Notice my spotty attendance here on my own blog, and in the “like” and “comment” sections of blogs I normally read? Well, I’ve missed you too–but not that much.
I haven’t missed you because I’ve spent three of the past four days in a warm kitchen with my strange 72-year old mom baking Christmas cookies and talking and driving each other a little crazy, in no small part due to the half pound of coffee beans we’ve exploited in the name of powering this annual venture. But hey, I’m baking cookies with my mom, the way she used to bake cookies with her mom. And I’m man enough to brag about it.
The caveat: this woman is frustrating in so many ways I can’t detail here lest I destroy her reputation, and none of those things really matter because she’s also quite possibly the nicest person I know. What maddens me is the reflection of my own faults that I see amplified in her–everything I would list on a New Year’s Resolution countdown is right there in her eyes, a syndrome I suspect is not unique to my family. On the other hand, it could be that she’s pretty much all I’ve got–my family tree has been whittled down by divorce, attrition and complacency to the point where the biggest venue we’d need for a reunion is the corner booth at Denny’s. (Do they still have those?) Aside from mom, with the exception of one cousin, sentiment for me in that branch of the family ranges from smug indifferent to open hostility.
That sounds like whining, but I’m a big boy, I tried my best, and it’s no small mystery that I tend to be an acquired taste–like drinking cheap vodka: there’s some painful burning at the beginning, a few laughs in the middle, but ultimately you wake up sick. At least I have a paradigm. Some guys can only dream….
But cookies. My mom can’t cook for shit. Sounds crude, but it’s the best way to say it. As I’ve written here recently, I was well into college before I realized that roast beef isn’t supposed to be ghostly grey, or that most recipes don’t start with the phrase “First brown a pound of ground beef…” or that vegetables don’t mostly come from aluminum cans. She learned everything she knows from her mother, but the both of them could sure as hell make some tasty cookies. These weren’t fancy cookies, mind you, but nor were they the sort of self-consciously “colonial” bland molasses and raisin-filled shit you’d expect from folks who so stubbornly clung to their damp, English Methodist culinary flagellation. No family in the history of the world has fetishized bad food like ours.
Except at the holidays, those few times of the year when they gave a damn; and that’s the key point: when they gave a damn. It is the fault of my mother, and her mother before her, that I am a Christmas zealot, in turn weepy-eyed and jubilant over the “most wonderful time of the year.”
We made at least 10 dozen of multiple recipes including tollhouse, sugar cookies (both sugared and frosted), thumbprint cookies stuffed with frosting or jelly, snickerdoodles, peanut butter blossoms, peanut butter cup tarts. So yeah, hundreds of cookies. At this point, we’ve consumed almost 20 pounds of flour, 12 pounds of butter, several pounds each of brown and granulated sugar, six ounces of vanilla, about 40 eggs. Still, it’s not really about what we produced.
We spent a lot of time waiting for the stove to catch up to our cooking, but I got to hear all her best stories and–surprise–some new content while we were throwing back java and listening to the blaring Christmas Music. It’s the thing we do–I mix, she cuts, shapes, or rolls, then I sugar or decorate. We talk.
I must admit that when I first started doing this, I was thinking she was an easy mark to exploit for labor–she’ll roll out and cut sugar cookie dough all day long, like a harvester racing an approaching rain. Over the years, it’s become more about the time together, but not because she’s doing anything different. At Christmas, I am patient enough, welcoming enough, to accept her, which is a good thing because, kharma-wise, I’m going to need ten times the patience from my children some day.
I began this essay last season, ultimately publishing the initial portions as a somewhat unrefined draft, but never finishing–so the six or seven of you who read it last year might find the first portions somewhat familiar. For most of you, however, we’re treading on new ground.
My ardent followers and weary friends will certainly attest to my love of most things Christmas, not to mention my enthusiasm for Christmas-themed posts. I wasn’t born this way; it was bred into me by a perversely nostalgic mother and an extended family whose expressions of sentiment were largely reserved for the final episodes of long-running television series (“it’s like they were our friends) and major holidays–Christmas chief among them.
To cut to the quick, I wasn’t the happiest kid. It takes an effort to find a picture of me smiling but each year, when I was young, as the days turned dark and cold, my family’s humble holidays brought moments of magical respite from the rest of the year. It wasn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was better and in endeavoring to make it similarly special for my children I’ve found even greater joy and satisfaction as an adult–so right up front there’s a lesson for you: focus on making some other people happy and it’s likely you’ll get a little good back for yourelf….
Now, to be clear, when I say “Christmas” we are talking about an extended period which began before Thanksgiving and persisted through New Years to Epiphany–the last of those happy “Twelve Days of Christmas”–the very sort of Holiday over-reach that drives Christian extremists nutso. Not that I care what they think.
For many of my generation, “Christmas” began with the arrival of the Sears, Roebuck & Company “Wish Book” and it’s myriad, fantastical possibilities–toys I had never imagined, let alone seen, and mostly likely never would, but of which I could marvel and dream. (all this and a ladies lingerie section, too–the Wishbook was the original internet). Within moments of it’s arrival, I had a ballpoint pen in my hand, circling anything interesting with reckless disregard for reality, or anyone else who might want to read those pages. I never seemed to notice that I would get none of it–the magic was in the dream, not the reality, which was never half as entrancing as the catalog imagery. I mean, all that crap broke by New Years Day, in any case.
The next great holiday milepost was our church’s annual “Hanging of The Greens” night–a massive covered-dish dinner, at which hundreds of people–mostly the older folks and families with young children–gathered and sat at long tables, partaking in the seemingly endless bounty of casseroles, gelatin-based salads, and chewy white rolls. After dinner, the men went to the huge sanctuary to decorate the half dozen or more trees, and arrange the hundreds of poinsettias, wreaths, swags, and bows that turned the church into a festive wonderland–it was truly spell-binding, and it’s disappointing that I have been unable to locate a picture.
While the men scaled ladders and hefted trees, the women cleaned up dinner (ha!) then adjourned, as did the children, to their various Sunday School classrooms to decorate each of the many rooms with craft decorations we had made ourselves. At the end of the evening, everyone gathered in the sanctuary for a small lesson, a few Christmas hymns, and a benediction. I invariably went home exhausted, but excited. Christmas was really on the way.
It’s odd to me now, three decades after my 0scandalous, sin-tainted family–with the adulterous father, the cloying mother, and their no-good, unruly little boy– was quietly marginalized and driven from that church, to recall how warm and inviting those halls were, as familiar as–and far more comfortable and safe–than my own home. I haven’t practiced religion for decades and have no plan to resume any time in the future, but I must admit that my experiences as part of a church community added a richness to the season that I’d never dream of renouncing.
Coming Soon…Part 2: On The First Day of Christmas, My True Love Gave to Me: Thanksgiving Dinner
I don’t know about where you live, but it’s yet another holiday where I live. The kids don’t have school, and the woods aren’t safe to walk in–nor will they be for the next several weeks because it is The First Day of Deer Season. Have you ever heard of such a thing? When I grew up and left this region, forging out into the great wide beyond, I was surprised to find that this integral component of the Thanksgiving-New Years train was not ubiquitous–just as friends of mine from other corners of the galaxy find it absurd that Westsylvania almost screeches to a stop so we can shoot us some deer.
So, starting well before dawn, hundreds of thousands of hunters, most of them clad in the legally mandated square inch coverage of the color called “blaze orange,” made their ways to the edge of their chosen stalking grounds this morning. Some go alone, some in pairs, but many go in groups, taking turns “driving” or waiting in ambush for their prey. Many climb trees and wait patiently in tree stands, chewing on jerky and peeing in a plastic bottle, waiting for that chance at a trophy, and a freezer filled with meat.
I never understood the allure. My paternal grandpa loved deer hunting–it was part of his farm-raised heritage. Few things were more exciting than when the men in the family–Grandpa, Uncle Bob, even my dad–would decide to go deer spotting in Uncle Bob’s old Ford f-250 Hi-Boy: the men three across in the cab, six pack at their feet, and eight or ten kids, cousins and barefooted Appalachian neighbors, loose in the bed of the truck. We’d rumble through the hollows and over hills, stopping at cornfields and cemetery borders–anywhere with a view–to play a spotlight over the fields, looking for the gemlike twinkle of deer eyes in the dark. When found, their heads and white tails would flash up, eyes peering futilely into the light, muscles rigidly poised for flight, and my grandpa would let loose with the loudest, shrillest whistle a tobacco-chewing man could make, a near-supernatural tool that froze the animals in place long enough to see if a buck was amidst the herd and, if so, how big and how many points.
Ironically, Grandpa was never much for the thrill of the hunt. He walked the woods nearly daily, making observations, tending his salt lick, reading tracks. By the time Deer Day came around, he knew the buck he was going to take, and he knew where and when. By nine a.m. the deer would be dressed and hung upside down between two trees, it’s offal shared with the frightening pack of beagles Grandpa kept fenced behind his shed. For him, the preparation for the hunt was a year long ritual, but the hunt itself a pragmatic affair: meat in the freezer, and (this disgusted me) in several dozen mason jars on the shelves in the larder–right up there beside the peaches and green beans.
Not me. I’m not a voracious meat eater to begin with, but I do enjoy it a few times a month–but when I get meat, I want it the way God intended it: on a plastic tray, wrapped in cellophane.
And maybe that’s why it didn’t make sense to me for a long time, why hunting is observed with pietistic reverence by so many of my neighbors. Yesterday, my wife took a long one-way run south of town, and I drove out to retrieve her since we needed to take a trip to the county recycling center to drop off items that aren’t dealt with curbside. I waited for her in the parking lot of a Sheetz store–think: steroidal convenience store with 24 gasoline pumps, genuine steamed latte, and everything in between. Around me at least half a dozen obvious hunting groups were gearing up, gassing up, and stocking up on last minute supplies.
I was surprised to find myself a little envious. Some of the groups were peers–several guys of the same approximate age–while others seemed to be family members, mulch-generational, kids and fathers and grandfathers. One group was earnestly dumping ice into coolers, another lounged about a large utility trailer loaded down with coolers, plastic storage crates, and a pair of large 4-man ATVs that, for all the world, looked like moon buggys. As a man who was once a boy, the whole thing looked like a blast. The moon buggy guys were gnawing on hoagies and sipping giant sodas, laughing at something. This wasn’t just about hunting–it was about relationships, camaraderie, family.
A woman I know calls this week “Holy Week” because the men in her family abandon all outside responsibilities and considerations, while she is left to hold things together, but in such a way that the unpredictable circumstances of the week are not intruded upon by daily rituals like meals, hauling the younger children from place to place, homework, school, etc. She complains, but she’s clearly complicit–a woman like her, she could drop an iron fist and call an end to all the shenanigans.
The one element of hunting that I don’t fall for is that it includes a reverence for the natural world, as our local newspaper stated in an illuminating article–I know a lot of these guys, and for the younger ones, at least, hunting is what it is, but there’s no reverence unless reverence involves tearing through the forest in those ATVs, ripping up land, tossing trash around, firing weapons indiscriminately. I’m not judging–a lot of that sounds like a blast. I’m not a combustion-engine outdoorsman: ATVs, motorcycles, and all that motorized junk has little allure to me (it looks like fun, I’ll admit, but as a hobby…meh)–but I am saying, it’s not reverence. Likewise, the gobbledygook about hunters being conservationists. Some are, many aren’t–a good majority of hunters are working class pragmatists who still follow the old “highest use” doctrine on wild country: if it’s not being “exploited” it’s being wasted. You know: drill baby, drill. Or log. Or mine. It’s about jobs that feed families, about money in threadbare pockets.
I get that, and I don’t care about that either. Outdoor writers and hunter advocates make up that conservation and “reverence” bullshit and spout it around as if there is some reason to justify hunting, to validate it, to elevate it philosophically–when the fact of the matter is that hunting, as a tradition, stands well enough on it’s own. The primary game animal in Pennsylvania, the White-tailed deer, is a beautiful creature, lean and large thanks for the abundance offered by both our resplendent wild places and the buffet bonanza offered by transitional zones ripe with gardens and manicured shrubbery. In that regard, the Whitetail is in fact almost a plague–and as a gardener living in a community where dear are plenty and firearms can’t be fired, I’m in favor of anythings short of a 12′ fence that keeps deer at bay.
So, who is stoked for Thanksgiving? Besides me. Word has it that another of my wayward distant nephews is making the drive up from North Carolina, 9 hours each way, just to spend late afternoon and evening with us. Boo-yah. He’s has to work Wednesday and Friday, but he’s coming–and that’s a whole lot of over the river and through the woods to deal with. We’re looking at about 90% attendance, and that rocks–and while we’re down one niece and nephew, we’ve added a niece-in-law (is that a thing?).
The only thing that comes close to the excitement of seeing all these little kids who have suddenly grown into young men and women is the sight of a blunderbuss-toting, hyperopic ballerina ia a french maid outfit hunting vainly for next Thursday’s dinner. Family love is great and wonderful and all, but the right to a well-armed ballerina is one of the basic tenants of our Great Union. That and the right to run cattle on public land.
But I digress. (It’s not like you thought that I wounldn’t–digress, I mean). I recently participated, albeit somewhat tangentially, in a discussion over at coldhandboyack following the host’s blog asserting that “Thanksgiving is dead,” a depressing but well-reasoned consideration of the changes and social trends that have led to a marked diminution of the holiday from sacred family event to pre-Christmas commercial opportunity. I agree with his assertions; however, my own opinions are considerably more bitter, cynical, and nostalgic. I’m not ready to see Thanksgiving fade off into that good night, replaced by the vapid superficiality of something like Halloween. In these regards, I fully embrace a conservative stance, the irony being that pro-commerce conservatives would like nothing better, I think, than to keep nothing about Thanksgiving except for the idea of the thing, as a scaffolding upon which to hang brighter and ever-gaudier solicitations to endless heights of consumerism.
Well, fuck that. For many years our ears were pummeled politicians droning on about “family values,” despite our nation’s collective rejection of some of the most traditional and visible markers of those values. Now granted, the commercialization of Thanksgiving isn’t the same as inequities in wages, healthcare, housing, and so forth, but it’s a big glowing example of our priorities. It was pointed out over at Boyack’s page that it’s all about shopping, but that social media hasn’t helped either, what with texts and tweets and even email relieving some of the longing for contact with loved ones we once had, while providing the illusion of interaction. A tweet does not a turkey dinner make, however.
Another interesting point someone made was that Thanksgiving has had a commercial element for the better part of a century, serving as a practical gateway to Christmas, and I concur. I’ll be writing in a few weeks about my family’s Christmas traditions and youthful memories, one of which was a trip to the “big city” where they had this wonderful place called a mall, an indoor sort of main street in which we could take off our coats and cross folks off our Christmas lists in perfect, 72 degree comfort. Black Friday, the commenter observed, isn’t about buying thoughtful gifts for others, it has become about scoring awesome cool crap for bargain prices for ourselves.
Now, I’m not a religious man by any stretch of the word. When I step into a church the paint peels off the walls and my shoes leave smoking footprrints on the carpet, but I know sins, and what we’ve done with Thanksgiving is a sin. Indeed, I’d argue that it is three–envy, greed, and gluttony. Not to mention the complete and total abandonment of any semblance of pride. Look at the photo above: I would never, ever, run for the opportunity to save a little money on crap I don’t need. It’s grotesque, there’s nothing else to say.
There is no reason why a holiday like Thanksgiving should dissolve–although many people instill it with religious overtones, the seeds of the season are cooperation (however exaggerated), perseverance, gratitude for what we have, and ultimately the establishment of our nascent country. No one who lives here, or loves the USA and it’s promise, has any excuse not to embrace it. Even indiginous, Native Americans could make a case for honoring the generosity and benevolence of their ancestors.
I would go futher in arguing that we MUST struggle to reclaim the simple, supposedly archaic values reflected in ths stodgy old chestnut of a holiday as a starting place from reclaiming the essence of what we can be. Melodramtic? Sure it is. That doesn’t make it bad. Now to do this, we need more than silly photos of our grandmothers’ generation posing in underwear with poultry, and I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.
Some good friends came over last night to join us in some delicious imperial stout (Thanks, Jarrod!) and our annual watching of Love Actually, the Christmas movie that most of us love and lots of us love to hate–a fairly successful situation for a movie that, while it uses Christmas as it’s framework is, as the title suggests, a movie about love in it’s myriad forms and configurations. It’s clear why I enjoy this film: I’m a sentimental sap, a sucker for pulled heartstrings–and this movie yanks on them by the dozens. I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised by the depths of antipathy that some other people project on this film, and even I have to admit that it’s more than the usual, toxic broth of cynicism, arrogance, ignorance and stupidity. A lot of the critics seem relatively intelligent. I’m not going to go too far into this, when it’s expressed so eloquently here:
Utter bullshit, of course. The title’s hyperbole speaks for itself: I’m pretty sure Love Actually is NOT the least romantic film of all time. “I Spit On Your Grave” and Mel Gibson’s Jesus Torture-fest come to mind.
After that, lets put on our Ad Hominem for a moment and wonder aloud what kind of moron confuses the convention of romance with the emotion of love. Romance is a mood, love is a feeling. Romance is an ideal. Love is, well, often far less than ideal–which is far often the best kind of love. Got it? This movie is about Love, actually. (get it? couldn’t resist). But I’m not the hero of this story. Another writer at The Atlantic took up the sword/pen and defended our noble movie with a patience and depth I couldn’t be bothered to find. Emma Green, you are the hero of the moment
I wrote this elsewhere, but it pales next to Ms. Green’s black belt defense:
It was Mao who said “kill all the intellectuals, right?” I am relatively confident that Christopher Orr, were he to attempt an improvement, would pen the most absolutely boring film ever made. The sheer audacity of servicing nine “love” stories–and this story is about love, not romance–requires a certain level of imagination that most of what is happening with these people is happening between the cuts–while the camera is focused on the other couples. Laura Linney and her beau, for example, are shown at the end of a long evening date, so contrary to their relationship being purely physical they’ve had time alone together, plus five years of workiing together and a shared mutual attraction–but the kicker is that the love story isn’t theirs; Linney’s character’s story is the love for her brother, the sacrifices she makes in her own life for him.
I’d argue that Firth’s character doesn’t fall in love when he sees his crush in her underwear, it’s clearly been building over their time together and is only fully realized when they jump into the cold, eel-infested pond and separately realize neither ended up there for practical reasons, but out of their growing affection.
As for the PM and the foul-mouthed staffer–I’m sure I’m not the only one who met someone, out of the blue, who just stunned them like a cannon shot to the sternum from the very first moment. It happened to me some time ago, and I recognized it as something weird and cool and magical and the kind of thing that is best left alone. I met a woman some years ago and quite unexpectedly found myself in a stammering, ridiculous fit of adolescent awkwardness even though I was well ensconced in a relationship with a fine woman who happened to be standing about 4 feet away at the time; for days afterwards my thoughts turned constantly to this young woman–in my circumstance, it manifested as intense curiosity, but had I been single (she was) I know, with complete certainty, that I would have been punted ass-over-teacups into a full-blown drive-past-her-house-repeatedly crush. I pity the critic for never having experienced this, nor even having the capacity to imagine such a powerful feeling.
I proud to admit that I’m one of the people who loves the crap out of this film–and yes, Bill Nighy is a major reason why. But I like it all. I like the stupid vanity/foolishness/delusions of the Alan Rickman character, the tone-perfect reaction to his selfishness from Emma Thompson’s character. I read this Christopher Orr article and what I realized was that’s it’s little more than a snobbish, verbose confession that the guy just didn’t get it. He’s virtually shouting it: “I missed the point completely! I just didn’t get it all! I’m obtuse as a moose! As dense as a dirty diaper! But boy can I show off my book-learnin’.” There’s also the possibility that Mr. Orr just never really felt or understood love, but that’s too sad to consider.