Cycles

Ups and downs and in-betweens


"So I'm down, and so I'm out, but so are many others.
Though I feel like trying to hide my head 'neath these covers."
— Gayle Caldwell, 1968


Did you ever have one of those weeks?

Or maybe more appropriate to the current state of affairs, one of those years?

This week was one of those for me. I had a looming client deadline that turned into more work than I anticipated, and I had to punt on the regular issue of my newsletter. I had some very late hours and needed to re-edit some material, and by yesterday, I was exhausted.

I was supposed to be leaving on a beach vacation next Friday, but that got canceled, for obvious reasons. So the anticipated break has turned into just an extension of what we’ve been dealing with since March.

Accompanied by the cycle of doom scrolling in which I seem to find myself, it just feels like it's difficult to get motivated these days. I know I'm not alone: we’re experiencing a pandemic-induced wave of anxiety, isolation, and burnout.

 

In some ways, it’s the frozen concentrate of our all-natural lives—a compressed, high-speed version of what happens over the course of a career or lifetime: faced with a new unalterable reality such as the end of a job or relationship or some other devastating loss, we're forced to deal with it. Our three choices are to ignore it, challenge it, or embrace it.

And as if Elisabeth Kübler-Ross were pressing the warp speed button, we find ourselves hurtling through space and time on the Grief Cycle, experiencing denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in record time.

The human psyche wasn’t designed for this kind of whipsaw lifestyle over an extended period of time.

Whether it’s managing an extended corporate crisis, being forced to live in refugee camps, or trying to survive with an abusive partner, there are limits to what we can endure. There’s a reason healthcare workers are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, some even dying by suicide.

 

Trying to snap out of it, I queued up Cycles, one of my favorite Frank Sinatra albums. It's not one of his more widely known albums, but the title song and the period in Frank's life when he recorded it tell a wonderful story about resilience amid life's struggles. We've discussed resilience in these parts before:

 

Resilience and Grace

 

By all measures, Frank Sinatra lived an enviable life. He was regarded as one of the best singers of the 20th century, he had money, friends, romances and more. But between his successes, he had some bouts with failure before reinventing himself again and again.

Sinatra began his singing career with the big bandleaders Harry James and then Tommy Dorsey. After a contentious contract dispute with Dorsey, he struck out on his own in 1943 and signed with Columbia Records. This was the era of bobby soxers—gaggles of screaming girls who made Sinatra's already powerful charisma take on superpowers.

Incidentally, during this time, Sinatra was widely known for wearing bow ties—ties which his wife Nancy handmade for him.

By the early 1950s, his career stalled and Frank and Nancy had divorced. His records weren’t selling and he couldn't fill the large auditoriums where he was booked. So, Frank headed to Las Vegas to try the casino/nightclub scene and form the Rat Pack. He married Ava Gardner.

And he pitched himself hard for the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, convinced that he was born to play the part and that it would revive his career. He was right, of course. He received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and his singing career found new life under Capitol Records.

 

But these changes were ephemeral. He and Gardner divorced in 1957 and the next year he released Sinatra Sings Songs for Only the Lonely, filled with self-reflective ballads such as “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “It’s a Lonesome Old Town,” and “Willow Weep for Me.” He left Capitol in 1962 after forming his own label, Reprise Records.

The mid-60s saw vintage Sinatra teaming up with Count Basie and Nelson Riddle, appearing at the Newport Jazz Festival, celebrating his 50th birthday, and releasing the reflective September of My Years, which earned him a Grammy as Album of the Year. By 1966, he was married to Mia Farrow, a relationship that would last only until 1968.

And that brings us to Cycles.

Once again, we find the reflective Sinatra that we saw in 1965. It's a quiet album—no swinging big brass and horns. Many of them are folk songs, but they’re deeper and Sinatra's rendering shows us someone who has seen something of love; who has worked at it, lost it, and searched for it again.

The tenderness in “Little Green Apples” shows someone who understands the value of unconditional love and the importance of the little gestures we make for those we care about. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is a heart-wrenching ballad of love lost, and the pain both parties endure upon a breakup.

But it’s the title song “Cycles” that always speaks to me. It’s a powerful reminder that when we’re tempted to allow self-pity to rule our thinking, we’re not alone, and it’s a temporary reality. Click that link and listen along:

So I’m down, and so I’m out,
But so are many others.
Though I feel like trying to hide
My head ‘neath these covers.

Life is like the seasons:
After winter comes the spring.
So I'll keep this smile a while
And see what tomorrow brings.

I’ve been told and I believe
That life was meant for living.
And even when my chips are low
There’s still some left for giving.

I’ve been many places —
Maybe not as far as you.
So I think I’ll stay a while
And see if some dreams come true.

There isn’t much that I have learned
Through all my foolish years
Except that life keeps running in cycles:
First there’s laughter… then those tears.

But I’ll keep my head up high
Although I’m kinda tired.
My gal just up and left last week;
Friday…I got fired.

You know, it’s almost funny
But things can't get worse than now.
So I’ll keep on trying to sing
But please…just don't ask me now.


The song has been covered many times, but there’s something about Sinatra’s version that gets me. The crack in his voice (intentional) when he sings “kinda tired” and “I got fired” is subtle but powerful, as it comes from a man who’s lived a full life and has experienced ups and downs—especially when you consider this was the same year in which his third marriage ended.

Sinatra's rendition conveys a lifetime of sorrow and resilience, revealing a man who knows defeat is transient and still manages to have a spirit of generosity through it all.

 

Another figure who knew something of sorrow, loss, and the need to soldier on was the writer and humorist Don Marquis (1878-1937). He wrote 35 books, newspaper columns, poems and plays, and created the characters Archy and Mehitabel, for whom E.B. White had nothing but effusive praise.

Marquis came to my attention again when my podcast co-host mentioned that our recording date next week coincides with Marquis' birthday. That sent me over to the web to refresh my memory about the man and his life.

 

A brief look at the timeline of his life made my heart ache for him. Here's a humorist, in the shadow and spirit of Mark Twain, who had a lifetime of pain and sorrow. Consider the following elements from his life:

1909 - Married Reina
1915 - Mother died, son Robert was born
1918 - Daughter Barbara was born
1921 - Son Robert died
1923 - Reina died
1931 - Barbara died

Poor little Bobby died at the age of six. Don was widowed two years later, leaving him to raise a five year-old daughter—a girl who would die just a few years later at 13.

Consider the pain that this man must have endured during that decade. We've got a six year-old and a 14 year-old (as well as a nearly 17 year-old). Last year they were the ages of the Marquis children at their death. To lose one child is devastating; losing both children would leave me inconsolable.

 

And yet, we find our inner strength, we lean on those we love, and we practice our faith as we believe. This is the story of Joe Biden, whose first wife and three children were in a horrific car accident; his wife and one year-old daughter died. His older son Beau later died of cancer.

The true measure of a person is not how they act in times of triumph, prosperity and joy, but in how they respond to failure, loss and sorrow.

 

Richard Nixon knew the depths of failure and loss, but he was aware of his flaws. In making his final remarks as president before leaving the Oval Office following his resignation, he said:

“The greatness comes not when things go always good for you. But the greatness comes when you're really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes. Because only if you've been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

His was a very public fall from grace, but he accepted the consequences of his actions and sought no sympathy.

We all struggle from time to time; there's no shame in sharing that. In doing so, we find we have more in common that we think. And that we're all working through our own cycles.

There isn't much that I have learned
Through all my foolish years
Except that life keeps running in cycles:
First there's laughter… then those tears.

 

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.