Tomorrow I travel

by Admin Wednesday, November 5, 2014 7:49 PM

Tonight I pack. Tomorrow I journey to visit the family. I haven’t been back to New England in years and it’s time even though I don’t really have time to be away. There’s never a good time to go anywhere though. I’ve started to think that the only way to make it a good time is to do it spontaneously which doesn’t work because a) I can’t get a good price on a flight and 2) there probably aren’t any flights available short notice anyway.

Whenever I plan to go anywhere, I dread it. For weeks. It doesn’t matter if it’s Hawaii, Cabo San Lucas or Pittsburgh. The dreading occurs because of the hassle factor. It’s nearly impossible to take extended periods of time off because I don’t have anyone else to do my work. It’s how I like it but it does make vacations more difficult. Years ago, after I was done complaining to my dad about how busy I was, he paused and asked: “Honey, can’t you hire someone?” Oh, how I wish. The problem is that people hired me to do their writing. If they had wanted someone else, they would have hired someone else. It would be like choosing a particular surgeon to do your operation only to have that surgeon pass it off to another.

I’ve been dreading this trip too. Not because I don’t want to go or because I don’t want to see my family. I actually want both. But I’ve just been slammed lately and it makes me very stressed to be planning to go away. Once I’m there, everything will be fine. And sheesh, it’s only for two days. Still, I stress. I don’t sleep. I’ll get off the plane tomorrow and I’ll look like death warmed over and my family will look at me and think “whoa, she looks terrible. And old. And bad.” I like to look good when I see people I haven’t seen for a long time, even family who will love me regardless. I like to look successful and put together. But last night I didn’t sleep, and tomorrow I have to get up early. I will be a mess when I deplane in Manchester.

My workload has actually gotten a bit better the last few days. This is good. It’s like the universe saying that it’s really OK to take two whole days off. But I still have too much to do. And I’m building a house. Actually, finishing a house. We were informed by Mike Mike Mike (in honor of it being hump day) on Friday that the building phase has officially ended. We passed inspection. We’re now full-speed to completion and that means decisions. Tile, and stone, and hearths for the fireplaces; and choosing the slabs of granite, and the countertop tile for the bathrooms and the vanity lights; and deciding on stucco color and interior paint color; and picking door handles and light switch covers; and and and.

Every day it’s something. Today was a discussion about exterior stone and where we’re going to get it since what we thought we were going to go with we’ve decided we don’t like well enough. Then the CAD drawing of the front door came in and we have to make adjustments to that. And we talked to the fabricator at the kitchen place who will be cutting our slabs since we inspected them yesterday and like the color very much but there’s a fissure at the top of one and we were concerned that it might open up.

And and and

It’s hard to go away when there is so much going on. But it’s hard not to see my family for long periods of time, and while I would love for them to come visit me, it makes more sense for me to go back there. That way I get to see everyone at once. Hopefully they’ll all plan individual trips out here after the first of year, when the weather is miserable in New England and glorious out west.

Tonight I pack. I will think about what I need and what I want to wear. I will lay it all out on the bed and then I will cut it in half so that it fits into a carry-on. I’ll gather the work I’m taking with me. I’ll make sure I have all my power cords and a book. Tomorrow I travel. I will see my mother and my sister and my brother, my niece and nephew and brother-in-law. I’ll see mom’s cat Chow Maine, and my sister’s dog Lucky. I’ll meet the new dog-addition, Lindy. I’ll relax and talk and show pictures. The dread will turn to enjoyment. It will be a time to celebrate being together, a time to live it out loud.

Friends and family

by Lorin Michel Sunday, July 13, 2014 10:09 PM

After I wrote about my parents’ friends Charlotte and Ed yesterday, I happened to speak with my mother who had happened to speak with Charlotte and Ed the other day. Ed is 91; Charlotte 85. They are celebrating their 55th wedding anniversary and still going strong, at least as strong as people nearing the end of their lives can be.

I told my mother about my dream, and about the salad, and she recounted a story that I’d forgotten. After we moved away from Northern Drive in Fairfiew, where Charlotte and Ed were our neighbors, we bounced around to a number of places. Several in New York, in Maryland and finally into New England. Charlotte and Ed, who in the brief time we were all neighbors had become like family – in some cases better than family – came to visit us in every place. They would pile into whatever vehicle they happened to have at the time, and make the journey regardless of where we were. They were older than my parents, and Ed retired early so they always had time to drive and to spend. They would play golf with my dad; they would visit with my mother. There was always so much laughter in the house when they visited. They had their opinions to be sure, especially Charlotte wasn’t shy about sharing them, but they were and remain good, kind, decent people.

Charlotte trained our dog when we were little. They always had dogs, up until they became older, and when my grandmother gave us a puppy for Christmas one year, my mother was beside herself. I was maybe 10 at the time, perhaps even younger, which meant my brother was 6 and my sister was 3. It fell to my mother to train the pup, and she was miserable. She didn’t know what she was doing and in those days, there wasn’t the plethora of books and videos there are now. She spent many a night on the couch with a whining, whimpering dog that she could not train to pee when and where he was supposed to. Charlotte had the little guy trained within a day.

Charlotte and Ed were designated as our legal guardians in the event of something happening to mom and dad. They were, as I said, family.

I was remembering yesterday the salad incident, being in my mother’s kitchen in New Hampshire and making salad with Charlotte and Ed. Charlotte, I believe was on bread duty. Ed was on drinking duty. I have no idea where the rest of the family was; they all arrived eventually.

Mom told me the story of how Ed used to tease that the only reason they visited was for my mother’s lasagna. When they were coming, my mother busied herself in the kitchen, making a huge pan of lasagna, a salad, and getting bread ready. On one occasion, before she realized the seriousness of Ed’s claim, my dad suggested just doing some cold cuts and making sandwiches. It was easier, and would be ready essentially as soon as they arrived or whenever they wanted to eat. My mother thought that was fine idea. Ed did not.

He was relentless in chastising my mother for years, in a loving way, saying that he had not driven seven or eight hours to have a sandwich. She never did that again, and in fact, the afternoon Kevin and I were making salad, I know my mother had also prepared a big lasagna to feed everyone.

We all have family friends in our lives, people who made lasting impressions and still do. I had Charlotte and Ed. Kevin had Jim and Dora Latner, great friends of his parents who were like family. Justin has Roy and Bobbi, our closest friends who have long been our west coast family. When Justin was growing up, and even through college, holidays were always spent with R & B. When he graduated from high school, the only two people he wanted at the graduation, other than Kevin and I, was Roy and Bobbi. When he went on retreat, and came back to share what he learned, again he wanted Roy and Bobbi with us. When we went to visit him on his ship in May, he wanted R & B there, too.

Friends that become family can sometimes be better than actual family. I am blessed with a great family; people I not only love but also like. Many people can’t say that. As the saying goes, you can’t choose your family. It’s just luck of the draw. In the not very good but extremely beautiful to look at film Tequila Sunrise, the late Raul Julia had a passionate speech toward the end intoning just that.

My brother, sister and I have also been blessed with people like Charlotte and Ed. Kevin and his brother and sisters had the Latners. Justin has R & B. I love how it transcends generations, that Kevin and I had family friends, and that Justin does as well. It’s the proverbial cycle of life, with friends helping complete the circle of living it out loud.


by Lorin Michel Monday, June 9, 2014 10:35 PM

As a writer, I have penned my share of press releases, an announcement by a company to the press about a new product or endeavor, a new person. In these releases, there is always at least one quote, usually from the president of the company or some other equally important person, saying the perfect thing about whatever is being announced. These quotes are perfect for a reason: they’re made up by writers like me. Anonymous quotes are much the same. They perfectly encapsulate something someone feels but that someone isn’t famous. Somebody, like a writer, makes up the perfect quote, slaps the attribute of “anonymous” on it and changes the world.

Yesterday was National Best Friends Day, a day definitely worth celebrating for a number of reasons. I didn’t write about it over the weekend but considering I don’t need a day to celebrate my besties, I decided the day-after National Best Friends Day was just as celebratory.

Anonymous captured it pretty well: “Best friends don’t necessarily have to talk every day. They don’t even need to talk for weeks. But when they do, it’s like they never stopped talking.”

I’ve had a number of best friends in my life. My first was Steve Payne, only because we went to the same babysitter while our parents worked. We were three or four I think. Then there was Gigi who lived behind us. When I went to school, I met Kathy Kallenbaugh. On the first day of kindergarten, she and I showed up in the exact same hot pink pants suit. Please remember that it was the 1960s. We were besties for at least the year.

Sometime during my elementary school career I also had a friend named Bari, who was nearly cut in half in an ice-boat accident when we were in 3rd grade. Then there was Sharon Watson. She and I were in separate classes and rivals, not in sports or with boys, but in intelligence. In fourth grade, the powers that be at the school put us in the same class to make us work harder. We became great friends, at least until we weren’t. I don’t remember why.

When I was 14, my family moved to Columbia, Maryland from Hyde Park, New York and I became best friends with Pam. We were fairly inseparable for the entirety of the year, but after our freshman year of high school, my family moved again. It was the first best friend I’d physically moved away from.

Throughout the last three years of high school I had other close friends, people I would get into trouble with, have sleep overs with, even travel a bit with. None of them really stuck. In college, I had several besties but they didn’t last. There was a lot of hurt and anguish; drama. I was never very good at drama, and we eventually parted ways. Some of them are still “friends” on Facebook; most aren’t. Some I can’t even remember their last names.

Throughout my professional life, I’ve made a number of close friends. People who make me feel better for having been with them, regardless of how the time was spent. Now there’s Connie, and Diane, and of course, Bobbi; Pam.

It occurred to me once a long time ago that I’m not a person who has a lot of friends, but I am a person who has very good friends. People I would do anything for; people who would do anything for me. 2 o’clock in the morning people. And 3 and 4.

Best friends are people you choose for family. I’m lucky in that my sister is also a best friend, perhaps my very best. She and I can talk about anything; we laugh more than we cry. We share. Many people have good relationships with their family because they have to; many people don’t. Like I said, lucky.

Eustache Deschamps, the medieval French poet, said “Friends are relatives you make for yourself.”

Yesterday was National Best Friends Day but as far as I’m concerned, every day you have a best friend is a day to celebrate, and a life to live out loud.

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friendly celebrations | live out loud

He ain't heavy, he's my brother

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, March 19, 2014 12:36 AM

An 1884 parable tells the story of a young Scottish girl, struggling as she carried a boy toddler, who when asked if she was tired, replied: “No, he’s not heavy; he’s my brother.” In a 1918 publication, Ralph Waldo Trine tells the same story but with a Scottish accent. “He’s na heavy. He’s mi brither.” It wasn’t until 1924 that the editor of Kiwanis magazine used the phrase as we’ve come to know it – He ain’t heavy, He’s my brother – as a column headline. And in 1969, Bobby Scott and Bob Russell wrote a song using the same title. The Hollies turned it into a huge hit that same year. A little sidebar: a relatively unknown lad named Elton John played piano on the song.

It’s largely agreed, by just about everyone, that the song essentially means exactly what the parable says. It’s never a burden to help – carry – someone who’s important to you. It’s never a burden to be there for someone.

I bring this up because I have recently been spending a lot of time with my brother and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. My brother lives in New England with the rest of my family – I am the sole member to venture west of the Ohio River – but as with many people who live far away from the ones they love, spending time means being on the phone.

For years, this didn’t happen. I’ve always had a great relationship with my sister, or at least since we both became adults but not so much with my brother. He was in his own world and we didn’t hear from him for weeks at a time, my mother included. I had gotten used to talking to him once or twice a year, almost always on a holiday or if he needed something. I was glad to talk to him even on those rare occasions because he’s my brother.

When our dad died suddenly in 2002, it was my brother who found him. I can’t imagine what that must have been like and Scott won’t talk about it. He simply says, stoically, that he’s glad it wasn’t Khris or me who had to find dad. Then the conversation is over. I understand. He’s protecting us. I think once dad died, he realized he was the man of the family now, even though both my sister and I are married. But Scott is the last of the Shields’ men, a point he jokingly refers to regularly.

After dad died, it took him a long time to recover; a long time to get himself back together. We all worried, none more so than mom. But in the last few years, Scott has created quite a life for himself, and there’s now a lightness in his voice that hasn’t been there for a very long time, if ever.

He laughs, he jokes; he asks me how I’m doing and seems genuinely interested in my answers. I love having conversations with him now because he has become a strong, honest, loving man. He enjoys his life. Not all of it because no one enjoys every aspect of their life, but he has plans now. He has things he wants to do and I think it’s wonderful. He has a job he likes, working for a company that he loves under management that treats their employees well. He’s lucky; most people can’t say that about their employers.

Scott’s not married and never has been. He’s not currently dating and as he says, not really looking right now. He’s content to fix up the house he’s living in, to work, to help mom as he can, to dream. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about my brother is his ability to dream. Dream of things he wants to do, things he wants to change, places he wants to go. I’m a big believer in having dreams and in acting on them. We’ve been talking about dreams a lot lately in our conversations.

I’ve always said Scott is a late bloomer. I’ve always believed it. Not everyone gets married in their 20s or 30s. Some wait until they’re in the 40s or 50s; some never marry, some never have kids. Well into his 40s now, he has finally come into his own. He has a good job, he has a great place to live; he has disposable income. Last night when we were talking and laughing about it all he said “late bloomer alright.” He remembered when I first said that many years ago. I don’t know if he remembered it because he wanted to believe it back when things weren’t going so well for him; or if it rang true. Perhaps both.

He is a late bloomer, but as he has blossomed he has become interesting and funny, a person I like, a brother I love. When my mother had him, I was 4 ½ and not the least bit interested in a baby brother. I’m interested now, in the “baby” who has grown to be 6’4”, 200 pounds, with brown hair that’s receding, brown eyes that sparkle when he laughs, s slight space between his front teeth and a voice that’s as deep as time. I hear that voice and I think he’s mi brither. And it makes me smile.

Finding good in disappointment

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, November 27, 2013 12:10 AM

There is no one who hasn’t experienced disappointment in one way or another in their lives. Even small children experience it when a toy is taken away because it’s deemed dangerous. Older people experience it when they can no longer do things they were always able to do with ease, like rake the leaves in the yard. Even animals experience it, though in much lesser ways. I can see it in Cooper’s eyes every time I take a bite of my food and don’t give him a bite as well.

Disappointments happen all the time. A hoped for job offer goes to someone else. The possibility of a beautiful day ends up drenching you with rain. An idea for the next great invention has already been thought of. The story you thought was good goes unpublished. A trip you were going to take can’t happen because of scheduling. A friend you were looking forward to seeing gets sick. The family you were hoping would come for a visit can’t.

Disappointment is part of life. It’s an intricate act of maneuvering through the maze of each day. It can be as mundane as there’s no coffee left in the pot to something as huge as the bank telling you no on a loan you were hoping to get.

Is there any good that can come from disappointment? It’s hard to know in the moment because disappointment is a very self-centered feeling, rightly so. This has happened to me. Why did this happen to me. It’s not fair this happened to me. Who can I slap?

This Thanksgiving, we were having a houseful but most everyone has had to cancel, all for very good reasons that I completely understand. In the same circumstances, I would do the same; anyone would. But I’m disappointed. I was looking forward to sharing and enjoying and laughing and talking and eating and drinking and laughing and talking some more. Our best friends were joining us. Everyone was going to stay here. It was going to be a big slumber party and so much fun.

I decided, though, that I can’t make this about me because it’s not. The reason our friends can’t come has nothing to do with me but rather is about issues that are personal and consuming and understandable. It got me to thinking about finding the good in disappointment.

There is sadness to be sure. We miss our friends; we’ll miss them on Thanksgiving. But they are still our friends. We don’t have to spend time together to solidify that because it is a fact. Spending time is a bonus. Breaking bread is a bonus. Giving thanks is what matters. We have wonderful friends who fill our lives and our hearts with joy. They are inside of us and nothing will dislodge that whether they are beside us or not.

There is some good.

Disappointment allows for re-evaluation and re-examination. If something didn’t work out, it can be opportunity to try something new, to think differently, to explore an alternate possibility. If the people you love can’t be with you, it’s not an opportunity, but it is still a reason to embrace them. Our friends, like our family, are the most important people in our lives, regardless of how often we see them. They are part of us, and while disappointed that we won’t see them, we are so very thankful they’re in our lives. Them not being with us does give us an opportunity to realize how much they mean to us, now and always, in person or long distance. It gives us the chance to ponder.

People are what matters. People are the only thing that matters. 

It is humid

by Lorin Michel Friday, July 5, 2013 8:58 PM

I forget sometimes about humidity.  When you live in the desert or at least on the outskirts of it,  you get very used to dry air. It gets hot to be sure. Over 100 regularly in the summer months and don't believe it when someone says "yeah, but it's a dry heat." Heat is heat and over 100 it doesn't matter. The hottest place on earth is Death Valley with a recorded high of 134. It's in the middle of the desert. Things don't grow there. It is dry and blistering.

Now I'm on the east coast, in McKeesport, in my late Aunt Beryl's house, high above the Allegheny river. The sun is dripping from the sky, through clouds. It is sweltering, everything is damp, even when it should be dry. It is humid.

It's an interesting phenomenon, humidity. It sucks the life and moisture right out of you and deposits it into your hair. I have wavy hair that I can keep somewhat in line in California, but here, it's gone a bit haywire. It curls in unmanageable directions, flips out and then tries to pretend like there's nothing wrong. I had forgotten; I have remembered quickly. 

The air hangs; you can almost see it. Far off clouds gather steam and congregate, first thick and white, then tinged with anger. I watched them from the front stoop of Aunt Beryl's house today as I gazed down the steep, yellowed brick road. At the bottom of the street, only a couple hundred feet at the most, and over the trees, flows the black and brown of the Allegheny. A power boat pulled out from the trees and zoomed across the river, under the gathering humidity.

I knew it would rain again. Rain has a feel to it as it comes in. The air gets heavier; it smells thick and damp. Any breeze dies entirely before resurrecting itself to turn tree  leaves upside down and inside out. There is almost a whisper. The temperature rises ever so slightly.  Then it begins, sometimes in earnest, sometimes timid. The temperature drops and heat rises from the pavement like steam. My hair is curling just thinking about it.

It is humid. My hair may be curlier but my skin is less dry so that's good. In the house, the temp was probably 15 to 20 degrees hotter especially upstairs. There is no air conditioning; instead there are open windows and many fans. I spent time up in the attic, the highest and the hottest room in the house. I went through cupboards and closets and boxes, pulling out old photographs, birth certificates from an immediate family now, nearly a century later, gone.

I found dresses that I remembered my Aunt Eleanor wearing when I was a child. Pink checked light cotton, with a button down front. In those days, they were called housedresses. I don't know what they are called now, if anything. 

I found a portrait of my mother's grandfather in uniform, from World War I. I found one piece swim suits. I found dust and dirt and heat.

After awhile I had to go downstairs. It was simply too hot; too humid.

But today, from the front stoop looking out over the river to the gathering clouds to the stifling attic, I learned to love the humidity, even if just a little. Because once the clouds rained and the air cooled, it was a good day. It was actually lovely.

Chalk it up to childhood

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 21, 2012 10:57 PM

One of the great wonders of being a kid is arming yourself with two or three pieces of chalk and drawing on the driveway, the sidewalk, the asphalt at the playground, anywhere there’s a hard surface and where adults are only allowed in a supervisory position. The driveway, then, is a stretch, but when one is a kid and one wants to make a hopscotch board or play tic-tac-toe or hangman or to simply draw pictures, the driveway can sometimes be perfect. Most parents don’t get mad because chalk has a short shelf life, especially when it rains. It can also be rubbed off fairly easily.

I thought of all this today as Kevin and I wound our way up through Indian Springs park. It was about 12:30 and quite a few very small children, perhaps kindergarten age but most likely younger – sometimes it gets hard to judge when they’re that small – were playing on the jungle equipment, dangling from bars, climbing into contraptions, sliding down slides, swinging, digging in the sandbox. Several moms milled about, most of them on the park benches. They kept one eye on the kids as they conversed and laughed. As we walked by, I also noticed a little girl, in pink leggings, pink sneakers and a white windbreaker squatting over the concrete sidewalk, drawing pictures of flowers and dogs with white, yellow and pink chalk. A little further up was a hopscotch board. There was also a tic-tac-toe game that was unfinished. She was very intent on what she was doing. When one of her playmates ran over the drawing on his way to his mother, she looked up and scowled briefly, then went back to work.

Chalk is a form of limestone. It is pure and has a close, fine grain. It has been used for centuries for such adventures as writing on blackboards in classrooms, marking out fabric patterns for cutting, lining football fields and tennis courts, and for sidewalk art. It is formed by ancient fossilized sea creatures and is mined from areas that are now known as sedimentary rocks. Natural chalk is yellow, gray or white. The chalk the little girl was drawing with today was dyed. I wonder if she knew that what she was doing was one of the earliest types of art.

Chalk drawings date to the Stone Age, but became truly popular in the 15th century when Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci began experimenting with chiaroscuro, using black chalk for darkness, red for color and white for light. Artists known as the madonnari, because they were prolific in recreating drawings of the Madonna, began transforming asphalt into canvas in the 16th century. This particular art form came back to life in 1972 when the Italian town of Grazie di Curtatone started the International Street Painting Competition. Of course, chalk’s most prolific use remains on a blackboard, the classroom invention by James Pillans in Edinburgh, Scotland who used it with colored chalk to teach geography. It was first introduced to the US in 1801.

There is now a specific type of chalk used on the sidewalk. Coincidentally, it’s called sidewalk chalk. Contemporary artists like Kurt Wenner, Ellis Gallagher and Julian Beever use it to create street drawings today. There are competitions all over the world, including the Pavement Art Competition in the Bold Street Festival in Liverpool.

With the games they play, kids have a different kind of competition. They play for the sheer joy of jumping and hopping. They love to create, to draw, to imagine scenarios where flowers are taller than moms and dads, and where the dog and the cat are the same size as the kids. There are houses and trees, the sun is always shining bright, mountains reach for the sky and the family is the center of the universe.

It’s the world through the eyes of a child, drawn for the world to see, and sometimes to walk on. And it is perfect.  

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live out loud

Shiny happy people everywhere

by Lorin Michel Friday, February 10, 2012 9:33 PM

I’m generally a happy person. I have my days, like everyone, when I’m decidedly not happy. In fact, I can get stressed and cranky with the best of them. But for the most part, I err more on the side of a smile and a light disposition. Turns out, I’m not alone. The results of an international poll conducted by Ipsos Global came out today and it turns out that despite the problems with the economy, constant war and strife, and natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, people are happier today than they were four years ago. Ipsos surveyed 18,000 people in 24 countries, and discovered that the happiest place in the world is Indonesia, followed closely by India and Mexico. The US is the 7th happiest place, which kind of surprised me given how vitriolic the news has been lately. It was a pleasant surprise.

The rest of the top ten: Brazil (4), Turkey (5), Australia (6), Canada (8), Argentina (9) and Great Britain (10).

I think what I found most gratifying is that the economy and money weren’t what people cited as the reason for their happiness. Rather, many said that just having a cooked meal was happiness itself. A roof over their head made them feel fulfilled. Relationships, those with friends, family and even associates, are what made almost every respondent, to a person, feel the best.

What makes me happy are the same, basic things cited by others. Talking to my mom last night made me happy; just hearing her voice always makes me feel better, no matter what kind of day I’m having. The same with talking to Justin. Just hearing him say “Hi, mom” gives me incredible joy and immense fulfillment. Ditto my husband’s voice, and my friends’ voices. I live so far away from most of the ones I love that my immediate connection to them comes through a landline or cell phone. I have to imagine them in my mind, feel them in my heart, but their voices coming directly into my body via my ear is happiness itself.

Also Maguire’s bark.

The happiness wave

I love a great meal. I don’t know that there’s a more simplistic route to primal happiness. It’s filling both literally and emotionally. To sit in a restaurant or even my own home, or the home of another, and to place a fork full of something dripping in garlic or tomato or both, is happiness on a utensil. Listening to great music is the same. I’m currently listening to Carlos Santana just because I was in the mood. His guitar is velvet and electricity.

Also really great Chicago jazz.

Back to the study. Married couples tended to be happier than single people though there was very little differentiation between the happiness of men and the happiness of women. People under 35 seemed to be happier than people older than 35. I’m not sure I agree with that. People who are under 35 haven’t ever been over 35 so they have no point of reference. I think I’m happier now than I was then. More content. I looked better at 35 but I think better now. Higher education also meant a higher happiness quotient. I found that intriguing. I wonder if has something to do with education being the door that opens one to the world of possibility and doubt and wonder and knowledge and wisdom; it allows one to know that there is more out there.

Latin America is the happiest place on earth. And all these years, I thought it was Disneyland. North America is pretty happy too, with all three countries having made it into the top 10. Asia-Pacific countries are smiling as are the people in the Middle East and Africa. Those last two surprised me a lot. Just goes to show that perception is not always reality. Only 15 percent of Europeans say they’re happy. I blame Greece.

As for the least happy people, you have to talk to Hungarians, South Koreans, Russians, Spaniards, and Italians. I blame Berlusconi for that last one. He was kind of … creepy.  

Still, I was pleasantly surprised overall. With all of the strife that exists, all of the bad news that we are constantly bombarded with, to have people happier now than they were four years ago is a good sign.

It’s just too bad about the world ending on December 21, at least according to the Mayans. I think we might have really been able to ride this happiness wave for sometime forward. I can see it cresting now, can see standing up, catching it perfectly, the sun glancing off of the water behind with nothing but excitement ahead. 

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live out loud

At last

by Lorin Michel Sunday, January 22, 2012 10:51 PM

As regular readers know, in addition to being a big fan of wine, my family, friends and dog, I’m also very much into music. I like most kinds and have a fairly vast CD collection that includes everything from the Benectine Monks to Beethoven, Garth Brooks to Bon Jovi, Led Zepplin to Jelly Roll Morton and just about anything and everything in between. About the only kind of music I don’t have is rap or hip hop. Never cared for it. I do have several hip hop songs on certain discs, like on Supernatural by Santana. But that doesn’t really count.

Lately I’ve been getting into some of the old standards though not necessarily by the original singers. I have to admit I’ve never much cared for Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or really any of the “Rat Pack.” I do like the music though and I love some of the newer interpretations of it, especially when done by some of the blues/jazz groups. Of course, I also love jazz and blues.

One of my favorite songs from the past is the one made famous by the woman born Jamesetta Hawkins on January 25, 1938. She started singing when she was just five years old, in her church choir at the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Raised by two people called Sarge and Mama Lu, the singer who would become Etta James didn’t know who her father was, and saw her mother only sporadically. She was essentially forced to sing from a very early age. When she was 12, her mother came back into the picture and moved her to San Francisco. She was soon in a doo wop girls’ group called the Creolettes. She was 14 when she met musician Johnny Otis, the man credited with reversing her first name of Jamesetta.  He also changed the Creolettes to the Peaches. Their first song, Dance with Me, Henry, co-written by James, was released in 1955 and reached number on the Hot Rhythm & Blues Tracks chart. In 1961, she released her debut solo album, entitled At Last! It included 10 songs, one of which was the single by the same name.


At Last was written in 1941 by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren for a film called Sun Valley Serenade. It didn’t make it into that movie, but it was used in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives where it was performed by Glenn Miller with vocals by Ray Eberle. The song was a huge big band hit in October of 1942. In 1952, it was a hit again by Ray Anthony & his orchestra along with singer Tommy Mercer. And then came the Etta James’ version.

“At last, my love has come along. My lonely days are over. And life is like a song.”

It’s a simple song really, about finding the purity of love, the joy of everything in life looking up, looking better, feeling wondrous. Interestingly, when Etta James recorded it, she was a heroine addict and suffering from many personal and professional problems. There wasn’t a lot of love in her life, not a lot to celebrate. But it remains her most known song, even though it’s not really blues and it has none of the darker undertones that many of her other songs had, like All I could do was cry, from 1960 or the writhing 1968 ballad I’d rather go blind, a gut-wrencher about not wanting to see a lost love with another.

But her greatest hit endures, and has been covered by countless artists, I believe because it’s about finding happiness. I don’t know that there is anything in life as true as that. A feeling of peace, of being content and of loving life and living a life with love in it. Living it out loud. At last.

Is there a better message? In a world that is dark and often humorless, full of anger and resentment; in an environment of mistrust and negativity, I’ll take “a thrill that I have never known” any day. Especially on Sunday.

Etta James found her peace at last just last week, on January 20th. She was a legend, and like so many who came before her including Billie Holiday, she’ll will be missed for her contribution to music, for her soul.

Hopefully she has found a dream she could speak to. At last. At last.

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live out loud

A celebration on this winter solstice

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, December 21, 2011 8:06 PM

The winter solstice arrives tonight at 11:30 Central Standard Time. For anyone east of that, the solstice is actually tomorrow; for anyone west, it’s just a little earlier. It’s the shortest day and the longest night of the year. From here through the next solstice, the days will get progressively longer until the 21st of June when we’ll experience the longest day of the year and the shortest night. Interestingly, my brother was born on the summer solstice; my sister on the winter. Perhaps it’s what makes them both special and why I celebrate them.

Today my sister Khris is celebrating far away from me, as always, but she’s close to my heart and never far from my thoughts. We spoke briefly and will hopefully do so more either later or tomorrow. She was eating cake when we did connect after several missed calls. My mother had made it, which is lovely. I could hear my brother’s deep, very deep voice in the background. He has an amazing voice, my brother, and he sounds more and more like my father. I love to talk to him; I don’t talk to him nearly enough and in fact, haven’t, in months. We’re currently engaged in one of the most ferocious and long-lasting games of phone tag in our storied history. I hope it will come to end by Christmas.

I digress.

When Khris was born, I was nearly seven, Scott was two and a half. I think my math is right. It was a cold, blustery day in Erie, Pennsylvania. On that day, Apollo 8, carrying Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders, blasted into space. It was NASA’s second successful manned mission and the first manned orbit of the moon. It took them three days to get to the moon. I think it took that long for my mother to return home from the hospital. My memory’s a bit sketchy as I was only nearly 7 at the time but I think my mother said that she was adamant about being home for the holiday. For Christmas. In those days, women stayed in the hospital longer after having a baby.

It was a Saturday, that December 21st, and the Cleveland Browns beat the Dallas Cowboys in Cleveland, 31 to 20. It was 33º. Wind chill was 24. In Erie, the temperature was about 31º; the lake’s temperature was 36. I don’t believe anyone was swimming.

Historically, December 21 was the day the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. The year was 1620. In 1937, the original and first, full-length animated film opened. It was produced by Walt Disney and entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is also the day, in 1988, when a Pan Am jet exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Khris was 20 then. I wonder if she remembers. She would have been in college, getting her undergrad degree at Plymouth State in New Hampshire. She would go on to get her masters and become a practicing psychologist, a career that’s temporarily on hold because of the kids.

Tonight she’s celebrating her birthday with John, Shawn, Caden, Lucky and Perry. Mom and Scott are there, maybe Scott’s girlfriend. I’m there in spirit, as I always am. It’s been sometime since I’ve been around for holidays and celebrations. I occasionally get back for a summer fest, like Shawn’s birthday or my mother’s this past July, but the holidays are hard. And Khris, like me, has a birthday close to Christmas. Birthdays on days where the days are short and the nights are long. She and I are different in many ways. She’s blonde while I’m brunette. I’m tall, she’s shorter. She lives East, I west. But we’re the same in many ways, too. I try to be as kind as she is.

On this winter solstice, when the Earth is positioned so the sun stays closer to the equator, at the imaginary line called the Tropic of Capricorn, I’m celebrating with her. The sun was high at noon. Tonight as the central clock turns to midnight, and the date rolls to the 22nd, the horoscope will change as well, from Sagittarius (which Khris is) to Capricorn (which I am), and we’ll begin our earthly progression toward longer days.

On this shortest day, I celebrate the day my sister blasted into our lives. She’s funny, gentle, smart, good, and lovely. I miss her; I love her. I wish her a happy winter solstice.

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