Category Archives: Music

The Madonna Timeline: Song #111 – ‘Secret’ – Fall 1994

mad secrt 11

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

This post has already been written. When the lead single to Madonna’s 1994 ‘Bedtime Stories’ album was released, I was at the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis. I was also about to kiss the first man I would ever kissed in my life. In others words, a whole lot of crazy shit was about to go down. As such, it’s a period that I remember more clearly than almost any other, and I’ve written about it a number of times. What follows, at least in the first portion, is the recounting of the time period that formed the backdrop to Madonna’s ‘Secret’ song.

 

Things haven’t been the same

Since you came into my life

You found a way to touch my soul

And I’m never, ever, ever gonna let it go

If you’ve only kissed girls all your life, the first time you kiss a man is a shock. A rough shock. Literally. My face feels like it’s being shredded by some ridiculous grade of sandpaper. He holds my head in his hands, and this will not be the only way he hurts me. For now, though, it is completely what I want.

In the afternoon light of September, in an apartment on the steep incline of some side street in Beacon Hill, I am sharing my first kiss with a man. The year is 1994 and it’s the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The room is small, and comprises both the bedroom area and the kitchen. A bathroom is outside off the hall.

The sheets on the bed are white, or the lightest of gray, and he doesn’t seem to have many worldly possessions. I’ve always envied that sparse sort of set-up, and those not bound by attachments or material goods. Even in a few short weeks I manage to accumulate things, my closet over-stuffed and scarce of empty hangers. Here, just a small collection of plates and kitchen utensils dries in a wire dish rack. A lone towel hangs on the doorknob. By the window a cluster of books stands on a table.

He excuses himself to take a quick shower, and I am shocked at his simple, instant trust of me, having only met a few hours before this. Already jaded before I’ve even been hurt – or maybe there’s some sort of hurt that I can’t even remember anymore, a phantom pain from not feeling loved or protected – my suspicion lies hidden like a dagger, hidden but always present, ever-ready to strike, to slash, to slay.

He returns wearing only a white towel, and in the light of the bed my summer-tanned body lies atop of his, the cool bright sheets blocking the slight breeze from the half-cracked window. I wonder what the other people on the street are doing in their apartments on this afternoon.

My face and lips feel raw after sliding against his stubble. It tickles and stings and troubles in a dangerous, intoxicating way. He admires me like no one has ever done before, but I’m still uncomfortable as he watches me pull my pants on. It seems odd to just leave, but he mentioned something about his shift, and it’s even stranger to think of staying, so I depart after leaving my phone number.

 

 

Happiness lies in your own hand

It took me much too long

To understand how it could be

Until you shared your secret with me

 

Something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me

My baby’s got a secret

I step out of the stale smell of the old brownstone row, and back on the street I look up to his window. He is there smiling and waving. I wave back and walk down to the bottom of Hancock Street. Across the way is the site of a former Holiday Inn that my mother once stayed in with me and my brother. We saw E.T. in the movie theater there that no longer exists. Part of me still feels like that little boy, but as I board the train I catch my reflection, and, aside from the backpack, it is the visage of a young man.

How to explain the heady giddiness of my heart in those early days of fall? Every phone call with him carried me further away from the campus, away from the silly dorm antics, the childish college pranks. I wanted no part of that carefree fun, looking down on my fellow school-mates and disconnecting from that world irrevocably, in a way that risked future regret and silly behavior long past the point when it should have been out of my system. I was far too serious for my own good, thinking I was setting up my life for happiness at some time far in the future, putting off a good time in the moment and mistakenly eyeing what was to come, what was always ahead. I gave it away for him, as I would do for countless others, but in the beautiful light of that flaming September there was nothing else I could have done.

Somewhere there is an old 35-mm photograph of me, taken while I was on the phone with him, showing a rare unguarded moment where the camera was set up just as he called, the sun was setting, and my face betrayed not happiness, but worry. High in Usen Castle, in our semi-circular dorm room on the top floor, I sat on the bed talking to him. He was squeezing in a conversation just before his shift started at the hotel restaurant, from a pay phone no less, back when there were still pay phones around. He must care, I thought.

Every place he moved through held meaning for me. Across the street from the fancy hotel at which he worked was a park. An unlikely oasis in the midst of downtown Boston, it was quiet there, and workers in business suits and sneakers sat on benches reading books. I spent a lot of time in that park. Even when we weren’t meeting, I sat there, reading or writing or just watching the few people who meandered along its walkways.

Sometimes we did meet, for dessert or dinner, and there was a night when we kissed in the shadows of the Southwest Corridor, before the condo was even a glimmer in my eye.

In his apartment, we spent most of the time in bed. The flickering light from a tiny television glowed on the stark white walls. Night air drifted in from the window, along with some muffled shouts and street noise. I asked him how you could tell if you were truly in love with someone. He told me he once heard it said that if you were really in love with someone, you could envision spending the rest of your life in a tent with them and be perfectly content, never wanting for anything more, and never wanting to leave.

Sometimes I tell people that I could envision the two of us doing just that – other times I express doubt that anyone could be happy in such a situation. I never tell it the same way twice because I still don’t know how I feel about it. How could someone who was capable of being so hurtful possibly know anything about love? I trusted in his years of experience, putting a blind faith in simple human decency, only I never let him know. In my silence was acquiescence and the assumed aloofness that would destroy so many chances. I did not know that then – sometimes I don’t know it now.

You know when you’re not supposed to be with someone. It starts with a pang so small you’re not really sure that the doubt is real, but as the days and weeks pass, the pang becomes a full-fledged throbbing, and every moment you’re with them threatens to suffocate with its worry. When it happens for the first few times, you do not yet have the sensitivity to feel it coming, nor fully experience the hurt it leaves. At least for me, this was the case. I liken it to the first time you’re really hung over. You swallow and swallow as the saliva mounts in your mouth, and you know you don’t feel right but you still don’t know how not right, so you trudge along to work or school and from sheer ignorance or refusal, you do not stop to vomit and end it all quickly.

When his calls stopped and the lingering light and warmth of fall gave way to the harsh chill of October and November, I didn’t know enough to feel the pain of having such affection withdrawn. I also didn’t know how to cling or hang onto someone, to emotionally obsess and hold onto something that was already dead. This may have been what saved me – my ignorance of how to feel that pain, how to access that hurt. It would be the last time I didn’t know.

My parents invite me along for a weekend in Chatham, MA and I gratefully accept. In the air is the misbegotten notion that he might miss me, when my absence would only bring relief at the most, if it registered at all.

The weekend is gray and cold. There is no going back to any hope of Indian summer throwback days – we are too far gone. The first thing I do as my parents settle into the room is to walk to the forlorn, empty beach. It is dark and windy, and the town and beach are deserted. Wind whips wildly around in a savage attack, sparing no bit of shelter or respite. I pull my coat closer around me. In the sky is the promise of an imminent storm, but I don’t care. Dark clouds threaten, the cruel wind stings, and as I arrive at the beach, the sand and salt water shoot stinging pin-pricks into any exposed skin.

Part of me wants to walk into the ocean, numb myself with its cold, be helplessly drawn out with the undertow, and let come what may. What else could a thinking person want on such a dismal, gray day, in such a dismal, sad world? Of course I don’t, deliberately walking up and down the shore instead, dodging the tide and peering behind at footprints that will come to nothing. The weekend passes in a sad blur. I return to Boston alone, and think over the previous weeks.

To this day, I can point out which bench I was sitting on when we first spoke. I want to pretend it doesn’t have that power, that it no longer matters, but the memory won’t let me. It comes back, haunting and pulling me out of whatever momentary happiness I have found. I always return to that moment, and it always starts up again…

 

You gave me back the paradise
That I thought I lost for good
You helped me find the reasons why
It took me by surprise that you understood

You knew all along
What I never wanted to say
Until I learned to love myself
I was never ever lovin’ anybody else

Happiness lies in your own hand
It took me much too long
To understand how it could be
Until you shared your secret with me

Something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me
My baby’s got a secret

In Copley Square, before the rising spires of Trinity Church, there are just a few benches that face each other. I pass them first, and then pass him. His eyes, sparkling and blue, glitter in the September sun, and I can’t do anything but stare into them. And so I turn around and settle on one of those benches, pulling out the book I’m reading, ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton.

I was not meant to be in Boston today. I was supposed to be at a school newspaper meeting at Brandeis, but halfway through it I knew I would never like being told what I had to write. I snuck out as they were touring their make-shift office space and got on the commuter rail to the city.

It is a beautiful September day – a little on the warm side but when faced with what is to come, quite welcome. For some reason the city seems quieter, and despite the recent influx of college kids, less crowded. Maybe it’s because I can only focus on him.

I read the same page about three times before I acknowledge him sitting on the bench before me, and he is the one who speaks first. It would always be the other guy who speaks first because I will always be too afraid.

He asks if I want to walk with him, and I nod. We turn toward the river. I had never been this way before, and if there’s one thing that makes an indelible impression and memory, it’s discovering some new part of a city you thought you always knew. We must have meandered along the Esplanade, past the Hatch Shell, in the dappled light of the changing trees. I remember the walk, but it is dim and vague, and the only thing I could focus on at the time was him. We are going back to his place, and while I had never done anything like this before, somehow I knew what to do, what I had to do.

 

At the tender age of nineteen, how could I have been so sure? This was before the ubiquity of the Internet, before ‘Will & Grace’, before Ellen. No one had ever told me it was okay. He was no exception. He told me nothing. To all my questions, he gave out no answers, at one point snapping viciously that he didn’t want anything to do with “this education crap”. That no one had helped him to come out, and he was not about to help anyone else figure it out. But all this had yet to come.

There is no use recounting in detail how our weeks together passed. He was callous and cruel in ways that cut me deeper since it was my first time, and because of that it would take years to thaw the icy boundaries I erected to deal with it. The bigger person I sometimes try to be wants to absolve him of his guilt, but I can’t forgive him for how he treated me.

I am now almost the same age he was when he met me, and I still can’t fathom treating another person like that. At first I thought I might, when I reached this age, but it’s not an age issue. My introduction to the gay world was a cold, cutting, every-man-for-himself attitude that should never have been. There were other atrocities too, darker things that I will never put into words, but I’ve written enough about him already, and it’s not fair to post just one side of the affair – God knows I’ve never been an angel. For now, I am done, and the story ends here.

I wish I could say that it didn’t affect me, and that I was mature and knowledgeable enough to chalk it up to an isolated individual, but I can’t. Even if was just one bad seed, it happened to be the seed I tasted. You can’t get rid of that so easily, no matter how intellectually you understand it shouldn’t matter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That was all I wrote about him for some time, until I revisited the scene of that fall in these posts. Some kisses changes your life. That was one of them. There was no going back. I had a few more entanglements with women, but my heart had to admit that I was gay, even if I couldn’t express it. I was so young then, so alone, and it was a secret that I couldn’t share. Not at that time. Instead, with a mixture of shame and heartache, I went through it all by myself. I don’t have many regrets, but that may be one of them – not so much that I did it all on my own, but that I felt I had to.

To carry a secret like that can be very damaging. Secrets are by their nature insidious, and one secret always begets another. It would take me a few years before I could come out, and even then some people still wanted me to keep it quiet. When it’s your own family, that hurts a little bit more.

Enter the woman who had just taken the critical and popular beating of her lifetime: Madonna, in the aftermath of the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album. She had fallen from her lofty perch and faced derision and vile press. Rather than hide away, she did what she had always done best, and released a fantastic album. A mid-tempo acoustic guitar-strummer, ‘Secret’ brought her back near the top of the charts, and is a song about finding the happiness within yourself. For Madonna, ‘Secret’ restored her to herself. The ‘Bedtime Stories’ album got pretty good reviews, and the next single would bring her back to number one with a bullet. She found her way back from a very dark place, and that was the lesson I took from the proceedings.

So heavily-laden is the song with the affiliated time period, I can’t enjoy ‘Secret’ on its own musical merit, no matter how great a song it is. Yet as the years pass, the feeling I get isn’t bitterness or anger or sadness – it’s more of a downtrodden ennui. It makes me exhausted, so I don’t often dwell on it. It exists as a talisman of a time that was powerful and necessary, but one that doesn’t have a place in my current world. I had to go through there to get here, but it’s nowhere I’d like to visit again.

It took me much too long to understand how it could be…

SONG #111 – ‘SECRET’ – FALL 1994

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Shot Through the Heart

imagine sky

The dangerous rhyme-riddled plague of blame and shame can wreak havoc on the most well-ordered of lives. Even when you think you have the thing beat, it rears its ugly head again, reminding you that no matter far you’ve come you can’t erase the past. In the following song by Imagine Dragons, we find a protagonist giving up and giving in. Such a thing is a horror to go through, but a fascinating process to watch. We are an emotionally blood-thirsty species. We revel in the misery of others. We find relief in any struggle that’s not our own. It’s the wretchedness of human nature, and sooner or later we are all brought so low.

I’m sorry for everything
Oh everything I’ve done…

Am I out of touch?
Am I out of my place?
When I keep saying that I’m looking for an empty space
Oh I’m wishing you’re here
But I’m wishing you’re gone
I can’t have you and I’m only gonna do you wrong

Sometimes you have to give up on things. Sometimes you have to give up on people. It’s the only way to absolve certain issues. Let go and let come what may. There is a strength that comes from owning your fuck-ups, and a grace that results from admitting your failings. Whatever terrors are in the past will always lurk, ready to trip you up at the most inopportune time, unless you face them. The first step in doing that is admitting your own faults and mistakes. No one is perfect. Not all the time.

Oh I’m going to mess this up
Oh this is just my luck
Over and over and over again

I’m sorry for everything
Oh everything I’ve done
From the second that I was born
It seems I had a loaded gun
And then I shot, shot, shot a hole through
Everything I loved
Oh I shot, shot, shot a hole through every single
Thing that I loved

Am I out of luck?
Am I waiting to break?
When I keep saying that I’m looking for a
Way to escape
Oh I’m wishing I had what I’d taken for granted
I can’t help you when I’m only gonna do
You wrong

There are those of us who can’t seem to do anything but hurt others. Even with the best of intentions, even when acting out of a supposed place of love, the end result is always pain. When that happens over and over and over again, something has to change. In certain romantic relationships, I’ve been that bull in the china shop. In certain familial relationships, I’ve been on the receiving end of such harm. Somewhere in-between I hoped to find happiness.

In the meantime can we let it go
At the roadside that
We used to know
We can let this drift away
Oh we let this drift away
At the bayside
Where you used to show
In the moonlight
Where we let it go
We can let this drift away
Oh we let this drift away

To let go, to allow time to pass, to move on along your own path – this is how I’ve survived – and it’s how I’ll continue to survive. A certain courage is required to do that. A fortitude and belief, somewhere deep within, that you’ll be all right, that no matter what happens you can do it. You will be ok, because you have to be.

And there’s always time to change your mind
Oh there’s always time to change your mind
Oh love, can you hear me
Oh let it drift away…

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The Modern-Day Valentine Mix – Side Two

vday 2015-2

The relatively dark ending of Side One now over (there should always be a dramatic finish to the first act) we turn now to a Valentine’s reprieve in the form of fantasy. When real life doesn’t work out, and more often than not it doesn’t (at least not to the perfect extent that some of us would like) there’s only one thing to do: escape. I’m not talking the well-practiced acceptance speech after winning an Oscar/Grammy/Tony/Emmy award, or the imagined thunderous applause after performing a sell-out concert in Madison Square Garden, or even the perfectly-executed dance routine at a wedding that has all guests gasping in thrilled adoration and awe, I’m talking something more subtle yet just as seemingly unattainable: the perfect guy.

Track #4: LOST IN YOUR EYES

 

I get lost in your eyes, then I feel my spirit rise

And soar like the wind, is it love that I am in?

I get weak in a glance, isn’t this what’s called romance?

And now I know, cause when I’m lost I can’t let go…

He watches me in the brief moments between classes. Our lockers are across from each other, and out of the corner of my eye I can tell he is pausing, waiting until I catch him staring, at which point he’ll look away or rush off or, on those happiest of days, look back and give a brief smile. He is older than me, but I like that. There is something protective about the way he behaves toward me, something I never felt even from my own parents. His protection was absolute, unwavering, and unconditional. It was simply in his nature.

After school one day he found me sitting by the curb, waiting for my ride. He sat down next to me. The brush of his denim was soft but firm, and he smelled vaguely of warmth – of toast on a cold morning, of apple pie on a cold night, of hot chocolate on a winter day – and of something dirtier.

He makes a bit of small talk, asks about a class I’m in that he took a couple of years ago, then squeezes my shoulder as a way of saying good-bye. I look up at him as he rises, and he has that smile again. And those eyes. And suddenly I am lost.

That night, I lie in bed unable to sleep. The feel of his hand on my shoulder had thrilled me, and I put my own hand on the bony area trying to determine what he might have felt. It is thin and slight beneath my hand, and I wonder at how it would compare to his own broadness and muscles. I feel embarrassed and ashamed, and my heart is in riot and rapture. I try to conjure his scent, try to recall the brief brush of his leg against mine, and only end up pulling a pillow close to myself for comfort. I want to cry.

I don’t mind not knowing what I’m headed for

You can take me to the skies

It’s like being lost in heaven

when I’m lost in your eyes. 

I just fell… 

The days pass slowly, filled with the agonizing distractions of school work and classes between which I live in the brief moments that I’m near him. I write his name on scraps of paper that I quickly tear into tiny pieces with less than a letter on each lest anyone piece together the secret wishes of my heart. Alone in my bedroom, I write more than his name.

Love letters and dreams and fantasies of a life together. I write him my darkest fears, tell him my most daring desires, and explain how in the moment he touched my shoulder my whole world changed. I fold it up, seal and date it, and hide it deep in the bottom drawer of my desk. One day I will present it to him ~ maybe when we get married, maybe when we buy our first home, maybe when we celebrate our 50th anniversary – but some way and somehow he must know.

 

Track #5: I’LL BE YOUR EVERYTHING

 

I’ll lift you up when you’re feeling down

Make your whole world turn around

Give my heart and soul to you

Let you know this love is true…

He says hello to me in the hallway, whenever we pass. Sometimes it seems like he goes out of his way to do so, pushing through a throng of students just to get closer to me, then I think it’s all in my head. Why would anyone bother, especially someone as beautiful as him? But then I’m sure of it, certain that he looks frustrated if he can’t reach me before the sea of classmates swirls me away from him. On those days when we both linger after classes are done, I wonder if he too feels shy and excited and reluctant to leave. We begin walking out together, and I admit that I wait if he’s running late, or hurry if some teacher keeps class a little longer than usual. After a few days, it feels like old habit, and soon it is my favorite part of the day. There is a decent trek from our lockers to the parking lot where his car is and where my ride arrives, and I want to believe we both slow a bit near the end, anything to prolong our time together.

One day he tells me he should just drop me off to save my parents the drive. I’m not far out of his way. The excitement of the prospect of being alone in a car with him is matched only by the realization that he knows where I live. In those pre-internet days, before FaceBook and social media left us all transparently visible on a Google map, he managed to find out something about me. That someone cared enough to research where I lived, or at least to ask, touched me more than anything. Most of the time the world – at least my world – didn’t bother to care. Then, just like that, he was driving me home every day. Away from the prying eyes of classmates and the boundaries of school, he was different.

It’s hard to explain – he was a little less guarded, more ready to laugh, and somehow happier. I thought it was just being out of school that produced the giddiness, but a small part of me – the part that struggled to believe whether I was worthy of love – peeked out from years of hiding and allowed myself the possible realization that he was happier because I was with him. No amount of therapy or self-help books would ever surpass what that single moment accomplished. There is nothing quite as nourishing as feeling loved.

One day he doesn’t stop at my house, but glides past and around the block again. I challenge him with a quizzical glare, but his look and subsequent tone are so serious I don’t make a sarcastic comment. He tells me that he has something for me but that it’s not a big deal, just something he made because he saw how I liked certain songs on our rides home. With a trembling hand, he reaches into the glove compartment and pulls out a cassette tape. On the side he has written, “Alan’s Melancholy Mix” and then a listing of all the songs. Most are ones we’d listened to on our brief rides, when he’d briefly sing along and give me a side smile, knowing I was too shy to ever join in.

There were a couple of classic rock songs, some power ballads from the likes of Journey and Chicago, and a few New Wave dance ditties that we both guiltily admired. The smile-inducing if infuriating inclusion of ‘You Can Call Me Al’ (because he knows that you absolutely can’t) rounds out the tape, but the best part is what he writes within the liner notes:

“For a guy who always seems a little sadder than he should be.”

 

Track #6: FAITHFULLY 

 

Highway run into the midnight sun,

Wheels go round and round

You’re on my mind

Restless hearts sleep alone tonight

Sending all my love along the wire…

I wear the tape out, getting out of bed multiple times in the night to flip it over and begin it again. I replay the moment he gave it to me, the way his hand touched mine and lingered, as if there was more to be done. Years later, I would reassemble that mix of songs into a playlist and present it to him on an iPod. His eyes would light up as he played each song and we remembered those rides together. Our first kiss, the way he held my hand before it, and the ensuing lifetime of love played out amid the pop songs of the 80′s. We were in a different car, in a different city, and a completely different world, but we’d managed to stay together.

I’m still yours…

Faithfully.

You don’t need the whole world to love you, you just need the one.

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The Modern-Day Valentine Mix – Side One

vday 2015-1

There is no cheesier “holiday” than Valentine’s Day, and while I have no horrible V-Day memories to conjure, neither have I any overtly romantic ones that come to mind. Every day with Andy is like Valentine’s Day. (Pass the barf bag.) This has always been a Hallmark-perpetuated celebration of the hollow and trite, and traditionally I wear black to mark the occasion. It wasn’t always this way. When I was a boy the sweeping grand possibility of romance blasted from the horns of golden cherubs, and I fervently believed that one day my prince would come. As a throwback to that innocent time, to the moments when my jadedness had not yet hardened into its current implacable state, I present to you this modern-day version of a mix tape.

Back when I was a wee youngster, we had cassette tapes. They were small plastic rectangles that slid into a stereo or Walkman and played music from the slow turning of a fine, shiny brown filament. They could hold anywhere from 60 to 120 minutes of music – most clocking in at the 90 minute range. That’s a lot of space to fill with sound, but there never seemed to be a dearth of things to say though music. I won’t put you through anything as torturous or time-consuming as that – in fact, this is more of a super-brief EP than a proper mix tape, but the sentiment is the same. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Track #1: YOU’RE THE INSPIRATION

 

You know our love was meant to be

The kind of love that lasts forever

And I want you here with me

From tonight until the end of time…

In the scant few years before the boys would square off against the girls, my best friends were mostly of the female persuasion. While any burgeoning physical attraction was leaning toward the guys, I had much more in common with the girls. They found me funny, and I found them more interesting than boys. They cared about pretty things, like hair and shoes and jewelry, and they were less rambunctious and violent than boys. We were not quite to the age where the lines were drawn in the sand though, so my friendships with girls in the class went relatively unridiculed. Such safety and freedom were more fleeting than I realized, and soon enough it would be forbidden to sit at a table of girls until high school. I didn’t know this then, so went about blissfully unaware of the impending end to such easy and sexless camaraderie.

For Valentine’s Day we would create our own Valentine receptacles out of brown paper bags, decorated with construction paper and glitter and doilies – the only time it would be ok for boys to dabble with doilies. I poured my heart into it, making the prettiest bag I could, hoping to attract the most Valentines  ~ not just because of who I was but because of how pretty I could make my bag. In truth, none of this really crossed my conscious mind. I loved a good craft project as much as the next person, but when given free reign I always felt a shiver of panic, particularly when no guidelines or rules were established. A little freedom is a good thing; too much makes me uncomfortable. Chalk it up to my Virgo birthdate.

Looking back, I can see now that I was never as despised as I sometimes felt I was. In fact, my bag was one of the heavier ones. This was a time before we were really hardened by the world, a time before any serious divisive differences. When left to their own devices, most children are pretty accepting of each other. It’s when parental and adult prejudices and influences start coming into play that kids get ruined or enriched.

For those few Valentine’s Days when boys and girls could give loving cards to each other without care or concern, I felt happy and adored. There was a purity in that exchange, something that would be missing after a certain age. We gave our hearts to one another, without reserve, without fear, without judgment.

You’re the meaning in my life, you’re the inspiration.

You bring feeling to my life, you’re the inspiration.

When you love somebody til the end of time…

 

Track #2: OPEN ARMS

 

Lying beside you here in the dark

Feeling your heart beat with mine

Softly you whisper, you’re so sincere

How could our love be so blind?

By the last years of our time at R.J. McNulty Elementary School, we were beginning to galvanize into adolescents. The change was sometimes sudden, sometimes slow, and always irreversible. Boys didn’t much socialize with girls except to torment and antagonize. It was playful teasing for the most part, the set-up for more serious flirtations to come. Yet my heart sang a different tune. The sirens that called to me weren’t female, and the attractions I felt toward girls in my class were platonic and comforting, not dangerous or tinged with desire.

At night, the glowing red digital colon of my alarm clock blinked on and off its steady count of seconds. Staring idly at the shaft of hallway light that came in through the cracked door, I listened as Journey’s ‘Open Arms’ came on over the radio. At such a young age, I couldn’t have had the first clue about romantic love, but something in me had always understood longing. The unrequited fancies of a boy too often get lost in the assumed toughness that comes from being a boy. I never had that toughness, so I’d have to craft a cage for my heart for my own protection. I didn’t know that then, and I’m sort of glad.

I opened my heart to every silly crush and foolish infatuation, and fell head-first into the giddy swirling notion of what I thought was love. I pined silently and relentlessly for a camp counselor, a class-mate, and the blonde guy on ‘CHiPs.’ It would be my major downfall in life: to want the ones who didn’t want me back. My heart would never learn. My heart would never quiet. And my heart would never stop… longing… wanting… loving.

So now I come to you with open arms

Nothing to hide, believe what I say

So here I am with open arms

Hoping you’ll see what your love means to me…

 

Track #3: THE SEARCH IS OVER

 

How can I convince you

what you see is real?

Who am I to blame you

for doubting what you feel?

I was always reaching…

Shards of ice amid a crazy state of mind. Disconcerting winter thaws and restless summer nights. The shifting of seasons across the mine-field of my heart. The ongoing search for a match. The quest for a partner. The fear of being alone. Such thoughts marred the mind as it tried to empty itself for sleep.

A love song on the radio. Lovers listening on the ride home. And me, not giving a fuck. Not even trying. In black and gray, damning the day of St. Valentine with a vehemence reserved for the bitter and the bereft, I spit out emotional vitriol and the carrion of trampled hearts in my wake.

I was living for a dream,

Loving for a moment.

Taking on the world,

That was just my style…

The random act of violence upon an innocent bystander is somehow easier to take than the sweet stab of veiled aggression by a lover or a family member. The former may leave you with a sickening lack of faith in the world, but the latter always leaves you with a sickening lack of faith in yourself. It is invariably destructive.

A shattered heart can never quite be put back together again.

All these silly love songs, all the cards and flowers and candy, all the jewelry and perfume and cologne – are but masks to disguise the utter emptiness of this holiday. If you’re lucky enough to get to this point in your life relatively unscathed, and if your heart has never been broken, hold onto that. For the rest of us, we’ll just keep looking for a way back to the day our school desks were littered with the innocent love notes of classmates, to a time when love was given without hesitation or reluctance or question, and to the last moment our hearts were full.

 

[I bet you can't wait to flip the tape to get to Side Two...]

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Living for This Video

mad living love 100

The last few videos Madonna has made have largely been, gasp, lackluster – and for the woman who practically invented the music video, this was simply unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, fluffy escapist trifles like ‘Turn Up the Radio‘ and ‘Give Me All Your Luvin‘ provided passing interest, and were devoured by a Madonna-hungry public because of the piss-poor promotional efforts for her last record, MDNA, but they paled in comparison to former glories like ‘Like A Prayer‘ or ‘Bad Girl.’

Her latest video for ‘Living For Love’ doesn’t quite return her to the apex of video artistry, but it comes damn close, and carries with it enough powerful imagery to turn a relatively standard song into something more meaningful, something more galvanizing, something more, well, Madonna. As noted, I found the ‘Living For Love’ song nice enough, but wasn’t convinced it was lead-off single material. Yes, it brought her back to those 90′s-nostalgic house beats and piano chords, and the injection of gospel elements lifted it to a higher ground, but it still felt a bit like a filler track, a throw-away song that could be taken away without leaving a hole in my heart. The video changes things a bit, more succinctly bringing the song into focus as a self-empowerment anthem, as Madonna vanquishes a circle of encroaching minotaurs like so many fallen chess pieces.

As someone who’s been under his fair share of attacks, both deserved and unfounded, I like the metaphors and the dazzling imagery. Most of all, I like the classic Madonna theme of exorcising the ghosts of those who have wronged her in such a cathartic and spellbinding way. We go to battle with our demons every day, be they family or foe (or any combination of the two), ex-lovers or longstanding-obsessions, former flames or future fucks – but rather than indulging in the bitter she exults in the sweet, rising above and leaving the past behind. It’s what Madonna has always done best: never looked back. There’s a cost to it, but you’re not about to see her emotional bank account.

The video is notable for the impossible way it manages to reinvent Madonna for the bazillionth time, repositioning her as toreador, and showing off several camera moves and angles and dance moves that she’s never tried out before – that in itself is a pretty substantial accomplishment for a woman who’s done practically everything on video by this point (witness the incredible fall and rise close-up that begins at 0:41 and the stunning jump at 1:48.)

Most thrilling for those of us die-hard fans who notice every subtle nuance, intended or not, are the references that Madonna makes to her own body of work. The matador outfit brings back the days of ‘You Can Dance‘, and the bolero might even have been reclaimed from 1987 itself. She steps into the male bull-fighter role she so elegantly paired off with in ‘Take A Bow’ and ‘You’ll See‘ – and executes a snippet of the ‘Papa Don’t Preach‘ strut that originally ended with the first sanctioned peek-a-boo of nipple back in 1986.

Madonna’s come a long way since that epochal decade in which she rose to the pinnacle of the pop heap. She still hovers in that rarefied air, and really, no one else can quite touch her when it comes to history and legacy and modern-day currency. If she isn’t as pervasive as she once was, she still holds incredible sway and power, and the readily-admitted worship of almost every current pop star, and quite a few who have come and gone over the incredible ongoing span of her career.

“Man is the cruelest animal. At tragedies, bullfights, and crucifixions he has so far felt best on earth; and when he invented hell for himself, behold, that was his very heaven.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

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The Madonna Timeline: Song #110 – ‘Into the Groove’ – 1985/1987

mad into groove 101

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Music can be such a revelation
Dancing around you feel the sweet sensation
We might be lovers if the rhythm’s right
I hope this feeling never ends tonight…

It was a hot and happening Saturday night in my bedroom. The girls from ‘The Facts of Life’ had just departed, leaving me alone in the bright lights of the neon-clad 80′s, and we were headed into the lateness of the nine o’clock hour. Fly 92 was probably playing its Saturday night dance jam, but I had a cassette tape of non-stop Madonna mixes, and I didn’t need Shadoe Stevens clogging up my head with his smoother-than-Black-Velvet voice.

While it was originally released in 1985, I had my head in the sand at that time, as I don’t quite recall the initial chart-storming that Madonna made with ‘Into the Groove’ – instead, my memory is of the re-release it got on 1987′s ‘You Can Dance’ remix EP. On those Saturday nights when I was freed from the chains of school, I found safety and salvation in the meanderings of my bedroom. A childhood bedroom holds wonders that no parent or guardian could ever fully understand.

Yet as much as I wanted safety and security, I yearned for escape. Even then I knew I had to create my own world and forge my own way because the things I thought were secure were about to come tumbling down. And the only constant in any gay boy’s world at the time was Madonna. The rest of the world, and sometimes our own families, wanted to quiet us with shame and silence, but Madonna embraced all – gay, straight, black, white, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim – it did not matter to the Material Girl. Everyone was invited to her party ~ hell, that’s how you made the money. Not by excluding or silencing, but by celebrating. We didn’t know how deep she went then, we only cared that she knew her way around a proper pop song. She was always one step ahead of the rest of us.

And so, on Saturday nights I’d lock the door where no one else could see, and dance my worries away. Escapism was the only way out. They could belt me, they could hate me, they could shame me, but they couldn’t take away what was inside my head. They couldn’t take away what was in my heart. That’s where the groove was. That’s where freedom would be found.

Only when I’m dancing can I feel this free 
At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see 
I’m tired of dancing here all by myself 
Tonight I wanna dance with someone else…

Regarding ‘Into the Groove’ – The Song – I actually never loved it. It’s sacrilege to say so to certain Madonna fans, but I just never connected to this one, which is odd because so many consider it a seminal piece of the Madonna mythology. The most fun I had with it was her Reinvention incarnation with bagpipes and drums. I was touched that she was making such an overt nod to her then-husband Guy Ritchie. Love makes us do odd things – and it’s always touching to see that. I guess I just needed that incongruous Scottish mash-up – kilts solve a multitude of problems. (Oh, and put this into your blasphemous files: I’ve never seen ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ in its entirety. Yeah, I know. Kenneth in the 212 can shoot me now.)

SONG #110 – ‘Into the Groove’ – 1985/1987

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When Snowflakes Fall…

BlogPics006

Most of us complain when a snowstorm wreaks havoc with our plans, but lately I’ve learned to embrace them. For a few hours, or as long as the snow keeps us inside, we are bound in one place. A favorite place to ride out a winter storm is at the condo in Boston, where I can watch the falling snow from the cozy environs of that stalwart structure.

A cup of hot tea in hand, a book waiting to be opened on the table, and a slow song like this one on the stereo.

Goodbye, no use leading with our chins
This is where our story ends
Never lovers ever friends
Goodbye, let our hearts call it a day
But before you walk away
I sincerely want to say
I wish you bluebirds in the spring
To give your heart a song to sing
And then a kiss, but more than this, I wish you love

And in July, a lemonade
To cool you in some leafy glade
I wish you health, and more than wealth, I wish you love
My breaking heart and I agree
That you and I could never be
So with my best, my very best, I set you free
I wish you shelter from the storm
A cozy fire to keep you warm
But most of all, when snowflakes fall, I wish you love
But most of all, when snowflakes fall, I wish you love.

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Ice Castles: My First Graduation

ice castles memory
Please, don’t let this feeling end
It’s everything I am, everything I want to be
I can see what’s mine now
Finding out what’s true since I found you
Looking through the eyes of love

Now, I can take the time, I can see my life
As it comes up shining now
Reaching out to touch you
I can feel so much since I found you
Looking through the eyes of love

The year was 1986.

The scene was the gymnasium at R.J. McNulty Elementary School.

We were in sixth grade – our last day of sixth grade – and those of us in the band were playing the ‘Theme from Ice Castles’ – in likely rather-sad fashion. Yet the melody came through, and as I read the lyrics that went along with the song, I wondered if our band conductor/football coach Mr. Pangburn had chosen the song for its sentiment or sound. Did he know that some of us were realizing that our childhoods were coming to an end?

And now I do believe
That even in a storm
We’ll find some light
Knowing you’re beside me
I’m all right…

Like most kids, I didn’t fully fathom that the last years of childhood were in fact the last years of childhood. Turning into a young adult always seemed far away, just out of reach and tantalizingly unavailable. While most of me couldn’t wait to get there (I found kids to be, for the most part, tiresome and foolish) there was a small portion of my heart that held onto my youth, that didn’t want to grow up. That little boy was the one playing the oboe in the hot, stuffy gym of McNulty School, during his sixth grade graduation, in the only school he’d ever known since kindergarten.

He thought back to that first day, when his mother set him free all those years ago. He sobbed at the ankles of his teacher, Miss Delamater, so sad and terrified was he at being left alone in a room of strangers. It took a few days before he would talk. But eventually he found his way. He made friends, and was especially popular with the girls. He survived the usual battles of childhood – chicken pox and forgotten homework and being sent to the back of the class for laughing too much (as if he could control that!) – and less-than-usual battles as well – a lactose intolerance that left his stomach in such pain he missed weeks at a time, a strange fear of being away from home that made him look up at the fluorescent lights to dry the tears that came suddenly from seemingly nowhere, and the nagging, gnawing suspicion that the difference he felt in himself from his classmates was indeed very different from the difference that most kids feel. Now, at the end of his elementary journey, he understood that he didn’t want it to be over. All the pain and the sadness was coupled with such joy and happiness, and the whole path was so rich and wonderful and varied that he wasn’t ready to let it go. But the band played on…

Please, don’t let this feeling end
It might not come again and I want to remember
How it feels to touch you
How I feel so much since I found you
Looking through the eyes of love

And now I do believe
That even in a storm
We’ll find some light
Knowing you’re beside me
I’m all right

My eyes turned watery. I looked around at my classmates, at my friends, and I knew it would never be the same. They didn’t seem to notice. The song ended with a spattering of applause. The ceremony continued. At the end, we had some refreshments, said a few good-byes, and headed off into the summer.

Now, I can take the time, I can see my life
As it comes up shining now
Reaching out to touch you
I can feel so much since I found you
Looking through the eyes of love.
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Friend Like You

josie alan

The only way I can get through winter in upstate New York is by seeking out friends to share the misery – and the light. It was my friend JoAnn who introduced me to Joshua Radin – the singer-songwriter responsible for this musical gem of solace and comfort. JoJo and I go back over sixteen years, and winters in Cape Cod, Boston, and Albany have all been made a little easier when we’re together. Frigid walks in the South End to find a basenji, snowy hikes and parking lot doughnuts in Cape Cod, and cozy dinners in Albany have all been part of our winter repertoire.

I like the way you’re not afraid
You got the world planned in your mind
People say you cannot do well
They don’t know a friend like you.

The girl you love has gone away

 

Still too young to know her heart

 

She’ll return her love renewed

 

‘Cause she’ll never find a friend like you

 

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Going Home

ASGEIR
Home, I’m making my way home.
My mind’s already there.
Yes, my mind is
Light, you’re with me in the dark.
Light my way at night.
Let your light shine

Oh sweet melancholy, how you dwell in these winter months, even as I try to sweep you out with the dust and dirt. Too early, too soon, I know. The heart wants what it wants, and it wants spring now. That’s an impossible request. The heart, though, still wants. It is, perhaps, the saddest and most hopeful part of us, this heart that keeps on wanting, that spends its energies longing, that never stops until the day we die.

Now, this burden weighs me down.
The heaviest of weights
knocks me to the ground,
right down to the
Dew that sparkles on the ground.
Blue mountains loom above.
Blue mountains loom

This is winter music. This is a winter song. It makes one pause. It leaves space for listening to the fall of snow. It eases the muffled roar of the snow plow. It calms the rioting heart which launches brazenly into the winter madness, trying to rush through it all before it’s had its time. The music is languid. The sounds are soft. This is Ásgeir.

And I walk alone; one wish
won’t be forgotten,
never forget that
Long, is the path ahead.
And though my body tires,
and I have far to go,
I know I’m going home.
Know I’m going home.

Maybe it’s this winter, maybe it’s some recent event, or maybe it’s just getting older, but home feels very far away. Once upon a time that might have bothered me. No, it would have frightened me, so terrifying had it been to think of such an unmoored state, such a little-boy-lost scenario. Yet I’m no longer afraid. I’ll make myself a different home. A better home. A home where I’ll always belong.

Home, I’m making my way home.
My mind’s already there.
Yes, my mind is
Light, you’re with me in the dark.
Light my way at night.
Let your light shine
Now, this burden weighs me down.
The heaviest of weights
knocks me to the ground.
This burden weighs me down.
Burden weighs me down.
Burden weighs me down.
Burden weighs me down.
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Gay Anime And A Little Bit of Death

antirockstars 1

My pal Alexander fronts antirockstars, and he asked that I share this video. I get a few requests to share things, most of which are not my cup of tea, and while the music is decidedly not Madonna or Ella Fitzgerald, there’s room enough for some diversity here (and I never claimed to have any musical taste), so give this a whirl. More compelling, and surprisingly moving, was the accompanying video. Give me a teddy bear as a supporting player and I’m all over that shit. Give me a cute cuddly couple in the first flush of love, and I’m even more entranced. But give me an interlude of death and a baby scythe, well, it’s all over. Sign me up and call it a day.

For more of antirockstars and Alex, check out his website here. This is, in his words, what antirockstars is all about:

You may be wondering, what does antirockstars mean and why am I going by that name?   It’s my opposition to the vulgar excesses and disingenuousness that all too often accompany rock music.  It’s a chance for me to be me and to do what I want musically.  I have no handlers, no image-makers, no men in suits marketing me to kids in jeans.  I’m not doing this to get rich or to get girls.  I’m an artist who wants to share his art with those who are receptive to it and who are touched by it.

That’s the kind of artist I like, and the artists I’ve always admired are those who have a drive and determination to create not for money or fame or fortune, but because it makes them feel alive.

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A Madgestic Surprise

mad rebel

When an album’s worth of Madonna demos leaked last week, all eyes were on the woman herself as to how she would handle the mess. (I’m sure someone got the worst rim job of their life if she found the culprit behind the leak.) Some have said it’s all a marketing ploy, but I’m not sure – this was just a little too messy to be more than unintentional. Regardless, the solution that Madonna shrewdly took was to offer six of the finished songs on iTunes, and the EP immediately went to Number One around the world.

The general consensus is that the new music is Madonna’s best in at least a decade. (Personally, I’m still entranced by many of the ‘MDNA’ cuts, but a lot of fans gave up after ‘Hard Candy‘.) Of the new songs, planned single ‘Living For Love’ is getting a lot of talk, but I’m less impressed by that than the shimmering brilliance of ‘Ghosttown’ and the sing-and-clap-along genius of ‘Devil Pray.’

More interesting and compelling yet may be tracks like ‘Illuminati’ and ‘Unapologetic Bitch.’ Whether or not she intended to make it an early Christmas, Madonna’s given us a glorious glimpse of the new sonic territory she’s staking out for a triumphant return to the pop fold next year. As always I’m chomping at the bit to hear more.

“When it all falls, when it all falls down, We’ll be two souls in a ghost town…”

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Misty Watercolor Memories

way we were

Having recently declared my non-fandom of Barbra Streisand, I’ll backtrack a bit to give it up for this song from ‘The Way We Were.’ It inspires a snowy memory, a warm and happy memory, a memory of solitude tinged with family ghosts…

It was a night in January. My parents were out of town, so I stopped by Amsterdam to see my brother (who then lived a few blocks away) and to check on the house. We would do similar nights in the future, but for now I was alone in the house in which I grew up.

As evening fell, ghosts from the past entered timidly, whispering friendly words of forgotten scenes – those departed family members who stayed with me through the years, whenever things got quiet, whenever the world let up on me, and sometimes when it felt like everything was crashing down. On this night, it was peaceful and still. A thin layer of snow fell from the sky as I turned on the lights in my parents’ bedroom and searched for something comforting on the television. A Barbra Streisand film – ‘The Way We Were’ – had just begun, so I let it play for a while, as the saccharine melody of Marvin Hamlisch filled the empty room.

In a large dark house, even if you grew up within, it’s easy to get spooked. The wind can make things creak, the floor can make things moan, and if you’re not careful your head has suddenly wrapped itself in terrors that would be unthinkable in the light of day. Thankfully, that didn’t happen on this night. I had the silly curls and serious nails of Ms. Streisand to take my mind off other frights.

Memories,
Light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
Scattered pictures,
Of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were.

I watched the unlikely love story between Streisand and a very youthful Robert Redford, looking golden and in his prime, and I was drawn in as the night progressed. It wasn’t what I expected – it was actually much more enjoyable – and I settled onto the bed from which I used to watch ‘Santa Barbara’ if I could get home from school in time.

Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?

You can never go back. No matter how wonderful or awful it was. All we can do is move forward, keep going, keep trying to be better. Streisand’s Katie Morosky fought for the world to be a better place. Redford’s Hubbell did it in his own way too. I don’t quite have that drive, or that star power. What started out as a comfort left me feeling deflated, as if every endeavor on my plate was an exercise in futility, in simply stalling, or trying to recapture days that were more fun, more vibrant, more alive. Time marched on, leaving the good memories dusty and forlorn.

Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it’s the laughter
We will remember
Whenever we remember…
The way we were…
The way we were.
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Barbra Streisand Goes Back to Brooklyn…

Barbra Streisand

… and I just couldn’t be bothered. Just kidding. I have friends who adore Ms. Streisand, and I’ve always admired her work and her legacy. I just haven’t been a fan. However, when her last concert – ‘Back to Brooklyn’ – aired on Great Performances, I took a moment to watch this icon in all her adulation.

She wore some kooky outfits (as much as I love sequins, they can be trite on, say… Barbra Streisand), and she did some kooky dancing (does she know any other kind?) Yet unlike other icons (ahem), Ms. Streisand’s enduring appeal is due to her most valuable asset – that voice. Like buttah indeed. Studied, nuanced, pure and powerful, it has lasted all these decades, and remains one of the world’s most astounding natural gifts. Youngsters may want to note the complete lack of auto-tune madness, and take a lesson from the sheer presence this woman commands with a few delicate notes held in just the right manner.

Yet for all the perfection and passion, part of me simply doesn’t connect with her, and that’s all right. Different strokes for different folks, and in the way that not everyone has to love Madonna, I don’t quite love Barbra. I do, however, have the utmost respect for her, and she’s a powerhouse and institution worthy of honor and accolades.

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A Christmas Waltz

Doris Day My Heart album

Fulfilling a promise made in this Christmas kick-off post, here is ‘The Christmas Waltz’ as interpreted by Doris Day herself. A fitting performance from a woman who epitomized the sugar-coating in which we’d all like to believe. With a voice soft as warm butter, an earnest wish for a happy holiday season, and a wholesome throwback to an era that exists only in pictures and dreams, it’s a saccharine treat with an underlying bit of wistfulness that cuts it just enough to be deadly.

Frosted window-panes, candles gleaming inside, painted candy canes on the tree
Santa’s on his way, he’s filled his sleigh with things, things for you and for me.
It’s the time of year when the world falls in love,
Every song you hear seems to say, ‘Merry Christmas, may your New Year dreams come true.’
And this song of mine, in three-quarter time wishes you and yours the same thing too.

It’s the perfect song to go with a Christmas cocktail. Not with a loud and boisterous crew, not with a gaggle of gregarious friends, but alone, on your own, surrounded by the dull drone of strangers, the few friendly words of a bartender, the solitude and sadness of Christmas, no matter how loved you are by the masses. Because if you’re not loved by the one person you want to love you back, the rest of it doesn’t seem to matter.

I’ve often wondered at the happiness that everyone else seems to feel at Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I feel it too, in my niece and nephew, in my friends and family, in my husband and parents – but there’s always been something intrinsically sad to this time of the year. Maybe because it’s so close to the end of it, so near the darkest and shortest days of the season. No one wants to talk about that. It’s easier to turn your face to the sparkling lights, the bombast, the glitter and the drums. Better to hear the dulcet tones of Doris Day than the throbbing ticking of the time clock, running out for another year, reminding you of everything you never got to do.

And so we waltz along on a holiday breeze, we raise a glass and a toast to the season. The violins swell, the chimes charm, and it’s simple to get swept away with the voice of Miss Day. How can you resist? Why would you try?

It’s that time of year when the world falls in love,
Every song you hear seems to say, ‘Merry Christmas, may your New Year dreams come true.’
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