Blowing in the Wind

"Cake? For me?" I was a happy camper at age four.
“Cake? For me?” I was a happy camper at age four.

When your birthday falls on or around Christmas, people tend to offer you sympathy, as if it must be your loss, being overshadowed, and most likely overlooked, by the grander celebrations taking place worldwide.

I was never bothered. For me, the lights, the music, the cookies, the hint of magic in the frosty air, all lent a festive note to the annual observation of my entry into this particular life, which has outlasted my childish dream of happy endings for us all. I now know far too much to put my weight on that flimsy branch. At this point in the narrative I am high up on the tree, and avoid looking down whenever possible.

However, during that brief golden age when I still tried to twist the facts as they entered my precocious mind, wanting to believe in such a character as Santa Claus, for instance, while preferring not to believe that my parents were liars, I had a few Christmases that imprinted on my emotional retina as firmly as any snowy Currier and Ives print.

Christmas only happened in one place back then: my grandparents house in Erie, Pennsylvania. Even after my father moved our family down to Virginia, we still drove over the river and through the Pennsylvania Turnpike tunnels to the deep snow and cousin-rich comfort of Erie, a town whose hey-day was over long before I was born there. I didn’t know this then, and wouldn’t have cared. It was the one place where I felt safe from the mockery of my peers.

One of the most disorienting things about moving to Virginia was the not-so subtle shift in what qualified as humor among the children my age. Whether it was my sheltered nerdiness that drew their attention, or simply their instinct to rough up newcomers, whatever. I was shy to begin with; after a few months of southern “hospitality” I was disinclined to open up to anyone. It took me years to learn the system, and to develop my own protective shell of tough humor.

In our current climate of paranoia and aggression, a sense of safety seems more elusive than ever. I feel for parents who send their kids to public school, and I have nothing but the highest respect for the teachers brave enough to keep trying to bring light into this modern dark age.

It’s tempting to draw the wagons and lock down in full defensive mode. But if we give up on all the things that make life worth living, then the lunatics have won.

Humor is an essential part of humanity. When people lose the ability to laugh, especially at themselves, they risk losing their ability to empathize, and without empathy there can be no compassion. And without compassion … Right.

So here we are. Another Christmas season. Songs of joy and peace, etc. And, as usual, the world seems poised on the brink of another apocalyptic finale. Well, if we’ve learned anything from Hollywood it’s that nothing is ever final. There’s always a sequel, a prequel or a remake. In real life we’re fascinated by makeovers. We’re told there are no do overs.

But who really knows? Maybe life is like those trick candles on the birthday cake that keep relighting themselves. Maybe we get to keep blowing our chances until we get it right, like in Kate Atkinson’s weirdly compelling novel Life After Life.

Seems like a lot of work, if you ask me. But you didn’t. So I’ll just get back to blowing out these candles. Time’s a wastin’.


Over the River and Through the Woods

Cheap thrill: crossing the ford through Rock Creek in 1960.
Cheap thrill: crossing the ford through Rock Creek in 1960.

When my family moved from Pennsylvania to Northern Virginia in the early 1950s we lived for a while in a small motel on Arlington Boulevard, near Fort Myer, while my parents looked for a house.

We were within Frisbee range of the Nation’s Capitol. Of course we didn’t have one back then. Flying discs were still a new West Coast idea and hadn’t yet evolved to become a lifestyle.

However my Dad was enthusiastic about the educational and cultural opportunities that would be ours living near the Big City. And in time, we did learn a lot as we explored D.C., Alexandria, and points west. We went to the Smithsonian regularly. We heard free concerts by military orchestras on the steps above the Potomac River.

But most memorable of all, we went often to the National Zoo. To do so at that time, we traveled by way of Rock Creek Parkway, fording the creek just before we got to the zoo. We drove our 1954 Ford station wagon right through the water. This, from a child’s viewpoint, was real adventure.

That ford across the creek is no longer an option for today’s zoo visitors. Times change and with them the roads we travel.

When we first settled in Northern Virginia there was no beltway. Route 66 hadn’t razed its way through the heart of old Falls Church and Arlington. There were still a few cow pastures and horse barns at the small intersection known as Tyson’s Corner. There was no Roosevelt Bridge, etc. etc.

So, yeah, I must be old. But the beauty of old, if you’re lucky enough to get there with a few brain cells intact, is the perspective.

I still love the zoo. In some ways it’s better than ever. It has all kinds of support organizations and activities for all ages. There are pandas now. All they had were regular bears when I was a kid. They have free-ranging orangutans and fabulous new elephant facilities. Right now, for the holiday season, they have ZooLights, a great way to spend time in the cold and dark with your kids, or just to release your inner child.

But you can’t drive your car through a stream to get there anymore. And you’ll have to pay to park.


Let The Freak Flag Fly

Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.
Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.

The crisp feeling in the air, the rustle of dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk, the scent of fresh apples — these things signal the most poetic time of the year, for me.

Others may wax nostalgic about spring or soft summer nights, and those things have their appeal. But nothing quite compares to the bittersweet bliss of October, when the world tilts toward the darkness again, at least in this hemisphere. There is a rush of energy to this autumnal shift, a sense of urgency. Time’s a wastin’, get the harvest in. The season hums with a “back-to-school,” anything-can-happen mood of fresh opportunity.

This mood changed my life back in October of 1969, when there were a lot of fresh ideas, and some recycled ones, adrift on the shared consciousness of our nation. At that time I had already dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, and tuned in to the mesmerizing pull of a group of scruffy musicians in the D.C. area who were gaining momentum on the local scene.

They started out as a trio, guitar, bass and drums. Within a few months that core had expanded to a collective whose appearances included anywhere from six to 12 performers on stage. The repertoire was eclectic and the group dynamic was volatile, but when they were going good, they were as good as anybody, and better than many.

For the last century, to play in a band has become almost a rite of passage for a large percentage of America’s youth. The type of music doesn’t matter. It’s the playing that defines us.

The United States is a nation of bands. But what makes a band different from individual musicians who may be more skilled and talented than the average band, is that bands can only exist through consensus. And consensus is never easy. Ask anyone in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning of the band that dominated my life for three years, we all lived together in one house. When the band grew too big to fit into the house we shared in D.C., we found an old farmhouse in the Virginia countryside and moved there. The house was big and rambling, but it wasn’t designed to accommodate a horde. There were enough rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they weren’t equal in size or charm. The question of who should get the best, or biggest, room was discussed. In the end, it was decided that the order of choice would be decided by a cut of the cards. The day before the move happened to be the drummer’s birthday. He was late to the card cutting and as it turned out the card he drew was the lowest.

Yet, as the guys went through the house for the first time the next day (none of them had seen it before; in order to rent the house we had sent our most respectable looking pair to negotiate the deal, keeping the musicians out of sight) each found a room that suited his needs. And most were happy, with the possible exception of the organ player who chose one of the smallest rooms because it had the only private bath, which later proved to be nonfunctioning. Also one of the lead singers chose an attic room that had great potential after he lobbied to have the group pay for his building supplies to fix it up. Those supplies are probably still sitting up there in the dust.

But the drummer, choosing last, selected an overlooked room above the kitchen. It had its own private staircase to the kitchen, thus ensuring a good spot in the line for dinner, and was the warmest room in the house, a key plus in the drafty old structure.

We were happy for a while in that old house. Everything the band earned was used to pay our expenses. The musicians got one dollar per gig.

If that sounds like communism, I suppose it was to an extent. But it was more than that. It was a democratic commune. We debated every expenditure. The milk vs beer argument was never won by either side. And there were other, ahem, expenses.

By the time the band broke up a couple of years later, we were no longer living together. We got together for gigs, but the day-in-day-out sharing of good times and bad had lessened, and without that daily closeness, understanding and sympathy lose the race with self-interest and ambition.

Yet the funny thing is, the band enjoyed its peak when everyone was more concerned about the group as a whole than about themselves as individuals. The willingness to work for the good of the whole benefits all the parts.

This is the key not simply to rock and roll survival, but to national strength. We in this country like to think of ourselves as champions of individual freedoms. But what made this country great in the first place was the readiness of all the individuals who sacrificed for the good of the whole.

It might sound corny, but sometimes nothing swings like the basics. The country that plays together stays together. We may never agree on the milk vs beer question, but as long as we keep the discussion civil, we still have a chance for greatness.

Why Not A Duck?

My brother Jeff watched the  baby ducks enjoy our backyard stream.
My brother Jeff watched the ducks enjoy our backyard stream.

Audiences are trained to expect comedy from ducks.

Consider Donald. Also Daffy. And, of course, the Marx Brothers, who, while not ducks themselves, knew the value of a good duck joke.

So perhaps it’s understandable that when writer/director Nicole Bettauer’s 2005 independent film Duck was released some people were dismayed by the serious issues and quiet tragedy embedded in the plot. Some internet ranters apparently felt that they’d been swindled, sold a false bill of goods. And in their defense, it must be said that the movie’s original tagline: “Think outside the flock,” is a bit enigmatic.

I was instantly intrigued when I first learned of the film. I put it in our Netflix queue last year. And there it sat, for months, constantly bumped lower by some shiny new release, or “important” film that had to be seen.

But last weekend “Duck” finally waddled out of the queue and into my heart. That’s right naysayers. I liked it.

Yes, it made me cry. But it also made me feel somehow hopeful in spite of everything. And if you’ve been reading your newspapers and feeding at the online Trough of Doom, you know that only lottery ticket buyers and reality show contestants really know how to hope.

The film stars longtime character actor Philip Baker Hall as Arthur Pratt, a widowed man in Los Angeles who has lost everything while caring for his dying wife. At the start of the film he is planning to end his life.

So then, the moment duck fans have been waiting for: an orphaned baby duck comes into the picture and takes an immediate shine to Arthur. In some other film, this could have evolved into a sort of Up parable about destiny, making the most of every minute, blah, blah, blah. (Don’t get me wrong. Up is great. But apples and oranges.) What transpires in Duck is more of a mystic journey through the loveless underbelly of a dying city. Yay! Dystopia! It’s all the rage.

As a suddenly homeless person, with a duck, Arthur has to find a way to survive in a society that views him as a quack. I won’t spoil it for anyone who might want to see Duck, but I have to say, there are some surprises. There are lots of movies about boys with dogs, girls with horses, even musicians with cats. There aren’t a lot buddy movies with a duck as the co-star.

It’s possible I was drawn to this film because in the first years of my life we had ducks at the house where I was born in Erie. A small stream with a little bridge over it ran through the backyard. My dad bought a bunch of baby ducks that lived for a while in a pen until they got big enough to paddle in the stream. I don’t know what happened to them after we moved away. I’d like to think their offspring are still swimming around in Lake Erie, unless they’ve relocated to L.A. to work as extras on Duck Two: The Punchline.

Baby ducks just naturally go with the flow.
Baby ducks just naturally go with the flow.


Summer in the City

Claude Jones played for free under the stars at Fort Reno Park in 1970.
Claude Jones played real good for free at Fort Reno Park in 1970.

Everybody sing: “Back of my neck gettin’ hot and gritty.”

In 1966, whether you lived on a farm or in a penthouse, chances are you heard that Lovin Spoonful hit floating on the breeze. It was everywhere for a few weeks that summer while it rose to number one on popular music charts.

With its catchy rhythm track that included the sound of car horns and even a jackhammer, the song evoked the kind of pressure cooker atmosphere that makes living in a major city such an adrenaline boost. You either love it or you don’t.

I did. Having been raised in the suburbs, I couldn’t wait to make my home in a city. In the summer of ’68, I lived in Washington, D.C..

The District is always full of energy and passionate people espousing causes. That summer was unique. The city was recovering from the riots that tore through downtown in the spring. Anti-war sentiment mixed with a surge of frustration and anger after the murder of Martin Luther King had left many people feeling hopeless and bitter.

But life goes on. And when we have a choice of either working to make things better or tearing down the whole country, I’d like to think our better natures will prevail. They did in 1968. People regrouped, rebuilt, and continued the process of trying to make things better for everyone.

One of the small steps taken in that summer of 1968 was the beginning of the summer in the parks free music concerts at Fort Reno Park in the Tenleytown neighborhood. Tenleytown was fairly low-key back then. There was no Whole Foods, no metro stop, and Wilson High School was relatively small.

The stage was nestled under some trees next to a basketball court. The concerts were casual and eclectic. I have fond memories of those first few summers in the city.

The city has changed a lot since then, but I was happy to see that the Fort Reno concerts are still going strong. Stronger than ever in some ways. The stage has been moved to an open field, and the crowds are much bigger. In fact, the scene has become so popular that this week there was talk on the news about shutting it down because the Park Service wanted organizers to provide paid security staff. As there is no budget for this, there was concern that it would be the end of an era. At present, it looks like the crisis has been averted, and I, for one, am glad.

Summer in the city, any city,  is a special time. When large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, their chances to interact are influenced by the architecture of the city in which they live. Unlike New York City,  D.C. has no Central Park. Our riverfront is a work in progress. But our parks are vibrant and plentiful and full of life in the summer. The chance to enjoy free music together is an essential element of our shared environment.

Another song that got a lot of airplay in the late sixties was “Get Together.” Written by Chet Powers  in 1964, it became a hit after The Youngbloods released their version in 1967. The lyrics might strike modern ears as too earnest and sappy, but the message still resonates, even for today’s bright young millennials with their cute chapeaux and sustainably sourced optimism.

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another right now.

You need a lot more than love, of course. You need affordable housing, a decent job, access to health care — subjects too weighty for popular music. But lightweight as it may be, the songs of summer help lift the mood when the going gets sweaty.

It’s July. Let’s get together and celebrate the music of warm summer nights.

My Heart Belongs to Laddy

My Dad, who woul dhave been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.
My Dad, who would have been 91 tomorrow, was a lifelong cat lover, but he had room in his heart for dogs. This is Laddy, our collie who made life interesting in our tiny house until he bit the mailman and had to move to a farm where there was more room for him to run off his high energy.

Did we learn nothing from Planet of the Apes?

While that classic sci-fi film may be a bit dated and far-fetched, the ideas it raised remain compelling. In particular, the way the film exposes the tendency of humans to view themselves as masters of all other species.

Of course, we have books, written by humans, which codify this conceit. However, simply because something is written in a book, or even a law, doesn’t make it necessarily true or right. The argument has been around for centuries, long before Darwin suggested another way of looking at things. Yet we are no closer to a clear understanding of the Big Picture, even when it’s screened on IMax.

So why do I care? Well, this morning, in my glutton for punishment way, I was reading the newspaper and came across a story about recent research into the mechanisms that cause depression. Such studies have been going on for decades. You might hope they would have figured it out by now. But no. What they have figured out is how to cause debilitating depression in mice. And dogs.

That’s when I began to feel depressed myself.

I mean, obviously I understand the need to conduct research to find life-saving drugs. And I realize that it isn’t always possible to use human subjects for all tests. Yet when it comes to problems humans face, stress doesn’t seem to me to be high on the list. Yes, we live in stressful times. But there has always been stress. Being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger? Not exactly a theme-park thrill. Yet stress is a natural part of existence, and overcoming naturally occurring stress is part of the process of being alive.

But there’s stress and there’s stress. Someone you love dies or becomes very ill, that’s stress. When someone forces you to walk barefoot on an electrified floor with no apparent means of escape, that’s torture. A different breed of stress entirely.

That electrified floor was used on dogs in a well-known 1967 study which showed that when dogs are made to feel that they have no options, they develop what is called “learned helplessness.” In other words, they learn to give up hope. This induced depression can be traumatizing to a human. How much more traumatic it must be to a dog, a creature which has been bred to trust humans.

I have no moral high ground on the issues of animal rights. I’m no vegetarian. But I draw the line at dogs. Also cats, but that’s a much harder argument to win.

Dogs, on the other hand, are, in fact, Man’s Best Friend. Everybody knows this. Even people who claim to dislike dogs have to respect the heroic qualities of our canine companions. They sniff out bombs, they save babies from burning buildings, they lead the blind, they comfort the sick and aging. They go into battle and they don’t do it for medals. They do these things because we ask them to.

For some incredible reason, dogs love us. God knows why.

Some may argue that we humans deserve our “right” to dominion over all the animals because of our superior intellect. I would argue that if we wish to consider ourselves “superior” to any other species the proof of this edge must begin with greater compassion for all other species. But especially dogs.

A few years ago the brilliant comic writer Tom Holt penned a remarkable satire called Blonde Bombshell which riffed wildly on the idea of a planet where “a dog’s best friend is his man.” It’s a lot funnier than Planet of the Apes, though that may owe something to the fact that a human dressed up as an ape could never hope to rival a golden retriever.

It’s been more than two thousand years since a wise teacher gave us a golden tip: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The luster of that line has sadly dimmed in these me-first  times, and realistically, maybe we’ll never be able to love one another. But if we can at least learn to treat our best friends as well as we’d like to be treated, that would be a start.


Picture This

I shot this portrait of my brothers Sam and Josh in 1959 with my first camera, this portrait of my brothers
I shot this portrait of my brothers Sam and Josh in 1959 with my first camera.

When I was nine years old I got my first camera through an offer on the back of a comic book. It wasn’t a Nikon.

However, although the camera was limited, it allowed me to take my first steps in the mysterious dance with time that is photography.

Not everyone feels driven to capture the fleeting moments in which we exist. But these days it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing someone taking a photo with their phone or camera or other device. The volume of images being made at this point in history must surely be the largest ever. And yet I wonder, of this bounty how many will be cherished in years to come?

As someone who grew up when “taking a picture” usually meant a break in the action, and often honored a significant event or gathering, the modern mania for documenting every passing second of one’s passage through life, including, but certainly not limited to, endless portraits of pets and pals, as well as selfies,  I am bemused by my fellow humans and often delighted by their photos.

Still, the question remains: what will become of all these images? In the past, historians and archivists laboriously catalogued and preserved precious photos. But when the pixels pile up like grains of sand on a beach, will sheer volume be enough to guarantee a footnote in history? Or will these digital images be lost to oblivion like so many virtual sandcastles?

In the new televised version of Carl Sagan’s classic science series “Cosmos,” Neil deGrasse Tyson at one point uses a photograph to illustrate the concept of space/time. He describes how light moving through space could be carrying images from all of history, so that, in theory, if you could travel faster than the speed of light (big if) you could conceivably catch up with your past self and perhaps have a chat with your long lost parents or whomever. Right. In a sci-fi universe all things are possible.

Here and now, in our everyday “can-I-put-you-on-hold?” universe, time isn’t so easy to stop, much less slow down enough to catch. Unless you own a camera or better yet a really smart phone.

I didn’t get a “real” camera until I was in college, where I learned to use a dark room and went through a phase of trying to take “artistic” photos. But film and darkroom chemicals and paper had to be bought, and money was scarce, so I never shot photos with the kind of wild abandon that kids today take for granted. As a result, the few photos I have from those early days actually are precious to me. And the older I get the more precious they become.

Some people think photos are a waste of time and space, a self-indulgent exercise in vanity and self-promotion. Surely some of them are. Maybe a lot of them. I went through a period in my cocky youth when I rarely if ever took photographs of anything. I was into letting go of possessions, living in the moment, all that Zen crap.  I’ve had plenty of time to kick myself since then.

Thus, when my kids came along, I went nuts with the photos. I’ve got shoeboxes full of them. Sometimes I can barely stand to look at them because each one brings back a world of memories. And you know how it is with memories. They’re always blended, joy and pain woven tighter than a starlet’s red carpet gown. Lights, cameras, tears.

I have tried to stop taking so many pictures. I’ve thought about why I do it, and I believe it as a lot to do with the recognition that all of this — life, the universe, and everything — from ice cream cones to puppies and roses — cannot last forever. But a photo? Those shoeboxes will be orbiting Neptune when I’m long gone. And time traveling me of the future will be so happy to open them and see those faces I will never forget.

This photo, also shot with my first camera, shows one of my Dad's early efforts to share his passion for trains. The cat, Meow, was another of my Dad's ideas. The bear rug under the train set was given to us by someone Dad had helped move or something. Details are sketchy. But there it is. Proof that for a while we had a bear rug. Funky, but true.
This photo, also shot with my first camera, shows one of my Dad’s early efforts to share his passion for trains. The cat, Meow, was another of my Dad’s ideas. The bear rug under the train set was given to us by someone Dad had helped move or something. Details are sketchy. But there it is. Proof that for a while we had a bear rug.

Carefully Taught

Even though I rode a bike at a young age, I knew I was a girl. Check out the footwear.
Even though I rode a bike at a young age, I knew I was a girl. Check out the footwear.

Contrary to popular mythology, I didn’t learn everything I know from my cat.

I was schooled by the lyrics of Broadway musicals. In our house when I was growing up, these classic gems of melody and harmony and wit were played regularly on the tiny turntable in the living room which served as our entire “sound system,” the same system that played “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hounddog” and “Bye Bye Love.” And along with learning all of Elvis’s moves and the Everly Brothers’ songs, I learned the words to all the songs in My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, and, perhaps most beloved, South Pacific.

Set in World War II, that Rogers and Hammerstein romantic drama included some genuinely thoughtful songs about prejudice and gender issues. The most memorable of these, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” eloquently expresses the pressure societies exert to ensure that rigidly held conventions remain unchallenged, as the American Lieutenant sings to the island girl he loves: “You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, to hate all the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Last week when I read in the news about the eight-year-old Virginia girl who was asked to leave the Christian school in which she was a student because she failed to “dress and act like a girl” I was appalled. Of course private schools make their own rules. And that’s their right. But as a former tomboy myself, I was shocked and dismayed to see yet another example of how little we’ve changed as a species.

I grew up as the only girl in a family of five kids  in the ’50s in Northern Virginia. I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs for much of the time, except to school of course, where girls were expected to wear skirts or dresses. Thing were different then. But outside of school and church, I wore pants. Try riding a bike in skirts, fellas. Talk about drafting.

Close to Washington, D.C., the area tended to be less conservative than much of Virginia, but even so, traditional views were still in force. Title IX, which opened the doors for girls to play sports with something approaching equal support in 1972, didn’t exist back then. The idea of gender equality wasn’t taken seriously. Men were in charge. Women took dictation.

All of that has changed for much of the world, thankfully. But clearly not everyone is happy with the changes. People who yearn for a time when things seemed simpler may try to put the Jeannie back in the crinoline, but I don’t think women will stand for it anymore.

I recently watched “Wadjda,” the first film directed by a Saudi Arabian woman shot entirely in Saudi Arabia. This amazing film, which centers on the struggles of a 10-year-old girl who wants to own a bicycle, has garnered considerable critical acclaim.  The young girl who plays the lead shines with pluck and resourcefulness. But what makes the film so important, from a gender standpoint, is how it reveals the incredibly restrictive social conditions for women in Saudi Arabia.

Wadjda wants a bicycle because she wants to race her friend, who is a boy. In the film gangs of boys ride bikes all over the place. But girls are discouraged from riding bikes because of the commonly held belief that bike riding will destroy their virginity, and thus make them unmarriageable.

Yikes. I remember hearing similar tales when I was growing up. In the real “olden days” that’s why ladies were supposed to ride sidesaddle — not to protect their skirts but to protect their virginity. Anything to keep the women from passing the menfolks.

I rode a bike everywhere when I was 10 years old. Well, not everywhere, because I was a girl. My brothers were always allowed more freedom, and whenever they could do something I wasn’t allowed to do, I asked my father why I couldn’t. The answer was always: “Because you’re a girl.”

I understand now that he was trying to protect me from a world full of dangers, many of them men. But at the time I only felt the unfairness. As a child I wanted to live in a just world, where everyone has the same freedoms, the same opportunities, the same benefits.

I’m still waiting. But signs of progress are everywhere. That eight-year-old tomboy who got kicked out of her Christian school? Her grandparents stood by her and she moved to another school. And Wadjda? I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone, but trust me, fortune favors the brave.

Wheels of destiny, turning still.
Wheels of destiny, turning still.

Not Cool

Nothing says cool like a red beret, n'est ce pas?
When I was 11-years-old I wanted nothing more than to be cool, Daddio.

So I read in the news that Facebook is not cool anymore.

Some of us had doubts about its coolness in the first place. But now it’s official, according to an article in a British newspaper which declared that Facebook is no longer the platform of choice for the critical 16-to-18 -year-old demographic.

You realize what this means, of course. We can all stop worrying about trying to be update our photos and liking everyone else’s. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a great sense of peace about this.

And it’s nice that this news comes out just in time for the traditional end-of-the-year lists of what’s hot and what’s not. Oh sure, it’s trivial stuff for the most part. I mean who isn’t sick of hearing about Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber?

But those lists somehow mesmerize anyway. You find yourself reading them in the same way you might take a quiz in a magazine while waiting in the dentist’s office, not because you care, really, but, you know, just so you’ll stay current. Hah.

The thing about currency is that it only works if it keeps changing hands. The same could be said of fame, another type of currency. The brilliance of yesterday’s stars dims in the shadow of tomorrow’s bright comets. It has ever been thus.

For my generation, the boomers who rode into town on a hip-shaking wave of rock and roll only to crash and burn when the conflicting forces of corporate greed and pie-eyed optimism left us stranded in suburban wastelands that register zero on the walkability meter, the cooling off period has been a bit humbling.

Still. We soldier on. Our freak flags may droop a bit, yet our pie-eyed optimism remains fruity and wholesome.

But cool we ain’t. Our cool days were long ago. Way before Facebook even existed. Yet I’m okay with that. I had a few cool moments. Now I’m more into warmth, sharing, kindness, puppies, etc.

Cool was hot in the early fifties, before most of the current “cool kids” were born. I imagine they have their own vocabulary for what cool meant to their parents. For us, it wasn’t simply Miles Davis and Alan Ginsburg. It wasn’t only Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Steve Allen and Nina Simone. It was a whole complex of ideas and energy and style that roared into the culture after the boys came home from World War Two. It was an awareness of how fleeting life is, and how fast it goes by, and a determination to make the most of every minute.

As another New Year’s eve approaches, new lists of ins and outs will circulate. Facebook will likely be nudged onto the out list by some new app. How apt.

Meanwhile, I’ll be updating my status with a glass of wine and a fine film, enjoying the serenity that comes from knowing I don’t have to try to be cool anymore. And that’s really cool.

Tinsel Town

Nothing says the '50s like a poodle skirt.
Nothing says the ’50s like a poodle skirt.

Tinsel. Is it retro, passé, or environmentally irresponsible?

Don’t ask me. I only know it ain’t what it used to be. But then, what is?

As another Christmas eve hurtles closer on a wave of emotional expectations and quiet dread, I am, as usual, engulfed by memories of Christmas Past.

I was born on Christmas eve. And, although I have no memories of that event, I do have a visual in my head, thanks to my father, who many times described that night he spent staring out the hospital window at the falling snow, while my mother was busy down the hall, bringing me into the world. This was back when fathers weren’t allowed into delivery rooms, much less permitted to video the entire proceedings.

Things were different. Christmas was different. The tinsel we put on our trees was actually made of some sort of metal, though I find it hard to believe it was tin. I do know it would get wrinkled and kinked. Some of us hung it one strand at time, savoring the process.

I loved everything about Christmas when I was a young child. I loved going up to my grandparents’ house in Erie. The snows were deeper up there, and more constant. Winter settled in for the season. It didn’t come and go like a fickle boyfriend the way it does in Virginia. The long and perilous drive through the dark tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike lent an aspect of adventure to the trip. And when we got to my grandmother’s house, I got to sleep in a room by myself, while my brothers took over the sleeping porch.

In the years since those times my feelings about Christmas have changed, as has the holiday itself. Some people, habitual ranters, complain about this. But it’s not Christmas’s fault. I’m not sure blame can be assigned. Because Christmas, with all its cookies and carols, its ribbons and wrappings, its greed and grace, is just part of the warp and woof of the fabric of time, blended in there with all the other calendar items, spinning round and round life’s crazy carousel. We try to grab the brass ring when we’re young. It’s not brass anymore; carousels have gone plastic like everything else. But we’re still spinning, and the older I get the faster it seems to go.

When I was a parent of young children myself, I tried to recreate for them the sense of comfort and mystery and joy that Christmas gave me as a child. Like so many parenting experiences, it made me feel inadequate and helpless. I wanted to give my children a sense of the possibility of miracles in this dark and uncertain life. Yet when I look back on it now, I’m glad I at least tried to keep the spark alive.

In ancient times pagans lit bonfires to warm the midwinter nights. We string colored lights on our roofs. Each generation creates its own magic. The longest night of the winter is past, but we have a ways to go before we emerge from the tunnel.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a safe journey.