Sunday, June 9, 2019

Book Review "A Paris Table" by Allen J. Kourofsky

A Paris Table
By Allen J. Kourofsky

Bloated Toe Publishing

After WWI a renaissance of sorts occurred in the arts and letters of Europe and the Americas. Some of the participants in this movement thought of it as political and personal rebellion. Many authors and artists decided to move away from the rigidity of their homelands and they migrated to what they considered as more tolerant venues. Paris became a focal point for many of these rebels. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker and John Dos Passos were all part of the literary movement in Paris. Artists included Picasso and Modigliani. Musicians, clothing designers and hangers-on of various sorts added to the mix of the vibrant café scene.

Author Allen Kourofsky enters this era with an interesting coming-of-age story set mostly in cafes and side-streets, a bookstore and a brief side-trip to the Riviera. He uses real people as characters, cameo appearances by contemporary figures who help advance the story. The narrative is from an omniscient point of view focused on the conversation and thoughts of a young American who may or may not become a poet. This unnamed character was scarred by his service as an ambulance driver in the Great War. He is in Paris against the wishes of his father who had hoped his son would be a businessman. To support himself he has taken a job as a bookkeeper in a bookstore.

This novel moves along at a steady pace. The opening pages introduce the main character as he is identifying a dead body and this foreshadows the rest of the story which is revealed in a lengthy flashback. We see the earnest young writers and artists as they drink and talk. They do a lot of drinking and talking. They talk about their work but it seems they devote much more time to the conversation and refreshments. We meet the hero’s acquaintances, friends and lovers in these raucous settings. We follow him to his job and to his seedy room as he thinks about his poetry. Some lines of poetry show up now and again but he rarely writes. His memories of the war, of home and family and his uncertain hopes are exposed in inner dialogue.

As I read this novel, I was struck by the author’s ability to capture the tone of the times with relatively spare description of the surroundings or the characters. He uses voice for the latter and iconic Parisian images for the former. And I was also struck by his non-linear narration, similar in many ways to that of Dos Passos. It is an effective technique and particularly suitable for this story. This is a literary novel, not an action-packed thriller. And though there is a love story this is not a romance. It is gritty while retaining a cerebral quality. Again, not unlike Dos Passos.

Technically, I feel this novel could have used a slightly firmer editorial hand to eliminate some repetition. But the writing is of a high enough caliber to let this small matter slide. If you have an interest in the wild and raucous “Roaring Twenties” particularly the ex-pat era of American literature then I highly recommend this book. And if you just like a good, thoughtful coming-of-age story then, again, this is a fine book for your summer list.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Great Pajama Wearing While Shopping Movement Mystery

Conspiracy? Something like that might have been what was happening. Or maybe it was a warped corporate policy designed to dominate the retail market. And believe me, I did my best to look into this thing. Someone needed to investigate and this is that exciting story.

A few years back I noticed some people in the big box store (the one we all know) wearing pajama pants. It was November and fairly cold, not weather for that kind of garment. Most of the pj wearers were female and they looked as if they were part of the low-income demographic group. It didn’t seem important.

As the months passed this trend increased. More women of all age groups were wearing pajama bottoms while shopping, mostly in that same big box chain. I saw them in upstate New York, downstate Delaware and just outside of Washington, D.C. The women didn’t seem well off. And now and then I saw pajama bottom wearing men. I didn’t see this trend in Sears or Macy’s or even Old Navy. People in Old Navy seemed to favor sweat pants.

I took an informal survey of people I know, people across the spectrum of economic solvency. Not one person, rich or poor, would admit to wearing sleepwear while shopping. My survey sample included about eighty individuals. Some pre-election poll results rely on smaller samples than that.

The trend continued to grow. I started to see sleepwear wearers in the grocery store. One day I decided to ask a couple individuals why they were wearing pajamas for shopping. Every one responded that they were either going later to, or had just come from, that big store and that they liked wearing these comfortable clothes when they shopped there. So it seemed that shopping at one particular retail chain was driving this abhorrent fashion trend. Why, I wondered?

I went to one of the stores and asked for the manager. This was the conversation I secretly recorded:

Me: Mr. ________, I wonder if you could answer a question for me?

Manager: Okay. What is it?

Me: Why do so many people, especially women, wear pajamas while shopping in your store?

Manager: Why do you ask?

Me: Well I’m trying to find out what is driving the trend.

Manager: Why?

Me: Because it seems odd and I’m curious?

Manager: Don’t you have better things to worry about?

Me: It could be important.

Manager: Good bye. Have a nice day.

As you can see this manager was obviously avoiding my probing questions. So, I went about five miles down the road to another store in this worldwide chain and asked to see the manager. She kept me waiting for fifteen minutes before having someone escort me to her office. Again, I recorded the conversation:

Me: Can you tell me why so many of your customers wear sleepwear as they shop in your store?

Manager: Why don’t you ask them? Furthermore, why do you care?

Me: Well it seems to be an odd fashion trend and it seems to originate with your company. Why would that be?

Manager: With all due respect, sir, I really don’t have time for this nonsense. Please get out of my office. Security!

Again, an official of the company was concealing information. I called corporate headquarters and could not get any answers from the automated call-receiving system. And no one returned my calls after I left detailed messages that the system asked for. Why was this company afraid of my investigation? Was there something illegal going on?

I decided to go undercover. I went to one of their stores, one I had never visited, and bought a nice flannel sleepwear outfit. Normally I sleep in the nude so I had no appropriate garments in my home. The next day I headed to the closest branch of this chain and proceeded to push a cart through the aisles, engaging in casual conversation with other customers attired as I was. I recorded these conversations and here are some samples.

With a large woman driving an electric scooter cart:

Me: Hi there. Nice pjs. You shop here often?

Woman: Get lost ya’ freak!

With a younger, very thin, very agitated woman pushing a cart full of electronic equipment:

Me: Hi. You’re certainly well equipped. For video and sound, that is. Those are very nice pajamas you’re wearing. Did you buy them here? My wife might like some of those.

Woman: What? What did you say? Are you some kind of pervert? Are you? Get the hell away from me you pervert! I’m going to call the security people. Go away!

My last approach was to another young woman of substantial size who had two small children in tow. All three of these people were wearing sleepwear. The little ones had pjs with footie things.

Me: Hi there. The family that wears pjs while shopping together stays together, right? (I chuckled at my little witticism)

Woman: Que pasa?

Me: Why are you all wearing pajamas for shopping here?

Woman: Que? Yo no hablo ingles. Dejanos solos, idiota!

Me: Have a fine day.

Were all of these customers aligned with this corporation in some kind of organized movement? Was it dangerous? I was more determined than ever to get to the bottom of these questions. I needed to go deeper undercover.

Online I applied for a job with the company. I carefully avoided stores where I had spoken to the manager. That’s easy to do since there are so many locations in this vast retail empire. Within hours I had an interview and was hired as a store greeter. The very next day I was given an orientation and got my special yellow vest with the asterisk on the back. At no point in the orientation was there mention of encouraging customers to buy, and then shop in, pajama bottoms.

On my first day I followed company protocol and merely greeted customers and checked their receipts against items in their bags and carts as they left the store. I accosted two people trying to shoplift and was complimented by my immediate supervisor. The next day I began (casually) asking other employees about the pajama trend. All denied any knowledge of conspiracy or corporate policy. It wasn’t until the morning of the first day of my third month on the job that I got a break. A new person was cleaning the bathrooms near customer service. He was an older gentleman and he told me right away that he had transferred from another store so he could be closer to his new girlfriend.  I casually introduced a question about the sleepwear issue, which seemed to have increased even more in the three months I had worked as a greeter.

I recorded this part of my conversation with the new janitor.

Me: So, do you think the company encourages people, in some way, to wear pajamas while shopping.

Janitor: Why sure. A couple years back the company hired a few women in each area to wear pajamas and walk around the stores like they was shopping. I noticed they never checked out those carts they was pushin’. And I know they was hired ‘cause they’d come to the manager late at night and get a envelope.

Me: I see. Are all the people wearing pajamas getting paid? And why did the company care about this?

Janitor: Well no, dummy, they ain’t all getting paid. People copy other people. And the big bosses in the company came up with the idea because they think if people are real comfortable shopping in these places then they won’t shop nowhere else. You see? Nothin’ as comfortable as walkin’ around in pjs, right? Warm and cozy. That’s all it is. Comfort. Now look at that woman over there walkin’ out with two TVs. Go check her out. Do your damn job, fool.

It seemed I had finally solved the mystery. It was just another case of corporate greed destroying the good fashion sense of a vast part of the world’s population. And isn’t that a sad commentary on our times.

Monday, December 4, 2017

My First Holiday Blog of 2017

It’s December 4th and the annual holiday improvement in kindness, generosity and all-around goodness is more and more apparent. Well, maybe.  Haven’t noticed any of that in the political world. And it doesn’t seem to be happening in our shopping places. The folks on the roads are certainly not making strides in any of those areas. Social media does show an occasional sign of good will. But that sign is usually followed by eight or nine posts of name calling vitriol.

Of course, when it comes to politics there is no middle ground. My kind hearted liberal friends think they’re fighting evil incarnate. My well intentioned conservative acquaintances think they’re being unjustly vilified and demeaned by, yes you guessed it, evil incarnate. The issues are pretty big, I guess. That tax bill is important. The immigration questions are still questions, no resolution there. Foreign affairs seem to be pretty much bogged down in wars both ongoing and up-coming. While the economy seems to be rebounding a little, there’s still a pretty big crowd of homeless folks here at the public library every day. And I know lots of older people who are just getting by. And, of course, that health insurance problem is not getting fixed by any of our intelligent, caring legislators. Some of my acquaintances who rely on the new government sourced plans have been hit with premiums so high that they are just planning on taking their chances with no insurance.

When I read yesterday’s newspapers I saw lots of space dedicated to the increasing scourge of heroin and other opioid use. A bunch of money is going towards that problem but the good results of those programs are not too apparent. Another pile of articles was dedicated to sex assault cases of prominent politicians and entertainers. I grabbed the comics just to get a little relief. Then I did a crossword puzzle. Then I read the advertising flyers. After the eighth page of the Boscov’s ad I finally calmed down enough to start drinking.

What’s my point? Hell if I know. Kindness? I know in “one on one” situations most folks are kind. And pretty much all of my friends are generous with their time and money as they support charities, causes and churches. But that underlying current of hatred for people who hold opposing opinions is pretty apparent. It’s kind of like one of those quiet cancers that swims around in the bloodstream and then suddenly bursts to the surface of the body in a terrible lesion. And there are a mess of lesions popping up everywhere and often. Quick treatments are applied and the sores subside but the main disease is still cruising around. Who knows when the cancer will be too big to contain?

I’m done worrying today. I might not resume my pose of cynical indifference for now. I might adopt a new pose of holiday cheerfulness, kindness and goodwill. Even though it’s not totally sincere it might catch on. Gotta make the effort anyway. You’re welcome to join me. And have a fine day.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Technology and Worse

Let’s start with the worse. Maybe it should be worst. Today we had the unfortunate Walmart shopping experience. I always ask myself, as I walk those well stocked aisles, why the heck do I come into this place when I dislike it so much? It often boils down to sausage. Walmart carries those big bags of pre-cooked breakfast sausage patties. They are better than any other brand and I like them. Also, Walmart has several items on their shelves priced lower than any other store. Being forced into frugality at about the same time as my dear wife entered retirement I needed to start worrying about the price of basic necessities. So, sausage is the big thing and cheap goods are the other reason we go into the big box.

Today, as my wife was over in the sausage aisle, I happened to be cutting across the store heading for the fire-starting stuff. My walk took me through the ladies clothing area. As I passed through that section I happened to glance to my right and I saw something I’ve never seen in any store. A rather large lady was standing in the underwear area trying on brassieres. That stopped me in my tracks, as it were. Now this lady did not have any part of her body uncovered. Nope. She was trying on bras over her already supported bosom, presumably, and her Jeff Gordon t-shirt. I may be wrong, but if one wants to get a proper fit in an undergarment doesn’t one need to remove the outer layers of clothing first? I’ve seen plenty of weird stuff in Walmart but this was a new level of weird. I watched the woman try on two selections just to be sure I wasn’t wrong about what I was seeing. I wasn’t.

If I was a technologically savvy Walmart shopper I would have whipped out my smart-phone and snapped a couple of photos or a video of the “trying on lady”. But I’m not savvy in that way. My phone wasn’t even in my pocket. It was back at the house, turned off, which is the state it is usually in. My chances at internet fame were shot before they even got started.

And this brings me to my next grouchy old man rant. Techno-snobs. I just coined that term. If you or someone you know has already come up with the word let me know and I’ll retract my claim.

Techno-snobs are people who carry the latest in cell phone innovation. They are the people in restaurants or at the dinner table furiously moving their opposable thumbs over those phones, sending and receiving messages, playing games, scanning their stock portfolio or watching porn. Those are the people who prefer texting to talking. They look at the gentle old lady who eschews the use of cell phones as a threat to humanity. Techno-snobs will snub, laugh at and sometimes insult the folks who avoid using modern devices.

It's obvious that I use a computer since you’re reading this little blog. And I also use the cell phone for calling people up, sending messages and sometimes finding an answer to a vital question on the internet. Just the other day I settled an argument by learning that duck eggs have more fat than chicken eggs. That answer probably averted a violent barroom fistfight.

But I’ll never fault someone for putting a cell phone in a drawer for a month or two. Even if they never use their flip-phone, only use a landline or go searching for a payphone, they’ll not be laughed at or scorned by me. More power to them. And I hope you techno-snobs out there read this and have a change of attitude towards those non-users. Talking to people in person is okay. Talking to people on a landline is fine. Writing a letter and mailing it in an envelope with a stamp attached is to be commended. Be kind to non-texters. You’ll be a better person for it. In fact, you might want to take a twenty-four hour break from technology now and then yourself. It might clear your mind and it might add to your good Karma storehouse. And we all can use more good Karma.

So go on and have a fine day. See you on Facebook.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Aging and Its Consequences

Remember when you had little kids running around the house, learning to talk, learning to walk/run and learning to use the toilet? The cute toddler would come running up to you and say “Daddy (or Mommy) I went poo-poo in the potty and it was real big.”  Or something similar to that. Well folks, someday (hopefully) you’ll live long enough to learn just how much old age is like those toddler years. A good movement will be the highlight of your day. Any movement at all will be noteworthy.

Yesterday my dear wife and I were in a checkout line where senior citizen discounts are offered. My wife said to the clerk “Make sure we get the senior discount.” The clerk looked at me. “And how old are you sir?” For the life of me I could not manage to say the three syllables that she wanted to hear. “Se-e-e-v-en-en-t-t-t-y” I finally managed to croak. When I was in my sixties, even when I was sixty-nine, I could utter my age. But something happened when I entered the seventh decade. It was like going through a very large, very thick door into a room full of darkness. Some of my friends and relatives made it to this age and didn’t seem to be bothered. Others never did make it to this age (lots of those folks) and of course they never had to worry about it. But here I am, spending far too much time considering the realities of actual old age.

And as I consider these realities I see (as in the example in the first paragraph) just how many things seem to be repeats of stuff that happened way back in early childhood. Get a knee or hip replacement, as so many seniors seem to do, and be treated to the ordeal of learning to walk again. Lose your teeth and learn the delights of soft foods as you wait for new dentures. Relate an interesting story or joke and learn that you don’t know the words to describe just how big the thing you seem to need in the punch line really was. Language is once again a mystery.

And we won’t mention bodily processes and abilities that have faded even more than our command of language. Of course, there are many seventy-plus seniors who have retained most of their physical and mental faculties. A few have daily exercise regimens that include running, walking, weight lifting or swimming. Still others pursue the more sedentary sport of golf which mostly consists of driving a golf cart a few feet for the next poorly hit fairway shot. I suppose enough swings could count as a form of exercise. But, for many of us, daily exercise is just too much trouble. In my case mowing the lawn with my push mower and weed trimmer, splitting and stacking firewood, shoveling snow and slow ambles on rural dirt roads will have to be enough. If the exercise doesn’t have an immediately visible result (other than sweat and swearing) then I don’t have time for it. Also, I need my physical activity to a keep my mind at least minimally occupied. If my mind is idle then it wanders back behind that big thick door I mentioned earlier.

Spending too much time peeking into dark corners of that hidden room is too scary a business. It’s in there that we consider questions like these. Burial or cremation, what’s the best choice? Is the will up to date? Should I write my own obituary and eulogy? And those are just the practical questions. There are also the big metaphysical questions. Is Heaven more like farm country or Las Vegas? Is Hell more like Los Angeles or Las Vegas? How long are the lines to those afterlife existences? Will I have to say my age out loud? And what about judgement? Is judgement more like being on Judge Judy’s show or more like pleading a case at the Supreme Court?

Well, I’m going to go do some exercise right now and try to prolong my time in this mortal place. I think I’ll bend my elbow a few times while holding a gradually diminishing container of goodness. How’s that for a metaphoric closing?

Now have a fine day.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"In the Ground" that New Album from The Gibson Brothers

“In the Ground” that New Album from the Gibson Brothers

Many fine writers have reviewed or commented on the new CD from The Gibson Brothers. You know who the Gibsons are, right? Well just in case you don’t I’ll tell you. Eric and Leigh Gibson front one of the finest Bluegrass bands in America and are certainly the finest brother duo in the business. Backed by Mike Barber on stand-up bass, Jesse Brock - award winning mandolin virtuoso and Clayton Campbell - a terrific fiddle player, this group has won IBMA Entertainer of the Year twice along with many other awards. Eric and Leigh hail from over in Clinton County right near Churubusco. Eric still lives up this way and Leigh has moved to the more cosmopolitan environs of Scotia down near Albany.

The new album “In the Ground” (with all the songs written by Eric and Leigh) has received rave reviews and a couple of the songs are already high on the Billboard bluegrass charts. The band is steadily touring in support of the album and audiences are loving the shows. Nothing about this chain of events is new for The Gibson Brothers. They have a work ethic that is embedded in their characters. They love their job, they appreciate their fans and they deliver a stellar performance every time they show up. All of these things have been remarked upon by writers better than me.

I’ve been listening to the new album a lot. And on a recent ten-hour road trip I listened to all of their albums in chronological order. Nine albums. Sadly, I don’t own the earliest albums from Hay Holler Records. But from “Bona Fide” up through “In the Ground” you won’t find a finer variety of bluegrass tinged music from any artists. Hard driving or quiet and melodic, deeply bluegrass or rockabilly or traditional country or Americana/Folk/Gospel they "own" every song they’ve recorded. The brothers have championed the causes of family farmers, small town life and honest ethical values. And I know, because I’ve seen them under good conditions and bad, that they live what they sing.

So, here’s my actual review. This is a really fine album: terrific song writing from the brothers. absolutely solid and inspired playing by every musician, vocal duos that always ring true and sometimes reach that ethereal (almost angelic) level. If you appreciate good music, then you should buy this album. It’s a good investment. But if you want the full experience find The Gibson Brothers when they come to a venue near you. I guarantee you’ll love the music and have a whole lot of fun. I guarantee it.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Where We Live

Let me tell you a little bit about where we live. First you’ve got to get here. If you’re coming from the southwest, down Watertown way, take 11B up through Canton and then go about twenty-six miles east of Potsdam. Then turn into the valley heading south on Route 5. Go about three miles into Dickinson Center. You’ll notice that the road steadily rises. As soon as you get into the hamlet, just past the abandoned church, there’s a big curve to the right. Don’t go that way, go straight up on Cemetery Street. Go past the cemetery, past a few houses and the road curves this way and that as it climbs the ridge. Down below on the right is the river and if it’s fall or winter or early spring you might get a glimpse. Some of the houses up this way are pretty rough. And the people can be as well.

Eventually the road goes to dirt and then you enter a pine forest and soon reach an intersection. Turn right at the intersection and head down towards the river. This is Church Street Road. Cross the rusty old one lane bridge and at the first big maple tree turn right just before the mail boxes. That’s our road. A little ways down is a row of spruce and just beyond that, on the right, is our humble place. It’s got new gray siding and a new roof. Turn into the half-circle driveway, get out and look around. Then come on around back because we’re usually back there if the weather is fair. We might be working on firewood piles or puttering around the yard. Or we might just be sitting in the screen house sipping on a beer and listening to the river roll by.

The river is right there on the edge of our yard, down about a twenty foot bank. You can get down there if you want but be careful, it’s pretty steep. If no one is running a chain saw or snow blower it’s a quiet place. Birds will be around because we keep a lot of feeders full. So when the sun comes up in the morning those little flyers will be your alarm clock whether you like it or not. However the coffee will be on and we tend to enjoy a nice breakfast most days.

After breakfast we can take a little hike. We’ll go to our right as we come out of the driveway, down the dirt road a little ways. Then when we come to a little unused road-cut into the left, just past a small stream heading through a big culvert, we’ll turn in towards the woods. Just up a ways we can go right, pass the abandoned quarry and head uphill towards the town quarry. There’s a road we can follow and we’ll go back in where they recently did some logging and stand at the edge of a huge pit. Look for deer or foxes here, they’re plentiful.

Then we’ll head up a little higher and follow the town road up to where it comes out on Church Street Road. We’ll cross over that one and head up Morray Road. There are a couple old hunting camps up this way and one house somebody lives in year around. It’s an uphill climb but pretty gradual. Up at the end of this road there’s an old logging track that goes straight ahead or, to the right, a rutted dirt lane into the forest.

But I’m done climbing so we’ll turn around and head back down the hill. When we get to the big road again we’ll go right and walk further downhill to the bridge. Maybe we’ll see some beaver or otters in the river. Maybe not. We’ll hang around the bridge and look at the fish and see how much wood those damn beavers have chopped down. By that time it’ll be close to lunch so we’ll go back to the house, grab a couple beers and go sit in the screen house. It might be a little early for beer but that’s okay, we’re thirsty. And nobody has to go to work yet.

Some days we go to town. When the weather’s bad we stay inside. We enjoy company but we’re comfortable on our own. We don’t watch TV very often, just the occasional movie. We read quite a lot. We write. We make some tasty meals. We think about lots of things and have conversations. It’s all good and it’s all part of where we live.