A Very Merry Christmas Memory

A Very Merry Christmas Memory

There’s not a lot of jingle, jingle or  fa la la la la going on in our house this year, although having our daughter home for a good stay is more than enough to assure joy throughout the season.  She helped her gimpy old dog find a comfortable spot in the car so that he was safely settled, still able to poke a snout over the back seat, and set out for a cross country drive from Massachusetts to Oregon in the midst of a pandemic.  The Republic is a mess as our national character shifts from Abe Lincoln to Freddy Kruger, but in our small corner the sky is blue and the sun is shining. 

About ten years ago I found myself feeling quasi-Grinchy, finding fault with Mannheim Steamroller, Rudolph, even Santa and his elves.  I was somewhere below disgruntled, hovering near total coal-worthy self-pity as I croaked out my dissatisfaction to whatever constellation of people were still willing to hear me whine. I can’t remember exactly what small holiday miracle jogged me slightly closer to humanity, but it suddenly struck me that I was approaching my sixty-fourth Cristmas in a row.  How could I expect it to have the lustre of moonlight on new fallen snow?  How many flights of reindeer had I tracked?  How many cookies had I left by the fire?  All things, considered, sixty-four years of delight was a pretty good run.

Over the years I’ve been calmed by the admonition that when in doubt, I might simply go with gratitude, and saved by the crisp call of holiday bells, I pulled myself back into the more generous perspective.  I have a lot for which to be grateful.

Oh, but December 1991 might not be on my gratitude list.

I had taken a job as Headmaster of a small boarding school for a thousand bad reasons, almost all of which were attached to my outsized ego.  I was the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time, and I fear I made a shaky situation even more precarious.  That confession aside, I did try to throw myself into the school’s many rites and rituals.  I knew I was in trouble from day one as my sense of humor was clearly not appreciated, and humor is just about my only stock in trade.  I stumbled along as best I could, trying to warm up the climate, hoping that the weeks between the Thanksgiving holiday and the Christmas break could be merry and bright.  I played lilting seasonal music in my office, sent out cards, built a snowman, pretty much cavorted as often as I could, and volunteered to help the school’s Chaplain prepare for the annual Festival of Lessons and Carols.

We’re not going to go into my on-again, off-again relationship with the Episcopal Church, but I was on-again that year and happy to help strew greenery around the Chapel and line up a series of well scrubbed teen aged boys to read and sing.  There were some  moments of tension as the afternoon wore on. The chaplain’s patience was wearing thin by the time we broke for dinner, and I sent him home to restore himself to good humor.

Restored is not the word  I would use to describe our spiritual mentor that evening.  He came in hot and sizzled through the first half of the service, stumbling a bit as he grabbed a huge spray of evergreen shrubbery and tossed it into the third row.  But still, hope was springing.  We were to go on holiday the next day; a long vacation promised peace and joy. Surely we could get through twenty more minutes of fun and frolic before adjourning to the main building for cookies and cocoa.

I don’t know when the cork popped, as it were.  At some point in the middle of Adeste Fideles, singing the verse in English, the boys apparently hit the word “Come” too solidly, as in “Come let us behold Him”.  The Chaplain stood after the first rousing “Come”, moved to the first pew on the second, and grabbed the organist on the third, shaking him from the bench and pushing him toward the door at the rear of the Chapel.

He grabbed the remaining greenery at the altar, tossed it into the crowd, and told the assemblage to hie themselves elsewhere.

“Get Out!  Get Out!  Get the Hell out of this building!  We’ve had enough!”

He certainly had, and I stood with him as the boys slunk through the door and back to their dormitory rooms.  The cocoa had not been brewed yet, and the cookies were still baking; we’d try to bring the school together in a few minutes, but for the moment all was still, all was blight.

Vacation came, the boys gladly travelled back to the homes from which they had sprung, we left the campus tree decorated until New Year’s Day, and the school year ground itself to its appointed end, which not coincidentally was my appointed end.  I’ll claim a great deal of responsibility for my uncertain leadership in those trying times; had I known what I know now, I would have let others take the reins.  

And yet, as I pull the snow globes from their boxes and set out the miniature snowy village, I have to confess that the Christmas Chapel meltdown springs to mind, assuring me that no matter how many Christmases I am privileged to enjoy, no memory will linger as distinctly clear.

‘Tis The Season

‘Tis The Season


I’m a fan. 

Not the kind of fan that blows the county’s transformers with my illuminated Snoopy and Rudolph helping Yoda guide the Magi to the Nativity light show, but on the whole more than a little sentimental about the even the sappiest of holiday tropes.  

Do I get a little weepy when Santa appears at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade?  Maybe. So, yes, eager to wallow in seasonal sentiment, and yet, even I am now bludgeoned into semi-snark by the reckless propagation of holiday movies pumped out by the Hallmark and Lifetime channels. Have I seen them all?  Who could?  Do I know the entirety of the tale before viewing the opening credits? Who doesn’t?

The cumulative effect of simply reading the titles brings the sticky nausea that follows downing the third honey marshmallow butterbrickle maple banana doughnut. With sprinkles.

Let’s trot out a truncated catalog of this year’s offerings from our friends at Lifetime: A Sugar and Spice Holiday, The Christmas Set Up, Christmas on the Menu, Merry Liddle (sic) Christmas Wedding, People Presents: Once Upon a Main Street, and perhaps in a nod to global pandemic, Too Close for Christmas.

Not to be outdone, Hallmark offers: Northpole:Open for Business, two similar sure-fire standards, Switched for Christmas and A Very Merry Mix Up, A Dog Named Christmas, A Shoe Addict’s Christmas (I might have to watch this one), A Bride for Christmas, A Cookie Cutter Christmas, and the very unsettling Marrying Father Christmas.

Bah Humbug and perhaps I slither and slink with a smile most unpleasant, but the naked truth is that I call myself a writer, but have not, cannot, arguably will not devise a plot line worth mentioning while the media elves on the Hallmark assembly line are churning ‘em out by the sleighful. Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism, however, so in candy coated desperation, I’ll turn to the best plot source I know, the plays of William Shakespeare.

Some jokes write themselves, just too easy, so no Much Ado About Stuffing, or Holiday Glazed Hamlet.  A Birnum Woods Christmas?  Is Macbeth, too grim?  Really? What happened to “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories” at the most wonderful time of the year?  You think a bloody Banquo is more disturbing that Morley in chains?  Ok, maybe ripping the unborn from Lady Macduff asks a lot of the holiday viewer, but easily fixed by a quick cut to festive hi-jinx as Lady M does the Jingle Bell Rock instead of sleeping. Put an ugly sweater on Romeo and elf ears on Juliet, throw some mistletoe around, pull back on the poison and stabbing, and Ho Ho Ho, Italian Holiday.  The clear winner, however, is the heartwarming reconciliation of father and daughter, Happy New Lear.

I’ve got the collected works on the desk open to Titus Andronicus, hoping I can schlep Titus into a more convivial relationship with Tamora, Queen of the Goths. Surely swirling togas and the magic of the season can turn a charnel house into a gingerbread chalet.

I am hesitant to begin, however, as faithful readers will recall that in the past, I have been challenged in writing in the mood of the Romance novel; the more faithful will recall that the effort was, well, not to every taste – describing as it did, the putative romance between Krimhelde and Etzel (Atilla).  Abandon hope you who read here – it could look like this:

From the August 19, 2019 edition- 

Was Attila’s Last Name “The Hun”, Or Was He Like The Only Hun, Or What?:

“Etzel, conqueror of empires, master of legions, scourge of the West, was on this cold evening merely a man, a man trapped in his own legend. He sat at the head of the great table, goblets of gold spraying sheets of wine as the raucous company slammed the heavy table again and again. Most used the butt end of their knives, some the flat end of their war hammers. The room thundered with the songs of victory. The Huns drank deep, hardly pausing to shove great strips of meat into their gullets, singing with tuneless gusto nonetheless. Etzel’s chest and forearms were speckled with blood. Although the heat of battle had left him, he continued to clench his fists, recalling moments in which he had taken the lives of men he had never known.

He saw the men in his command, men who had travelled the width of the world with him, roar stupidly and stumble drunkenly; in that moment he felt a solitary distance from them and from their revels. Hollow victories had grown routine; there was nothing in the world left to conquer. A tall sharply featured woman sat with the Burgundians, a woman who seemed carved of ice, whose gaze held the room in flat contempt. In an unguarded moment, Etzel let his face fall revealing the depth of his isolation, and in that instant, Kriemhild saw him as no other had and loved him as no other would.

Burgundian lords and ladies watched in disgust as Etzel’s warriors wiped greasy mutton across their chest, happily spitting chunks of flesh into the air as they caroused. Gunther and Brunhild sat stony faced as the revelry grew more and more frantic. Glancing at his sister, Kriemhild, Gunther mouthed, “Look at the pigs” while pretending to smile in appreciation of the Huns’ antics. Kriemhild missed Gunther’s disapproving pantomime, however, as she locked eyes with Etzel, her lips parting in a breathless gasp of desire.

In an instant, the there was no sound, no blur of drinken victors toasting each other. For Etzel, there was only Kriemhild, the petal soft folds of her womanhood singing to him across the room as the hard pulse of his arousal drove every other thought from his mind. Without a word, he stood, swept aside the stumbling Huns who attended him, and strode to Kriemhild, now standing tremulously at the far end of the hall. With each step the raging heat of his ardor grew with such intensity that the skin across his face grew taut.

“Etzel”, she croaked and rose to enfold him in her embrace. “Kriemhild, my sweet kugel, a dish I first encountered as I completed the ravaging of a shtetl in Belarus, like mac and cheese baked in maple syrup, the kugel, I mean, not the village.” “Etzel!” Her nostril flared with unhinged desire. “Kriemhild!” Sweat rose along the low hairline a few millimeters above the dense thatched palisade which made up Etzel’s eyebrow. “

Modesty demands putting some distance between the ourselves and the randy couple. I could linger, examining each tortured groan, each exhalation of ecstasy, but as the characters are both fictional and somewhat hastily drawn, let us leave them to whatever disportment the moment allowed and once again bring perspective to the exercise.”

There’s this noise in my head …

There’s this noise in my head …

I’m sitting down to write again, knowing that within seconds my thoughts will be pulled sideways, garotted, body slammed, bulldozed, by the ceaseless attacks on the orderly transition of power expected of a republic admired for its generous and scrupulous adherence to the rule of law in that ritual at the very least. I hear angry mobs bamboozled into violence by the narcissist-in-chief, his political hacks and lackies, and greedy parasites. 

Again. And again. 

I don’t want to write about the mess; I’m exhausted by the mess. I want to take flight, wax whimsical, make leaps of hope in humanity and the brotherhood of all life forms. But no. Can’t get past the droning squeal of a nation in agony.

Joyce Carol Oates assures me that the great enemy of writing is not writer’s block or lack of confidence but interruption. Interruption is a fact of life even in pleasant times; I live with humans and dogs. Discipline is called for here and disciplined I shall be. It isn’t easy to be whimsical while disciplined, but it has been my experience that establishing a routine has been necessary from the start. All the most prolific writers describe taming fecund imagination by imposing rigidly maintained writing schedules. 

The dog wants to go out?  The shower won’t drain? Big Whoop. Get back to work.

Shakespeare wrote King Lear in the midst of a plague. Isaac Asimov was writing by the age of eleven. He came of age during the Depression and World War II and managed to eke out more than 500 published works and something like 9000 letters.  Steven King has probably finished his 62nd novel in the time it has taken me to start this post, so I had better get going.

And yet … there’s this noise in my head.

I’m reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, which is a treasure trove of speculative invention, many stories shocking when published in 1968, a few terrifyingly prescient as we have 2020 hindsight. The story that has stuck with me is “Harrison Bergeron”, one of several satirical takes on what Vonnegut felt was society’s regrettable impulse toward mindless egalitarianism. In the imagined year 2081, Constitutional amendments level the playing field by decreeing that no citizen shall be smarter, more physically advantaged, or more attractive than any other. The Handicapper General oversees policies that force beautiful people to wear grotesque masks and ballet dancers to perform while constrained by weights.  The central character, Harrison Bergeron, is intelligent, handsome, and athletic, imprisoned, shackled, and fitted out with a device implanted in his brain. The device interrupts sequential thinking by periodically broadcasting a noise, “…like a ball peen hammer hitting a milk bottle.”

The days of our lives … like a ball peen hammer hitting a milk bottle.

The which propels me to a quick survey of similes which land with comparable heft, turning quickly to the cherished compilation of the worst similes used on high school exams, a list I shared with students for years before realizing that they were perfectly capable of producing their own. Why the following abominations should kick off the whimsy machine who knows, but here they are. Warning! Many began with promise then veer into regions best left unexplored.

She had a deep, throaty genuine laugh (pretty good so far) like the sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.

The hailstones leapt from the pavement (again, promising) just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

She was as easy as a really easy crossword. (This one does ask something of the reader)

Her pants fit her like a glove, well, maybe more like a mitten, really.

This is what happens when the brain short circuits.  The ball peen hammer continues to hit milk bottles with full force, but I’ve knocked off another article and found some relief in the describing of the dilemma. I’ll close by mixing metaphor and simile in contending that this exercise has cleansed the writing palate like a spoonful of sorbet between courses.

The Personal Cost of Partisan Enmity

The Personal Cost of Partisan Enmity

Democracy on the brink of extinction, a global pandemic, the impending end of truth, science, progress, empathy, and humanity. Seems like just about enough to cast a dark shadow on even the sunniest prospect, but the more immediate cost for me is the loss of friendship and the prospect of friendship. Family members and people I once knew and liked despite our differences have moved to affiliation with a political movement that is not only inimical to my beliefs but operating outside the constraints of constitutional democracy and dedicated to disenfranchising me and injuring people that I love. Have we and democratic institutions been so battered in recent months that the prospect of civility has become unlikely?

These are dangerours times; without reconciliation, the social contract can be shredded.  Lulled into the conviction that our institutions are secure, we’ve laughed at the pointless feud of Hatfields and McCoys and despaired at a distance at the mindless antipathy of Capulets for Montagues. Their enmity is in full flame as the play begins, violent and spontaneous. There is no safe haven; even those outside the families are at risk as violence rages in the city’s streets.

Clubs, bills, and partisans! strike! beat them down!

Down with the Capulets! down with the Montagues!

This partisan street brawl has now jumped from Verona and is our reality; there seems to be no peaceful path to common ground. At the end of Romeo and Juliet, as bodies litter the stage, the contending families understand the cost of reflexive hatred and make the first overtures toward reconcilliation. In our tragedy, The President-elect speaks of unity and mended fences, but we don’t hear that wish expressed by the President or those who believe or accept lies coming from the White House. Former friends consider the President beleaguered, victimized by enemies of the nation; I consider the President transparently self-serving and dangerously dismissive of the Constitution and the rule of law. How do I respond to those who have been convinced that people who hold my convictions are traitors, whose actions are not only dangerous but demonic.  What can I say to the even the moderate partisan loyalists who may not loathe me personally, but who believe that I and those who hold my beliefs cannot be allowed to have a place in the governing of the nation, who accede to those who deny my party the privilege of serving the nation by election even when the means of disenfranchisement are despicable.

We rail aganist the venal criminality of actions at the highest level of government, but cronyism has been an unfortunate reality for generations, and the adage that power corrupts absolutely has borne out time and again.  The difficulty today is that while pillaging and looting still takes place at the top, in our Bizarro World, loyalty to the looters has become an article of faith, animated by a cult of personality and reactionary willingness to believe the most absurd theories of conspiracy.  Even those who do not personally believe that progressive liberalism is satanic are standing with those who do and who are willing to go to any length to subjugate those who disagree. 

It appears that the terrible reality is that partisanship remains unresolved even though a bloody Civil War cost the nation lives on both sides. The failure of Reconstruction assured the continued suppression of Black lives, insidious and often deadly. Lee’s may have surrendered at Appomattox, but we have remained two nations. We are no longer defined by longitude; there is no Mason-Dixon line between Republicans and Democrats, even in the state we label Red or Blue, even in families, even in friendships.

I remain fond of people whose convictions do not agree with mine, but as they support those who wish me harm, friendship fades. Anger has given way to regret. I am saddened by the prospect of the great American experiment in democracy shattered one friendship at a time.