It was half-past New Year’s, and a quarter ‘til St. Patrick’s Day. Outside Tyranena Brewing Company it was dark as a suit closet and colder than the front door of a Catholic Church at a January confession. Inside, it was the middle of the second set, and hotter than Kingston Mines 1969. The Cash Box Kings were all lathered up.
I turned the fourth bar stool to face the band, and rested mug thirty eight on a coaster at the polished patch on the rail.
My standing request at those mid-winter gigs when the temperature struggles to see a single digit is Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Nine Below Zero.” White-ass Joe Nosek kicked off the classic with ten bars of half-hour whole-notes, fatter than the bottom-half of a bari sax. Mark Haines and CB Boeger, the world’s most dangerous rhythm section, were hanging off the back end of every beat, while Joel Paterson feathered in a flurry on Joe’s every inhale.
Out front, eyes closed, Oscar “The King of 43rd Street” Wilson, cradled the microphone and swayed. The barroom banter faded to a murmur when the big man raised his hand.
Yeah, ain't that a pity People ain't that a cryin' shame Ain't that a pity I declare it's a cryin' shame
Oscar gave Joel a dozen bars for a guitar break, then raised his hand and howled:
n-i-n-e below zero
And put me down for another man
Music starts at seven, with the intention of ending near ten. The early evening start is a remnant of the mid-2000’s, when Rob was the CEO, CFO, brewer, bottler, and bartender at Tyranena Brewing Company.
Best laid plans.
Joe usually kicks off I Ain’t Gonna Love that Woman by ten. After a bar-walking harp solo and a dozen improvised verses…
I ain’t gonna love that woman if it’s been ten long, lonely years,
I ain’t gonna love that woman if she says come on over daddy I got a big ole filet mignon with a twice-baked potato, hot melted butter, and a ten-year-old cognac.
I ain’t gonna love that woman if she says daddy-daddy-daddy I’m gonna rub your back just on that spot you love sooo much
Ned and Sarah had finally made it out of the barn and wormed their way through the throng of bearded hipsters, lake-dwelling flatlanders, and retired teachers. Princess Dianna could have arrived by white horse and carriage and I’d be clueless.
Sarah wrested her right hand, farmer strong and warm as a new mom, under my collar and squeezed to introduce me to a friend.
I could have melted through the grains in the grout.
The blues is feeling good about feelin’ bad.
It had been half-a-decade since I’d known affection in any physical form.
From that moment I fully understood the simple power of touch.
In the likeness of my mom, I’ve made it a mission to capture my own experiences to better understand the struggles that others face.
I’m blessed with two wonderful kids, a hundred fine friends, a cohesive staff, and a thousand clients in my practice. Since that day in ’08 I’ve met and married a wife and family I thank God for hourly. I’ll never forget the hellacious stretches. The empty of returning to a cold dark house after a twelve-hour day to find every light switch and sugar dish exactly where I’d left it.
I use those times and that snapshot from the brewery to try and appreciate the plight of the aged, widowed, and perpetually alone.
Loneliness: the distress caused by lack of satisfactory relationships. A hermit may not be lonely, if a cabin in the woods is truly of his choosing. Others might be lonely in the middle of Times Square if no one knows his name.
Every kiss begins with Kay
Anyone who’s ever spent their birthday, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or Valentine’s Day alone-in-spite-of-their-best-efforts knows the very sight of a jewelry commercial or a Victoria’s Secret catalog can trigger a brick-through-the-TV moment, or the urge to put a serious hurtin’ on a fifth of brown liquor.
Experts equate the physiological effects of loneliness to obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking fifteen cigarettes or six drinks a day, or worse. We can only surmise that all the above tend to compound. In a review of 148 independent studies on loneliness, covering more than 300,000 participants, Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University and colleagues found that greater social connection was associated with a 50% lower risk of early death.*
Research suggests that those who are isolated are at an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia, and that social relationships influence their blood pressure and immune function, as well as whether people take their medications.
My dad stopped taking his statins after his best-friend LeRoy Summers passed. A year later he had a catastrophic stroke.
The deleterious effects of loneliness are especially pronounced in the aging. Baby Boomers prized their independence and ended relationships at a greater rate than previous generations. Mounting challenges like mobility and balance make it difficult for folks to put themselves in social situations. Hearing and cognition loss can cause people to pull away.
There was a day when I could introduce dad to my friends Anita, May and Charlie Roy. I’d make the rounds and listen to the music while they talked on old cars and farm work. When his hearing failed and things got fuzzy, he’d lean against the door frame and stare in the band’s direction. Saturday nights at the Decatur Moose Lodge he’d cut an East Coast, West Coast, Western Swing or a Foxtrot. His toe never left the tile.
Experts say the key to diminishing the crisis is wisdom and awareness. If Troy Aikman and Joe Buck can talk about erectile dysfunction during a Dallas Cowboys game, we oughta be able to talk about isolation.
President Trump is working to establish faith-based cooperatives. Great Britain has appointed a Minister of Loneliness. The majority of Meals on Wheels’ 2.4 million annual recipients live alone and un-supported. Volunteers are being trained to recognize signs of distress. In Boston, a cluster of seniors in 2002 banded together to form a village so they could lean on each other for household services, social activities, and old-age planning. (Insert your favorite Pickle Ball and Viagra joke.) That’s spawned 350 chapters of what is now known as the Village to Village Network.
Over-fifty condominium complexes, senior apartments, assisted living centers, and clubs are forming in cities and towns of every demographic. A farm widow views moving to town as defeat. A husband thinks reaching out for assistance with his demented wife of fifty years as abandonment, or indignity.
Huddled in her full-length pea-green wool coat half-fastened with bobby pins and bailer twine, a shower cap tied under her chin, Elizabeth Poulsen brought Allen, her three-year-old uber charming Cocker Spaniel to the clinic for a once-over, and a distemper-lepto vaccine. By the time I had listened to Allen’s heart, looked in his ears, and done his ophtho exam, Mrs. Poulsen had launched into the third verse of her neighbor Harvey Spiegelhoff the national champion track racer, and his neighbor Gene Kelley who was a Navy Captain, and the German Shepherd she took to Dr. Smith, who told her to put the dog down, but then Dr. Stephan said, “just give it time, she’ll be ok…”
The next appointment had cancelled. There were four post-it prescription requests, two clients to call, and a pile of checks to sign on my desk. I stepped back and fumbled for the indentation in the pocket door. Twice I tried to get, “All right, Elizabeth, Danielle will take care of you up front,” in edgewise, but she was on to the green Ford LTD station wagon that dropped off the litter of kittens in her door yard in 1974.
Then I remembered Mittsy and Barb busting my dad out of his corner room at Lilac Springs Assisted Living to take him to their home for beef roast, beers, and to talk fishin’. Dad’s buddies Dick and Dave drove four hours from Illinois to take him to fish fry.
I slid the door shut, lowered my stool, and grabbed a handful of Charley Bears for Allen. Elizabeth pointed a gnarled knuckle, “And when you see Dr. Stephan, you ask him about Stormie. Now that Dr. Merry, he was a real vet, but you’d better do just exactly what he said, he was twenty-five years younger than my dad, but he’d listen to him…”
*It was during my final read-through I realized the irony. Dr. Holt-Lunstad is studying loneliness at a university founded by the leader of a religion that embraced polygamy.
**The title of this article is borrowed (ripped-off) from one of the finest albums ever recorded. Buddy Guy on an acoustic twelve-string and Junior Wells on harp.