The dawn of a new year is an opportune time for each of us to take stock of our lives, a time to reflect on our accomplishments, our misdeeds, our trespasses and those SOBs who trespassed against us. It’s a time for rejuvenation, resolution and, quite possibly, revenge. It’s a time for forgiveness, reparations and promises to live a better life.
For many, it’s a time to get rip-roaring drunk or to participate in odd, ethnic traditions and indulgences that frequently necessitates getting rip-roaring drunk. In their own peculiar ways each of these celebratory acts are performed in the hopes for a better future, greater success and good health.
These acts also serve to make us realize that each year we’ve left behind could have been a helluva lot better.
Of course, that just applies to most of us. The one percent couldn’t have had a better year because they can finally—after so many years of deprivation—afford better champagne now that they can write off their private jets.
In much of the Spanish-speaking world a dozen grapes are eaten in the first minute of the New Year and the color of the underwear you’re wearing at that moment will somehow hold sway over your future. In Ecuador scarecrows are crafted to look like politicians and then are burned. (If memory serves, I think we tried that with Nixon in 1972.) In Denmark, people break dishes against the doors of their neighbors and then rush home to leap into the New Year by jumping off chairs. In parts of Italy, people hurl old furniture and appliances from their apartment balconies onto the streets below. This, by the way, is from the very same folks whose ancestors brought us the Renaissance and taught the French how to cook.
The Scots imbibe vast quantities of scotch, march in parades swinging balls of fire, and welcome dark-haired strangers bearing gifts of coal and salt, but won’t open the door for the fair-haired for fear that they might be Vikings come to do horrible Viking things. In Romania folks take to the streets dressed as goats, horses or bears and dance, presumably fueled by whatever it is that Romanians drink.
Because America earned its reputation as a melting pot of the world’s people, we don’t have a single, shared New Year’s tradition, although if push came to shove, it possibly could be narrowed down to college football, watching the giant ball drop on Time’s Square or wearing party hats and blowing hard enough into the mouthpiece of a noisemaker to unfurl a paper tube into somebody’s eye. Yeah, boy, the Scots got nothin’ on us when it comes to partying down.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, in preparation for the secular New Year, Americans with access to media are subjected to endless offerings of Top Ten lists. I’m not sure of the purpose of these lists that reflect only the purview of a single writer, editorial board or marketing specialist seeking improved brand recognition, but they’re harmless enough and they might be handy if you’re wondering which movie to watch, restaurant to patronize or drain cleaner to flush.
At this time of year, I tend to favor year-in-review compilations and end-of-year polls, of which there is no shortage. The first offer capsulized first drafts of history; the second, no matter its range or scope, a sense of what the average American—the Common Man, if you will— is thinking.
The Gallup poll of America’s most admired people was released this past week. Not surprisingly, Barack Obama placed first. By most accounts, the former President has many admirable qualities. He is well-spoken, erudite, elegant in manner and possessive of compassion for the plight of others. Donald Trump, who placed second, is none of those things, unless another’s plight might be one suffered only by billionaires. How he placed at all will forever confound me.
But what I found most telling about the Gallup poll was that about nine percent of the respondents name a relative or friend as the man they admire most, while thirteen percent do the same for women.
It is both refreshing and comforting to note that Mom, Dad, Uncle Jack and Aunt Betty, BFFs Patrick and Patricia are those who have earned and maintain the respect of the Common Man.
And it is the Common Man—without regard to age, color, national origin, citizenship status, physical or mental disability, race, religion, creed, gender, sex or sexual orientation—we need to honor. But then I’m a progressive liberal.
The Common Man is that person who holds no high office or particular influence. He (she) works hard at jobs that provide services and goods that are vital and essential that most of us don’t think much about. They pay the bills and their taxes from what they earn as they collect the garbage, build the houses, balance the ledgers, service the cars, clean the rooms, assist the shopper, stock the shelves, grow the food, pave the roads, pour the drinks, haul the goods, flip the burgers, lade the ships, tend the sick, defend the innocent, counsel the troubled, minister the grieving, bury the dead.
The Common Man serves on the school board or the city council. He (she) serves in the military, leads a scout troop, bakes for the PTA, volunteers at the shelter, collects clothes for the needy, docents at the museum, sings in the choir, coaches Little League, fund-raises for many a good cause, shovels the neighbor’s walk, packs the kids’ lunches, finds their mittens, and helps them to tie their shoes.
Aaron Copland, the fine and celebrated American composer, received a commission from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1942 to compose a piece. Copland was inspired by a speech he’d heard by Henry A. Wallace, an Iowa-born Republican who served as vice president during FDR’s third term and went on to form the Progressive Party. That speech envisioned the dawn of the “Century of the Common Man” and led Copland to write a simple, moving fanfare for brass and percussion.
I believe that “Fanfare for the Common Man” should be our national anthem.
Unlike the current anthem, a melodramatic poem celebrating a battle victory set to an impossible-to-sing tavern melody, Copland’s piece is wordless. Its bright tones and percussive emphases evoke chilling emotion and inspire celebration. Stand, salute, kneel, hold hands, raise a fist…each works in honor of the Common Man.
Personally, I’d be okay with “American, the Beautiful” as a replacement for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I like the lyrics, especially as they refer to this land’s natural beauty which is being eroded through greedy exploitation. But the song should never be sung by anybody other than Ray Charles.
Meatloaf for the Common Man
Meatloaf might be the quintessential American dinner staple. Everybody’s mother makes or made the best ever. My mother did not, however. She made an oddly insipid one with Swiss cheese and green peppers that was served cold. We called it discomfort food. The following is my favorite.
1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 cups yellow onions, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ tsp. dried thyme leaves
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs. Worcestershire sauce
1/3 cup chicken stock
1 Tbs. tomato paste
2 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1/2 cup plain dry bread crumbs
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup ketchup
Preheat the oven to 325º.
Heat the olive oil in a medium sauté pan. Add the onions, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent but not brown. Off the heat, add the Worcestershire sauce, chicken stock, and tomato paste. Allow to cool slightly.
In a large bowl, combine the ground chuck, onion mixture, bread crumbs, and eggs, and mix gently. Shape the mixture into a rectangular loaf on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Spread the ketchup evenly on top. Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. Allow to rest at least 10 minutes before slicing.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska