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Isn’t it ironic?

I take this opportunity tonight to express my distaste for Alanis Morissette.

I take this opportunity tonight because my husband isn’t here to argue with me about it. He’s at an Alanis Morissette concert.

I didn’t go because doing so would have hurt my ears.

I’m not calling Alanis Morissette a bad musician. She might very well call me a bad writer. It’s simply a matter of taste.

Or science.

The human ear is sensitive to different kinds of sound. In some ways, my ear is sensitive as a dog’s ear is sensitive. I hear high pitched sounds many humans don’t.

Alanis Morissette’s whiny voice gives me goosebumps – and not the good kind.

Her lyrics are similarly annoying. Take one of her early hits, Ironic. Her examples of irony include “like rain on your wedding day” and “a black fly in your Chardonnay.” Alanis, honey, look it up.

Obviously, my husband and I have different tastes. Whereas I go for the deeper, richer, often whiskey-soaked alto vocals of Bonnie Raitt, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Carole King (as well as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, singers with wide vocal ranges who are lauded for their ability to go low beautifully), he likes the voices that pierce my ears – Judy Collins, Barbara Cook, Charlotte Church, Nanci Griffith and, don’t hate me, Joni Mitchell.

In other words, he has a high tolerance for high-pitched whining–which, come to think of it,  might just explain nearly 27 years of marriage.

Ironic? Not really.

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Homeless, not heartless

Last night, three of us went out with The Salvation Army to feed homeless people who congregate on grates and street corners in Washington, D.C.

This is something my husband, son and I have done off and on for years, as part of a church ministry. My son first went out when he was eight years old.

One of my fellow volunteers has written an account of the evening on his blog, so I won’t try and tell the story again; I’ll simply encourage you to read it.

Dennis is correct that, according to my husband and me, this was not a normal night on a Grate Patrol run. The two major differences were that there were fewer homeless people out (and he was right, the city had been swept in an advance of this weekend’s festivities) and that we were serving out of a small car rather than a large van. Perhaps a third difference was that, at times, we were serving in heavy rain and lightning.

Recently, I was reading the newsletter of the Georgetown Ministry Center, another organization that helps the District’s homeless. In the most recent issue, GMC’s executive director, who always provides an informed view into homelessness that few of us have, addressed the perception of homelessness. This struck me. Throughout the past few weeks, I’ve picked the piece up and read it, and re-read it, wondering how I might share it with people who have varying perceptions and views about homelessness.

I feel his perspective merits consideration:

I once heard a young woman walking down M Street say, “They have a lot of bums here.”

Bums? These bums are our failure. They are people with complicated mental illness who have no insight into their condition. They are brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, and sons and daughters. They are people with broken brains who should no more be wandering the streets on their own than a six-year-old.

Our society needs to take responsibility for this problem for all that it is. This is the important point. Those bums are unable to take care of themselves! The laws that govern civil commitment need to be expanded to recognize that someone with an impaired reality is not making a sound judgment when choosing to live on the street and eat from a garbage can. Where it is evident that people are making really bad decisions because of a mental illness or other brain disorder, we need better legal mechanisms to step in and help redirect their lives. Those mechanisms must be sensitive and well thought out and have limits, but we need them if we are going to make an impact on homelessness in our country.

The people under bridges, through all that dirt and shaggy hair and ragged clothes, are human beings disconnected from family and home by mental illness.

-Gunther Stern

Dennis and Gunther are both correct. People arrive at homelessness via many paths. Here in the Washington area, as in other areas, a large number come from severe mental illness. There are many places in the United States where homelessness either doesn’t exist or is invisible, so the people who come from these places, when they visit Washington or other cities, react with shock, fear, denial, disgust or judgment.

Homelessness is not a problem that be solved by any one of us alone or by any single institution. At a minimum, though, we as human beings should be aware that there are other human beings who suffer from things we may never understand. But we’re all human beings.

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One man’s treasure

As I’ve been sharing with you lately, my husband and I have begun a process of simplifying our possessions. We spent the first half of our lives collecting; that’s the fun part. I think I told you that my husband collected many things, from antique vegetable and snuff cans to old cameras and photographs, and much in between. I don’t collect anything per se. I just buy stuff. Over 25 years, there has been a lot of accumulation.

We’ve had a lot of fun recently, passing our collections along to others, though we’re not sure if those who receive our surprise packages find it as fun. But it does feel good to weed out our belongings and work toward having fewer things to dust.

Yesterday, I went to an estate sale for the first time. A neighbor of ours, who died recently at the age of a hundred and something, was a collector. Yesterday morning I received notice that the sale would be happening at his house, two doors up, all day, every day for four days. I viewed the items for sale online. There were thousands.

Cars jammed our tiny street and through traffic came to a standstill. A long line formed in front of the house, while a bouncer representing the estate sale company regulated admittance.

I stood in line nearly 45 minutes to get in. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s human nature to want some of what so many are rushing to acquire. Mostly, I was curious—curious to see what a hundred-year-old man and his late wife might have amassed over eight or nine decades.

Everything that was ever made in silver and brass. Beautiful antique furniture. Crystal and glass in red, blue and green. Hundreds and hundreds of lamps, atop bases of ceramic roosters, cherubs, fruits and vegetables. Hundreds of candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers and bookends, and the usual trays, bowls and vases but enough of them to fill an outlet store many times over. A two-story, three car garage was full of furniture. And right in the middle of everything, amongst the vast collection of artwork, in a three-foot by four-foot frame, a portrait of John Wayne with an American flag, painted on black velvet.

I left the sale on sensory overload and without making a purchase. I began to wonder, though, why the man’s children weren’t taking all these treasures. Then I realized his children are probably in their eighties.

It seemed a little macabre to be perusing and judging my neighbor’s belongings, and I hope I’ll be forgiven for that. I wish him peace in a world without material possessions, and I hope the family benefits nicely from abundant proceeds. I do know the buyers who’ve been storming our neighborhood will go home satisfied that they’ve gotten some goodies at a bargain. So I guess it’s a win all around.

It does make me all the more motivated to straighten up around here and pass on, selectively and methodically, the treasures we’ve been blessed to enjoy for so many years, while we’re still alive.

And, if clearing out around here gives me a little leeway to purchase new treasures occasionally, say from an estate sale, then all the better. Maybe an objet d’art for the new kitchen.

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Film festivus

Guess what? We just got a new VCR. I’m very excited.

Yes, you read it correctly. VCR, as in video cassette recorder; perhaps you’ve heard of it.

I don’t watch many video cassette tapes, but my husband does. He buys cases of used classics and sits down very deliberately to watch them. So when our machine melted down recently, we put in a rush order.

About 99 percent of our Christmas movies are on VHS and I do like to watch those. Apparently all the good holiday specials were shown right after Thanksgiving. I missed every last of them when they aired on regular TV.

As Grinchy as I am this time of year, I rely on my Christmas favorites to lift my spirits and get me in the mood.

I like to kick things off with National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and then watch it again two weeks later, when things start to get tense around here; it helps me keep my sense of humor.

I listen to White Christmas while I’m putting the icicles on the tree and, if no one’s looking, I dance a few steps along with Vera-Ellen. I always wanted to dance like she did.

Last Saturday, The Washington Post ran a list of its readers’ top-ranked holiday-themed movies and TV specials. How the Grinch Stole Christmas came in first, while a movie I’ve never heard of—Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, came in 20th.

All the popular classics are there, the ones you’d expect, but it was a bit disappointing for me to see many of our family’s holiday musts absent from the list.

When our son gets into town, he’ll be wanting to crank up the VCR for such video treats as Casper’s First Christmas, Jingle All the Way (see it for no other reason than a hilarious performance by the late Phil Hartman) and Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean. Take my advice and pull any one of these out of the bargain bin the next time you’re out. That is, if you still have a VCR.

Of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite serious holiday movie. Between Vince Guaraldi’s piano soundtrack and Linus’ recitation of the Christmas story, it’s all I need. What movie or television special must you see every year?

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Toy commercials

It seems to me that, the older we get, with all the life experiences we’ve accumulated, the less easily shocked we should be, when, in reality, the more easily shocked we actually are.

I was puttering around the house yesterday afternoon and had the television on in the background. The channel was Comedy Central and the movie Coneheads was playing. Fun little film, based on the 1970s Saturday Night Live skit. Star-studded. Light-hearted. PG-rated. My son saw and enjoyed it when he was five. It provided a sweet backdrop for the chores I was doing on my lunch hour.

Then, all of a sudden, thwack. It could have been one of SNL’s commercial parodies. But it was real. It was shocking. It was noon, for heaven’s sake.

The commercial was advertising the Tri-Phoria Massager. “Tri” because it’s three massagers in one. “Massager” because, if you look online, you will see the product name that isn’t permitted on television. I’ll give you two clues that reveal what it is. One, it’s manufactured by Trojan. Two, it’s shaped like a, well, like a Conehead.

I won’t be inserting, uh, er, placing any links in this post to product websites or video commercials because I’m already embarrassed and paranoid about where my research has taken me. You can find these on your own.

Just a word of advice: if Coneheads comes back on over the weekend, don’t watch it with your kids. And, if you do, plan ahead to explain why the Tri-Phoria is different from other toys they see advertised on TV.

Tri-Phoria, Transformer. Could be a frightening mistake.

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Keeping fear alive

Over the last few days, we’ve seen more than enough of Stephen Colbert’s recent testimony before Congress, and read or heard volumes of commentary on his daring comedic prank. It’s Monday, so we need to lower the curtain on this farce.

And we will, after I’ve had my say.

But first, allow me to preface my own commentary with a few biases.

  1. I think Stephen Colbert is a talented, albeit outrageous, humorist.
  2. I appreciate good political satire. Those who know my family history know that political satire been berry berry good to me (as Chico Escuela, SNL’s Garrett Morris’ Dominican baseball player, would say).
  3. I was a lobbyist in Washington for 15 years and continue to have both a healthy respect and healthy cynicism for the political process.

So about Colbert’s appearance: I was appalled and here’s why.

There are far too many people in the United States who believe what they believe based solely on what they see on television. These are often the same people who want to vote their senators and representatives out the day after they’ve voted them in. The last sound bite they hear is what they believe; it’s upon which they base their political beliefs and voting behavior.

Many people already think Washington is a big joke. Stephen Colbert gave them every reason to keep laughing, and to go on believing our public servants are little more than monkeys flinging dung at one another. For what? Innocent playfulness? Ratings? To use his faux-conservative persona to further confuse television viewers on an issue that already has made dung-flinging an Olympic sport?

I have staffed many Congressional witnesses over the course of my career. I have written their testimonies, both the prepared statements and the oral remarks which, by the way, are supposed to match, except in length. I have prepared witnesses by helping them anticipate questions and criticism. I have gotten them involved in coalitions and congressional meetings, not only to help them advance their business agendas, but also to give them a better understanding of our nation’s governing process.

I watched these executives set their cynicism aside and approach their roles with dignity and respect. After having participated in the political process, they said they gained an appreciation for the hard work and integrity most of our elected officials take to their difficult jobs. I wish all Americans could have this vantage point.

Stephen Colbert is a funny guy who has only made matters worse for a system in serious need of confidence and trust, by making figurative armpit noises from the congressional witness chair.

Maybe when he comes back October 30 for his “March to Keep Fear Alive,” he’ll make apologetic visits to some Hill offices, sans the video of his colonoscopy.

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