The Most Wonderful Time of The Year – A Ghost Story

The grandfather clock chimed twelve am. The house was a silent sea of deep, rhythmic breathing, interrupted only by the sudden movements of an energized Australian Shepherd who was fixated on my every move.   I sat exhausted among holiday detritus — screw drivers, instructions, unassigned nuts and bolts and scores of AA batteries.  I was once again feeling sorry for myself and resenting the imminent holiday and its fatigue. Another Christmas.

I had predictably caved to commercialism spending well beyond my budget, stimulated by that seductive liar — nostalgia.  I had gained five pounds at social and business gatherings and in a fit of self pity, wished that I could be transported back in time when I was the child upstairs sleeping.  As if sensing my sullen mood, the dog rested his head on my knee. Suddenly, he perked his ears and darted behind the couch – – his emergency shelter any time that something is not right in the house.

 “Get back in your beds! “ I hissed into the dark hallway.

Expecting to hear giggles and scampering feet, I instead heard what sounded like chains and cleaning equipment being dragged across our wooden floors.  I raised my voice as I darted around the corner trying to catch the young spies in the act, “What are you doing down…?”

I startled, dumfounded at the odd specter hovering in front of me.  A phantasm, clothed in mid-nineteenth century finery, swirled near the staircase.  Ghostly baroque Christmas carols floated up from under his topcoat. “I am the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future.  I have come to confer with you so that I might save you from a future that I was not able to escape”.

“I think you have the wrong house, Bub.   Charlie was the investment banker.  He lives next door.”  The ghost hesitated, looking flustered and the music stopped.  He materialized a little more clearly and descended to the floor.  He reached a modest height of five feet but looked up at me through spectacles and a silver hedge row of furrowed brows.

  “I knew they gave me the wrong address.  No, wait, wait, wait. This is right.  You are in the health care industry.  Oh yes, this is the house.  We have launched Project Merry Gentlemen this year.  Last year, we haunted Congressional officials under Project Windsock. It did not do much good. Although several did not heed our warnings and were not reelected this year.  This year, we have big business in our crosshairs. It was either come here or go march with the We Can’t Breathe crowd. Lot’s of causes but not many marchers in this neighborhood.

“We want to make sure you remember the role you free market capitalists are supposed to play in society.  Some of you muckety mucks need to remember there is a God and you are not her!”

“Her?” I asked.

“It’s a long story”, the ghost sighed. “It says here you are a managed care consultant.  I am not sure what that means but it sounds like an oxymoron.” I started to look defensive and he quickly changed the subject.  “Look I got a lot of other business people to speak with tonight. I am initially visiting the ones that own only one house.  They are easier to locate.”

I was puzzled, “uh, where exactly are we going and where are the other ghosts – you know, the ghosts of Christmas Present and Future?”.  The ghost exhaled,

The ghost looked disgusted. “They all got laid off or demoted to other departments within Purgatory.  About a year ago, Purgatory got overrun by a bunch of private equity guys.  They started telling us we were the lowest margin department in the spiritual world and we needed to cut costs and reduce headcount.  I now have three times the amount of hauntings as I used to have and I have had my goodwill pay frozen for one hundred years.  The ghost of Christmas Past was made “redundant”.  She’s now haunting houses part-time.  Christmas Future has been redirected into Children’s Nightmares.  He just got put on probation for causing the entire state of Nebraska to wet their bed.  With the hood and skeleton hands, he’s a tad over qualified for bad dreams.”

“I thought Purgatory was the place between heaven and hell.” I asked, confused.

The ghost nodded his head. “A common misconception. We exist in a place that is sort of like – – Heaven’s mailroom.  If we do well, we get promoted upstairs or if we are really lucky, we reincarnated back to earth as dogs.”

I leaned close and asked the millennium old question, “What about Hell.  Is it, you know, real?” The ghost looked thoughtful and leaned in to whisper in my ear, “Hell is being a Jets fan.” He laughed and impend the front door with the wave of his hand.

“Let’s go visit your past and present and see if we can’t leave you with a little perspective at this important time of year.”  A rush of frigid air swirled around us as we were caught up in a sort of funnel, spiraling up and then just as suddenly, alighting on a manicured lawn.  Magnolia trees lined suburban sidewalks illuminated by street lamps.  I saw a young pre-teen riding a ten speed bicycle by himself while a physician got back into his Ford after making a house call.  I knew in an instant that we had fallen backward in the early 1970’s  We floated in the air, hidden by the shadows of weak light cast from a few the massive living room bay window of a Spanish style home.

 “What is all that noise inside?” the ghost asked as he craned his head, pressing his nose to the single pane glass.

“That”, I said, “is most likely my father, swearing as he puts up the Christmas tree.”  I peered inside to spy four young boys running in and out of a room packed with presents while an Andy Williams Christmas song played  on the hi-fi.  The ghost mused, “It’s quite comfortable outside, why is there such a large fire in the fireplace? “

I suddenly felt a hot flash. “My Dad liked fires and fireplaces.  He grew up in Chicago where they were both a necessity and a sentimental symbol of domestic bliss.  It was always like an Indian sweat lodge when Dad cranked up the old Yule log. My Mom would go into the other room complaining that it was night time yet for her to have man-o-pause.  I didn’t understand what Man-o-pause was but assumed it had something to do with the fact that we had a house full of men.”

We watched as a mongrel dog trotted up to the tree and lifted his leg to urinate while my father’s jaw dropped in stupefied horror. As he moved to kick the dog, the tree fell over.

“I loved Max,” I said absentmindedly. “He was the perfect dog for four boys.  A few years later, he finally attacked something that was tougher than he was”

“And that was,“ asked the ghost.

“A moving van” I sighed…

We moved along a continuum of time as we walked invisibly among family parties, card games, laughter, endless baking, candle light church services, caroling, friends, gifts, and a rather embarrassing rearrangement of nativity figurines that resembled a swinger’s party.   The moments melted into a montage of family life all sweetened by our time together.  With each successive Christmas, our Southern California home seemed brighter, warmer and more festive – – the spirit of the season casting a light across every face. And somewhere in the distance, Andy Williams was always singing about it being the most wonderful time of the year.

“You see,” the ghost chastened me.” You really did have a wonderful life.”

I shot him a cynical glance.  “Look Clarence, or whatever your name is… I’m not George Bailey trying to jump off a bridge.  You just caught me wishing I could be a kid again – you know, for a few hours.” The ghost looked sympathetic but then became stern.

“My time is short.  I am supposed to haunt at least ten more suits tonight. We have not even gotten to your gradual enslavement to work and your preoccupation with reality television. ” He looked me in the eye.  “I just want to remind you that Christmas is a holiday that celebrates the birth of the Christian messiah.  His life was all about serving others.  This season is about your fellow man – -those you know and those you have never met.  You know, ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ and all of that?   Since you ruined your chances for public office in college, you can still inspire people by serving others and through your actions, remind them during this season that Christmas is a state of mind.  Empathy and compassion are the chief ingredients to human kindness.  It’s that warm nostalgic feeling that makes you want to buy gifts, light fires and curl up to watch reruns of Cary Grant and Loretta Young in The Bishop’s Wife.”

His face got stern, “You business types want free markets, limited regulation, small government and flat screen TVs.  Ok, but that means you have to be responsible social stewards and help actively stitch together a social safety net to take care of those who are less fortunate.  It’s in your spiritual job description if you’d ever bother to read it. You may feel more vulnerable in today’s economy but 95% of the world is financially worse off than you.  I am not sure how you find time to get on your pity pot with so much going for you.  By the way, if you do not choose to help those in need, there are those who would love to force you to do it.  As they say at the office, I’d rather be the guy who writes the memo, than the one who has to read it.”

The ghost smiled and faded into a gossamer mist, finally disappearing. I woke up in my favorite chair with my back aching as it always does when I watch back to back episodes of Cops.  I suddenly realized that the holiday season was really about those sitting around the tree, rather than what rested underneath it.

I walked through the house, turning out lights and hesitated for a moment, watching the Christmas tree and the glowing palette of ornaments reflecting the soft kaleidoscope of color.  I heard the CD changer in the other room click and suddenly heard a familiar symphony of brass as Andy Williams started to croon, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.”

A Visit from The Yule Goat

Joulupukki
Image by esaskar via Flickr

In the northern hemisphere, winters arrive like a black dog breathing permanent midnight.  The gray threadbare days weave into a thick woolen canopy that never seems to lift. Despite the reassuring lights of Sloane Square, ice skaters in Mayfair and the annual grand Norwegian spruce in Trafalgar Square, Christmas is a more muted and reverent affair in England. Each December 24th, St. Martins of the Field church broadcasts its medieval Christmas carol concert urging all the masters of the hall to rejoice and pray.

Along the cold and wind-swept Thames, a city hibernates waiting for the resurrection of spring.  As an ex-patriot navigating life among millions, thousands of miles from the moorings of family, Christmas Eve was a hard time to avoid melancholy self-reflection.

Having been wrested from parents, neighbors, friends, familiar institutions and cultural touchstones, our young family was dispatched on a three-year odyssey that would test us and stretch our ability to cope.  Without the traditional support structures, we were reduced to our lowest common denominator – us.

As we had sought to build a new life, we met other displaced diplomats. Out of mutual necessity, we forged deep connections to this diaspora of the disconnected.  Over long dinners and timeless cups of tea, we would share the daily anxieties of international living where life had become a succession of indignities roaring past you in the middle of a motorway with no exit ramps.  Change was everywhere – tugging at your elbow, tearing the side mirror off your car, visiting some mystery illness upon your family or delaying you in a foreign airport due to a sudden labor strike.  It was mad cow and foot and mouth disease closures of a verdant but now forbidden countryside.  It was an unexpected dog bite and the night terrors of a child unable to cope with the massive change of an international move.  It was a washing machine the size of an Easy Bake Oven and a dryer that could only dry five pieces of clothing at a time. It was an alpenglow sunset in Zermatt and a pink pastel dawn in Provence.

We joined an international brigade that had voluntarily been assigned to new lives on a distant, fatal shore.  Our new and extended “family” was a United Nations blend of ex-patriots and locals possessing passports from Peru, Columbia, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal, Australia, India, Ireland, England, Scotland and Poland. In another place and time, we might have had less in common with these global travelers and passed one another like ships.  Yet, alone on this great ancient island, we found each other and watched as our children moved freely across narrow language barriers and cultural tightropes. Within months we had forged a multinational support network that would sustain us through every conceivable life event.

Holidays were initially the hardest of times. On this December 24th, the darkest corridor of the year, the ancient Druid festival of winter solstice would be celebrated. Christmas in England was a time of evergreens and hard frosts. A pale, frigid mist would settle on the Great Wimbledon Common and across the ancient headstones of St Mary’s church graveyard.  The bleak mid-winter world stands still as the countryside settles into a deep sleep with  the rolling hills of Newlan’s Corner and Box Hill sitting as silent citadels over the South Downs and Kent. In the Cotswolds, wool, market and cathedral towns with names like Chipping Camden, Broadway, Stow on the Wold and Upper Slaughter become fairy tale retreats for the wealthy with roaring fires, curiosity shops and antiques.  It is a quiet, somber time filled with very personal celebrations of resurrection and renewal.

Each Christmas season, we visited with our friends and as we entered each rented home or flat, it would be adorned faithfully with native touches and talisman of their home countries.  One day we might meet a koala with a Santa hat and the next week encounter rich religious icons of Latin America – – Madonna with Child, nativity figurines, candles and white papered gifts — grand colorful offerings of love and sentiment to be offered to those less fortunate at midnight mass..

At this time of year, it was important to keep our own traditions alive. To discard or ignore a cultural touchstone was to defile it and potentially sever another tie with your own past.  It was inevitable that the longer one lived abroad, the more likely it was that one would morph into an international citizen – an odd changeling that was often less wedded to their nationality and more content to be considered part of the global melting pot of mankind.

Christmas was a time of year where I was left with the nagging feeling that I was denying my children some quintessentially American experience. I was obviously superimposing my childhood on to my international children and when those feelings would not fit them, I came away feeling as if I was somehow stunting their growth.

Our youngest was already exhibiting signs of advanced internationalism. Having moved to the UK when he was one, he was not being raised on the empty carbohydrates of Disney movies, American commercialism and a ruddy-faced department store Santa that smelled of Brut and bourbon. My son spoke with a lilting English accent, watched Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob The Builder. He wore a uniform to school and was frighteningly well mannered. He expressed curiosity about  Father Christmas and wanted to “know him better.”

On this particular Christmas eve, I was feeling a wave of yuletide melancholy when the phone rang. It was our Finnish friend Robert.  Bobby and his Peruvian wife, Laila, had joined our extended family after falling in with us on a wild and unforgettable family vacation to Morocco. Bobby was a towering bristled blond Nordic with a rapid-fire mind and a clear, practical lens to the world. The unusual union of a Finn and Peruvian in this international enclave was typical of our circle of friends – a merger of disparate cultures and genetics that produced perpetually clashing perspectives and two gorgeous children who spoke Finnish, Portuguese and Spanish.

According to Bobby, Christmas was first and foremost, a Finnish tradition. All Finns claim that the Lapp mountains of Korvatunturi, not the North Pole, are the true home to Father Christmas. This rugged winter landscape populated by the Sami people is a frozen wonderland of midnight lakes, deep conifer forests and sweeping mountains of ice. It is a magical destination where on certain clear December nights, the aurora borealis swirls and dances on invisible solar winds.

The Finns are stoic culture – except after a few shots of Vodka when they may break into song or break every piece of furniture in your house.  They are a remarkably resilient people and have a fierce history of independence dating back to fated Roman efforts to subdue the tribes living in the “land of the cloudberries.”

“Michael, I have a dilemma,” Bobby said in a thick, educated accent. “Every year, my Finnish friend, Opi and I rent a Father Christmas suit and visit each other’s children, give them gifts, sing with them and then put them to bed” He hesitated. “Opi has abandoned me this year and has taken his family to Lapland. I have no one to play Joulupukki for my children. Could I get you to come over to my house, dress as Father Christmas and visit with them?” It was getting dark and in my late afternoon lethargy, I was feeling more like Scrooge than what the Finns refer to as “  Joulupukki- The Yule Goat”.  Yet, there was an unspoken ex-patriot protocol that when someone in your foxhole needs help, you rise to the occasion.

Within an hour, I was barefoot in a frozen side garden, slipping on boots, a red suit, and a white beard that would have made ZZ Top jealous. I slipped on a long elfin hat and moved across the condominium parking lot in search of their flat. An elderly Englishman walking his Westie looked at me with curiosity and shrugged, “a bit lost, aren’t you?”

I could not see very well through my beard and white bangs. I tripped over a potted plant and thumped against the front door. I could hear someone whispering in Finnish and squeals of excitement inside. Laila opened the door and I greeted them in butchered Finnish.  Bobby was taking pictures as I sat down to play with the children.  They jumped into my lap and sang a traditional Finnish carol.  The beard was gratefully disguising the fact that I had no idea what they were saying. I literally just bobbed up and down speaking gibberish.

The children hugged me with the strength of ten men. I felt myself slowly filling with that elusive goodwill and peace that perfumes the lives of those who choose to serve others. As I drove home, I suddenly saw this winter world for all its charm and tradition. It had lost its depressing decay and tired history. Our village was adorned with evergreens and white faerie lights winding down lampposts and across the eaves of brightly lit pubs. I was finally home.

I returned home to find  my own children restless and unable to sleep. Filled with gratitude and a recognition that Christmas was about my own rebirth, I settled at the edge of the children’s beds to lull them with a yuletide tale of medieval England.  The phone rang downstairs. “It’s Bobby” my wife yelled.

“Michael, I am around the corner now in the costume and was wondering if you wanted me to come in or just climb up on the roof and walk around” I had not expected this Finnish quid pro quo but eagerly encouraged him to come and inspect the house from the street as if he was sizing up how to land his sleigh on our narrow slate roof.

The children were still awake waiting for their story-teller when I instructed them to get up and peer between the indigo blue drapes to the street below where they might see something extraordinary. On this Christmas Eve, a 6’5″ Finnish Father Christmas visited my children on a dark and forgotten English close. “He’s so tall” My daughter squealed. “Santa tall?” my youngest asked rhetorically.  Outside, the oversized elf strained, continued to look for ways to enter our chimney.  The children watched mesmerized as The Yule Goat finally made his notations and disappeared into the night.

“Now quick” I whispered. “Get to bed before he sees you.” They leaped into their bunk beds and after twenty minutes of discussing Father Christmas, they fell into a satisfied sleep that carried them right into morning. It seemed that Christmas would find us after all, and came on the shoulders of a tall stranger from Lapland.

As my children progress into adulthood, I remind them of the visit from St Nicholas and hope they will carry this memory through the years until one night they might find themselves far from home and feeling disconnected from the spirit of the season.  Perhaps then, they will remember that misty, frigid night when they first caught a glimpse of Joulupukki and their own father discovered that Christmas happens wherever there are people.

The Cat Who Came For Christmas

“Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the Gods, and the judge of words, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed…the Great Cat.” – Inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes

white-cat1

 It was Christmas time in England.  The great Wimbledon Common adjacent to our village was a rolling sea of frozen white after a hard frost.  I looked out the window and sighed.  After living abroad for two years, we could no longer avoid delivering on a promise made years earlier to our daughter, Brooke, that she would receive a kitten at the age of eight.

 Spring is lambing season and frankly, every other animal’s time of conception.  In the thick of a foggy, cold winter no animal in England gives birth, let alone moves until the dreary days of the winter solstice have passed.  Unphased by the odds of finding a furry companion for my daughter, I contacted every cattery, vet, animal shelter and pet shop within a 300 kilometer radius to no avail. The best I could turn up was a black ferret and of course, rabbits.  Miraculously, one store, Pets International Ltd. in southwest London, yielded a possible lead.  The owner was somewhat coy and wanted me to come in person.

 My visions of a massive pet-store filled with grinning kittens and puppies of every possible pedigree yielded to the hard reality of urban London as I passed Ladbroke’s off-track betting shops and abandoned buildings interrupted by the occasional Pig and Whistle pub.  I warily parked near the shop and entered the Twilight Zone.

 “Ahlooow, guv’nuh” the Cockney store owner bellowed.  He extended a filthy hand that he had wiped on his pants.  “Ron, git the white kit from the back, lad will ‘ya?” A hunched albino teenager with poor teeth shuffled into a maze of cages and sounds.  That was when the smell hit me like a wave of mustard gas.  It was like I had dived into a colossal dirty diaper that had been buried for weeks just beneath an inch of wood-shavings.  “ Yur a lucky one, you are, guv’nuh. Had a geezer in ‘ere yesterday that wanted to pay me two ‘undred quid for ‘er. “The boy brought out a filthy white kitten with watering eyes, a bloated stomach and a persistent sneeze. “ Oye,dah. I think she’s got the wurms.”  The owner shot a dirty look at the boy.

 “Well guv’nuh, that’ll be 180 quid ( pounds sterling )”.  “ 180 sterling ?  You have got to be kidding me ?  It’s just an ordinary house cat “ He sized me up and smiled a toothless grin and shook his head, feigning sympathy.  “ I seems to recall you sayin’ you wanted ‘er for yer li’l girl.  Like I said, a geezer was jus’ in ‘ere and was all set to pay”.  I asked him if he could wait a minute.  It’s hard to think when you are at the gunpoint of a modern day highwayman.  I called the vet and described the cat’s symptoms.  The vet was classically British and very non-committal, “well, mister Turpin.  I suppose you can wait until spring and find a nicer, healthier animal.  Or, you can rescue this poor creature.  She probably has ring worm, conjunctivitis and an assortment of other maladies. Nothing we probably cannot cure” ( I am sure you can….for another for a thousand pounds )

 This was not the way it was supposed to go.  This purchase was supposed to be a sort of Charles Dickens day at an animal Curiosity Shoppe owned by a Fezziwig character who had this amazing kitten with an IQ of an Oxford grad that smelled wonderful like warm chestnuts and Christmas.  We would drink hot rum and laugh about old times we’d never shared.  He was supposed to give me the cat for free with a promise that I tithe to the poor.  “Ok, I’ll take her …” I rolled my eyes.  I could have sworn the shop owner drooled.

 The drive home was a disaster.  The kitten yowled in her box and I took her out to comfort her in my lap – – bad mistake. Driving on left side of the road in London is chaotic and scary enough.  Try it with a scared kitten running up your neck.  The car lost control and I hit a trashcan, ending up on a curb.  I collected myself.  It was like a Farrelly Brothers movie as the cat flew at me in terror each time I set her down.  My car weaved wildly across Richmond Park and up the A3 to Wimbledon where I finally arrived home and honked for my wife as a signal.

 With the kids temporarily distracted, we ushered the kitten up to our bathroom and bathed her.  As dark, dirty water swirled down the tub, a fluffy snowflake with crystal blue eyes emerged, sneezed and then padded quietly over to the litter box and went to the “loo”.  She purred loudly as she curled in my wife’s lap.  “Oh, she’s so precious” she whispered.  I was nursing the scratches all over my neck and face.  Hopefully the local constable would not see me and assume I had accosted someone while jogging in the Common.

 After learning from the vet that the cat indeed had virtually every disease except Ebola, and lighter $ 400 for various medications, we returned home to hide the kitten in our bathroom.  For two long days, we dodged the children’s curious questions about our now, off limits bedroom.  Christmas Eve finally arrived.  The plan was to put the cat in a basket and have Brooke find the kitten that was left by Father Christmas.  The cat would not cooperate.  The cat was terrified of enclosed spaces and would fly at me with fur and claws and frantically tear around the house.  All night I tracked and captured the animal.  About 6 AM, in the dark dawn of a cold Christmas morning,  both cat and man were exhausted and I succeeded in corralling the animal long enough to place her in the basket.  Brooke came down the stairs and screamed with glee.  “ He brought her, he brought her…Father Christmas, how does he do it ?” Looking at those blue eyes, she said , “I think I will call her ‘Crystal’ ”. I sat exhausted, oddly feeling sorry for myself.  She’ll never know it was me.

 I understand now that perhaps anonymous giving is the most evolved form of stewardship.  I watched as Brooke whisked off her new best friend, while I unconsciously scratched the circular red rash on my neck.  The ringworm was already beginning to appear.

The Angel of Mayres Heights

The Angel of Mayres Heights

All God’s angels come to us disguised.  ~James Russell Lowell

December, 1862 – The 120,000 man Union Army of the Potomac moved sluggishly south into Northern Virginia, a large clumsy bear trying to swipe a mortal blow against the frustratingly nimble grey fox, Robert E Lee and his 72,500 man army of Northern Virginia – a wounded but dangerous foe still reeling from its near annihilation at Antietam in September.

The Federal plan called for speed and deception – feigning a move on nearby towns along the Rappahannock, only to cross the river and rapidly claim the town of Fredericksburg, engaging pieces of Lee’s fragmented army.  Through brute force and overwhelming odds, the Federals would carry the war to Richmond and crush the Southern rebellion.  Yet, the Union army suffered from weak and serially indecisive leadership.  The inept Maj. General Ambrose Burnside, a failed Rhode Island businessman wracked with self-doubt, led the Federals.  Months earlier, his ultra conservative brinksmanship on a stone bridge at Antietam turned a certain Federal rout of the Confederates into a desperate draw.  Despite his obvious mediocrity, the corpulent Burnside was deemed by Lincoln as the best available choice to replace an even greater incompetent General George McClellan whose patrician insubordination and penchant for avoiding battle led to his dismissal.

The Union Right, Center and Left Grand divisions led respectively by Major Generals Sumner, Hooker and Franklin were facing the cream of the Confederacy – Robert E Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, AP Hill, Anderson, Early, McLaws and J.E.B Stuart.  The Federals had wasted a month getting into position to launch their “surprise “attack, electing to wait to assemble pontoon bridges to cross the Rappahannock instead of crossing at shallower fords and more rapidly engaging a divided enemy before the entire army of Northern Virginia could reassemble.  As Burnside equivocated, Lee built formidable defenses, President Lincoln fumed and the fate of thousands of young men was decided.

The union army 2nd Corps and 4th Corps finally crossed the Rappahannock on December 12th where they proceeded to loot Fredericksburg while dodging artillery and sniper fire. Among those bivouacking on the even of battle was private William O Grady and other Irish soldiers of 63rd, 69th and 88th NY infantry, three Gaelic brigades of immigrants, many conscripted straight off ships as they arrived in America fleeing famine and hardships suffered under colonial England.  Pressed into service to defend their adopted country, the boys from counties such as Sligo, Mayo and Wexford were mustered under Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher in the 2nd brigade of the 1st Division, 2nd Army Corps.  Meagher was a charismatic leader and political fugitive, once indicted for sedition by the English government and sent to Tasmania, only to escape to NY and enlist to lead his native countryman.

The chaplain of the brigade was Jesuit priest William Corby who would later become the President of Notre Dame University.  On the frigid evening of December 12, a light snow swirled as O’Grady and his comrades from the fighting 69th gathered around makeshift fires playing Celtic Christmas carols on fife, violin and guitar.  Across a quarter mile canyon of killing ground, a young Confederate from South Carolina, 19 year old Sergeant Richard Kirkland, listened to acoustic shadows as he stood picket duty, stomping his feet to warm frigid toes.  Behind him, the men of Kershaw’s 2nd South Carolinians prepared their defense behind a sunken stone wall at the elevated crest of a ridge known simply as Maryes Heights.

The fifth son of a religious, fourth generation Southern family, Kirkland enlisted to defend South Carolina interests against Northern aggression.  In the months preceding Fredericksburg, Kirkland’s idealism was shredded by the shrapnel battles of Bull Run and Antietam where he witnessed friends killed and the terrifying reality of modern warfare.  He lay awake that evening staring at an endless ocean of union fires and dancing shadows.  He knew that the next morning would be the last dawn for many of these men.

The battle opened slowly with assaults across a field of hard morning frost and swirling ground fog.  Union soldiers moved through fields of fire that sloped up from assault positions, climbing across over 800 yards of open, frozen ground.  “ The generals cannot be foolish as to order us up that hill” reassured Chaplain Corby to his worried men.  He was dead wrong.  At 1pm and again at 3:30pm in the dying flat twilight of the day, O’Grady and 1200 men of the Irish brigade were ordered to launch a suicidal charge.  Clutching their regimental colors that were stitched with the Gaelic expression ”Faugh a ballagh” or “ Clear the way”; Union officers ordered 16 individual charges into a fusillade of Southern rifle, canister and solid shot.  Not a single Union solider reached within 30 yards of the stone bulwark six deep with butternut sharpshooters.

As dusk descended on the inferno, 6300 men laid dead and wounded in the ebony expanse of no man’s land that stretched between the Confederate and Union lines.  As frozen rain turned to snow and temperatures plummeted, soldiers were tormented by cries of agony and pleas for help from the wounded.  Kirkland covered his ears and turned away at the haunted entreaties.  As the night yielded to an apocalyptic dawn of death, Kirkland could stand it no longer.  He leapt into action, gathering up canteens, risking certain death to administer first aid to enemies that only hours before were seeking to kill him.

With permission from a very reticent General Kershaw, Kirkland made it to O’Grady and several wounded Irish soldiers, carefully cradling their heads in his hand as he gently offered them water.  A sniper’s bullet pitched up frozen earth near Kirkland’s foot.  Another shot hit an adjacent body with a thud.  Kirkland moved quickly to more men.  Soon, a Union officer ascertained what the young man was doing and ordered his men, “ cease fire.  Don’t shoot that man.  He is too brave to die.”  The dead were stacked like cordwood as Kirkland moved frozen bodies rigid with rigor mortis, attempting to find soldiers in need of attention.   By the end of day, he returned to his lines exhausted but forever immortal. Months later, Kirkland and two friends were leading a Confederate counter attack up Snodgrass Hill at Chickamauga, Tennessee.  Finding himself and his friends too far extended beyond his lines, he turned to retreat to safety and was shot in the back.  As he lay dying, he asked his friend to “ tell my pa I died right”.  He was 20 years old.

At Christmas, we are moved by the magic of the yuletide season.  It is a time when visions of angels inspire us and goodwill and compassion can transform any man.  It is a time where we reveal our gentler natures and humanity.  We recognize that there are no burning bushes, only people who serve a higher and nobler purpose in life.  To risk one’s life to save a stranger is to express the ultimate love that was proffered by God when he sent his only son to earth to bring the word of God to man. Perhaps the Kirkland memorial at Fredericksburg best defines what it means to be an angel:  “Dedicated to Sgt Richard Kirkland CSA – At the risk of his life, this American of sublime passion brought water to his wounded foes at Fredericksburg.  The fighting men on both sides called him the Angel of Maryes Heights.

The Christmas Truce of 1914

A cross, left near Ieper in Belgium in 1999, t...
Image via Wikipedia

Any traveler touring rural England often first stumbles upon a village by spying the distinct silhouette of an ancient Norman church. Buttressed by low stone walls, spring-time dafodils and ancient graveyards, the house of worship date back to eleventh century and are a living memorial to those who lived, toiled and died within the shadows of its spire.

Upon entering the narthex of these sacred places, alcoves and recessed memorials are dedicated to those who fell in the Great War.

World War I left a deeper and more jagged scar on the British Isles than any conflict in its nation’s history.  The human losses were incomprehensible – – 60,000 dead in the first few hours of the Somme, 1,000,000 dead at Verdun. Soldiers were often recruited and organized from villages and districts. The result was close knit regiments, brigades and battalions that fought and died together in close quarters – -often holding one another’s heads above the clutching mud, searing gas and devastating artillery.

On September 15, 1915, 10,000 British soldiers were ordered to attack a German salient near the town of Loos in Northeastern France.  Over the course of a 3 ½ hour slaughter, the brigades from Manchester, Northumberland and Connaught lost 8,246 men with no German casualties.  In a single engagement, entire villages within a fifty kilometer radius lost every man between 18 to 40 years old.  In the Memoirs of Flakenhayn, the German General Lundendorff was heard to comment to another officer, “The English soldiers fight like lions” – – to which the other German officer quipped, “True .  But don’t we know that they are lions led by donkeys”.

In WWI, the last gasp of 19th century civility was suffocated by the brutal advances in the technology of killing and the arrogant and incompetent military leadership that valued bravado over brains.  In the sumer of 1914, the initial German had ground to a halt resulting in a vicious stalemate and hundreds of miles of jagged trench line that stretched like a sutured wound from Belgium into Southern France.  British officers emboldened by decades of success in Colonial wars fighting third world native forces naively the war would be over in a matter of weeks.  Completing the confederacy of incompetence were French officers who believed that honor and élan could overcome kill zones of enfilading artillery and a no man’s land of unmerciful and interlocking machine guns.  Millions were ordered “over the top” of their trench lines to certain death.

Those alive in December, 1914, say it started with a spontaneous truce afforded by each side to bury those left dead on a denuded battlefield.  Letters that would be smuggled past censors to loved ones in Germany and England attested to the miracle that began with a snowflake of compassion — Germans and Brits meeting On Christmas Eve to exchange small gifts such as cigarettes, chocolate and food.  Peace became infectious and the entire Western front soon fell into an unintended armistice as small pockets of soldiers met drank beer, sang Christmas carols and even played games of soccer with tin cans as footballs and spiked helmets as goal posts.  “Fritz” and “Tommy” joined together in the common humanity of Christmas – – creating an enduring mythology that rose like a heavenly chorus above the bullets and bombs that had savaged and broke a generation of  young men.  From Ypres to the La Basee Canal, it was truly a silent night.

In some sectors of the trench line, the Christmas truce was occurring in direct contradiction to military orders.  Officers were urged to round up enlisted men who were engaged in “ the destructive action of fraternization with the enemy”.  Sir John French, in command of British forces wrote disdainfully, “individual unarmed men run from across the German trenches to ours holding Christmas trees above their heads.  These overtures were in some places favorably received and fraternization took place throughout the day. It appeared that a little feasting went on and junior officers, NCOs and men on either side conversed together in No Man’s land. When this was reported to me, I issued immediate orders to prevent any reoccurrence of such conduct and called the local commanders to strict account….”  Before being relieved of command for incompetence, French was successful in presiding over the systematic slaughter of thousands of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers in exchange for, in some cases, meters of ground won.

The truce became a heroic stand for common man in his struggle against the insanity and the cruel machinery of war.  It also proved that the only thing stronger than hate and war — was indeed love and the humanity that it nurtures.  The world may never again witness a war as senseless, devastatingly efficient in its slaughter or tragic in its consequences.  As your fingers trace the names of the dead, etched in marble, you can feel the souls swirling and rising –the voices of young men taken too soon, ripped from the moorings of a life whose book was sill unwritten.  Yet, in the darkness and hopeless moments, a light flickers in all men.  Each understood being so near to death the precious gift of life and in recognition, they offered Thanksgiving for the chance to rise to see another dawn. If you stand at Ypres and concentrate, you can almost see them – haunted, muddied gray and green khaki shadows moving like echoes and memories across a wooded landscape long since silent.  You can see their faces in pale candlelight, the shattered eighteen year old German from Munich shaking hands with the ancient 24 year-old NCO from Stow-on-the Wold.  They perhaps gesture, exchanging a canteen and hang a piece of ribbon on an ersatz Christmas evergreen, both men longing for a Christmas at home.  One might try to describe his tradition of cutting a hunter green fir in the deep snows of a Bavarian mountain forest while the other listened, dragging on a cigarette as he imagined the warm light of the pub, spilling across a crisp, frosted pasture on an ebony Gloustershire night.

In the end, the truce would not last.  The Generals and the killing machines prevailed. The march of folly carried on for three more bloody years.  In May of 1915, Lieutenant Col. John McCrae wrote a poem to memorialize the death of his friend, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22 years old, who had been killed in battle the prior day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

In this holiday season, it is important to remember that miracles still happen.  As in all things, miracles come in the form of people – – soldiers hunched and homesick in a cold foreign bivouac,  a person acting against injustice or the those who choose to put the interest of others above themselves.  As was the case of the Christmas Truce of 1914,  the love of God, stubborn humanity and a common instinct to survive, found a way to grind the great machinery of war and hate to a standstill. And though it lasted for a few brief moments, it’s power reminded everyone that peace, not war, remains the greatest conqueror of all time.

Christmas at Sears & Roebuck

Going to church on Christmas Eve - a 1911 vint...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

“The Sears catalog serves as a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living. The roots of the Sears catalog trace back to the Homestead Act of 1864 and are as old as the company. By the early 19th century, the Sears catalog had become known in the industry as ‘the Consumers’ Bible’. In 1933, Sears, Roebuck and Co. produced the first of its famous Christmas catalogs known as the “Sears Wish book”, a catalog featuring toys and gifts and separate from the annual Christmas Catalog. The catalog also entered the language, particularly of rural dwellers, as a euphemism for toilet paper. In the days of outhouses, the pages of the mass-mailed catalog were often used as toilet paper.” Wikipedia and Sears Archives

In a time before mailboxes vomited forth daily streams of mass-marketed catalogs, Sears stood mightily as the most evolved holiday mass marketer.  The Sears Christmas Catalog’s arrival heralded the first day of an Advent season teeming with material wants.  Any hope of a deeply spiritual holiday experience was defiled by the arrival of the Consumer’s Bible. One had to merely open the first page of this Domesday-sized registry and immediately fall under its mistletoe spell. Each page of the journal was jammed with adult gumdrops and candied children’s gifts – each sweeter and more contemporary than the next. It was an age of inventions, innovations and space exploration. In material America, the Sears catalog offered an adult primer on how one might improve their circumstances and with each purchase you moved more comfortably into a cocoon of creature comfort. To a kid, it was literally an inventory of every item warehoused within St Nicholas’ bag.   

Each December, my mother would award us a different colored pen with instructions to circle items in the Sears catalog that we felt might best capture Santa’s imagination. The guide pushed everything from guns to garden hoses.  Sears even sold elevated pools that one could fill up with water straight out of a garden hose.  My father dismissed the pools as “tacky.”  If tacky meant awesome, then I agreed.  I quickly circled the 10’ by 20’ plastic monstrosity replete with its heavy duty, micro-resin safety ladder and pool skimmer.  The children playing inside of the pool seemed to be having so much fun. They were not attempting to drown one another or disable the pool skimmer by tying its flickering tail into knots. They were playing with a bright, overblown beach ball – – the kind of ball we owned for perhaps a total of 12 seconds – before it was bitten by an animal or burst under the weight of an overzealous kid. Swimming pools? This was California at Christmas.  The temperature outside was stretching up to 75 degrees on Santa Ana winds.  I would be swimming by New Years.

Christmas shopping was indeed a burden on the entire family.  My parents fought over who would brave Bullocks department store or the chaotic parking lots of Sears. There were no formal Black Fridays but December still meant a tidal wave of yuletide commercialism that swept over every family.  Glowing televisions barraged children with images of toys and games. “ I want that for Christmas, I want that for Christmas…” my younger brother would repeat as a dull mantra while Mattel and Milton Bradley streamed images of toy ovens making real chocolate cakes and rockets that would fire 1000 feet into the air and float harmlessly – avoiding every tree branch – to land safely back in your postage stamp garden. The world was drunk on Christmas cheer and American materialism.  Cherry red garlands stretched across city streets while residential pines, magnolias and oaks transformed into colorful beacons that whispered,” buy, buy, buy”.

There were no malls.  Department stores dominated the retail landscape and were the epicenters of consumer spending. Bullocks, Sears, Fedco, JC Penny, Woolworth’s and a host of ancient forgotten family run enterprises competed for the hearts and minds of America’s mothers.  These matriarchs of merriment shouldered the role of Mrs. Claus along with other thankless indignities borne in the waning days of 60’s chauvinism. Moms got the short end of the candy cane – getting to purchase the shirts, socks, sweaters, and practical items that were opened and rapidly discarded into detritus mounds of paper and boxes.  Given that fathers were rarely present during the week, mothers were responsible for consolidating the myriad irrational requests into a practical Santa list that would guarantee surprises but not sink a fledgling family into the darker waters of consumer debt. Armed with the Sears catalog, she outfitted my father with the requisite shopping list and shoved him out into the confused mayhem of Sears.

Sears was the epicenter of our retail activity.  The massive store had no windows and seemed to devour you once you entered its massive doors.  The Chicago merchants that once sold mail order buggies and horse feeders were now focused on bricks and mortar discount pricing and in a time of economic uncertainty, the store was constantly overrun with shoppers.  My father loathed shopping.   It was if God, himself, was testing him like Job.  He would make a line for an open counter only to be cut off by an ancient do-it-yourself handyman who could not understand why the nice young lady at the bedding register could not help him find a number 6 Allen wrench. As my father squirmed restlessly waiting to purchase some pink hand towels, my brothers and I were melting into clothes racks, jumping on beds, snapping towels and chasing one another with throw pillows.

Occasionally, my father would come unglued and hiss for us to stop the “grab-ass”.  Grab-ass was a highly technical term to describe any anti-social behavior worthy of punishment.  Grab-ass usually preceded the spanking of one’s ass – – which was not a pleasant experience.  In the 1960’s, you could publically whack your child.  Another father might even come over and congratulate you on your technique. However, the nuclear option of spanking also meant a howling child which invited derision from sympathetic mothers. To avoid this disapproval, a father might surreptitiously squeeze your arm until it was purple while reprimanding you with a withering, whispered scream.

The cash registers were crowded like airline counters after a flight cancellation.  My father would stand shifting in place, absentmindedly gripping the arm of my youngest brother who was squirming to get free so he might join us in our Lord of The Flies adventure.  He finally gave up, making an exaggerated sigh and whistled at us like cattle to start moving westward across a crowded appliance department.  My brother immediately opened a refrigerator and attempted to climb inside.  The appliance section was perhaps our favorite place to misbehave with its freestanding toilets where one could mimic the act of urinating – hoping to appall the little old blue haired lady that was perusing the latest innovations from General Electric.  

Inevitably, my father would attempt to purchase items for my mother. She was still hoping like a condemned prisoner that he would clue in to her interests and fashion sense.  It was a losing cause. He was an ex-soldier – pragmatic and utilitarian. He did not realize that many of his “useful” gifts were in fact, symbols of indentured servitude. The new vacuum, the mop, measuring cups and towels might as well have come with a ball and chain.  He was one of a long line of pathetic elves attempting to articulate his love and appreciation for his spouse through the act of gift giving.  It would take him decades to discover that the only thing she wanted was to be left alone with a good book and an old movie.  This was unfortunately not for sale at Sears.  It was simply not in his DNA to understand that women hailed from a different galaxy and tended to attach equal value to the smallest of gestures and the grandest of gifts. They did not shiver with excitement at the sight of a new rolling pin.  

Christmas morning would arrive with a thump like the tumbling of snow off a gabled eave. We descended to a warm living room, crackling fire and Santa gifts that had been artfully hidden from our prying eyes.  We would begin opening presents with civility with the most emotionally mature child agreeing to distribute presents.  Within minutes, protocol was abandoned and fighting would break out as the all powerful gift distributor had morphed into Mussolini and was now refusing to distribute to his siblings because of their attitudes.

My mother would open her gifts last – appliances, towels, night gowns, kitchenware and perhaps an Ann Taylor blouse that was now two sizes too small.  Each boy would watch her with earnest eyes as she would feign wonder at our self-serving offerings – – boxes of See’s Candy (she was dieting), $2 perfume (it was French), Harlequin paperbacks or perhaps a handy item like a penknife or hardboiled egg cup. She would smile and profusely thank us, winking at my father as he proudly displayed yet another hideous tie. She would rise and begin to gather up the paper and clothes cast into selfish heaps as her progeny consumed themselves with toys that would be broken, swapped or disregarded within the week.

She would hesitate, listening to Mel Torme croon of ski hills, snow and romance in far off alpine chalets. She recalled that last December trip to Lake Tahoe with friends – – before she broke her leg skiing, before her husband, before her four boys – a distant star when she was eighteen years of pure anticipation. So long ago, like the echoes of carolers as they turn the corner to serenade another street.

Yes, it was another Christmas.  In the corner by her chair was a tired and torn Sears catalog. It had seen more action than a tree house Playboy magazine and was now merely an artifact of yesterday’s dreams – wishes that would lay dormant for another year.  She secretly made an early new year’s resolution. Perhaps this year, she might get her own colored pen.

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

New York City skyline from Continental Terminal C
Image via Wikipedia

Trains, Planes and New Year Resolutions

Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink and swore his last oath.  Today, we are a pious and exemplary community.  Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever.  ~Mark Twain

I am standing, no, sleep walking in Penn station at an ungodly morning hour staring at the rattling tote board of arrivals, departures and assigned track numbers.  A heroin addict has just scampered out in front of me like a giant subway rat clutching a handful of C&H sugar packets – presumably to temporarily mollify the beast of addiction stirring within her.  The dank corridors, low light and my bleak midwinter Vitamin D deficiency make me feel as if I am transforming into a vampire.  Perhaps sun deprivation is causing Seasonal Affective Disorder.  I consider the year that awaits me as I carry on to Newark airport and a business trip to Ohio – – another 365 days of yo-yoing stock markets, political uncertainty and twice-as-hard-to-be-half-as-good work environments. I know I am not in a good place when an elderly woman walking by with cup of coffee makes me despondent.  Am I losing my mind in this neon and halogen habitrail underworld of planes, trains and cheap hotels?

During thirty years of laboring in the vineyards of America Inc and Europe SSA, I do occasionally experience episodes of self-pity. I refer to them as my “Talking Heads Moments.”  Somewhere off in the distance, David Byrne is jerking his shoulders and crooning:

“And You May Find Yourself Living In A Shotgun Shack

And You May Find Yourself In Another Part Of The World

And You May Find Yourself Behind The Wheel Of A Large Automobile

And You May Find Yourself In A Beautiful House, With A Beautiful Wife

And You May Ask Yourself-Well…How Did I Get Here? ”

My descent into the limbo of self-assessment is predictable.  It appears like a noon-day demon every first few weeks of a new year – brought on by post holiday blues, back to work doldrums and the frenetic pace of travel that always precedes budgets and a fresh year of earnings expectations.

The dark thoughts scratch at my mind’s door on a snowy January morning in an economy hotel outside of Toledo where I am giving a speech. The Toledo Comfort Inn is the depressing vortex of my self-reflection.  My room resembles that old couch that you purchased from a second hand store for your college dorm room or first apartment. If one were to use a black light in this den of drab, it would most likely resemble a Manson Family crime scene. My wake up call through paper thin walls is the muffled hacking and unearthly sounds of a heaving travelling salesman as he takes his first cell call of the morning.  Against a backdrop of his bellicose cursing, I step under a showerhead the size of a thimble.  The hot water is a stinging stream of pins that push me against the tiled wall like a bystander in some riot. I am not amused. In these nadir moments of life, it is best not to write a memo to your boss, make major decisions or operate heavy machinery. On these days, life just seems to be one endlessly existential, nihilistic rut.

At breakfast, I remember why I hate staying in commuter hotels as I make eye contact with an elderly man from a tour group.  He has been staring at me for over 15 minutes.  His is not one of those, ” don’t I know you? Or ” didn’t we meet at…” kinds of stares.  This is an ” I wonder what your head would look like in my sweater drawer” stare. I move to a new seat in the waiting area.  The temperature in this overheated corral is around 100 degrees.  It’s like an Indian Sweat Lodge and I am about to see my spirit animal in a dehydrated state of blue-collar delirium. I remember that someone once told me when feeling low that I should “ move a muscle and change a thought”.  I decide to write down my goals for the year.

Ah yes, the New Year resolutions. Perhaps this simple act of planning will prove cognitively therapeutic – breaking me out of my mental doldrums and distracting me from the octogenarian serial killer who is day-dreaming about holding me hostage in his basement. I gaze across this lumpy ocean of Middle America grazing on glazed donuts and coca puffs in the breakfast lounge,  and wonder what happened to my grand goals and resolutions?  Where did the upstart populist Senator go ? What became of the college literature and history professor? Was it me or my goals ?

“How did I get here?

Goals and planning were compulsory in my family. Each January, we were asked to record our goals for the year.  My father insisted at age ten that we charted our “stars to steer by”.  We were expected to focus on personal, academic, financial and community goals. We thought it was a bit odd that we were the only kids in our class with a balanced scorecard and performance appraisals.  It was bad enough that we would receive a day planner every Christmas as a stocking stuffer.  What I was going to do with a calendar when I did not even have a secretary?  I do recall attempting entries for the first few days of January only to eventually orphan the calendar and finally condemn it to the garbage. Dad’s theory was that boys were like cars with no GPS device. Goals were important touchstones and fundamental DNA for any worthwhile life journey. “For God’s sake.  You would not drive to New York from Los Angeles, without a roadmap. Would you, son?”  This query was usually followed by my best stupid face as I incredulously pondered,” Why would I ever drive to New York?”

Our family patriarch promulgated goals.  Acceptable submissions included: Get good grades, don’t hit your brother, do not be rude, pick up your clothes, set aside $ 100 to your college fund and do not steal my (father’s) underwear. My dad would smile and clap me on the back, as I tendered and posted my public objectives. He would faithfully staple my manifesto to the breakfast room bulletin board along with my brothers’ best intentions.  These lists would remain like public health inspector assessments for the entire year. They were constant reminders of our commitment to self improvement.

As we moved into high school, we created two sets of goals.  Like any worthwhile double agent, we had public goals and private agendas. Under threat of death, we would share our goals and attempt to outdo one another with wild boasts about our prowess as men. Life was not about the future but about the venal here and now. Forget next year.   Quality of life was measured in three-month increments.   Carnal knowledge, sporting accomplishments, plausible hyperbole and bouts with acne impacted your social standing greater than any grade point average, religious denomination or economic trend. My 17th year was a critical transition year and I was determined to exploit my new driver’s license and fourteen hairs flourishing like palm trees on my upper lip.  My confidential aim for the stars aspirations included:

Goal 1 – Ask the majestic Kerry K on a date (I had adored this girl since the fifth grade but would experience a mild form of verbal constipation when I so much as laid eyes on her. For several years she believed I was mildly retarded)

Goal 2 – Attend 4 Dead concerts (I was not sure how I would get the money or transportation but becoming a frequent flyer at Grateful Dead concerts was the social equivalent of being a Platinum card holder)

Goal 3 – Do not drink and drive (we all saw the film “Red Asphalt” in driver’s ed), do not drink beer on weeknights or the night before any baseball games  (In the socially liberal 70’s, boys did indeed buy pony kegs and parents were not hauled off to jail for being ignorant of this fact. Moms sometimes returned the kegs to the liquor store to get the deposit back)

My resolutions would fluctuate from ambitious to aimless with each New Year but I never failed to put pen to paper. I was always focused, like Catholics at Lent, on striving to cure my defects of character and mastering suboptimal parts of my life. As I got older, resolutions became like spiritual deductibles that instantly reset each January 1.  My goals became mountaintops that I sought to conquer to test and define my character. I did not complete many resolutions.  Like any good baseball player, I considered a .300 average as worthy of being an all-star. In some cases, I did not complete a resolution for years.

I think of my goals and resolutions.  I still have not tracked a snow leopard up the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, published a book, battled with a massive sailfish in the Gulf Stream or studied the great religions of the world.  I have not left footprints on every continent.  However, there is still time. As I sit in the warmth of the Comfort Inn, I realize there is time. There are mountains to be climbed, books to be read, children to be educated and a world to be changed.  William Thomas said it best when he remarked, “it would not be New Years, if I did not have something to regret.”  To which FM Knowles would glibly reply, “ He who breaks a resolution is a weakling.  He who makes one is a fool.” Personally, I think Benjamin Franklin said it best, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better person. “

As for the resolutions of 1978, I finally asked Kerry K out but not until I was 22.  By then, the bloom was off the rose for both of us.  I did make those Grateful Dead concerts but all I can remember is some twirling girl named Golden Blossom.   I did not exactly master self-imposed prohibition but years later, I discovered my own boundaries and learned to appreciate a Saturday morning sunrise.

The snow has stopped and the Comfort Inn breakfast lounge has emptied.  It is time to get moving – into a new day and a new year.  I have miles to go before I sleep.

Who knows, perhaps this will be the best year ever.

Christmas In Kamchatka

Risk map in Wikipedia.
Image via Wikipedia

Christmas In Kamchatka

I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly – Steven Wright

Competitiveness is like a morning cowlick that never seems to settle. It pops up in the most prosaic circumstances – at the family room table across a game of Hearts as a son-in-law drops the queen of spades on his mother-in law for the third straight hand. It is in the sharp elbows that suddenly fly in your annual family “touch” football game and it is constant skirmishes along the borders of Kamchatka during the Christmas Day game of Risk.

We like playing games in my family.  I pretend not to be competitive but it is a thin veneer.  The art of enjoying any contest as a type A cutthroat adult is to always win but never let others catch you trying to win.  Let them speculate on your motives but do not get caught blatantly attempting to succeed.  It is important to fake humility and to reinforce this with periodic excursions away from the board game – – requiring people to call you back.  Forcing them to shout, “it is your turn” can make you a master of misdirection. You must appear to not care.  When crushing a nine-year-old niece in Sorry, you must seem sympathetic. ” I rolled a six? Oh I guess that means you are bumped back to home. …What do you know? I win! (Tears) Ohhh, don’t worry sweetheart (feigned sympathy), your uncle Michael was just REALLY lucky this time. Honey, don’t cry, (more fake commiseration) it’s only a silly game.”

Each year, the same board games reappear – relics of the age of Parker Brothers, imagination, 11 television channels and computers the size of city blocks. It was the era of Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble, Parcheesi and Yahtzee.  Later, we expanded our repertoire to include Pictionary and Trivial Pursuit. In fits of adult nostalgia, we re-purchased these games on EBay, at yard sales and on rainy days while on summer vacation assuming that we could vicariously recapture those magic nights through our children. Instead our children balked – bored by the games simplicity and alarmed by our hypocrisy as we espoused sportsmanship while nonchalantly trying to force them into Chapter 11 with hotels on Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana Avenues.

Once a year, the board games are excavated from an all purpose storage cabinet in our family room.  I am immediately on the defensive as my unimaginative teens complain about the games as too long, too boring or too simple. They possess that latent American gene that screams for instant resolution and constant action.

I am difficult to beat in Risk.  I am like the Chinese. While teenagers think in terms of minutes, I think in terms of hours. I fight a guerrilla war of attrition – first seizing the seemingly insignificant continent of Oceania comprised of Australia/Indonesia. I use the continent’s two bonus armies each turn to annoyingly pick away at anyone who tries to control Asia, Africa or the Americas. By the time my hordes of freedom fighters have rid the last continent of my blue, green and yellow opponents’ armies, no one is paying attention. They are watching television, texting or have left the room – indifferent Westerners bored with this protracted analog war of dice, luck and strategy. Perhaps the next American version of Risk should include a “surge” scenario that reduces the game duration to 18 minutes.  This seems to be the maximum amount of time this generation prefers to wage war.

Monopoly holds broader appeal although I always end up being forced to be the boot – which really bothers me. Others get to be the battleship, cannon or even a Yorkshire terrier. I am convinced the boot is jinxed, as I can never seem to land on Boardwalk when it is free to be purchased.  The boot usually lands on the luxury tax space until someone has built a hotel on Park Place and then it seems happy to pay $1500 for a shoeshine.

There are two types of Monopoly players – Main Street and Wall Street.  Wall Streeters buy everything, make deals and forge alliances.  They mortgage their own properties to raise more money to buy more properties and build more hotels. They are always one dice roll from bankruptcy. These risk-addicted individuals take on maximum leverage and seek to create a bubble that will pop in the face of their Main Street opponent.  Main Street is cautious but naive.  They buy properties like Mediterranean and Vermont Avenues because it is cheap to build hotels.  Main Street buys utilities and railroads.  Against the advice of armchair observers, Main Street trustingly trades Park Place to Wall Street for $1000 cash, Connecticut Ave and three free “lands”. An hour later, Main Street has mortgaged his last property and is begging for one last turn so he might pass Go and avoid losing his racecar.   The Wall Street ruthlessly crushes him like a cigarette butt.

In our house, my opponents are subject to constant third party coaching from in-laws and do-gooders who do not want to risk actually competing but loiter like homeless people and shamelessly kibitz. “Watch out for your Dad.” shouts my mother-in-law.  “Don’t do that deal, sweetie,” my wife says to my son. “Don’t you see in one hour, you will land on Park Place and owe him everything?” I look up with a frozen perfunctory grin – “who are you people, regulators? Don’t you have homes? Or perhaps some Christmas cards to write?”

My bloodthirsty competitiveness was borne out of a third child Darwinian struggle for attention in a four-child ecosystem. Competition was everywhere and my father did not necessarily attempt to diffuse it.  He correctly assumed that the youngest would struggle more fiercely and in doing so, perhaps be that much more braced for what lay ahead in the great oceans of life.

There was no mercy when playing games in our male dominated household. Games taught you valuable life skills such as “ the game face”, “ blackmail, extortion and intimidation. Each Christmas competition was a page torn from Sun Tzu’s Art of War.  “Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate. “ My brother was the master of blackmail and misinformation.  He understood when Sun Tzu mused, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “He could make me choke faster than a large piece of filet mignon. I can remember that fateful Christmas when I finally prevailed over him at Risk. As I harassed his pitiful armies across North America to a last stand in Greenland, I understood the sense of power of Alexander, Genghis Kahn and Caesar.   On this night, I was master of the universe.

Later Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary tested our left and right brains.  Trivial pursuit is more daunting and clearly creates social and generational barriers.  As a sports, history, literature and movie buff, I can adequately vie for 2/3’s of the pie wedges.   However, I am lost in geography and without Bunsen burner in science.  Trivial Pursuit has produced a variety of themed versions that hold more attention from younger family members.  However, the popular culture version has about as much appeal to me as a regular culture – a Petri dish of wriggling micro-celebrity parasites that will only infect and weaken society. If you ever catch me playing a game where the “Octo-Mom” is an answer to anything, please kill me.

Pictionary is very frustrating. As an artist, I am outraged when my wife’s Pictionary partner correctly interprets her Neanderthal hieroglyphic representing “global warming” while my impatient teammate is screaming out names of countries as I am trying to correctly draw the horn of Africa on my brilliant rendition of the earth.  Pictionary was invented by the legions of the artistically challenged that wanted to get back at their more talented right-brained siblings.  Pictionary is hell.

There are card games – hearts, poker, gin and bridge.  All of these games afford opportunities for reprisals, heckling and old-fashioned spirited competition and as the last card falls, the final property flips into foreclosure or the final pie piece is won, there is a great sigh.  Arms stretch and a slow migration occurs – usually to the refrigerator as the vanquished look to food for solace and comfort.  The game accoutrements are collected and carefully returned to their boxes.  It will be another year before we do battle.  However, there are really no losers.  We have huddled together once again like all families since the beginning of time.  A tiny human tribe – loving, fragile and imperfect – drawn together by competition and the chance, perhaps, to proclaim themselves ruler of the holiday.

A Saxon Christmas

A Country Christmas - 1913 Vintage Xmas card I...
Image by IronRodArt - Royce Bair via Flickr

A Saxon Christmas

 

If Christmas Day be bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year”, Saxon Farmers Parable

The city along the Thames unfolds for the Christmas season like a flower opening to the sun. From Bond to Regent Streets on to Sloan Street and Kings Road, the twinkling white lights and the festive green of pine boughs are thoughtfully decorated along London’s main shopping arteries.  In small villages, the traditional high streets adorn lights and tasteful holiday cheer.  The West end of London transforms each year into a garrulous, friendly face like old Fezziwig grabbing you and twirling you around the open floor of his counting house.

Global warming has conspired to deny London its most famous winter accessory – a dusting of snow that accents ancient stone churches and sweeps through its narrow mews and lanes.  The pubs, now smokeless, become even more inviting – – deep cavernous hubs of good cheer and raucous debate.  Down to Trafalgar Square, a massive Norwegian pine is erected each year – – an annual gift of friendship from Oslo to commemorate the friendship and sacrifice the Brits extended to their Scandinavian brethren during World War II.  Skaters glide across opaque rinks near Marble Arch and Oxford Street.

Still, as with all things British, the holiday season is understated relative to America. Father Christmas is less inclined to appear on every street corner and instead runs a more discreet operation, much like MI5 does for domestic security.  Christmas carols are much more traditional and echo with reverence and deep religious conviction. Although less than 8% of Brits regularly attend church, great Norman and medieval churches are constant reminders of this country’s history of religious fervor.  The Protestants and  Catholics, now at peace, compete with many other religions, for hearts and minds at this special time of year.  Each vicar or priest is particularly attentive to their midnight mass or service.  The chill of a clear, December 24th night blended with a brisk walk across an ancient graveyard to Westminster Abbey, Southwark or St Paul’s cathedrals is enough to stimulate the most latent religious gene in anyone in attendance on Christmas Eve.

We know that the Christian holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth has its roots in the  ancient white chalk across the Plain of Salisbury, home to the mysterious Druids whose most enigmatic contribution to the history stands ominously as Stonehenge.  The winter solstice, known as “yule”, was a time of celebration as the dark days of winter were slowly giving way to longer days and shorter nights.  Homes were adorned with evergreens as a gesture of hope that warmer days and better harvests lay ahead. The celebration around the 22nd of December was an agrarian ritual.  Somewhere along the way, the Christian celebration of the birth of their messiah coincided with this festival set in the bleak midwinter.

The British celebration of Boxing Day which is on December 26th is one of many tradition differences that arise between Mother England and the USA. Other irregularities range from the harmonies of certain carols different and a much more subdued commercialism.  As I studied my English holiday tradition, I read in the London Times of some ancient yuletide rituals that had some how managed to survive centuries of transition and change.  In Devon, there is the tradition of the Ashen Faggot.  The faggot which can be a yule log or a traditional bundle of sticks is bound with bands of green ash branches and tossed into a blazing fire.  Each unmarried woman chooses a band and whichever band bursts open first indicates which maid is likely to be the next to be wed. The chaos carries on to Yorkshire in the most obscure seasonal cavorting called “Mumping”. Mumping involves going house to house with a Christmas tree followed by a resounding carol and then begging for a treat.

On to Herefordshire and wassailing ! Wassail comes from a mid fifteenth century English greeting, “waes hael”, which means either “Be well” or could be have been started by a very drunken, toothless Welshman who  forgot his toast and raised his glass of ale anyway and shouted ” what the hell!”  Irrespective of its roots, Wassail is a powerful ale based drink that was customarily mixed in a large bowl or tureen – – mixed with sugar, spiced apples, cream, spices and even small rodents (just kidding).  Saxon farmers drunk with holiday cheer (and copious amounts of wassail) would move from farm to farm greeting one another, occasionally attacking the odd Norman bystander.  At the end of December, the feudal Lord would herald the New Year and wish all good luck who belonged to the feudal family.  The serfs, in turn, “waes-haeled” back at him, and in doing so, confirmed fealty for another twelve months or at least until bonuses were paid.  The drunken spree took an even stranger turn in rural areas where the wassailants would begin to pound on trees in the orchards, bringing good luck and making it difficult for dormant pests to get a good night’s rest.  This often led to improved crops and several arrests. When reviewing this practice, the London Times went on to muse,“ and we wonder why they had such a problem recognizing that their cows were mad”.

We next travel across to Ireland, where we walk along the narrow streets and canals of James Joyce.  Tradition runs deep in this wonderful part of the world and the vigilant pursuit of good luck was always a priority.  The ancient tradition of The Hunting of the Wren is a strange Boxing Day activity.  A group of men would kill a wren, hang the dead bird on a pole and sell its feathers as lucky charms.   So, if you see drunken Irish men running around on December 25th trying to catch small birds, you have some cultural context.

The holiday season is inevitably about family.  Perhaps the Irish, more than most, seem to understand that anything can be overcome by preserving family, faith and good fortune.  As this Irish prayer conveys, a holiday is a time to give thanks and to ask one’s Maker for blessings and perhaps, the slightest edge:

May those who love us, keep loving us

For those who do not love us, may God turn their ankles

So we will know them by their limp.

Oh Tannenbomb

A Christmas tree inside a home.
Image via Wikipedia

Oh Tannenbomb

Before the ice is in the pools
Before the skaters go,
Or any cheek at nightfall
Is tarnished by the snow —

Before the fields have finished,
Before the Christmas tree,
Wonder upon wonder
Will arrive to me!

— Emily Dickinson

The holiday season is a time of grand irony. It is a wassail of potent ingredients — cinnamon tradition, candy-stripe anticipation, clove-scented memories, orange-peel nostalgia and egg-yolk dysfunction. The mélange simmers over the course of December, building into a highly combustible brew. Add in a few relatives, alcohol and close quarters and you are in for a Christmas full of secular surprises.

Our Titanic holiday season was officially christened with the thump of an ancient train set that would be heaved onto our playroom floor after being wrested from the spiders and dust mites that reigned supreme in our basement. It was followed by a six-foot plastic Santa, illuminated with a powerful 200-watt bulb, placed precipitously on the seldom-used balcony outside my parents’ upstairs window. To those passing by in motor vehicles at night, it appeared we were being overrun by extraterrestrials. “Good God, Norma, there’s an alien climbing in the window of that house!”

Christmas lights followed, faithfully tracing the eaves of our red-tiled Mediterranean home. Each light was nailed with a sharp swear word as my father blasphemed his way through the decoration process. The gods despised his profane embrace of the Christmas season and would torment him with strands of colorful light bulbs that would never fully illuminate. As a conservative, he considered these electrical outages a challenge to his American ingenuity and resolve. These lights were like small banana republics: If one light fell into communistic darkness, a domino effect of failures would surely follow, resulting in an entire house, perhaps even a neighborhood, yielding to yuletide ignominy. A house with broken bulbs said much about a man and his inability to provide for his family. His battles with extension cords, burned-out fuses and blacked-out gaps of lights were the stuff of legends and were always punctuated by unholy utterances.

“The man that lives in daddy’s mouth is saying bad words again,” reported my younger brother to my mother. He adored my father too much to accept the fact that dad had probably once won a gold medal at a sailor-cursing convention. When the defective bulbs were finally bested, the colored lights had no logical sequence and ran on in analog confusion — two reds, a blue, two greens followed by a white, and then two more reds. Across the Mason-Dixon financial dividing line known as Huntington Drive, St Albin’s Road homeowners would skillfully string alternating red and green lights across roofs and around each dormer window. Their 100 foot pine trees were brilliantly lit with a palette of perfectly numbered lights that flickered like a thousand roman candles, while our roofline and single hibiscus plant looked as if we were the home office for the Center for the Color Blind.

The advent calendar soon arrived as an important calculator as we counted down to Christmas Eve. This magical talisman with its fragile pre-cut “doors” elicited irresistible curiosity from each child, especially after my older brother told me that the Catholics used these calendars to pass messages to one another. It could very well contain the secrets of Fatima. By Dec. 3, every window had been vandalized by children willing to risk eternal damnation for the opportunity to decipher the odd illustrations that presumably had been sanctioned by the Vatican. Not far behind would be the old Gumps department store box filled with chipped and scuffed Nativity figurines. We would watch while my mother would faithfully arrange them, humming the theme song from the Harry Simeone album, The Little Drummer Boy. Within hours, the nativity was reconfigured into a highly inappropriate scene where all participants and its choreographer were surely going to hell. About this same time, Baby Jesus would disappear and miraculously appear days later in the dog’s mouth as he lay on the floor chewing what my mother had thought was a bone. It was now time to start lobbying for our Christmas tree.

My mother was the daughter of a German immigrant and was orthodox about the mechanics of purchasing of our tree. Der Weihnachtsbaum could be procured no earlier than two weeks before the Christmas Day. The tree must be at least 7 feet tall, a blue spruce pine and must be purchased at the local tree lot run by the YMCA. My mother was very loyal to the Y for keeping her boys occupied and out of jail. My father dreaded the entire process of acquiring the tree. To visit the Y lot in the fading glow of sparkling lights, with its army of clueless volunteers who could not be fired because they were in fact, volunteers, was the equivalent of being forced to attend a village idiots convention. He never referenced the tree lot by name, but instead chose to refer to it simply as “Clod City.”

The men rubbed their chins and walked around our car. There must have been six of them. “How you want to put this on the wagon?” asked an overweight, ruddy-faced fellow holding a hand axe. “I got an idea,” shouted a tall, dour mortician of a man, “let’s swing it across the back and push it forward.” My father would be apoplectic with contempt at this point, imagining the deep scratches in his Fleetwood station wagon’s roof. Invariably, he could tolerate the confederacy of dunces no longer and would order us to help him hoist the evergreen up and over the luggage rack rails that lined the roof of the car. The men, already sensing my father’s distain for their logistical retardation, melted away mumbling something to the effect, “it’s all yours, *&%^$!” Christmas seemed to be a time where everyone swore. A half hour later, our car would ease into our driveway, after an excruciating snail’s pace 5-mph drive across town. Our spiritual education was not yet complete.

The tree would be trimmed, adorned with lights, festooned with ancient ornaments and carefully positioned in the far corner of our living room where the dog would be least likely to urinate on it. Our tree stand had been handed down, presumably from Italians, which caused our tree to lean like the famous campanile of Pisa. The perpetual tilt of our holiday sapling was an emotional hemorrhoid to my father, leading him to constantly manipulate its position with primitive joists of newspaper and magazines. This, in turn, would guarantee its continued instability until the inevitable day arrived, when a door would slam, a person might raise their voice or the wind would blow outside, and the tree, on cue, would crash to the ground with a shatter of ornament and light bulb glass. The “Crashing of the Christmas Tree” was a rich tradition in our stucco cocoon of abnormality and as with all family dysfunction, seemed quite normal. Years later, I would become restless and irritable as Christmas approached, not understanding that the ritual of going to Clod City to curse our way through the purchase of the perpetually falling evergreen was as important to me as the presents, ceremony and gilded glitter. It was, after all, a familiar and reassuring routine.

Years later, I visited my parents at Christmas time. They had long since retired and were living blissfully in a seaside empty nest. I noticed their tree, fashioned out of wrought iron, presumably designed by some famous sculptor catering to those who are still recovering from post-traumatic tree disorder. “Nice tree, Dad. I’m surprised Mom let you get out of going to Clod City.” He thought for a moment and then flashed a mischievous smile. “Those guys were the stupidest human beings on the planet. Why, I remember….” I looked at my mother, who was laughing, and smiled, “Merry Christmas, Mom.” 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

Don’t Talk With Your Mouth Full

 

What we’re really talking about is a wonderful day set aside on the fourth Thursday of November when no one diets.  I mean, why else would they call it Thanksgiving?  ~Erma Bombeck, “No One Diets on Thanksgiving,”

 It’s 6:00PM on Thanksgiving day and the house is like an opium den.  Scores of adults are draped over furniture, lying on their sides staring vacantly at the Alcorn State versus Miami of Ohio football game.  Most do not even know where Alcorn State is but when sedated with tryptophan, a Pop Warner preseason game can hold one’s attention.  The sounds of dishes and glasses being washed somewhere in the distance will not motivate the majority of these living dead to move.  They may shift slightly reaching out a pathetic hand, trying to stop a child racing by and co-opt them into bringing them a diet coke.    

 In the house of my youth, my father and grandfather were always first through our Thanksgiving Day food line.  Chivalry died each Thanksgiving at 2:59pm when the lords of the manor felt it was their prerogative to initiate our caroling of consumption.  The men would move slowly like bull elephants, surveying each dish like discriminating judges at a Midwestern bake off.  To my mother’s horror, they would heap massive portions on their plates, amassing Mt Everests of food.  My grandfather would usually stuff a roll in his mouth as he inched along, and would occasionally turn and spray bread crumbs on us saying something completely incomprehensible.  “Dad, don’t talk with your mouth full”, my mother would scold him.  She was quietly doing the math on food portions and realized that it was now unlikely that anyone under six foot tall would be eating anything other than yams and a couple of green string beans. 

 Thanksgiving was highlighted by a morning playing smash mouth football at the local elementary school.  We pulled every muscle, bent every finger, bloodied every nose and assumed the identity of every pro and college football star over the course two decades of the November Thursdays.  Everyone had the same idea and the fields would quickly crowd with familiar and strange new faces.  Each kid would show up with relatives from across the country who were making their every other year pilgrimages to visit relations.  We filled the offensive line with first and second cousins, kids with strange accents, hailing from exotic places like Dee-moyne and Merry-land.  They wore football jerseys with affiliations to schools such as the University of Iowa and The Maryland Terps.  In some cases, these kids played dirty using little known adult techniques such as crack back and body blocks.  There would be sudden fights, the way animals suddenly turn on each other at a watering hole as they seek alpha status.  Just as quickly, punches turned to slaps on the back.  “Hey, Hawkeye, good tackle!”

 The score of the game was never completely tracked and invariably, the entire game broke down into a massive scrum, once the first group of kids pealed away to go home.  Usually a twelve year old girl would ride up to the school fence and yell, “Jimmy, Mom says to get your butt home right now or you are going to be in HUGE trouble..”  As we melted away from the muddy grass, we piled through our back door full of dirt and bravado. Our mother would gasp and tell us to remove all our dirty clothes on the back porch. We would sprint naked past a sitting room of elderly relatives, perhaps flashing a rear end in a cheeky response to a dare.  Off in the distance, CBS sports announcers, Pat Summeral and Tom Brookshire were overheard discussing some aspect of a pathetic Detroit Lions offense. Thanksgiving was the one holiday likely to be celebrated by everyone you knew irrespective of their religious affiliation.  A baking turkey blended with the aroma of sautéed onions and stuffing created the most reassuring of all moods.  It was a time for family – -no distractions, gifts, holiday cards, competing social obligations, religious services or pressured traditions.  It was about eating and talking with your mouth was full.  

 Thanksgiving also heralded the beginning of the season of family dysfunction.  Like the swallows returning each year to the California Mission at San Juan Capistrano, age old scars and disagreements could suddenly flare.  “Liberals” and “Conservatives” were terms assigned to people as we listened to the generations of adults debating the economy and foreign policy.  I ascertained enough to learn that liberals were really enemy Soviet agents and were doing their best to turn America into a Baltic state.  For example, LA’s newly created HOV lane, known as the “Diamond Lane“ was created by a liberal who wanted to encourage you to have more children so you could get more money from welfare.  I assumed that meant the majority of the cars in that lane were driven by Catholics.  I was not sure what welfare was but I began to suspect having more than four kids was a great financial burden.  Why else would you need financial assistance?

 Our governor was Ronald Reagan.  He could do no wrong.  He looked like the guy you wanted to give the ball to on the last play of the game because somehow he would score.  In this era of less political correctness, the tenor and tone grew sharper as the meal wore on.  My Mom would pretend not to hear.  My grandmother was from a generation that had long since abandoned personal views that differed from her husband. My grandfather would nod in agreement and pour himself his fourteenth scotch. This was the stuff Norman Rockwell brushed over a bit in his painting.

 As the voices rose, every woman would excuse herself, ostensibly to help clean up, but really to escape the dogma and vitriol.  It was a sort of dine and dash.  We loitered near the table torn by boredom and the hope to overhear one of my father’s infamous blue streaks of swear words.  No amount of pumpkin, pecan or apple pie could anesthesize his dislike for Democrats.  As we got older and the table filled with socially responsible daughter-in- laws and independent thinking spouses, my father softened his words and picked his metaphors more carefully. Yet, his passion and his deep conviction could not always be restrained.  Thanksgiving was a time to be grateful and gratitude included appreciating those that kept our economy chugging, our country safe from foreign interests and our minds out of the gutter.  It seemed reasonable, just a little devoid of compassion.  My mother would always try to stem the bellicose editorial by suggesting, “Honey, don’t talk with your mouth full”.

 Today, the bodies are still draped across the house like accident victims.  The Thanksgiving topics are more politically correct. However, the epicenter remains family – – the chance to fill rooms with the voices of generations, laughing, debating, wrestling, struggling, rising and falling.  The spirit of Thanksgiving is still all about “us”.  We are a unit – – a team that looks out for one another, tolerates each other’s strange foibles and diverse political views and remain deeply bonded by the fact that no one on earth knows us better or loves us more unconditionally. 

 John-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell, is other people”.  When it comes to Thanksgiving, hell is an empty house and having someone NOT tell you not to talk with your mouth full. . 

 

 

 

 

 

Snow Man

Snow Man

 

“ The sun is shining, the grass is green.  The orange and palm trees sway.

There’s never been such a day, in Beverly Hills LA

But it’s December twenty fourth

And I am longing to be…… up north”

 

Mel Torme, Musical intro to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas

 

No one feels much sympathy for Southern Californians at Christmas.  While east coast temperatures hover just above freezing, a massive perennial winter high pressure system builds above the Great Salt Lake Basin creating a jet stream of warm winds known as  Santa Anas.  This holiday mistral swirls through  the high deserts of Antelope Valley and sweeps down through narrow canyon passes, inland valleys and suburbs tumbling down to the shores of the Pacific ocean.  In its aftermath the waves of wind leave LA basin residents with crystal clear vistas up to 100 miles, breathtaking days of 80 degree weather and tinder dry hills that predictably erupt into unpredictable wild fires.  If you live in LA long enough, you also associate this weather pattern with the heightened potential for earthquakes. We referred to this double whammy period as “shake and bake time”.  Yet, despite the threat of the ground opening up underneath us or a conflagration of epic proportions taking out half of the hillside neighborhoods, most Angelinos still stubbornly maintain a belief that Heaven’s phone number is prefaced with a 310, 714 or 213 area code. 

If you are a surfer or an acolyte of George Hamilton, this weather pattern was made for you.  However, if you were nine years old and dreaming of a white Christmas, you really felt like you drew the short candy cane.  I recall listening intently to traditional holiday carols that waxed nostalgically of deep snow, candles in frosted windows, roaring fires (in fireplaces, not on the brush covered slope behind your house) and lush pine scented evergreens.  I kept closing my eyes and wishing I would wake up in a river rock and log cabin with wood floors cushioned with animal skin rugs.  When I opened my eyes, I disappointedly had not been transported from my Spanish style home with red tile floors.  I would have traded ten sand castles for one snowman.

 

The build up to New Years with its annual celebrations of The Rose Parade and Rose Bowl did more for the economy of Southern California than any chamber of commerce advertising.  As alabaster Big 10 fans spilled out of their motor homes from Columbus, Ohio to watch their team play the Pac 10 champs, they would rub their eyes in disbelief at the palms, citrus and eucalyptus swaying against aqua blue skies and the purple San Gabriel Mountains.  Yes, this was the land of milk and honey, and when combined with wheat germ and yogurt, it was the birthplace of the first protein shake. 


LA did have seasons.  Two to be precise – – spring and summer.  You never saw Fall.  It happened out of the corner of your eye, like a night blooming Sirius. Usually around October 29th, the one deciduous tree in your neighborhood would have its leaves turn brown and then drop unceremoniously to the ground in the span of 12 minutes.  It was as if someone had sprayed the foliage with Agent Orange the previous evening.  Winter weather was an oxymoron.  There was a possibility for rain and its arrival would have TV stations preempting the Vatican releasing the secrets of Fatima.  As a storm approached, LA media would interrupt programming to warn of a “winter storm set to slam LA.“  The entire LA basin would be petrified at the thought of two inches of rain and an inch of snow above 4000 feet in the high mountains.  There were mudslides from burned hills, eroded beach front property and treacherous freeways made slick by oil unwilling to mix with rain.  It was Armageddon.   But, the chaos was short-lived.   The storms would move through quickly, teasing you like an advertisement whose fine print would read –
“All storms not guaranteed to last more than 24 hours.  Do not purchase sweaters, jackets or corduroy pants as it will never be cold enough to snow.”

I wanted it to snow.  Snow made everything possible and snow made Christmas possible.  Santa had a sleigh, not bicycle.  He wore boots, not flip flops.  I wanted to experience a White Christmas in the worst way.   I wanted the thrill of watching a charcoal curtain of clouds pregnant with flakes tumble right over my home like a wave crashing across the base of a lighthouse leaving a foot of heaven in its wake.   Snow purified everything.  It fueled my nostalgic vision of Christmas past – – simpler times of Currier & Ives with scenes of caroling, sleigh rides and ice skating.  Snow was the epicenter of every small town’s holiday celebration.  The snow would mask the blight and blemishes of our hard lives.  It brightened old buildings; it rejuvenated old towns and frosted tangled brown, denuded woods.  It inspired Robert Frost to stop in his sleigh and ponder the deeper meaning of his life and then travel the final miles before he could sleep. 

My meteorological prayers went unanswered for years with the occasional rain storm and cold snap as a pathetic tease.  When the odd storm would work its way through LA prior to Christmas, the mountains would be frosted white at elevations over 3000 feet.  I would beg my father to drive up to the snow — to explore, slide down steep, slick ravines and shudder with delight as cold winds bent pine boughs and blew diamond whisps across our faces. He would always balk.  He hated snow.  Growing up in the Midwest, he still harbored deep resentments of bitter, sub-zero days dressed in hair-shirt, woolen clothes and forced like a penitent pilgrim to navigate his way to middle school in Evanston, Illinois.  Snow meant black ice, sudden colds, cabin fever and transportation disruption.  I was in disbelief.  I could not find the scar indicating where his soul had been surgically removed but it was clear to me that we were not of like minds.  Perhaps I was adopted?

This fascination with snow and the holidays lasted well into my adulthood.  I finally moved to a colder climate and experienced my first snow storm on a mid-December night.  As the snow pounded Connecticut, I went out to buy a Christmas tree.  The fact that my car almost went off the road three times, or that I was the only fool at the Kiwanis tree lot, or that rock salt literally ate my best pair of loafers would not soil this first memory.  Even two weeks later as I was using disgusting week old kitty litter to throw under my stranded car in my icy driveway, the mood had yet to fade.  It was snow.  It was a foot deep and it was in my yard.  It was MY snow. It would be a white Christmas.  I was elated each night as I went to bed and gazed out like Good King Wenceslas on the blanketed woods.


It’s been four years since my rebirth as a New Englander.  Other than an entire room in my cellar filled with oil tanks and large humming machinery which I continue to avoid because I have no idea what it is or what it does, I am slowly assimilating to the land of four seasons.  I have also come to know the uglier side of Jack Frost and the reckless chaos he can wreak on my home and family. However, anything Old Man Winter dishes out before January 1 is a pardonable offense.  We are finally neighbors and we are making up for lost Christmases.  While some view winter as something to be endured, this romantic will take his children’s advice for ensuring a snow day by placing nine spoons under my pillow and wearing my pajamas inside out.  As far as I am concerned, “Let it snow!”

Just A Book, Please

Just a Book, Please

The holiday season sparks a deep need to share and shower loved ones with gifts and overtures of affection.  On the rare occasion that my spouse actually does ask me what I  desire for the holidays, I respond the same way:  “Get me a book “.

If I were to spend my “perfect day” (a day defined as 24 hours spent doing exactly what I want to do), there would be considerable time allotted for browsing Elm Street Books or wandering the aisles of our local library.  The unique identity and reassuring rhythm of any small town is always defined by its eclectic mix of local businesses.  As we grow older, these physical landmarks become important ballast in a world that is increasingly raked by the winds of change. We need books.  These vehicles fashioned out of pulp and binding are important equilibrium in our intellectual and emotional lives.  In an era of instant gratification and enabled learning, we seem to be losing our ability to reflect and to cultivate our senses of imagination and wonder.  We live in a world whose mysteries and magic seem to be disappearing faster than glaciers and ice shelves from global warming.

Growing up, we spent long evenings listening to my father reading Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, our imaginations fueled by the brilliant illustrations of Norman Rockwell and NC Wyeth.  A child’s mind like any muscle needs constant exercise.  Our Sunday evenings were reserved for Harper Lee, Charles Dickens and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  The shadows of my bedroom became a safe haven for fierce Indians, blood thirsty pirates and the forces of the unknown.  I committed to memory a Tale of Two Cities where Tellson’s Bank would assign young apprentice bankers to work “deep in the bowels of the bank until they had sufficiently aged like blue cheese, with white hair and pale, bluish skin, wherein they might be more credibly put in front of customers”.  I recall the selfless sacrifice of Sydney Carton and the venomous quilting of the vindictive Madame Desfarges.  As I got older, hormones and physical pursuits overshadowed my adolescent passion for books and my bookshelves gathered only dust.

In the early 1980s, my passion for reading was reignited upon a chance visit to the civil war battle field, Chickamauga outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.  As I was perusing the bookstore, I found a Pulitzer Prize winning book called The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.   I stayed up the entire night in my hotel sitting at the elbow of an agonized and loyal confederate general Longstreet as he questioned Robert E Lee’s tactics.  I rode with Buford, his cavalry and their Spencer’s repeating rifles as they held Cemetery Ridge against a much larger Confederate force.  I witnessed an obscure English professor from Bowdoin College charge his ammunition depleted men down Little Round Top against a determined rebel advance to effectively win the battle of Gettysburg for the Union.

How could this gem of a book have eluded me?  I recommitted myself to regain my days spent losing track of time as I disappeared into a great book.  Work, children and shorter blocks of free time all conspired against me.  However, my local bookstore inspired me and became escape to uncharted continents filled with people, adventure and intrigue.  I copied pages from the NY Public Library’s Book of Lists that detailed every novel and book that had ever won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction or non fiction.  I gave this guide to my spouse at the holidays and said, “this is all I want – – books”.  As the wrapping was torn, I was reintroduced to some familiar friends from my college curricula – Harper Lee, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Tuchman, Ernest Hemmingway, Herman Wouk, William Styron and John Updike.  I also landed on new islands occupied by writers as diverse as Manhattan.  I met the tragically bipolar author, John Kennedy Toole, who wrote a single novel, committed suicide and only after his mother had uncovered his cryptic, scribbled manuscript and offered it to a local university literature professor did the world discover the hilariously autobiographical, A Confederacy of Dunces.

I stumbled across Joseph Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor which ranks among the great WWII novels and is relatively unknown.  MacKinlay Cantor took me into the abject squalor of Andersonville prison and into the psyche of a conflicted Southerner, Ira Claffey. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie offered me an unsanitized journey through the experience of Vietnam and helped me to contour a more balanced view of the unintended consequences of dogmatic foreign policy.  In The Haunted Land, Tina Rosenberg reverently walked among the ghosts and shattered realities of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.  Rosenberg wrestles with how an entire region of Europe, once subjugated under the boot of the Soviet Union, recovers from its trauma and the effective destruction of its identity.

The books idle patiently each night by my bed stand, which has become a massive slip with scores of boats waiting for a captain.  My sense of wonder and curiosity has slowly been restored.  For this holiday fanatic, there’s nothing better than getting a book for Hanukkah or Christmas, especially one that provokes new ideas or provides deeper context on complex issues.  Whether the present takes you down the an unmapped tributary of the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt in River of Doubt or lands you on a Pacific island fighting a brutal unseen enemy in Norman Mailer’s Naked And the Dead, it will take you away.   Walking into the dust and detritus of other’s ideas and narratives, you are once again a young explorer – – brilliant, sacred, profane and idealistic in search of discarded ideas of previous generations that might help you make a little more sense out of life’s mysteries.   Emily Dickenson once wrote “there is no frigate like a book to take us away “.  A bookstore is so much more than a place to park the kids while you nurse your latte.  It’s a massive port of ideas, views and knowledge and it is where our past, present and futures converge.

For Christmas this year, don’t buy me a tie, socks or a new shirt.  Just give me books!  Lots of books!