What A Piece Of Work Is Man (Or Humans If You Wish)

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Imagine a movie without music. Think of a church service without musicians and choirs. Think of a bride walking down the aisle in total silence. There is something in our natures that is drawn to harmonious sounds. We have created instruments and songs from the beginnings of human history. Music is the sound of angels soothing our hearts. 

My father used to take me with him on Saturdays to one of the local record stores. Back then vinyl renderings of music were on small discs that ran at 45 revolutions per minute. The shops that sold them often allowed customers to preview them before purchase and so I would sit next to my dad wearing headphones and listening along with him to the classical music that he so loved. Daddy filled the house with the sounds of Beethoven and Grieg, Au Clair de la Lune and the 1812 Overture. Each evening when he came home from work he would place a disc on the turntable of the Victrola and listen while reading the newspaper or his latest book. It is how I remember him. It was a major part of who he was.

I suppose that my own love of music began way back then but I eventually developed a far more eclectic taste than my father ever did. It would be difficult for me to name the type of music that I most love. I enjoy jazz and big bands like my Uncle Paul did. He was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller. and so am I. I sometimes imagine myself listening to the radio back in the days before I was even born. I enjoy the pure sounds of recordings before synthesizers and computers began to enhance human sounds. 

As a teenager in the sixties I went crazy over the music of that era. I listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys for hours on end, sometimes playing a particular song over and over again. Rock music was in its heyday and I devoured the many choices with delight. This was a time when rock and roll matured into an art form and the genius of some groups was equal to that of the old masters whom my father so enjoyed. 

I have a thing for soundtracks and most of the music from the eighties as well. When the two were combined as with Saturday Night Fever they became iconic. Music somehow demonstrates the ultimate in human creativity and at the same time it provides a kind of escape from the trials of everyday living. Music soothes the soul.

If I had to choose the one album that is my favorite I suppose it would be Abbey Road by the Beatles. It was one of the first times that each of the songs on the LP blended so seamlessly into one another. It is a modern day symphony. Every note comes together in a way that sets it above all of its competitors. With the union of exceptional lyrics, wonderful melodies and fabulous instrumentation it is one of the greatest works of all time. It also serves as a kind of review of musical history playing homage to raw jazz, vaudevillian ditties, soothing melodies and brand new techniques. The work as a whole piece builds to an emotional crescendo that ends with one of my favorite lines of all time, “and in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Abbey Road is a kind of sociological/philosophical commentary on the world.

During the pandemic I’ve been tied to home more than ever in my life. I make the best of the situation and keep myself busy but sometimes it begins to get old. Music becomes my saving grace. I listen to one of the many albums or composers that I most enjoy and I am transported to a different plane. My mind is no longer locked inside the confines of my home. My imagination soars and I am free. Sometimes I dance to the sounds; other times I am compelled to write. I might even undertake chores with music, making my tasks appear to be more fun than they really are. No pill would have the power to make me feel better than listening to my music. 

After my father died my mother often used his records to entertain us. We acted out silent plays along with the music or engaged in creative movements while we dusted furniture and picked up the clothes and toys we had left on the floor. I can still see us riding horses to the William Tell Overture or moving our fingers in a pretense of playing a piano concerto. Mundane tasks became grand adventures with that music playing in the background. Eventually as our own tastes expanded Mama would play Donna Summer while we all danced with her grandchildren. I never ceased to be amazed at what an incredible dancer my mother was. She floated across the living room like a delicate feather. I still smile at the memory of those times.

I hear people saying that musicians are not essential workers and I have to disagree. Frankly without music our world would be such a dreary place and I’m not sure that I would have kept my sanity during the pandemic. As always I remain in awe of the creative genius of those who make the music that so enhances each day of our lives and brings out the sun even when times are gray. “What a piece of work is man!”  

The Sandwich

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It is often said that John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, invented the sandwich when he ordered his staff to bring him some roast placed between two pieces of bread so that he might continue playing at his gaming table while eating his meal. Since Earl Montagu was a world traveler it is likely that he picked up the idea from cultures that regularly wrap meat and vegetables in various forms of bread and then convey them to the mouth with the hands. In other words the general idea of a sandwich has been around for a very long time but John Montagu gets the credit for its discovery. 

I have to admit that while I like the concept of eating on the run that sandwiches provide I have never in my life been a fan of them. I’ve never understood the proliferation of sandwich shops and the enjoyment that people seem to find in them. Perhaps my dislike of sandwiches goes back to my school girl days when I carried lunches from home in a tin box that insufficiently kept the contents fresh. The sandwiches on white bread filled the hunger in my belly but nothing about them was particularly appealing. Nonetheless, day after day for twelve years I was grateful for the bounty inside that box or a brown paper bag even as grew weary of the dull sameness of those slabs of white bread with some form of protein smashed between them. To this very day I would rather eat anything thing else than a sandwich. 

I want my chicken in recognizable pieces of legs and wings and thighs, not pressed together under a bun with a pickle on top. I’d rather enjoy tuna in a bowl or on a leaf of lettuce than between two slabs of bread. Even when sandwiches are fresh and the ingredients have not yet warmed to room temperature I dislike the way things fall out of the sides and get all over my fingers. I suppose it is finicky of me but the whole concept just does not work with only a few exceptions. 

I enjoy a really good hamburger, but not one loaded with sauces and ketchup and I especially abhor the idea of mayonnaise on my bun. Give me a good old number one mustard burger at Whataburger and I am in heaven. Leave the square patties for someone else and please do not even get me started on a certain brand from California that is so inferior to the ones I find in Texas. 

I can also handle a nice freshly made sandwich from a really good delicatessen but I tend to prefer mostly corned beef on dark rye with nothing more than spicy mustard. I’ll eat tomatoes and lettuce on the side like a salad but I don’t want those things moistening the bread and making it doughy. Damp bread falling apart while I attempt to contain the contents in between gives me flashbacks to those school day sandwiches that became warm clumps of damp bread clinging to oily sandwich meat and limp tomatoes. 

I suppose that I sound like a petulant child when I complain about sandwiches instead of appreciating that I have food of any sort to stave off hunger. Don’t get me wrong I will quietly make do with a sandwich when I am with other people. My mother taught me to have good manners so I never make ugly comments about any kind offerings. It’s just that if I have my druthers, sandwiches would be very low on my listing of things that I like to eat. 

There is one distinct exception to my general dislike of sandwiches that drives my husband insane. I absolutely adore grilled cheese sandwiches. I would be willing to live off of them on a daily basis. They are my go to comfort food but of course they have to be hot with the cheese all soft and melted. I’d rather order a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch or dinner than almost anything else. So when I go with my husband to a place that offers a vast array of possibilities and choose the homely grilled cheese sandwich it drives him insane. His thinking is that it takes no talent to make such a sandwich so I might just as well have stayed home. My idea is that I like the utter simplicity of it and I can be reasonably sure that nothing about it will be off putting. Of course it’s not the kind of thing that can be wrapped in waxed paper or placed in a baggie and transported for later consumption. Therein lies it’s only flaw as far as I am concerned.

There is one more kind of sandwich that I treasure and reserve for Christmas Eve. Years ago my brother began hosting that annual night of family revelry. He decided to serve Reuben sandwiches which combine pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and dark rye bread that is toasted much like grilled cheese. He combines the ingredients perfectly and I look forward to the special treat all the year long. Christmas of 2020 kept our family from congregating as in the past due to the pandemic so I had to learn how to make the yummy concoction myself. While I did a reasonable job it was not quite the same as when I am with all of the people I love. 

I suppose that in the end that is what food is all about. We certainly eat to stay alive but the real joy comes from sharing whatever with have with other people. Since so many that I know actually enjoy a meal comprised of two slices of bread holding all sorts of vegetables, meats and cheeses I suppose that I will continue to go along and find something on the menu when I get those invitations to go grab a sandwich. I’m willing to fake it for the joy of being in the company of friends and family. Maybe that was the idea the the fourth Earl of Sandwich had. He found a way to satisfy his hunger without having to leave his friends. I suppose it was indeed a great idea. 

Whose Child Am I?

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I was about six years old when I traveled to Arkansas with my family to see my father’s parents. During that visit my grandmother took us on daily visits to meet all of her favorite neighbors and then one day announced that we were going to take a little day trip to see her sister Kate. While my mother’s family was filled with aunts and uncles and cousins I had not met many people from my father’s relations so it was exciting to learn that he had an aunt of whom he was apparently quite fond. I would eventually discover that my father’s extended family was large and complex and filled with wonderful stories and histories. On that day it was just exciting to know that there was more to his background than only his parents and two sisters. 

Aunt Katie was a beautiful lady whose hair had turned a lovely snowy white. She had a sweet and sincere smile and her hugs were warm and snuggly. She and my grandmother and mother and father talked with great joy as though they had a great deal of catching up to do. I was amazed that they all seemed to know each other so well since I had never before even heard of this sweet great aunt of mine. I sat in awe of their conversation and realized there was more to who I was than I really knew. 

As the day grew shorter my grandfather announced that we needed to end our revelry if we were to get back to his house before sundown. We hurriedly took pictures of our gathering, shared more hugs and kisses and made promises to return sooner rather than later. At that moment Aunt Katie took my face in her hands and announced with a kind of pride that I definitely looked just like my grandmother when she was just a girl. My mother bristled a bit protesting that everyone agreed that I looked most like her family. Aunt Katie and my grandmother laughed without disrespect and insisted that I was definitely my father’s child. “I’ve seen those features before,” Aunt Katie declared. 

I remember feeling confused because I was a child and in my mind I only looked like myself, not some adult, especially one who was my grandmother. She was in her late seventies and bore a face filled with wrinkles. How could I possibly look like her? My father was a man with a hairline that had already begun to recede even though he was barely in his thirties. As for my mother, she had jet black hair and was incredibly beautiful in an exotic kind of way. I was just a child who did not seem like anyone but myself. At least that is how I saw it.

The feud regarding which parent I was most like continues to this day. While I am indeed unique I see more snatches of my grandmother and my father in my countenance than my mother. One of my brothers is the very image of my dad and over the years complete strangers have noticed how much the two of us resemble one another. His son and my eldest grandson could be brothers. There is more than a passing similarity between us that we share with our father which makes me think that Aunt Katie may have seen something in me that was quite real.

As I grow older I see flashes of my grandmother when I gaze into the mirror. My eyes are like hers and so are the contours of my face. My grandfather often remarked that I reminded him of his beloved wife. I sometimes think that our similarities go even deeper than the physical. I have always felt a spiritual kinship with my grandmother. I seem to remember so many lessons that I learned from her. I feel her presence deep down in my soul. 

My mother’s family still sees much of her in me and I suppose that I picked up mannerisms and expressions from her over time but she was very different. While I am generally quiet and plain she was the kind of woman who lit up a room whenever she entered. She had a charisma that made her unforgettable. Her smile bedazzled and her eyes twinkled. She was daring where I was reticent. My brown hair was mousy next to her shiny black locks. My features were less striking. I adored her and her beauty and knew that mine was different in spite of her protests that I looked more like her family than my father’s kin. In photographs of her clan at reunions I appear out of place next to my dozens of cousins. It is as though I was the adopted child from another genetic line entirely.

I am indeed my father’s child. I sport his seriousness on my face and in my demeanor. I prefer sitting at the edges of a crowd. I enjoy just being a spectator. I like the anonymity of my features and my personality. I am pretty in an unassuming way. I’m not the woman who would be chosen out of a crowd like my mother might have been but that is actually a benefit to me. I have never liked having a spotlight shone on me. I’m most comfortable when I am able to fade into the scene. 

I suppose that if truth were to be told each of us is unique but still bearing a host of genetic factors that color our eyes and determine the nuances of our appearance and even our health. I am indeed an amalgam of both my mother and father but somehow his DNA seems to be the more dominant of the two. As for who I am as a person I give full credit to my mother who raised me after my father died so early in my life. She allowed and encouraged me to follow my own star and that is who I really am. She gave me the wonderful gift of liking myself just as I am and now again I see her in every inch of me, winking and smiling like the delightful sprite that she was. 

Dream On

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I have dreamed a great deal in the past year. My mind has somehow recorded my 2020 concerns in short confusing vignettes which leave me wondering about the meanings of all that has befallen humankind. My mother and my mother-in-law are frequent visitors to my nocturnal travels. I suppose that they represent my longing for the wisdom and comfort that they always brought to me when they were still alive. I tend toward impatience and overanxious determination to take charge of uncomfortable situations and they always understood how to calm me and show me how and when it was best to simply wait. 

I’ve been frantically searching for a place where my husband Mike and I might get the vaccination for Covid-19. I have grown weary of my isolation from the rest of the world and long to feel freer to congregate with my fellow humans. I suppose that is why my mind takes me to see the two women who so often guided me in days past. My dreams of them are cautioning me to stay the course just a bit longer. 

I keep dreaming of a house that my mother-in-law never had but it feels like a warm memory of a real time. It is a lovely place reminiscent of an old English manor home with a curved driveway that takes us directly to the front door where she is waiting for us with a big smile. If is a far bigger and more ornate place than she ever actually owned. A glass wall at the back of the house reveals a sweeping meticulously landscaped lawn with lovely trees and a riot of colorful flowers. In my dream I sit at a table with my sweet mother-in-law sipping on tea and enjoying the view while she soothes the worries of my heart. 

I hear laughter upstairs and find my two daughters as they were when they were still children. They are with my dear friends Egon and Marita telling stories and jokes. The group smiles when they see me and I feel so warm and welcomed. Somehow though even in my sleep I feel as though something is wrong with this lovely picture because I know that my daughters are grown women with lives and children of their own. Egon and Marita have been dead for many years. Am I just longing for a time that I never imagined would end or is the suffering created by the pandemic simply reminding me to never forget that people are always and forever the most important parts of our lives? 

I am very much my grandmother’s border collie, Lady, in personality. She seemed to be always alert and concerned about the people that she loved. She stuck like glue to Grandma’s side and when we were present she watched over us as though we were part of her flock. She even corralled the chickens and kept danger away from the cow. Once she even jumped in from of my grandmother to save her from the bite of a poisonous. She almost died in the line of duty. Sometimes like her I take on the worries of the world.

I suppose that most of my anxieties center on other people. I am sometimes beyond empathetic to an extreme. I notice the slightest nuances in voices or countenances that indicate a problem. I fret over anyone that I suspect to be in trouble. That’s when the dreams come and the two women who most influenced me arrive to help me regain my balance. 

There is so much unknown to each of us and to all of humankind but slowly we are learning more and more. A hundred years ago doctors and scientists did not even know about viruses or how to treat them. In under a century they had broken the code to understanding and begun to develop viable treatments for them. Today we continue to be challenged by microbes that are not even visible to the eye but our ability to understand them progresses ever more rapidly. I like to think that we making similar strides with the human mind. 

I have dreams while I am wide awake as well. I think of finding ways to overcome learning difficulties and unlocking the mysteries of mental illnesses. I long for a time when ridding the world of bipolar disorder will be only a matter of a medical procedure. I smile at the idea of treating depression as easily as mending a heart. I truly believe that one day we will achieve marvels that will change the lives of those who suffer from addictions and behavioral difficulties. 

Dreams are keys to our deepest thoughts. If we pay attention to them we may discover important information about ourselves or even realize that someone that we love is in need of our help. Our dreams should not frighten us even when they reveal truths that we have been attempting to avoid. 

I like remembering my mother and my mother-in-law. In my dreams they become so real again. I feel as though they are still present in my life. I suppose that in some ways they are. Their influence on me is so strong that they have never really been gone. They live on in my heart and visit me when I sleep. I hope that never ends. 

No Accounting For Fate

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…here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. — President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021

No truer words were ever spoken and President Biden ought to know. Just when he thought his world was a beautiful dream it turned into a nightmare when his wife and a daughter were killed in a car wreck on a trip to purchase a Christmas tree. If ever there is someone who can identify with what happened to him it would be me. I understand why he has never really gotten over that tragedy because even sixty four years later I still have vivid memories of the Memorial Day morning when I awoke to find that my father had died in a car accident the night before. 

These kind of horrors plague us all and when they happen we really do depend on the kindness of others to see us through. In my own case there was a community of relatives and friends and neighbors and a young Catholic priest who came to the rescue of me and my family. I don’t see how we would have made it without them and it is the reason why such relationships have always been of utmost importance to me. 

My Aunt Valeria was there from the first moment that my mother called her hysterically in the middle of the night. My Uncle William demonstrated a simple kindness that I have attempted to emulate for all of my life. My Uncle Jack helped us to find a home and a car to provide us with the security that we feared we would never again feel. That young priest comforted my mother over when her mental state was crashing. People brought us food and walked with us until we once more found our footing.  

Later I would observe my mother sitting with a neighbor whose life was falling apart. I saw her reaching out to the sick, taking food to those in need. She was one of those people who understood the need to reciprocate for all of the goodness that had been bestowed upon her. Her generosity was legendary and when she died my brothers and I learned that she was even more giving than we had realized. 

We are at a crossroads in our country. We will either defeat the pandemic together or suffer the consequences of refusing to sacrifice for the common good. Unless we are willing to give a little of our freedom by wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated there is no telling how long we will suffer from this virus that has no respect for us. It’s well past time for each of us the play a part, to lend a hand in the battle to control this illness. 

We want to be viewed as the greatest country on earth and we have a good argument for earning that title but we also must be willing to admit that being the best does not mean that we are perfect. There is definitely much work to be done. We might begin by having a willingness to learn about those who are different from ourselves. Listening is a wonderful way of beginning a process of repairing the difficulties that we have historically ignored. We need to really hear the voices of those who still face inequities that we have never endured. 

There are ways that each and every one of us can make a difference with our environment. We have so many wasteful activities. If we simply thought about our actions with a mind toward eliminating or even just reducing the damage that we do to our earth I suspect that we would soon notice the kind of healing that we need. I know that in my neck of the woods hurricanes are a constant threat. When one hits our area the damage is epic. We not only need but greatly appreciate the help that we receive but we rarely change our ways once we have returned to normal. We build more neighborhoods on land that flooded even when it was originally an open field that help water that might have gone inside someone’s home. We eschew attempts to create mass transit systems to get all of the cars off of our roads. When we should reciprocate with better behavior we just carry on as usual disregarding our own parts in the dangers of future weather events.

We often want help from our country but then do not want to assist in the efforts to keep our nation safe and equitable. We want to get but not to give. It’s time we accepted the one truth of living and that is that fate will deal us some horrific surprises and when it does we all hope that someone will give us the helping hand we need. When times are good we should all be looking for the places where others need our hands to survive. It’s how community is supposed to work and that is a challenge that we would do well to accept.