Christmas is a time for giving. Gifts, not yourselves coronaries. Of course, the workweek hardly has time for a break; consequently, neither do you. The demands for your time certainly do not subside just because you have to take a day off to go Christmas shopping, or because you need to take an extra hour at lunch to finalize an online purchase, or to finally define a joint family gift contribution amount. (Hey, we’re in a recession.) The hours stubbornly tick down, waiting to settle up, to seek their own recompense, in billing just as you would. And, whether you’re processing new business, or clearing out old, here at the end of 2009, you’re likely busy, in reaching for that shining proverbial clear slate for the beginning of the New Year, that arbitrary designation of time that makes us want to go to the gym more often (at least for a couple weeks), and to generally be and do better.
But, on Christmas Day, Will part of your relaxation lie in the fact that you have left behind a nice, clean desk with a fresh-crafted to-do list awaiting your return to your holiday-empty office? Or will you be sitting in your new Old Navy sleep pants, pondering a fresh piece of coal, the dark chalky residue on your hands, while you’re shifting nervously, and wondering just how, next year, you might really (no, really, this time) accomplish something near like what you’d like to get done before you hit your adult Christmas break.
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To the continued amazement of my friends, and to the stubborn confoundment of my enemies, (leaving, to my frenemies, any number of mixed emotions), I continue to run my work and home life, like a beginning contestant on “The Biggest Loser” (my man Danny won this year!), upon a most rigid system. Being OCD, despite the lack of sleep, and the inordinate amount of time it takes me to be sure that I have locked a door, has its advantages. My systems are based on subordinate lists. Why am I telling you this? Well, it’s early, but I guess I can do it now. I guess so. Yeah. Well, alright . . . I made you a list. I know, it’s early, it is, but I just can’t wait for Christmas. Go ahead and open it now. We’ll split Christmas like Chanukah lights. See the wrapping paper. Neatly cut and taped down tight. The taut bow. The neatly printed name card. . . . Go on. It’s yours.
Here it is: Your very own list, to make sure you’re making the most of your pre-holiday worktime, really rip-ping, and not wasting a significant opportunity to catch up, and to catch on. (After all, you know, the big guy’s up there, always monitoring, seeing whether you’ve been naughty, or nice, before checking again, to make sure; so, you know, just do your best.)
(Imagine that this was printed upon a scroll with fancy lettering):
Stick to a Budget. The same as you would Christmas shopping. If you don’t stick to your established budget (which should have some give in it to begin with), it’s a surefire way to end up putting a decent chunk of money on your credit card, when all is said and done. And then where will Kris Kringle be, when you realize how much your interest rate sucks? Feeding reindeer, that’s where; and not thinking about how loud the toy that he brought for your kid can be when the appropriate level of force is applied. So, stick to your budget at Christmas . . . even when you’re buying yourself stuff. And, that’s alright. This isn’t an uncommon Christmas pitfall, and it isn’t really so bad. It’s the ol’ one for me, two for you deal. Buying your wife a bowling ball with your monogrammed initials and wrapping it up, following, uncleverly. You know, you’re spending so much on everyone else, perhaps your reward should be that second monitor you’ve wanted. Or a scanner. Well, that’s all well and good; but, don’t get caught up in the spending frenzy. Make any office purchases, even those made during the holiday season, in a manner that is consistent with your budgeting, and your general purchasing philosophy. It’s alright to take advantage of some of the great deals available this time of year for yourself, as long as those purchases are consistent with the way that you make purchases throughout the rest of the year. Otherwise, you might be wondering why you have two untoasted waffles for lunch December 28.
Don’t Overeat. I read somewhere the other day that people eat an average of 600 extra calories per day during the holiday season. (So, maybe those waffles for lunch ain’t such a bad idea.) That’s just ill. So, How do you avoid looking like Orson Welles post-the Cici’s Pizza buffet the day after Christmas? Self-restraint, my friends. Don’t deviate overmuch from your general eating habits, if those be well eating habits. Add an extra couple small snacks a day if you need to, but don’t require of yourself the polishing off of the entire packing of chocolate-dipped pretzels at the table, lest you want to be drooling all over your new Old Navy sleep pants, unable to move, and wondering where you went wrong, whether it was by the cranberry sauce or the olive bowl. Similarly, don’t bite off more than you can chew at work. Realize that you only have a limited amount of time to accomplish what you want before you’re on work release. Understand that, in that limited amount of time, you will be inundated with Christmas-related distractions. You ever hear the expression “underpromise and overdeliver”? Well, fool yourself in the same way. Set a reasonable, limited number of objectives, and attempt to meet those. If you have some more time left over at the end, great. Work on some more stuff, but not in a pressurized tank; instead, then, just “do what you can,” which you can afford to do, because you’ve already done everything that you “had to do.” See how easy this is? Just play some psychological games with yourself, and you’re golden. And, you know, if you force yourself to create a short list of limited objectives, you’ll find that you’re really thinking about what it is that you need to do to move forward, what it is that is representative of the most important things for you to do. That funneling process really does grant you some perspective going in, as well as providing you some better idea of your holistic situation coming out.
Stay in Touch. Your cousin from Tuscaloosa sends you the Christmas card with his snot-rosed, rednecked, plaid-wearing kids plastered across the front, accompanied by a letter, updating various statuses, with scanned copies of a number of 4-H awards appended. And you wonder about all the various relationships between man and all of God’s creatures. Before you throw that note away, though, take note. For one, isn’t it kind of nice that they thought of you, you ungrateful toad? Well, yeah, in a way, right. Similarly, don’t forget about your clients during the holidays. Don’t drop your status calls, follow-ups and check-ins just because Christmas is coming on. Heck, check in with some of your folks just because it
is Christmas. Rarely will you find them in a better mood. And, now, pick up that Christmas card again, and wipe the root vegetable peelings off of that sucker. It’s sort of a backwoods, down home kind of marketing gig, is it not? Yeah it is. (Cue Dueling Banjos.) Why not get your own marketing out there? Put out a holiday newsletter, your year’s update for your firm. Whether that newsletter be paper or email, you’ll reach some of your clients and contacts, reengaging them, at a time when they are more likely to be open to taking a look at something that may appear frivolous, because they’re frazzled, too, and probably need a break. When you get those opens, you’re top of mind, at that moment. And, people will be more likely to remember you for the end of 2009, and for the beginning of 2010. This be a good way to get an early start on your New Year’s resolution of getting a year-end newsletter out. Oh, and then you can hit the treadmill.
String Your Lights. Beyond general marketing opportunities, think of engaging specific, traditional ones. Send out your Christmas cards. It may seem old-fashioned, and maybe something that old people do. But, old people do it for a reason. No, not because they have nothing better to do, but because they’re smart. (No fussing now, I’m already holding Willard Scott back, and he’s ornery. He never got your Christmas card.) So, get your Christmas cards out, too. Think of what people do with Christmas cards, most people. They open them. They show them to their friends. (–Oh, Martha, Just look who sent along this absolutely wonderful Christmas card. His handwriting is like a woman’s.) They paste them up somewhere, or stand them up in a crowd somewhere. They take them down, and look at them some more while doing so. That’s gold. That’s like four references right there. Even with the cost of stamps and the time taken in creating handwritten notes, it may be worth the investment. Just be careful about what you send. I say “Christmas” cards because that’s what they are. But, you know that the PC police are always lurking. Despite the fact that Christmas is probably the most secular holiday there is, and despite the fact that now the only persons being discriminated against are the Christians, it’s somehow no longer correct to say “Merry Christmas”, or to send Christmas cards anymore, which I think is garbage, but let’s leave that for my other blog, the one in my mind. Rather than sending your Christmas card emblazoned with “Merry Christmas” and a life-sized painting of Jesus riding his new scooter about the manger without a helmet while mother Mary scolds him, just go with a nice “Season’s Greetings” card with some pictures of snowed-over trees. That way, you won’t offend the people who actually get offended over this stuff; you won’t, either, offend the people who think they have to get offended over this stuff; and then, the people who don’t care, will continue not to care.
Don’t Be a Scrooge. Remember your staff. Remember that person who handwrote all your Christmas cards while you were playing Minesweeper. Hello there. Yes. That’s your staffperson. Introduce yourself. It’s Christmas for your staff, too. Don’t make ‘em feel like Bob Cratchit, huddling for warmth over a single coal, worrying over coldcuts for Christmas dinner. Be a good doobie. Budget for a gift for them, too. Even if your budget is small, they’ll appreciate the thought. Some kind of bonus is better than no bonus at all, be that bonus movie tickets, one of those Edible Arrangement bouquets, real flowers, or even old-fashioned dollar, dollar bills y’all. Don’t forget the people that have helped you out all year. Making someone’s day with a deserved reward for a job-well-done is a guaranteed way to make the karma police happy going into the new year.
Happy . . . Chanukah!
(That’s right. I know about Chanukah. I have Jewish relatives. I light the menorah. I remember the Maccabees. Being a believer in none of the organized religions, I have a veritable buffet plate of religious festivals from which to choose to engage. Most frequent tiebreaker: best food.)
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Sometimes I forget just how obscure some of the music that I listen to becomes as the years pass. The other night, I was watching “The Sing-Off” show (finale tonight!), when one of the a cappella groups intent on butchering some of my favorite songs decided to put a cleaver through Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer”. “Sledgehammer” is just a great song, and featured one of the best companion videos ever. My wife tells me she’s never even heard of the song. Of course, she was only 2 when it came out. Now, we see a lot of younger attorneys here, and it makes me wonder how many of them have some knowledge of any song that was released in 1986? How many of them have ever seen Loggins & Messina in concert? Oh dear Lord, I am getting old.
Well, even if you’re young, and I’m old, you’ve likely heard the song “Cat’s in the Cradle“. If you think that that is a Cat Stevens song, you’re just killing me. Please, stop. Cat Stevens is great, but that’s not his song. That’s a Harry Chapin song. (Well, actually, his wife, Sandy, wrote it; but . . .)
Now, if you know that Harry Chapin sings “Cat’s in the Cradle”, you probably know that he also sings “Taxi”, a long-form rising arc of a song about long-lost lovers reunited unexpectedly in a cab in San Francisco on a rainy night. “Harry, Keep the change.” How intimately connected to the taxi industry has Harry Chapin become: there are “Harry Keep the Change” cab services out of Houston and Hunstville. No word yet on whether such a clever name results in tips representing $20 on a $2.50 fare.
Add “Cat’s in the Cradle” (a #1 song, originally penned as a poem, as referenced, by Chapin’s wife, Sandy) and “Taxi” to “WOLD” and the sequel to “Taxi”, “Sequel”, and you have the sum of the popular Harry Chapin, but not the sum of Harry Chapin.
Harry Chapin is one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time; and, it is disturbing how little of his catalogue touches us, remaining actively engaging upon the public consciousness. As you uncover the rest of what Harry has to offer, you’ll begin to see that there is far more to Harry Chapin than four top forty hits, and the fact that he had one of the most insane white man’s afros of all-time.
Harry Chapin was the master of the long-form pop song in much the same way that I am the master of the long-form blog post. If you’re not reading down to here, you’re probably not listening through to the 10th minute of the alternate-endings-included version of “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” anyway. Harry Chapin’s story-songs never got played on the radio, which is not surprising. They had some depth, featured often-striking arrangements, addressed important social issues and were never easily categorized, or digestible.
Over the course of his musical career, Harry Chapin released 11 solo albums, and one other group album, in performance with his brothers, Tom and Steve. I could spend this entire segment writing about one of Harry’s 10-minutes opuses; but, I’ll spare you. I’ll instead give you some listening suggestions for some deep catalogue Harry Chapin songs that’ll blow the other 90% of your mind. Although Harry has some of the those cringe-inducing moments common to all 70’s singer-songwriters, the depth of his writing and the passion with which he sings his writing, more than make up for that, and both aspects contribute to his having lifted the craft of pop-singing to something of an art form in a picture gallery.
“Greyhound”, off of the “Heads & Tales” album that also produced “Taxi”, is the last summoning of strength as mustered against a never-ending commuting, made always for the purposes of others. The apology never rises above the level of a general malaise until such time as the song suddenly shifts into gear, with a driving part that accompanies the protagonist’s revelation over what it is that he has been doing.
(Also, on the “Heads & Tales” album, is “Dogtown”, a song about the wives left behind to the whaling history of my adopted hometown of Gloucester, which whaling history is a junior version of the whaling history of my real hometown, New Bedford.)
“Sniper” is Chapin’s ten minute reflection on the 1966 Texas University massacre, perpetrated by gunman Charles Whitman, who, after murdering his mother and wife, killed 14 more people and wounded 32 others in shooting from a tower at the University, before being himself gunned down. Chapin switches narrative voice often in the song, maneuvering from the machinations and motivations of Whitman to those of others, surrounding him. His relaying of the conversations are haunting. His 1975 PBS Soundstage performance of the song is absolutely chilling.
“Six String Orchestra” is Chapin’s take on the budding musician, who never flowers, needing a little help from his friends, that he never quite gets. Understated and humorous, the song was later adopted by the Smother Brothers, as a touring staple.
1975’s “Portrait Gallery” is a very underrated, excellent album. The standout, however, to my mind, is “Dirt Gets Under the Fingernails”, a lovingly-crafted story-song about a husband and wife reversing roles, finding real joy in doing for the other.
The title track off of “On The Road to Kingdom Come” is an indictment of religion, politics, the military, the music industry, sex and old age, among a number of other structures of the world, that prove less true than we thought, and far less important than we had been led to believe, as travelers we are, all along the same road.
“Dancing Boy” is a real weeper, covering, as it does, the nature of the relationship between father and son, when it is that the son grows up, and moves on, the father being left all alone again, despite having learned the lessons of “Cat’s in the Cradle”, the adoption of which lessons, nevertheless, cannot stop the march of time. Harry’s meaning became misconstrued, however, at the ending of his own life, when his intentions became reversed, father leaving son, all alone, the music having gone for good.
Harry Chapin, though, for all of the brilliance of his studio work, was a far better live performer. His phenomenal 1976 “Greatest Stories Live” album is the finest live album ever produced. Harry, who also wrote the scores for Broadway plays, could put on a show. His concerts were family festivals, his brothers and “Big” John Wallace stepping in to sing from time to time, even whole songs; for any other performer, that would be a sure-fire boo-generator, but for Harry, the movement is so natural, the crowd never seems to mind, as he takes a spare moment to rest his spent body. Every song on the album is sublime, and some of my fondest memories of my childhood involve listening to the three-disc live album with my dad, scratches and all, as it is meant to be heard. The high point of the album is the tragicomic epic “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”, the live version containing alternate endings, crowd participation, band
commentary, admitted plagiarisms, doctored voices, humorous remarks, all making for a generally rollicking good time, if you’re not “the driver”. “Mr. Tanner” (an alternate take on the career arc of Perry Como), “A Better Place to Be”, “Dreams Go By” and “I Wanna Learn a Love Song” (a score about how Harry won his wife, scandalously: giving guitar lessons to the then-married Sandy) are all required listening. And, you can listen to the entire album, or sections therefrom, here.
Despite the fact of his wife-thieving (and perhaps soul-mating never really happens just as we suspect it will), Harry’s life represents something of a moral exemplar. He was father to five children: two of his own, and three stepchildren. He played over 2,000 live shows, and donated over 1/3 of his profits from those shows to charity. He worked tirelessly in the advancement of the cause against world hunger. The Harry Chapin Foundation is a still-existing non-profit that focuses on providing means and methods of self-sufficiency for marginalized persons. In 1987, Harry was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his charitable contributions to American life; a resulting album was aggregated, to commemorate the event.
As many other good persons before him, Harry Chapin died young. Never sleeping or eating well, he was killed on the Long Island Expressway in 1981, dying of a heart attack sometime before or after his car was struck by a tractor trailer. He was 38.
For all that Harry Chapin was (and he was very much more than the Last Protest Singer) and did, the strength of his character is perhaps most impressive. Despite the fact of his rock stardom, he never gave in to the trappings of fame and wealth, as so many do. He always remembered those less fortunate than he, and worked his whole short story lifetime to help them.
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