The World Doesn’t Owe Us a Living

Dads can say the strangest things. Imagine this scene from fifty years ago. I’m sitting at the dining room table with my family: mother and father, two brothers, a little sister on a booster seat. We don’t talk much; we’re pretty intent on eating and clearing out as soon as we’re finished. Suddenly, my father looks up from his plate and big blue bowl of salad, and proclaims:

“The world doesn’t owe you a livin’!”

Shocked silence. I glance at the faces around the table. Who is he talking to? And what brought this on?

Normal conversation resumes, but I’m lost in thought. It’s not like me or one of my brothers said anything like, “Gee, Dad. I don’t ever want to have to work. I just want everything handed to me.”

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No, we all knew that if we wanted something, we’d have to work for it. Like a job. Like the horrible paper route I slogged through the previous winter.

I look over at Dad, and it seems he’s done pontificating and is now focused on his extra-large salad.

About a year ago, the mystery was solved! Maybe. But I think it’s a good theory. I was watching some vintage Disney cartoons on Netflix, and up popped the classic tale of the Grasshopper and the Ants.

The short version is this: Grasshopper with Goofy’s voice enjoys the fruits of summer, never thinking about the cold winter ahead. Queen Ant tries to convince him to prepare, as her colony of ants are now doing. He laughs/sings off her advice, and in a few short months he’s starving in a snowdrift. The ants feed him soup, warm his feet, and let him revive in their cozy den. The Queen is within her rights to toss Grasshopper back outside, but…wait, I don’t want to spoil it.

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The Grasshopper sings two versions of ‘The World Owes Us a Living’, before and after the starving time. My dad may have seen this as a kid, and the message stuck with him. Therefore, when one of us kids seemed a little greedy, or pampered, or said something slightly stupid, he was ready with his Grasshopper wisdom.

I guess Dad had a point, so I will dutifully show up to work on Monday morning. After all, winter’s coming. Happy Fathers’ Day.

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Just the Funny Parts – Nell Scovell

The author, in the introduction, describes her career track as follows: 1. Who is Nell Scovell? 2. Get me Nell Scovell! 3. Get me a younger, cheaper Nell Scovell! 4. Who is Nell Scovell?

Her new book, Just the Funny Parts, definitely answers 1 and 4. I wanted to read it due to her extensive resume (most of which is right on the cover) as a writer of comedy for movies and television shows. I must have seen her name in the credits of many of my favorites over the years, but it hasn’t registered until now.

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The body of work is amazing. A classic episode of The Simpsons? Wow. Three episodes of Monk? Triple wow. As someone who once tried to write scripts, I’m full of admiration. She even created the nineties series Sabrina the Teenage Witch, my personal escape valve when my kids were babies and toddlers. Sadly, she left the show after the first year, and you can tell. I enjoyed the behind the scenes look at the actors, the network types, and the funny animatronic cat named Salem.

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Movies also came calling for Scovell. She was hired to “punch up” Disney’s The Mighty Ducks. After that, she and Joel Hodgson (best known as the creator/star of Mystery Science Theater 3000) were asked to revise another Disney property. Scovell writes, “Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves was perfectly suited to Joel’s visual sense of humor and my love of tiny, shrunken people.”

They bought model train-sized people and scattered them around her living room to get story ideas. The back of Scovell’s wicker chair, when viewed up close, appeared to be a ladder for tiny folk, and that device made it into the finished film.

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Two of the four shrinkees from Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.

Other shows and projects that Scovell had a hand in: Murphy Brown, Coach, Newhart, Charmed, NCIS, Late Show with David Letterman, speeches for President Obama, and the bestseller Lean In.

The show biz stories are both funny and infuriating. How decisions got made, who ruined this perfectly good idea, and who allowed great things to happen. It’s not for the faint of heart, this life.

A common expression in the entertainment world is, Nobody Knows Anything. Not true. Scovell may not be all-knowing, but she knows a lot.

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The Plangent Tone

On a recent vacation, the book I brought with me was Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. Edited by Holly Gleason with essays by a number of female writers and journalists, it contains profiles of country music artists, past and present, and how they affected that writer’s life. Great idea for a book, and interesting reading.

Some of the musicians profiled are Maybelle Carter, Wanda Jackson, Hazel Dickens, Bobbie Gentry, Emmylou Harris, all the way up to Patty Griffin. I knew very little about most of these ladies, and a few I’d never heard of. (Wanda who? Hazel who?) So this volume was a eye-opener for me.

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Maybelle Carter and daughters.

Once arrived at my vacation place (Jensen Beach, Florida, to be exact) I had the idea of looking up each of the 26 woman artists on YouTube, for a better idea of what they were about, and what I’d been missing. A fine vacation project; I was psyched. The beach could wait!

I knew a little about Maybelle Carter (I’d seen Walk the Line) but had no clue about Wanda Jackson. Holly George-Warren describes Wanda’s start as a very young country singer, then a rockabilly girl who toured with early Elvis. She’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but she veered back to country in the early 60’s. Here, she takes a Willie Nelson tune and makes it her own:

Funny How Time Slips Away – Wanda Jackson

In the Hazel Dickens chapter, the term ‘plangent tone’ turns up. These tones are described by the writer Ronni Lundi this way: ‘They fall on listeners like electric shocks, making your hair stand on end, your ears tingle, and even, sometimes, your eyes weep tears.” You can get a sense of this phenomena from Mama’s Hand, taken from a documentary:

Mama’s Hand – Hazel Dickens

Kim Ruell was in New York City on September 11, 2001, and suffered through six years of PTSD. What helped her to emerge from it was the music of Patty Griffin. Even now, this music takes the rough edges off the author’s life. Here, Griffin sings with Emmylou Harris, on Trapeze.

Trapeze – Patty Griffin

A final thought on country music and the plangent tone. When my girlfriend and I went to our first bluegrass concert a few years back, the last group to play was a family band. The grown up kids were in charge, but one of them called out to their mother, sitting nearby. “Now, Mama’s retired. But every now and then we ask to her to sing a little. Mama, would you come on up?”

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The crowd went a little crazy and the air turned electric. Then the elderly woman, with the aid of a walker, made her painstaking way to the stage. I couldn’t imagine what the old girl could possibly contribute, but we clapped our encouragement with the rest.

Once she was settled in with guitar strapped on and the song began, it was easy to see that Mama was the missing ingredient. Her voice didn’t overpower the others but blended in nicely, adding a mournful, plaintive quality to the music that wasn’t there before. I was moved, and so was the crowd, who roared their approval at song’s end.

This, as it turned out, was why we came.

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Emmylou Harris

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Those British Gah-dening Shows

One or twice every month, Netflix adds a bunch of new things to its streaming service. Like a high tide leaving behind assorted rocks and shells, what remains must be picked through. It’s hard to find the really good stuff. This month, the good stuff consists of British gardening shows.

To see these, you would think Britain is one giant garden, and every resident spends each waking moment, or ‘mo’, in their private outdoor space.

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Love Your Garden is the first of these, hosted by the charming horticultural expert Alan Titchmarsh. In each episode, he finds a deserving family who needs a garden, and with his team of landscaping and plant specialists, simply builds it for them. These families have had some recent tragedy or health issue which prevents them from making it themselves. So Alan and his crew ‘get stuck in’ or sometimes ‘get cracking’ to get the job done.

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Alan (rear/center) and his crew:  Frances, David and Katie.

I enjoy seeing the team planning the new garden and then learning how it all comes out. Turning chaos into even more chaos, until magically, finally, order is restored. The family gets to see the new garden, somebody pops a champagne cork, family and friends pour in. Very sentimental; I think my dad would have liked this show.

The other show, taking a different tack entirely, is Big Dreams, Small Spaces. Hosted by the unusually named Monty Don, the format sets up this self-taught gardener as a consultant and helper to those who want to do it for themselves.

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A rare moment of rest for Monty Don.

Monty will typically show up in April, demand to see the owner’s plans, turn the details upside down and sideways, then leaves them to it, checking in every few months. The fun is seeing the twists and turns the self-gardeners undergo as their paper plan becomes a hard-won reality by August.

These episodes typically end with a party – more champagne, cake, tea, crumpets; the lot.

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I almost prefer this construct because it’s more fun to watch amateurs doing something new and enjoying the fruits (and flowers) of their hard work, than seeing fast-working professionals doing it. Not to say that things don’t go wrong in both shows.

These have definitely added to my storehouse of British slang. When someone is really pleased with a freshly planted flower bed, they are ‘chuffed’. Putting a treasured item in a central spot gives it ‘pride of place’. Hiring a large machine to put the topper on a kids’ treehouse is ‘using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut’.

A sledgehammer? Sounds ‘brilliant’ to me.

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The Africa Tree

In the center of a cornfield near my house, all by its lonesome, stands the Africa Tree.

I don’t actually live in Africa. It’s just that seeing one majestic tree all alone in a big space reminds me of all those images of Africa. The beginning and ending of Nature on PBS. The Lion King. Countless other exotic scenes from movies and television.

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Seeing it makes me wonder. How did it get there? How did it survive? Does it get lonely?

I discovered the Africa Tree on one of my after-dinner walks. About three minutes from my front door, an intersection divides a large corn field. So I walked up to the traffic lights and noticed the tree, just as the sun was setting behind it. Behold!

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The tree, as you see, has a curious, asymmetrical look. This is because roughly half of it was sheared away, like a chef’s knife slicing a stalk of broccoli. What did it? Lightning? Wind? Who knows. Bottom line, some kind of trauma has befallen this tree.

A Day in the Life of a Tree – Beach Boys

What’s left has a nice shape and sits in a nice location. Whenever I walk past, I make sure to have my camera ready. Not on rainy days. Not on sunny, blue sky days. Those don’t work. There needs to be some sun, with interesting clouds around, for a good shot.

I lived in Tempe, Arizona for a spell, and the psychedelic sunsets there were world-class. But the sunsets that blaze behind the Africa Tree are almost as good.

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So I shot a whole series of these sunsets, on many different walks. Some photos I sent to my friends. Some I kept for my collection. One made it to my phone’s display screen. It just made me feel good to see the Africa Tree.

Once, I saw something unusual – a large hawk sitting on a low branch of the tree. It squawked at me in a low, sandpapery voice, as if to say, ‘I see you, buddy’. I tried to get close to it without scaring it off, and here is the result.

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Since then, I’ve not seen a single bird roost in its branches. That’s why I think it’s lonely. No birds, no animals, just Farmer Brown, twice a year – when he plants the corn, and when he harvests it. I imagine the tractor has to give the Africa Tree a wide berth. Maybe the farmer appreciates it too.

World of Pain – Cream

I hope the Africa Tree stays around for many more years. I’ll be keeping tabs. Wherever I happen to live, I will always drive by the cornfields to see how its doing. If it’s not there, I’ll be sad.

Hang in there, tree.

 

 

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The Rent is Too Damn High

When I found a large brown envelope sitting on my front stoop, I knew exactly what it was. Inside was my new annual lease. I also knew that is contained an increase in rent, as it did every year – I just didn’t know how big.

I brought it inside and set it down, unopened.

For about ten months of the year, I love where I live. It’s a large apartment complex, surrounded by meadows, woods and cornfields. If you were to visit me in mid-summer, you might think this was rural Nebraska instead of a smallish city in New Hampshire. So the surroundings are great.

Inside my place is pretty cool too. Two bedrooms. A large living room. Two bathrooms. An extra tiny kitchen (I’ve gotten used to it). And two floors, with a washer and dryer off one of the bedrooms. This last one was a huge selling point. No more skulking off to the laundromat every Saturday.

So I live in my apartment and when I feel like a walk, there’s space for that. It’s safe here; I usually keep my door unlocked if I’m gone for a short time. My car stays unlocked all the time.

In Good Hands.

Just when I feel settled in my nest, all is right with the world and there are no clouds in the sky, the inevitable happens. The rent goes up.

When it happens, I start to think about this place very differently. A dark cloud the size of the mother ship moves in and blots out the sun. I just want to rent a U-Haul and get the hell out, right now.

Our property manager, Eric, who does not set the rent but collects it, is a nice guy. But when the rent changes, he suddenly becomes Old Man Potter. I know it’s useless to call him up and complain, because there’s nothing he can do.

The bad feeling lasts about one month before and one month after I finally sign the new dad-blasted lease.

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So this year, I tried something new. I held my breath, opened the brown envelope, and once my heart restarted I wrote a letter.

But not to Eric. I wrote to the owner, the big cheese, the president of Mesiti Real Estate. Bear in mind that I’ve never met the guy or even seen him. He may not exist. But his name is on the website.

My letter was short and to the point. I told him that I wouldn’t mind a four percent increase in rent if my salary had gone up that much. But in fact, my pay had gone up zero percent. If he would consider keeping my rent increase closer to 2.1 percent (the current rate of inflation), I’d appreciate it.

I also mentioned a few things that had bothered me lately, like the dead leaves building up in the carport, the window frame that never gets painted, the patch of earth outside my door that needs seeding. Little things, that if done, would make me happier.

I signed off saying I’d be happy to stay and tell all my friends about this place. If only. Then I mailed it off.

The Candidates’ Debate

I’ve not heard back yet. I may never hear back. But it’s nice to know that I’ve communicated my feelings in a calm, dignified way. I don’t want to run for mayor under The Rent is Too Damn High party. And I don’t really want to move.

I think I know how this will end. But you know I’m right, right? The rent IS too damn high.

It’s all I want.

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Presidents’ Day

So today is Presidents’ Day. I guess we have to celebrate them all now, even the one from my home state, Franklin Pierce. It’s only fair I suppose.

Quite a few presidents have served in my lifetime. I should think about them for a bit….

I was born in the Eisenhower administration. Alaska and Hawaii became states that year. Vice President Nixon debated Khrushchev in a model kitchen. But I was just a baby, concerned with other things, like colors and shapes.

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My memory was still pretty hazy in November of 1963. I recall the family, all home together as the usual television programs were pre-empted for a funeral. All I could see was a horse-drawn long wagon with a flag covering something inside. I asked what was happening. Nobody answered.

President Johnson was just an old guy with big ears who used to pop up on TV every now and then. I had no clue what he was talking about. The grown ups in my world sometime disagreed with him, usually about his decision to send more troops to Vietnam.

Nixon beat my elementary-school-era choice for president in 1968, Hubert Humphrey. I guess I just liked Humphrey’s face. I had no opinion about Nixon until years later, and even then was unclear about the whole resignation thing. I heard a lot of older people saying, “Hey, they all do that stuff. Nixon just got caught, that’s all.” Um, no.

I kind of liked Gerald Ford. He had this everyman quality. The press gave him a sort of honeymoon, until he pardoned Nixon. Then the gloves came off.

I much preferred Ford to the peanut farmer who came out of nowhere, Jimmy Carter. I still don’t know how the hell Carter won, but every time he spoke I cringed at that stupid accent. Fast forward several decades and I have great respect for ex-president Carter.

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The peanut farmer debated a former actor in October of 1980. I was now eligible to vote, but stayed home. These were my choices? Forget it. Reagan seemed to live a charmed existence, even acquiring a nickname, The Teflon President. Until he got shot. But even after that. Until Iran-Contra.

I voted for Walter Mondale in 1984. The next four years went by very slowly.

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I liked George Bush, the father. He looked and sounded like he knew what he was doing. He took us to war, but it was a controlled one, with a firm ending date. The economy tanked after that, and he seemed clueless. Too bad. A new guy came along with the tagline, It’s the Economy, Stupid, and he won.

Bill Clinton was the first winning presidential candidate that I had voted for. He got off to a shaky start, but was a quick study. He got so good at the job he seemed to disappear into it, until the sex scandal. That odd episode seems almost quaint today.

George Bush, the son? You gotta be kidding me. Hated, hated, hated him. Dragged us into never ending wars. Now he paints portraits of wounded veterans. Wish I was making this up.

I thought 2008 would never arrive.

But it did, and my choice for president was elected again. I think we all took Obama for granted. The finest leader in my lifetime, who seemed born for the job. There were long periods that I could actually forget about the president, because he was No Drama Obama, and I knew we were in good hands.

Unlike today, goddamn it.

 

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