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GP 9 July 2008: When You’re Smilin’

Fourth of July. The Fourth of July is infinitely more heartening than New Year’s Day.  There’s always some ennui hanging in the New Year’s air, with the merriment seeming forced and the drinks too many, as we kiss last year good bye.  But something unusual always comes up on the Fourth.  One year we were out at the farm in East Texas, and the ranch hands invited us over to their party on the other side of the big muddy pond.  We knocked back several helpings of prairie oysters, chugalugging the beer to make it all tolerable.  Another year we did Concord itself to make sure we heard the shot that resounded around the world.  We floored several our guests on yet another Fourth by serving Fish House Punch, a favorite of George Washington, a drink that today makes its home in Philadelphia.

This year the lights went out at our digs in Third-World America where we are victims of a fifth-rate utility.  We had to light many candles to keep our independence alive.  But jalapenos, straight out of our herb garden, muddled into vodka and ice, kept us hopping.  We did not even miss the Boston Pops—our normal fare—which seems to be in its decline, and which has never been quite Bostonian enough since Arthur Fiedler met his maker.  To read about our adventure of vodka in the dark, see “Roughing It on the Fourth: Ice Cold Vodka with Jalapeno and Lime,”

Smiles of a Summer Night.  Surely the Bergman film we like the best is Smiles of a Summer Night, and it is our favorite title as well, though Wild Strawberries (by the way, Bergman was allergic to strawberries) comes in a close second.  We are not very passionate about his more important dark ‘agony’ pictures to which our cinema friends are devoted.  They’re much too narcissistic, very self-indulgent.

But better than he should have said, “Smiles of Summer.”  From the 4th of July, right up to Labor Day, we are meant to smile at everything all day and all night, taking delight in man’s ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Summer gives one a chance to practice a little Buddhism and not let anything drag one down.  You’re up even while the world is down.

Leonard Cohen.  We understand that the Canadian songster poet (there go the witty Canadians again) has fessed up:  “I tried Prozac and Paxil and Wellbutrin, I studied religions and philosophies … but cheerfulness kept breaking through.”

The Great Barbecue Corn Debate.  Very late in the game, we have discovered our barbecued corn can be a whole lot better.  To wit, you must peel back the husks, tear out the silk carefully, and then rewrap the husks around the corn.  Soak the corn in water laced with kosher salt or sugar (here lies the great debate).  Unable to make up our mind, we use both kosher salt (and you can figure out which variety) and sugar.  But do it for several hours—as long as you can.  Then onto the grill.  Probably for 15 minutes or so.  In any event, occasionally sprinkle water on it, so as to make it steam.  You will improve your life.  It has some of the same power as field corn when eaten green.  We recommend that all this preparation be done without a blue apron, so that you can pretend that you do not live in a subdivision. By the way if you are sincere about your ‘cue, we suggest you get a copy of Beinhorn’s Mesquite Cookery.

Leona Goes to the Dogs.  Leona Helmsley, New York City real estate queen and jailbird, left $12 million to her dog Trouble.  But that was chickenfeed.  It has now been revealed that she also willed between $5 and $8 billion for dog welfare.  At one time she had thought of helping indigent people, but eventually dropped that notion.  Truth is, from the picture in the New York Times, it’s clear Leona looked like a pug dog (see New York Times, July 2, 2008, pp. A1 and A14.)  If it looks like a dog and talks like a dog, it must be a dog.  So her billions for dogs makes a lot of sense.

Harry Helmsley (Leona was his second wife) was not only bright as sin, but was actually a fairly nice guy, as nice as she was mean.  Once New York’s biggest real-estate magnate, he picked up his own phone.  Reaching him to discuss a deal was not water torture.  That’s never been true with all the other 7th-Avenue types who have become real-estate tycoons.  Not a very satisfying bunch.  We’re planning on petitioning Leona’s executors on behalf of our dogs.  To get through to them, we feel we had better contact New York’s primo fixer Howard Rubenstein, who has made his most from real-estate titans.

An Imperfect Union.   Even today Europeans have an aversion to democracy.  The Irish, thank the gods for the Irish, just voted down some new constitutional arrangements that the commissars in Brussels were trying to shove down people’s throats.  What happened is that they worded the Lisbon Treaty so that a referendum was not required in most countries, and the powers-that-be thought they could use this loophole to inflict more horrific bureaucracy on Europe.  Leaders of all parties would avoid nasty little elections at all times if they could.

The European Union already is uncanny in its ability to spread misery.  It’s busy making sure the Finns cannot sell their wine. (see the New York Times, June 29, 2008, p. 12).  People have taken up growing grapes for wine in Finland’s Aland Islands, but since Finland is not considered a wine-growing region under European rules, the Alanders are forbidden to sell their wine.  The Finns need a declaration of independence.

But it’s garbage, more than grapes, that tells us what a mess Europe has become.  Naples has simply run out of space for its garbage and become a little el stinko.  The Germans, it turns out, are much better at burning things, and Hamburg, with first-class incinerators, is taking in trainloads of the stuff from Naples, until the Italians figure out how to dig their way out of their muck.

Moreover, it is all too easy to run afoul of the garbage man since the EU is goading him on and turning him into quite a nasty fellow.  Now “Laws Tell Britons Exactly How to Take Out Trash,” New York Times, June 27, 2008, pp. A1 and A9.  “Gareth Corkhill, a bus driver, was fined $215—and given a further $225 fine and a criminal record when he failed to pay—for leaving his garbage can lid slightly ajar this spring….”  “Across Europe, residents are struggling to adjust to a new era of garbage rules.”  In parts of Britain, garbage is now only picked up every other week, and one can only dispose of just so much.  Are the peoples of Europe condemned to make such mountains out of all their molehills?  At any rate, on our Fourth, the doings in Europe are calculated to make us glad we live in America, even if we are currently under the thumbs of a bunch of bush leaguers.

The Pope Does Not Wear Prada.  “The devil may wear Prada—but the pope does not. According to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, the bright red loafers that Pope Benedict XVI wears are not designed by the Milanese fashion house, as has long been rumored.”

Perhaps he should change his ways.  Fashion clearly can really get you somewhere.  “A new bill proposes more visas” for models (see The Economist, June 21, 2008, p.45).  Legislation for spiffy foreign dames put forward by a New York congressman would put models in their own immigration category, allowing a 1,000 foreign beauties to reach our runways each year, “compared with just 349 in 2007.” 

The Music Ladies are Still Around.  Tony Martin, of course, is the singer who won’t quit.  But this summer, we keep discovering that it is very talented songstress writers who have stupendous staying power, still lightening our mental baggage and lifting our spirits.  Carole King appeared on the Colbert Show, both to talk politics and to sing a song.  Carly Simon, whose vacation never ends because she lives in Martha’s Vineyard, still hauls out new recordings, her buoyant style a contradiction to the depression that seems to trail her in real life.  Now a grandmother, her latest is “This Kind of Love,” a province of life that has long delivered her disappointments.  Most durable of all is Emmy Lou Harris, who keeps the music coming, most lately with “All I Intended to Be.”  She is probably at her best in duos, especially in a joint album she made with Mark Knopfler.  Interestingly, Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2008, p. D7 just did an interview with her.  They’re the voices of summer, well heard because they are not so loud.  Divorced aplenty, these ladies all know about imperfect unions and the need to leave the past behind.  But they are sweet warblers, and their pain is not heard. We are proposing that they all appear in a grand concert, out at Jones Beach, to remind us of the way things used to be.

Democracy Run Rampant. Even the rich are prisoners of their iPhones, iPods, and GPS boxes.  Plutocrats be damned.  There is no luxury anymore:  we all must eat the same sloppy fare and swim in the same bathtub.  If you are a member of a club in New York, you will notice that it has turned into an average hotel.  The shoe shine stand has disappeared.  There are fewer showers and the grand heads have disappeared, so you are afforded a miserable stream of water and some of those modern soap dispensers dripping something that is less than cleansing.  The gents can take off their jackets in the dining room, and ladies are admitted in godawful blue jean pants suits.  Since the decorator crowd has usurped control and suckered everybody with small portion designer food, hearty steaks, well-turned-out big hamburgers, and tongue sandwiches are off the menu.  Down with plutocrats—up with Hiltonia.

Part and parcel of this move to the mediocre is the decline and decline of American Express.  Once a great company, it is now no better and perhaps somewhat worse than the credit card companies.  Membership no longer has any privileges.  Charges that were never discussed appear on bills, though they were probably listed in one of those legalistic small print mailers that Amex now frequently inflicts on its cardholders.  Don’t bother calling travel services.  Recent visitors to India first called American Express for advice on money wire locations, hotels, etc:  the clerks were useless, but it took them a whole mess of time to render their wordy nothings.  Now, in a flash of brilliance, American Express is penalizing or even eliminating some of its best customers in a hamfisted attempt to impose credit safeguards.  Other credit card companies are up to the same shenanigans, something you can read about in “Banks Trimming Limits for Many on Credit Cards.”

Naturally there have never been so many services or products bearing the moniker “Luxury,” and never so few luxury products.  The purveyors do not know the meaning of the word, and would not know how to render it.  There’s even a chap named Michael Silverstein at Boston Consulting Group who specializes in the world of luxury, but who really is just talking about the expensive mass market.  In fact, there is room at the top for those who can understand and provide luxury, something to consider when you return to the workforce after Labor Day, having been eased out of your corporate sinecure this year.  In fact, we do seem to be athwart a mini-depression, the very kind of environment where it pays to cater very well to the very rich.

The Rise of the Absurd.  In 2008 we should particularly take to laughing, because so much is absurd.  We may forget that France’s cult of the absurd did not arise in a vacuum: the philosophers and literary sorts encountered the absurd at their doors because France was falling apart.  Camus felt it everywhere he went, reflecting “At any street corner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face.”  We’re at a time here when things plainly don’t work.  We must smile, while, quietly, we put some meaning back in things, and link action to purpose.  If mindlessness is all about us, we simply must enjoy it, and propel ourselves into some other continuum where commonsense is no sin, and summer is warmth, not drought.

When You’re Smilin’.   As we’ve said, the Fourth kicks off summer, the season for smiling.  It’s a time to put a good face on things, to find bemusement even in things gone dreadfully wrong.  By golly, the newscasters cannot drum up crises in the summer heat, for they are bored with all the phony dramas they spend their lives generating, and they themselves are off, like bullets, to their houses in the Hamptons, in Montana, or in California’s wine country in order to escape the media strewn world they have constructed.  It is the time for laughter and song:

When youre smilin’ ... keep on smilin’
The whole world smiles with you
And when youre laughin’ … keep on laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through

P.S.  Jesse Helms just bit the dust, on the Fourth of July no less.  He was reviled by the New York City press, a subject of caricature, even amongst his colleagues in Beltway Washington.  We, too, always sent barbs his way.  Uuntil we put some of our operations in North Carolina.  Then we discovered that he was the only politician in either party who actually got something done—about North Carolina. The other pols were and are all talk and have put North Carolina on hold.  He would do things for average citizens, shaking up politicians and businessmen alike.  And he would send back a well-wrought reply to the inquiring constituent.  May he enjoy his time in the hereafter, wherever that might be.

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