MAIM THAT TUNE

“Music is the lubricant of life. Don’t you agree Mrs. Kacofany?” I said to my voice teacher the other day.

“What’s that, Dear?” she shouted.

Mrs. Kacofany is having trouble with her hearing, the poor dear. At my last three sessions she’s had wads of cotton stuffed in her ears. I’m quite concerned about her. She seems to be failing and she was so hale and hardy when I began taking singing lessons.

By my third lesson she’d developed a tremor and I noticed her lustrous black hair was beginning to show gray. Also, while I was singing the scale last week I thought I heard her mumbling to herself. You might say these are all common symptoms of advancing age, the impaired hearing, the tremor and the mumbling, but Mrs. Kacofany is only 35.

She said in the beginning she was taking me on as a challenge and, although she’s paying a terrible price, we seem to be making progress. When I sing during church services now, no one turns around to stare and the EMT members of the congregation realize I am not undergoing a medical emergency.

Mrs. Kacofany admires my love of music and appreciates my frustration when music doesn’t reciprocate, but instead, attacks. My love affair began when I was four and almost swallowed my kazoo. No one had warned me about the danger of inhaling when playing a kazoo.

At age eight I had a brief hope of becoming a harmonica prodigy when, after only an hour’s practice, I’d mastered a few bars of Yankee Doodle. But alas, more than eighty years later the remaining notes continue to elude me.

As a teenager I was drummed out of the Euphonic Academy because of my “discordant effect on the student body.” The professor could not believe I’d practiced 15 hours a week and assumed my performances were some kind of juvenile insolence. “You are the only student I’ve ever encountered who plays the tamourine off key”, he growled.

I can understand his misjudging me. Practicing music lovers usually reach some level of acheivment. But even poor doddering Mrs. Kacofany admits I have a very long way to go.

“I love all music, Mrs. Kacofany. Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan, Gershwin and punk rock. It’s all the same to me,” I tell her.

“I’m trying to teach you there are important differences, Dear. Someday you might catch on.”

“This violent world needs music, Mrs. Kacofany. I truly believe music has charms to soothe the savage beast.”

“Promise me, Dear, that you will never sing in the presence 0f strange dogs.”


T

NATURE’S MUTE BUTTON

The human body is always improving, becoming more efficient to meet new challenges and discarding obsolete equipment. Genetic experts say the process might be speeding up.

Our skulls are enlarging each generation to accommodate our bigger brains and our pinky toes and wisdom teeth are showing signs of obsolescence. Less tree climbing and sturdier shoes might explain the decreased need for pinky toes, but is our wisdom waning?

It’s difficult to tell with today’s bushy hair styles, but I think our ears might be starting to lap over. The NOISE challenge is, without a doubt, increasing and Nature or the Almighty always responds with a fix when the need arises. There is convincing evidence we are being provided with something like a mute button to block the many negative quality-of-life noises that bombard us.

Perhaps the fix is internal, a new organic switch in our inner ears might be growing that will act like a gun silencer, greatly reducing the decibel level of raucous sounds that make our lives less livable, like leaf blowers, outsized mowers and punk rock D.J.’s at wedding receptions. If our civil authorities won’t intervene, Nature must come to the rescue. We’ve always been able to shut our eyes and mouths. It’s high time we gain the ability to also shut our ears.

You might have noticed some of our young people are apparently already equipped with this mutation and are abusing it by switching it on when there is no real threat to safety or sanity. Typical male teenagers can hear a pepperoni pizza sizzling to completion 25 yards away. (Yes, aroma is involved, but not completely.) But when only 10 paces away from home, they are deaf to shouted orders to return to put out the garbage cans.

“PLEASE TURN THAT DOWN!” I once howled to my son. A group called “Armageddon” was playing a piece entitled “World War IV”, a concerto written for saxophones, drums and howitizers. I’d tried to be tolerant, but the cat was climbing the drapes and the windows were threatening to shatter. “Sorry, Dad,” my son said. “I forgot the radio was on. I was doing my homework and didn’t notice.” (Didn’t notice World War IV?)

While the muting mutation will protect us from the ear-splitting decibel levels of landscapers’ machinery and rock music, it can also be adapted to detect and block trigger phrases that begin with “But first these messages from….” and “Could you lend me…..”

SILENT SIGNALS

I’m so glad I read that book on body language. I had no idea the words I was hearing from salesmen and politicians weren’t always completely truthful. Why would anyone want to lie to me?

Just this week I met an old friend I’ve always admired and respected, but as we shook hands I was appalled to notice he’d rotated our wrists to put his hand on top, a dominant attitude indicator according to the book.

I began to realize the significance of other body signals he’s sent over the years. As we talk, his nose is often very close to my forehead and his foot is planted on top of my toes. I’d always assumed he was nearsighted or hard of hearing, but now I wonder. Could these be signs of the latent aggressiveness I’ve been reading about?

The book has made me quite fluent in the language of bodies. I’m amazed to witness the heavy traffic in torso and facial signalling going on out there every day. Some people, the silent types, do more communicating with shrugs, grimaces and gestures than they do with words. “Okay, I’ll go along” is often contradicted by the gritting of teeth or tightened fists. Spitting in the direction of the speaker is a definite negative indicator.

If, like me, you realize you’ve been handicapped for years by not being able to decode these physical messages, it’s time for you to learn. With your new fluency, you will be a walking lie detector. The fast talking used car salesman who keeps covering his mouth and the politician who shakes your hand while avoiding eye contact will both be outed as fibbers.

However, sincere body language, the cheerful smile, the sympathetic tilt of the head and the gentle caress are genuine friendly messages. Sincere body language is vital and in some situations is more important and effective than the verbal kind.

A friend told me recently that his marriage was in danger. “I don’t know what I’ve done wrong or how I could possibly live without her. I must convince my wife of my undying love and devotion,” he said. “Can you help me with advice? How do I do that?”

I almost said no, but with my new found knowledge , I thought I could try. I suggested he take his wife to a romantic, candle-lit restaurant, possibly with a roving violin player and, while they’re sipping their wine, he should smile warmly, reach across the table, gently take her hand in his and say, “I’ve always loved you and I’ll love you till the day I die.”

Then he should shed a tear that will flow slowly down his cheek. The tear is one of the most effective body language signs. I told him if he’s unable to easily produce a spontaneous tear, he should pluck a hair from either nostril. It always works.

I know that sounds deceitful, but the poor guy was so sincerely and desperately in love with his wife, it was the best I could do. They just left on their second honeymoon.

I

BEMUSED

According to the ancient Greeks there are nine muses devoted to helping artists. Thalia, the muse of comedy would be the appropriate one for me. I haven’t heard from Terpsichore, the muse of dancing, since 1950 when I broke my date’s big toe while doing the Boogie Woogie.

I don’t entirely believe in these old Greek stories. However, I definitely do have a muse who’s given me ideas for over 50 years as a writer, but I don’t think it’s Thalia, a daughter of Zeus, who would be more dedicated to her job and would be giving me better service.

I suspect my muse, whatever her name is (I’ll call her Tipsy), might have a drinking problem. Wouldn’t a sober, dedicated muse stick around to see an artist through a project once she’s given him a barebones idea? Tipsy is more of a delivery girl, dropping off an occasional one-line inspiration and then wandering off, probably to the nearest bar.

As a blogger, what am I supposed to do with Tipsy’s “The weather bureau is a non-prophet organization?” Not bad, but then what? She tantalizes me with other phrases like “To get ahead, if you can’t get something on the ball, try getting something on your boss.

Tipsy delivered that one while I was driving in heavy traffic on Route 80. The AAA guy who helped get my car off the median agreed it was quite funny and admitted it would have distracted him also.

My desk and pockets are full of little Post-its on which I’ve jotted down Tipsy’s one-liners so I won’t forget them. Last week I thought I was handing a deposit slip to a bank teller when she looked at it and said, “What is this? ‘Happiness isn’t everything. You can’t buy money‘?” She looked nervous and may have been reaching for the alarm button. I had to explain my mistake quickly.

I have always believed that every good writer, besides having a way with words, a healthy sense of curiosity and perhaps a liberal attitude towards plagiarism, really needs a muse. Writer’s block is a serious condition. Shouldn’t a dedicated muse be on hand with detailed blockbuster ideas?

Tipsy isn’t happy with my complaints. She sent this angry muse-a-gram this morning: “I am NOT working under the alfluence of incohol!”

DINING OUT RAGE

This was supposed to be a fun night out, but here we are twiddling our thumbs in an overcrowded noisy room waiting for a wandering waiter. Why is he called the waiter? We’re doing all the waiting. He’s the waitee.

He gave us five-page menus when we arrived and three minutes later asked if we’d made our choices. We asked for more time and he was more than generous. So far, we’ve had almost an hour. By now I’d settle for a quick bowl of soup and saltines.

Why is restaurant dining so popular? We gave up home cooking and the privacy of our dining room, drove through heavy traffic and had our car parked by a tattooed teenager. Now we’re waiting to eat food cooked by a stranger in some faraway kitchen and, if the room wasn’t this uncomfortably crowded, we’d suspect the quality of the meals.

At least we weren’t forced to wait at the bar for more than five minutes. There was one groggy fellow there who seemed to have forgotten, after two martinis, what he was waiting for. I hope he called a taxi soon after mentioning to me he’d had “Tee martoonies”.

Here comes that little toddler from the next table again, chewing on a steak bone and drooling on my best slacks. “No, no, Madam, he’s not bothering me one bit. I’m enjoying him. He reminds me of when I was an undisciplined little brat, Ha, Ha!” That usually works.

Where is that waiter? After he serves us we won’t be able to get rid of him. He’ll keep returning just when I have a mouth full of linguini and ask, “Is everything all right?” I’ll reply “Grmmplx!” dripping red sauce onto my new tie and he’ll say, “Very good!” in that smug way of waiters when it’s getting close to tip time.

Thank heavens, here comes our waiter now, but who is that with him? Isn’t that the tattooed teenager carrying something? I can tell by the license plate. That’s my front bumper!

OH DADDY BOY, THE PIPES ARE CALLING

Years ago I overheard my daughter Janis speaking to a classmate who’s father, she claimed, handled every household plumbing emergency. “What does your father do when a pipe bursts? she asked.

“That depends,” Janis said. “If it’s late at night and he’s tired, he does the backstroke, but he prefers freestyle.” (I think I know where she got her sense of humor.)

I could take the comical inuendos, the back-breaking work and the wet socks if my plumbing efforts were fruitful, but it’s quite frustrating after three strenuous hours trying to eliminate a maddening “CLANG, CLANG, CLANG” water hammer and only succeed in changing it to “KLUNG, KLUNG, KLUNG”.

Once I had to report that my two-hour attempt to resolder a leaking joint was futile. “It’s worse than ever,” I admitted. “I just can’t master a blowtorch.”

“Too bad, Dear, ” my wife soothed. “And you’re surprised you couldn’t fix it.”

“Surprised? Not really. This was my first try with the new blowtorch. Why do you say ‘surprised’ “?

“Well, you look suprised somehow. Oh, now I see why. You’ve lost your eyebrows, Dear.”

The plumber eventually arrives in his Alfa Romeo van (which he richly deserves) and takes command, but it’s a delicate psychological situation, temporarily surrendering control of my castle. It calls for a bit of face-saving. “I’m glad you’re here, but I was able to take some emergency measures and keep things under control,” I say.

“Fine, fine,” he says. “Just direct me to the leaking pipe.”

“It’s on the far basement wall,” I reply . “Be careful when you pass my workbench. There’s a pretty strong undertow there.”

BLOOD TYPE: OH!

I was about three years old when I discovered that people, including me, had blood inside them. I’d stepped on a piece of glass at the beach and red stuff began oozing out of my foot. I thought the whole thing over while I was screaming my head off and decided it was a disgusting, upsetting arrangement and I still feel the same way.

During my early years I was happy to learn it was somebody else’s job to stem the red flow and I marveled at the way grownups calmly dealt with lacerations and punctures. I thought I’d never be able to perform that way and I was absolutely right.

The sight of escaping blood, my own or anybody’s, gives me a decided feeling of angst, disquiet, okay, panic. I can’t help thinking the victim is losing his life-sustaining fluid with only ten pints to his name and right now it’s leaking out. Something has to be done immediately, I think, as he lies there with his dripping wound while I run around in panicky circles.

“Daddy gave me worst aid,” my little daughter Carolyn told my wife as she returned home from shopping one day many years ago. She proudly displayed her tiny arm, swathed in a bulging mass of gauze and adhesive tape.

“Oh dear!” my wife gasped. “Maybe we should take her to the ER!”

“Not necessary,”I replied. “It really isn’t much of a cut. I got a little carried away and probably over bandaged.”

“Does your arm hurt, Sweetheart?” she asked.

“No, Mommy, but it’s very tired,” Carolyn replied. “The bandage is very heavy. It’s only a little cut, Mommy, and it’s not even bleeding anymore. Do you want to look at it?

“I don’t think we should disturb the bandage, Carolyn.”

“We don’t have to, Mommy. The cut is on the other arm. I tried to tell Daddy, but he was so excited.”

HANDY HOUSEHOLD HARANGUES

You probably talk to your furniture and appliances from time to time. Admit it. Everybody does. We often have to deal with an uncooperative folding chair or toaster oven that refuses to perform as promised by an overoptimistic advertising department.

Once released from the strict confinement of their factories and warehouses these manufactured creatures often begin to exhibit unmistakable signs of independence and even rebellion. We are being overly optimistic when we think we are their masters just because we have the original receipts and warranties.

I am now sitting in my contrary office chair in front of my insubordinate PC . I’ve named this beastly seat “Shifty” and I can hear him snickering now. You might insist it’s just the squeaky wheels I hear, but I know better. Shifty was once an obedient servant and a comfort. He would tilt back on command to give me a rest after a rough session writing a blog. Shifty doesn’t allow that anymore so I’m trying to get used to always sitting at attention.

Shifty has also disabled the height adjustment lever. I am sitting on two thick pillows now to reach eye level and avoid another painful stiff neck episode. It started one morning when I plopped down into the seat to check my email and suddenly realized I’d plunged a half foot deeper than normal because Shifty was in a playful mood.

“You got me again, Shifty, ” I shouted. “Something has snapped in my sacroiliac and I almost lost my breakfast. If you don’t calm down and behave (stop that snickerking) I’m going to sell you very cheap at my next garage sale to the meanest looking heavyweight gorilla who comes along.” Shifty didn’t reply, but the snickering stopped and I was elevated several inches.

I have an automatic recliner chair that can become horizontal to rest my old bones and surviving muscles. I’m afraid it’s been talking to Shifty because once it ignored my pushbutton command to return to upright. A home alone guy like me can be trapped in the grip of this faux leather monster for hours. Luckily I reached the EMT’s with my flip phone and was rescued. These heroes were mostly older guys who understood my situation and were sympathetic. If the massage button had also jammed, I might have been rubbed raw.

These rebels haven’t taken over completely. I’ve found they do respond to threats. Once, years ago, arriving home after a grueling work day and a challenging commute, my wife Barbara, (the love of my life and now with the angels) served me a delicious supper and a soothing glass of wine. Then she said calmy, “Before you go to bed, Sweetheart, please fix the refrigerator.”

FIX THE REFRIGERATOR???. I choked on my chablis. How does one fix a refrigerator? I thought Her post mortem was accurate. Even the inside light was out and there were indications of melting pork chops.

What was I to do? The family’s entire perishable food supply was endangered, not to mention the steep cost of repair or replacement. “Oh, okay”, I said as calmly as possible.. “I’ll fix the refrigerator before I turn in. I hoped the unfaithful appliance would hear all of my confidant remarks and my professional tone of command. “We’ll check the inside vitals and see what’s going on,” I said, quoting Alan Alda’s comments in a MASH episode.

I opened the kitchen drawer that I used as a tool kit and said to my imaginary assisstant, “Philipshead screwdriver”. Then I swung the dead hulk around and pointed a flashlight into the mysterious interior, hoping I’d find helpful signs saying “Tighten here” or “Reattach this”, but there were none.

Not wanting to just sit there staring, I began to scold the refrigerator. “You have no right to break down without notice after only ten years of off and on service,”I shouted. “Take that you unfaithful servant,” I screamed as I jabbed wildly with my Philipshead screwdriver. Suddendly there was a harummph sound and a wonderful whirring and I realized I’d raised Lazarus.

“Yes, I got her going again,” I told my wife later. It was only a hung up solenoid.” I’d remembered the “solenoid” word from a Popular Mechanics article . I wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded quite professional..

I

II

a

THE COLUMBUS CRUISE LINE

What if Christopher Columbus had to find an additional source of revenue to help finance his historic voyage? Queen Isabella was certainly low on funds after the Spanish war with the Muslims ended in 1492. Columbus might have resorted to taking on paying passengers aboard the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. But how could he persuade anyone to embark on such a perilous trip?

“You will be on my flagship, the Santa Maria, and you will dine at the captain’s table,” he would begin. “We will be cruising to the exotic East Indies and later on to the Orient, a wonderfully enchanted land rich in silks, spices and gold.”

A skeptical landlubber would have done some research beforehand. “Captain, I’ve been talking to your crew members. Half of them are convinced you’ll sail off the edge of the earth, and those are the optimists. The others think all three ships will be devoured by sea monsters before you even reach the edge.”

Columbus would laugh and reply that sailors are known to be wildly superstitious and shouldn’t be taken seriously. “There is no edge,” he’d say. “The earth is as round as the moon and I’m sure the ships up there are ranging freely as we are about to do.”

“But it doesn’t look like a luxury cruise, Captain. We’d like celebrity entertainers, staterooms with verandas, shufffleboard and sumptuous buffets. What kind of food will be served at the captain’s table?”

“You will be feasting on the catch of the day and an occasional sauteed seagull. Delectable sides will include a mouth-watering selection of bully beef patties and delicately spiced hard tack. Our chef has sailed with the English so there will be an open bar every evening with a rum cocktail hour and deep fried something or others.

“If you have any doubts about any aspect of the cruise,” Columbus will add, “you can sign up with our New World Trip Policy which covers sea monster attacks, mutinies, shipwrecks and scurvy.”

The insurance plan would have been a good idea. The flotilla eventually experienced the threat, at least, of all of the above except the sea monsters. Columbus, the “Admiral of the Ocean Seas” was navigating with only a compass. The ship’s “clock” was a sandglass timer that had to be inverted promptly when it emptied. Thinking the earth was much smaller than it is, he was convinced his four voyages ended at the edge of the East Indies which were actually thousands of miles further on. He’d reached the West Indies.

On the plus side, his paying passengers would not have experienced boarding pass delays or long security lines with shoe removals and X-rays before embarking in Palos, Spain and no passport or custom inspections after landing.

There would have been no rental car mix-ups or lost luggage unless there wasn’t time to rescue some when the Santa Maria sank off Hispaniola on Christmas Day, 1492. Remains of what may be the Santa Maria were discovered in 2003. Identification has yet to be confirmed, but many artifacts, including an ancient cannon, are encouraging evidence. There were no traces of verandas or shuffleboard discs in the wreckage.

WHO’S IN CHARGE?

When they invented the computer, I’m sure they intended it to be an automatic device, but I think, probably because of a typo error in an intergeek memo, it got changed to autocratic which would explain the weird conduct of Hal in the “2001 Space Odyssey” movie. Hal was the spaceship’s computer that did away with crew members who interfered with his plans.

My PC (Personal Confuser) is not subtle in letting me know who is actually in charge. It doesn’t matter what default setting I choose, if the Boss thinks he has a better idea, he overides my choice. I’m forced to learn to work with strange fonts, margins and indents, all subject to frequent surprise revisions.

Birthday greetings from my grandchildren are downgraded to spam messages while ads from outfits like the Crafty Chimney Cleaning Company pile up in my In Box. I don’t like to complain too strongly. I don’t want to upset Himself who’s very high strung and might crash at the least provocation. I’m actually typing this on the public library’s PC hoping it’s not part of the SCS (Sinister Cyber Syndicate).

My car’s computer opens all four windows in the middle of a rainy night while I’m sound asleep in bed. It pops my trunk lid as I speed along on Route 80 and notifies me with chimes that resemble playful chuckles. My new toaster has decided that burnt bread is good for me and my microwave signals that my bowl of chili is ready, regardless of my time-setting, by detonating the kidney beans.

Now I read that driverless cars will soon be on our highways. You would think this would improve the quality of our lives, but I’m skeptical. I can imagine myself on a warm summer day hopping into Robby, my robotic roadster, programming him for a trip to Asbury Park, and settling down with a James Bond novel. Two hours later I sit up, look around and say, “Robby, this does not look like Asbury Park.”

“This is so much better than Asbury Park,” Robby replies. “This is the Poconos. Just breathe in that fresh mountain air! You always get bad sunburns at the Jersey Shore and you’re too old to play in the rough surf with young ladies in bikinis. I made us a reservation at the Rocking Chair Inn. My pal Bionic Buick told me they have an air conditioned garage, discounted detailing and an organic carwash.”