Midweek “Music” Break: The Perhaps Non-Musical Sister

The perhaps non-musical sister and The Boy, early 1954For the last couple of years, I’ve been sort of walking backwards in time through my siblings’ birthdays, via Mid-Week Music Breaks. In 2011, I covered the Warren-Zevon-loving Kid Brother; and in 2012, The Musical Sister.

Which brings me to this year’s entry on the last of the three, although she was the first to arrive on the scene: the person whom (parents aside) I’ve known longer than anyone in my life.

Maybe I’ve known her a long time — she’s also the only sibling I’ve ever lived with once we’d moved away from home — but I don’t really know much about her musical tastes. Oh, I know she listens to music, at least sometimes; certainly back in the ’70s, we went to a number of concerts together for performers we were both into at the time: John Denver, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot, Sha-Na-Na (!)… She’s alerted me to unfamiliar music every now and then, too; I’d never even heard of pianist George Winston, for instance, until she gave me his December album (still one of my favorites to listen to, regardless of season).

But unlike the other three of us, she’s never really focused on music to any great extent. I don’t remember that she ever took lessons of any kind — not even dancing lessons — or ever expressed any desire to play music. I’ve never heard her whistle or hum. I have never been driven mildly nuts by her playing a particular album over and over and over. I think the only real preference she ever expressed in anything resembling (faintly) a musical debate was My favorite of the four is Paul.

Part of it, no doubt, is that she is (has always been) just one of the busiest damned people any of us knows. As a kid, she was one of those natural-born escape-artist busybodies who keep their parents’ nerves in a constant state of high alert, and she anchored a half-dozen student activities in high school while maintaining an energetic social life. Now semi-retired — after two careers in teaching and HR, which themselves bracketed a couple decades of raising three boys — she’s self-employed, travels a lot, keeps in touch with lots of old friends, coordinates a lot of family “events”… On long trips, she tends to listen to audiobooks rather than music while driving/flying and during idle periods — because (I guess) otherwise it would just be time wasted. (It exhausted me just to type this paragraph; it really needed to be presented, though, as a single unpunctuated sentence.)

So no, I don’t know what sort of music she listens to “recreationally,” if I ever did. But I do know that one sort of music she’ll at least sometimes talk about is music in the service of comedy. She used to love Mark Russell‘s political songwriting and performances on PBS, for instance. When we talk after she returns from a trip to, say, Chicago, she’ll tell me about some hilarious cabaret act she saw while in town. She laughed as much as any of us at Belushi and Ackroyd’s Blues Brothers routines.

And then there’s a whole sub-genre of comic music about things meaningful to us about growing up when and where we did…

Comedian Robert Klein‘s stand-up act as recorded on his 1973 album, Child of the ’50s, offers a few such musical treats. Klein must be something of an aspiring musician himself; he wrote and performed a couple of songs for the album, and even in the nominally non-musical bits he incorporated many musical touches — especially acting out musical instruments vocally.

In the clip below, Klein recreates the voices and the musical palette which underlay the old “Our Gang” comedies from the 1930s and ’40s. We didn’t see them when first released, obviously, but they were being shown quite a bit on television in the ’50s and ’60s, especially on kids’ programs (where they’d been repackaged as “The Little Rascals”), so they were hard to miss. I think we all sort of envied the unstructured, small-fry-adventurous lives which the Gang seemed to live.

I think I do remember The Perhaps Non-Musical Sister laughing at this routine. (Say it with me, in a straining-larynx little-kid’s voice: I don’t feel like goin’ to school today!) It took me a while to pull it together for inclusion here: I couldn’t find the album available as a set of MP3s for purchase. But I did manage to grab the whole thing online, as a single giant 50MB+ monster. From that, I pulled this three and a half minutes.

So happy (a few days belated) birthday, Sis. I know you don’t spend much time online — no! (pant) time! (pant) to! (pant) waste! — but maybe you’ll land here some day, some time. Probably then only by mistake, and probably for just the four minutes or so it takes you to read and listen to this post. But I’ll take it: those little such bursts of quiet are, for the rest of us, always worth waiting for. (Not just because all of us can finally take a breather, but yeah, that too.)

[Below, click Play button to begin Child of the ’50s: Our Gang. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:39 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.


Aside: For the first time, I just looked closely at that table in the photo. I’m close to 100% certain it ended up in the apartment the two of us shared in the mid-1970s, holding the Dracaena marginata plant I dubbed “Marge.”

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June 4th: Twenty-Five Years On

Inadequate words, scraps of memories, images…

Dad, 1934After a pause, a bigger boy — a teenager — appears. On his head is a ridiculous bolero hat, on his upper body a flashy silk shirt, on his upper lip a patently false pencil-thin mustache; tucked into the hat is what seems to be a bushel of thick black hair. He’s leaning over, striking a would-be “artistic” pose, something he picked up from dancing school, and he’s grinning — grinning, crookedly, for all he’s worth.

The older boy executes a sweeping bow, almost a curtsy, and sashays back into the trees…

Dad, 1969 (that's NOT a Bud he's drinking, though)I don’t have real pictures of my Dad to correspond to all these memories. But if I could keep only one of the real ones, I know which it would be: any of three or four taken at about the mid-point of his life. He’s got a Budweiser in one hand and a cigarette (a Tareyton: he hadn’t switched yet) in the other… He’s grinning, of course, and why not? His life is in place: he’s happily married, all four of us kids are on the scene, we’re living in the first and only house he and Mom would ever own or ever need.

Dad, late '70s/early '80s maybe  (again, not with a Bud)Dad could be a lively conversationalist. When he talked, I loved his facial expressions, especially: the goggle eyes and slackened jaw of bogus shock; the steep, steep, steeply-angled furrows of his brow (we joked he could hold pencils there) that seemed to say, “What in the hell are you talking about?!?”; the fake teeth-gnashing as he pretended to bite his tongue at someone else’s idiotic remark that he’d only get in trouble for responding to… Dad was, in short, a great mugger.

…when Dad wanted you to pass him something, he’d just sort of look in its direction until someone finally asked, “Is this what you want?” (Our first guess was invariably wrong, and then he would say, all exasperation, “No, the salt!” or whatever. Few things annoyed him more profoundly than our failure to know when he wanted the salt.) …I hope we passed him whatever it was he wanted this time, although now (of course) we’ll never know for sure.

One of these years, I may get through an entire June 4th without thinking there’s anything special about the day — even without feeling foolish or sentimental otherwise. I will say, though, that over the years the fact or manner of his death seems ever less significant: we all die, after all, and the varieties of death are countless. But the fact that he lived, and how he dealt with it all (or didn’t) — yes, that. That.


Quotations in this post come from an unpublished essay,
“Crossing the Line,” first written in 1989 or 1990.

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Happy. Crazy. Unpredictable.

I am blessed that the readership of Running After My Hat is seems to comprise, by and large, a pretty intelligent and creative bunch of people. So perhaps you can figure out my relative online silence this week if I ask you to assemble forms of the following words and word-like objects into a sentence: sebaceous, cyst, infected, beltline, omigodsweetjesusandmarythatHURTS, Vicodin, zombification.

Finding this moving video (by way of an unread e-newsletter) afforded me a very nice welcome back to the Internet, a reassurance that the world probably did not go to hell in my absence:

Wright and the video were also featured in a December column in the New York Times‘s “Well” blog.

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How It Was: The Boy, The Water…

[Not The Boy’s dangerous swimming area]

Many people, I know, actually look forward to mid-summer. It reminds them of easy childhood days (it has that effect on me, too), and suggests the prospect of recapturing some of those moments. You laze around a house or porch or beach, maybe with a book. Maybe board games are involved. Certainly, food cooked (or at least consumed) out-0f-doors will figure into it somehow. You swat at mosquitoes and siblings, while the ones stab at your skin and the others, at your psyche. Cicadas buzz at twilight, and fireflies ignite a little while later. (Maybe the cicadas were just the power generators kick-starting themselves.) The smell of newly mown grass perfumes the air. The moon rises in a star-speckled night sky; from a couple of back yards away, you can hear the laughter of adults discussing who knows what…

Memories of mid-summer also fire off in your head, almost inescapably, when the day is hot, the humidity high, and you hear from somewhere nearby a good, solid splash. I’m not talking the plain old splash of a spoon into dishwater, either, or even of an ice cube into a glass of tea. I mean the splash of a good-sized living creature into a substantial body of water: a pool, a lake, a river, even (between waves) the sea.

For some of you, no doubt, this splash makes you all wistful and nostalgic. Even the grown-up version of The Boy appreciates this sensation, vicariously. But the grown-up version of The Boy can’t help associating this splash with another, decades ago…

The Boy lived a mere two blocks from a great and beautiful body of water known to insiders as, simply, “the river.”

You could go down to the river on a hot summer afternoon, clamber down to the bank from the concrete wall erected (legend had it) by laborers during the period known as The Great Depression in order to hold back the mighty flood tides that they had had back then, when the Ice Age was ending and there was suddenly more water than the world could cope with. You could find flat stones, slimy mollusk shells, and (if you were willing to dare having your fingers slashed) shards of green Rolling Rock bottles to skip across the surface in the direction of the mansion on the far side, whose white pillars and especially whose windows gleamed invitingly a mere half-mile distant.

Yet perhaps it was the river itself that was the source of the discomfort The Boy had always had with the notion of buoyancy.

The Boy had many years ago been warned away from the river by his parents. His father had threatened him, as was his wont, with a sentence beginning, “If I ever, ever catch you down there…” and ending with a phrase the exact contents of which did not matter, since all such phrases always promised total annihilation. “A dragon lives there,” said his mother, more fancifully.

This dragon, The Boy imagined, was long and undulant, its silver skin scaly and iridescent; its head looked like an automobile hood ornament, steely and unforgiving. There would be a splash as it surfaced when adults (but never their children) were present, and it would glare at them with its red, hungry eyes, projecting telepathic thoughts at them like Bring me your children. It would look at The Boy’s own parents and add, Yours first.


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Newest Nodule on the Family Tree

Her Mom (looking more worried than I think I’ve ever seen her), her Dad (looking more stunned into tenderness than I’ve ever imagined seeing him), and grand-niecelet Madison (looking oblivious), 2012-05-12 (two days after her birthday).


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For weeks recently, I was obsessing over the prospect of a block of time now past (March 16-20) loosely referred to as SibFest ’11. Making travel arrangements. Delegating or automating certain must-do everyday tasks because I wouldn’t be around to do them for real (hello, midweek and Friday RAMH posts!). Packing. Touching base with the other participants. Pretending to focus on the day job for eight hours a day…

SibFest ’11 was the second time my sisters, brother, and I turned a chunk of the calendar into an island, insulated by design from our “normal” lives. I’d visited my brother for a few days a couple years ago, and my sisters, too, came by for a day. For SibFest ’11, though, we all traveled to a location roughly midway between New Jersey and Florida.

The plan, you wonder? None. Between arrival and departure, we just winged it.

Here’s what we did, loosely: talked, ate, slept, talked, laughed, talked, ate, drove to the store (or restaurant, or “attraction”), talked, walked around, talked, laughed, slept, talked… Two of us might go out to run an errand, while two of us stayed put. We took some unscheduled time to ourselves each day, with little or no interaction (reading, doing email and other quick online activities, napping). But really, we just made it up as we went along. “What do you want to do now?” “Anybody for a walk?” And so on.

It was great — for me, especially. I mean, I know the other three (who live within an hour of one another) welcomed the opportunity to see me and to “get away from it all.” But when I moved to Florida in ’93 to be with The Missus-to-Be, I never imagined that whole years might pass during which I wouldn’t see Connie, Cindy, and Mike. Not that I’d have decided otherwise, but I never considered the psychological implications of going that long without seeing their eyes light up (or fill, as the case may be). It seemed impossible that they might someday sit at a table with me and talk about people with whom they’ve been friends for ten, fifteen, almost twenty years… but whom I’ve never met.

But that didn’t matter, from mid-day Wednesday through Sunday morning. There we all were at the South Carolina coast.

People who know us have said they’d love to have been a fly on the wall to overhear the conversation at SibFest ’11. But you know what? I think no one but the four of us could have made sense of it for more than ten or fifteen minutes. We fell instantly into the familiar mode: speaking English, yes, but a peculiar sort of English needleworked onto and through a warp and weft of memories — in-jokes, lightning-bolt events in our pasts, old neighborhood characters, things we’d once promised and never delivered, things we’d delivered without advance warning, things small at the time but hugely inflated in retrospect (and vice-versa), wishes and dreams and deliriums and disappointments, people we’d forgotten, places we never got to and places we saw far too often, ice-cream flavors and TV shows, music and gardens, the theater fire, the church, the schoolyard, lilacs and hollyhocks and lacecap hydrangeas, how-come and I-always-wondered transitions, childhood crushes and kids who freaked us out, whatever-happened-to questions, the swallowing up into history of people we’d sat next to for years, first library cards and wardrobe accidents, run-ins with police, misfortunes (and near-fortunes) of love…

The best thing about being alone with the other three? I think it’s the utterly effortless unguardedness. We sometimes talk about competing as siblings — living up to some standard set by one or more of the others — but that’s got nothing to do with how we interact. We don’t have to squeeze words in edgewise. We don’t have to match rhythms, playing catch-up or slow-down. Do, or not, but there really is no try.

What a great, great, great time.

Thanks so much, kids. Love you.

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Holidays — Bloody, Cutthroat Holidays

[Note: I don’t know any of the people in the above image (click on it to see it where I first did, in its original form). I found this Santa quite unnerving, though.]

The RAMH regular who goes by the handle “whaddayamean” commented yesterday on a post from back in November. She referred there to a game called a Yankee Swap, which I gather to be the same one enjoyed by The Missus’s family for many years. Down here, though, it’s called the “Dirty Santa” gift exchange.

The idea is that everyone attending a holiday get-together brings a wrapped gift. But you don’t know who will get your gift; indeed, you might even wind up with it yourself.

All the gifts are piled in the center of the room, and everyone draws a number from a hat or bowl. Then you go around the room, in numerical order, as follows:

Aside: in the instructions below, I’ll drop for readability’s sake my usual obsessively gender-neutral practice of s/he-ing all the pronouns. It was starting to make even me crazy.

Player #1 picks any gift at all from the pile, and opens it. Everyone oohs and aahs, or laughs, and then things get really interesting…

#2 may also pick a gift from among those remaining in the pile. In this case, play moves to #3. But #2 may choose instead to “steal” the gift which #1 opened. In this case, #1 returns to the pile of gifts, and opens another.

Okay, now it’s #3’s turn. She may pick from the pile (you’re seeing a pattern, right?). OR, if desired, she may steal either #1’s gift, OR #2’s. The stealee can now steal someone else’s gift, or return to the dwindling mound of gifts for a fresh one. And so on, and so on.

As with any good game, some caveats are in place to keep things (haha) civilized:

  • No one can immediately steal back something which someone stole from her. She can, however, steal it back later. (For example, on #2’s turn above, if 2 steals from 1, 1 has ONLY the option of selecting a new gift. But if 3 then steals from 1, the latter is free to take back whatever 2 stole from him.) (You’re following this, right?)
  • No gift can be claimed by more than three owners: the third person who acquires it (even if she has stolen it back) keeps it, for good.
  • After all gifts have been opened from the pile, player #1 can then force someone to trade gifts with him.
  • Finally, at least around here, they cap the value of each gift: it can’t have cost more than $15.

Part of the fun of the whole thing, for me anyhow, is actually acquiring the gift to bring. You can go practical — bringing a kitchen implement or set of screwdrivers, for instance. Or you can go wacky or enigmatic. (One year, I brought a carved wooden hand, a sort of ornament or decor item, which stood on the wrist. It didn’t do anything. It just stood there.) Or you can opt for the fun approach — bringing a game or childhood toy, even if none of the participants are children.

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The (Mostly Bogus?) War Between Men and Women

From Seems to Fit, Chapter 23(ish):

Bonnie loved her own laugh. Or rather, she loved that George and other men loved it, that spontaneous eruption of trills and musical bubbles which erupted from her throat and open mouth when something struck her as especially funny — especially when the something wasn’t meant to be funny. She loved the way it made men’s heads swivel in a restaurant or crowded train, looking for the source of sudden brooksound. This laugh always caught even her by surprise, the first blurt and the ripple of voice and breath which followed quickly on its heels: it felt like a rabble of schoolkids at recess, chasing after and tumbling over one another.

But she also knew the trouble which could follow when that laugh emerged at a moment not funny at all to those around her, to men especially, no matter how deeply ridiculous the moment (and the seriousness with which men regarded it) might be.

How different are men and women? And what, exactly — even approximately — takes place at the vertices where they bump into one another?

I’m not talking physical vertices, of course. (This isn’t that sort of blog.) It’s like… Well, a couple years ago I devoted a blog post to the importance of edges: those (sometimes invisible) lines where two disparate things meet. In simplest geometric terms, an edge occurs where one two-dimensional plane intersects another. (In order to intersect at all, the two planes must “differ” in at least one respect: their angles in space.)

But all kinds of things scrape up against all kinds of other things. The taste of one cupcake ingredient juxtaposed with another. The sound of a musical note against a silence. Countries. Cultures. Ideas.

Are you familiar with the word frotteur? It comes from the French word frottage, rubbing, and is a term applied to someone who derives physical — often sexual — pleasure from rubbing against someone else. While the pleasure isn’t physical (I’m not that far gone), I sometimes think of myself as a frotteur of ideas and facts.

So what the heck is it, exactly, that happens in that narrow, narrow, quark-wide little gap where men and women intersect? Is it a “war”? Is it even friction? Is it even confusion?

(In what follows, please understand that I’m certainly not ignorant of extreme cases — relationships of brutal violence, physical or otherwise, or weird power trips and perversions. I’m just not talking of them for now. I’m talking of “normal” relationships — whatever the hell that means.)

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Medical Update

The Stepdaughter and The Missus: both doing fine, albeit exhausted.

The immediate crisis — borne mostly by the former, although vicariously by The Missus and the rest of us — finally passed last night, sometime after midnight. Now begins a loooong period of physical and psychological recovery. This has been a sad, scary, tiring week. So very glad to have finally put this much behind us.

Thanks so much to Facebook and Twitter friends for your support over the last few days.

Whether or not you “know” me from those other online milieus, whether or not you have any idea what crisis I’m talking about, I encourage you to learn at least a little — via Google or other resources, online or offline — about the term partial molar pregnancy. It’s not very common; The Stepdaughter’s very good, very experienced doctor said he has seen only three in his long career. But its real and potential impact on a mother-to-be and those around her is wildly disproportionate to its rarity.You, too, may never encounter it firsthand — even second- or third- — but it may not be a bad bit of information to have tucked away in the back of your mind.

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Music Playlist (2009 ed.)

Taking off from the first edition… All I’m going to do for the music portion here is just add ten songs (and pray that, over time, I won’t blow the little WordPress audio-player thingie out of the water).

As before, these artists and numbers appear, back-to-back, in the playlist:

  1. Peter Robbins et al.: dialogue from A Charlie Brown Christmas
  2. Anonymous 4: Hodie Christus Natus Est
  3. Waverly Consort: Three Spanish Villancicos – Dadme Albcrecias
  4. Perry Como: Home for the Holidays
  5. Mannheim Steamroller: Joy to the World
  6. George Winston: The Holly and the Ivy
  7. Celtic Woman: O Holy Night
  8. John Denver and the Muppets: The Twelve Days of Christmas
  9. Al Hirt: Nutty Jingle Bells
  10. The Roches: Deck the Halls
    — 2009: —
  11. Charlotte Church: Mary’s Boy Child
  12. Madeleine Peyroux/k.d. lang: River
  13. George Winston: Variations on the Kanon
  14. Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops: The Toy Trumpet
  15. Eartha Kitt: Santa Baby
  16. Mannheim Steamroller: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  17. Celtic Woman: The Wexford Carol
  18. The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Jingle Bells
  19. Jimmy Boyd: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
  20. Cumberland Gap Reunion: Silent Night

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To fast-forward to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter. And a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter.)

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