Category Archives: L: Misc Stuff

A Thought for the Times

I have said it often enough, that when I was young I was a poor student. Somewhat closer to the actual truth is that I was poor at being a student, which in the 1950s and 60s academic environment in which I existed amounted to the same thing. I didn’t like school much, and so I didn’t try hard. This led to the inevitable consequences.

Being a time when gold stars and trophies were not awarded for doing nothing, and feelings were not spared, I was subjected to ridicule by teachers (in the guise of motivation) and no small amount of teasing from my peers. But I managed to get through it all, to some degree, with psyche and self-esteem intact.

And I did manage to learn a few things along the way. Among the things I learned, a few have stayed with me. Before the days of televised football Sunday afternoon was TV’s intellectual hour, and there was a program in the 1950s which started each show with the statement “I disagree with what you are saying, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, and then go on to some political jibberjabber. But I remembered the opening and learned it to be one of the founding principles of the country.

Another recollection, oddly enough, is that I heard or was told that on Sunday afternoon anyone, literally anyone, could stand on a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner and say whatever they pleased about the Queen. Passersby could stop, listen, and nod in agreement, or jeer. Or they could continue on, shaking their head in displeasure, or amusement. Or they could simply go on their way, and ignore the spectacle altogether.

Some of the things that were, and occasionally are, said about the Queen displease me. Of the world’s great personages, I count Elizabeth II as one of my favorites. But it doesn’t bother me that much, and I’m sure HRH, if she pays attention at all, just takes it in stride.

For one of the other things I learned when I was young is the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”.

Something today’s young people, and a surprising number of adults as well, should bear in mind.

‘Angel On My Shoulder’

We all have that little music player in our head. Of course we do, it’s often how we entertain ourselves when we’re not on Facebook or watching Game of Thrones. It’s mostly a benefit. But it can occasionally be a negative, as well. That is, when it won’t turn off when you want it to. Everyone I know, and thus I’ll extrapolate to everyone, complains now and then of “having that song stuck in my head”.

Some personal examples. In 1979 when I was traveling from Milwaukee to Eastern Pennsylvania on a weekly basis, the two hour flight from Philadelphia, or from Allentown — through DC — on Friday evenings were occasionally filled with what was considered that year by the “experts” to be song of the year. “My Sharona”, a song which I loathed, then and still. Similarly, as the calendar turned to 1980 I was occasionally burdened by endless personal repetitions of Donna Summer singing “On the Radio”.

In more recent times, while I love Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, I like hearing it not so much over and over in my head, or every time I wake up in the middle of the night, as age and nature insist that I do with increasing frequency.

But a while ago, I found a remedy. If I consciously play, in my head, a song from 1961, “Angel On My Shoulder”, sung by Shelby Flint — a big favorite of mine, then and still — it seems to never stick in my head, but instead serves as a sort of eraser, turning off the music player until my mind is otherwise occupied. I don’t know why this is, but I am grateful, and as I employed it again last night to turn off Paul Simon, yet again, it occurred to me to share it.

It was fairly obscure even in 1961, and never rose high on the charts, but it has stayed with me all of these years. So here it is.

Albatross (Two)

The more I read the lines of the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, the more obvious the meeting seems to be. To me. Some may read this explanation and say, “well duh, of course that’s what it means”. Some may find something altogether different. What follows is what I, myself, believe to be the meaning of what I have called one of the saddest songs ever written.

In its opening lines, the song sets the stage for what seems to be a wedding. The guests, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils. But within, I sense a somber note. Reading (or hearing) these lines one could just as easily envision of a funeral. The mourners, the steeple bells, the flowers, the veils.

After some consideration, I believe the author — Judy Blue Eyes herself — is equating death with that saddest of wedding circumstances, the common tragedy of hopefully past centuries — that of a young woman with dreams of her own, and hope for a bright and shining life, condemned to a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy older man, who offers to his prize little more than survival.

Her own insignificance in all of this is demonstrated as those attending the event impute their own beliefs on who she is, or was. Young men ask and answer their own questions, her own feelings are not considered, whether because they lack importance, or because death has rendered her mute.

But back to the wedding. The routine of her existence provides her a place to be, but also separates her from the broader society. She holds herself captive behind an almost opaque barrier. The colors of the day is an archaic reference to the wedding bouquet, and as the crowd gathers she tosses the bouquet, and in doing so casts away her former life, and with it her hopes and dreams.

The next verse defines the dream. The Prince who rides to save her, to shatter the barrier, and deliver her and bring her the life for which she has so longed.

Guests come for a couple of days and go away, not to be seen again. Her view of the world at large is increasingly oblique. What hope she retains fades as the tragedy of her existence becomes who, and all, that she is.

The iron wheels of course could be either a wedding carriage, or a funeral cortege. But the iron bells seem not to be wedding bells at all, but are instead calling her away, alone in death. The final lines repeat, and reinforce the chorus. But now we hear — so I believe — the voice of the husband, calling her away to the living death of her new life. “Come away, alone. With me”.


For many years I have been fascinated by the Judy Collins song “Albatross”, which I have come to believe is one of the saddest songs ever written. The song appeared on Collins’ 1967 album “Wildflowers” and is one of the first which she herself wrote.

I have at various times prowled the internet to learn the meaning of the song lyrics, perhaps an explanation by Collins herself. But all I have discovered are a few on what are mostly obscure poetry blogs, or the ramblings of (ex?) hippies.

These comments are universally shallow, totally inane, and wrong. So, after thinking I should do so for some time, I am concocting my own inane comments which I will offer here shortly. (It’s great to be retired) The lyrics themselves follow:

Albatross by Judy Collins

The lady comes to the gate, dressed in lavender and leather
Looking North to the sea she finds the weather fine
She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard
All the way from town
She watches seagulls fly
Silver on the ocean stitching through the waves
The edges of the sky

Many people wander up the hills
From all around you
Making up your memories and thinking they have found you
They cover you with veils of wonder as if you were a bride
Young men holding violets are curious to know if you have cried
And tell you why
And ask you why
Any way you answer

Lace around the collars of the blouses of the ladies
Flowers from a Spanish friend of the family
The embroid’ry of your life holds you in
And keeps you out but you survive
Imprisoned in your bones
Behind the isinglass windows of your eyes

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone

Even now by the gate, with your long hair blowing
And the colors of the day that lie along your arms
You must barter your life to make sure you are living
And the crowd that has come
You give them the colors
And the bells, and wind, and the dream

Will there never be a prince who rides along the sea and the mountains
Scattering the sand and foam into amethyst fountains
Riding up the hills from the beach in the long summer grass
Holding the sun in his hands and shattering the isinglass?

Day and night and day again and people come and go away forever
While the shining summer sea dances in the glass of your mirror
While you search the waves for love and your visions for a sign
The knot of tears around your throat is crystallizing into your design

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone
Come away alone
With me.

The First of August

August begins and with it I get a sense that autumn is near. Stephen King once suggested that some time after the mid-point of September, fall arrives. Geography notwithstanding, this is more or less true. However, I will suggest that there is also – not so much a mid-point but – a high point of summer; a seamless, virtually unnoticed moment when summer begins its downhill journey and the preliminary to autumn is upon us. And so begins, for me at least, the best time of the year. From this high point of summer, to autumn’s close on Thanksgiving Day.

Oh, I know, some argue that spring is the best time, and it is hard to disagree. There are warmer days at last, newly green lawns, and a fringe of green on the bushes, soon to be followed by the trees as well, as winter is finally over.

The springtime changes weekly. At first, a few brave flowers – crocuses and the like – poke their heads up, sometimes through a late-season snow. Then a few daffodils, and then suddenly many, many daffodils, and glorious spring is upon us. Then, just as they begin to fade, the daffodils are joined by tulips. And as many daffodils as there are, they are vastly outnumbered by tulips of every imaginable color. And in a week or two the landscape changes again as suddenly, fragrant lilacs and other flowering bushes and trees burst forth.

The days continue to get warmer as now irises dominate the gardens and lawns as summer has arrived. But with it, a same-ness sets in. The summer weeks (here in Milwaukee) are no longer measured by seasonal progression, but are now counted off by the festivals; Summerfest and Bastille Days and Festa Italiana and Germanfest, and so on through the summer.

But in time, August takes hold. And while the same-ness remains, there is now – every once in a while – a hint that transition is again in the air. Pellucid blue skies are sometimes dotted with benign white puffy clouds, occasionally driven by a cool northeast wind. One senses that the flowers are no longer bursting forth, but instead holding on as nature seems to hold her breath awaiting the change. Autumn is near and there is a feeling that an old friend is on the way. Those of us of a certain age have learned not to “wish away” the weeks, or days, or even the hours, but still, anticipation is strong.

In good years, the warm weather lasts well into the fall season, But in the best of years Jack Frost makes an overnight appearance with his brushes early in October to paint the leaves. The few prematurely turned trees of September give way to the burn and blaze of Indian Summer, which will hopefully last well into the next month – coloring the world in shades ranging from mild-mannered browns and tans, to yellows and burning oranges, to brilliant scarlet.

The sun remains warm but the air, particularly at night, is cool and hazy, and maybe even a bit damp. Perfect weather, I’ve always thought, for a Friday night football game. No setting sun in the west to obscure the sophomore contest, watched with one eye as you greet both stadium friends and real friends, arriving to take their seats. And you sit, bundled against the chill, the watery concession stand hot chocolate tasting wonderful as the varsity Tomcats take the field to do battle with whatever conference or non-conference lamb is being offered up this week (It’s the good seasons that remain in memory, and that are easily recalled).

But fall is a season of transition. The local football season and beautiful October conclude, more or less simultaneously, and now the autumn is drawing down. The mild-mannered, patient, tans and browns now hold dominance over the landscape, but are still are beautiful in their way as the season marches finally to its conclusion, which is celebrated by, what else, a feast of Thanksgiving.

“I Remember Mama”

When I was pretty young, there was a TV program called “I Remember Mama”, which was broadcast in glorious small-screen black and white in Chicago on CBS Channel 4 from 1949 to the mid 50s. I was quite fond of the program. I remember well the introductory narrative in which a young woman, looking through a photo album remembers San Francisco in the 1910s, the house on Steiner Street, the family, and ends with the famous line, “and most of all, I remember Mama”. (Always, for some reason, kind of made me think of my Grandma)

As I say, I liked the show, it was wholesome, and humorous, and heartwarming. I didn’t know at the time that that’s why I liked it, but in retrospect that pretty much sums it up. Whenever I’m in that part of San Francisco, I drive down Steiner Street and remember “I remember Mama”.

The show was an adaptation of Kathryn Forbes’ memoir “Mama’s Bank Account”. Today in the mail, I received a copy of that book, and started reading. It turns out they didn’t live on Steiner Street after all, but the rest of the book, a series of short little stories is sort of like, but probably infinitely better than, the Day Calendar stories. And they are as entertaining and wonderful to me today as the TV show was to the seven or eight year old me, all those years ago.