Let me begin by discussing the worst thing Frank Sinatra ever did to music.
In 1957, so the story goes, Sinatra was recording an album called A Jolly Christmas With Frank Sinatra. One of the numbers he chose was “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the song with which Judy Garland slaughters thousands every time Meet Me in St. Louis comes on television. Sinatra went to the song’s composer, Hugh Martin, and asked him to jolly up the song’s penultimate lyric, “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow,” which is only the most important line in the whole damn song. Because nobody ever said no to Frank Sinatra, Martin took a walk and came up with the substitute lyric, “Hang a shining star atop the highest bough,” which Sinatra recorded and which, I am saddened to say, has become the almost universally accepted way to sing that song.
I’ve heard at least three new versions of that song by different people this season, and every damn one of them is a hanger, not a muddler. That is how you know how people have the true spirit of Christmas: they’re muddlers. Hangers are glib and shiny and all for show. Muddlers know the joy of getting through the raw, inconvenient humanity of the day. Maybe the baby was up sick all night. Or the pipes burst and you need a plumber on Christmas morning. (I am raising my hand right now.) Or the paycheck’s gone, and the plant’s shuttered, and you’re on the 94th week of unemployment, or, truth be told, you can’t get a room and you wind up sleeping in a stable with your pregnant wife. Bob Cratchit was a muddler. Muddlers know the triumph of surviving hard times with your charity and your joy all but battered, and yet somehow intact. Hangers shine, but they tarnish quickly. Take the time to work with a muddler, and you’ll see a stubborn glow.
There are a lot of muddlers in our country this Christmas time. Eight percent of us are officially unemployed. An untold percentage are both unemployed and beyond our ability to count. Our politics seem cheap and sour. Our dedication to doing anything greater than ourselves is truncated by the Procrustean limitations of economics and a desiccated American imagination. People look for work, day after day after day. The medical bills go on the credit card. The people who run Santa Claus agencies tell us that the two items most often asked for this season by the children who shuffle onto Santa’s lap are… socks… and food.
But there has been some stirring. It’s easy to dismiss the Occupy movement, especially now that so many of the encampments have been broken up for the moment. But there is in that strange, leaderless collection of political omnivores a very coherent sense that there is a direction in which the country ought to go that is manifestly different from the direction in which it seems to be heading. It is no longer a sense of drift. There is a goal there, hazy to be sure, far distant over a clouded horizon, but a place to move toward with genuine resolve. This is muddling in the finest sense of the word.