February 9, 2018

Midsummer's wacky ending: Pyramus and... who, now?

Ah, the glory that is Pyramus and Thisbe.

It's the most famous play you didn't know you knew. But you do! ...Usually under another name. I know you've seen it once. The odds are good you've seen it twice, and it's entirely possible you've seen it up to four times, each version with its own individual style.

Abraham Daniëlsz: Pyramus and Thisbe (ca. 1670)
In Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the hapless laborers (Bottom, Flute, Snout, Snug, Starveling and Quince) leave their various day jobs to form The Worst Theater Troupe in History for a command performance of Pyramus and Thisbe to celebrate a royal wedding.

This gives Shakespeare an opportunity to poke deadly fun at amateur actors, a species he doubtless had to tolerate on more than one occasion. If you've worked in community theater you've seen these types:
  • the guy who thinks he'd be PERFECT for all the parts (Bottom)
  • the doofus who reads all his lines at once instead of waiting for others' lines in between; and who also reads the stage directions out loud. (Flute)
  • The big dummy who is so hopeless an actor that you give him the simplest part with as few lines as possible (Snout)
  • the prima donna who doesn't take direction well and stomps out of rehearsal in a hissy-fit (Bottom again)
and so on.

Pyramus and Thisbe is a story dating back many centuries. The first written-down version of it we know of comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses in 8 A.D. The version played by our Thespians follows the original story pretty faithfully - it just gets ruined by the absurdity of the players' distinct lack of talent, much to the amusement of their audience. Pyramus and Thisbe are lovers whose parents forbid them to be together. One thing leads to another; Pyramus suicides when he thinks Thisbe has been killed; Thisbe (who is still kicking) then stabs herself upon finding Pyramus.


So I wish to point out a couple of things about this dramatic enterprise. The first concerns what Shakespeare did; the second with what Britten contributed in his operatic adaptation.

Remember now: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy, but it is made up equally of two distinct genres of comedy: a) situation comedy (known as sit-com), and b) farce. Bottom & Co,'s presentation of Pyramus is the farce. In fact, it's the farciest farce that ever farced. Queen Hippolyta aptly observes "This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard."

HOWEVER! the same basic story also appears as sit-com. Hermia and Lysander, after all, are the lovers forced to elope because her father disapproves of Lysander. Do they off themselves at the end? Well, no, because then it wouldn't be a sit-com, right? But the connection is there: we have two versions of Pyramus and Thisbe.

But, as they say on late-night infomercials, THAT'S NOT ALL!

I assume most of you Dear Readers graduated from high school, so by now it probably struck you that the Pyramus story sounds suspiciously familiar. And you're right. 

Approximately two years before writing Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote a serious, tragic, poetic version of the story; one that makes you cry and results in dark streaks of mascara oozing down your cheeks (don't you hate that? I know I do):

Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, P&T is the original source material for R&J,

So let's stop and tie a ribbon on all this: within the space of about two years, William Shakespeare gave us THREE versions of Pyramus and Thisbe:
  • TRAGEDY: Romeo and Juliet
  • SITUATION COMEDY: The story of Hermia and Lysander
  • FARCE: the absurd performance of the hapless amateurs near the finale.
See what I mean about Shakespeare? You'd have to be a pretty cool guy to give one story such triple treatment. I bet it'd have been fun to spend the day with him at a pub, listening to him tell stories.

If you plan to come to Virginia Opera's production, don't leave early - you must see Pyramus and Thisbe. (NOTE: some day I will adopt a Corgi puppy and I will name her Thisbe.) Everyone should see this ... thing... at least once before they die.

Britten's approach is to follow Shakespeare's lead. The Bard lampooned bad actors and bad scripts, so Britten pokes good-natured fun at bad singers, atonal music, bel canto and Giuseppe Verdi.
  • Snout, as The Wall that separates the estates of the two lovers, "sings" in a parody of Sprechstimme, that creepily atonal conflation of singing and speech introduced by Arnold Schoenberg in such works as Pierrot Lunaire and Moses und Aaron.
  • Bottom, as Pyramus, emotes like a big Smithfield Ham in solos that remind us of grimly serious passages of Verdi - Phillip II from Don Carlo, perhaps.
  • But cruelest of all is the music given to Flute as Thisbe. Flute, who was dismayed back in Act 1 when he learned he would have to portray a girl, enters in an ill-fitting wig and gown to a melody that might have been composed by Donizetti with less-than-full inspiration:
You'll note, perhaps, that the melody is in E flat. Sadly, when "Thisbe" begins her solo, she sings in E natural, producing excruciating dissonance. Not much of an ear, has our Flute. Well, he's a little nervous - wouldn't you be?

The subtle daggers launched at inept artists and old-fashioned opera music are too numerous to list completely. 

And now, a little P.S. 

There's actually a fourth version of Pyramus and Thisbe you probably know. It too is a musical adaptation, though in a different musical solar system than Britten's. And it has an actor playing a Wall! And it premiered in the same year as Britten's opera - 1960.

Figure it out yet? It's The Fantasticks.

Wouldn't Ovid be amazed? Think of the royalties he could have collected.....

February 3, 2018

What Hermia and Lysander learn in Britten's woods

Hermia loves Lysander. Lysander loves Hermia.

Ain't love grand?

When they defy Theseus and Hermia's father Egeus by ignoring Hermia's forced engagement to Demetrius and running off to the woods, they believe they've got Life all figured out. Shakespeare and Britten know better; they know how much this couple has to learn about love; mature, empathetic, ready-for-marriage love, that is.
Who the lovers love in Act !

As we first come across the rebellious couple, pausing to catch their breath on their way to Lysander's aunt in the next town, they take a moment to reaffirm their pledges of commitment. Here, Britten chose to transplant some lines from Shakespeare's first scene (set in Athens), a scene that was axed in the opera. The lines are Hermia's:

I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
and so on in that vein.

Britten made a spectacularly great decision to recast this speech as a duet, letting the two characters alternate lines in this fashion:

HERMIA: I swear to thee by Cupid's strongest bow,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by his best arrow with the golden head,
HERMIA: I swear to the by the simplicity of Venus' doves,
LYSANDER: I swear to thee by that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
...and so on.

This not only prevents the fast-moving comedy from bogging down in an aria, it also sheds genuine light on the big problem with young immature love:

It's all about the word "I".

Listen to this exchange in this Colin Davis recording; beginning at the 13:20 mark. What we've got is a Shakespearean version of the "Anything you can do I can do better" number from Annie Get Your Gun. Just substitute the word "swear" for "do", and that's what our young lovers are saying.

That's the difference between infatuation and genuine love - the infatuated lover focuses on his or her own feelings: "My stomach hurts; I can't sleep; I can't eat; I feel this; I feel that", and so on. In contrast, when people are in love for real, they tend to focus on the other person. The "loved one" ceases to be merely a reflection of the Self.

This is the journey awaiting Hermia and Lysander. As they interact with fairies (not to mention Helena and Demetrius) and as they sleep, their subconscious minds will continue to process and examine their relationship.

When they awaken for good with the sunrise, Hermia and Lysander have an epiphany (as does the other couple). Their fundamental point of view has been altered: for the first time, each young Athenian is able to stop looking inward, instead regarding their partner with new clarity.

Again, Britten handled this important moment with apt psychology and considerable beauty. First, he had to solve the problem of how to handle the altered viewpoints without the presence of Theseus and Egeus, since their scene in the forest has been cut. His solution is clever and apt. Helena's line
"And I have found Demetrius like a jewel. Mine own, and not mine own.", rather than being said only by Helena, is distributed among all four lovers, each plugging in the name of their partner.

And I have found fair Helen like a jewel...
And I have found Lysander like a jewel...

What makes this quartet so expressive is a simple but brilliant device: a sudden shift of harmony and key on the word "jewel". It's a graphic depiction of the shift in perception each lover has of his or her beloved. In the link above, this passage begins at 1:23:45; listen to it unfold. The repetitions of "like a jewel" convey the awe and wonder with which each character now beholds their destined partner. Their voices rise to a climax of transcendent joy - perhaps my favorite moment in the entire opera.

As for Demetrius - well, unlike the other three, he has been "dosed" by Puck's flower nectar. Apparently, his new affection for Helena is the product of magic. Should we hope that this "spell" lasts for the next fifty years or so? Yikes - what happens if, three years later, a sudden loud noise should break the spell, snapping Demetrius back to his pre-spell attitude and wondering how the hell he wound up married to such an annoying woman?

Of course, this is a phenomenon that happens in real-life marriages, isn't it? Don't most of us know couples for whom the "magic" wore off after a few years of co-habitation?

What exactly is Shakespeare telling us about love and romance, anyway? Is it possible that any time we "fall in love", it's a sort of spell like Demtrius'? A spell that can be broken, leaving as quickly as it came? Clearly, many romances begin as unrealistic semi-narcissistic infatuations like Lysander's. 

Perhaps, when infatuation matures into unselfish love, it's always the work of Oberon and Puck! 

Thanks, fellas.

January 28, 2018

Meet Oberon & Tytania, now starring in "The Crown" on Netflix

I'm putting off til next week my planned post on the love-sick lovers of A Midsummer Night's Dream, because I thought of the perfect way to explain the relationship of the King and Queen of Britten's
Alfred Deller and Jennifer Vyvyan as Oberon and Tytania

That, of course, would be Oberon and Tytania. When we meet them, we sense that the honeymoon is over...

....WAY over...

In point of fact, they're having a "row" (that's the Athenian word for a spat; I'm fluent in Fake Greek), making a scene right there in front of all the other fairies. It's all about Tytania's little human infant, a changeling child, newly orphaned after the death of his mortal mother. Oberon says "I want him"; his wife, no shrinking violet, basically tells him to go jump in the lake.

If you want to know precisely what this supernatural marriage is all about, I have a perfect analogy to render. You people all watch "The Crown", right? You like opera and classy stuff like that - of course you watch it, and are busy perusing all the announced cast changes for Season 3.

It's this simple: Tytania is Elizabeth and Oberon is Philip. Yes, yes, Oberon's a king and Philip isn't, but I'm not referring to titles - it's the dynamics of the marriage I have in mind. Oberon's frustration with Tytania's high-handedness in laying down the law mirrors the manner in which young Prince Philip chafes at being unable to have his way.

Each husband attempts his small rebellions. Philip parties at all hours with slightly unsavory companions, fomenting rumors of infidelity, whereas Oberon hatches a slightly malicious plot to punk Tytania by dosing her with some potent nectar that will famously result in her brief crush on a donkey.

The analogy holds in the scene in which Oberon and Tytania drop their quarrel. They dance a grave dance of reconciliation; it's sedate and serious. This Queen does not leap into her King's arms; there are no passionate declarations of love; no locking of lips. It truly reminds me of that moment in Season 2 of "The Crown" in which Elizabeth and Philip lay their cards on the table in a solemn meeting of minds.

Elizabeth reminds her mate that they don't have the remedies available in normal marriages that have become dysfunctional.

No divorce for them - ever. Not in the cards. They have to stick it out for the good of the monarchy and the good of the nation, so (she urges) they may as well make the best of things.

Fairyland is its own type of "nation", and Oberon and Tytania must face the same reality: they can never part. Indeed, this truth is brought home in their initial duet back in Act 1. The very fact that they are fighting is wreaking havoc with Nature. The seasons don't change on schedule; crops are rotting in the fields; livestock is dying.

Thus, that studied dance of reconciliation is their wordless coming to terms and the equivalent of their human counterparts' pow-wow.

BY THE WAY - isn't it odd, in light of that aforementioned crisis of rotting crops and dead livestock, that NONE OF THE OTHER CHARACTERS EVER MENTION IT?  Sounds to me like Duke Theseus might be a tad concerned with the prevailing pestilence assailing his realm, but I guess he's got a lot on his mind with his marriage to Hippolyta coming up...

Finally, allow me to mention a couple of points on Britten's conception of Oberon as a counter-tenor.
In this day and age, when Baroque opera has become a staple rather than an oddity, you can shake a tree and three or four counter-tenors will fall out of it. They're everywhere, and they're making a living.

In 1960 (the year Britten's Midsummer premiered), however, they were quite uncommon. The composer really wanted his fairies to come across as non-human creatures, the idea being that if fairies were real, you and I might find them rather disturbing. The aural "strangeness" of the counter-tenor timbre automatically set Oberon apart from the tenors, baritones and basses that opera-goers always expect to hear.

The nature of Oberon's vocal color actually creates an issue in live performance, particularly in a large hall. Since Tytania is sung by a "normal" coloratura soprano, balance between the voices can be tricky. Of course, the work was written for a hall with a seating capacity of only 300, in which case Oberon's lines would be easily heard.

The role was created for Alfred Deller, who was supposedly as horrible an actor as he was accomplished as a singer. Deller told an amusing story illustrating the confusion with which many music-lovers greeted his unfamiliar style of vocalizing. After one performance, a German woman came backstage to greet the artist. This dialogue ensued:

WOMAN: Herr Deller, you are... eunuch?
DELLER: Madam, I believe you meant to say "unique".

I imagine it wasn't the first or last time he had occasion to trot out that punchline. Well, why not? It's a pretty good line.

January 21, 2018

The unsettling innocence of Britten's "Midsummer" Fairies

As mentioned in last week's post, Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with the supernatural. Rather than delay the appearance of the fairies with a lengthy expository first act set in Athens (as in Shakespeare's play), the composer chose to plunge us immediately into a world of magic and spells and fanciful winged creatures.

"Fairy Twilight" (John Anster Christian Fitzgerald)
Forget every image you've ever had of fairies, from Tinkerbell to the Tooth Fairy to Pinocchio's Blue Fairy to the Dew Fairy in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (although, as we shall see below, Britten seems to have tipped his cap to the latter in a sly homage). Conventional "fairy music" is typified by the Overture to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music: delicate, ethereal and rapid, depicting tiny sprites darting here and there at lightning speed. Above all, they are cute. So are Britten's fairies obese and sluggish and repulsive?

No, no, and no! Puck boasts that he can "put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes"; let's see Tinkerbell beat that. And since children are generally cast as Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Mote, the cuteness angle is covered.

But Britten's music is as far removed from Mendelssohn's sound-world as sushi is from cotton candy. Listen to the orchestral introduction to Act 1. For opera lovers accustomed to Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, the music is fairly daunting: not exactly atonal, but odd, tuneless and non-functional. Unrelated major triads are connected by mysterious, sinewy glissandi in the strings.

The sound is primordial, primeval, unsettling. "Oh no", wails the conservative listener, "it's crazy modern music with no melody! Why, why, why?"

If that's your gut reaction, let me flip your sensibilities upside down. Remember, what takes place in this forest is a "dream" -  it's right there in the title!

And we dream when we're asleep.

And when we sleep, many of us....


Listen again. Sliding up, sliding down; sliding up, sliding down. Get it now?

The orchestra is snoring. The forest is snoring. You and I, and all the mortals who enter the forest, are asleep!!

Yes, it's unsettling - it's also funny! Once you get the "joke", you can't help but smile. But on to the fairies themselves.

There is a unison chorus of Tytania's fairies, singing of the life they lead:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green, etc.

These verses have proven popular with several composers. (The first line is actually used in "The Caisson Song", though I suspect any allusion to Shakespeare is unintentional.) It will be useful to contrast some settings with Britten's, to better understand what he was trying to achieve in his operatic version. Here are three choral settings worth noting; the links will take you to YouTube performances.

A. Ralph Vaughan Williams. This 1951 composition is lilting and graceful. However, the composer doesn't appear to have had fairies in mind as much as a jolly group of outdoorsy British men and women out for a tramp in the countryside. They sound... mortal.

B. J. L. Hatton. This British composer was a contemporary of Mendelssohn; his setting seems an attempt to emulate Mendelssohn's elfin lightness. But again; it's more a virtuoso choral vehicle than music suitable for a music drama.

Amy Beach, a gifted American composer with whom we should all be more acquainted, has a simply gorgeous and ethereal version imbued with grace and lyricism.

With all those more or less conventional settings in your ear, now go back to the Britten link above and listen to this "Over hill, over dale". (I begins about 90 seconds in.)

Big, big difference.

The descending and ascending scale-figures clearly remove these fairies from either the 19th-century world of Victorian Romanticism or the Disney ideal of winsome sweetness. Those scales mesh nicely with the "snoring" motion of the orchestra; we are still sleeping, still dreaming. Their vocal line is simple, yet the rhythm lacks symmetry and the phrases are irregular; the effect is slightly stringent and harsh, yet also full of child-like innocence.

As for Hansel and Gretel, I hear a veiled reference in this phrase of our fairies:

This is so similar to the Witch's "Hocus-pocus" spell in Humperdinck's opera that I doubt it's a coincidence, particularly as both operas deal with magic spells being cast in the forest.

The piquant off-beat charm of the fairies continues with this tune which is truly catchy despite harmonies that refuse to support "normal" tonality:

Humor, catchiness, charm - all of these qualities are assigned to the magic beings in Britten's Midsummer forest; yet the sound of them creates a highly original conception of what a "fairy" is. As we'll see, these beings are less cuddly than mischievous; less precious than weirdly innocent.

In coming posts, we'll examine the King and Queen of Fairyland, Oberon and Tytania.

Next week: what the lovers learn in their dreams

January 14, 2018

Nighty-night: Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

“I love the silent hour of night, For blissful dreams may then arise, Revealing to my charmed sight What may not bless my waking eyes.” (Anne Brontë)

“And sleep, that sometime shuts up sorrow's eye, Steal me awhile from mine own company.” (William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

“Dreaming gives a chance for your subconscious mind to work when your conscious mind is happily asleep. If I don’t sleep, I find that in the morning I am unprepared for my next day’s work… but dreams release many things which one thinks had better not be released.” (Benjamin Britten)

"Asleep" (Rupert Bunny)
Benjamin Britten joked that he chose Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the 1960
Aldeburgh Festival because it came with a ready-made libretto. It's funny because, in reality, transforming an Elizabethan play into a workable libretto is a complex task.

The truth is that, given Britten's track record of subject material, Midsummer was an entirely predictable choice; one that fit him to a T. Browse through the composer's catalogue of recent works, and one theme stands out:

The night.

Night time, with its companion themes of sleep and dreams, appears to have occupied a position somewhere between fascination and obsession with Benjamin Britten. Midsummer is the fourth major work written within a handful of years to deal with the subject, the other three being:
  • The Serenade, Op. 31 for tenor, horn and strings (1943). This is a cycle of six poems dealing with both romantic and disturbing aspects of the night by prominent British poets, framed by a prologue and epilogue for solo horn. The finale, a setting of an ode by Keats, clearly relates sleep with death, as indicated in the opening lines:
O soft embalmer of the still midnight! Shutting with careful fingers and benign Our gloom-pleas'd eyes, embower'd from the light, Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;

  • The opera The Turn of the Screw (1954) is a ghost story about a malevolent spirit, Peter Quint, who strives to possess the soul of a child named Miles. At one point, Quint calls out to Miles:

I am the hidden life that stirs
When the candle is out;
Upstairs and down, the footsteps
barely heard.
The unknown gesture, and the soft,
persistent word,
The long sighing light of the
night-winged bird.

  • Britten's Nocturne, Op. 60 (1958) is another song-cycle for tenor voice with chamber instrumental accompaniment. Like the Serenade, it consists of settings of poems by distinguished British poets exploring the by-now familiar theme of nocturnal musings. It ends with a sonnet of Shakespeare full of yearning and desire:
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me.

Britten's leanings toward night time, sleep and dreams affects his approach to the play. He dispenses with Shakespeare's first act, the scenes in which we meet the three groups of human characters (nobles, lovers and tradesmen) in the "wide-awake" real world of Athens. Instead, the composer chooses to have the curtain rise on those supernatural beings who dispense spells while we sleep, the fairies. Last to appear in the play,. Oberon, Tytania and their fairy retinue are the first on stage in the opera; we are immediately plunged into the eerily sleepy ambience of the woods, where drowsy young people hide from reality to resolve their various issues and conflicts.

This is where our idiom "Let me sleep on it" comes from; as Benjamin Britten posits in his quote at the top of this post, sleep is where our subconscious continues to work on our problems while we yield to the so-called REM stage of deep sleep. We've all experienced it.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is an amusing object lesson on the mysterious curative and healing powers of sleep.

December 21, 2017

How Cole Porter drew on Robert Schumann in "Kiss Me, Kate"

Virgnia Opera recently finished a seven-performance run of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West. It's no secret that a phrase in one of the opera's tenor solos seems to have been cloned in "Music of the Night", a big number in Lloyd-Webber's music theater behemoth, Phantom of the Opera.

Music history is filled with examples of melodies by one composer being duplicated by another. It seems to me there are three basic categories of such cloning:
Schumann: Küss mich, Kate!
  1. Outright plagiarism - always a taboo! 
  2. A deliberate homage, often executed with ironic intent; and
  3. An unintentional accidental "echoing". In this case, a composer might simply be undisciplined, failing to fully "vet" his inspiration to ensure that it's truly original. We musicians hear tens of millions of notes and thousands of musical phrases as we become familiar with a large body of compositions. They can influence the creative juices in ways not always registering in the conscious mind.
As an example I noticed only recently, let's consider the song "So in love" from the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

I think it's highly possible - even likely - that Porter was familiar with Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe and based the climactic phrase of "So in love" with a corresponding phrase from "Ich grolle nicht".

Here are the two passages in question.
First, the Schumann:
 Now, the Porter song:

There is an obvious connection the two; the phrase beginning "Decieve me, Desert me" in Porter is a virtual twin of the Schumann beginning at bar 23. In both, the vocal line climbs via a sequence of three phrases based on upward leaps of a perfect fifth, culminating with a dramatic high note. At that point, even the harmonization seems "suspiciously" familiar to Schumannites.

Would Porter have manufactured the same passage had "Ich grolle nicht" never been written?

Doubtful, says I.

So into which of my three categories would this particular bit of "cloning" fall: plagiarism, homage, or happy accident? A comparison of the two texts being set may indicate an homage.

In the phrase in question, the unhappy lover of Schumann's song says:
"I saw you truly in my dreams, and saw the night in your heart's cavity."
That seems fairly close to the complaint of Porter's character, who has been taunted, hurt, deceived and deserted. Takes a big old night-filled heart to do all that!

Finally, recall that Cole Porter was a cultured, classically-trained musician who played both violin and piano as a boy growing up in Indiana. It's a safe bet he had at least a nodding acquaintance with the great masters, Schumann included.

I find this kind of analysis interesting - obviously! I hope you do as well, but if not -


November 27, 2017

Let us now tell of sucky Thanksgivings Past

Thanksgiving Feast, 1973. Not pictured: yogurt

How was your Thanksgiving? Killer? Hope so. Mine was fine, if you don't count two 14-hour drives in the space of five days: Virginia to Illinois and back again. But the food was great, including a bunch of miniature pies in four different varieties.

I love pie. (Pro tip on whipped cream: a bit of confectioner's sugar and a dollop of rye whiskey added to the cream during whipping results in something AMAZING.)

Oh, and always spatchcock your turkey, people. It comes out moist and the cooking time is reduced to a fraction of what your parents experienced.

HOWEVER: don't we all have sad little stories of truly lame & sucky holidays in our pasts? Of course we do. So I will now relate two of mine for your, um, amusement. (One hopes.) They're both from my long-ago student days.

My undergraduate years were spent in Bloomington Indiana, where I majored in piano at what is now called the Jacobs School of Music at IU. Normally I'd have be-bopped up I-65 to my home in Evanston IL for Thanksgiving, but this particular year I had a junior recital looming; I really needed to stay and get some good practicing done.

That wasn't too dreary from my point of view; I'm a classic introvert anyway, so I was sort of looking forward to an empty apartment sans three roommates and a nearly-deserted Music Building. My folks had made sure I had the funds to see me through the break. "Ah!" I thought, "I can go to one of the town's really nice restaurants and order anything I want! Woo-hoo!"

Thanksgiving Thursday arrived. I hiked the few blocks from my apartment to the town square that is Bloomington's "downtown". The dining establishment I had in mind was Sully's Oaken Bucket. In the 70's it was one of those places a young man might take a co-ed on a fancy date. (I looked it up just now - it no longer exists.)

It was closed.

EVERY RESTAURANT IN TOWN WAS CLOSED. Even the burger joints. Geez, Bloomington, don't the actual residents ever eat out? This struck me then as infuriatingly irrational. It still does!

I walked and walked. Bloomington was suddenly a forbidding ghost town. No fancy dinner for me!

Well, the grocery store was open for business. Okay; I would head there then, and get ANYTHING I WANTED.... woo-hoo...

By now, however, the combination of hunger, frustration, disappointment and growing fatigue had put me in a bit of a mood. A little sour, a little impatient. (In my family, we refer to this state of mind as "the can't-help-its".)

I wandered up and down the aisles. Nothing looked good. Back in those now-distant days, grocery stores didn't have the artisanal gourmet items or the assortment of hot convenience foods that are commonplace today in our Age of the Foodie. No rotisserie chickens, no salad bar, and so on.

What to get, what to buy, what to eat?
Canned beef stew? Yuck
A "Swanson frozen TV dinner"? Yuck (Marie Callender and her ilk were unknown.)
Baloney and bread? How festive.
Ground beef? Oh sure, let me whip up a meatloaf. NOPE.

I'll tell you what my Thanksgiving dinner consisted of in the end.
Two cartons of cherry yogurt and a box of Mrs. Paul's frozen onion rings.


Jump forward in time to 1978. I had left Indiana with a Bachelor's and a Master's in my pocket to begin another academic adventure in pursuit of the D.M. in piano at Northwestern in my hometown of Evanston. Also, I was a newlywed, in such financial straits that we couldn't afford to take the holiday off. So on a frigid Thanksgiving morning I left our tiny apartment in Rogers Park, hopped on the El and made my way to the Burger King across the street from the Music Building.

During my employment there, I did a little of everything:
I worked the fries and drinks station;
I was in charge of the milkshake machine (we shall not speak of the time I filled it, turned it on, and forgot to attach the turning blades, resulting in a giant frozen block instead of a creamy liquid...)
I made the burgers. NOTE: in case you didn't know, at Burger King ketchup and mayonnaise are required as a matter of policy to be applied in neat little spirals, starting from the center of the burger and working outward. The trouble comes during the lunch rush, when making neat little spirals takes too long, in which case the worker splootches the crap on the meat like an assassin spraying bullets into a crowd.
I even drove all over Evanston one day buying hamburger buns at supermarkets because we ran out. The manager had forgotten to re-order them.
And I worked as cashier.

On this holiday, I was up front, taking orders from the public. I was expecting a slow, easy day with little traffic. So it was surprising and, yes, a little depressing that all my regulars came in as usual.

If you've ever worked in a fast-food joint, you know that you see the same faces popping up on a consistent basis. Surely, I thought, they're all at Grandma's house watching football, right?

Mais non, mes amis.

In they came, one after another, right at the usual time. I especially remember a tall dude with a crew cut and a pasty white complexion. Every SINGLE day he came in and ordered the SAME thing: two double Whoppers, plain (OMG) with two cartons of milk.

Up to the counter he came, his pale unshaven face betraying no holiday cheer. He ordered two double Whoppers, plain, and two cartons of milk.

As I made change, I was thinking, "Dude - put some cheese and onions on it! Get some onion rings! GET A DAMN APPLE PIE, IT'S FREAKING THANKSGIVING!"

But the customer is always right, so I held my peace. I guess he enjoyed them; I mean, he wouldn't keep getting them if he didn't enjoy them, right?

And I hope you enjoyed whatever you ate, even if you're only now crawling out of that food coma.