Friday, December 25, 2009
I’ve been sitting on this column for a week. How could I, a person so in love with the season of Yule that in July I declare an arbitrary Christmas and crank the AC so I can build a fire, drink cocoa, and watch The Bishop’s Wife, have nothing to say about December 25? How could I not have one bon mot, one poignant tribute, or one slightly off color linguistic wink? Let me think a minute……nope. Nothing.
This morning I got out of bed, opened presents, "Oooohed" and "Ahhhhed" over the falling snow, drank a little eggnog, and even hummed along to some carols. I did it all perfectly according the directions on the box. Yet something was missing. I took a short inventory: Merriment? Check. Goodwill? Check. Visions of Sugar Plums? Sure, why not. Then it came to me. I knew the seasonal malaise from which I suffered. No meat. Christmas is, after all, about the meat.
Of course, I know the real reason for the season, but I’m not going to presume that I can serve that subject better than Matthew or Luke. I, like Linus, think that Luke 2:1-20 is particularly good stuff. I’m talking about the post midnight mass, secular, destroy your credit rating, I only screamed at you because I have a sugar buzz, meaning of Christmas. In my Yule days of yore, Christmas was divided into a three round clash of the titans. It was a different kind of Boxing Day with the opponents being The Champ, otherwise known as Daddy, and his annual contender, that fowl upstart, the turkey. I like to think my mom was Don King with slightly calmer hair even though I have no idea what Don King actually did.
I married a vegetarian. Gentle therapy and a modest drinking habit have helped me deal with it and usually we make it work. Holiday meals are the only occasions where there is a hint of marital strife. This is America after all, and the focal point of each major holiday is a big hunk of meat. There are turkey people and goose types. There’s even room for duck people on this carnally inclusive holiday. Occasionally, Cornish Hens all around are acceptable, though they’ve always seemed a bit prissy to me. Some people go the spiral ham route, and a few go slightly off the grid and roast a Prime Rib. The turducken is brilliant for the indecisive. Why have one meat when you can have three? But saints preserve us! How do you celebrate a feast day with a tofurkey!
For the uninitiated, a tofurkey is shaped like the meat loaf it wishes it were. Into it is rolled, not stuffed, a dressing that’s not sure if it wants to smell like sage or cardboard. It threatens to taste like turkey, but don’t be scared. It doesn’t. Tofurky comes in a box. It was never predator or prey. It never roamed, flew, swam, or scampered, which I suppose is the moral argument for eating it in the first place. Nonsense! This is Christmas. It’s no time for morals. A tofurkey lays there passive presenting no challenge, and what’s fun about that? I humored Graham and bought a tofurkey at Thanksgiving, but today I couldn't help but be a bit wistful thinking about that test of wills between man and beast that in the past we called Christmas dinner.
Round one: Christmas morning after presents, Daddy collides with the turkey, oiling and salting the skin, stuffing its middle with raisin dressing made from the recipe Grandpa brought from the “old country.” “Get in there you potlicker! Get in there or you’ll be sorry!” he roars as the bird slides around the counter trying to make a quick getaway, wings and legs akimbo. Two things I’ve always wondered: What is a potlicker? And how much sorrier can a dead turkey with no head be? The oven rings, sounding the bell to end the round. Conquered, the turkey enters the dry heat of defeat. Its goose is cooked.
“Carol, you’d need a search warrant to find a sharp knife in this place.”
“I sharpened the one you're holding Al.”
“On what, your teeth?”
“It’s as sharp as your tongue mister.”
“Like hell it is.”
It’s true. We have every kind of sharpening tool in our house but no edgy blades.
“Son of a… Judas Priest!”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Hang on to the…dammit!”
“Ahh, hell. Well, that’s your piece.”
For years I thought the “dammit” was part of the bird like the drumstick or the wishbone.
“Boy oh boy, a lot of help you are.”
“I’ll give you temper, temper.”
“It might be better than the turkey.”
“You’ll get out of my way if you know what’s good for you.”
“Merry Christmas to you too!”
And then…quiet. As suddenly as it was thrown on, the mantle of Bunker was thrown off again, and Mom and Daddy emerged with a tray of expertly sliced white and dark meat. According to my father, the white meat was for Dumb Americans. It didn't matter that he had been born here and fought in two wars for the Dumb American side. Anytime his opinion was in the minority it was Daddy against the Dumb Americans. He acted as if he were some wild expatriate just off foreign shores sporting a geographically vague dialect, a jaunty cap, and a cigarette between his teeth.
My parents would sit on either end of the table. The youngest child present would say the prayer and we’d make a toast. Daddy, the champ at least until New Years dinner, lifted his champagne glass and with “Na Zdorov’ye!” we knew the meal could begin. I think what I really miss this year is that table of people. I’d gladly eat tofurkey if I could only sit around that table one more time. We weren’t the Waltons or the Bradys. We were the Klosters, slightly odd but not quite kooky, a little less than normal but not all the way to weird. We laughed until we cried at jokes only we got, teased and taunted until someone got mad and we laughed some more, talked tough and tough loved all through the year, but especially at Christmas. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly wonderful.
Friday, December 11, 2009
It was this sentient spigot that drowned me in pre-teen paranoia. I already had a fear of bathing. (There must be a word for that. Pardon me, Reader while I do the googling.) As I was saying, I already suffered from ablutophobia brought on by my sister Susie's bizarre sense of play. When I was a mere tot she would kindly draw my bath and put me in the tub, place her electric toy owl on the bathroom counter, douse the lights, and scram. Trapped in suds, I had no choice but to sit there while Woodsy Owl’s diabolical twin spun around, glowed in the dark, and taunted me with its spiteful “Hoot ---- Hooooot.” I loathed it, despised it. Even today, when I hear someone say, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute,” I grab an empty pop can and throw it out the window.
Bearing this trauma in mind, can you imagine my shock when one day as I was taking a nervous shower, I raised my hands to rinse my face and upon lowering them found blood dripping from my finger tips? Panic soared, demons leaped, owls hooted. I darted from the bathroom screaming, “THIS HOUSE POSSESSED!!!!” It took a good shake and a look in the mirror for my mother to convince me that what I had was a nosebleed and not a supernatural visitation, but the damage was done. I set up digs in the room across from my parents and slept in my dad’s camp sleeping bag all that year. It didn’t matter that I went to school every day smelling mildly of tobacco and old fish. I knew that if monsters invaded my slumber, I could count on my mother to run across the hall and glare at them until they went away.
“Please don’t watch that. You’re going to scare yourself,” my husband Graham appeals to me as I fire up the On Demand and search for The Orphan. “No, I won’t!” I reply like it’s 1979. “I’ll watch it with the Christmas Tree blinking in the corner. Who gets scared around twinkle lights? I’ll watch it eating cake. Cake’s not scary!” I’m not kidding anybody, least of all him. Thirty years later and not much has changed except that the devil I knew then is not necessarily the devil I know now. It used to be that any weekend Creature Feature on Detroit’s TV 50 would make going to bed Monday through Friday impossible. Pre-Twilight vampires, in other words Dracula, not an angsty teen in low riders and high hair, were always on my mind. I couldn’t walk through my basement without carrying a jar of minced garlic in one hand and my First Communion cross in the other just in case. And when I finally got a look at a real horror movie in 1982, Poltergeist made me believe that our house balanced precariously on an ancient graveyard and any minute corpses would rise from the begonia beds.
Now the wisdom of my age teaches me to be scared of only two things: demonic possession and creepy kids. Let’s first draw our attention to that irritable group called, “the possessed.” I’m not sure what I believe about these poor schmucks. I am a Catholic, and in my world this kind of thing goes down for real. I was taught that you don’t mess with the devil unless you want to get the horns. My people wrote the playbook for Exorcism Hollywood Style, and we all know the drill: Latin incantation, holy water swirlies, etc. I wonder though, are all of these tortured souls really in Satan’s grasp? I wonder if some of them aren’t just having a really bad day. Perhaps a few require a less ceremonial approach. Lest we forget the power of a stern talking to…
“All right Crazy Eyes, enough growling. This behavior stops now. Don’t turn your head away from me when I’m talking to…oh my, your head just keeps going ‘round and ‘round, doesn’t it? Oh fine, levitate, but you have to come down sometime. Do you think that language is going to help? For the love of Mike, pull yourself together, and while you’re at it, clean this place up. What is that? Vomit? Gross.” I would try that tack before I called in the padre. If they don’t respond to reason, well then throw the whole Bell, Book, and Candle at them. See if I care.
Our next subject sends my skin crawling because no religion, law, or kick in the head can subdue their evil impulses. I’ve seen the enemy Reader, and it’s a well-dressed, fresh-faced child with a blank stare and good manners. The Bad Seed, Children of the Corn, Damien: they are all bad news from the parts in their hair to their sensible shoes. What makes their malevolence so gut sickening is that it’s presented in the guise of purity and innocence, which brings us back to The Orphan. In case you didn’t realize “there’s something wrong with Esther,” and I would think her first problem is that her name is Esther.
I grabbed my two beasts as they trailed my husband up the stairs. He was abandoning me again for more civilized entertainment in another room. I planted one furry package on either side of me for comfort. You might think it foolish to get any security at all out of a Yorkie on my right and a Pomeranian on my left. Trust me, if I’m threatened nobody’s ankles, corporeal or ethereal, are safe with Sidney and Gizmo around. These boys have seen me through many horrors in movies and in life. They may weigh less than twenty pounds combined, but they are stoic, heroic models of bravery, and I put my life, or at least my nightmares, in their paws. Graham’s exhortations be darned, I was ready to be scared and like it.
What is this desire to be afraid? Why do we seek it out and suffer later? Does it make real life not quite so scary? That might explain why adults crave the gooseflesh of fear, but why do even children enjoy it? I know that every time my parents forbade me to see “those kinds” of movies, “those kinds” of movies were exactly what I had to see. That might have something to do with it. I did a little reading about the brain’s reaction to threatening stimuli and I have to tell you, I don’t think Saw VI is doing our amygdalas, thalamuses, or sensory cortexes any good. As The Orphan starts, I think, “I’m going to give all this up. I’ve outgrown it. There is plenty right here in the real world to send me back to that sleeping bag in the den.” I pull Sidney and Gizmo a little closer. Yes, I’ll quit. You’ll see. As soon as I find out what’s wrong with Esther.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Before you start thinking I need an emergency sit down with my priest, let me explain. My obsession is words, and no other lover will ever quell my passion for them. I believe it started when I was a wee scholar at Bishop Baraga Central Grade School. After lunch my class gathered on the carpeting to watch The Electric Company. Suddenly, silhouetted faces took over the screen. Their profiles began sensuously shaping syllables that slid out their mouths in hushed tones. Those syllables met in the middle and formed words. It was dark and mysterious. It was film noir for phonics and it changed my life.
In my adolescence I slurped up the slang of old ‘30s and ‘40s detective books and gangster movies. Their language had force and character. If I had my way we’d still be talking like descendants of Raymond Chandler. Imagine for a moment the next time a telemarketer interrupts your evening, you may hang up or you may get a little tetchy, but what if you said this: “Don’t blow my horn again fakeloo artist. Do you think you’re going to get your mitts on my jack? I’m no weak sister and I can smell the bunk from here. I made you the minute I fixed on your jingle, so don’t hand me the flim flam, you grifter. Close your head or I make like a squeaker and drop a dime you.” Isn’t that both satisfying and enjoyable? Better than any ‘do not call list,’ I say.
I grieve too for legit speech that has all but left the vernacular. When was the last time you heard someone use fantastic sturdy little words like slake or acme? When you're out enjoying a good burger why not compliment your waiter with, “Well done, sir! Your establishment has achieved the acme of cheeseburgers. Now, may I slake my thirst with one of your fine soda pops?” Am I weird, or is saying that more fun than a sack of puppies?
The introduction of a new word fills me with delight. Last night my friend Robin used the word zaftig. Zaftig! What a gift! You are a stranger no more beautiful zaftig with your lovely ‘z’ sound and your onomatopoetic bent. I do have to be careful though because my zest for words can sometimes cloud my judgment. Once I agreed to go on a date that I knew was doomed simply because the guy used the words caveat and peckish in the same sentence. On the other hand, words can sometimes serve to broker true affection. I don’t want to say his spectacular faculty with language is what won me over, but when Graham finally declared his undying devotion to me I stopped him mid-sentence and murmured, “You had me at ylem, umbra, rive, and circean.”
Reader, there is another group of words for which I have a fondness. These are the so-called dirty ones. It wasn’t long after The Electric Company breakthrough that I began taking unreasonable risks and exhibiting thrill-seeking behavior. As always, I blame PBS. I had a hunch there were words I shouldn’t say, so of course my mouth ached for their form and sound. One day I said hell and got a stern look from my mother. So far so good. I followed up a few days later with a quiet but quite audible s**t. My mother exploded. “Ali! Don’t ever say that again!”
As if I didn’t know. She explained that s**t was a bad word. Without considering the consequences, I asked, “Is candy a bad word?” I got an impatient, “Of course not!” "Then why do you always give me s**t when I ask for it?” I countered. That did it. I was momhandled up to my room and told to think about what I had done, so I obliged, spending the next hour whispering all the swear words I could think of.
Swearing, cursing, whatever you want to call it has always come easily to me, and I’m not sure why. My parents rarely swore in my presence. My mom occasionally got into a fender bender that inspired my dad to yell “S**t!” usually preceded by a bull or a horse. I figured my dad thought my mom would be better off leaving the car in the garage and riding one of those to the store. My mother’s substitution for profanity is her own unique invention. I’ve often heard her curse using only the first letters of the wicked words, but what she resorts to when something really bad happens...well, maybe I should just show you. My parents have a terribly dangerous wooden stairway in their home. All manner of human and household pet has taken a mean tumble from it. One morning I approached this deathtrap wearing unbuckled high-heeled sandals. After two steps, I fell to my bare knees and proceeded to bounce one step at a time, on my knees, all the way down. I’m sure the pain was agonizing, but I didn’t feel it until later. For the vision of my mother at the bottom of the stairs in her nightgown, arms outstretched, yelling, “God Bless America!” overwhelmed me. I don’t know what neurons have to fire in her brain to catalyze such a response. All I know is that in times of great stress and emergency my mother has always avoided any use of the f-word and become intensely patriotic.
I bandy about the bad language quite casually because I’ve never believed that mere words could be imbued with good or evil. Once while we were hunting large jungle animals, Papa Hemingway said to me, “Madame, all our words from loose using have lost their edge.” OK, I read that in a book, but it did make me think. I hope it’s not true. I’m not concerned with the staying power of the f-word or its like. Their survival is ensured as long as people find them offensive. It’s the simple words, strung together just so, meant to comfort, console, or encourage that I worry about. How sad the world would be if we forgot the power those words can wield. When I'm despairing and someone asks, “Can I help?” I hope I’m always smart enough to say yes. When I hear “God bless you,” I long to accept and believe in that intention. When I'm given an "I love you" I want the warmth that envelops me to inspire reciprocation. And I pray that when my husband turns to me in times of great suffering and says, “Everything is going to be all right” I'm never so jaded that I can't respond with a happy, hearty, affirming, “F*** yeah it will!!!!" Sorry, I guess I'll go to my room now and think about what I've done....