Archive for the June 2007 Category

ON LONESOMENESS

Some years ago, Frank Mullin and Pat Downey found themselves in the lobby of a plush hotel in Kuwait City on a Thursday evening. Frank Mullin was an old hand in dealing with Arab nations. This was Pat Downey’s first trip with Frank as his assistant. Those who travel in the Middle East know that Friday is the Muslim holy day. Generally speaking, workers spend some time in the office on Thursday morning but by noon they are gone. The restaurants seem to follow that same practice. Of course, none of them come to work on Friday, the holy day.

At this time, there were no English language newspapers in Kuwait City. The only papers and magazines were in Arabic and the sellers of those publications quit work at noon on Thursday as well. Television was new at that time but on holy days, which included Thursday and Friday, the fare on television was religious in nature and totally in Arabic. The owners of the hotels would provide meals for their travelers but they were served at a specific time and if one dawdled a little bit, one would miss a meal. That was a tragedy because there were no restaurants open other than those in the hotel.

And so it was that Frank Mullin and Pat found themselves on a Thursday night in a situation that I am sure they regretted. It was a case of botched airline schedules rather than planning to be in that Arabic city on that particular occasion. At about nine or ten that evening, Pat and Frank were sitting on a plush couch in the lobby of the plush hotel. Pat turned to Frank and asked him, “What is there to do in this town?”

Frank gave Pat a succinct answer. He said, “You are doing it.” That answer told Pat Downey that he was in for another full day of lonesomeness and boredom.

It seems to me that lonesomeness is a close relative of boredom. Perhaps the psychoanalyst will dispute that conclusion, but I suggest that lonesome people may also be afflicted with boredom.

I am certain that lonesomeness afflicts men as well as women. However men have more outlets, apparently, than women do. They can go to a bar or to a ball game by themselves. To go to a bar or a ball game, the lonesome female would ordinarily have to recruit another lonesome person to go with her. This is not always easy to do.

AT&T was a large organization which provided an opportunity for determining who was a lonesome person. For a time when I worked at the headquarters in Manhattan, there was a secretary who sat directly outside my office. She was the secretary for a good friend of mine named Charlie Miller. Her name was Audrey W. and when addressed, Audrey would reply in tones that suggested that she might be thinking of something else. She was an attractive woman but her friendships with other women on the floor seemed non-existent. Audrey for all intents and purposes was a lone wolf. At the going-away party for her boss, Charlie Miller, I was the master of ceremonies. The going-away party had a little drinking and a lot of fun. For better or for worse, Audrey did not join in either the drinking or the fun-making. I am sure that she was fond of Charlie Miller, but she hung around the edges of the crowd. I had no thought of ever inviting Audrey to speak on that occasion because it could have embarrassed her. As far as I knew, Audrey was married, but as an amateur psychiatrist she always struck me as a lonesome person. Perhaps she was bored as well.

A related case, again at AT&T, is a woman named Marie Datre. When there were office celebrations, such as the Christmas party or a going-away party, Marie would always be on the fringes of the crowd. For the three years we shared the same office, I tried to be pleasant to Marie and occasionally draw her out. No luck.

Marie was single as far as I could tell, and I suspect that if there were a wedding or funeral, she might make her presence known but then would grab a seat against a wall. After a time, I confined my remarks to Marie to “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” and let it go at that. Marie was a lonesome person and there was not much that I could do about it. I concluded that if Marie ever wanted to be married, she would have to show a little more animation. Marie died last year and I suggest that she was lonely to the end.

In this town, there is a woman named Jill whom I suspect is now in her early fifties. For many years I have seen Jill and her mother shopping at one of our big markets. She seemed exceptionally close to her mother and in recent years, it appears that her mother has died. Jill seems to be on her own. Her lonesomeness takes a different path from that of Audrey W. or Marie Datre. In Jill’s case, clerks at the grocery store, the post office, and the tax collectors’ must dislike to see Jill coming. Jill is capable of talking the arm off of one of these clerks. Again, as an amateur psychiatrist, I conclude that Jill misses her mother. But I am here to tell you that if Jill ever seeks to acquire a husband, which I am sure she has done, her constant chatter would drive him off in an instant. I almost forgot that Jill also spends a considerable amount of time jawing with the tax collector. Jerry, the tax collector, is a pleasant person and I suspect that he might welcome these conversations with Jill because not many people have nice things to say to old Jerry. But Jerry is married and is the father of two or three children so if Jill has him on her prospects list, she must cross him off.

The final woman I have to offer as an exhibit of lonesomeness is Ida. I suspect that Ida is a woman well into her seventies or early eighties. She shops at the food market, apparently every day. The clerks in the produce department at the Whole Foods Market tell me that Ida makes an appearance every day and if she does not show up, they become concerned about her. From all appearances, Ida is a widow or a spinster. There is no man in sight. But again, as in the case of Jill, Ida’s lonesomeness takes the form of endless conversations with the clerks at the market. Apparently the clerks there do not always understand what Ida has had to say. They nod and say “Yes.” When they wish to break off a conversation with Ida, they typically say, “I have to go to the back room.” But that ploy does not always work. Ida keeps on talking.

Gregorio Russo is the first produce clerk one sees when entering the Whole Foods Market. Gregorio has had his many conversations over the years with Ida. Far from being turned off by her verbosity, Gregorio once told me that “She is a lonesome woman.” I reached the same conclusion as Professor Russo. She is a lonesome woman and perhaps it is the clerks at the grocery store that provide her with the means to express her outlook on life. The clerks listen to what Ida has to say and nod. In doing so, I am convinced that they are providing a decent and honorable response in keeping Ida alive.

Well there you have my views on several lonesome women. My wife relates that she knew a lonesome man who married a lonesome woman. The marriage did not result in their becoming more gregarious; they were just two lonesome people living together. I have no idea what will cure lonesomeness and I am certain that there are people who would not be interested in any cure that might be available. They seem to be happy as they are, I suppose. But as I leave you, I hope that you will always listen gently to the words of lonesome people such as Jill and Ida. They need to talk to overcome their lonesomeness and by your listening, you are providing a welcome therapeutic service.

When I took over the International Correspondence job, it occurred to me in looking at the records that Frank Mullin had been responsible for the Arab countries for perhaps three or four years. One day I went to Frank’s office and offered him the thought that there was an opening in Europe or in the Pacific, and asked him if he would like to look at green grass rather than sand. Frank said, “I’ll think about that,” and he pondered it perhaps for two or three days. In the end, Frank came back to me and said that for the future he would prefer to stick with the Arab countries. He also said that for the future he would learn not to spend Thursday and Friday evening in an Arab capital. That would save him answering the question, “What is there to do in this town?” by saying, “You are doing it.”

Some people are lonesome and some are bored. I am at a loss to tell you where to draw the line.

E. E. CARR
June 3, 2007
Essay 259
~~~
Kevin’s commentary: I consider myself rather lucky to be born in an age where basically the sum total of human knowledge can be carried around in one’s pocket on a daily basis. Makes it a lot harder to be bored. Nominally the internet can help you be less lonely too, I guess. At least can give you people to talk to!

Also, is it bad to admit that I had no idea that a “tax collector” was still a thing that existed? When I think of a tax collector, I think of feudal England, and some guy coming to harass the serfs for their silver. My “tax collector” is Turbotax, an online program. Is Jerry like a repo man? Is he there to make you pay after you’re delinquent? Are there enough tax dodgers in Short Hills, NJ to make this a full-time job?

“THE MORE THINGS CHANGE THE MORE THEY REMAIN THE SAME”

LES GUÊPES, 1849
JEAN BAPTISTE ALPHONSE KARR

This essay has spent a longer time than normal in gestation. I had intended to dictate it on Memorial Day, but the news from Iraq was so depressing that I could not bring myself to work on it. Now that the essay has emerged from the womb, let us see what we have.

This essay is about the effects of war and uses World War I as its example. You may recall that Woodrow Wilson, our President during the First World War, called that war “The War to End Wars.” The fact that we have had several wars since that time merely validates the title of this piece. The war to end wars was a naïve idealistic hope of Woodrow Wilson. The current administration claims to be conducting a “global war on terror”. This is a cynical attempt for this administration to remain in power because the American electorate is reluctant to vote against a wartime administration. The fact is that wars and terror have been with us since the beginning of time and they will continue to be with us until the world’s history adjourns, demonstrating the truth in Karr’s maxim.

You may also recall that in 1914, Winston Churchill, who was the British Defence Minister, claimed that the German fortress could be conquered by attacking “its soft underbelly”. That soft underbelly was Turkey, who bloodied the nose of the Allies in the Battle at Suvla Bay near Gallipoli. In the current war in Iraq, the Americans elected to invade that country because it was a “slam dunk” which constituted another soft underbelly. We are now in the fifth year of the current war and it appears that the only people being “slam dunked” are our forces. Again this demonstrates the thought that in 93 years, we have learned nothing.

Let us leave Woodrow, Winnie and the current war on terror and turn now to Eric Bogle. That fellow is an extraordinary writer of songs, lyrics, and poetry. Two songs that he has written about the First World War are now sung throughout the English-speaking world. They are “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” and “The Green Fields of France,” which is also known as “Willie McBride.” There are three citations from these two songs which were written about events that took place between 1914 and 1918 that have relevance to events taking place today.

Winston Churchill gave the job of attacking the Turkish forces at Gallipoli to the Australians. When the attack began against the Turks, Bogle says that the Aussies were “rained by bullets and showered with shell, which nearly blew us back to Australia.” As a result, our “blood stained the sand and the water.” Any correlation between the Turks’ resistance in the First World War and the resistance we are encountering in the civil war in Iraq is not coincidental. They are quite related. Again, in 93 years we have learned nothing.

There is another elegant Eric Bogle line before the battle at Suvla Bay finishes. The line holds that:

“Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there was worse things than dying”

What is happening today in the battle against the insurgents in Iraq is multiplied several fold from the battle of Suvla Bay. Our soldiers are losing their arms and their legs, but also of great significance, the roadside bombs have separated them from their senses. So in ninety plus years the killing goes on and the results have become much crueler. Have we learned nothing? Obviously not.

The Australian soldier who speaks in this song was saved and was returned to civilian status. We know this from several lines in the song, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.” The soldier laments that he will not do much dancing anymore because it takes two legs to go waltzing with Matilda or anyone else. Our legless soldiers have made the same discovery.

As an old man, the legless soldier sits on his front porch and watches “the parade pass before him.” This is a reference to the annual celebration of ANZAC Day, which memorializes the achievements of the Australian as well as New Zealand soldiers. This is much like our Memorial Day. The old soldier sits on his porch as time goes on and watches his old comrades “old, stiff, and sore”…“still answering the call.” A young person asks, “What are they marching for?” The old soldier says, “I ask myself the same question.”

Finally, the old soldier makes note of the fact that as time goes forward, fewer and fewer soldiers will march in the ANZAC parade. He concludes, nostalgically, that someday “No one will march there at all.”

The poet Phil Coulter says, “The minutes fly and the years go by.” For American soldiers of the First World War, only three are left, and they are well past the century mark. For those of us who were involved in the Second World War, we are now well into our eighties, and a number of us are advancing into our nineties. It is fairly obvious that as time goes on, that soon old soldiers will not be there to answer the call. What has happened to the veterans of the First World War is now happening to those of us who served in the Second World War. And when age creeps up on the veterans of the Iraq War, they will find that it is difficult to answer the call in the future. But the call will be there, which is why the title of this piece is “The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same.”

In the second piece mentioned earlier, that being “Willie McBride,” we find a weary traveler sitting down by the graveside of a British soldier. With the name McBride, the soldier could be of either Scottish or Irish parentage. According to the gravestone, Private Willie McBride died in 1916 at the tender age of 19 years. In his imaginary conversation with Willie McBride, the stranger asks, “Did you really believe that this war would end wars?” And then he goes on to ask Willie, “Do the soldiers who lie here know why they died?”

Of course the answer is no, because soldiers do what they are told and they are not paid to think. If they do what they are told and get killed in the process, so be it.

As the story about Willie McBride comes to an end, there is a poignant line. It goes, “Countless white crosses in mute witness stand to man’s indifference to his fellow man.” I suppose that it was this way in the First World War just as it has recurred so many times and continues with the Iraq War.

In any event, Eric Bogle has written two powerful anti-war songs. With one war succeeding another, I believe it validates the thought that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

In this essay, I hope that I have whetted your appetite for the music of Eric Bogle. He was born in 1944 in Peebles, Scotland. Since 1982, he has been a citizen of Australia. Bogle is an astute commentator on the affairs of men. As he said in “Willie McBride,” the “war to end wars” has not resulted in the demise of wars but the fact is they have happened “again and again, again and again, and again.”

The quotation that I attribute to Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr is an apt one. With respect to our wars, it is obvious that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Unfortunately, that is tragically so. Woodrow Wilson claimed that the First World War was the war to end wars. Today we have an American president who claims that he is in charge of “the global war on terror.” So you see, in 93 years we have learned nothing.

Can anyone deny that the more things change, the more they remain the same?

E. E. CARR
June 3, 2007
Essay 258
~~~
Kevin’s commentary: Well, we certainly do get more efficient ways of killing one another. That counts for something, right?

A nice live version of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” can be heard here. We listened to a lot of Eric Bogle at Pop’s house earlier this week. He’s incredible.

The song about Willie McBride is also very well done. Reminds me, weirdly, of some lullabies that my dad used to sing me. Say what you will about Bogle, Clancy and the like, but they create damn pleasant music especially considering the subject matter. Rap has violence and money, pop has sappy love songs, and this kind of music has war deaths. Guess they’re just popular to write about for this genre.