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A WORD ABOUT THE singing-impaired. The singing-impaired are those who like to sing, who are frequently moved to sing, but who do not sing—according to others—well.
When the singing-impaired begin to sing, others do not join in. When others are singing, and the singing-impaired join in ...
There is nothing quite so vulnerable as a person caught up in a lyric impulse. The singing-impaired are forever being brought up short in one. When the singing-impaired chime in, they may notice a sudden strained silence. Or just a sudden loss of afflatus in the music about them. (The singing-impaired can tell.)
No national foundation exists for the singing-impaired. Nor does any branch of medical science offer hope. No one provides little ramps to get the singing-impaired up onto certain notes. There are, to be sure, affinity groups. One of these has a theme song. I wish you could watch a group of the singing-impaired sing it together, it would touch your heart:
Don't be scared
If you're singing-impaired.
Sing out, sing free;
Just not audibly.
I, myself, was once singing-impaired.
Perhaps that surprises you. But people once looked at me as if I had no more sense of melody than a Finn has of cuisine.
I would lie awake nights wondering: "Is there no other soul in America who, while trying to stay on the tune of 'La donna è mobile,' will lapse, now and again, into the tune of 'It's Howdy Doody Time'?"
I did not ask whether anyone should do it. I did not ask whether it argued a fine musical sense. All I asked was, did it not make some sense?
All the people I ever lived with said it didn't. They said "It's Howdy Doody Time" was nothing like "La donna è mobile." Categorically. Whatsoever.
"All right," I would say. "Not nearly so good, certainly. Not nearly so sophisticated. But surely ..."
They never wanted to discuss it further. They would suck their breath in, just perceptibly, and change the subject.
For some years of my life, as long as I sang only in church, I was harmonious. At the evening service there was a man up front pumping his arms and urging everyone to "let the rafters ring." I could do that.
Then I went to grammar school, and had to be in the clinic. The clinic was conducted by our music teacher while the chorus was off to itself, running over the tones it had mastered. Many of the people in the clinic were there because they couldn't behave in the chorus. I was there because, the feeling was, I couldn't sing.
Everyone in the fourth grade had to appear in the assembly program given by the chorus. But some of us were directed to stand there and move our lips silently, as the rest rendered "Mockin' Bird Hill," "The Aba Daba Honeymoon," and "The Thing."
Well, I was permitted to come in on "The Thing," which may be recalled as a Phil Harris recording of the late forties. The refrain ends, "You'll never get rid of that Boomp-boomp-boomp, no matter what you do." I came in on the "Boomp-boomp-boomp."
If it had been "Ave Maria," I wouldn't have minded so. But being deemed unfit to sing "'Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab,' Said the Chimpie to the Monk" with other children ...
In graduate school my roommate, besides having read all of Samuel Richardson, had perfect pitch. And perfect tempo, I suppose, because he would sit for hours by his FM radio, tuning it finer and finer and rolling his shoulders subtly to the classics and saying, "No, no, no, too fast." I could not hum where I lived without running the risk of shattering my roommate's ears like crystal. So I didn't hum.
It is only in recent months that I have taken hold of myself and said, "Listen. This is not American. This is not right." It is only in recent months that I have begun, whenever the chance arises, to say a few words about singing-impairment; about how my life was marked by it for so many years. I pause for a moment to let it all sink in. And then I sing.
And do you know what people say? After a pause? "You don't sing as badly as you think you do."
Which I have no doubt is true. And which I propose as a slogan for the nation's so-called singing-impaired. Another thing I have been doing is putting the finishing touches on a monograph that pretty well establishes that all known melodies can be boiled down to four or five basic tunes.
These are the four or five basic tunes I feel most comfortable with. "It's Howdy Doody Time," as it happens, is one.CHAPTER 2
LOSS: A GUIDE TO ECONOMICS
MANY HUMANISTS PREFER TO know as little about economics as they do about heavy-vehicle maintenance or how their parents really are. And yet economics is the watchdog of a free society. Thanks to the vigilance of large investors, who serve somewhat the same function here as the Academy does in France, the state of our economy is a key to our moral fiber. Say there is rioting and ill humor in the cities, or too many loud parties in the small towns. Or the President responds to press-conference questions with an eerie; toneless hum. Or infestations rage through a great part of the Midwest. Immediately, the nation's serious investors discern that the time is out of joint, and, to bring America back to itself, start moving their money to other countries. When the nation straightens out, when the editorials in Forbes have brought an adequate response and things at last seem "right," then the key investor, even if he has taken a shine to one of those pert Swiss tellers, will start to buy shares in our future again. And we will have a future. This is known as "positive reinforcement and is only one of the ways in which economics lends clarity and order to our lives. (Unlike rock music.)
To understand how the whole great process of economics works, we must begin at the beginning. Take a dollar bill from your pocket, smooth out the wrinkles, and forget it. There is no longer any use talking in terms of one dollar, since it will not buy you coffee and a grilled cheese. Save the one, and when you get twelve more to go with it you can buy a lurid novel. Take out a twenty and look at that.
Now. This piece of "legal tender" (a poignant phrase, since so many things that are tender are still not legal, and vice versa) is not in itself "worth" anything. It bears a nice enough engraving of President Jackson, but few people need one. To realize how relative cash is, try spending a twenty on—to take a fanciful (for now!) example—Neptune, where they have never heard of President Jackson. Or probably of anyone named Jackson, if you can imagine. At least we hope they haven't. If they have, our intelligence is lagging dangerously behind theirs. Far from knowing who was Neptune's president from 1829 to 1837, we are not even sure whether they have "hands" or "feet." Or, more crucial, whether they have something we want badly. If Neptune has something we want badly enough, such as a cheaper material for making in-flight pudding, then Neptune can say to us, "Ordinarily we knock this down at five dollars a barrel, but for you, since it means so much to you, we'll make it twelve." Thus your twenty comes to be worth $6.67, if you act now.
Economics teaches us that other things can happen to your twenty:
Inflation. Picture your twenty shrinking, ominously, and Jackson beginning to look like King Farouk. People smile too readily in the street. Your twenty isn't worth as much any more.
Recession. Picture your twenty growing, ominously, and Jackson beginning to look like Elisha Cook, Jr. Hat sizes run smaller. Your twenty is worth more (that is to say, it is becoming less valuable at a slower rate), but you can't afford to use it.
Depression. Oh, God.
Action on the street. Someone bigger than you runs up to you on the street and snatches your twenty and says, "Do something about it." Jackson doesn't want to get involved.
Obsolescence. Because of the way things are made at certain—or all—points on the economic continuum, all of the ink on your twenty, including Jackson, fades away.
Boom. Picture Jackson robust and hickory-strong, able to whip the pound, for what that is worth, at the Battle of New Orleans. (With the aid of pirates.) People run around slapping each other on the back, often too hard. You slip a disk. Your twenty helps to pay for new and improved medical service and your doctor's new boat.
BOOM. It is gratifying to be able to say "Boom" in a public-service article. Boomboom! Boooommm. But don't get any ideas.
Famine. Happens abroad.
All right. How about now? At this point in history, we in the United States enjoy plenty—of both inflation and recession. Thus, money is becoming at once less worth striving for and harder to get. Under these conditions, investments should be made with great caution, as indicated below.
Common stocks. Not a good bet at this time. See preferred stocks.
Preferred stocks. Not a good bet at this time. See commodities (pork bellies, for "instance, and don't let an economist see you smile; nothing puts off an economist like the simplistic assumption that pork bellies in themselves—or even wearing vests and posed around a long table as the Council of Economic Advisers—are funny).
Commodities. Not a good bet at this time. (Porkbellyporkbellyporkbelly. Did you smile?) See silver:
Silver. Not a good bet at this time. See gold.
Gold. Too late.
Other factors to consider at all times are the wage-price spiral, the supply-and-demand seesaw, and the principle of compensation. These are sometimes known as "real (or speculative) boogers."
The wage-price spiral. You demand a raise from your company, which bakes cakes, so that you can buy shoes. By the time you get to the shoe store the increase in cake prices occasioned by your raise has caused the shoe-store operator, who had to buy a cake earlier that morning, to raise the price of shoes to the point where you need another raise. Even without taking into account the high-speed cab rides back and forth, this can become extremely complex, especially when your boss's son or daughter is going out with the shoe-store-owner's daughter or son and needs more and more money from his or her father in order to convince his or her potential live-in mate that he or she can raise his or her standard of living.
(The need to improve the quality of one's life, of course, is something to be reckoned with at every point along the spiral. Thus, you ask for a raise that will enable you to buy shoes and will also make things a little more mellow for you all around. The shoe-store operator does the same in raising his prices, and anticipates that you will, and figures that into his equation. This is true of every economic unit except doctors and lawyers, who, being essential guardians against death and/or ruin, simply increase their prices as much as they want to. Life being a serious proposition, a consumer cannot expect to have an easy choice between legal fees and prison, or medical bills and encephalitis. Furthermore, doctors and lawyers must go to school for years and years, often with little sleep, and at great sacrifice to their first wives.)
The supply-and-demand seesaw. When there is enough of something, people tend to say, "Who needs it?"
The principle of compensation. There is something to be said for, if not necessarily during, every economic period; every cloud has, for what it is worth, a silver-certificate lining. In a depression, for instance, when nobody has any money (and people eat pork bellies), that very fact creates among people a common bond.
Common bonds. See common stocks.CHAPTER 3
REAGAN, BEGIN, AND GOD
DON'T GET ME WRONG, I think the world of God. But it seems to me that He is too much with us lately, in a certain form. Israel's Menachem Begin is wooing hardcore religionists for a coalition government. America's (oh, come on) Ronald Reagan is being praised for statesmanship because his first Supreme Court nominee doesn't quite please that luminous Christian, Jerry Falwell. (Strom Thurmond likes her, though. Great!) And both Begin and Reagan have been rather cavalier—in my view—about the risk of blowing things to perdition. I wonder—I know, it's none of my business, I don't tithe—whether the Judeo-Christian ethic is ... in ideal hands.
With this thought in mind, and with apologies to Eugene Field, who anyway is dead, I have dashed off—which accounts for any infelicities—the following verses.
Reagan, Begin, and God one night
Sailed a trilateral ship
Way out past the farthest Right
On a celestial trip.
"Whither are you fellows hurled?"
The moon asked, out of the blue.
"Far away from the, quote, Third World,
As well as worlds One and Two.
No time to chat with you,"
The old moon sighed and took off, too—
He guessed what had gone down.
He told the stars, "If I were you,
I would not hang aroun'."
So moon and stars and Holy Three
Distanced themselves from the globe—
And the sun cried, "How about me?"
"Join the trip (this one's no probe)
If you're a good xenophobe,"
So close your eyes while Frankie sings:
Things are simpler today.
At any moment worrisome things
Will be nuclearized away.
And you'll get to heaven, at least you may,
(Note: As is often the case in poetry, a certain amount of realism has been sacrificed here to exigencies of the verse form. And vice versa.) You are not going to tell me that Jerry Zipkin won't be on that ship, not after all he's put himself through; and there is bound to be a berth for—but I can't bring myself to write the man's name, except just this once, for purposes of illustration—Edwin A. Meese III.
Edwin Meese! Edwin Meese!
Forever let us hold his banner high!
How can more than twelve or fourteen people in this entire nation have voted for a man who made no bones about having an aide named Edwin Meese? III!
Why is it that so grotesquely named a person's closeness to the Last Big Holocaust button does not inflame all those people who thought "Jimmih" and "Rose-a-lyn" and "Jerdan" were ludicrous names? Meese. The man's name is Meese. Edwin is bad enough. I have known some Edwins from Georgia, but never a Meese, by God!
Excuse me. I have gotten ethnic, after starting out so cosmic. But then, I ask you: what is less sublime than either religious bombing (sorry; forget I said anything) or politics that is deemed centrist because it is just to the left of a jackleg preacher?CHAPTER 4
99 PERCENT FOUNDATION
IT'S NOT THE MONEY. Well, it is the money. But even if it weren't the money, it would be the principle. Not to mention the interest. (Is that an old joke?)
I want a goddamned genius grant.
It has been several weeks now since the MacArthur Foundation announced it was giving tens of thousands of dollars a year, tax free, no strings attached, to a number of Americans it deemed geniuses. I have waited long enough for the apologetic phone call: "Geez, it just hit us. Are we all sitting around here feeling red-faced! Casts the whole program into doubt. Forgot you and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's this new computer ..."
"Let it go," say friends of mine. No. I am still frosted.
For I hold certain truths to be self-evident, among them that no American should be officially branded a nongenius.
Even if I get a grant next year, who wants to be a genius of the second rank?
I'm surprised the MacArthur Foundation didn't call me up and say, "Listen, we worked out a generalized assessment for everybody in the country as to how much of a genius each is, and you have to send Robert Penn Warren thirty-five dollars a month."
Excerpted from One Fell Soup by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 1991 Roy Blount Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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