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.

T-Rex By The Tail

ImageI am publishing the first chapter of my new novel.  It will be published on Amazon – both Kindle and soft cover – by mid June.  Hopefully, just in time for Father’s Day.  It’s been six years in the making but really fifty years in its creation.  Some readers will completely relate to the characters and others will choose to scratch their heads and wonder how drivel can find its way into print.  Like all art, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.  And yes, the line seperating truth and fiction is sometimes measured in inches..  Feel free to subscribe to the blog if you enjoy it. And, keep your eyes peeled for an announcement when the book is made available on-line and in a few bookstores. Cheers !

Book One – The Cretaceous Period

Chapter 1

 

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He is more particular. . . . The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.

—Robert Frost

October 1974

In the past six months, the Patton boys—Matthew, John, George, and Freddie—had hit the rock bottom of adolescence. The neighbors had begun quietly referring to Susie as “that poor woman.”

On that particular evening, Karl was returning from a seven-day business trip to London. As he pulled down the brown garage door for the night, he recalled his last phone conversation with Susie just after he’d arrived in England. They’d been commiserating about the challenges of raising four boys, and, for the first time, Susie sounded tired and uncertain of her ability to hold down the fort in Karl’s absence.

A week later, Karl staggered through the back door, his military bearing and meticulous dress having disintegrated into a wrinkled suit, a tie at half-mast, and dark circles under his sharp brown eyes. He dropped his chrome gray Samsonite suitcase on the back porch and stared in befuddlement. Susie had her back turned to him and was gazing vacantly into an illuminated oven. Her floral apron was tied tightly at her waist, accentuating a figure that had maintained elegant curves despite infrequent exercise and four pregnancies.

Turning, she used her forearm to sweep back a tangle of hair from her eyes, blowing away a few remaining strands with pursed lips. The raven-haired girl with the cornflower blue eyes who had once won an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike contest at the Marin County Fair looked as though she had been dragged behind a bread truck—for a week.

The usually immaculate house was as disheveled as Susie was, with laundry piled in the hallway and dirty dishes stacked haphazardly in the sink.

Susie didn’t greet him as she normally did after a business trip—hurrying to give him a kiss and run her fingers through his flattop hair. Typically, she led him into the dining room, poured two glasses of cabernet, served him dinner, and listened sympathetically to the vagaries of the insurance industry, and its endless conveyor belt of incompetent people who populated Karl’s universe.

On this evening, however, Susie launched immediately into an unfiltered inventory of the week’s misdemeanors. Her voice was an interesting admixture of consternation, resignation, sarcasm and thinly veiled amusement.

“Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?” she said as she raised her right finger into the air. “George and Bruce Hegarty lobbed lemons at what they thought was a slow-moving group of cars near Magnolia Road. It turned out to be a funeral procession. It seems as though the boys have never seen a hearse before.”

She opened the broken back-porch door and jerked her head toward the garage where Karl had parked only moments before. “It’s possible you didn’t notice that our garage is lined with stolen goods. John and the Hughes twins used the glass cutting kit we gave to him for Christmas to break into school. The boys are uncertain what to do with five overhead projectors. Apparently they need to find someone who specializes in fencing audiovisual equipment.”

Turning back toward Karl, she allowed the broken door to swing shut before she unconsciously arched her rear end to stop it a millisecond before it slammed.

Reentering the lighted part of the kitchen, she sighed. Matthew had a particularly good week. It seems your oldest son and five of his friends were suspended for streaking through what he swears was an all-girls’ high school. It turned out to be the all-girls’ elementary school. The girls are traumatized, to say the least.

And for the grand finale, Freddie’s school counselor thinks he may be suffering from something called traumainduced pyromania. The counselor wants to meet with both of us. She seemed to think this form of personality disorder is the only acceptable excuse for his fascination with setting fires. We have yet to diagnose his ‘trauma’ but we have been invited to meet with the school psychologist.  Otherwise, everything was okay.”

She shook her head and gave Karl a rueful, cynical smile. In the pale light of a Fridayevening kitchen, she was stunning. In spite of her faded lipstick and disordered hair, she radiated femininity, grace, charm, elegance, and steel, just as she had every day of her life.

“And how was your week…dearest?”

After twenty years of marriage, Karl could detect one of Susie’s rigged, rhetorical questions when he heard it. He was dog tired and jet-lagged after an eleven-hour flight from Heathrow. The last thing he wanted was a fight. He had spent a week entertaining Lloyd’s of London underwriters and debauched clients who wanted to drink, chase hookers, and only occasionally conduct business. Immediately upon his return, he became irritable after glancing at an LA Times and was annoyed to learn that in his absence a junior Democrat had taken a local election for the California State Assembly in a formerly Republican district.

“Who do I hit?” He asked.

Karl wasted no time in faithfully meting out corporal punishment. Like a man-o-war’s sergeant-at-arms, he conferred with his captain and discussed methods of reprisal—the leather belt, a firm hand, or a hairbrush. His boys were lumps of coal that required enormous pressure if they were going to become acceptable diamonds of society.

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December 14, 2011

Karl Patton pulled his Cadillac into the driveway of the home he’d lived in for forty-five years. He was exhausted. Since his stroke, he had moved more slowly, but was still able to drive the onemile each day to Morningside Village to spend his entire day with Susie. She had good days and bad days. On days when her dementia conspired to rob them of memories of their fifty-five years together, he was profoundly sad.

When he imagined a life without Susie, it broke his heart. He wanted to live just five minutes past the love of his life to be certain no one mistreated her or forgot that she was the glue that had held the family together for so many years. When he allowed himself to detour down these shadowed alleys, pondering a life that seemed to be slipping away, he wanted to lie down and never get up. For an eighty-one-year-old man, Karl remained ruggedly handsome, with short grey hair that spiked like the first cut of rough on a golf course. He was the same weight he had been in college and could probably still fit into the wedding tuxedo that he kept—along with nearly every other suit he had ever owned—in his upstairs closet. His French-blue Brooks Brothers pinpoint was tightly folded on each side and tucked into chinos whose creases were ironed to a razor-thin edge. Karl looked the way he had lived, with bearing, restraint, and focus. Yet, for all his discipline, the river of his life had now chosen its own course, breaching its banks and flooding his best-laid plans. He was swimming against a current that was now too powerful to deny.

It had been only one year since he made the excruciating decision to move Susie to Morningside. However, after the “incident”—a frightening episode of disorientation that led to a frantic search for his wife—he had to accept that the revolving door of home-health nurses attempting to manage her care was not the optimal solution. It was selfish for him to keep her in an environment she rarely recognized anymore. When she was confused, Susie became despondent—something Karl Patton never imagined could happen to the person he referred to as “Susie Sunshine.” The choice became inescapable.

He missed her. He longed for her smell and constant humming as she floated like a spring breeze through their home. Susie O’Reilly Patton was a mother robin perpetually in motion, preparing a nest that was never complete.

Karl walked into an empty kitchen, the back door gently closing behind him as the well-oiled pneumatic mechanism slowed it to a barely detectable tap. He walked into the foyer and emptied his pockets, placing his keys, wallet, and loose change in the Italian leather desk caddy Susie had given him for his sixtieth birthday.

Junk mail and unopened Christmas and holiday cards littered the entry room table. He smiled and held up a card postmarked from Rye, New York, trying to remember who the hell lived in Rye. It was probably an ex-client of Susie’s or one of the hundreds of people she still insisted on sending greetings to each December. In the past, Susie would have faithfully opened each one, admiring the progress of acquaintances, friends and family and smiling at the notes and personal messages. She would, in turn, write her own message on every Christmas card she sent. She felt the effort to communicate with friends individually said something about a person. It was the one chance each year to tell them how you felt.

“Who the hell are these people?” Karl would grumble looking at faces of adult children he did not recognize.  Karl was always on Susie’s case about holiday cards and how she ran herself into the ground each Christmas, writing endless notes to ingrates who often never reciprocated.  When he was CEO of his insurance agency, he had his secretary buy, sign, seal and send his cards to clients. The day he retired was the day he stopped sending cards.  

Karl glanced into the mirror illuminated by the flat light of a desk lamp and its sixty-watt energysaver light bulb. The ridges of his eyebrows and strong chin cast odd shadows, reminding him of the actor Boris Karloff. His brown eyes were faded and opaque like the marbles he used to shoot as a child.

“Jesus Christ, you are an old son of a bitch,” he muttered as he turned off the light.

He mindlessly wandered the perimeter of the first floor, moving from a living room full of photographs into a dining room that had not hosted a family dinner in a decade, across the cool red floor of smooth Spanish tiles in the breakfast room, and finally, back into the kitchen. The house smelled of bleach and sterile emptiness. It was not decorated for Christmas. In the past, the living room, foyer, and staircase would be festooned with garlands, ornaments, tasteful talismans of the yuletide season, and a nativity scene. The “House That Hugs” would have smelled of cinnamon and peppermint. Susie would have been mobilized for the holidays.

Like a night watchman on his final key run, Karl made certain that his area of responsibility was locked down. He turned handles, pulled on doors, and jiggled windows to ensure a tight seal. He felt like a forgotten curator, caring for and attending to memories, artifacts, and relics of a past age. Somewhere along the way, he went from a man who had been central to his family’s past to one who merely worked to safeguard it.

The four-bedroom Mediterranean house, built in 1928 and home to only two families, was his castle, lacking only a moat, drawbridge, and portcullis. Across sixteen thousand twilights, his car had crunched down the uneven gravel driveway. He would turn off his engine and headlights and listen. He could see an illuminated upstairs window and already hear the reverberating bass of a teenager’s stereo system. The music mixed with the pitched voices of two boys in mortal combat, a dog chasing a cat, and a mother probably refereeing the fight while managing to talk on the phone at the same time. He would take a deep breath and brace himself for the chaos and medieval world of his boys.

That night, he could almost hear the thumping of the boys wrestling in the upstairs bedrooms and the loud slap of the broken back door as their mongrel dog, Max, slipped outside to patrol the neighborhood. He hated that dog. Dogs were like welfare recipients—lazy and promiscuous. He could smell Susie’s perfume and feel her fingers in his hair. He closed his eyes and wished just for a moment that he might once again feel the exhilarating surge of his family, moving and swirling in their self-absorbed routines, so alive with flawed perfection. He felt very tired, as if the caffeine rush of his life was wearing off and he needed a nap.

He started to shout upstairs to Susie, but stopped himself, instead looking out the French doors to the patio and the pool. The “mow and blow” guys had been there. The yard and garden looked immaculate, almost too perfect. In his prime, Karl supervised his sons as they completed yard work each weekend.  Dressed in an intimidating ensemble of military boots, cut-off fatigues and a white undershirt, Karl would prowl the property to ensure weeds were properly extracted by their roots, the lawn was uniformly mowed and the carpet of pine needles that blanketed their patio were swept up and deposited in an oversized trash bin. He considered shoddy home maintenance a sign of weak character. Lack of character led to apathy.  Apathy was the mother of the sickening twins, decline and dependence.  Nothing bothered Karl more than people who expected handouts As he looked at his finely edged lawn and rows of manicured boxwoods, it bothered him that he must now depend on outsiders to maintain his property. Yard work was why you had boys.

Karl climbed the stairs and slipped into his pajamas, briefly turning on the television and making the mistake of lingering for a moment too long on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. “That little liberal smart-ass,” he muttered. The guest panel was an intellectual cesspool composed of a mindless Berkeley communist, the “Reverend” Al Sharpton, New York Times writer and PBS commentator David Brooks, and a twenty-something starlet who had recently lasted eighty-two minutes before dying in a vampire movie. Brooks seemed lost, possibly wondering why he let his agent talk him into pushing his new book on this pinko talk show.

Karl cringed as the vacuous micro-celebrity spouted her MSNBC sound bites and cotton-candy views on the need for larger government, more regulation, and nationalized healthcare.

“Those guys on Wall Street are bad people,” she said emphatically, nodding her head as the audience applauded and the other panelists joined the lynch mob. Brooks smiled and said nothing. He was like a conservative trying to get laid at a Democratic fundraiser.

Karl turned the channel to COPS. He liked that program. It reassured him to know that justice was happening somewhere, even though the show gave him the impression that the entire nation was on crystal meth and that urban and rural American decline was even more pronounced than he had once thought.

A century ago, that toothless piece of tornado bait trying to cook up a homemade batch of crank on his trailer-park gas stove would have been a tanned, proud laborer in a field or factory. The ascent of America from agrarian culture to industrial and technological world leader was now in reverse. Congress and multi-national corporations had abandoned the middle class, outsourcing their jobs and creating a new generation of Joad families who wander like tumbleweeds in search of an America that no longer offered opportunity. Failure and poverty were forms of social leprosy in a material world that no longer held an allegiance to anything other than shareholders and one’s own bank account. He hated Wall Street for how they had exploited the deregulation he had supported. He had lost all respect for the Grand Old Party, which had sold out their values and seemed to be firmly in the pockets of special-interest groups. Yet, he hated Democrats even more. The thought of Barack Obama in the White House nauseated him. It meant the inevitable liberalization of the Supreme Court, the treasury used as a personal war chest to buy votes, and a generation of citizens completely dependent on Big Government. America was in deep shit. Americans all seemed to disapprove of Congress.  Yet, those same Americans were so lazy and so stupid that they did not have the energy to change.  Did people not understand that these vacuous, corrupt politicians were merely a mirror reflection of the mediocrity of the society that elected them? Were they not embarrassed? He seriously wondered if his grandchildren might become the first American generation that would have to emigrate to another country to find a decent job.

He was proud of his own sons. Each had navigated successes and misfortunes—marriages, children, divorces, job changes, sickness, and stupid decisions of one kind or another—relatively successfully. But they all made it through that horrific period of the 1970s, and Susie had a lot to do with it. She stayed close to her boys and understood the subtle warning signs often missed by less intuitive parents.

His boys would all be okay. The fact that, even as adults, they made constant fun of how they’d been brought up annoyed him. If he had not kicked them in the ass a few times and come down hard at the right times, they might have ended up on COPS—tattooed, on crack, living in some flop house with a bloated bacon-eating wife, and no prospects.

He left the TV on low. As he reached to turn out the light, he felt a little indigestion. He had taken a Prilosec earlier in the day to reduce his heartburn. Without Susie at home, he was eating later at night and waking up coughing from acid reflux. His left arm felt weak. It had never really come back to full strength since the stroke. But what do you expect from anything on the left? You might get motion but never purposeful movement. He chuckled at his own joke and fell quickly into a deep sleep.

He never woke up. About three-thirty Thursday morning, Karl Patton suffered an acute myocardial infarction and died peacefully in his sleep. On the flickering television, a cop had just unleashed a K-9 unit to chase down a fleeing pimp.

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.

Living With The Lost Boys

Cover of
Cover of The Lost Boys

The sudden pivot in the meteorologist’s forecast was highly displeasing. Having already missed an opportunity for a white Christmas, I was now fixated on our imminent four day mini-break to Orlando where we would achieve some old fashioned family time with our increasingly oversubscribed teenagers.

Boxing Day was spent sluggishly cleaning up from Christmas and nervously watching the weather channel as the predictions of a winter nor’easter were confirmed.  A perfect storm of airline emasculating, zero visibility winds and tarmac snarling snow had descended over the entire region. With snowfalls predicted to entomb the tri-state with levels of up to three feet, I started to understand why native Northeasterners have come to loathe the romantic notion of a late December snowstorm. The woods may be lovely, dark and deep but snow means no flight out to find some heat.

Our flight had an ETD of 6am Monday — during the peak of the storm. The question was not whether our flight would be delayed,  it was simply whether we would be able to book a later flight once the airline came clean and cancelled our morning escape to Florida.

At 11am Sunday morning, Flight 987 was officially cancelled. The 800 number provided by the airline was overwhelmed to a point where any ticket holder tenacious enough to cling to the queue was being asked to call back later – and then uncerimoniously dropped from the call. Logistical certainty was in short supply on this day. We continued to badger the airline to determine if a late Monday or early Tuesday departure might salvage our best laid plans.

After finessing our way to a customer service operator ( I do not recall how we found this trap door – perhaps we indicated that we had “ special” needs ), we were told that we could get five tickets to Orlando late Wednesday evening or early Thursday morning. The understanding agent did not seem to divine that this new itinerary would afford us less than 48 hours in the Sunshine State.  Given that 30 of those hours would be either dark or with temperatures less than 50 degrees, I was skeptical of a decent return on investment.

The agent offered to reschedule our return but this would require rebooking my tickets for an additional $150 penalty per ticket.  I did some quick napkin calculus and determined this vacation would cost us around $100 for each hour of potential sunshine. I could save $3500 if I bought everyone their own jar of Vitamin D and three free sessions at Savage Tropic tanning salon.

We peacefully euthanized our vacation late Boxing Day afternoon. Our teens temporarily mourned the passing of our trip the way one might lament the death of a distant relative. After five minutes of self-reflection, they shifted their attention to the living and began rapidly pinging their friends for sleepovers, parties and any other forms of nocturnal activity.

My wife would require more time to recover from our vacation’s sudden cardiac arrest.  She was facing the grim reality of an entire week with a thoughtless quartet of the undead – creatures of the night who would conspire to overrun her best efforts to keep a clean house, avoid endless meal preparation and hourly carpools.

As a stay at home vacation Dad, I am at best,  a weak surrogate and at my worst, a human sinkhole of mixed messages undermining my family’s carefully negotiated routines and boundaries regarding curfews, chores and accountability. I am like wildlife in the garden – a novelty that is glimpsed at dawn and at twilight but rarely during day. It seems only mad dogs, Englishman and the unemployd venture into the noonday sun.

Instead of pushing everyone to bed at an early hour for a December 27th 5am departure, we stayed up until 2am playing poker and watching old movies. Our cancelled flight allowed us to dive into a week of freshly fallen snow and a clear calendar.  I quickly took the cue from my teenagers and began a slow transformation into a vampire.

My first mistake was suggesting the XBox 360 be moved upstairs from the basement into the family room so we could enjoy a big screen version of FIFA 2011 soccer, NCAA football, Tony Hawk Underground and of course, the culturally enriching Call of Duty – Black Ops.

Most of my “black ops” activities are confined to eating unhealthy food late at night and frivolous purchases on eBay. However, I was now being recruited into an adolescent band of brothers whose motto was “leave no man behind – alive.” Aside from their annoying habit of shooting me in the back for sport,  my boys drew me into hours of  constant violence in some of the poorest nations around the globe. Other than learning how to operate an automatic Famas gun, throw a ballistic knife and engage cross-bow explosives, I was beginning to show signs of PTSD and was not improving domestic policy at home.

Later that evening, my wife realized the open week was not trending in her favor. As she laid down the holiday rules and regulations ( she had just discovered that the dog had urinated by the door because none of us had noticed his whimpering ),  I stood by her side with genuine disdain for my teens. “Look guys, mom is right. You need to pull your weight around here.” She turned and looked at me incredulously. “Really?”

Falling in with these slacker vampires had been so easy. It was reminiscent of college — late nights,  sleeping in until noon, occasionally venturing out to a movie, ordering take out, and groaning with exaggerated inconvenience when asked to do anything where there was nothing in it for me. It was an amazingly rapid metamorphosis from parent to parasite.

Two days into my Twilight regression, I had my moment of clarity.  I glanced up to survey a hoarder’s landscape of squalor – – Cheez-It and Goldfish boxes, empty bottles of diet coke and empty Nutri-Grain wrappers. The evening before, I had stayed up until 3am to finally defeat my eldest son in a barn burner football game that went into double overtime.  The dog was asleep on the couch while two teens sat in a digital stupor on separate computers watching reruns of Modern Family on Hulu. To the shock of my fellow primates, I pushed the “save” button on my latest game of NCAA Football.  I was now into my third season of the Dynasty segment of NCAA Football 2011.  I was no longer a contributing member of society but I was virtual head coach of the USC Trojans. I had also developed an almost stenographer type dexterity with my fingers – using what felt like 12 digits to work every A – Z button on the controller.

My son glanced up, “Dad, where are you going? You just unlocked a new level in your game” A new level?, I thought.  I was suddenly very afraid that if I descended deeper into this artificial gridiron matrix, I might never return.  I had to escape from the underworld of the undead and return to the surface of the living – and I had to leave right now.

I showered and shaved, glancing at the unimpressive image of a pale, blood shot-eyed baby boomer. I emerged into the crisp air and sunshine of a gorgeous winter afternoon.  I had to get away from my home and drive – – anywhere.  My car seemed to guide me into town where the sidewalks were likely to be alive with adults and responsible people – presumably others who had missed their flights or did not live in a sarcophagus of teens.

Suddenly, I spied my wife’s car and spotted her moving slowly down the street – presumably window shopping for post holiday bargains or a family practice attorney. “Hey” I said breathlessly as I caught up to her. She was pleased to see that I had escaped the iron grip of the Lost Boys.   We lingered over a latte fueled lunch and made plans for the new year.

The afternoon was dying and yielding to purple twilight. Suddenly, the streets were beginning to empty. The human beings were slowly returning home to prepare meals, read books, rest by a fire and contemplate the next days and all of its possibilities. A knot of new shadows appeared outside our café window. Six young vampires wearing cotton hooded sweat shirts, shorts and high top sneakers were moving across a frigid street on a restless roll. Two boys yelled into the cell phone of a third as he held his phone back and shoved the nearest vampire. They had all temporarily abandoned their computers and XBoxes to roam the town in search of a source of entertainment.

I felt a Call of The Wild stir as I surveyed the aimless, rudderless spill of hormones as they splashed on to the sidewalk. They would soon end up at a new safe house, retreating by the light of day, waiting for another restless night. My blackberry suddenly buzzed and a message appeared from the world of adults – – a misguided colleague choosing to work the graveyard slot between Christmas and New Years. I put away the blackberry and returned to my partner and to our  plans.

I smiled realizing that I did not make a very good vampire. Vampires did not understand the difference between living in the moment and living as if there was no tomorrow.  Vampire’s consider the past an empty bucket of ashes, the present an endless horizon line road and the future as something that happens to other people.

My wife and I were thinking about the future, about our new year and about things we needed to do to make a difference. I felt my chin, freshly cleared of a 48 hour goatee of vampire stubble. They had almost pulled me in – into their red pill world of artificial intelligence and the insatiable craving for constant distraction.

I had survived my time with the Lost Boys. As I sipped my coffee, I wondered how it was possible that I had ever survived the purgatory of my own youth. For all of its challenges and responsibilities, it was good to be above ground and among the mortals ready to take on another new year.

Keeping Christmas Real

Carter family Christmas portrait, 12/25/1978
Image by The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

December seems to slip through my fingers faster than a toddler in a department store. The early days of Yule are a collision of the spiritual and temporal as I stagger toward another year’s finish line. My brakeless sleigh ride seems to pick up speed as we approach the winter solstice. While nature may be slowing into silent, denuded hibernation, our material commitments only accelerate and fray my red ribbon nerves. The tree may be trimmed, and the ornaments hung with care; Ancient garlands adorn our mantles and snake down a spiral staircase – yet, we come to realize in mid-December that we have miles to go before we can sleep. 

I occasionally catch myself slipping into adult self- pity wondering where the wonder has gone.  I may stand for a few uninterrupted moments staring at our Dickens Village trying to project myself down into the bustling mews of a Christmas Eve in Victorian London. I am suddenly on Oxford Street. I tip my top hat to a gaggle of carolers and exchange pleasantries with a street vendor who deposits steaming chestnuts into my coat pockets for two shillings.  The temperature is falling and the night is holding its breath in anticipation of a great snow that will soon blanket the charred and ancient slate gray homes, frosting the glass of local shops and businesses.  It is a wonderful working class world merrily harvesting the goodwill of another Christmas.

The skaters move in perpetual figure eights across an alabaster pond as children sled down cotton ball hillsides. The gas lanterns cast an eerie light across the stoop of Scrooge and Marley’s as a spectral figure chases after the gnarled skinflint in his night-clothes.  Perhaps if I stare at the village hard enough, I might actually disappear into history like some bizarre episode of the Twilight Zone.  My family would find the dog whimpering near the illuminated Victorian houses as they search our house in vain for their missing patriarch.  As the sobriety of my demise hits them, they cry out loud – regretting every night they took me for granted.  Suddenly, my youngest son notices a new figurine – a ruddy, middle-aged fellow with top-hat and green pea coat, arms full of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe gifts as he moves across a worn brick Common of snow toward an undisclosed engagement. “Dad?’ he whispers.

A voice from another room shatters my daydream. “Hon, we have alot cards and I could use some help.” It is a summons from the present.  I am lifted like Harry Potter out of Diagon Alley – landing awkwardly on a kitchen table top facing a table full of my holiday nemeses – – Christmas cards.

Somewhere in time, I soured to holiday greeting cards.  Personally, I am a huge fan of the handwritten note.  However the additional burden of writing and sending over 300 cards in a season where each day brings a new avalanche warning of mounting responsibilities, has convinced me that something must be thrown out of the Christmas aircraft or we will lose altitude and our sanity. I have become cynical to this rich century old tradition as just another form of commercial manipulation visited on me by some subliminal marketing expert in the greeting card industry.  

My spouse is filled with evergreen annoyance at my habitual refusal to help sign and send out cards.  Over the years, her retaliation has been to merely prune our list of recipients of anyone that knew me before she and I met.  I have essentially gone dark with anyone I knew between 1961 and 1986.  This leaves her a few leftover cards to send to people from her past – like a kindergarten teacher who has been dead for 15 years and whose card is faithfully returned to sender each December 28th.  

Christmas cards have been responsible for more holiday tension in my house than the VISA bill. We take Christmas cards very seriously. Each one is faithfully completed with a personal message.  To my more considerate spouse, cards are a critical accoutrement to the season – – a mistletoe effort to stay close to family and friends. She will pen notes until her hands cramp into frozen talons. There is a hard and fast protocol in our home that no Christmas card goes out without a handwritten message. A personal note lends sincerity to your wishes for a “wonderful holiday season”.  There is an extreme bias that a card arriving with nothing written is the equivalent of driving by someone’s house and honking the horn

The entire process is time-consuming and exhausting and distracts her from what should be her highest priority – me. Over the years, I have unsuccessfully lobbied to “take a year off” from the highly manual and debilitating process of signing and sending cards. As I watch her write, label and lick our annual missives, I can understand how postal workers might completely snap from the sheer repetition of processing the tidal wave of season greetings.

With the advent of Shutterfly, the tension of our annual card production has been mitigated. One can now upload digital photos into a range of configurations, push a button and receive, two days later, 300 picture perfect greeting cards at your door courtesy of UPS.  Technology has further simplified the process of adding and deleting acquaintances, friends and business associates. However, the process of sending, messaging and receiving cards leaves me feeling like the Grinch. My kids, on the other hand, could care less about sending cards and in this age of castrated text messages and electronic cards, they view our annual postal blitz as a form of self-mutilation.  They do, however, take a keen interest in which photographs we use for the family picture.  

As the troops gathered around the Mac to manufacture this year’s collage of family photos, I was working and did not want to be disturbed.  I did not want to voluntarily leap into the mosh pit of in-fighting over which photos would be selected.  A voice moaned, “I look horrible in that one.”  “Oh my god, my nose looks like I got stung by a yellow jacket, forget that one. “ Another voice pleads, “No, wait a minute. I like that one. You don’t look so ugly.  Well, actually you do…” I could hear scuffling and finally détente as my wife yelled for me to come to the next room and “choose a photo of myself.”

I moaned. I prefer cards that just show photos of the kids.  I am happy to step out of the frame and deny someone I grew up with the satisfaction of knowing that they are aging better than I am. For some reason, no matter what camera I use, it keeps producing images of a lumpy, salt and pepper middle-aged changeling.  I just cannot understand it. I have come to dread the holiday picture as I refuse to go gently into that aging good night.  Yet, on a rare occasion, the light hits me just right and my shirt is not bunching around my midsection.  I might approve this photo only to be told that I am being selfish because no one else in my one picture looks “good”. “Dad, no way.  I look bizarre.” 

Normally vanity kicks in and I join the fracas trying to find some low light, airbrushed Blanche Dubois photo that can be manipulated to appear that I am not everyone’s father – including my spouse. This year, I did not have the energy to search months of photographs and instead sanctioned them to “just pick something.” I could hear them confer in the low, dulcet tones like a tribal council.  “Ok,” someone yelled. “I think we have it.”

The cards arrived the next day from Shutterfly.  The cover image was a gorgeous winter photo taken of our home during a December storm.  The image was tastefully stenciled with one word: “Joy”.  So far, so good. I opened the card to find a series of handsome photographs of each family member accompanied by a shrunken family photo taken at the Grand Canyon last April.  There was just one problem – there was no picture of me.  I was a mere shadowy figure in our family shot but otherwise, I was missing in action.  “We couldn’t find one that we thought you would like. So we did not include one.”

I was suddenly concerned that everyone who receives our card would read too much into my missing photo.  .Friends relying on our annual card as a touchstone for measuring our life’s progress might wonder if I had been mangled in an industrial accident and now must be relegated to the shadows for my own self defense.  “Ouch!  Looks like Mike must have really let himself go.  He didn’t make the cut for the card.”

 I suddenly felt like the Elephant Man.  “I am not an animal! There must be a few good pictures of me – somewhere!” I was met with blank stares and perplexed looks. So this is what it had come to.  I was now officially “the man who lives under the stairs.” 

The cards are now coursing through the clotted veins of the US Postal Service – across thousands of miles of farmland, ocean and urban landscape to settle into the mailboxes of friends and family.  Our mug shots will adorn refrigerators, creative strands of garland and bowed stacks that rest on the tops of coffee tables.  We will add some spice and cinnamon goodwill to hundreds of home.  Yep, ol’ Boo Radley and his posse.

Next year, I pick the photos.  They will be paparazzi shots of surly teens, morning grumps and pale, mid-winter, Vitamin D starved zombies.  I’m going to fit right in and have the theme for our holiday greeting: “Keeping Christmas Real.”

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.

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.”