Sippican Cottage

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Memorial Day

When I was little my father took me to the graves on Memorial Day.

He was a younger man than I am now. He’d drag any of us he could catch all over the Boston landscape to one boneyard after another. Memorial Day wasn’t just for the military dead for him. It was some sort of druidical day. Touch the stone. Pull the weeds. Say the words. Explain to your son who that person was and what they meant to him. Then off to look for the next stone marker by the next oak in the next town. I never understood it. To me it seemed like the stone was all there was to them.

He was a veteran. Everyone was, once. Army Air Force in World War II. He hung below a B24 in a little glass ball and watched the Pacific and the Zeros pass by. He never spoke of it, really, until he was dying in front of me.

I don’t know if he knew he was dying. I don’t know if you look that visitor in the face, ever. Humans don’t seem capable of dealing with the idea. If you’re 114, I imagine you figure you’ll die tomorrow. But not today. Never today. You know you’re dying when you’re 10, too. You file that knowledge away with the things that live in the back of the closet and out by the woodpile on a moonless night.

Towards the end, I took him to the doctors a lot. His body wasn’t sick. It was a villain, an enemy at that point. It didn’t let him down; it turned on him. But I’d take him to the doctor just the same — who seemed more in tune with the wraith of endless malady that shared my father’s body than my father himself.  They took turns working on  him like a heavy bag. I’m not sure which showed more mercy. Doctors have precious little mercy in them, in my experience. It’s not in their job description, anyway. I don’t understand why people look for it from them.

I had almost nothing to do with my father for about 15 years or so. He was lost to me, or I was lost to him, or something. I got the feeling towards the end there that I was of some small use to him, and I liked it. I took him and sat with him while we waited on chairs that would make you feeble if you weren’t already, then afterwards we ate a donut and drank coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts while gaping like shut-ins at the traffic passing by. He lost all his teeth when he was a child, and had a soft spot, always, for a jelly donut.

It’s hard to describe what came out of his mouth while we lingered there on those afternoons. I’m not sure he was talking to me. He was unraveling a long string, and allowed me to sit with him as he did it. The string wasn’t coherent. It was all one skein, but it was bits and pieces of things, knotted together roughly, all out of order, but all of immense interest to me. I think the Rosetta Stone has mundane things written on it, doesn’t it? What’s mundane… depends.

All these people appeared among the clatter of the cash registers and the muffled sound of the traffic outside, suspended in fleeting words in the air in front of his eyes, eyes gone the color of dishwater from their blue beginnings. He produced laundry lists of my flesh and blood; himself when he was younger, described like any other stranger; far-flung relatives; friends gone but not forgotten. They assembled as he called them up in an imaginary mob behind him until there were too many to count. He was their priest, or maybe their Ouija board, their lawyer, their mourner, raiding their tombs like Carnarvon.

And nothing passed their lips but a terrible murmur that my father could not hear: Why the world would give them a stone when all they asked for was bread.

I’ll Tell Me Ma

I’ll Tell Me Ma is about the most Irish thing I can think of. Delivered by a Kelly family is just spiking the football, or maybe hammerin’ the sliotar home, or something:

I’ll Tell Me Ma is one of those things that’s so old and ubiquitous that it’s listed as traditional. All sorts of people have adopted it, and it’s common to change the lyrics to accommodate whatever locale you’re in. Most references to it use Belfast. The lyrics expand and contract a bit. It’s an easy singsong doggerel to improvise in, if you have a mind. The important part is the chorus:

I’ll tell me ma when I come home
the boys won’t leave the girls alone
they pull me hair and stole my comb
well that’s alright till I come home
She is handsome she is pretty
she’s the belle of Belfast city
she’s a courtin’ one two three
please won’t you tell me who is (s)he

It’s a good song to jump rope to, and many do, or did, anyway. There was a children’s game that went with it, too. Everyone stands in a circle, with one girl in the center. They sing a verse, and repeat the chorus, and at the “who is (s)he?”, the child in the center points out another to take their place, and the next verse is sung. Charming.

Of course the definitive version of the song is Van Morrison with the Chieftains, because of course it is. There are fewer cute bairns in the screencap of the Chieftains video, so we opened with the Kellys.

When I was a little kid, my older sister and her friends knew all sorts of singing and dancing things like this one. They’d skip rope and clap hands and dance in a circle in the schoolyard at recess. I wonder, is that all gone now? What’s the modern version? Do the girls go directly from diapers to a stripper pole and twerking? Do Maries still have weddings? And has anyone made Van Morrison smile since 1987?

St. Patrick’s Day: Or as the True Irishman Calls it: Amateur Hour

An Irishman is feeling unwell. His long-suffering wife demands that he go to the doctor and get himself sorted out once and for all. So he goes. The doctor gives him a good going over. He’s a bit of a mess. The doctors says, “Your liver is like a sandbag, Michael, and your kidneys are on holiday somewhere. Your eyesight is failing, and your heart skips more beats than a scratched record. Your skin is sallow, and your hair is limp. You’re a sorry sight overall, and if changes aren’t made, you’re a gone gosling.”

So Michael thinks about his predicament a bit, and rubs his nubbly chin, and says, “What’s the cause of all these maladies, doctor?”

“Michael, it’s alcohol, and alcohol alone that’s the root of all your troubles.”

“Thank Jayzuz, doctor. Now I can go home and tell my wife she’s been wrong all these years. She always claims it’s my fault.”

Happy Valentine’s Day From the Cottage

Remember to send your wife a spray of roses at her job today. On the card, put, “From your one true love.” If she doesn’t mention them when she gets home, you’ll know for sure that you’re not it. Otherwise, you’re golden!

My Really Back Pages

It’s nearly New Year’s Day. On the intertunnel, it’s time for lists.

Well, it’s time for lists of predictions. Most folks expend quite a bit of effort to explain why the world didn’t cooperate with last year’s list, and then make the same mistakes all over again with this year’s prognostications. Of course I never get my new year’s predictions even slightly wrong, because I only have one, and it’s never wrong.

I predict next year will be worse than this year.

That’s been a safe bet every year since I was born. I hope you don’t read too much into that trend. It’s possible that I’m the antichrist, but it’s not likely. There’s a lot of competition for that gig, and I’m not much of a go-getter.

But a list is required, so I thought I’d be daring and look for a piquant one from years past. I found one. Amusingly, I wrote it the last time my workstation computer crapped out on me. That was 2012. The truly piquant part was that the list was already six years old when I posted it. So when you read this year’s panoply of ill-considered opinions filtered through cracked crystal balls all over the internet, see if you can find anyone still willing to own up to a seventeen-year-old list of future shock schlock. I am:



Had a hard-drive meltdown disaster boogaloo situation this week. My computer is an ancient Funkenstein monster of a thing. I can’t remember how old it is. It runs XP, and as I recall XP was the spiffy new thing just then when I bought it. I’ve added hard drives and a network card and assorted other things to its festering hulk over the years. The hard drives were partitioned like the Austro-Hungarian Empire after WW I, and with about as much long-term viability. I had a dash of ones here and a spritz of zeros there and panoply of pixels from pillar to post.

The hard drive that’s coughing up blood this week actually died a while ago, and I replaced it with another, but I left the original in the case, hanging on a ribbon wire, as a warning to the other components. I used it as a sort of half-assed backup to the new drive, but it’s about as reliable as a brother-in-law, so I’ve got to yank everything off it now or lose it. I found that not all of what’s on it is a copy. There’s stuff I didn’t know I had.

I found some sort of article I must have written for some other website. The style is too dull for any of my webpages, so it must have been for money. The squares don’t like frivolity. I don’t remember it being published, and it doesn’t turn up on der Google, so I figure I’ll recycle it and go back to erasing things. I found it interesting to read, mostly because it’s so dull. It’s a top-ten sort of list, and I wrote it in 2006. Most people who make predictions hide them from scrutiny six months after they make them. Let’s see how six years have treated mine:

Frustration is a symptom, not a disease. When you’re frustrated, it’s generally because you’re trying to accomplish something, but circumstances conspire to keep you from achieving it. There’s a moment of peace that generally comes to those that abandon lines of attack that are too arduous because of extraneous factors: I’ve done all that I can, there’s nothing more I can do.

Frustration is the meat and potatoes of people who wish to predict future trends, though. What are people trying to do, over and over, despite how difficult it might be to do it? That’s what people really want; they prove it by how much crap they’ll put up with to get it. Do you remember the busy signal you got trying to get online ten years ago, just so you could look at a few pages of text or a picture of a girl with her clothes off? The potential of the internet was shown by the amount of discomfort people were willing to endure early on to get just a glimpse of it.

Let’s use frustration as our canary in the coal mine and see what people are desperately trying to do, over and over, despite many obstacles. We’ll use it as a barometer to see what the onrush of civilization will make obsolete.

Because it’s obsolete that I love. I love all the things I used to have to do that I don’t have to do anymore. I don’t want to stand in line at a bank. I don’t want to punch a time card. I don’t want ink all over my fingers just to read the baseball box scores. I don’t want to have a hair farmer on the network news reading the least interesting, ofttimes made-up stories to me at 6:00 PM — really slowly. I don’t want to stand in line at the Registry of Motor Vehicles twice a year. I don’t want any of that, and more. Or less. Or something.

So here’s Ten Things I don’t want any more, at least in their current iteration; Ten Things I’m going to have to tell my grandchildren about, if we’re all lucky:

10. Blockbuster Video– It’s got the smell of death on it already, doesn’t it? The idea of going to a bricks and mortar store to get a copy of digital information is going to seem as useless as drive-in movie theaters do now. The only difference is that drive-in movies seem quaint. A video rental store will seem like a shuttered crackhouse.

9. Stuntmen- Sticking with the movie theme here, who’s going to pay another person to get blown up in a car and pushed over a cliff when a computer can just put that guy there with a few mouseclicks? Lots of jobs like that are hanging on by the skin of their union teeth in Hollywood right now. Bye Bye.

8. Movie Theaters– Yeah, I said it. When the screen at home gets big enough — and you’re tired of listening to rap song ringtones and mindless chatter all the while the movie’s playing, with your feet stuck in a congealing puddle of $6 soda — you’re never leaving the house just to see a movie, ever again.

7. A Written Check– When someone whips out a checkbook at the checkout line at the supermarket, what do you do? You’d be a mass murderer if you acted out every tenth fantasy you had about those people. It’s going to seem so quaint, scratching out a little promise to pay people on a slip of paper, like a note from your mother, the bank.

7. (part B) Your Signature on Much of Anything. Never mind a check. With all the ways they have of identifying people, and the neverending cycle of identity theft and countermeasure, pretty soon you’re just going to put your thumb on a pad, or your eye in a scanner, or wave your subdermal barcode thingie at something, and your transactions will be complete. I’d sell my stock in BIC pens, if I were you.

6. Paper Money – You know, adults never have any of that stuff on them, unless you’re a drug dealer or a stripper. Or a congressman from Louisiana. It’s the mark of the rube or the criminal already. And the laser printer/Treasury Department Mutual Assured Destruction countermeasure broadsides have been fun, but paper money is silly. And any government that collects more than half of what you make (that’s all of them, as far as I can tell) isn’t going to ignore forever the fact that tax collection is sometimes- how do I put this delicately?- overlooked in cash transactions.

5. The Post Office- God I hate the Post Office. You can almost separate the world into only two sorts of people: people that hate the Post Office, and people that love the Post Office. Let’s round up the people that love it, and mail them to France, whaddya say? Let’s send them UPS, so they’ll get there, though. Nothing the Post Office does isn’t being done better by other entities right now. That includes mass killings. Good riddance.

4. Wired anything – If you’re of a certain age, you remember the first telephone you had that didn’t have a cord. A little older, and you treasure the memory of the first phone you had that allowed you to leave your house and talk into it. You didn’t care if the battery weighed forty-four pounds and lasted ten minutes. Don’t get me started with getting out of your chair to turn the channel on your TV. No one’s going to accept anything that needs to be plugged into anything alse pretty soon.

3. Light Bulbs – Edison, we loved you. But the time has come to stop burning a little wire really slowly in a glass bulb to see what the hell we’re doing after the sun goes down. And don’t give me any of that compact flourescent crap either; we can find better ways to illuminate things than exciting rare gases in a gossamer glass tube. That’s rationed whale oil thinking. LED’s, anyone?

2.Telephone Poles –There’s nothing more ubiquitous, and nothing uglier, on display everywhere you go than that endless phalanx of tarred tree boles with wires strung from them. The idea of getting your electricity from some smoke belching factory via four hundred miles of copper wires, and getting telephone service brought from even further, all so you can plug a cordless phone into the end of it is going to seem as bizarre as it is, and soon. Power generation will be local, or even better: on-site at every house, and everything will be beamed to you. Power outages will seem quaint.

1. Newspapers – You’re reading this, ain’t ya?

Good People All, This Christmas Time

The Wexford Carol is a traditional Celtic Christmas thingie. Somewhat obscure, I guess. It’s old, but no one knows exactly how old. The musical director and organist at St. Aidan’s Cathedral in Wexford, Ireland wrote it down after hearing a local singer belting it out. It found a place in The Oxford Book of Carols in 1928, but it might be four or five hundred years older than that.

It’s got lyrics, but God knows what the original lyrics might have been. Things passed down orally through centuries have a tendency to pick up modifications like a ship picks up barnacles. Here are some of the verses:

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending His beloved Son
With Mary holy we should pray,
To God with love this Christmas Day
In Bethlehem upon that morn,
There was a blessed Messiah born.

The night before that happy tide,
The noble virgin and her guide
Were long time seeking up and down
To find a lodging in the town.
But mark how all things came to pass
From every door repelled, alas,
As was foretold, their refuge all
Was but a humble ox’s stall.

Wikipedia has some Irish lyrics. I put them into a translation thingie. Here’s what came out:

Oh, come all and pray
The child is lying in the cradle
Remember the love of the King
Who gave us salvation tonight the Naí.
And Mary Mother in God’s Paradise,
For Eve’s poor children, pray now tenderly,
The door of the aperture is never closed
May you worship Mac Mhuire Ogh from now on.

In east Bethlehem in the middle of the night’
The good news was heard for shepherds,
Clearly for life from the sky sweetly
Angels were singing from tip to tip.
“Move alive,” said the Angel of God,
“Go to Bethlehem and you will find Him
Don’t lie peacefully in a manger of grass,
He is the Messiah who loved life

The Irish have been confusing and confounding the English since about 1100 AD. Maybe they should have stayed home. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that they confuse an English translation machine, too, although that eighth line, that bids the listener to worship Fred MacMurray for some reason, might have taken it a step too far.

In any case, Nollaig Shona Daoibh to all my readers, and all the ships at sea!

Feeling Vaguely Like Christmas

But only vaguely.

Robert Palmer won’t be down for breakfast anymore, so Bill Nighy picks up the slack a bit.

Kids just wanna have fun, too.

Even my kids do.

So, Feliz Navidad, and próspero año y felicidad  to everyone everywhere, and all the ships at sea.

A Duck May Be Somebody’s Mother

The Stars and Stripes Forever, by John Philip Sousa, played on a magnificent Hooghuys fairground organ.

Sousa was an interesting fellow. He started out playing the violin, which isn’t a great fit for marching bands. Could have been worse. It could have been the cello. At any rate, his father played the trombone, which is more like plumbing than music, I’ll admit. Dad was in the US Marine Band, and was afraid his boy John was going to literally run away and join the circus, not figuratively like most folks. So his father enlisted him in the US Marines. He was thirteen years old. Kinda harsh, dad. Sousa’s enlistment lasted eight years. When he got out, he got a job playing the violin in pit orchestras, and learned how to conduct. Sousa had perfect (absolute) pitch, like somebody I know. If you’ve ever played an instrument without frets on it, or that uses an infinitely variable slide instead of valves to find the note, you know how badly you don’t want a conductor with perfect pitch. Five years later, he was appointed the conductor of the Marine Band. So dad won out in the end, I guess.

Sousa wanted a tuba that would sound better and be easier to play while marching. He asked someone, exactly who is disputed, to modify a helicon, and the result is the familiar sousaphone you see skirling around football fields at halftime, or used to, anyway, before aging strumpets were hired to lip-sync pop tunes instead. Not many people have a musical instrument named after them. You might, I don’t know you that well, but I know I don’t. But I’d totally play a Sippicantela if someone made me one.

Marching bands are thin on the ground these days. A generation ago they were just as important as the football team, in high school and college, anyway. You had to be a pretty good player to qualify for a big college band. You still have to be a really good player, world-class really, to be in the Marine Band.

Most bands wear out just a few Sousa marches, but he wrote a lot of them, at least 130. It’s funny, but almost all of them, even the obscure ones, sound instantly familiar, like Happy Birthday or The Wedding March from Lohengrin, or Stairway to Heaven. He wrote 15 operettas and a bunch of other stuff, too. Operettas are like operas for regular people who fall asleep an hour before the fat lady sings in a regular opera. Sousa is the antidote to Wagner, I guess.

He spent most of his life in the military, and not all the brass was in the marching band. Sousa is enshrined in the Trapshooting Hall of Fame. He represented the Navy in trapshooting competitions against the Army. “Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call, ‘pull,’ the old gun barks, and the referee in perfect key announces, ‘dead’.”

Sousa marches sound gloriously anachronistic now. They were exactly fitted to their time and place, but somehow became universal and timeless. But Sousa was also a seer. He heard the first sound recordings, and knew what was coming:

“These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy… in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

Take pity on poor Sousa. Nobody tell him about the iPhone.

Tag: holidays

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