years ago at Roseland – a venue, incidentally, where my parents once jitterbugged to Benny Goodman. The penetrating wind on that subfreezing eve maintained a high-pitched whistle. Again my feet went numb and this time so did my fingers, which no longer functioned as fingers. I couldn’t complain, though, for I had lost my power of speech. The combination of a numb face and chattering teeth meant I literally (not figuratively but literally) could not articulate words.

Only one person of my own acquaintance ever died of hypothermia (though one is enough) and it was not in line for a rock concert. I was a few steps along the path however. Whenever someone insists on standing out in the freezing cold, the body’s first response is to protect core temperature by constricting capillaries and blood flow to extremities: hence the numbness. As your body continues to shed heat you reach the boundary of hypothermia at a core temperature of 95 (35 C). As core temperature continues to drop, mental functions become unreliable: assume any decisions you make at this point will be bad ones. At least you probably won’t be scared: at a core temperature of 91 you won’t give a damn about much of anything. At 90 you might not be unconscious technically, but you might as well be. At this point, if you don’t get someplace warm you are on your way to joining Ötzi the Iceman.

The good news is that all this generally takes longer than the wait in line to a concert. Even if hypothermia does overtake you, if help comes along there’s a chance of being revived even from a core temperature in the 60s. All the same, I wouldn’t recommend the experience. I’m glad I caught Motörhead in its heyday. (Founding member Lemmy Kilmister died in 2015.) Nonetheless, faced with a similar wait today, regardless of the artist I’d abandon that line and find the nearest coffee shop.

Motörhead – No Class

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lounging by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Just outside the front door
You never know in NJ what winter will bring. Sometimes (though not often) the snowfalls start in October and keep piling on top of us for the next five months. Other years we get a dusting or two in February, and that’s the end of it. This year, the first snow since last March fell yesterday. It wasn’t much – just enough to stick – but it counted. It provided a bare excuse to spend the weekend at my home in the woods with a book and DVD. Both are worth a look.

**** ****

One Touch of Venus (1948)
The 1980s romantic comedy Mannequin frequently appears on “Guilty Pleasures” lists, but the 1948 inspiration for that movie is largely forgotten. One Touch of Venus turned up frequently on late night TV when I was a child. It was a favorite of my sister and I enjoyed watching it with her. Since then it all but has vanished from the airwaves. Not even TCM has it on regular rotation. Prior to this past weekend I hadn’t seen it in more than 50 years. I had forgotten completely that it was a musical. So how does it hold up decades later?

One Touch of Venus was a successful Broadway musical starring Mary Martin in the early 1940s. The music was changed and curtailed significantly for the ’48 screen adaptation but the script was scarcely altered. Stage and screen are two very different media and scripts are rarely interchangeable. That is the biggest weakness of the movie production, particularly with regard to the overly-broad-for-screen character Eddie Hatch. Nonetheless, the overall result is still modestly pleasant fare.

Plot: Department store magnate Whitfield Savory (Tom Conway) buys the relic statue Anatolian Venus as an attraction for his store. In an inebriated moment, window dresser Eddie Hatch kisses the statue. Venus (a stunning Ava Gardner) comes to life and causes any number of comic complications before being recalled to Olympus by Jupiter. In the meantime she also resolves a number of romantic issues for the people in the store. Much of the comedy is provided by the unrequited affections of the female characters, which is a reversal of the usual state of affairs then as now (as current news all too relentlessly demonstrates). Eve Arden as Whitfield’s competent right hand operative is especially splendid.

This movie is no classic in any sense other than age. However, if you are looking for light mindless entertainment and are thinking “maybe Mannequin,” try One Touch of Venus instead. It is better, which isn’t saying much but is saying something.

Thumbs ever so mildly Up.

**** ****

Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 by Laura Engelstein
The global history of the 20th century is very much a history of the varying fortunes of Russia. In world wars, proxy wars, cold wars, ideological contests, and the post-Soviet restructuring, when Russia wasn’t the central player it still was a weight that tipped balance scales. The key moment that defined Russia’s 20th century was the 1917 October Revolution. Yale historian Laura Engelstein released her book on its 100th anniversary.

The events covered by Engelstein are covered by many other books on my shelves. (My degree is in history, which isn’t one that’s likely to fill a graduate’s pockets but is one likely to fill his or her bookcases.) However, they tend to suffer from being either too general (e.g. histories of WW1) or too specific (e.g. individual biographies or particular accounts of the February and October Revolutions). By covering the whole period of World War, Revolution, foreign intervention, Civil War, and consolidation with the New Economic Policy in a single volume, Engelstein is able to put events in proper context with sufficient detail but without overwhelming the reader.

The astonishing evaporation of imperial authority in early 1917 by no means ensured that the Bolsheviks would prevail in the end even with Lenin’s single-minded dedication to that outcome. Engelstein details how it happened that they did, through a mix of random events, politics of division, and calculated violence.

Thumbs solidly Up.

Clip from One Touch of Venus (1948)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Final Pet

When I wrote the blog Cat Wars last month I would have given odds that my 19-y.o. cat Maxi would snap back from his injuries and ailments one more time. He didn’t. Today he went to Cat-halla.

Maxi 2016
I’ve had seven cats in the past 32 years: generally two at a time, for several years three, and continuously since 1985 at least one. Whenever one has died I’ve been immediately importuned to adopt another in its place. The pleaders come in three varieties and the first two mean well: 1) there are those who actually seem to think I want a replacement, and who thereby think that they are being kind; 2) there are those who mean well at least for the cats by trying to place them in my home whether I want them or not; and 3) there are scheming guys who hope to win the favor of some habitually cat-rescuing woman by placing a cat for her at someone else’s (my) expense rather than their own. If only the last type restricted their schemes to cats… I never want a replacement. Don’t get me wrong. I am fond of my pets when I have them. I just don’t seek to adopt any in the first place; they are a responsibility that, given a prior choice, I opt to do without. Except for the first two kittens (adopted to help out my sister) in 1985, they’ve come into my possession only by the accidents of life – in a sense, so even did those first two. Maxi and Mini (d. 2015) were inherited from my parents in 2001.

There always were dogs and cats and other sundry animals around the house when I was growing up. Pets are commonly regarded as good for kids, and so they are. One of their benefits seems anything but a benefit at the time. They frequently are a child’s first real encounter with death. About a decade ago Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) commented that the biggest social change since he was a child is the insulation of modern life from death. He said there was much more consciousness of mortality in daily life, and that, when his family went to visit relatives on the weekend, they went to the graveyard; in those pre-antibiotic days young people were as likely to be in there as old folks. Nowadays we tend to banish Thanatos from our environment to the extent possible. Of course we are aware of it intellectually, but we keep the awareness as superficial as possible. Losing a pet is likely to be the first real mortal loss with strong emotional content that a child experiences. Nothing truly prepares a person for the far bigger losses that inevitably are to come, but even that bit of training helps a little.

Maxi had a long and good life by the standards of felines. That’s all one really can ask. He is my final pet, and in many ways he was the best. Anyway, so long Maxi, and thanks for all the mice, birds, rabbits, moles, and snakes.

The Doors – The End