The great satirist, song writer and pianist Tom Lehrer had me wondering about and laughing at his songs even as an adolescent just beginning to appreciate the sardonic view of life. Who could hear and ever forget his black humor in “Poisoning Pigeons In The Park”?
Although separated by time, he and I both served in the Army as “enlisted scum” and both achieved the rank of “Specialist Four,” which he described as “a corporal without portfolio.” He held onto his identity as a sartorial dandy even draped in his wrinkled and ill-fitting uniform, describing his olive drab duds, “If it was good enough for Robin Hood, it’s good enough for me.”
Another of his funny and spot-on comments made perfect sense to me back in 1968 when I was marching around in circles: “The Army has carried the American . . . ideal to its logical conclusion. Not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability.” A couple of buddies and I used to steal such lines and turn them on our NCOs who fumed but never really understood what we were saying. In reading about him this morning, I was happy to discover that the old mathematician and songwriter is still alive and has just turned 87.
I recently read one of his quips that brought back that same smile he put on my face eons ago: “Bad weather always looks worse through a window.”
Listening to some of his songs, I found myself wondering what exactly he had in mind when he came up with that line. It seems kind of paradoxical since if I had my choice, I’d rather be warm and dry inside the house with a window between me and the elements, especially when one of this past winter’s sleet storms was pelting away without mercy. Our little dog Sheldon panicked last night when we had a thunder storm and did his best to hop up on the bed and nestle down as far as he could to hide from the noise that was scaring the hell out of him. Jody finally got up and sat with him in the basement “saloon and reading room” to calm him down. I think they both had a strong bolt of Jack Daniels to settle their nerves. This morning, we both wondered how the deer, squirrels, possums and the rest of Mother Nature’s menagerie deal with inclemencies when they have to hunker down and do their best to find shelter from the storm.
Then we got to talking about a friend who has a daughter with children of her own and who continues to make the same mistakes over and over again. Our friend is what one could call a “wise woman” who has much experience in this world as well as the academic credentials to diagnose and treat the disturbed ramblings of the misinformed, misdirected, and misbegotten. As is too often the case, though, the daughter is clueless about the wayward paths she has chosen to remain on and like a cliched sergeant in the Army all she seems good at is making noise to cover up her ignorance and lack of real skills. As we wondered about such predicaments, we got a better idea of how awful such situations can appear when you’re viewing them from the outside. If you’re in the wrestling pit with the combatants, you might be more prone to overlook their shortcomings and make excuses for the mud on them.
As we ate our breakfast I was reminded of the essays that Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote just prior to the Civil War entitled, “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.” In these short pieces, Holmes wrote chiefly one-sided dialogues with other residents of a New England boarding house in which he commented on the choices these people had made in their lives as well as the peculiarities of their personalities and the problems they created and endured. He definitely was watching the “bad weather” from the vantage point of his separate table and observation post.
I then turned this thought over and over when recollecting moments in my own life when I have struggled, usually in hindsight, to try to make sense of some event that had shaken up my little universe. These moments of reflection certainly served as learning opportunities that I sometimes took advantage of and sometimes not. Those “sometimes not” moments had to be relearned a few times before they finally sank in. Fortunately, the more important ones did sink in, even though I seemed at times to be a slow learner.
I guess my bumping into Lehrer again this morning prompted me to think of my friend’s recent frustration with her daughter who is unwilling to reach out and to tap into her mother’s wealth of experience and knowledge. The difficulty we all have in actually learning from experience or opening our minds to possibilities other than the narrow ones we clutch closely probably explains why we often remain mired in the mud. The window is so dirty we can’t see out let alone venture forth into the elements and learn how to adapt to the storm. We are so limited by our self-imposed restrictions that we seem destined not to see other choices. Sadly, we often prefer to approach the glass darkly.
A final stop in my literary pub-hopping this morning took me to a bittersweet poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti simply titled “#64.” For me, it sums up what I see in our shared human condition of being self-obsessed and not curious about others and the lessons we can learn from them. It is too often our arrogance and narcissism that are the other side of our coin that keep us from being flipped successfully from tails to heads:
And an old old flowerseller
passing among the tables
bending over young couples in jeans
as they whisper together
and offering them
her so dry flowers
And they not deigning
to notice the old crone
with her gnarled hands
and her fingers full of
the thin rings of
her former lives
each one of them enough
to enlighten them
as to what love or life might be
And her lips
almost at their ears
in which they hear only
the very distant roaring
of their own futures