Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Silent Night

A friend/coworker of mine recently wrote on her Web site a long, detailed account of what it was like to experience Christmas while growing up Catholic. Another good friend, JB--one of my oldest and dearest friends, in if truth be fully told--read that account and agreed with much of its detail.

My holidays had no such structure. Mom was a "lapsed Catholic"--a necessity, as Dad had been married and divorced before and the Church frowned upon such unions. So we never went to Christmas Eve mass or sang carols with the choir or any such community activity.

Instead, we had simple rituals. We'd open our presents Christmas Eve morning, amassing enormous piles of wrapping paper and bows for the (many) cats to savage. Then, Christmas Day, we'd go visiting. Grandma lived in a small cottage off of Western Avenue in Bucktown--a ten-minute bus ride on a good day, a half-hour walk on a bad one. Mom would bring dinner. If we were lucky, it was just ham or turkey. But if we were truly unfortunate, it was the kidney stew that took hours to cook and made the whole house smell like a sweaty foot. And Grandma would spend most of the time offering her food to me, my brother and her cats.

Mom and Grandma would spend much of the time bitching at one another. Grandma was a master packrat, saving the likes of toilet paper rolls and empty cat food cans in drawers, under dressers, etc. And Mom would go on continuous "search-and-destroy" missions, throwing out the salvaged bits of plastic wrap and the wrapping paper carefully preserved from the previous Christmas and whatever else she could find. (Yes, theirs was a complicated relationship, and my mother has, in her later years, become much more like Grandma than she'll ever admit.)

After such frolic, the family (minus Grandma, who had badly swollen legs and rarely left her cottage) would walk over to the house of some family friends who also lived in Bucktown. They often had large gatherings on Christmas Day, with children tearing through the house while adults stood in clusters, beers in hand, telling dirty jokes and laughing about how much bigger the kids were this year than they were last. And every year, the family friends would set up the coolest Christmas tree on the planet: a tall, wide aluminum tree with a color wheel rotating at its base, making the whole living room sparkle in blue, then red, then yellow, then its natural silver. (Try going into a hipster vintage store these days and buying an aluminum tree; if there's anything left in your wallet when you walk out, I'd be damned surprised.)

Our tree, by comparison, seemed downright frumpy. Mom always picked out a nice "live" tree (as "live" as any tree that's been cut off at its trunk, stuffed in a truck and sold in a grocery store parking lot could ever be), but then attacked it with lights, beads, tinsel and ornaments until the tree itself was no longer visible to the naked eye. Our cats still managed to find it, though, swatting at the lower branches and knocking loose glass balls or unlucky angels.

One year, my own personal cat, a Russian Blue who never did have a proper name beyond Gray Cat (a long story for another time) and managed to live to be 20, clambered up the middle of the tree and, being surrounded by a veritable fortress of festive decoration, couldn't quite make good her escape before Mom, returning home from her job at the plastics factory, stared into the center of the tree, only to find it staring right back at her. (All of our cats were declawed shortly thereafter.)

We followed this routine, year in and year out, through bountiful holidays when we young ones got whatever toys we'd pleaded for (like the Mego Fonzie doll with "thumbs-up" action, or the huge rubber gorilla that my brother later operated on with a very, very sharp knife) and through lean holidays with gifts wrapped in aluminum foil and the mistletoe-accented carton of Salems waiting for Dad under the decoration-clotted pine.

But years passed, as years have a way of doing, and things changed, as things always must. The mom-half of the family friends passed away, and the dad-half, some time later, remarried (to her twin sister--yeah, that sounds weird, but they're happy to this day, so who am I to say shit?) and moved to Iowa. Grandma died not that long after, and the little cottage was gutted by fire the following February.

So we just spent the holiday with ourselves, worried that each would be the last with Dad who, after too many years of too many beers and almost as many cartons of Salems, was in fragile health, with his heart rebelling every few months or so and his kidneys trying their damnedest to give notice as well. For Christmas in 1994, I gave Dad a couple of CDs: Hank Williams' Greatest Hits (Hank Sr., NOT Hank Jr.) and a collection of songs by Johnny Cash. Dad was from Alabama, so country music had always filled our house. And since Dad couldn't get out much anymore--he walked with an aluminum cane, and just making it to the end of the block was a chore--he'd often just rest in bed, Hank Sr.'s voice warbling out "Your Cheatin' Heart," singing my father to sleep.

Those CDs wound up being the last Christmas gifts I gave Dad. He died the following June.

Now, the routine is simple: Go to Mom's house Christmas Day, spend a few hours petting the cats and hugging her when she cries because she misses her husband and her mother, and head back north with a bag full of leftover ham or turkey (never kidney stew). I walk up the three flights to my apartment, shoo the Girlish Girls out of the way on my way in, and head for the living room, where I turn on the red pepper lights and the small, fake pine tree Grandma always had in her window. Then I light a candle, say something as close to a prayer as an avowed agnostic can manage, and feed the Girls before they attempt to gnaw off my leg.

And, usually, I sit in the dark for a while, letting the red glow of the pepper lights duke it out with the twinkle of the tree and the unsteady flicker of the flame. Maybe I'll spend a few minutes contemplating the years already passed and the one about to join them in memory. Or maybe I'll feel like I'm being a fucking drama queen, blow out the candles and surf the Web for porn. But in those few minutes in the not-quite-dark, memories will come and go, and I'll either laugh to myself or cry to myself, all the while petting Lottie and Ms. Christopher, who no doubt concluded long ago that their guardian is either an idiot or a weirdo--or, most likely, both.

But when all is done and said, I can't complain too much. I'm alive, employed, and blessed with wonderful, eloquent friends. No, things aren't what they used to be and can never be so again, for bad or good. And no, things aren't as good as they can get. Not yet, anyway. But things aren't too bad over all. And that's good enough for me.

Happy holidays, people, and peace in the approaching New Year.

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

'Tis the Season to Be Snarly

My regular readers--all, um, five of you--may be wondering what crawled up my butt and died this holiday season. It's fair to ask. After all, I'm healthy, employed and blessed with great friends. What do I have to be so pissy about?


Part of it is just my personality. I can be, as has been noted by more than one friend, moody as hell. And when I get in one of my "moods," I can be a chore to deal with. This personality "quirk" is only enhanced by Christmastime, which can be a time of great emotion even if you're not an emotionally unstable freak monkey.

But it's not just that. My Christmas spirit--what little of it I can find under the microscope, anyway--has taken some hits, including last year, when I was compelled to take down my holiday decorations at work. It wasn't just that I was asked to remove the "Sandy Claws" Jack Skellington figure (with matching Sally, of course) and the tin windup Santa and the Pez dispensers from the top of my cubicle wall. That was bad enough, especially considering that many of my co-workers had commented on how much they enjoyed the, er, festive nature of the display. But what made it worse was that the company higher-up who had the problem with the decorations made my supervisor, who had no problem with what I'd set up, do the dirty work and make me take it all down.

This wasn't even the first time such a thing had happened to me at work. At a previous job, the company president complained to one of my supervisors (again, not directly to me) that the red pepper lights I had strung in my work cave were "too much." And he told said supervisor this loud enough for me to hear it. Before the supervisor was even out of her office, I'd literally torn the red pepper lights down. And I would have taken all of my decorations--including the 3-ft. artificial tree loaded with ornaments--home that day if not for the fact that it would have been an enormous pain in the ass to do so.

Am I being overly sensitive about this? Probably so. Work is work, and I'm certainly not required to be the "holiday morale officer" in the office, even though the company I currently work for is so devoid of seasonal cheer that we don't do a tree or menorah or really anything. (We do have a wreath in the lobby, but I'm not sure whether we bought that ourselves or whether the building we work in provided it for us.) But decorating my cubicle helped get me in the mood for shopping and singing and drinking myself stupid (like it takes much to get me to do that or to make me stupid). And this year, aside from Rudolph and Clarice action figures flanking my work iMac, my cube is bereft of holiday cheer.

So I'm trying to pull myself together on the home front, lighting pine-scented candles from Walgreen's (which have the price listed as ".99¢," which would literally mean that they cost less than a penny; as a co-worker pointed out to me, though, bring this up as an issue with the checkout clerk would likely get me maced, and that's not very festive, now is it?) throughout the apartment, turning on the pepper lights and the tiny lighted fake tree on my end table, and cranking up the tunes on my CD player.

Among the holiday-themed CDs getting the most work this year:

THE VENTURES' CHRISTMAS ALBUM. Holiday standards recast into a surf-guitar-rock motif sound surprisingly fresh. And it's really short (as are most holiday CDs by specific artists), so it amounts to an audio snack.

THE MOST FABULOUS CHRISTMAS ALBUM EVER. The title is a vast overstatement, but this CD does feature some signature tunes, including Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," Perry Como's remarkably snarky "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" and Guy Lombardo's "Auld Lang Syne."

BOOKER T. & THE MGs: IN THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. Just as the Ventures recast traditional songs in their style, so R&B legends Booker T. & the MGs do here, with Booker's keyboard work (on both piano and organ) complementing the guitar play of Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn (both of whom later played in the Blues Brothers Band). Their cover of "White Christmas" is downright beautiful, and the whole album manages to be respectful and playful at the same time.

SWINGIN' CHRISTMAS. It begins with Louis Prima, end with Louis Armstrong and has lots of jumpin' and jivin' in between to a holiday sandwich that's truly tasty.

ELLA FITZGERALD'S CHRISTMAS. The oddball in my Christmas collection, as I'm agnostic and all of the songs on this CD are religious. But Ella's voice makes them special and effective, and the arrangements are straightforward and simple rather than overly jazzy. A beautiful album.

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. Just about everyone I know owns this one. And if any one of them ever claimed to have never done the Snoopy Dance around their living room, I'd call 'em a liar.

There are a couple of other CDs I've been spinning of late, but I'll talk about them another time. And there are holiday movies that I favor; these, too, will be discussed at another time.

The whole point, though, is this: I'm trying. I really am. I may be trying too hard or not hard enough, but I'm making the effort to get into the spirit of the season. And maybe those efforts will pay off. Maybe.

For now, though...I'd better get cracking on those Christmas cards, hadn't I? Less than three weeks to go...

Monday, November 26, 2001

When Reindeer Attack!

Okay. Thanksgiving has now come and gone. So now I must accept the things I cannot change: Christmastime is indeed upon us. I like Christmas. Truly, I do. But some years, I'm just not in the mood for it, especially when it gets rammed down my throat like it did this year. So I'm trying to ease into it. I listened to holiday CDs Thanksgiving morning (more on these next week). I watched Miracle on 34th Street Thanksgiving evening at Mom's house.

And I decorated my apartment. Somewhat.

I battle myself annually over the issue of how much decoration to put up in the happy (heh) home. Some years, I dig up the full-sized fake pine tree and use every ornament in the storage container--carousel horses and angels and glass balls and cartoon characters like Superman and Batman and the Tick (SPOON!) and Ren & Stimpy and Pinky & the Brain and I think you get the damn idea so I'd better stop now while I can.

Other years, I give in to my less cheerful impulses and decide that it won't matter what I put up because nobody will see the decorations except for me and the cats so there's really no point, right?

This year, I split the difference. I brought out the smallest tree that I own--the 18-inch-high lighted tree that Grandma kept in her center living room window for year--and stood it on an end table. Then I untangled the string of red chili pepper lights and hung them over the three living room windows. And finally, I decorated the tin dollhouse (a remnant of my mother's youth) with various festive figures, like 50-year-old angel ornaments and a Father Christmas figurine (hand-painted by me when I was inclined to be artistic). But most of the figures placed in, on and around the tin dollhouse were from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I'm not exactly sure why I've always had such an affinity for Rudolph above all other holiday specials. Maybe it's because it first aired the year I was born (1964, if you must know). Maybe it's a matter of civic pride, since the original story on which the song (and, subsequently, the TV special) was based came from an ad writer at Montgomery Ward's, the late, great department store chain that was based out of the Windy City. (Its former corporate headquarters still says "WARDS" in huge white letters.)

But most likely, I like Rudolph for the same reason I like Edward Scissorhands and the movies of Ed Wood. I like outsiders. I root for underdogs. And it's always coolest when the class nerd saves the day.

The special itself still retains its uplifting message, even when viewed as a jaded adult, but some of its elements do seem bizarre now. For instance, I understand the other reindeer giving Rudy shit for his glowing nose. Kids will seize on whatever abnormality they can--thick glasses, crooked teeth, a radioactive schnoz--to make fun of in order to feel some sense of superiority, of power, of not being as much of a freak as the geek with the neon nostrils.

But why are the adults so skeeved? Rudolph's dad, Donner (which should be "Donder," by the way, he said in his most superior, snooty, know-it-all voice possible), is horrified the first time he gets a look at his kid's "blinkin' beacon" and covers it with mud. And Santa comes right out and says that Rudolph's nose disqualifies him from ever pulling his sleigh. But why? His nose doesn't inhibit his ability to fly. Why, Santa, why?

There's only one answer, boys and girls: Santa Claus is a bigot.

That's right. You heard me. Old Kris Kringle, the King of Jingling himself, is the Archie Bunker of the Arctic Circle. And he proves it himself when, during the reindeer inspection, he rejects Rudolph even after the little buck flies his fuzzy little Dynamagic butt off when the adorable doe Clarice tells him she thinks he's "cute." (Funny, I react the same way when women tell me that.) Santa doesn't give a reason for his rejection. He doesn't have to. He's Santa-Fuckin'-Claus, Baybee! Rudolph is different, and that's enough.

Of course, being an outsider has its benefits. Rudolph winds up making all kinds of strange (but wonderful) friends, like Clarice, who sings Rudy a heart-felt song about how "there's always tomorrow for dreams to come true" (with rabbits and raccoons singing backup) even though she's only known him for, like, five minutes; Hermie, the elf with the oral fixation; Yukon Cornelius, the most half-assed prospector who ever lived (and who has a blue poodle in his dogsled team); and most heart-wrenching of all, all the inhabitants of the Island of Misfit Toys.

I thought I belonged there. I still think I do.

Rudolph triumphs in the end, naturally. He leads Santa's team (bet that nose is looking mighty tasty now, huh, Mr. Bigot in the Big Red Suit?), Hermie gets his own dentist office, Yukon lands a peppermint mine (highly lucrative, given all the candy canes that need to be made), the Misfit Toys all get homes and Sam the Snowman sings the title song.

And then there's the Abominable Snow Monster, who looks like about 12 miles of hairy ass to an adult viewer, but is one of the most scary things every to crawl over a mountain to a five-year-old hunkered down on the living room rug, staring up at the big black-and-white Zenith console in mingled wonder, awe and fear. The "Bumble" gets his teeth yanked out and is good for little more than placing the star atop the tree without a ladder, but at least he's reformed and lives out his life eating baby foot and getting poked at by sharp sticks by the emboldened elves...

Okay, I made that last bit up. But that'll happen when you've spent way too much time in the so-called "Real World," and not nearly enough time on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Would Ye Like a Turkey Leg?

In a skit on this past Saturday's Saturday Night Live, Martha Stewart (as played by the adorable Ana Gasteyer) suggested that this year, after the evens of the past couple of months, Thanksgiving should be combined with elements of the Fourth of July to form a flag-waving feast of epic proportions. "Martha" then gave tips for how to incorporate patriotism into the festivities (example: cooking a bald eagle instead of a turkey) and ended the scene by dancing about in a bikini top to a Britney Spears tune (don't ask).

I bring up this skit, which was an amusing island in the great, expansive sea of suck that SNL has become, because it does bring up a valid point. This year's Thanksgiving will be unlike any other we've seen. Unlike the Thanksgiving after Pearl Harbor, when the memory of the attack was nearly a year old, we're just a couple of months along from the events of September 11. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the downed airliner in Pennsylvania (which everybody seems to forget--everybody except the friends and families of those who died, that is) are still fresh wounds on our collective psyche. So we might be a bit more serious at the dinner tables this year.

We might also take into consideration what this holiday is meant for: remembering all that for which we should be grateful. And despite the terrible events of the fall of 2001, there are some things in my life for which I would like to give thanks: I'm thankful for my friends--like JB, Andy, Junebug, Praxx, Red Secretary, Embee in Da Burgh and the Fluffies in Michigan--who remind me regularly that I am loved and worth loving;

I'm thankful that my friends and family are relatively safe and relatively healthy this year;

I'm thankful for my employers: yeah, I don't always like my job (who the fuck does?), but at least I still have a job, unlike many of my comrades;

I'm thankful for my cats, Lottie and Ms. Christopher, who sit beside my head at six every morning and chorus their disapproval at the empty state of their bowl in the kitchen and somehow manage to make this activity cute and endearing instead of maddening and enraging;

I'm thankful for this Web site, which helps to keep me sane...well, sort of;

And, finally, I'm thankful for being alive. As long as I have a pulse, life has a chance to get better.

Have a happy and safe Turkey Day. Or, if you're Ana Gasteyer as Martha Stewart, have a happy and safe Steaming Bald Eagle Day. And save some cranberry sauce for me, won't you?

Sunday, November 11, 2001

"O Christmas Tree..." Oh, Shut Up.

On the Sunday after Halloween, as the sun slipped down below the tree line and darkness rose up in its place, I looked out from my third-floor apartment living room window at the street below. And even through the locust trees stripped of their golden foliage by the downpours of October, I could see it: The unmistakable twinkling of lights from a Christmas tree in a first-floor living room window in the apartment building across the street.

I was shocked by this--what, they couldn't wait a full week to put up their Christmas stuff?--but I shouldn't have been. It starts earlier every year, the Holiday Season. This year, I saw Christmas decorations appear in gift shops and drug stores right after they'd taken down their Fourth of July displays. It was dismaying enough to see Halloween fare put in the aisles of grocery stores on hot summer days--wouldn't the cookies in the tins decorated with black cats and Jack O'Lanterns have gone stale by October?--but to see aisles clogged with tinsel and ribbons and wreaths? Too much, I say. Much too much.

I walked to the grocery store today, in spite of sinuses that want little more than for me to lie down for a week or so and do nothing but drain. It was a crisp, clear afternoon. Kids played football and soccer in Horner Park. Couples hurried along Irving Park Road to their warm, waiting homes. And on houses here and there, the remnants of the holiday just passed could still be seen: Cobwebs on bushes; scarecrows along sidewalks beckoning trick-or-treaters to enter, if they dared; Jack O'Lanterns rotting to the point of falling in on themselves.

And this is how it should be. The weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving should be a time for those who tape colorful caricatures of Pilgrims and turkeys to their front doors to duke it out with those too enraptured with Halloween--or too lazy--to yank the pumpkin and bat window clings down and pack them back in the closet until next October.

But I've always been something of a tight-ass when it comes to Christmas decorations. They shouldn't go up until the day after Thanksgiving, and they shouldn't stay up past the first week in January. Period.

Please don't misunderstand. I love Christmas. Not nearly as much as I love Halloween, but Christmas remains a respectable second. Still. This desire on the parts of some to extend the already lengthy Holiday Season well beyond its natural boundaries is working my nerves more than ever this year. Maybe it's because I'm not in much of a Holiday frame of mind this year, what with America being at war and the economy tanking and many good friends out of work or sick or otherwise frustrated to the Nth. Maybe it's just my natural response to having Christmas shoved down my throat so unnaturally early. Maybe I just have a stick up my ass and it's leaving splinters.

Whatever the case, I'm just not feeling that Holiday cheer yet. Give me time. And several cups of warm, spiced cider. Maybe I'll come around. Or at least be to drunk to notice that I haven't come around. But don't expect me to bring out A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector or The Ventures' Christmas Album or any of my other holiday-themed CDs until after Turkey Day is just a pungent morning-after memory of white meat and stuffing and puck-shaped buns and canned cranberry sauce in my overflowing fridge.

Until then, keep your singing Santas and dancing reindeer and animatronic fur trees and cards discounted to sell out NOW out of my face. And maybe I'll remain civil. Maybe.

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

World Serious

At the very beginning of Frank Capra's big-screen adaptation of "Arsenic and Old Lace," there is a brief scene that, for the longest time, confused me. The story is set on my favorite holiday, Halloween, but the viewer is treated to a moment Even as a little kid, this made no sense: I love baseball, but wouldn't the World Series be over by Halloween? Wouldn't the players be cold in New York in late October?

In most years, even with the additional layers of playoffs added over time, the baseball season would have ended by now.

But as America--and, in truth, the whole world--knows already, 2001 is not like any other year. After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, most professional sports took the week off. And rightfully so. We weren't in any frame of mind to pay attention to anything but the horrific images coming from the East Coast. We weren't up for watching Barry Bonds break Mark McGwire's three-year-old home run records, for seeing the Mariners grab the most victories in a season since the 1906 Cubs (back when the Cubs actually went to the World Series), for experiencing once more the collapse of the modern Cubs into yet another heap of choking, bickering losers. Baseball stadiums went silent and empty for a few days, and the games that were cancelled were made up at the end of the season.

So here we are, on All Hallow's Eve 2001, and Game 4 of the World Series is being played in the Bronx tonight, between the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

I love baseball. I love Halloween. But are these two great tastes that taste great together? Hardly. The fact that the World Series could very well continue into November for the first time ever (as I write this Tuesday night, the Diamondbacks lead the Series two games to none) points to how abnormal our lives are now, and how weird they might always be from here on out. Even the things we could count on to be regular and "normal," like baseball and kids in costumes asking for candy, aren't.

That having been said, there is something to cheer me about this year's World Series: Mark Grace, who spent the previous 13 seasons--i.e., his whole career--with the Cubs, is playing in the "fall classic" for the first time ever.

13 years with the Cubs? Not even a whiff of the World Series. One year away from the Cubs? He's in.

One. Fucking. Year.

Amazing how things can change in such a short space in time--for worse or, in Grace's case, for better--isn't it?

Maybe there's hope after all.

Good luck, Gracie. Good luck to us all.

And Happy Halloween, everbody.

Tuesday, October 16, 2001

So. Here We Are. Now What?

I debated back and forth as to whether or not I should write a lengthy explanation of why I decided to do my own Web site. You I needed an outlet for my creative writing (such as it is--the writing, not the outlet) and how friends kept asking me, "So, when are you gonna do your own Web site?" And so on. And so forth.

"Do you really need to tell them that?" I thought. "They'll figure out that you're an egomaniac soon enough. You're way overthinking this. And you're referring to yourself in the second person, which is really creepy. So stop it. Now." And so I did.

Essentially, this bloggity is just a place for me to have a bit of fun. I'll post my photos and poems. I'll provide links to sites I like to visit.

And I'll express an opinion or two. Or three. get the idea. I'll try to update this page regularly--once a week or so should do. And I'll let you know when other pages on the site have been updated. From there, it'll be up to you to decide whether or not a return visit to this Web site is worth the trip.

So take a tour of Adoresixtyfour. See the sights. Smell the smells. Taste the tastes. And come back again some time.

(PARTICULAR THANKS: To JB in Chicago and Junebug in Dallas for their encouragement and support.)