“You Say It’s Your Birthday?”

“Write what you know, Paul.”

On our recent trip to England, we were fortunate to visit Liverpool, the home of those Fab Four lads, the Beatles. Driving past Penny Lane, our tour guide recounted for us the back story of that famous tune: Paul McCartney, in a quandary about what to write for a school paper, was advised by his English teacher to stick to the personal, the everyday, for inspiration. Thus, Paul wrote about a bus shelter “in the middle of a roundabout”, where he waited for his friend, John Lennon. Close by was a barber shop “showing photographs of every head he had the pleasure to know.” In a neighboring pub, Paul and his mates would enjoy “a fish of four”, or, in other words, that iconic British treat of fish and chips. Around him were all the sights and sounds of his youth, so, for Paul, Penny Lane “was in my ears and in my eyes.”

Thus, the inception of one of the Beatles most famous songs.

Paul McCartney is much celebrated in the media this month, as he just celebrated his 80th birthday. Sir James Paul McCartney, born June 18, 1942, is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, “the most successful musician and composer in popular music history.”

Yet, it all began in that working class port city, where the young band got its start in clubs like the Cavern ( which we also toured), singing the likes of “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Love Me Do”, written by McCartney at age 16.

As a kid, the walls of my childhood room were plastered with photos of the “cute Beatle”, ripped from the pages of “Tiger Beat” and “16 Magazine.” In a sense, I grew up with Paul McCartney and the Beatles.

From the heartbreak of love gone wrong: “Yesterday love was such an easy game to play/ Now I need a place to hide away/Oh, I believe in yesterday…”

to all the ups and downs of the decades to follow, expressed so well in “The Long and Winding Road”: “Many times I’ve been alone, and many times I’ve cried/ Anyway you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried…”, we saw our lives reflected in McCartney’s music and lyrics.

Paul McCartney may be a famous singer songwriter, worth 1.2 billion ( he spent his 80th birthday on vacation with his family on a yacht off the coast of a Greek island, and owns fabulous homes world-wide) but he, too, has had his share of tragedy. His mother died of breast cancer when he was only 14, and he lost his wife, Linda, to the same disease. His friend and bandmate, John Lennon, was murdered at a young age, and George Harrison, too, died from cancer.

Maybe because he is, according to Robert Frost’s poem, “one acquainted with the night”, McCartney has always had a sympathy and a fascination with the unloved and forgotten. In “Eleanor Rigby”, he asks, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from/ All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” And he questions in “Lady Madonna, children at your feet, wonder how you manage to make ends meet?”

When faced with troubles, as we all are, the universality of his lyrics touch our hearts. Paul especially displayed his compassion when he visited Julian Lennon shortly after the breakup of his famous parent’s marriage. “Hey Jude, don’t make it bad/ Take a sad song, and make it better…”

Probably his most celebrated song, “Let It Be”, was written after his mother appeared to him in a dream offering a solution: “When I find myself in times of trouble/ Mother Mary comes to me/ Speaking words of wisdom, Let it Be…”

Despite all that loss, McCartney has remained upbeat and philosophical, suggesting, “Just remember the great stuff…”

Which brings us to today. I’m personally happy that Paul has reached the venerable age of 80, and that he is still touring ( we saw him in Washington some years back. He gave a fabulous performance, singing until midnight and returning for four encores!)

He just headlined at the Glastonbury Festival to delighted crowds, the oldest singer to ever perform there.

Today, “Macca”, as he is affectionately known, has a happy family life with his wife, Nancy, his five children, and eight grandkids who call him “Granddude.” Sir Paul has been knighted by the Queen, and is the recipient of countless honors and awards.

But many of us still remember him as that floppy haired kid so many years ago on The Ed Sullivan Show. So, I’m glad it’s your birthday, Paul. You’ve touched our lives with joy.

Adventure in Britain

“England swings like a pendulum do

Bobbies on bicycles two by two

Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben

And the rosy red cheeks of the little children.”

That little 1965 ditty by Roger Miller runs through my mind as I reminisce on my recent visit to the United Kingdom. No, I didn’t see any bobbies on bicycles, but there were scores of Her Majesty’s red coated troops marching in line, practicing for her upcoming Jubilee. And there were plenty of rosy-cheeked school children waiting in their adorable uniforms at bus stops around the country.

Our adventure began with a cruise on the Thames, gliding past the historic and imposing Houses of Parliament and the striking Big Ben, interspersed with such modern structures as the London Eye and the humorously named Shard ( which resembles a shard of glass), then finally sailing under the lovely blue hues of the Tower Bridge. That evening, we discovered The Rose, a spirited pub for that iconic British meal of fish and chips.

Come morning, we met our guide for the bus trip that would take us the width and breadth of the United Kingdom. Jon, a handsome red bearded Australian, looked like a character from Game of Thrones. He was a fount of historical facts and pithy comments, but it was his cheery demeanor which really made the trip. Each morning’s trip began with Willie Nelson belting out “On the Road Again”, followed by the Beatles “Here Comes the Sun”, which was usually the weather, despite the UK’s reputation of rainy conditions. In fact, Jon had a play list appropriate to every situation and location.

And, oh, those locations, so beautiful and too many to recount.

As we motored north to the stark Salisbury Plain, we approached the ancient, mysterious 5,000 year old monoliths of Stonehenge. Walking by those huge stone structures, there were so many questions: how did they get there, by whom, and why?

Nearing the Cornish coast, we visited the charming seaside village of Polperro. Old white-washed fisherman’s cottages interspersed with flowers led to dramatic rocky ocean scenes, something out of a picture postcard. It was there that we sampled pasties, those delicious British pastries filled with various meats, cheeses, and vegetables. And devoured the best salted caramel ice cream ever!

In Glastonbury, we toured the haunting remains of the monastery, founded in 712 AD but stripped of its valuables and left to ruin after Henry VIII made himself head of the Church in 1539. What stories those stones could tell!

As a Beatle lover from childhood, I always imagined that Liverpool, the hometown of the Fab Four, was a dirty, industrial place. How wrong I was!

Liverpool was cool, vibrant, and busy. We were able to photograph the bronze statues of the “lads” on the banks of the Mersey, see the iconic Cavern Club, and drive past Penny Lane, the impetus for McCartney’s famous tune.

In the lovely Lake District, the inspiration for such Romantic poets as William Wordsworth and artists like Peter Rabbit’s Beatrix Potter, we enjoyed a scenic boat cruise on the dreamlike Lake Windermere, past lovely homes, pretty sailboats, and deserted islands.

Upon entering Scotland, we drove past the legendary Loch Ness, but alas, I was unable to spot Nessie!

Ah, Scotland- the land of the kilt, the bagpipe, and that famous local delicacy, the haggis- a savory pudding containing body parts of sheep mixed with spices and oatmeal. Yuck, you say? I sampled it and found it quite tasty. And speaking of sheep, there were literally millions of them in Britain, their fluffy white forms dotting the rolling green hills.

Of an evening, we were treated to Scottish music and dance, then it was on to Edinburgh, where the streets looked like something out of Harry Potter ( and J.K Rowling actually did derive some of her inspiration from the city). We passed the birthplace of poet Robert Burns, whose quote many centuries ago still rings true: “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry….”

Our final stop in Scotland took us to the Isle of Skye in the country’s northwest corner, a region so remote and beautiful that it looked otherworldly. Sky, and mountains, and rocky plains led to the stormy Atlantic.

“All the world’s a stage, and all of the men and women merely players”, famously stated the Bard, William Shakespeare. In Stratford-Upon-Avon, we toured his home and the charming cottage of his wife, Anne Hathaway. Apparently, their marriage wasn’t made in heaven, however, as upon his death, he left her his “second best bed.”

As our trip concluded, it struck me that, as Shakespeare said, we on the tour were like actors in a play. We had met some friends and made some memories, then it was on to the next act of the play. We played our parts, then left the stage- and the coach.

Always appropriate to the moment, as a closing, Jon, our intrepid guide, played Andrea Bocelli’s haunting rendition of “Time to Say Goodbye”, followed by Green Day’s “I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life.”

We surely did.

April Musings

I was channel surfing recently when I came upon the old film, “Testament,” a 1983 movie about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust on a typical American family. The viewer doesn’t see any explosions or destruction; instead, the film, acclaimed at the time of its release, focuses on the quiet and heartbreaking story of a family and community suffering with the results of tragedy.

As the film opens, the father, played by actor William Devane, goes off to work in San Francisco, never to return. The mother, actress Jane Alexander and her three kids, are spending a typical afternoon watching TV when suddenly a reporter breaks in with the urgent message: “This is not a test!” Immediately after, the screen goes blank.

Outside, sirens go off as the shocked community pours into the street. How could this happen? As the days and weeks go by, people are felled by the insidious effects of radiation poisoning. A young Kevin Costner plays a father who loses his infant daughter, and distraught, soon leaves town with his bereaved wife. One by one, members of families perish. Cut off from the outside world, cemeteries fill up and hope dwindles.

Affecting as always, I found myself crying during the movie. And I had a thought: I hadn’t seen this film offered on television for decades. What TV executive now decided that its message was current, even timely? For there is a maniac loose in the Ukraine. At the risk of being morbid, and unthinkable only months ago, the threat of nuclear war has become a reality.

Sun Yzu was an ancient Chinese general, and the author of the famous military classic, “The Art of War.” His words seem particularly relevant:

“An evil enemy will burn his own nation to the ground….. to rule over the ashes.”

When will this madness end?

In the meantime, after an especially cold and unsettled April, spring is finally arriving. But wasn’t it British poet TS Eliot who said, “April is the cruellest month”? Interestingly, Eliot penned those words in his 1921 poem, “The Waste Land”, because, as spring brought signs of new life and renewal, Europe was a crumbling, dying mess in the wake of World War i.

Ironic, how history repeats itself.

But, despite the tragedy in the world, spring HAS arrived. The flowering pear trees in long columns on the main street of our little town create a lacy, magical scene, while the brave yellow daffodils flutter in the breeze. Flowering bushes in shades of pink and fuchsia color the landscape.

Poets and philosophers throughout history have sought solace in the coming of spring, despite TS Eliot’s sardonic stance.

Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda wrote, “You can cut all the flowers, but you can’t keep spring from coming.”

Persian poet Rumi believed passionately in the use of music and poetry as a path to reach God. In his words,

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there

When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to think about.”

And former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson remarked, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”

This April, we could all use a little hope.

Putin’s War: March Madness

March Madness! Originally used in association with a basketball elimination tournament, the term “March Madness” could aptly be used to describe what’s going on in the world today.

As a child growing up in the 60’s, a “Cold War” with Russia was a constant concern, and in October of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of war with the Soviet Union. Bomb shelters were erected across the nation, and schoolchildren were told to hide under our desks in the event of a nuclear attack ( as if that would have saved us from the inevitable radioactive fallout). On that fateful October day, I have a clear memory of my elementary school teacher announcing, “Before this day is over, we may all be blown off the face of the earth.” Obviously, that Doomsday forecast was avoided when Khrushchev and Kennedy reached an accord, ushering in several decades of relative calm.

So, sixty years later, to see Russian tanks rolling through the Ukraine is beyond belief, a nightmare come true. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on its peaceful neighbor over two weeks ago, the world has watched in horror as Russian forces bomb cities and murder thousands, committing the very definition of war crimes: “willfully killing or causing suffering, widespread destruction and seizing of property, deliberately targeting civilian populations.”

To quote French writer Voltaire: “Nothing is more dangerous than ignorance and intolerance armed with power.”

To date, President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukrainian forces have done a surprisingly formidable job resisting the Russian attackers, killing thousands of soldiers and putting a dent in the Russian war machine. But with no end in sight, 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled the conflict, leading to a humanitarian disaster.

Unlike the wars of the early 20th century, technology, in all of its forms, delivers war atrocities to our living rooms and phones on a daily, even hourly basis, searing horrible scenes of destruction into our minds:

  • Images of a family, two parents and a child, massacred as they attempted escape, their suitcases left askew on the road
  • Mothers and children embracing fathers, who are left behind to fight
  • the parents of a 23 year old Ukrainian soldier who was killed in fighting outside Kyiv, grieving at their son’s funeral. The mother strokes her son’s face lovingly, while the father stands by, covering his face in sadness
  • the grainy image of throngs waiting to board a train- so reminiscent of similar World War II photos of multitudes escaping Nazism.
  • In an example of particular brutality, at the bombed remains of a maternity hospital in Melitopol, workers carry a pregnant woman from the ruins. She later died.
  • And who could forget the little Ukrainian girl in a bomb shelter, encouraged to entertain the crowd by singing “Let it Go”, a tune from the Disney film, “Frozen.” What grandparent couldn’t see their own grandchild in that little one? In one piece of good news, 7 year old Emelia is now safe in Poland.

Yet the horror continues. When and where will it end? What is Putin’s game plan? If the war escalates and Putin attacks Poland, what will NATO and America’s response be? Will we be drawn into the conflict? The threat of chemical and nuclear weapons, once unthinkable, is now a real possibility. What will stop this madman, and will this March Madness cease?

We can pray for peace, and offer humanitarian aid. But perhaps history can offer some promise of solace. As peace activist Mahatma Gandi said:

“When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it… always.

That visionary, John Lennon, had it right when he said, “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

Musical Musings

The frigid temperatures and howling winds of February had put me into something of a blue funk, so I was especially excited to have recently been able to attend two musical performances.

The lovely theatre was filled to enthusiastic capacity to experience the dramatic performance of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony.” Antonin Dvorak was a Czech composer, already famous in Europe, when he moved to the United States in 1892 to become the director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. While here, he wrote the magnificent symphony, a universal favorite and one of the most popular of all time. I, of course, was aware of this masterpiece, but didn’t realize that Dvorak had written it while in the States. He was said to be influenced by Native American music, African American spirituals, and inspired by the wide open spaces of the American plains, where he spent some time. The result was a symphony celebrating the rich and diverse tapestry of our nation.

The composition is by turns light and playful, then quiet and pensive, but when the music soars to its glorious crescendo, you can almost envisage the power, the majesty, the promise of America that Dvorak saw- almost poignant at this time in our bitterly divided nation. What a glorious experience! If only we could recapture some of that patriotic fervor.

But from the profound and inspiring to the sweet and cheery, days later my friends and I were whisked away to the fictional Greek isle of Kalokairi to see a performance of “Momma Mia” at our local community theatre. The joyous musical, based on the songs of ’70’s Swedish phenomenon, Abba, was a perfect antidote to a cold winter afternoon. First appearing on stage in 1999, the musical enjoyed widespread fame and success, and was even made into two movies, both of which I’ve seen. “Momma Mia, here we go again!” Humorous romantic entanglements abounded, and talented performers of varied ages graced the stage with their lovely vocals:

“Thank you for the music, the joy they’re bringing…”, and incredible dancing,

( the acrobatics of those kids!): “You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, almost seventeen…”

Oh, how the music and dance brought us back to our youth!

At the end of the play, Sophie and Sky, the young couple at the center of the story, decide to skip their planned wedding to head off for adventures unknown: “I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream…”

Personally, I would have been happy to stay on that fabulous Greek isle, enjoying the warm blue waters, local cuisine, and tropical cocktails. However, it was back to the chill winds of a Pennsylvania winter.

But, at least, I had the glorious music from two diverse performances to carry me through. According to Plato, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything else.” In the meantime,

these gale force winds may soon abate, and the temperatures become, if not tropical, at least temperate.

In the words of that famous English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“If winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

A Place for Us

The new year has begun in a decidedly inauspicious fashion, with frigid weather, a seemingly endless pandemic, and the deaths of many personages, famous and otherwise.

So when I had the opportunity to see the reboot of the film, “West Side Story”, I jumped at the chance. Director Steven Spielberg was undoubtedly cautioned against trying to remake the 1961 classic hit, but I feel that the new film more than meets expectations. It is, of course, the Romeo and Juliet-esque tale of forbidden love, set against the sometimes bleak, but always authentic, backdrop of 1950’s New York City. Filmed over two months in 2019, the exuberant story of passionate love versus senseless violence has all the fire and grace of the original, and then some.

Twenty year old newcomer Rachel Zegler, selected from 30,000 applicants after responding to a casting call on social media, plays Maria, the young Puerto Rican girl who meets Polish-American Tony ( played by Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Their Stars” fame) at a high school dance. Despite protestations from her brother, Bernardo, to “stick to your own kind”, Maria and Tony fall in love, touching off the already tense climate between the rival gangs, the Puerto Rican Sharks, and the ethnic white Jets.

However, the stupendous choreography, the flash of color and movement at that dance alone, was worth the price of admission. The glory of those dancing scenes brings to mind a quote by writer Anita Krizzan:

“We are mosaics- pieces of light, love, history, stars- glued together with magic and music and words.”

Leonard Bernstein’s glorious score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, by turns clever, humorous, and poignant, are the glues that hold this mosaic together. Sadly, Sondheim recently passed away, just before the premiere of the 2021 film.

In “America”, a fine example of Sondheim’s wit, Bernardo and his girlfriend, Anita, squabble about life in their newfound home in America:

Anita: “Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion

Let it sink back in the ocean.”

She continues,

“I like to be in America, Okay by me in America, Everything free in America…”

Bernardo retorts: “For a small fee in America!”

He goes on to claim:

“Everything grime in America

Organized crime in America

Terrible time in America….”

Decades later, eerily and shockingly, Bernardo’s words reverberate in a snapshot of American cities that in some quarters still ring true.

Later in the film, trying to quell the antagonism between the gangs, the police interview the Jets. In the hilarious “Gee Officer Krupke”, Jets spokesman Riff makes excuses for their criminal activities:

“Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke

Ya gotta understand

It’s just our bringing upke

That gets us outta hand

Our mothers all are junkies

Our fathers all are drunks

Golly, Moses, natcherly we’re punks…”

The movie turns romantic when Tony takes Maria on a date to the Cloisters, a medieval museum in Upper Manhattan governed by the Met, an enchaning place that I was fortunate to have toured many years ago. Among the white marble and reverence of the place, Tony and Maria express their love while kneeling at an ancient altar in “One Hand, One Heart”:

“Now it begins, now we start,

One hand, one heart,

Even death won’t part us now…”

But, of course, they are parted when violence ensues at the rumple between the opposing gangs, causing the deaths of Bernardo and Riff, and eventually, Tony himself.

Afterwards, Valentina, the owner of Doc’s general store, and staunch supporter of Tony, sings the heartbreaking “Somewhere.” Eloquently played by 90 year old Rita Morena, who performed the role of Anita in the 1961 original, the song beautifully expresses her agony at the ongoing violence:

“There’s a place for us

Somewhere a place for us

Peace and quiet and open air

Wait for us somewhere

Somewhere

We’ll find a new way of living

We’ll find a way of forgiving

Somewhere…”

Sixty years on, “West Side Story’s” themes of crime, racism, violence, retribution, but, also love, live on.

The enduring hope is that someday there will be place to live in peace.

Somewhere.

Life is Not a Hallmark Movie

Over the holiday season, I’ve watched a number of those sweet but cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies. The actors are ruggedly handsome, the actresses beautiful, fabulously dressed, and impeccably coiffed. Often set in some charming village in Vermont or California, it’s often snowing, and the participants are off to some skiing, skating, or tobogganing adventure. Glitzy Christmas decorations abound, and, of course, unexpectedly, two (or more!) couples fall in love.

In one especially fantastical one, “A Knight Before Christmas”, a medieval knight ( chain mail and all) is magically transported to present day America, where he falls in love with a high school Science teacher.

In another, “A Christmas Prince”, an aspiring young journalist is sent to the foreign nation of Aldovia ( not a real place!) to cover a press conference given by Prince Richard, who is about to ascend the throne. Naturally, they fall in love, and in the sequel, “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Wedding” they marry, and in the NEXT sequel, “A Christmas Prince: The Royal Baby”, they have a child. You can’t make this stuff up.

Unfortunately, America is not Aldovia, and we aren’t living in a fairy tale. In the last weeks, folks in the Midwest have dealt with devastating tornadoes. There is an on-going pandemic. We’ve lost loved ones, couples fight, and division abounds.

Still, there are moments of peace and reasons for gratitude. My poinsettia, grown from two tiny plants, is flourishing, as is my goldfish plant, finally blooming after a year of dormancy. Wildlife is surprisingly visiting our backyard, first a brown doe foraging for vegetation, and today a sleek fox, stark red against the snowy ground.

Unlike last year, the whole family came for Christmas eve. The grandkids raced and tumbled in the yard. We were surprised with a gift from our kids: a firepit. We joined around the flames on a perfectly mild December afternoon. After dinner and gifts, we devoured my requisite pistachio cake, then gathered for a group photo.

A few days later, our son and daughter-in-law hosted us at their place for pizza, then an excursion to view the 60,000 LED lights at Rocky Ridge Park’s Festival of Lights. Truly magical!

And today, as if in a benediction, a light snow covered the trees and yard with its fluffy brilliance.

But, despite the snow, no horse-drawn carriage pulled up in front of the house to take me for a spin around the block. No handsome prince will whisk me off to a fabulous castle in Aldovia ( or even a lush beach-front resort would do.)

And so what if the grandkids didn’t like the lasagna I served at dinner, or got into some scuffles in the yard? And so what if Santa was late in arriving on his fire truck as he does every Christmas eve in our little community? And so what if a toy was forgotten, or that my husband forgot his wallet halfway up the road to our destination?

No, life is not a Hallmark movie, but despite the lack of perfection, I’m reminded of a line from an old Beach Boys tune, included on my new Pentatonix Christmas CD: “God only knows where I’d be without you….”

And so we turn a corner into a new year.

“For last year’s words belong to last

Year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.

And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

T. S. Eliot

May it be a good one.

A Life Well Lived

The old photo showcases my father’s family. Standing is my grandmother, Clara: dark haired, attractive, and all of 25, yet looking wistful and tired. She’s holding a toddler dressed in white, my Aunt Betty. Standing in front of her is a little boy with a smart-alecky grin, my Uncle Glenn. Beside him, yawning, is another curly-headed tyke, my Aunt Virginia, her pinafore blowing in the breeze. And seated in the middle is my grandfather, Ernest, his straw hat slightly tilted, holding a baby. The baby is my father, Al. The year is 1926. It was Wisconsin and the times were hard, and would get harder still, when the Depression hit in a few years.

My Dad loved to tell tales of his childhood. In the big old farmhouse, he and his brother slept in the attic, where, during the frigid Midwestern winters, snow would sift in through the rafters onto their quilts, handmade by Clara. There were plenty of times that Clara sent the kids off to school with sandwiches of her delicious, homemade bread, but spread with only lard. Meat was unavailable or too costly. And yes, the children walked miles to the schoolhouse, where the young schoolmistress had been for an hour beforehand, stoking the pot-bellied stove so the students could arrive to a warm building.

Dad was always a hard-working guy. Even as a kid, he’d work digging ditches, picking berries, or weeding gardens for pennies a day. But there were fun times too. Once, some altruistic businessmen sponsored an ice cream party for the neighborhood kids. All the ice cream you could eat for free! Dad was overcome with joy. He loved ice cream all his life.

Every family has its share of tall tales. Here’s one he enjoyed telling, especially at Halloween:

Years ago, our ancestors owned a logging operation in the Wisconsin forests. This day, one of my forebears, Matthew, was driving a horse and buggy down a tree-lined road when a man crossed in front of the rig, from one side to the other, without looking up. “Hey, Sven! Haven’t seen you around lately! Matthew shouted from the wagon. Sven had been a logging employee for many years, but hadn’t reported for work in a long while. Thinking it was odd that Sven hadn’t responded, Matthew stopped the wagon, got out, and proceeded into the woods. A short distance in, he came upon a corpse that he recognized to be Sven. As the story goes, Sven’s spirit wanted his body to be discovered, and, hopefully, afforded a Christian burial. This story, true or not, always gave me the shivers.

When World War II broke out, my Dad didn’t wait to be drafted. He enlisted in the Navy at 17, and ended up on a tanker traversing Pacific waters. The boat could have been target for Japanese torpedoes at any time, but by the grace of God, he and his fellow sailors were spared.

Halfway across the world, his boat was briefly docked in New York City, and there he attended a Soldiers and Sailors club party, where, “across a crowded room”, in the words from “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s famed musical, “South Pacific”, he met my mother, Peggy. It was love at first sight, and their love affair was to last over fifty years.

Some years and a couple of kids later, they bought a small, suburban house in New Jersey for $12,000. Dad worked six days a week as a mechanic, long, hard hours- often the 4 to 12 shift, and sometimes the dreaded midnight shift. But even with all that hard work, he found the time to help his neighbors plant a garden or fix a shutter. He was the kind of man who’d stop if someone’s car had broken down. In fact, he could fix or build anything, it seemed. He had a basement workshop, and as a kid, I was awed at the tools, the lathe, the drills. The sound of his soldering something reverberates though my memory. He built a large cider block porch, and in retirement, erected a large stone wall on the edge of his countryside property.

He never had a bad word for anyone, and never criticized others. He gave the best bear hugs, and called my mother “baby.” My Dad was quietly religious. I remember seeing him praying on his knees at the foot of his bed.

As a child, I was always writing poetry. One day, when I was home with Dad, a storm was approaching. I said, “I’m going to write a poem about the rain storm.” “Go ahead, honey,” he responded. Later, when he read it, he was proud and amazed at my writing ability. He thought I was beautiful and smart, and told me so.

But like anyone, he had his shortcomings, and his was smoking. Sixty years of cigarettes led to his developing bladder cancer, then bone cancer, which led to his death at the young age of 74. Sadly, he never got to meet his great grandchildren.

When I think of a life well-lived, I think of my Dad. Earlier this month, he would have turned 96. This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things. That Al was my father is chief among them.

Starry, Starry Night

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, I wish I may, I wish I might, have this wish I wish tonight.”

We all remember this little childhood poem, a traditional nursery rhyme dating back to late 19th century America. The truth is, stars are in the news these days.

Star Trek’s own James T. Kirk ( also known as William Shatner) recently became the first 90 year old to launch to the edge of space on Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. The ten minute trek left Shatner awed, not by the sight of stars, but of the sight of our blue, blue earth in contrast with the black void of space, claiming it was “the most profound experience.”

I recently travelled, not to space, but to Philadelphia’s Tower Theatre, to experience the Van Gogh immersion. Like stepping into a painting, the dazzling sights, lights, and imagery showcased Vincent Van Gogh’s many paintings. The walls, floors, and ceiling burst forth with colors of the artist’s sunflowers, wheat fields, and, of course, his “starry, starry night.”

Many years ago, singer Don McClean performed “Vincent”, a song written in tribute to Van Gogh. His lyrics, “Starry, starry night, flaming flowers that brightly blaze”; “swirling clouds in violet haze”; “morning fields of amber grain, weathered faces lined in pain” seem almost to be written in illustration of this exhibition.

Today, the works of Vincent Van Gogh are among the world’s most well-known and celebrated, but in his time he was considered a failure. Despite the creation of some 900 paintings, he only sold a handful. Yet with vivid lush strokes, he captured the stark beauty of nature, the nobility of the working class, and his own image, over 30 times. Proclaiming, “I put my heart and soul into my work, and have half lost my mind in the process”, he was dead by his own hand at age 37. As Don McClean put it, “And when no hope was left in sight on that starry, starry night, he took his life as lovers often do.” Nevertheless, his “starry, starry night” lives on in our vision, and in our hearts and minds.

Another starry night was recently enjoyed in my son’s backyard, where we sat huddled around his fire pit, roasted marshmallows, and ate s’mores. The night sky was filled with stars, and an ap on my daughter-in-law’s iphone allowed our young grandson to identify constellations in the shining darkness: the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia, and many others.

Why are we so fascinated by stars? From ancient times, man has marveled at the sheer magnitude of them. Aside from our sun, the dots of light we see are all light-years from earth. According to astronomers, there are 200 billion trillion stars in the universe. The number boggles the mind.

Another fun fact: stars literally make music, as recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope. Like vibrations within a musical instrument, the interaction between the inward squeezing of gravity and the outward push of pressure can set up vibrations. Literally, the music of the stars. Google it!

Children, spacemen, and artists all had it right. When looking at the stars, how can you be anything but awestruck?

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are?”

Like that popular English lullaby, we are forever enraptured by the beauty, the mystery, and the majesty of the stars.

“Getting out of hand”: A celebration of Idioms

Does it seem like things are “getting out of hand” in the world today? Or does it feel like there’s a “perfect storm” of tragic events, and “to make matters worse”, so many of us are “under the weather.”

Oh, those idioms- those sayings, or expressions, with metaphorical, not literal, meanings. Amazingly, there are 25,000 idioms in the English language. We all use them, and their meanings run the gamut from the humorous to the historical, or should I say, hysterical.

For example, let’s talk about prices. My dream beach-front home might cost “an arm and a leg”, but this expression dates back to the 18th century, when folks would have their portraits done, sans limbs. Apparently, painting arms and legs cost more.

Political intrigue seems to be the “order of the day”, and occasionally someone “lets the cat out of the bag.” In the 1700’s, a common fraud included replacing valuable pigs with less valuable cats and selling them in bags. When a cat was let out of the bag, “the jig was up.” We cat lovers may be insulted by that one!

Do you feel that you can’t believe what you read ( or see?), that someone’s “pulling your leg”? This idiom has a rather gruesome history: it originally described the way in which thieves tripped their victims in order to rob them.

In keeping with the leg metaphor, when we hope someone “breaks a leg”, it’s not a curse. Historically, it was hoped that successful theatre performers would bow so many times after a show that they would “break a leg.” With Broadway just now getting back into form, hopefully there will be a lot more bowing.

On car trips, those of us who generally ride “shot gun” might be interested in learning that in the Wild West, the person who sat next to the driver was equipped with a shotgun to plug any outlaws that might approach the coach.

And, along with the topic of transportation, road rage is a growing issue in our polarized society. Those “flying off the handle” on roads should know that the saying originated in the 1800’s- when poorly made axes sometimes would literally detach from the handle!

But instead of complaining about society, maybe we should just “bite the bullet.” In colonial times, patients literally bit on a bullet to cope with the pain during surgery. Yikes! That’s a reason to appreciate life in the 21st century.

Seriously, “hands down”, we’re better off today, but in 19th century horse racing, the expression referred to when a jockey could remove his hands from the reins and still win the race because he was so far ahead.

Am I just “beating around the bush” in my discussion? In Britain, game hunters would actually beat the bushes to draw out the birds. Those poor fowls!

And back to the hunting motif, perhaps I’m “barking up the wrong tree”? Sometimes, a dog would bark at the wrong tree after the prey in question had already “flown the coop”!

Probably, blogs like these are “a dime a dozen”, but in 1796, when the first US dimes were produced for circulation, many items like eggs and fruit were sold a dime a dozen. Checked the grocery prices lately ?

Well, “time flies while you’re having fun”, so I’d better “call it a day”, and “go back to the drawing board.” To “make a long story short”, “it’s not rocket science.” Maybe I “missed the boat”, and “your guess is a good as mine.” Don’t get “bent out of shape”! We can’t have “the best of both worlds”, so “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

So, friends, “through thick and thin”, “hang in there”!