Friday, September 23, 2011

Why the song "Happy Birthday" is rarely sung on TV

It’s my birthday, and I’m grumpy.

Not because I’m another year older. I’m really not another year older; I’m just a day beyond yesterday, and glad for it. No, my grumpiness is an amalgamation of irritations, not the least of which is this whole notion of birthdays and celebrations. My birth was hardly an accomplishment. All I did was survive a trip down the birth canal 47 years ago into the hands of an OB-GYN at Quincy City Hospital. After cleaning me up, the doctor took the cigarette out of his mouth and said, “Congratulations, it’s a boy.” My mother took the cigarette from her mouth and said, “Thank you, doctor.” I took the cigarette from my mouth and said, “Anybody got a light?”

You’re probably thinking my grumpiness stems from nicotine withdrawal, but I gave up smoking cigarettes 35 years ago. Maybe it’s innkeeping that’s got me down. Like birthdays, innkeeping is cyclical, adhering strictly to the annual solar movements. We mark our progress by the seasons: ski season, mud season, summer, foliage, and stick season. I’m foliage, the end of summer, the beginning of autumn. We’re about to embark on an intense couple of weeks that will last until the end of October. This anticipation puts innkeepers on edge as we await the arrival of fickle travelers obsessed with finding the best colors.

More likely, though, is that my grumpiness is due to birthday fatigue. In my family, September is a month for birthdays. My niece Catalina starts things off prematurely with a birthday on the last day of August. Then my son Brendan celebrates his day on the first of September. The next day is my nephew Daniel’s birthday. On the third its my other nephew, Connor. September 8th is my oldest son Seamus’s birthday. September 11, besides being a day of national infamy, is our wedding anniversary. My Irish brother and writing Waffenbruder Chris Millis celebrates on September 13. Another niece, Emily, was born on September 16th. If that’s not enough action, both Bruce Springsteen and Ray Charles got to September 23rd before I did.

Even closer to the truth is my recalcitrance. I despise celebrations in my honor, and I eschew attention. I’m happiest as wallpaper, listening, internalizing, pondering. It’s ancillary of being, in the words of my friend Rouvy, “a loner with a loner’s point of view.” The perfect day for me would involve getting up at 0500 and pounding a pot of coffee. Then I’d like to go hike through in the woods for about three hours, working things out in my head. Then I’d like to read and sip Henniez bubbly water. After that, it would be nice to go out to dinner with my family at Haddad’s Ocean Cafe, where I’d order the fisherman’s platter and drink beer from 8 ounce bar glasses. Then, home, with a bottle of John Jamesons and a prayer for the Red Sox.

My grumpiness might have to do with the history of birthdays. The idea behind the birthday celebration is hokey and speaks to man’s ignorance. While nobody really knows when humans were able to tie the event of someone’s birth to the position of the sun on its travels through the sky, we do know that with the arrival of the calendar, this task became easier. The celebration arose because early people thought that the day of someone’s birth was also likely to be the day of his or her death. The evil spirits that would carry off a soul could be warded off by gathering loved ones and offering gifts, like electric razors and barbecue aprons. Ironically, this pagan custom was originally shunned by the early Christian church. The birth of Christ wasn’t celebrated until 1935 when FDR, as part of the New Deal, pushed through the Shopping Recovery Act, mandating that we all celebrate the birth of Christ each year by buying cheap plastic crap we don’t need and going into debt.

But the regular world doesn’t stop for birthdays. For innkeepers, rooms still need to be cleaned, phones need to be answered, and guests need to be welcomed. For fathers, sons--especially the one who just bought a 1986 Firebird with a Corvette LT-1 small block V8 engine--still need to be lectured. Dogs still need to be walked. Cats need to be shooed off the table.

And as for singing "Happy Birthday" to me, you should be prepared to pony-up. The Warner Music Group, which owns the rights to the song, collects about $2 million a year in royalties. That's why you rarely hear the song sung on television and film. And I'm sure they're monitoring Facebook and Skype from their bunkers, just waiting to hear the opening notes wafting up to their lawyers.

So thanks for your good wishes. You’ve banished the evil spirits. You’ve done your part for the economy. But I’m still grumpy, and you know what? It feels kind of nice.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Irene, Fall Foliage, and the Media

On Sunday, August 28, at about 9:00 a.m., Hurricane Irene weakened to a tropical storm as it made landfall around Coney Island, New York. For the rest of the day Irene traveled into the heart of New England, and while her winds diminished, she had accumulated a staggering amount of moisture from Atlantic waters that were one to three degrees warmer than average. Irene dumped those waters onto Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, and Maine, before moving northeast into Canada's maritime provinces.

Many communities in Vermont were devastated; Stowe was not one of them. All day Sunday we sat in the breakfast room and watched sheets of rain fill the stream that runs through the backyard. Finally, at five in the afternoon, the river overflowed its banks for the second time this year, and only the second time in the 11 years we've lived here. The river creeped halfway up the backyard, winked seductively at the pool, then receded.

Some of the secondary dirt roads were washed out in Stowe, but they were quickly repaired, and our community came through the storm just fine. Others, like Waterbury, were inundated. My Volvo garage, Snowfire Auto, lost all their vehicles, and their offices were trashed. The state offices were flooded, and the computer system for the school I teach at, Community College of Vermont, lost its servers for over a week. Further downstate in central Vermont, the picture was far worse.

Media coverage of Irene was, for a 72-hour period, intense, as well is should have been (since 1980, it was the 10th most covered storm by the media; the 10th deadliest storm, with over 21 fatalities; and it was the 8th costliest storm, with over $14 billion in damage). Had this storm wavered a litter farther west, New York City could have received the bulk of her rains. One of the things we in Vermont are struggling with is the blanket branding we received during the news coverage: Vermont is a varied state, and not all parts were equally affected. North Central Vermont was spared much of the flooding; Burlington emerged unscathed.

Folks that are planning trips to New England to enjoy the spectacular fall foliage should do so with confidence. To check on road closings in Vermont, visit Vermont511 and check out the interactive map. Just about every business in Vermont is open, so travelers will find everything they need to enjoy the stunning autumn leaves.

And Stowe? In the next week or so, the colors up on Mt. Mansfield will begin to change, slowly trekking down the hillsides, until they reach their peak glory here in the valley where our village is located. That happens at exactly 2:37 p.m. on Sunday, October 2. So come grab a seat to one of the greatest shows before they're all gone. Leave your umbrellas at home, but don't forget your cameras.