Friday, November 28, 2014

Alan Price – "O Lucky Man!" (1973)

If you've got the secret
Just try not to blow it
Stay a lucky man!

A couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post Magazine featured a short story by Alice McDermott titled "Gloria," which was about a Thanksgiving dinner that was similar in many ways to the one at my house earlier today.  Click here to read that story.

Alice McDermott
The host of the fictional dinner in "Gloria" was a successful man named Richard.  The dinner was attended by his adult children and grandchildren:

They were a happy family.  His children, and their children were thriving.

Before everyone began to eat, Richard rose to give a Thanksgiving toast, a "sentimental (and, yes, self-congratulatory) enumeration of their many talents, triumphs [and] joys."

Richard ended his toast by saying, "We are truly blessed" – which was not what he had planned to say:

He had intended to say "lucky," even to rap his knuckles on the table as he spoke.  But he said "blessed" instead.

Richard is seated next to his son Ryan's fiancée, a poised and beautiful young woman named Gloria whom he has only recently met.  Once everyone has had his or her fill of turkey, the grandchildren are allowed to leave the table and play in the family room while the dishes are cleared and dessert is prepared.  

During this interval between dinner and dessert, Richard learns that when Gloria was only 13, her mother began to show signs of early-onset Alzheimer's.  Her father eventually quit his job so he could care for her himself in their home.

When Gloria was a junior in college, her father died from a heart attack while making breakfast for her mother.  Most people attributed his heart attack to the stress of caring for his wife.  

After her father's death, Gloria dropped out of college temporarily so she could care for her mother: "I couldn't give her to strangers, either," she explains.

Gloria talks about what good, kind people her parents were – and explains why she is an only child:

They wanted to have a pack of kids, but things didn't work out.  My mother lost four babies before she had me.

Next, she questioned Richard's use of "blessed" in his pre-dinner toast:

I don't understand people who think they have been blessed.  That God somehow favors them because they're good people, or they worked hard.  My parents were good people who worked hard.  They deserved to grow old together, to see their grandchildren. . . . But I guess we weren't blessed the way you guys are, by whoever it is who does the blessing.

Ryan agrees with his future wife, opining that his family – in particular, his father – may be "too self-satisfied about their own good fortune, too oblivious to the troubles of others."  He tells his father, "You did sound kind of smug."

Later, as Richard's youngest granddaughter sits quietly in his lap, he sees Gloria watching the two of them.  She's smiling, "but with a certain arrogance":

As if her sorrow had made her prescient.  As if she saw the end of his luck somewhere, if not in his own fortunate life then in his children's, his children's children's.  As if she understood, but he did not, that it would take no more than a breath, a loosened blood clot, a bad gene – the cold work of some invisible hand, striking unexpectedly from out of darkness – to put an end to it all, his happiness, his complacency, his many blessings.

Owen Freeman's illustration for "Gloria"
Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday.  We host Thanksgiving dinner every year, and we always have a good-sized crowd.  Today, there were a total of 20 of us in attendance – three of my four kids (plus two of their spouses), assorted in-laws, and a half-dozen nieces and nephews.

I'm the Richard of the family, so it falls to me to make brief pre-dinner remarks every year.  Usually those remarks are sort of half-toast, half-prayer.

Like Richard, I've used the word "blessed" in my Thanksgiving remarks.  

I believed I'm blessed, but not because I've done something to deserve my blessings – to the contrary.  I suffer at times from arrogance, and complacency, and smugness.  But I'm not so arrogant and complacent and smug to think that I've earned the blessings I've been given.  

Humility may not be my strong suit, but I can't feel anything except humility when I think about the extraordinary gifts I've been given – above all else, my four children.  I fall so far short of deserving them that I would have to be the world's biggest fool to think otherwise.

In the story, Richard intended to say "lucky," but said "blessed" instead.  His choice of words matters because "it was a toast he had stood to offer, a Thanksgiving toast.  No one had asked him for a prayer."  

I agree that "blessed" implies that your good fortune has come from God, while "lucky" lacks any religious connotation.  

But other than that difference, I think the words are interchangeable.  I might describe myself as either "blessed" or "lucky" to express the same important truth – which is that I have been given much more than I deserve to have been given.  

I don't know why that is.  But I do know that I can't count on that good fortune to continue, because things can change in an instant.  

By the end of "Gloria," Richard is less complacent than he was at the beginning of the story.  After hearing the story of Gloria's life, he appreciates that all it takes is "a loosened blood clot, a bad gene . . . to put an end to it all."  

Gloria has already learned that lesson the hard way.  Richard will no doubt have a similar experience sooner or later.  

But for the time being, Richard and his family have been spared the kind of sadness that Gloria has experienced.  Perhaps as a result of his conversation with Gloria, his is more appreciative of his blessings – or his luck, if you prefer.  Perhaps I am more appreciative as well for having read the story.

"O Lucky Man!" plays during the opening credit sequence of the 1973 movie of the same name.  Alan Price, who is best-known for his extraordinary keyboard work on the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," wrote and performed the score for the movie.  

Contrary to Price's lyrics, there's no "secret" that enables you to "stay a lucky man."  Luck comes and goes as it pleases, boys and girls.  

Here's "O Lucky Man!":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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