Monday, June 20, 2005


As I've gotten older, I've finally figured out that there's a difference between being tired and being fatigued, perhaps one not recognized by the standard dictionary definition.

To me, being "tired" is a physical state, one usually brought on by hard work or lack of sleep. I'm familiar with being tired, having rowed a canoe with a pretty full load as a six-foot, 15-year old partnered up with two sub-five and a half foot 12-year olds rowing on the same side to counter-balance my stroke, up and down a few rivers in Florida and in Canada as a Boy Scout. Being tired was a way of life in law school, with late night library sessions and hours everyday trying to sort through hornbooks for legal arguments to respond to professors with if they decided to torture me in class. I remember being awakened many nights to the cries of my infant daughters, hungry or needing diaper changes, or having to go our and rock them back to sleep after my wife had fed them, then having to get up at the usual time in the morning to go to work. Being "tired" is a pretty easy concept to figure out and solve most of the time.

Being "fatigued" to me is a bit different; I tend to associate fatigue with a mental weariness brought on by stress and worry over things I usually don't have a lot of control over. The older I get, the more I get fatigued; the more I worry about being fatigued, the more fatigued I feel. There are days that I don't feel like doing anything, when it seems that all I'm doing is putting my finger in the dyke of life's struggles. I suspect most of the folks who are considered "depressed" are probably covered under my very scientific definition of fatigue. It doesn't mean I've got any answers for them, no more than I do for my own, but at least I can sympathize with them.

What makes me fatigued? Take your pick; the economy, the national leadership, the increasing death toll in Iraq, bills, a case load at work that never seems to stop, people who call for immediate answers that usually don't exist, mistakes I've made in the past that come back to haunt me, mistakes family members make that haunt me, worrying if I'm going to make it to my thirty years in the State Retirement System and if I can go another five years beyond that for the other retirement benefit program the State has provided for us underpaid employees, worrying about whether or not the other retirement benefit program will be there at the end of my thirty years, taxes, health issues for myself, my wife and the rest of our family, wondering if I'm really a walking-around moron who got really lucky in getting a job well suited for a walking-around moron, worrying about whether or not my cars will last a few more years, trying to find a new house to move into, worrying about whether or not the dream house we find we'll be able to afford in this era of sky-high real estate and, on top of everything else (since this is obviously not an exhaustive list), wondering if dementia or Alzheimers will affect me like it has a number of other relatives in my immediate family.

The nasty thing about being fatigued is that there really isn't much you can do about it. "Take a vacation" say the experts; sure, sure, there's that, but then I start worrying about where to go and whether or not the car will last to get us there without breaking down and how much it'll put us in the hole to go somewhere worth going to. "Trust modern pharmecuticals" say others, but that'll take away the edge I need to do my job. "Get a hobby", but where to put everything? The piece of advice I most enjoy? "Relax"; relax and do what? Worry some more? It's when I'm alone and things are quiet that I worry the most; conversely, it is when I'm busiest that I don't have as much time to think about all the stuff waiting for me in the wings like the guy with the big hook in Vaudeville.

It reminds me of the old silent movie with Lon Cheney, Sr. as this great clown who made everyone laugh during his performances. He's really depressed, so he goes to the doctor to tell him his troubles and see if something can be done for him. He has no other real relationships, romantic or otherwise. The doctor, not knowing whom he's really talking to, advises him to "Go see the clown at the Circus; he's great and will take your mind off of your troubles!". This, needless to say, doesn't do poor old Lon a whole lot of good. Sometimes, despite your troubles and the accompanying fatigue, you just have to muddle your way through things and remember that everyone else is probably in the same boat you are. Maybe you'll be just a little less fatigued and a little sharper on a particular day and you can stomp the other guy flat when you need to.

I'd say more, but I'm getting kinda tired....

Monday, June 13, 2005

On The Highwire

While reading the newspaper and drinking my cup of coffee this morning, I watched the last half of an old Cary Grant movie that isn't one of his better known ones these days, "People Will Talk". Basically, Grant is Dr. Noah Pratorius, a doctor at a small, Midwestern medical school/college. He saves the life of a young woman who'd tried to commit suicide because of an affair gone wrong that resulted in her pregnancy. Dr. Pratorius meets up with her father, a failed businessman, living along with his daughter on the farm of his hypocritical brother (who talks a lot about being self-sufficient and whines about having to pay taxes to the bloated government on one hand, while, as Dr. Pratorius points out, taking crop subsidies from the self-same bloated government). There's also a "bad" dog, whom Dr. Pratorius' mysterious companion, Mr. Shunderson, manages to tame in a very short period of time. Pratorius marries the girl, gives his new father-in-law and the formerly "bad" dog a new home and gets in trouble with a fellow professor who wants nothing more than to sully the good doctor's name and reputation. A faculty hearing is convened in which Pratorius is vindicated, Shunderson's secrets are revealed and the evil little professor is shown up for the vicious little weasel that he really is. Pratorius, who on the side is also the conductor of the college symphony, goes out to conduct Brahms' "Academic Overture" with excitement oozing out of every pore, while his wife is feeling the first kicks of the unborn child that Pratorius has no problem in raising as his own.

What the heck is my point, you ask? Well, there are a number of them that I could get into, like the fact that Pratorius is a nice guy with good friends who stand by him no matter how ugly the situation gets with the evil Dr. Ellwell, which is probably unrealistic in this day and age (unless you're a Republican who really likes Tom DeLay). I guess I could talk about how this is probably the ultimate Cary Grant movie, showing the difference between the guy on the screen and the real Cary, who wasn't probably nearly as nice or respectable (and who is?). If you were an anti-abortionist, you would probably point out that Pratorius never suggests that his wife get an abortion to rid herself of a child that will never have any of his DNA, but rather encourages her to keep the child with the understanding that he'll love it as his own, something you hear a lot of these days from those who want to outlaw abortion on demand (if you want to know my feelings about it, look back at my "Preferences" blog a while back). One could even talk at length about there being no "bad" dogs, just mistreated ones. No, I'd rather talk about being on the highwire.

As I pointed out earlier, Pratorius' second job at the unnamed Midwestern school is that of conductor of the student symphony, and his expression while leading them through the "Academic Overture" is rapturous, because he knows that they're doing a good job, he's doing a good job and, as a result, the audience is having a good time. It could have been worse; someone, like his Germanic professor friend who plays the bass fiddle (a wonderful character actor named Walter Sleazak; oddly enough, he was in Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" with the same actor who plays the evil Dr. Ellwell in "People Will Talk", with the moral roles reversed. In "Lifeboat", Sleazak was the evil U-Boat commander, plotting to bump off all the remaining castaways and the little guy was the naive young Merchant Marine officer. Cary Grant, about the same time, was playing an American submarine captain in "Destination Tokyo" in which he talks knowingly about how Japanese men don't understand our love for our women, among other things) could have messed up the tempo or flipped to the wrong page and played the wrong part in the wrong place, but no, everyone does what they are supposed to in the right way and everyone has a good time as a result. That is why live performances are so wonderful: if they go right, the excitement is palpable and the audience will go nuts and give a standing ovation; if things go wrong, everyone will look around stunned, like an artillery shell went off in the middle of things.

In the act of being creative, no matter what it is, the excitement and anxiety of the uncertainty of what might happen next is what makes the immediate act both fun and nerve wracking. You MIGHT succeed; you MIGHT fail. I did that in a recital once in Boy Scouts; when we had parents come to one of our weekly meetings at a Presbyterian Church in Sarasota, I decided to play the first movement to Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. I got a bad case of stage fright and rushed it to the point where it certainly wasn't moonlight coming our of the old grand piano I was playing, it was more like a laser beam. Much later in life I was the song leader for our church up here in North Florida; why I was chosen is still a mystery to me, since my voice was certainly nothing to brag about and I had no experience in leading a vocal group. I was terribly nervous, since I was the one who generally opened and closed out the services, but I could always tell when I was "on" and when I was "off". The emotions I felt when I was "on" and the congregation was also "on" were wonderful and nearly rapturous and I even felt confident enough to hold out the last note a little longer on a good song. Unfortunately, most of the time I was saddled by the preacher with some of the most horrible hymns to lead, somewhat akin to someone who is tone-deaf trying to sing the National Anthem at a baseball game.

Courtroom work is like that. You can tell during a trial when your case is going down the tubes, you can just feel it in the expressions of the jury. It is exhilarating when things are going right and your witnesses have said the right stuff with the proper expression in their voices. There isn't a feeling much worse, however, than when you know from the opening minutes of the trial or hearing that you're going to lose; I've been there too. The experience, however, good or bad, beats just sitting around not experiencing anything.

Maybe that's why listening to good music on a CD just isn't the same as listening to it in person; on a CD recording, you know that, unless you're listening to a live recording as opposed to a studio session, everything will be fine, every note hit correctly and with proper interpretation. It might not be the best you've ever heard, but it is safe. If you're in the audience with the performer live, however, you're never quite sure if the performer is going to somehow royally screw up or hit a once-in-a-lifetime, over the wall homerun. The tension is part of what makes a live performance exciting, since you never know what's coming next. Karl Wallenda probably had that sensation during his last performance in that long fall to his death off the highwire; at least the audience had a good show.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

All God's Children Got Guns

Turner Classic Movies ran the Marx Brothers' movie "Duck Soup" the other night. It's a great movie, probably the best farce ever put out on the American movie screen, nilhilstic to the Nth degree and absolutely bizarre. It's also a bit sad to watch, since the Brothers Marx never put out another one quite like it, their later movies being handled by studio bigwigs that apparently decided that the American public was generally too stupid to keep up with the high-speed humor coming out of Groucho's shoe-polished lips, the same mentality that gave us the laugh-track on TV in later years.

Of course, being the only male in the house meant that I was the only human watching the hilarity on the TV in my bedroom. Emily, our border collie/Aussie shepherd without a flock, was also watching it with me, though not exactly getting the jokes like I was. I've long since given up trying to convert my wife and daughters to the high holiness of slapstick. I'm the lone voice, laughing in the wilderness. There's something simply genetic about the male animal's ability to laugh at stuff that makes women cringe or roll their eyes in disgust. Jay Leno had it right a few years back in one of his stand-up routines; seeing Moe on the Three Stooges hit Curley in the face with a shovel IS funny, even if you have to laugh at it alone.

I'm afraid that the Marxian humor of "Duck Soup" would never make on the screens, movie or TV, today in our increasingly conservative, religious and buttoned-up society. The big musical number in the movie, played out in the Freedonian Parliament when Rufus T. Firefly and his allies declare war on their by-now invading neighbor, Sylvania, and the Marxes start doing an all-but-blackface bit with the words, "All God's Children Got Guns" would be lambasted now as anti-NRA propaganda (which, of course, it truly was) and the TV preachers and their elected allies would be denouncing it from their bully pulpits as "Communist" and "Liberal" , something only a Democrat would watch because it made wars look silly and childish. "Oh no", they'd say, "We must protect ourselves and our way of life by killing and imprisoning those who would threaten us, even if we really don't have any proof they are a threat". Anyone who disagrees, or even watches "Duck Soup" would be ostracized and painted as a foolish blue-stater. Everybody's gotta conform, everbody's gotta toe the line, everybody's gotta believe in the path chosen for us by the elected elites (and those who, working behind the lines, got them elected and who whisper in their ears the magic words that get repeated during press conferences and fund raisers).

That's the danger of "Duck Soup": Rufus T. Firefly didn't do things to appeal to the masses, he did them because it appealed to HIM. If graft in government was going on, woe be to the guy who didn't give Firefly his cut. That's what our current leadership doesn't want the masses to know, they want everyone to think that they are clean-cut, church-going and moral; they don't want the electorate knowing that, behind the scenes, they are just as venal, crooked and obscene as Rufus T. Firefly. They don't want us realizing that the Emperor really doesn't have new clothes. I guess it beats a shovel in the face.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Soul of the Matter

While I'm not a practitioner of any Eastern religion, I have to say that some of their ideas are certainly interesting, like reincarnation, for example. We all like the idea that this life isn't all there is and, while Christianity goes for the life eternal idea with the saved and the angels singing Allelujahs in the golden streets, the notion that I might come back in the next life as some sort of parasite living inside the nasal passages of a three-toed sloth in the South American rain forest does have some sort of weird appeal.

I prefer the idea of everything having some sort of soul. I suppose this is an offshoot of Animism in some regard, though I have to explain that I don't worship the things, just somehow feel that things have a soul, in and of themselves, that makes them special. I know I felt that way when a toy bomber I got for Christmas (quite cool, really; it came with a couple of lead-weighted bombs that you put into a bomb-bay that you operated with a button on top of the bomber. You would fly over a little tank that came with it and drop the bombs; it you hit it just right, the spring-loaded turret would pop up in the air and you could celebrate a kill) was damaged when the end of one of the wings was mashed a bit. I felt bad for the poor thing and somehow felt it had suffered pain. It didn't affect me the same way a few years later when it bit the dust and was relegated to the trash can.

I think I've noticed most particularly that a house has a soul. It comes alive when a particular family lives in it and it reflects them. The house I grew up in was that way, peculiar though it was. It was built by someone in the Masons back in 1925 (there was a Masonic symbol on the front walkway with a "G" initial), but my grandparents bought it in 1944, and it passed along to my parents in 1948 after the death of my grandfather. The old place was built of coquina-shell concrete ("tabby") and had jalousy windows, no air conditioning or central heat (unless you call the old oil furnace in the living room just outside my bedroom door a form of central heat, though you couldn't feel it even on its highest setting more than two feet away). It was almost a shotgun in design and probably no more than 1000 square feet in size. The floors were wood as was the paneling in the front bedroom and living room; all the other rooms had plaster walls with a rough finish. My room was painted yellow; not exactly a masculine color.

I did my best to personalize the old place. After my dad put in new blue and white tiles in the bathroom I, while sitting on the throne one day, playing some strange adventure in my head of military glory, used a pencil to draw a radar station on the tiles. Unfortunately, when I tried to erase it after I finished, I found that the radar station refused to disappear. The house had apparently decided to keep the ghost of it, somewhat like an old tattoo on a retired sailor that is kept as a story to tell the neighbors of days gone by. I actually think the old girl kept it as a means of torturing me for defacing it, waiting for someone to discover it and give me holy hell for messing up the new tile. Never happened, though; I never figured out if my parents noticed and just decided not to bring it up (knowing I was a little bit wacky) or if it was just so small and nondescript that they never saw it.

There was an indescribable nature to the old place that resurrected itself everytime I came home, whether from school, my job at the local movie theatre, from college, law school and finally with my own family from North Florida. It just felt the same. The smell was there, slightly musty and dusty, while the mugginess of the un-air conditioned air hung around like a damp towel in a lockerroom. The ritual of walking lightly on my toes continued for years after my parents complained that I made too much noise tromping around on my heels as a child on the wooden floor (since the house floor was not a slab, any tromping on the planks would make a noise that reverberated in the tiny place), a habit that has stuck with me in every place I've lived in ever since. Whenever I walked into the old homestead in Sarasota, no matter how many years later, while my parents were there, it just was always the same.

It was the same until my father died in late 2000 and my mother moved out, later to die in a nursing home in 2002. That's when the soul of the place died. It had something to do with my brother and I moving all the furniture out, mostly to a dumpster, and seeing the bare walls, empty of pictures and awards (mostly for exhibits at gem & mineral shows), hearing the sounds bouncing off the naked floors (after the remnants of ancient, dusty carpet were relegated to the dumpster) and the lack of cooking smells coming from the kitchen. The TV wasn't running, I didn't have to turn sideways to move through the hallway to avoid all the shelves holding long-forgotten artifacts and magazines collected over the years and there wasn't the odd tinkling of odds and ends of small things in mason jars and old vegetable cartons from supermarkets tapping together from the vibrations of footsteps. All the things and people that had made it our home, my home, were no longer there. The only thing that was a reminder that it had been my home, besides the memories, was the ghost of the radar station on the bathroom tile.