30
Jun
09

farewell to the raven…..for now

raven

This blog will be on hiatus for a while. The truth of the matter is that there are just too many demands on my time from the people in my life who need me.  By the same token, when I do have a few precious moments of free time, there are simply other ways in which I wish to spend them.  Something has to give.

And so, farewell for now.  I have enjoyed the blogging experience, all in all.  I’ve made some friends along the way, and I have had the pleasure and privilege of learning that some other people think I write well.  On my last poem, Annie commented, “When you find that place where your poetry lives, no one does it better. Perfect from beginning to end…”.

There is no better feeling than reading words like that, especially when they come from one whom I hold in high esteem, as a writer and a blogger.

As for the unanswered comments, all I can say is that I did indeed read and appreciate each comment.  I realize now I should have answered each one as it showed up, rather than allowing them to accumulate with the idea that I would answer them all at once.  Somehow, they just got away from me and I never caught up.  But I want everyone to know that all those comments meant a great deal to me.

And so, farewell.  For now.  Somehow I just don’t believe that this is it.  I’m thinking of this as an extended hiatus.  I do believe I will be back, although I cannot say when.  In the meantime, thanks to all for the support, encouragement, and love you have shown me over the past few years.

-Smith

27
Apr
09

How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place

brahms

Michael Murphy, my dear friend and esteemed colleague, and I don’t agree on very much.  He likes thin women, I prefer them plump.  He loves Guinness Stout.  I think it’s vastly over rated, and prefer Theakston’s Old Peculiar for my tipperwhacky of choice.  He likes Bourbon, I prefer Irish.

You get the idea.

But it is in the area of music that our differences are most pronounced.  Michael is a jazz guy with a profound knowledge of the genre.  I like classical.   He likes James Taylor; I have no use for James Taylor (although his boxed set makes an admirable paper weight).  I love Gene Clark; he once called Gene Clark a Roy Orbison wannabe.  Ouch.

And then there is Brahms.  In my opinion, Brahms was the greatest composer of the 19th century, even greater than Beethoven.  My love for the dark fires of the man’s music runs deep.  The D minor piano concerto and the German Requiem are pieces I can listen to over and over again.  And I have; many, many times.  The second movement of the B flat piano concerto was the inspiration for this poem. (I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself–comments invited).

Michael doesn’t like Brahms.

This has led to an interesting state of affairs at our cigar store that has been dubbed by the owner as the “Music Wars”.   More than once I have gone out with a Brahms piece on the CD player, say, the Piano Quintet in F minor, only to return with Miles Davis playing.

“Uh, Michael, this doesn’t sound like Brahms”.

“It is, Smitty.  It’s late Brahms.  I’ll be you didn’t know he experimented with Jazz idioms late in life.”

Of course, I bide my time and wreak my revenge.  As soon as Mikes back is turned, Art Blakey is supplanted by the Cello Sonata in E minor.

“Smitty, this doesn’t sound like Art Blakey.”

“It is, Mike.  Early Art Blakey.  Most people don’t know he was an accomplished cellist.”

Given our many differences, it’s amazing we’re even friends at all.  But friends we are.  Mike is one of those people who makes the workday go by quicker and far more enjoyably.  I miss him on his day off.

And of course, he is my blogging mentor, although I’m not sure he wants to cop to this.  No teacher ever had a more irksome pupil.  But through it all, he is there for me. He give me words of encouragement and an occasional kick in the ass, and always knows when I need which.  He continues to believe in me, as a writer and a blogger, even when I have stopped believing in myself.

And because of our friendship I found his reluctance to embrace Brahms most troubling.  It bothered me deeply that my dear friend walked in darkness in this regard.  Clearly I owed it to him to bring to the path of enlightenment.

I knew this would not be an easy task.  Many attempts were rebuffed.  His cavalier dismissal of the Intermezzo in C sharp minor was particularly disheartening.  But one day, he showed a chink in his armor.  It was during the aforementioned second movement of the B flat piano concerto that he looked up, and said,

“That was a pretty impressive keyboard run”.

“Did you really like it?”, I asked.

“Yeah, it was pretty good.”

“Do you want to hear it again?”

“Nah, I’m good”.

A chink in the armor.  Too small to exploit, perhaps, but it gave me hope.

And then one day:  a miracle.  I honestly forget how we got into this, but Michael mentioned to me that he was once in a high school chorus that performed “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” from the Brahms Requiem.

This was news indeed.  Now, unlike most of you, I’ve actually heard Michael sing, and he does have quite a set of pipes, but the German Requiem presents a challenge for a professional choir, let alone one made up of teenagers.  I was impressed.  I was also skeptical.

As it turns out, I have the German Requiem on my iPod.  Ironically, the only reason I have either an iPod or an iTunes account is because of Michael, but I’ve already covered that one.

And so, still skeptical, I brought the iPod into work one day.

“Is this the piece?”, I asked, and let him listen on my iPod.

“Yeah, that’s the one!  I haven’t heard this in years.”  His face instantly brightened and I knew I had him.

iTunes is a remarkable thing.  I had always assumed that it was just for kids, and how wrong I was.  There are no less than FOURTEEN different versions of the German Requiem available on iTunes.  Just for kids?  Hardly.

And one of the nice things about iTunes is that you can gift music to others.  Just click the little bow, and voila!  You’ve given the gift of music.  And so with a click of my mouse the Brahms German Requiem was on its way to Michael.

A few hours later, I got this email: “hey Dude-
Just downloaded the Brahms…It is a wonderful piece of music that I will enjoy for many years to come.”

Welcome to the light, my friend.  Now if I could only get you to appreciate Thomas Tallis. ;>)

-Smith

12
Mar
09

Carving up the Raven

Ok, I’ll get right to the point on this one:

I have to have surgery next Thursday.  Between now and then I do not have a day off from work.  So things are going to be a bit slow around here.

“How will we know the difference?”  Just thought I’d save you the trouble of typing that, because I know you were thinking it.

Anyway, this actually gives me a chance to take a step back and think about what I want to do with this blog, if anything.  It has become both a labor of love, but also a bit of a pain in the ass.  I’m just spread too thin in other areas, and it always seems as if the blog gets the short shrift.  Believe it or not, this is a source of considerable guilt.

In the meantime, I am cognizant that I have several unanswered comments, and those I do intend to get to before I go into the hospital.

So I’m taking a little break until after I go under the knife.  Hopefully after a little time I’ll have a better idea of what I want to do here.

And when I’m under, I’ll try to stay away from the white light.

-Smith

08
Mar
09

An open letter to Smoke & Mirrors

ipod

Michael, my dear, dear friend and esteemed colleague:

I really hope you’re proud of yourself.  You have created an iPod/iTunes monster.  You don’t want to know how I’ve spent my day.

But I’m going to tell you anyway.  After I got done downloading all my Thomas Tallis and John Dunstable CD’s into this amazing little device, I went to iTunes and downloaded the Brahms Kyrie, WoO 17, and the Missa Canonica, WoO 18.  “WoO” means “without opus”; I knew you were dying to know that.  They don’t have an opus number because they were rediscovered and published posthumously.  I knew you were dying to know that, too.  The German Requiem is next.

I must say I’ve become profoundly impressed with iTunes.  I really thought that if it had any classical music at all, it would just be the Classical Top 40.  That they would have these supremely obscure Brahms pieces is nothing short of astounding.  I’ve never been more happy to find out that I was wrong.

Now at this point you may very well be saying, “Smith has finally lost his mind.  What the fuck does this have to do with me?”

But my friend, this has everything to do with you.  You see, I was going to buy them from Arkiv Music, (a site I still highly recommend, by the way).

You know, on a CD.

That you can play on a CD player.

Remarkably like the CD player we have at the store.

If you get my drift.

But no, Michael, I’ve decided to take pity on you.  The Brahms Choral works, sublime as they are, will remain safely tucked away in my iPod, far away from your ears.  For the moment, I will leave you to languish in your long dark musical night.

In some ways, of course, I feel profoundly guilty about this.  I feel like I’m letting you down.  I know it’s my duty as a friend to help you to appreciate this music.  You’re a tough case, it’s true, but James Taylor fans usually are.  But friends don’t give up just because the going gets tough.  I’m going to keep working on you, because I love you man, and because I care.  Deeply.  Someday, you will come to love the Brahms as I do.  Someday, I will take you by the hand and bring you to the light.

Then we can start working on Tallis and Dunstable.

The coolest thing is that I can plug the iPod into the new speaker system I got,** and voila!  The room is filled with the glorious sound of Brahms.  I really must say: thank you, my friend, you’ve changed my life forever.

Gotta go now; the Requiem is almost finished downloading.

Your friend,

Smith

** Blogmaster’s note: the page this links to is a little screwed up, but it is not a blank page as it first appears to be.  Scroll down a few lines and you can see the speakers.  Well worth the effort, I assure you.

16
Feb
09

I’ve sold out….

My friends, I write these words with a deep sense of guilt and shame, disapprobation and yes, even opprobrium.  I have sold out.  I have betrayed my most dearly held beliefs and sacrificed what I once thought were the strongest of principles.  I am a whore, a slut, a trollop.  I feel so dirty, so cheapened, I cannot even look myself in the eye when I behold my unworthy visage in the mirror.

I have purchased my first iPod.

Those of you who might say, “What’s the big deal?  You need to get over yourself, Smith” obviously don’t know me, either in person or from this blog.  Those who do know me understand that I am an avowed antediluvian.  I smoke a pipe, wear a pocket watch, and write with a fountain pen.  My favorite composers are Thomas Tallis, John Dunstable, and Johannes Brahms.  And the important thing here is that those are not the mere affectations of someone who misses the Victorian era.  I genuinely enjoy those things.  Hell, I didn’t buy my first Walkman until two years ago.

It’s Murphy’s fault, of course.  These things usually are.  Although a bit of an antiquarian himself, he seems to have adapted to the twenty first century far better than your humble scribe.  I don’t know why he does this to me.  Maybe he thinks it’s for my own good.  Maybe he’s afraid that he’ll be lonely in the new century without me.  But for whatever strange reasons of his own, he has this insatiable need to meet the new century by dragging me along with him.  This very blog owes it existence to his relentless nagging.

At his insistence, I opened an iTunes account.  Now I have to admit, iTunes is pretty cool.  I have a taste for the sort of music that one just doesn’t hear on the radio much these days.  I have now collected several hours of music I never thought I would hear again.  The Flying Burrito Brothers, obscure Byrds and Gene Clark tunes,  Fairport Convention, and Pentangle are among the out of the way things you’ll find on my playlist.  For those of you who thought The Monkees were only a “prefab four”, download “The Door Into Summer” (alternate mix).  Prepare to change your mind.

But was this enough for Murphy?  No, of course not.  He insisted that the next logical step was my own iPod.  This, however, he could not make me do.  I was adamant in my refusal.

My loathing of the iPod is well documented.  To me, it represents everything I dislike about our society: the blind consumerism, the self absorption, the obsession with owning something just because it’s “new” and “cool”, and the belief that we’re somehow entitled to be entertained on demand, 24/7.  I also deeply resent Apple’s relentless marketing which is designed to make me feel like a lower form of life if I don’t own one. 

Another major problem I have is with the whole concept of downloaded music.   Remember, I come from the generation that grew up with 12″ vinyl albums.  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, you’re probably up past your bedtime.)  Albums were the best, because you not only got music, but you got the album cover, complete with artwork and liner notes.  In short, you got “stuff”.

The CD, (which I also viewed with deep suspicion for many years), at least continued this tradition, although in miniaturized form.

But the MP3?  Somehow, it seemed so artificial, so electronic, so virtual.  Virtual, as in not real.  No album art, no liner notes, just a stream of data.  I overcame this hangup enough to sign up for iTunes, but I still prefer to have my classical music (as opposed to pop songs) in CD format.

And so, in spite of my love of music, I have resisted owning one of these devil’s playthings.

Until now.

I have a co-worker name Bill, although everyone knows him as “Bunny”.  I won’t go into why, let’s just say I have never seen a nickname stick to someone like this one has.  But Satan, Prince of Temptation would have been a better name.  Bunny is a gadget guy, and like all gadget guys, he simply can’t be happy with just one iPod Classic.  Oh, no, he has to have the iPod Nano, and the iPod Shuffle, and the iPod WipeYourAssForYou.  He’s like a human magpie.  If it’s shiny, he has to have it.

He was genuinely dumbfounded to learn I didn’t own one.  “Steve, iPods are great.  I can’t believe someone who loves music as much as you do doesn’t have one”.  So I proceeded to tell him of my immovable philosophical opposition the iPod and my deeply felt revulsion at the very idea of owning one.  I told him I would never own one, on principle.  Never.

“You can have my Classic for $50”.

“Ok.”

And so, I did it.  I have allowed myself to be seduced.  I comforted myself a little by reminding myself that it was, at least, an iPod “Classic”.  I suppose if one is going to play Brahms and Tallis on an iPod, the “Classic” is only appropriate.  But learning to live with myself was only the second most difficult part of the ordeal.  The most difficult was figuring out how to turn the fucking thing on.  I stared at my new toy when I got it home.  And stared.  And stared.  It is beautiful, in it’s own way, a smooth, shiny obelisk. I begin to suspect that I may be in over my head when I discover, to my dismay, that there is no “on” switch.  Just a circular control panel.  With a button in the middle.

Aha.

I push the button.  The shiny silver surface comes alive, showing a perfect little color screen.  Amazing.

Now what do I do?

I remember seeing someone stroke the screen, so I try that.  Nothing happens.  Oh, wait, that was the I-PHONE.  Shit.

Now what?

I eventually figure out that pushing the arrows and buttons brings one to the menu, but then what?  I notice how the cursor moves when I stroke the control panel.  Ah, so you DO like to be stroked, after all.  Now I get it.  But why does the cursor move in the opposite direction of my finger?  Strange, Apple seems to have screwed that one up.

It finally occurs to me that you’re supposed to stroke it in a circular manner (I’ll leave the obvious joke alone).  Now we’re getting somewhere.  I plug it into my computer, and my iTunes program comes to life.  At least here I’m on familiar ground.  The two machines sync with each other, and I’m ready to go.

I plug in my headphones.  They’re a pair of Koss cans.  Yes, I wear cans.  Even on the airplane.  Especially on the airplane.  I don’t like buds.  Only a full size can can cancel out the sound of the little bastard wailing in the seat behind me, beside providing full surround sound.  I wear cans.

But I digress.

I plug in the headphones.  I play a song.  I am amazed.

Now you have to bear in mind that I have only heard a lot of the songs on my iTunes through the tinny speakers that the computer came with.  I’ve been meaning to get better speakers, but blogging isn’t the only thing I’m a slacker about.  But now, with the sound being pumped into my head through a decent set of headphones, the experience borders on an epiphany.  I spent most of today with the silly thing in my back pocket and the cans glued to my ears.

My downfall is complete.  I am now a confirmed iPod whore.

But I will never wear it in a thunderstorm.

-Smith

12
Feb
09

Who knows where the time goes?

Okay, I am now officially on a Fairport Convention kick.  I really don’t know what it is about Sandy Denny’s voice that gets to me so.  It was not a particularly strong voice; sometimes she barely seemed to be singing above a whisper.  And yet a more expressive voice I’ve never heard.  Whether it was an old English ballad or an original composition, every word seems to flow from her heart by way of her soul. I think she could sing the alphabet and it would move me to tears.

This song is more well known in this country in the version by Judy Collins, but this version is the original and, in my opinion, far and way the best.  Enjoy.

-Smith

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?
And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time
For who knows how my love grows?
And who knows where the time goes?

12
Feb
09

Percy’s song

I heard this song on the radio about twenty years ago and always wondered what it was and who by.  Now, through the wonders of the internet, I know.  Downloading this song revived my interest in Fairport Convention. Although this is actually a Bob Dylan song, I think it’s easily the best cover ever done, even better than Joan Baez’s.  Enjoy.

-Smith

Bad news, bad news, come to me where I sleep”
Turn, turn, turn again
“Say, one of your friends is in trouble deep”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“Tell me the trouble, tell me once to my ear”
Turn, turn, turn again
“Joliet prison and ninety-nine years”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“Oh, what’s the charge of how this came to be?”
Turn, turn, turn again
“Manslaughter in the highest degree”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
I sat down and wrote the best words I could write
Turn, turn, turn again
Explaining to the judge I’d be there on Wednesday night
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
Without a reply, I left by the moon
Turn, turn, turn again
And was in his chambers by the next afternoon
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“Would you tell me the facts,” I said without fear
Turn, turn, turn again
“That a friend of mine could get ninety-nine years”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“A crash on the highway, flew the car to a field”
Turn, turn, turn again
“There was four persons killed and he was at the wheel”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“But I knew him as good as I’m knowing myself”
Turn, turn, turn again
“And he wouldn’t harm a life that belonged to someone else”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
The judge he spoke out of the side of his mouth
Turn, turn, turn again
Saying “The witness who saw, he left without doubt”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“That may be true, he’s got a sentence to serve”
Turn, turn, turn again
“But ninety-nine years he just don’t deserve”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“Too late, too late, for his case it is sealed”
Turn, turn, turn again
“His sentence it is passed and cannot be repealed”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
“But he ain’t no criminal and his crime it is none”
Turn, turn, turn again
“What happened to him could happen to anyone”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
At that the judge jumped forward and his face it did freeze
Turn, turn, turn again
Saying “Could you kindly leave my office now please?”
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
His eyes looked funny and I stood up so slow
Turn, turn, turn again
With no other choice except for to go
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
I walked down the hallway and I heard his door slam
Turn, turn, turn again
I walked down the courthouse stairs and did not understand
Turn, turn, to the rain and the wind
And I played my guitar through the night to the day
Turn, turn, turn again
And the only tune my guitar could play was “The Old Cruel Rain And The Wind

-Bob Dylan

06
Feb
09

Fotheringay

Sometimes you come across something that is just too beautiful not too share.  Written by the late, great Sandy Denny, it tells the story of the last hours of Mary, Queen of Scots, and is one of Fairport Convention’s most entrancing creations.   Denny’s vocals are deeply moving, as always, but pay particular attention to the haunting background vocals as well.

-Smith

How often she has gazed from castle windows all
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall
With no one to heed her call
The evening hour is fading within the dwindling sun
And in a lonely moment, those embers will be gone
And the last of all the young birds flown
Her days of precious freedom, forfeited long before
To live such fruitless years behind a guarded door
But those days will last no more
Tomorrow, at this hour, she will be far away
Much farther than these islands, for the lonely Fotheringay

Sandy Denny

23
Jan
09

Obama’s first mistake

In a post I wrote on election night, I said that “a part of me desperately wants to believe that Obama will be [a] breath of fresh air….[but] I remain profoundly afraid that he’s just not ready for the job.”   I didn’t vote for him, but I hoped that I was wrong about him not being ready, while fearing that I was right.  Today I got my first inkling that I might have been right.

In a front page story written by Joseph Williams and Bryan Bender which appeared in today’s Boston Globe, it was reported how President Obama is apparently ready to sign an executive order suspending trials at Guantanamo Bay, including the trials of the five suspected terrorists who allegedly masterminded the 9/11 attacks, as well as closing the facility altogether in a year’s time.  This is not surprising in itself; he said he would do that when he was running for office.

But here’s the sentence that froze the blood in my veins:  “Longtime advisers on the issue said Obama would probably establish a team to conduct a case-by-case review of the evidence against all 245 detainees remaining at the prison with the aim of sending as many as possible back home” (emphasis mine).

Sending “as many as possible back home”?  As in: let them go free?  Can someone please tell me why this would be a good idea?  The people held prisoner in Gitmo aren’t there because of overdue parking tickets, right?

Look, by all means review the cases as expeditiously as possible.  One can certainly argue that this should have been done already.  If you have evidence against them, try them.  If you don’t, release them.  That’s how our system of justice is supposed to work.  And admittedly, Gitmo has not always worked very well.

But it’s the “aim of sending as many as possible back home” part that’s really scaring me here.  My immediate problem with this is that the 245 are there because they are suspected al-Qaeda, Taliban or other foreign fighters who pose a threat to the United States.  This means it’s a safe bet that they hate America.  I think it’s also a safe bet that the years spent at Gitmo haven’t done much to change that.  So what do you suppose these guys are going to do upon their release?   Well, here’s a wild guess:  they’re probably going to engage in more terrorist activities.

Now I suppose it’s possible that the Globe reporters have somehow gotten it wrong.  There is also talk of relocating these prisoners to Kansas and or Pennsylvania.   This raises another thorny issue:  if we close Gitmo, where do we put them? It seems like nobody wants these guys.

All this really amounts to is a symbolic gesture from Obama (see, world? that bad man George Bush is gone!  It’s OK to like America again!)  Unfortunately, foreign policy isn’t about being liked, it’s about being respected, even feared.  People don’t attack you if they’re afraid of you.  If you have any doubt of that, ask yourself this: when was the last time Russia or China was attacked by terrorists (or anyone else, for that matter)?

I know this all sounds rather bellicose, but that’s just how it is.  Sure, the Bush administration cut corners and was ham fisted in some of its approaches, but stop to consider the difficulty of the job they had.  It would be nice if terrorists would all go around wearing Osama bin Laden t-shirts, but unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.  The terrorist’s stock in trade is secrecy.  Piercing that veil often takes extraordinary measures.  While you might not have liked the CIA’s tactics, you can’t argue with the results: there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11.

This is usually the part where the hand wringers start whining about “torture”, which I always find ironic, given the amount of suffering the victims of the 9/11 attacks must have gone through before they died.  Come to think of it, what is the score on that account?  Let’s see, that would be: People Who Died on 9/11–2,985 vs. People Who Have Died at Gitmo: 0.

Yes, torture, in this case water boarding, isn’t very nice.  But last time I checked, neither is blowing up buildings and killing innocent people.  It amazes and disgusts me that some in this country have more sympathy for terrorists than for their victims.

In a nutshell:  if you have information about past or (more importantly) pending terrorist activities, I want our government to get that information out of you, by any means necessary.  Now since I’m basically a softie, I’m all in favor of giving you the chance to volunteer this information, well, voluntarily.  But if it turns out that the only reason you’re giving up this information is because it’s the only way you can think of to stop the pain, I’m fine with that.  Almost 3,000 people (maybe more) died on 9/11.  If subjecting you to some temporary discomfort will prevent that from happening again, then so be it.

I still have hopes that Obama will be a good president, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s off to a bad start with this one.  If he closes Guantanamo, he has made the world a more dangerous place for all of us.

-Smith

19
Jan
09

My Auntie’s Dead

Not exactly how I wanted to kick off my return to the blogosphere, but so be it….


When I was a very little boy, my Aunt Patty, my mother’s older sister, used to take me with her everywhere.   I can still remember driving with her in the front seat of her blue 1959 Chevy Impala as she would run her various errands with me as her sidekick.  These excursions inevitably wound up with a treat for me, such as a candy bar, or, if I had been particularly well behaved, an ice cream.

One of these trips wound up at a local candy store.  The woman behind the counter took a shine to me, and asked me my name.  For reasons that, to this day, are really not clear to me, I replied, “Stephen Schwartz….and this is my Aunty Patty Schwartz”.

I have no idea where, at the age of three or four, I had even heard the name Schwarz, let alone why I decided at that point to adopt it as both my and my aunt’s nom de guerre.  But this story remained my aunt’s favorite over the years.  She told it at almost every family gathering, and seemed to especially relish the retelling whenever I introduced her to a new girlfriend.

She loved telling that story, but loved even more the memories of those days before she was married, before my sisters were born, when she could just pick me up at a moment’s notice and spend the day with me.

But I will never hear her tell that story again.  She died on December 30th, at the age of 73.

My Aunt Patty was living proof that life is not fair.  Over the course of her life she endured financial hardships brought about by circumstances beyond her control.  Her lifestyle was abstemious, and yet she suffered from a variety of illnesses, including diabetes and cancer.  Although she drank alcohol only occasionally, she suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, coming literally within hours of death before a new liver could be found.  And even though she never smoked a day in her life, she suffered from a lung disease which is what eventually killed her.

If anyone had a right to be angry and bitter at the hand life had dealt her, it was my Aunt Patty, and yet this was never the case.  The truth is that I never knew a more relentlessly cheerful woman.  While she came across as mild mannered, she was in truth one of the strongest and most resilient people I have ever known.  No matter what life threw at her, she handled it with unfailing grace and courage.

I remember how once, when I was visiting her during one of her  stays in the hospital when she was being treated for lymphoma, I remarked at how she always seemed to be in a good mood in spite of all the misfortune she had to endure.  She replied, “What’s the point in getting mad?  You take what life gives you and you do the best you can.  Every day that I‘m alive is a blessing.”  And I remember how amazed I was at how calm, even serene, she was in the face of everything she was going through.

And now she is gone.  I’m still having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that I will never see her again.  While I realize that death is part of life, it is still a very hard concept for me to get my mind around, that I could be close to someone for almost fifty years, that they could be a regular part of the landscape of my life, and then, suddenly, not be there.  Not now, not ever again.  There is now one less person in the world who loves me.

And there is, of course, the guilt.  As an adult, I became so preoccupied with my own life that I did not always have enough time for the Aunt Patty’s in my life.  I often wondered if her constant retelling of this story was her way of telling me, “We were close once.  Why aren’t we still that close?”

I have no excuses.  Laziness, apathy, and a tendency to put things off till tomorrow all lead to my denying this woman who loved me as a son something that would have made her happy: some time with me.  And no matter how guilty I now feel, I can’t give her that now.  It is too late.

I now wonder how much unhappiness I caused her.  She was on the phone every day with her sisters and friends.  Perhaps it is not as bad as I imagine.  Now I will never know.  Perhaps I don’t want to know.

At the wake, I marveled at the idea that this dead body I was praying over had, only a few days previously, been a living person, with thoughts, emotions and feelings.  And I am left to ponder: what becomes of these thoughts, emotions and feelings when the body that houses them dies?  Do these things that truly make us what we are die with us?  Do they, and we along with them, truly cease to exist, as the Existentialists would have us believe?

If this is the case, then the universe is simply a bad joke.  Why, in a universe that has been around for over 14 billion years, and shows every sign of going on for another 14 billion, are we only allowed 70 or 80 years, if we’re lucky?  Furthermore, we, alone of all the creatures on earth, actually have the capacity to contemplate this fact, which only leads to further unhappiness.  So we get to spend 80 year alive, and then several billions years dead.  And we get to spend our 80 or so years thinking about it.  What’s the point?  The Existentialists would answer that there is no point, and that, to me, is dismal beyond imagining.

So is there any chance that our thoughts, feelings, and emotions live on?  Is there, as some would call it, a soul?  I believe the answer is yes.  It is, perhaps, more of a hope than a belief, but to me it is the only way that any of this makes sense.

It is not that my continued consciousness is necessary for the universe to make sense.  I realize I’m not that important.  But I do believe, or at least want to believe, that the physical universe apparent to our five rather limited senses represents only a fraction of what we call “reality”.   The world’s religions, diverse as they are, all represent man’s desire–need, really–to come to terms with this nagging idea that we live in a reality we don’t understand, that the part of it that we do see is only the tip of the iceberg.  Otherwise, our ridiculously brief time on this planet seems to count for very little in the long run.

–Smith

23
Dec
08

Merry Christmas, or whatever

Yeah, I know, I said I wouldn’t post until after the first of the year, but this is important to me, so here you go…

Recently, a woman came into my store asking for some help picking out cigars for her husband, which she informed me would be part of his Christmas present.  She was a pleasant, educated woman in her thirties, with red hair and freckles.  When it came time to pay, I noticed the name on her credit card was “O’Brien”.  Feeling that I was on safe ground here, I wished the woman “Merry Christmas” as I handed her credit card back to her.

From the look she gave me, you would have thought I’d told her to go fuck herself.

What is wrong with people nowadays?  Yes, I’m all in favor of cultural sensitivity. There is a time and a place for “Happy Holidays”.   Had this woman not been so obviously Irish, (or had not informed me that the cigars were a CHRISTMAS present) I might have retreated to the safety of that vapid phrase.

But when did “Merry Christmas” become the semantic equivalent of an insult?

Sometimes I think it’s just laziness.  By saying “Happy Holidays”, people give themselves a cheap way out.  After all, taking the time to find out which holiday the person actually celebrates, and then wishing them the appropriate compliments of the season, only takes a modicum of time and effort, and yet even this seems to much trouble in our increasingly impersonal, desensitized world.

And by the same token, what is there to get so uptight about, anyway?  If a Jew wished me “Happy Hanukkah”, I know I’m not going to get all bent out of shape over it.  I would simply take it in the friendly spirit in which it was intended and wish him “Happy Hanukkah” in return.

I do not know if the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was divine. I do not know if he performed miracles. I do not know if he was resurrected from the dead.

And I’m not sure I even care.

What I do know is that he preached a message of love, tolerance, peace, and forgiveness at a time when his people were looking for a leader who would overthrow the Romans and return Israel to its former glory. I know he was spurned by the religious establishment of his day.  And I know that he really, really, pissed off the government. Like so many who came after him, he was murdered because he would not back down from saying things he felt needed to be said, even to the point of surrendering his own life in the process.

Imagine what the world would be like if people really did live their lives the way Jesus of Nazareth extolled us to: love your neighbor, forgive your enemies, judge not lest you be judged.

If one can grasp those ideas, then one has truly grasped the very real meaning of Christmas. And so, whatever your beliefs, please allow me to wish you a very Merry Christmas.

-Stephen P. Smith

11
Dec
08

See you next year…

As many of you have no doubt noticed, there hasn’t been a whole lotta bloggin’ goin’ on in these parts.  I have noticed that some of you have been kind enough to visit and leave comments.  Yes, I have noticed.  I’m sorry I haven’t been very good about responding in kind.

The truth is, I haven’t had much time or energy for blogging these days.  I have been spending a great deal of both on my son.  I won’t go into detail here.  Suffice to say, that for many of our service men and women coming back from the hell hole known as Iraq, their toughest battles await them after they return home.  My son is such a one.  And like most parents, his problems are my problems.

In short, I only have so much time and energy to spare, and my son is more important to me than my blog.  That’s just how it is.

But all is not doom and gloom.  I am happy to say he is doing remarkably better in the past few months, which means that I am doing better.

I will be back, after the first of the year.  But to try to resume blogging during the holidays is just too unrealistic, and I really don’t want another false start here.

So many thanks to those of you who have hung in there with me, and I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday.

-Smith

19
Nov
08

Life is short…..screw everyone!

integrity1

If there was any doubt in my mind that our society is in a state of steep moral decline, those doubts were erased when I found out about this odious little company.

Now look, I’m not a Pollyanna.  People have been cheating on their spouses since the days of Neanderthal man.  What bothers me here is that now, in the 21st century, the very term “immoral behavior” has become quaint and irrelevant.  Now, it’s Big Business.  Now, it’s all good.  Forget about this little thing called morality, forget about your wedding vows, forget about your spouse’s or your children’s feelings.  There is no more shame in our society, no real notion of right and wrong.  If it feels good to me, then it must be okay.

The very idea that sometimes you just have to say “no” to yourself because what you’re about to do is wrong seems to have become as outdated the top hat and corset.

Once you buy into the mentality espoused by these people, then really, anything is possible.  Life is short, right?  So, for example:

Life is short…..embezzle from your employer!
Life is short…..plagiarize!
Life is short…..steal from your kids’ college fund!
Life is short…..steal gas from your neighbors’ cars!
Life is short…..cheat on your math test!
Life is short……tell her you love her if it gets you laid!
Life is short…..lie through your teeth if it gets you what you want!
Life is short…..desert the military!
Life is short…..stiff the waitress!
Life is short…..lie on that job application!
Life is short…..don’t pay that child support!
Life is short…..use your child support to buy cocaine!
Life is short…..don’t waste time spending it with your children
Life is short…..well, I think you’re getting the idea.

Life is short.  That is the justification for doing whatever the hell you want, to whomever you want.  Nothing else matters, nothing else is important or even relevant except your own personal gratification.

I seem to remember when I was a child I was taught something known as The Ten Commandments.  “Oh, there you go, Smith, bringing religion into it again!” I hear you say.  No, not really.  Allowing for the religious bent of the Bible that obviously colors the first four, aren’t the other six really just a social compact?  Let’s see, what do they really say?

Respect your parents.
Don’t kill people.
Don’t cheat on your spouse.
Don’t take things that don’t belong to you.
Don’t accuse anyone of something they didn’t do.
Don’t covet someone else’s spouse or property.

Gee, I dunno.  These kinda work for me.  It seems to me that they’re pretty hard to argue with, irrespective of your religious beliefs or lack thereof.  You don’t need to believe in God to accept the fact that some actions are just plain wrong and immoral.

I once had a boss who told me he valued integrity even more than honesty.  A callow youth in those days, I asked him what the difference was.  He said to me, “Integrity means doing the right thing when no one is watching you.”  And yet we live in a society in which concepts like respect and honor are seemingly less and less relevant.

To what extent does our society still value things like honesty and integrity?  I’m really starting to wonder.

-Smith

13
Nov
08

Get healthy, or else!

cheese-puffs

I read this rather disturbing article in the Associated Press today, in which it is reported that “Manchester is hoping to fight fat with a reward system that works like a retail loyalty card. But instead of earning credit for opening their wallets, residents will be rewarded for keeping their feet on the treadmill and their fridge stocked with healthy food.”

Now, on the surface, this might seem like a good idea. Heck, I could stand to lose a few myself, and who wouldn’t want to be rewarded simply for doing the right thing? But if you look a little under the surface, this becomes troubling.

First and foremost, I have a problem with the government sticking their nose into my personal life, no matter how benevolent the motive may seem. It’s a short but steep slope from “We’ll reward you for being healthy” to “Get healthy, or else!” Right now, they’re offering the carrot, but who’s to say that once we accept this latest incarnation of Nanny government that the carrot won’t be replaced with a big and expensive stick. For example, what’s to stop the government from offering two tax tables, one for people who meet its definition of “healthy”, and those who don’t. As an overweight man who loves to smoke, I know which table I’d be paying under.

“Ah Ha!”, you say. “Smith, you big fat smoker you, you’re a drain on the health care system! Look at me: I’m a non-smoking vegetarian who runs five miles a day! You and those like you should be like me!”

To which I say: that’s the price you pay to live in a FREE COUNTRY. (Remember that phrase?) You have to put up with my bad habits and I have to put up with yours. Chances are, you are not entirely vice free yourself. And even if you are, I have news for you: unless you get hit by a bus, you too will grow old and become a drain on the health care system. It happens to almost all of us.  Your wonderful “healthy lifestyle” won’t save you in the end.

Those who believe in the Nanny government and who wish to control us realize that they cannot do so without uniting people against a common enemy. For Hitler, it was the Jews. For McCarthy it was the Communists. For Nanny government advocates, it is: Bad Health. These people feel they can enact all manner of government intrusion into people’s lives, as long as it is being done in the name of Good Health.  Good Health has become our new Golden Idol.

And for some of you who were nonplussed at my recent post about the 2008 election, know this: this is exactly why I have never voted Democrat. It is why I remain profoundly concerned about the Obama presidency. This sort of thing is far, far more likely to occur in the United States under a Democratic government.

Says Timothy Armstrong, coordinator of the World Health Organization’s global strategy on diet, and quoted in the same article, “I haven’t seen any evidence that it works, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it…as public health officials we really don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what works and what doesn’t. We really do know that, in terms of curbing the obesity epidemic, all of society needs to play a role”.

It takes a village, right Timothy? And naturally, this is being funded by (who else?) the taxpayers.

Just so no one gets the wrong idea here, let me state flat out that I realize that this program is benign and well meant. And yes, I realize it’s happening in England, but our two countries are so closely linked culturally that it’s no stretch to imagine it happening here. Just look at what the Boston Public Health Commission is trying to get away with. People are getting fatter (probably because they’ve stopped smoking). But I become deeply troubled when the government starts using its leverage to try to force me to live a certain way, because I realize how quickly and easily the can change from benevolent cajoling to a direct order.  I believe that, deep down, the Nancy Pelosi’s of the world don’t really want to be agreed with, they want to be obeyed.  Once people allow themselves to buy into the idea that Nanny government is taking care of them, anything is possible. “Get healthy, or else!”.

Now where did I put those Cheesey Puffs?

-Smith

07
Nov
08

In case you were wondering…..

The picture below pretty much sums up my feelings about the soon to be Obama presidency……

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924771537

05
Nov
08

Thanks a lot, George!

american-flag

I saw this coming two years ago. Don’t believe me? Then read this post I wrote almost exactly two years ago.

At the time, I honestly believed the Republicans would answer the wake up call. That they would learn a bitter lesson from the pasting they suffered in 2006. Obviously, I was wrong.

The farcical administration of George W. Bush has given the Democrats their most resounding victory in decades. In what can only be seen as an excoriating indictment not only of the Bush administration, but of the Republican party in general, America has elected an ultra-liberal Democrat with less than four years experience at the federal level. The Democrats have also achieved a stranglehold on both houses of Congress.

In the meantime, Sarah Palin can go back to honing her foreign policy skills by looking across the Bering Strait.

Republicans had their chance and blew it, big time. From January of 2001 until November of 2006, they controlled both houses, while also enjoying the luxury of a Republican president. They had the perfect opportunity to show the Democrats and Liberals alike how it was done. Instead, the Bush years will be remembered as a colossal failure, the arrogance of this administration exceeded only by its incompetence.

The Republican party is supposed to be the party of small(er) government, low taxes, and a thriving economy. The idea was that if you gave corporate America free rein, it would result in prosperity and a robust economy, which in turn would result in a better life for the Americans who worked for these companies. This is an idea I have supported since I’ve been old enough to vote. I believe in the capitalist ideal.

But what we got instead was corporate CEO’s earning 7 and 8 figure salaries while simultaneously cutting employee benefits or eliminating their jobs altogether. Under eight years of George W. Bush, corporate America was given free rein, but it seems as though the only ones who benefited were the CEO’s and the stockholders. And now, even the stockholders are sucking wind.

We got two wars which will not end any time soon, due in part to this administration’s insistence on waging them on the cheap. Now we have an economy in shambles. All George Bush’s fault? Of course not. But these things happened under his watch, and the American people have laid the blame at his doorstep, while showing the Republicans the door.

Americans finally had enough, and gave corporate America and its Republican enablers a collective “Up Yours!”.

While I honestly don’t think we will become a Socialist state, as many alarmists have already predicted, we are no doubt entering an era in which the government, at the explicit request of the American people, will now play a greater role in our lives, for better or for worse. Big Brother Obama wants to “spread the wealth”, which is a nice way of saying he’s going to stick his hand deeper into our pockets. Under an Obama administration, I can certainly see us moving more toward the European model of quasi-socialism, with higher taxes and (perhaps) greater social services. National health insurance may not be that far off. Whether or not that can be accomplished without further decimating the economy remains to be seen. I’m not necessarily saying I welcome this development, but it’s coming just the same. And Republicans have no one to blame but themselves.

But in any event, at least I can say I was a witness to history. And it must be noted that Obama was not only elected by black America, but by white America. Surely that, at least, is something that might give one hope for the future. And I remain ever grateful that I live in a country where, when the election is over, the two candidates practically fall all over themselves trying to say nice things about each other, and the two parties at least try to work together. In many countries, the losers get taken out behind a wall and shot. Most importantly, I am grateful that I live in a country where the will of the people–even when I don’t agree with it–really does count for something.

America needs a breath of fresh air. Now that his election is a fait accompli, a part of me desperately wants to believe that Obama will be that breath of fresh air. I didn’t vote for him, but I do want him to succeed. We simply can’t afford four more years of Presidential failure. But as I watched him deliver his acceptance speech, I was struck, as I have always been, by his youth, and I remain profoundly afraid that he’s just not ready for the job.

I hope I’m wrong. I say: God bless Barak Obama. He’s going to need all the help he can get.

-Smith

30
Oct
08

The Ghost at my Side, a poem

Just a little something for Halloween.  Yes, I know it’s a retread, but I’ve simply been too busy to do much writing.  For those  who haven’t seen this before, I hope you enjoy it. –Smith

In morning hours dark and fleeting,
I hear the sound of two hearts beating.
As I lie beneath the covers
A strange visage above me hovers.
And if a mirror I chance to pass
I see two faces in the glass.
I cannot flee–though oft I’ve tried–
The ghost that hovers at my side.
.
Ever stalking, ever reaching
Towards me, mutely beseeching.
The two of us each draw a breath,
One in life and one in death.
As moonlight casts a baleful pall
Two shadows glide across the wall
In alleys dim. Vaguely descried,
The ghost that hovers at my side.
.
I know not why she follows near
Or what she wishes me to hear.
Or why she haunts my every hour
With spectral face so pale and dour.
When I sleep, her whispered screams
Into nightmares turn my dreams.
Rest eternal her denied,
The ghost that hovers at my side

–Stephen P. Smith

21
Oct
08

always free cheddar in a mousetrap….

Just a little something I found amusing……..

I’d sell your heart to the junkman baby
For a buck, for a buck
If you’re looking for someone
To pull you out of that ditch
You’re out of luck, you’re out of luck

The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
The ship is sinking
There’s leak, there’s leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers

God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business. Business.

Digging up the dead with
A shovel and a pick
It’s a job, it’s a job
Bloody moon rising with
A plague and a flood
Join the mob, join the mob
It’s all over, it’s all over, it’s all over
There’s a leak, there’s a leak,
In the boiler room
The poor, the lame, the blind
Who are the ones that we kept in charge?
Killers, thieves, and lawyers
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away,
On Business. Business.

[Instrumental Break]

Goddamn there’s always such
A big temptation
To be good, To be good
There’s always free cheddar in
A mousetrap, baby
It’s a deal, it’s a deal
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
God’s away, God’s away, God’s away
On Business. Business.
I narrow my eyes like a coin slot baby,
Let her ring, let her ring
God’s away, God’s away,
God’s away on Business.
Business…

–Tom Waits
from the album “Blood Money” (2002)

28
Sep
08

Taking a break

I’m taking a vacation, both in the literal sense and in the blogging sense.  I need to recharge my batteries on both accounts.  I don’t expect to be away long.

-Smith

23
Sep
08

Is this how it really happened?

Nothing terribly profound here. I just thought this was quite funny. Enjoy

-Smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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