IN MEMORIAM… RIP The Ole Grey Goose and The Great Helmsman

| February 26, 2012 | Comments (0)

(Dear Bloggers, Blogettes and, yes, you Mademoiselles over there in France.  A warning to you all: Yours Truly has a severe case of cabin fever today. It’s too cold to venture outside – the Hudson River wind is roaring up the canyons of the Upper West Side – so I can’t escape the ominous pile of papers on my desk from the US Department of Treasury’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that scream out FILE ME ! Yet I can’t seem to settle down and perform my “taxing” duty for Uncle Sam just now, so what to do? A curative blog  posting seems the ticket. So please fasten your seat belts for what may be a bumpy ride. Sissies, debark now  before it is too late to ditch me !)

Yesterday at the gym – I do seem to spend more than a little bit of time at the Y, don’t I – I found myself on the treadmill moving forward on a  loose rubber belt at what for me  is a brisk pace – 3 .3 miles per hour – when suddenly I lost patience and snapped, sick to death of the dialogue I was witnessing on CNN between four squabbling feminists – two from the Left and two from the Conservative Right. I think the issue being shouted about was, what else, vaginal probes. I jerked the head set from my ears and hit the CLEAR button returning to a blank, silent screen.

After a few minutes of respite, I fell into a  relaxed mode and started humming. Before I knew it, I could hear myself singing softly, a lilting little ditty in a vaguely minor key that went: “Go tell Aunt Nancy, go tell Aunt Nancy, go tell Aunt Nan-an-cey, the old grey goose is dead.What made her do it, what made her do-o it ? Go tell Aunt Nancy the old grey goose is dead ! ” For the next twenty minutes, I continued chanting those lyrics –  the only words I could remember from this childhood song of  long, long ago – until the treadmill control panel flashed its pat-on-the-back to me, “Congratulations ! You’ve finished your work-out !”  Stumbling off the sagging belt, I wondered to myself, “Where the hell did Aunt Nancy come from !”  Later in the purgative mists of the steam room, my head cleared and it occurred to me that I had  first heard Aunt Nancy’s plaintive ballad (a precursor to the NYC “rat on your neighbor” subway announcement “If you see something, say something!” ?)  as a child of five playing on the edge of my grandmother’s tomato fields. A gaggle of sharecropper children, grimy little creatures, were torturing an already dead frog with a twig as one of them delivered an incantation about an old grey goose and Aunt Nancy. The whole performance lasted no more than two to three minutes; then they were gone, following their parents to pick another row of  prickly tomato vines, leaving me with the mutilated carcass of a defunct toad and the unmistakable instructions to  “Go tell Aunt Nancy! ” That was 68 years ago.

I was told or heard or read that childhood songs and doggerel have been passed down  over the centuries along an infantile, below-the- radar highway as children played in caves or worked in cotton fields or slaved on inhumane assembly lines in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Even the shortest exposure to a lyric would be retained for a lifetime by the quick,  incredibly retentive minds of  the very  young.  (At 73 I can’t remember much of what I did yesterday, but I recall with  clarity across the decades the admonition that  I needed to pass on to Aunt Nancy information about the old grey goose !) I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure I did my part at some point transmitting the unfortunate news of the aging goose to my playground peers who, in turn, must have repeated the news to their peers. So let’s set the history detectives loose on  the goose  and Aunt Nancy and see what they come up with. Maybe the unfortunate bird met her fate back in 1066 on a Sussex plain, consumed  by the cooking fires of one of William the Conqueror’s encampments ? It would have been Tante Nancy back then. An early Coq au Vin ?

Aunt Nancy and the poor bird have followed me relentlessly since our mutual re-discovery on the treadmill.  At a recent house-warming party  given by Burmese friends to celebrate the purchase of their new home in the suburbs of Staten Island, I realized how really dead the old grey goose was now. Because of my life circumstances, I have spent much of my adulthood among Southeast Asians  of Buddhist and Muslim persuasion. Both of these cultures are replete with gatherings of all sorts – house-warmings, weddings, circumcison rites, ordinations into the monkhood, funerals -which entail  tight group connection and communication to celebrate or mourn, as the case may be. I can say these events represent, for me,  one of the most rewarding forms of social contact I have experienced combining food and friendship with a non-invasive display of “faith” – the monks arrive in their saffron robes, they chant, you feed them, they leave, you feel good about it, everybody settles down for talk and fun.

But after the Buddhist chants and prayers and the ceremonial feeding of the monks at the recent Staten Island gathering, the atmosphere  was somehow different.   Everybody was mostly quiet. Where was the camaraderie and conversation?  The hum of people exchanging news, the boisterous sounds of their children playing and chatting, developing the social skills they would use later on in their adult lives? Except for a small clutch of older adults who had gathered in the kitchen talking in the old-fashioned way,  almost all of the younger crowd –  teens,  pre-teens, even the toddlers  – were focused on their “apps” – cell phones, Ipods, tablets, computer games; nobody was talking. I mentioned to my host how different this gathering was compared to earlier functions he and I had attended. In his Southeast Asian way, he smiled and shrugged, leaving me to draw my own conclusions about what was happening to all of us, not the least of whom, Aunt Nancy and the happy inter-play between children that was supposed to set the social pattern for the rest of their lives. After the party was over I took my leave of the guests in the kitchen. When I poked my head in the living room where  more than a dozen youngsters were poring over their electronic devices, my goodbye to them was returned with silence. NOBODY  looked up from their tiny screens to even wave farewell. Teen zombies, a collection of the living dead, I mused as I headed out the door.  Did this house-warming signal the beginning of the end of civilized social intercourse as we have known it for centuries ?

 When I got home after a bouncey ride on the Staten Island Ferry, my Burmese host called to thank me for coming to his house and to invite me to join him  in April  on a trip to Yunnan, China. We would fly to Hong Kong and then head directly for Kunming, he said. “Sounds good,” I replied. And the purpose of the trip ? To buy tea, he informed me. Then began a description about the wonder and curative powers of  a Chinese herbal brew called  Pu-er Tea. My friend said this tea had changed his life since he started taking it several years ago. At age 65 he said he felt like a new person.  Now that his supply was running short – he did not trust local suppliers in Chinatown, he said –  he felt he had to go back to the source and buy another two years’  supply of the real thing.

 My friend, Freddie, and I  have been consulting each other for going on forty years about our respective health issues and concerns, so how could I  pass up  a trip like this one ?  Freddie assures me that the US Customs will not confiscate what to me seem like rather suspicious-looking boxes of an exotic  foreign product. So I  am considering joining him. Yunnan in the Spring sounds absolutely poetic. As a clincher to convince me that Pu-er  Tea is the way to go, Freddie mentions that the Great Helmsman (forget  the Great Leader and the Dear Leader!) Chairman Mao was a life-long consumer of Pu-er Tea and in great quantities. It kept him going on the ten-year Long March and he is said to have  tossed back a cup just before his epic swim in the Yangtze River.

I think Freddie had just committed the cardinal sin of providng too much information thereby giving me serious second thoughts about the trip and the tea.  I had just finished reading a fascinating and meandering history of the Korean War.  Among the minutae offered up in the book was a gossipy profile of Mao. It seems  the  benefits realized by the Chairman from  Pu-er ingestion  were…err… counter-balanced  by certain other results.

Chairman Mao  had green teeth.


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