Monday Senior Moment

[Video: selected scenes of beauty from an episode of Seinfeld]

I had an appointment for a routine visit to my doctor’s office in the morning. As with many doctors, I guess, every time you interact with the people at this office you’re expected to present proof of ID (driver’s license generally) and proof of medical coverage (Blue Cross/Shield, HMO card, whatever).

I figured I’d minimize the fumbling with my wallet while actually at the check-in counter, by getting the two cards out of my wallet in advance, and putting them in my shirt pocket. So before going inside, I pulled my wallet out of my hip pocket…

Like many men’s wallets, mine includes not just a cash compartment but multiple “slots” into which you can insert credit cards, various forms of ID, wallet photos (if anyone still carries them), and so on. And like many men — think George Costanza, as in the video above — I probably consider these little cubbies waaaay too convenient for our own good. (I think I finally threw out my Borders Rewards card last year. I’d held onto it because, well, the company may have gone under but You Never Know!)

Anyway, I do try to keep the wallet organized, roughly speaking. Of course, I’ve got the driver’s license in the only slot with a transparent plastic window (I don’t know why; everyone always asks me to remove the license from the wallet before they’ll inspect it). I’ve got a slot reserved for local-business discount cards. There’s one for my debit card and a couple of others which I use regularly, and of course one for credit cards. My Costco and Walgreen’s membership/discount cards are in a slot by themselves. And so on. The point being: I got the driver’s license out immediately, and then flipped to the slot where I keep my Blue Cross card.

Panic, confusion: my Blue Cross card was not in my wallet!

Mentally, I ran back through the last few days, picturing where I’d been, all the occasions on which I transferred the wallet from one pair of jeans to another, all those on which I’d handled the wallet at all. I went back weeks, and then months — just looking at moments when I might’ve handled my Blue Cross card. Had the pharmacist asked for it for some reason. (Answer: no.) The dentist? (Ditto.)

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And then I move on to consider the possibility that it had actually been removed by someone else, for some reason. Would there be some kind of… some kind of value to a health-insurance card? Maybe I was caught in some kind of not-very-sophisticated caper to steal expensive medical treatments — or prescriptions?!? — from a hospital or drugstore. Could I be arrested or otherwise held accountable for someone else’s use of the card? I couldn’t could I? And…

How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

All of that occurred mentally, as I said, within the space of about four to five seconds. In the meantime, I was rifling all the other compartments in my wallet: like, Jeezus, am I still carrying that goddam thing around? and like, Why do I have two discount cards from that department store?

I finally began to accept the inevitable. I was going to have to call The Missus to ask if for some arcane reason, she’d needed (and hence borrowed) my Blue Cross card — not a conversation I was looking forward to, because, well, (a) “Why would I have taken your Blue Cross card?” and (b) How the hell could I have lost my Blue Cross card?!?

And suppose — as was all but 100% certain — the Missus did not have my Blue Cross card. What then? Should I try to get the doctor’s staff to accept my status on a provisional basis? Maybe I could just breezily assert, “I don’t have my card with me but there’s no change since last visit” — head off the uncomfortable question (How the hell could you have lost your Blue Cross card?!?) before it even got asked.

Oh, I’ll tell you — I ran the gamut of four-letter words, sitting there in the car with the contents of my wallet scattered like autumn leaves around the front seats. No, really: How in the HELL

I looked down at my wallet. Actually, it wasn’t empty — I hadn’t bothered to look in that one slot because I wouldn’t possibly have put the Blue Cross card there, behind my debit card…

And then a moment later — patting my shirt pocket in satisfaction — I gathered up all my other cards and notes to myself and other wallet detritus, reloaded the ammo dump so to speak, and proceeded inside… having discovered my Blue Cross card right where really always keep it: in the slot behind my debit card.

I’d been outside in the car for fifteen minutes. But boy, am I smart: I didn’t have to fumble with my wallet at all!

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Too Many Answers to Stop

I’ve long held that a story I’ve started writing must reach a certain “critical mass” in order for me to carry it through to completion. This critical mass might be defined as the written length — the word/page count — beyond which I will not, can not stop writing. A story which might become a novella (or longer), for instance, seems to hit critical mass at about 10,000 words. At this point, the narrative has so much momentum in my head that it’s a force in its own right: I know enough about the characters and the story to know how little I really know about them, and how much I want to find out.

(I’m pretty sure many/most other writers feel the same way, incidentally, although we’ve probably all got different critical masses.)

Mostly, this is just a descriptive figure, not a prescriptive one. It’s an observation which seems to have held true in the past and (as I expect) will likely hold true in the future, not a make-or-break target.

For the piece I’m working on now, though, I seem to be approaching — perhaps have already crossed — a different and perhaps unquantifiable threshold: a critical mass of research.
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[Video: Trailer from Demon in My View, allegedly an “Edgar Allen Poe BioPic” from the apparently fictional (or at least moribund) Singularity Pictures. I could not find any reference to this film (vs. a student film by the same name) other than on YouTube — and of course, on sites (now like this one) which link to it. The title comes from Poe’s poem (not often quoted), “Alone” (q.v., here). That is — and perhaps I should add allegedly — Vincent Price in the voiceover.]

From whiskey river:

I’ll tell you another secret, this one for your own good. You may think the past has something to tell you. You may think that you should listen, should strain to make out its whispers, should bend over backward, stoop down low to hear its voice breathed up from the ground, from the dead places. You may think there’s something in it for you, something to understand or make sense of.

But I know the truth: I know from the nights of Coldness. I know the past will drag you backward and down, have you snatching at whispers of wind and the gibberish of trees rubbing together, trying to decipher some code, trying to piece together what was broken. It’s hopeless. The past is nothing but a weight. It will build inside of you like a stone.

Take it from me: If you hear the past speaking to you, feel it tugging at your back and running its fingers up your spine, the best thing to do — the only thing — is run.

(Lauren Oliver [source])


The Exam

It is mid-October. The trees are in
their autumnal glory (red, yellow-green,

orange) outside the classroom where students
take the mid-term, sniffling softly as if

identifying lines from Blake or Keats
was such sweet sorrow, summoned up in words

they never saw before. I am thinking
of my parents, of the six decades they’ve

been together, of the thirty thousand
meals they’ve eaten in the kitchen, of the

more than twenty thousand nights they’ve slept
under the same roof. I am wondering

who could have fashioned the test that would have
predicted this success? Who could have known?

(Joyce Sutphen [source])


The catalogue of the Musée Guimet of Paris describes a Mandara, in which the highest Buddha in the center of the group is surrounded by a number of his incarnations of various degrees and dignities. These are the Bodhisattvas, prophets and sages of the world, who have either taught mankind or set them good examples by their virtuous lives. On the right we see a group of personified abstracts, piety, charity, science, religion, the aspiration for progress. On the left is a third class, consisting of the ugly figures of demons, whose appearance is destined to frighten people away from sensuality, egotism, and evil desires.

The devils of Buddhism, accordingly, are not the enemies of Buddha, and not even his antagonists, but his ministers and co-workers. They partake of Buddha’s nature, for they, too, are teachers. They are the rods of punishment, representing the curse of sin, and as such have also been fitly conceived as incarnations of the Bodhi. In this interpretation, the Buddhist devils cease to be torturers and become instruments of education who contribute their share to the general system of working out the final salvation of man.

(Paul Carus [source])

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Gobsmacked by Natural History

Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker

[Image: Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker. Colors tinkered with a little to match its present look as closely as possible.]

A holiday, a small bedroom in a small house, The Boy, The Book

I don’t know what triggered the recent obsession, but something must have. Not that I’ve ever really forgotten its object; years ago, I started referring to it this way: possibly the best book anyone ever gave me. I’m not kidding myself, or you: it may not be the best-written, the book I most wish I myself had written, even my favorite book. My original copy got swallowed up into Book Heaven long ago, and I had not (until recently) laid eyes on another copy for maybe forty or more years. But for its long-term impact on me — its staying power in my head — nothing else comes close.

It came to me as a Christmas present when I must have been, oh, maybe nine or ten years old. (It certainly feels like I’ve known it that long.) Dad had always held blue-collar jobs, and Mom — when she eventually went to work (as opposed to, haha, the sheer non-working pleasure of raising four kids) — held secretarial and clerical positions. So we never had anything you could call superficially “privileged.” But at Christmas, they annually went overboard. We got so much stuff.

In retrospect, I wonder if at that time of year they might have been just throwing things at the walls of our minds to see what would stick. I know they loved us — never once doubted it, even — but they’d had little if anything like training or orientation as parents. We were like four aliens deposited in their household: total strangers, maybe even only nominally of the same species. How could they entertain us? Would we like music, maybe? (Get them an LP!) Would we want to become homemakers, or mechanics? (Get them a toy oven, or a garage — made of finger-slashing tin in case they want to become surgeons!) Artists? (A Play-Do factory! a watercolor paints set! colored pencils! crayons and coloring books! heck, throw in a jigsaw puzzle! All in the same year!)

So this one year — again, I think somewhere between third and fifth grade — I found (among the rubble of childhood avarice) two books for me: both non-fiction, both about science. One was a large-format hardcover book, maybe 9″ x 12″, maybe fifty pages long,, entirely about astronomy. I don’t remember many specifics about that book — certainly not the title. It had no paper dust cover. The front, spine, and back were of some ultra-high-gloss material; the predominant color was deep navy blue, scattered with stars. Of all the sciences, astronomy has held my attention the most, and I think to that book must belong a great deal of the credit.

But the other book: ah, the other book. That was the unforgettable one.

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Midweek Music Break: Linda Ronstadt, “Trouble Again”

Linda Ronstadt (w/Aaron Neville): 'Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind'For reasons which may (if I’m lucky!) become obvious in a few days, I recently combed through RAMH to see when I’d featured this song here. I couldn’t believe what my eyes (via the Search feature here, or via our Google overlords) insisted to be true: never. I’d never even mentioned it in a comment. It appears in not a single draft post. The absence didn’t just defy expectations; it defied explanation — seemingly defied reality itself.*

I mean, seriously: I love this song.

When the album on which it appears came out, in 1989, I pretty much bought it automatically, knowing very little in advance: it was Linda Ronstadt, after all. And (look at that cover photo!) it clearly had nothing to do with her several previous albums — the Nelson Riddle collaborations on old standards, and so on — all of which I’d respected and listened to, even repeatedly, and even really, really liked… without ever falling in love with any of them.

So Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, unheard, seemed on the face of it a return to form.

Which turned out to be, well, not quite true. Don’t get me wrong: much of it sits very pleasantly in the ears, and Ronstadt is joined on several numbers by the silken-voiced Aaron Neville. (That collaboration seemed to draw the most commentary and praise from critics, and resulted in the album’s biggest hit singles… and not one but two Grammies for duet performances, in 1990 and ’91.) Brian Wilson (Ronstadt told one reviewer) added fifteen parts just to one song.

But wowie, when I heard this number — as far as I can tell, just Ronstadt and the musicians — I think I almost passed out. I’d bought the album on cassette tape back then, of course; and I was single at the time, so spent a lot of time in the car by myself, to and from work, on road trips and family visits, simply to the store and back. I listened to the whole thing — this number in particular — over, and over, and over. I listened to “Trouble Again” so many times that I knew exactly how many internally-clocked seconds it took to rewind to the beginning. Nothing else quite like it appears on that album. I don’t know why it was never released as a single.

Aside from the music, from the start I very much liked the meaning — the story — in this song. “I’d be so pure if it hadn’t been for YOU” isn’t a unique theme, by any stretch. But every other example I can think of features a man singing of or to a woman who (he claims) led him astray: that “Trouble Again” stands the standard narrative on its head makes it worth hearing on its own, specific performance aside. Its protagonist even shares all those guys’ defensive self-delusion.

(Lest you think that Ronstadt’s simply covering a male-written song: nope. It’s a cover of a song by Karla Bonoff, who also penned a good number of other songs which have marked Ronstadt’s career.)

One note in particular really lingers in the mind — It. Is. Amazing — but I’ll let you discover it for yourselves:

[Below, click Play button to begin Trouble Again. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:19 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.


The note in question was one of two which imprinted themselves on my brain around the same time. The other I already discussed a good while back, down towards the end of this post; there, Carly Simon rounded off “I Get Along Without You Very Well” with a lingering (and lingering, and lingering…) tug on the heart. But Ronstadt here powers through with a furious, sustained outburst of bitterness which — in the lyrics’ context — means above all not to let “you” get a word in edgewise.

For the record, here’s Karla Bonoff’s own version. Obvious differences between Ronstadt’s and Bonoff’s voices aside, all the essential elements are in place (including, not least, the storyline). The note here, however — at around the 1:30 mark — lasts for only couple of seconds (vs. Ronstadt’s ten-second blast). It’s missing the righteous fury:

[Below, click Play button to begin Trouble Again (Karla Bonoff). While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:34 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.


* Actually, I have shared it off the board with a couple of long-time RAMH readers. Yeah. That had to be what I was thinking of — because of course it couldn’t possibly be ascribed to a hiccup of memory…

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Midweek Music Break: Melodía Pegadiza, Part 1 (1951-52)

For weeks recently, intermittently, I had been musically fixated on a song which I’d known for, well, decades. And I probably hadn’t heard it in decades, either. Even worse: my normal solution to the problem of an earworm is to simply listen to the song several times. Couldn’t do that in this case because… well, I didn’t know the name of the song, or on what album (if any) I might have heard it. I didn’t know who performed it. It was an instrumental, so I couldn’t seize on the lyrics to simply do a search. All I knew, apparently intimately, was the sound.

Which really made me crazy. The melody and rhythm and performance were not unpleasant, by any means; in fact, they swung smoothly, sweet-dreamily, with heavy doses of strings and woodwinds accented here and there by percussion and horn. They felt… Latin.

Yes, I know: whole Web sites and smartphone apps exist to help in cases like this. You hold an iPod or MP3 player up to a microphone, say, and the software analyzes the tune to guess at the song (and sometimes the artist). Or you can play a piano, guitar, or harmonica (or — I guess — a trumpet! even a Mellotron, or a Novachord!) into the mike. In some cases, you can simply sing into the mike, or hum, or even just plain whistle; this would require one of those rare solutions (since I didn’t actually have a copy of the song to play). But I’ve gone the perform-it-yourself route before. Maybe your singing, humming, whistling is up to snuff. Mine? Put it this way: Can you imagine the humiliation of running software which all but stares at you, gimlet-eyed, in disbelief and frank confusion?

So then one Monday night a few weeks ago The Missus and I succumbed to the allure of a PBS pledge drive. We’ve donated before, separately and together, but never at the level required to get one of their premium “gifts”: a DVD, say, or a large-format coffee-table book, or a collection of CDs. On this occasion, what pushed us over the edge was a sort of vicarious nostalgia for music of some other generation: we sprang for a six-CD collection of pop and “easy listening” music of the 1950s. Back then, we were both too young really to know this music. But the gods knew we’d heard plenty of it, coming from the speakers of record player, transistor radio, and hi-fi system…

Think Patti Page and Perry Como, Mantovani and the McGuire Sisters, all the guy-group vocalists (many of them named to identify their number, usually four: the Four Lads, the Four Aces, the Four Coins).

Think, oh, say, Leroy Anderson, and “Blue Tango.”

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“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?” — Who Cares?

The really important question (as cartoonist Shannon Wheeler reminds us) remains: what happens to your ideas once you get them?

Too Much Coffee Man: Where Ideas Go

[Cartoon scanned from April, 2013 issue of The Funny Times; click to enlarge]

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Consider the Things We Miss (Then Consider Our Missing Them)

'Where Are You,' by user 'code1name' at

[Image: Where Are You, by user “code1name” at the site]

From whiskey river:

Every life is inexplicable, I kept telling myself. No matter how many facts are told, no matter how many details are given, the essential thing resists telling. To say that so and so was born here and went there, that he did this and did that, that he married this woman and had these children, that he lived, that he died, that he left behind these books or this battle or that bridge — none of that tells us very much.

(Paul Auster)


My Love

It’s not the lover that we love, but love
itself, love as in nothing, as in O;
love is the lover’s coin, a coin of no country,
hence: the ring; hence: the moon —
no wonder that empty circle so often figures
in our intimate dark, our skin-trade,
that commerce so furious we often think
love’s something we share; but we’re always wrong.

(Don Paterson [source])


The Storm

Now through the white orchard my little dog
romps, breaking the new snow
with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Mung-Bodied: A Reverie

Schematic: a

[Image: schematic of a “Rube Goldberg” solution to the challenge of waking up a laptop, by a fifth-grade physical science project team. For details, see the note at the bottom of this post.]

When I was a kid, one of the things which could — without fail! — get all of us laughing was for somebody to go all suddenly and unintentionally tongue-tied. Mung-tongued, we called it. In a little one of his stand-up bits, Steve Martin asked the audience rhetorically something like this: Are you ever talking along and all of a sudden your tongue gets away from you and ywannguhmelizzorwhat? (I laughed at that, too.)

But you know what? The tongue finds lots of company among the other muscles.

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Midweek Music Break: [Unknown Artist], “[Unknown Christmas Song]”Mannheim Steamroller, “Kling Glöckchen”

Name That Tune
Yes, the “1” is a typo.

Update, 4:36pm EST: the mystery is solved! (See comments.)

You know how difficult it is to identify a song when you don’t know anything about it, except that you sorta-kinda like the way it sounds? Right: that difficult. And I’ve got such a song for you today…

Background: Some years ago, I had successfully ripped all of our many, many Christmas CDs to my computer, so I could set up an infinitely-repeating, ever-shuffled background playlist while I worked. Boy, that was great. (Because, y’know, even though one wants to hear Christmas music for only a couple-three weeks out of the year, during that period one really wants to hear it.)

Problems ensued, however — in particular, the problem of limited disk space. (We must have had twenty or more of these CDs at the time, and every year, it seemed, we’d add another.) I kept getting all of these warning messages from my PC that I needed to free up some space, or risk (a) crashing, (b) unsatisfactory performance, and/or (c) so on. My solution was ingenious,  or so I thought (never too busy for a self-inflicted pat on the back!): after the holiday season that year, I burned the entire shuffled Christmas playlist to as many CDs as it took. (It took fewer than the original, because I could cram 20-25 songs on a disk, unlike the manufacturers who included only a dozen or so.) I could just label the CDs like christmas 1, christmas 2, etc., because when I wanted to listen to CDs as opposed to music-on-the-hard-drive I’d probably be in the car and wouldn’t need song details.

…so, having burned the stack of CDs, I then — post-holiday, remember? — deleted all the Christmas music from my hard drive. Because I could always re-rip them as needed, right?

What a dummy. Because, as it happened, I just might not know the title or artist of a particular song. You know — the sort of information which is typically lost when you burn a music CD.

Which brings me to this week’s selection.

First solution: identify it via a lyrics search. Except I can’t make out the lyrics (other than the ting-a-ling-a-lings, and I’m not even sure of those). For a couple of minutes, I even dragged The Missus into the question. (Involving her in my personal and generally fleeting obsessions tends not to be fruitful for either of us, let alone for us together.) Maybe they’re in some other language???

I kinda remembered encountering an online music database that enabled you to search for a song using just the tune — by humming or whistling it, for instance. Maybe Musipedia, although I seem to remember it had a catchier name… I think I told a nephew about it… or maybe just scratched a note to myself… […mucks about in browser history and emails sent to himself to help him remember stuff later…] Oh, right: I think it was this one (although its feature list seems to have shrunk). But so far I’ve had no luck with either.

So that’s today’s dilemma. Anyone know what this song is?

[Below, click Play button to begin [Unknown Christmas Song]. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 1:51 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.

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