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July 25th, 2002

The Great Sears Catalog of Imperfections

When I was a child in a small town, we did not have many stores. At Christmas time, we chose our desired gifts from the Sears and Penney catalogs. My family was very generous at Christmas. Each child was permitted to wish list "three big things", which meant twenty to twenty five dollar things, and "three little things", which meant things under ten dollars. I do not recall ever being disappointed at Christmas, and some gifts I remember using for months, and in rare instances, years, after the day itself.

It's become the chic thing to do to blame everything in one's life on the effect of others in one's childhood. As with so many things, this is a matter of degree. Some folks are dealt really horrid hands, suffering abuse, neglect or, to make light of the situation, musicals involving the lyrics of Lorenz Hart. So many of the rest of us, though, have to resist the temptation to blame everything we aren't and may never be upon some quirk or flaw in our upbringing.

Without meaning to minimize any manifold sins and wickedness which my parents, my kindergarten teacher and my junior high football coach should humbly confess, I am enchanted with the idea that on some level, we "choose" many of our day to day flaws. We make choices about who we are, and we make them so persistently that they seem hard-wired. This can be good--I'm glad I made the choice that I love to read anything in sight. But it also serves as a very compelling explanation for what I do wrong as well. When I was five or six, I obviously prioritized organizational skills very low. As a result, the demon I always fight is the demon of how to straighten things up. It's almost as though I'm missing a gene for it, as I'm certainly not afraid of hard work, and yet even with hard work this comes very difficult to me. A similar flaw is my natural tendency to be a "loner" more than a "joiner". What toddler advantage did I perceive in this?

Rather than attribute all my many failings to my parents, our American free enterprise system or even a creative temperament, I prefer to think that much of this is a big Sears Christmas catalog. As I chose my "three big things" and "three little things", I must have made an alternative list for "crosses I wish to bear in this life". Santa Claus came at our home on Christmas Eve, inevitably when we were out driving around our neighborhood looking at none-too-remarkable-but-utterly-enchanting xmas lights after a meal of "bone in" (i.e., T-bone) steaks. I see now that he also left me the choices I made, on an invisible list I did not realize I was compiling, but whose gifts I now savor.

I am tempted to thank Santa, and the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog, for all the choices I've made that lead me to various of the blind alleys I'm in. I'd like to ask for the Sears catalog to resume production, though. You see, I've decided that my "three big things" and "three little things" on the flaw list need replacing, and Wal-Mart doesn't have what I want. I'll choose new flaws--a creative temperament, too much compassion, and an obsession for neatness, say--and I'll be under warranty for at least the next forty years. Thank you, Santa. Thank you, Sears. Most of all, I thank myself for all my many flaws.

Electric blues, eclectic views

Tonight I met my wife at the Dallas Arboretum, as we'd been invited by our friends at another law firm to their annual attendance at the arboretum's Thursday night live music on the lawn dealie. The arboretum overlooks White Rock Lake, one of the most enchanting urban lakes in Texas. The weather held up very nicely, as all the people with all the picnic baskets filed into the park. Two years ago, during the drought, the weather had been simpering misery. Tonight, under a clear sky, we watched children running through bubbles they'd made with a soap bubble machine, ate from healthy boxed sandwich dinners and talked with some of the nicest people I know.

The band was a blues band, intent on regaling us with standards like "Sweet Home Chicago". I am not one for electric blues, unless it is played by people with odd masks dressed in penguin suits or Foghat (which is much the same thing, actually). But this band, the Bill Tilson band, was by and large enjoyable. At one point, the vocalist did a drop-dead imitation of Jim "Dandy" Mangrum, the lead singer of my fellow countrymen, Black Oak Arkansas. Now Black Oak Arkansas was an odd metal-flected bluegrass weaned buncha sixties guys trapped in the 70s, so they are not exactly what you'd call "classic blues". I was just trying to decide whether it was Dr. John or Professor Longhair or early Muddy Waters with whom the vocalist tonight and Jim Dandy had their vocal fixation, when the leader of the band between songs mentioned a Black Oak Arkansas influence.

Electric blues for me brings to mind college and law school days when a hundred boogie blues bands played a hundred bars and Holiday Inns, playing "Sweet Home Chicago", "Built for Comfort (not for Speed)" and hundreds others of the pantheon of classics so often they just wore me out on the blues, inducing a sort of blues about the blues if you will. I don't mean to the last extreme, of course, I relished my one chance to see Stevie Ray Vaughan, because no matter what one thought of blues, Stevie Ray was something else altogether. But in general, blues was the music they played in bars in my youth, except when they played Eagles imitators. I used to joke that every bar band in Arkansas I ever saw paused in the middle of every show and said "We'd like to play a really special tune for you, one not many people know, it's reached deep into my heart into places my heart hasn't been before, and it's called....Tequila Sunrise". It's a bit like
having Rembrandt come back to life and tell you he likes the works of Thomas Kinkeade, not that I mind the Eagles exactly (love that song 'I can't tell you why', especially when my falsetto, easily the best thing about my singing voice, can hit the highest note), but if you're moved to profundity by "Tequila Sunrise", well, then, you would have been right at home in the Ozarks in 1978.

But we had a glorious time at the musical picnic. Kayakers gathered on the nearby lake to hear the music from a short distance off. The Garden Gnomes that Be bused everyone into the arboretum, so there was little of that parking hassle that makes crowded events no fun. I somehow failed to find the cookie in my lunch box, but I probably didn't need the fat anyway. I cannot believe it is almost another week done.

I was thinking about bar bands tonight, and thought of Fayetteville's great bar band, the Cate Brothers. They had only one hit, but that hit said something about the whole Arkansas psyche. It was called "Union Man". It's the "Fayetteville sound", which is the Memphis Stax sound gone blue-eyed, with a strong country flavor. In "Union Man", the union rep "wearing a smile" comes and says "you got to go on strike today"....leaving the narrator to wonder "how I'm gonna pay my dues?", feed his family, and shoe his children. It's not really an anti-union song, so much as a song about not being able to trust anything large and out of hand when day to day lives are in issue. There's something I like about that, even as they lead besuited men in handcuffs from the edifices of their failed businesses, even as Nigerian women become my heroes for a day by forcing Chevron/Texaco, who actually handled it pretty well, to the table to give their cities infrastructure, after the Nigerian government fails them time after time. Let's hear it, for a moment, for small, unknown blues bands under the stars, and people who trust small moments and small enterprises.