Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Backstage at "The Gift"

[The title refers to my previous (and annual) posting, The Gift. If you haven't read that piece, you might still enjoy this. However, it probably won't make sense in spots. That's consistent with my overall philosophy of life, though, so what the hell.]

I went through some old photos last year, specifically in search of Christmas-related stuff on which to base a fresh holiday post. I knew I had a couple of good past postings in the can, and I was fine with re-running those, but I wanted to publish something new as well. I gathered about 25 photographs from Christmases past (trees were prominently featured; that's how I knew) and, while looking through them in search of inspiration, I realized that many of them could act as visual proof of what I wrote about in my story, The Gift.

Before we go on, I want to be sure you know something about how I put that story together. You might look at these photographs and say to yourself, "Oh, now I see! He had these at hand when he wrote it, so all he did was look at them and cobble together some connecting material to tie up what he saw. And all this time I thought his memories of Christmas were strong and beautiful, and he wrote the story from those memories. I've been duped!" You would be wrong to think that. I did work from photographs, but the photographs were (and are) in my mind. It was only some five years after publishing the story for the first time that I realized there were actual hard copies of my memories.

As for the "Backstage" title of this, it's just whimsical. I've come to think of The Gift as a sort of secular 1960's passion play (as, it seems from the comments left during it's various runs and re-runs, some of you have, too.) So, let your imagination churn a bit and feel free to pretend this a peek at the principals, props, stage dressing, and other paraphernalia one might find behind the curtain and in the wings.

First, some prologue that wasn't in the story...

The gigantic fellow on the right is my Dad. He was at least nine years older than any of his three siblings, so he appears to be some sort of pituitary freak. In reality, he stood about 5' 9" (if any of my foreign readers need that in metric, it's 175 cm; not extremely short, but hardly a giant!)

My Uncle Jimmy (second-oldest, in the middle) tells me that this was a somewhat not-well-to-do Christmas for his family, but - as with so many families in such a situation - they didn't realize they were poor. He recalls that the baby carriage came used from a relative and that my grandfather repainted it prior to my Auntie Ba - here about five or six, I would guess - receiving it as a gift. Jimmy also says it was family tradition for the younger kids to believe that Santa Claus decorated the tree on Christmas Eve, but in actuality it was my father who did so each year after attending midnight mass.

Speaking of mass...

This is Saint Gregory's, in my childhood hometown of Dorchester, a section of Boston. It was where we attended mass every Christmas (as well as every Sunday, every holy day of obligation, and for the occasional ceremony of a wedding, funeral, or christening.) I was baptized there, received first communion there, and also was confirmed there by the late Richard Cardinal Cushing, celebrated in Boston Catholic lore. At age 34, this was where I married MY WIFE. It was - and is - a magnificently warm house of worship. In particular, the stained glass above the altar is quite beautiful when the sun is shining through it in the morning hours, dust motes swirling in the colorful sunbeams, and the particular smells of an older church (aged wooden pews, incense, candles) are inhaled concurrently. Should you enjoy such places, and ever find yourself in Dorchester, have a visit. You'll be delighted.

Every Advent, a creche (manger scene) was set up on the lawn to the left of the church. The baby Jesus wasn't included, of course, as He hadn't been born yet. Come Christmas, all of the kids in the neighborhood - who had been admiring the creche all during Advent - would check to see if Jesus had made His arrival. He always had, and we were always pleased by that minor bit of Catholic hocus-pocus.

My Dad once again, looking a bit more his normal height. This was Christmas of 1956, about two months before my birth. My Mom took the photo, so I'm just out of sight in the foreground, hidden beneath a maternity dress. This is the living room of Caddy Road, where the tree always was, and where we always exchanged gifts, and where cats always played with low-hanging ornaments.

And that brings us to...

The Cat. Real name: Blackie.

(I get enough grief about that choice of name from MY WIFE without YOU piling on. She looked black when she was born, what with all of the amniotic fluids and gunk, OK?)

Here she's battling a silver bell ornament. I know for a fact she didn't defeat it since I still have that ornament on this year's tree. Notice the big-ass old Admiral TV in the background. The best furniture talks to you and shows you pictures! One of the boxed games on the left was called Feeley Meeley. I have no recollection of how it was played, but it sure sounds unsavory.

Which brings us to our next character...

Me (as well as my Christmas stocking.)

This would have been 1959, I think. It is probably the stocking's initial appearance at Christmas.

Here is the stocking at a later date, closer to the time of the story, hanging from my bedroom door, full. Santa has come and gone, obviously. I am on the other side of that door, sound asleep, with my transistor radio playing "Silver Bells" or "The Little Drummer Boy" to my unconscious self.

Earlier in the week...

... I had my green rubber boots on in the snow. I probably made the decoration (or, at least, that part of it that only involved cutting letters from construction paper.) I may be gathering inspiration for a trip to the store to buy THE GIFT for...

Auntie Ba. When last you saw her, up above, she was about 15 years younger and pushing a doll in a baby carriage. She now has two real children. How time flies!

This is hardly the best photo of her. It does, however, show the amazing floor-covering hard-to-walk-through nature of her place on Christmas morning. She was the indisputable Queen of Christmas Generosity. No expense was ever spared, and she was usually broke because of it. And she wouldn't have had it any other way. She'd give you the shirt off of her back, even if it was snowing and she didn't have another. God, I miss her.

Now, a slight trip back in time...

Christmas 1959 again, probably. Auntie Ba, looking much lovelier, is second from the left. I'm the little guy clutching some goodies in another stocking. On the right are my Sullivan grandparents, Ma and Pa. Could I possibly have ever been recipient of a more loving gaze than that being bestowed upon me by Pa? I doubt it. This was the first stop on Christmas after my aunt's (and this was prior to her having her own place, and may have been during the time period when she lived with me. I'm not totally sure.) My mother is directly behind me, and behind her is my grandfather, Fran Drown, no doubt at my other grandparent's home because we will be going in his car to Weymouth, the final stop on each Christmas, then as now.

Just one more photo from the past...

This was Ma & Pa's Christmas tree from that same year. I show it for you to notice the star atop it. It is the same star we later put on trees in Dorchester. It is the same star MY WIFE and I now feature on our...

... Grove O'Christmas (trademark pending.)

As you can see, we have more than one tree. MY WIFE got them from a store she once worked at. They were part of a window display. When they decided they weren't going to use them anymore, she asked if she could buy them. Until then, we had always had a real tree. Just as well this way, as I have always been so damn sad throwing the live tree to the curb in January. It never seemed right to have loved it so and then just tossed it aside. A live tree is lovely and fragrant, but these guys are easier on my conscience.

I always wait for a day when MY WIFE is working - and I'm not - then I set up the trees and decorations while she's not home. This particular year, I decided it would be cute to put all of our teddy bears (and assorted honorary bears) under the tree. Until then, I had no idea what a huge bloody lot they had become. I literally could not fit all of them under the trees or into the photo. This is about 3/4 of them.

(Say what you will concerning our sanity, but they don't eat much and they scare away the burglars. Would you break into a home with 50-some-odd bears in it? I think not!)

And here is last year's version of the same.

Notice the stocking in the background? Same one I had when I was two. And the star? It was on Ma & Pa's tree, then my parent's, now ours. And that's the overarching theme here, I suppose: connections to the past. What my father delighted in doing during his teens, decorating the tree to surprise and delight others, he delighted in still during my childhood, and I delight in now. My Auntie Ba's acceptance of the re-painted baby carriage as a wonderful gift led to her being just as happy to receive my silly sponges, which in turn leads to me having never been ungrateful for a present at any time in my life since. As I saved my stocking and love bringing it out each year, so I made one for MY WIFE and she has it hung each year, and she in turn made one for her brother and we bring that one out each year. Heck, one year we gave everybody on our list a full stocking as their gift. The list of connections goes on and on, from my family and hers. I've been lucky enough to gain many others by marriage (such as the traditional changing of my sister-in-law's "NOEL" decoration to having it read "LEON" at some point, which always brings muffled laughter from us and a groan from her.)

What makes Christmas a wonderful holiday for some - and less so for others - are these connections to loving family and pleasant traditions. The more tenuous those connections, the less jolly a time it is. Those who are without loved ones to share the time don't feel the same warmth as those of us who have the blessing of living ties to the fondly-remembered past. When you run into a humbugger, stop and consider that perhaps that person has a serious hurt inside. Severed connections can be quite painful. Maybe your kind word or action can reconnect them (or, if you are blessed, connect them for the first time) to the magic. You won't know unless you try. And, if nothing else, you'll be happier for the trying, believe me.

If you are a humbugger - or just seasonally sad, for whatever personal reasons - my well-meaning advice would be for you to attempt making some connections of your own. Start a tradition, if need be. Every earthly thing of good has had a beginning somewhere by somebody. How fondly you'll be remembered by those whom you include in your passion play!

And that's it for me until after the new year, my good friends. Be safe, be loving, smile as often as is possible, and maybe attempt one serendipitous good deed that you weren't originally planning. When it gets down to the heart of the matter, YOU can be Christmas to somebody. Make it so, for your own soul to flourish.

Soon, with more better stuff.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Gift

[Christmas, 1965 or thereabouts]

The boy was very young; perhaps 7 or 8 years old. He loved everything about Christmas - the lights, the music, Santa Claus, the trees covered in tinsel and shiny ornaments - but especially the snow. For as long as he could remember (which wasn't very long, but it was a lifetime) there was always snow at Christmas. The whole thing was magical.

He walked down the street, on his way to a store near his home, and it was beginning to snow again. There was already an inch or two on the ground from yesterday and it was shiny, bright, white, and made everything it covered pretty. He opened his mouth and turned his face to the sky, trying to catch a couple of snowflakes on his tongue. He thought he succeeded, but it was hard to tell because snow melted as soon as it hit your tongue, so you couldn't collect a mouthful of it to prove that you caught some. He jingled a couple of nickels in his pocket, sliding his green rubber boots along in the snow as he walked with his face to the sky.

He was on his way to the store to buy a gift. He enjoyed receiving presents, of course; what child doesn't? However, he also very much enjoyed giving them to others. He loved to see people's faces when they opened their gifts. It was another magical thing about this time of year. He rarely saw anyone unhappy around Christmas and he never saw anyone unhappy when they opened a present.

Being very young, the boy didn't have much money. He received an allowance, but only one dollar. He had already bought presents for his mother and father. For his mother, it was some cheap perfume. For his father, it was some cheap cigars.

(Realize that when I say "cheap", I don't mean to imply that the boy had gone out of his way to buy inexpensive and shoddy presents. He hadn't. He had lovingly picked them out, albeit within his modest budget. The cigars and perfume were cheap, though. Being a young boy, he had no appreciation of perfume and thought they all smelled pretty much alike - stinky. He also had no idea that some cigars, when lit, smell like innertubes burning. However, these had come in a package with a big white owl on the front, and he did know that his dad liked owls.)

He had ten cents leftover from his original dollar, which will give you an idea of the value of the cigars and perfume. In any case, he now wanted to buy a present for his aunt.

His aunt was the older relative closest in age to the boy. She was around 19 or 20. She had lived with the boy and his parents for a short while when the boy was much younger. They had grown very close during this time. She was close enough in age to have been the boy's older sister and, in some ways, that's what the boy thought of her as.

The boy reached the main street. The store was on the other side, so he pressed the button that made the light red to stop the traffic. He loved how even the traffic lights joined in with the season, flashing red and green and yellow just like the lights on a Christmas tree. He looked both ways and then crossed the street.

He walked through the parking lot of the store, again noticing how people were so much happier this time of year. Everybody had a cheery "Hello!" for the people they met. As he entered the store through the automatic door (how did it know?) he heard Christmas music playing over the store's speakers.

He felt great. He was in love with the world.

Now he had to find a present for his aunt. He hadn't really given thought about this part of the task. He just assumed that he'd be able to find something nice. After all, a dime would buy a comic book, or two candy bars, or even twenty of those 2-for-1 Mint Julep candies. Certainly he'd be able to find something his aunt would love.

What sorts of thoughts go through the mind of a small boy? Many and varied, of course, but some are unfathomable. As he was walking down one of the aisles, he spotted something very colorful and pretty. He had always liked how these things looked. They were useful, too. And, when he checked the price, it was ten cents - just right! This is what he would get his aunt for Christmas.

He brought the gift up to the checkout and paid for it. Now there was nothing to jingle in his pockets, but that was OK. His Christmas shopping was done.

He made his way back home, enjoying the big colored lights that were on just about every house in the neighborhood, again catching (or trying to catch) snowflakes in his mouth.


When he got home, he took off his boots (which was always troublesome – he always seemed to leave one sock inside of a boot) and then ran upstairs to his room, to wrap this newest gift.

He was an only child. He spent many hours by himself, in his room, and he very much enjoyed that privacy. He didn’t dislike other people - far from it, in fact - but he did enjoy dreaming and using his imagination. He discovered early on that it’s almost impossible to dream when someone else is in your room. Someone else almost always wants to talk, and you can’t carry on a decent conversation with someone else and dream at the same time. Anyway, as a result of spending much time alone, he became fairly self-sufficient.

(Whenever anyone asked him if he wouldn’t rather have a brother or sister, he would firmly say, “No!” and he hoped that the people asking him these questions would see to it that the proper authorities – whoever was in charge of bringing brothers and sisters – did not make any deliveries to his house.)

Being such a self-sufficient boy, he mostly wrapped his own presents. He had already wrapped all of his other gifts for family. Many of his relatives got handmade gifts of one sort or another. For instance, every year since he was able to handle crayons, he had made his grandfather a hand-drawn calendar, which his grandfather treasured receiving. Now, he wrapped the gift for his aunt in colorful paper, once again admiring how colorful the gift was, too.


That night, Christmas Eve, he did what most Christian boys and girls try to do. Almost immediately after dinner, he went to bed. He tried to go to sleep at an abnormally early hour, hoping to thus wake up sooner and make Christmas come quicker. Before going to bed, he hung his stocking on his bedroom door (since there were no chimney or fireplace in his house.) He turned on the little transistor radio he had received as a gift on his last birthday and searched out a station playing Christmas music. In those days of his youth, it seemed the only time they ever played Christmas music on the radio was starting on Christmas Eve and he loved hearing all of the songs he heard (and loved) a year ago. His favorite was “Silver Bells”, and they played it not long after he lay down, much to his delight. Slowly, to the strains of “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, he drifted off to sleep.

(A curious thing about being a boy is that sometimes you can will yourself to dream what you want to dream. Not always, of course, but sometimes. You might think it an odd thing to dream, but the boy had dreamed of Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound every Christmas Eve [that is, every one in the memory of his short life] and he hoped that he’d have that same dream again this night, as it was great fun running around with cartoon characters. He did.)

Since he had gone to bed so early, he awoke at 3 am. He got up to go to the bathroom, but when he opened his door, he felt the heaviness of a full stocking on the other side of it, so thoughts of peeing suddenly took a backseat to seeing what Santa had left. He gently took out the tack that was holding the stocking to the door, making doubly sure he had a firm grip on the stocking and it wouldn’t fall on the hall floor (in case there was anything in it that might break) and he took it back to his bed, flipping on the bedroom light switch as he did so.

He wasn’t a greedy sort of a boy and so he didn’t just dump everything out on the bed in one fell swoop. Instead, he took the items out one at a time and carefully, lovingly, examined them. There were candy cigarettes with little bits of red food coloring on the ends to simulate their being lit; a set of jacks with a small rubber ball; a wind-up dog that did backflips until there wasn’t enough wind-up left (so then it landed on its head); a pinkie ball (great for three-flies-out on the front steps); one of those puzzles that you have to move around the pieces until you get it to read 1 through 15 in order; and a pencil with his very own name engraved on it! He attempted to solve the puzzle for a little bit, but then he remembered that he had to pee, so he did.

(He went to the bathroom to do so.)

After washing his hands and brushing his teeth, he went downstairs and plugged in the Christmas tree. He considered a Christmas tree the most beautiful thing on earth, and this one was filled with enormous colored lights, ornaments of all shapes and sizes, big handfuls of tinsel on every branch, and a long garland of popcorn (which he and his mother had strung one evening last week.) Topping it off was a white star with a red bulb inside it. He sat down on the floor and just stared at the tree for ten minutes, bathing in its warmth, both real (from the gigantic lights) and metaphysical.

He probably would have stared at it a bit longer, but his cat came along and started playing with one of the low-hanging ornaments and that broke him out of his reverie. He loved the cat very much and he loved watching her play - even more than he liked looking at the tree. After she failed to defeat the ornament - it still hung on the branch and she now wriggled on her back, enjoying the pine needles that had fallen - he went out to the kitchen and opened a can of cat food. Hearing the opener whirr, she came running like a shot - for a cat will take food over ornaments, every time (thus proving, once again, their innate intelligence.)

The boy poured himself a glass of milk and added some chocolate to it. He then took this back upstairs, drank it while eating a candy cigarette, and went back to sleep, listening to “The Little Drummer Boy” and imagining himself a poor boy playing drums for Jesus. The cat came upstairs and joined him in sleep, though what she dreamed of remains a mystery.


When he awoke again, it was 7am and his mother and father were also awake. They all went downstairs and opened presents, enjoying some cocoa while they did so. The boy received wonderful presents of games and toys, as well as a couple of shirts and such that he knew he should be more thankful for than he was. The cat received a catnip mouse (from Sandy Claws) and was very thankful for it. The parents exchanged gifts with each other and were thankful for those, and they received the stinky perfume and the smelly cigars with warmth at the thought behind them.

Now it was time for mass, after which the family would head over to the aunt’s to exchange gifts, before heading off to the house of the boy's grandparents.

Mass was as mass usually is – something which cats are thankful not to have to attend. It wasn’t that the boy didn’t want to wish Jesus a happy birthday and all – he really loved the bible stories very much, and he admired to no end someone who would lay down his own life for that of his friends – but the priest saying the mass this morning just went on and on and on and on. Even though he had slept close to ten hours, the boy could feel his eyes drooping as the interminable homily crept, s-l-o-w-l-y, towards a conclusion that had stopped being meaningful to all but the most die-hard some ten minutes before. Finally, after the homily died its excruciating death and communion was served, and after everyone had sung a rousing “Joy To The World”, it was time to get on the road and go exchange presents with other family members. After a 15-minute drive, the boy and his parents arrived at the aunt’s house.

They went inside to a warm welcome from the aunt and the rest of her family gathered there, which included a few other adults and a couple of infants, the boy's cousins. After a few minutes of small talk (mostly complaints from the boy’s father concerning the length of the homily at mass) it was time to open presents.

The boy watched with delight as everybody opened packages and smiled. Here was the magic again. Everyone oohed and aahed in the appropriate places as they received the presents that others had purchased for them. And now, his aunt had his gift in her hands and she carefully removed the wrapping paper, revealing the gift for all to see.

There were some smiles. Not that the boy noticed, but there were also a couple of glances exchanged by the grown-ups with some muffled laughter included. The aunt regarded her gift and looked lovingly at the boy. He looked back at her with love in his heart.

She said, “Oh, Jimmy, they’re just what I needed! Thank you, darling!”

She reached over and kissed him. He blushed and said, “You’re welcome.”

Never before had a package of red and green kitchen sponges brought such joy to two people.


True story.

My Auntie Ba could have laughed at such a ridiculous gift. Some of the other adults might have joined in and then I would have been mortified. Instead, she taught me a marvelous lesson that Christmas, and she did so just by being her wonderful loving self. She taught me that there is no such thing as a bad gift, so long as there is love behind the giving of it.

My Christmas wish for all of you is that the gifts you give, whether large or small or precious or ludicrous (like sponges) be received as lovingly. My Christmas request to all of you is that you receive with love every gift given you. You never know how profoundly your love might affect someone.

My Auntie Ba is gone now, and I miss her, but her spirit lives on with me every Christmas because of the love she showed a well-meaning boy and his silly gift.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Slappin' Leather

I've given you an awful lot of recycled material this month, and I apologize. More is coming next week. However, just to show you my heart is still in the right place, here's something completely new and fresh.

OK, I suppose I should tell you that, while it is completely new and fresh, it's not mine. It's from the same hilarious duo who brought you Rainy Day Old Maid, The Titwillow Affair, Subliminal Tactics, and West Of Limbo, which is the spiritual predecessor to the current production, Slappin' Leather, which is a magnificent piece of fun.

Go there and laugh. If you don't, there's something seriously wrong with your sense of humor (especially when you get to about 1:45 into it, which, for personal reasons, is my favorite part.)

Soon, with more stuff.

(I would have said, "...more better stuff", but it just doesn't get any better than this, I guarantee you.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Last-Minute Gift-Giving Ideas

No, not this. This is just a gentle reminder to be aware
that there might be cameras at your next office party.

OK, not all of what follows is new. You vagrants who have been hanging out here for years will probably recognize this stuff. Or maybe you've forgotten it entirely. Maybe you wanted to forget it entirely. If so, my apologies for dredging up pain from your past.

What I've done, in a misguided effort at providing you with a favor for the holidays, is compile a few reviews that have appeared on this blog during it's amazingly overrated life.

(I realize the apostrophe in "it's" is generally incorrect when referring to an inanimate object, but this blog sure smells as though it were alive at one time.)

Of course, I automatically assumed that whatever opinion I held concerning a book or recording is something you can't live without. That's just the sort of ego-driven bastard I am. And, in order to make this at least a bit more worth your while, each review comes with a suggestion concerning who might enjoy these things among your friends, relatives, lovers, and other assorted riff-raff. That's because I'm so condescending I assumed you wouldn't be able to tell just by the context alone.

And here we go!


For the lover of comic novels...

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The author, unfortunately, committed suicide after failing to sell this book. Once I read it, I understood why he did so. If I had written this grand work and been unable to sell it, I might have offed myself, too.

After Toole's death, the book was sold, by his mother, to a somewhat small university press. It ended up becoming a bestseller and then won a Pulitzer. Since that time, a couple of Toole's shorter works have been unearthed and published, but that's all there is. No more will be forthcoming because of his death. That's sad stuff.

The book, however, isn't sad at all. It's riotously funny. It is populated with characters and situations that had me laughing aloud, many times over. The main character, Ignatius, at turns amazes, delights, and disgusts. He is one of the great original characters of modern literature - a combination of Falstaff, a degenerate Oliver Hardy, and a volcanic eruption.

(If you're one of those people, like me, who sometimes reads a bit of a book they buy for someone else, don't do it in this instance. Instead, get a copy for yourself when you buy theirs. This is because you'll regret having to give it to someone else before you've finished it, and by the time it arrives it'll be too close to Christmas for you to do so.)

For anyone who lived through the sexual revolution (or wishes they did)...

The Rape of the A*P*E*
by Allan Sherman

THIS should be Sherman's Legacy, not "Hello, Muddah...".

While Allan Sherman's musical offerings were witty and fun, this book is one of the most amazing documents ever published. Like most others who have had the pleasure of reading this, I've bought and lost (as loaners) several copies. I found a hardcover in a used bookstore about ten years ago and I will never let it leave my house now. Replacement copies are amazingly expensive and hard to come by.

Sherman takes on the herculean task of recording the rise and fall of morality - specifically, sexual morality - from Adam & Eve up to the then-present day of the 1970's. He does it with panache, humor, and obvious glee at the failure of prudery to win out.

I consider it the funniest book ever written. I don't know if you can find a copy, but, if you do, somebody as perverted as I am will love you forever for gifting them with it.

For folks who like catchy powerful punkish pop rock...

Tuff Darts!
~ Tuff Darts

Great lost punk/pop band.

I saw them at a club in Boston in the 1970's, then bought the album the next day. I expected them to break big, but it never happened. EVERY cut is catchy, with great hooks, swell lead guitar from Jeff Salen, and there is NOTHING not to like here (unless you're concerned about misogyny, but this is rock and roll, so quit thinking so hard.) Buy it for someone and let that person be amazed at how this band slipped through the cracks.

For the classical music lover...

Prokofiev, Symphonies - Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Seiji Ozawa

If Prokofiev had been born in 1956 in Detroit, instead of 1891 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and he had dropped some acid, he would have been the white Jimi Hendrix.

(That's the type of statement nobody can easily dispute. It contains no facts and supposes something that was utterly impossible during the person's actual life. I don't really believe it, but what the hell. I felt like saying something totally ridiculous and that works as well as anything else.)

These recordings contain Prokofiev's seven symphonies and The Lieutenant Kiji Suite.

Prokofiev's Second Symphony is my favorite piece of classical music. It is tremendously forceful, a bit dissonant, and generally beats a couple of recurring themes into the ground - not unlike heavy metal, my first love. You'll rarely find it on any classical aficionado "favorites" list. They'll mention his First Symphony, which is more classically structured, as well as his piano concertos and, of course, Peter And The Wolf. Fine music, all, but I prefer his more experimental stuff.

If someone you know likes Prokofiev, they'll love these discs.

For the progressive rock fan (or yodeling fan, or fan of Dutch musicians)...

Moving Waves and/or Focus 3 - Focus

Vastly underrated progressive rock quartet from Holland. They had a Top 40 hit in the 70's with a quirky instrumental called Hocus Pocus, which contained a whole bunch of yodeling and a couple of searing guitar solos over a hard rock rhythm track. That came from the album Moving Waves. The follow-up to that album was a two-record set named Focus 3.

Thisj Van Leer is the vocalist, keyboardist and flute player. He has a marvelous voice, although he usually uses it only for oddities such as the aforementioned yodeling. Most of Focus' output was instrumental. His flute vibrato was magnificent and he went on to play as a sideman in various jazz ensembles after this group broke up. Jan Akkerman played guitar and other stringed instruments - lute among them - and threw vicious heavy metal guitar licks into baroque-inspired jazz pieces. They were the two members involved in every incarnation of the group. Drummer for both of these sessions was Pierre Van Der Linden. For the Moving Waves recording, the bassist was Cyril Havermans. On Focus 3, it was Bert Ruiter. Both he and Van Der Linden get extended solos on Focus 3, so if you like that sort of thing, then you'll dig that one more. If not...

(Being a bass player, I love extended bass solos. However, some people consider them the musical equivalent of waiting for your number to be called at the registry of motor vehicles. Being a bass player, I hope those people's eyes rot out.)

For the heavy metal fan...

Back In Black - AC/DC

What can I say about AC/DC that hasn't already been said about slamming a baseball bat into your kidneys? Well, let's see.

AC/DC come from Australia. Slamming a baseball bat into your kidneys doesn't.

I suppose that's about it.

Look, either you like AC/DC or you hate them. They're the rock and roll equivalent of The Three Stooges, except there's five of them, and they aren't as funny, but they sell more records. Mostly a guy thing - and a straight white drug-taking guy thing at that. The only band that found more ways to arrange three chords was The Ramones (but The Ramones played their songs at least twice as fast, so it was more of a challenge since they had to fill more space.)

And there you have it, whatever it was. Hard to think of a more popular hard-rock-cum-heavy-metal album with as many Top 40 hits. If you know of a metal fan who doesn't own this yet, wake him up and tell him you got it for him.

For the fan of big bands, great guitar playing, and weird arrangements...


The Brian Setzer Orchestra gives classical music a re-working in various jazzy settings, mostly big band swing. I haven’t removed it from my car’s CD player since I got it.

(That’s because the eject button isn’t working! Ba-Rump-Bump!)

This is a near-perfect CD. The only flaw is that I scraped it with a fork while trying to pry open the packaging, but that’s OK because it's my copy, not the one you'll be giving to someone else.

Really, honestly, truly – the one major flaw on this album concerns some of the endings to the songs. I don’t know whether a conscious effort was made to try to appear not totally serious, or if the arrangement is just incompetent, but four or five of the endings are either unflinchingly corny or just jarringly off-key.

(I know. Believe me, I know. Of all the people who might complain about something being corny or off-key, for me to do so is beyond the pale, and I’m one of the palest folks around. It’s just that while I’m certainly the type who appreciates a quote from the opening riff of Smoke On The Water following some Offenbach, someone else might not be, so I figured I’d warn you.)

Setzer’s guitar playing is magnificent throughout. He easily transitions from straight renditions of the original lines, to purist jazz, to his beloved rockabilly licks, to paeans to such diverse stylists as Django Reinhardt and Terry Kath. It’s a tour-de-force of epic proportion. The rest of the band is hot, but this is Setzer’s showcase. Aside from some clarinet reminiscent of that heard during Goodman’s small combo days, and some stunning drum breaks from Bernie Dresel, there are few other solos from the ensemble. I might have found one or two improvisations by members of the brass section enjoyable, but there aren’t any. Small quibble, really, since Setzer is fairly mesmerizing the whole way through.

The opener is an adaptation of Beethoven’s SYMPHONY #5; I suppose chosen for that spot because it contains the most recognizable opening in classical music. It’s fun, but nowhere near the strongest cut. I’d say that honor might come down to a choice between the hot jazz rendition of FUR ELISE, which contains the aforementioned allusions to Reinhardt and Goodman (as well as Reinhardt’s partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli) or the album-closing GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMEN, featuring a Duane Eddy-like reverb in the opening, and an acid-tinged wah-wah workout (Kath) in the close.

Other interesting interpretations abound. THE WILLIAM TELL OVERTURE (otherwise known as the theme from The Lone Ranger, to the uncultured of my generation and older) is given a mid-tempo swing chart that reminds, in spots, of 1950’s-era Dorsey (excluding the electric guitar, of course, which Dorsey abhorred.) Mussorgsky’s IN THE HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING features hip lyrics and female backing harmonies. And then there’s Setzer’s frantic workout on FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE (which includes the female vocal chorus chanting “Faster! Faster!” and then going into mock orgasmic cries.)

Overall, this is just plain fun, and it will delight the person in your life who enjoys both electric guitar and swing music, as well as those classical enthusiasts who don’t mind a mild send-up.

For the boomer...

Another wonderful choice for gift giving is Bill Bryson’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE THUNDERBOLT KID.

I’m a huge Bryson fan. He holds a spot in my literary heart similar to that of his spiritual predecessor, Mark Twain. In his body of work to date, he has easily shifted from linguistic archaeologist to travel diarist to writer of memoirs. This offering is from the latter category, with a sprinkling of historian thrown in for good measure.

The best praise I can give this book, I suppose, is that I laughed out loud again and again. I used to do that fairly often when I was a teen and discovering some folks worthy of guffaws, i.e., S. J. Perelman or Allan Sherman or Twain, but Bryson is one of the few to do it to me in these latter years. And I’m not talking just a choked and short exclamation of "Ha!" I’m telling you that I had actual tears running down my face from laughing. It’s that good.

This is the book that MY WIFE has, in her loving over-estimation of my skills, been trying to get me to write for the past four or five years. It is about growing up as a boomer, with all of the ridiculous-yet-endearing trappings of what was probably the last great innocent epoch of American childhood. Now she’ll have to get on my back to write something else entirely since there is no way in hell I could come within ten miles of doing as good a job of it as Bryson has done. I wouldn't subject myself to the ridicule and scorn that would inevitably result from an attempt to match this book.

Seriously – there will never be a better book written concerning growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. It is absolutely pitch perfect. If you know someone between the ages of 45 and 65, buy that person this book. Or buy it for yourself, if you qualify. I’d stake my life on the fact that you won’t be disappointed. I’ll commit suicide if any of you don’t have enough sense of humor to enjoy it.

(OK, I know damn well that there are plenty of people without enough sense of humor to enjoy this book, but none of them would have toughed out my writing to get this far, so I’m in no danger of having to fulfill that promise.)

So, buy these things for someone you love. If you don't love anyone, buy them for yourself. However, you won't enjoy them, because if you don't love anyone, you're the type who won't enjoy them, so there.

Let’s see. What’s a good closer? How about something for anyone who loved Fred Rogers?

Mister Rogers Swings!

That’s the name of a CD by Holly Yarbrough, and it’s also the truth. Yarbrough has taken sixteen songs from the Fred Rogers songbook and done them proud. And they all swing.

Now, "swing" is a term that needs definition in this case, since the word sometimes carries a connotation of up-tempo rhythms and blaring horn charts. You won’t find much of that here. But, swing it does. It’s a very gentle sort of swing, and, like Fred Rogers himself, non-threatening and full of love. This CD won’t make you hop off the couch and start jitterbugging, but it will definitely make you want to hug someone special to you. That can be fun, too.

The session opens, as seems obligatory in any reading of Rogers’ work, with a version of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? In a similar nod to conformity, it closes with It’s Such A Good Feeling. I don't really have a problem with that. It's comfortable, and they’re both swell tunes wherever they might have shown up. In between, we get material that will be familiar to long-time viewers of Fred’s show, many done up in a cool lounge vibe. Over top of the solidly mellow bass and drums, there are healthy doses of bright and to-the-point jazz guitar soloing, extremely tasty piano work, occasional loosening of the horn section’s leash (to especially good effect on You’ve Got To Do It, which features Roy Agee, George Tidwell, and the late Boots Randolph, trading short solos on trombone, trumpet, and saxophone, respectively), a few country-tinged pieces dominated by cello and fiddle, and - most inviting - Yarbrough’s wonderful vocals.

Yarbrough has a truly great set of pipes, and she uses them well. Her singing is smooth and melodic throughout. She sometimes doesn’t take a chance I would have preferred – there was one spot in Many Ways To Say I Love You where I thought for sure she’d go for the higher note, instead settling for the mid-range – but it's a matter of my taste, not her ability, and there’s really very little to quibble about in her choices. Throughout the CD, you ride along on the light golden honey of her singing, nary a bump in the road anywhere, and it’s an enjoyable journey.

One of my all-time favorite Fred Rogers compositions is the love song, When The Day Turns Into Night, and I’m happy to report it’s included here and done exceedingly well. The lyric is simple, yet as achingly beautiful as anything written by more-well-known purveyors of melancholy than Rogers – if the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Fred is puppets, this one may surprise you – and Yarbrough invests the words with just the right amount of tension, neither going over the top or leaving them bereft of the necessary emotion.

My favorite cut is probably Everybody’s Fancy, which opens with a bit of light scatting before the main lyric (I would assume the least favorite of Fred’s writings among some of those in the GLBT community, since Fred asserts that "boys are boys from the beginning, girls are girls right from the start", although the overall message about everybody’s body being just swell certainly must resonate.) The mid section features a very direct Lori Mechem piano solo.

And then, there's I Like To Be Told. Originally written to address the insecurity felt by children when parents go off on a trip or otherwise leave them temporarily alone, it is here delivered as a bluesy torch song, and one can't help hearing a subtle S&M component. It works.

I could continue with a detailed description of every selection, but I think I’d be doing you a disservice if I did so. You’ll be more delighted if you buy the CD (or download the songs) and discover the good bits for yourself. This is a collection of Fred Rogers’ songs that will, if you listen to it in the company of a significant other, likely make your evening all warm and tingly.

Mister Rogers Swings, indeed. Who knew?

Hear some samples at Holly Yarbrough's My Space page.

Buy it at Amazon.


Finally, it should always be remembered that fruitcake is considered the ultimate gift by some. And that obviates the need for any more jokes, so I'm outta here.

Soon, with more better stuff.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Uncle Jim's Christmas Stocking

Grand Uncle Jim

First things first: This is a story about an Irish family. While my name is Jim, and I’m an uncle, I also have an Uncle Jim of my own. There is an Uncle Jim mentioned in this story, but he’s not that Uncle Jim, although that Uncle Jim is the one who told me this tale of the other Uncle Jim. Actually, he’s Uncle Jim’s Uncle Jim, making him my Grand Uncle Jim (and some folks prefer the title 'great uncle', but let’s not open that can of worms.) It’s very confusing to the uninitiated, I suppose, so if it will keep you from getting a headache, feel free to think of him as Uncle Aloysius.

Anyway, when my father was very young – five or six - his Uncle Jim taught him a very valuable lesson.

My father had hung his stocking on Christmas Eve, as did all of the family. This included the older relatives, and that group included his Uncle Jim. Come Christmas morning, everybody took down their stockings and looked inside to see what Santa Claus had brought them.

The usual things were found inside the stockings - little toys, tasty candies, and other such trifles. Nice, of course, but nothing unusual. That is, until Uncle Jim inspected the contents of his stocking. He turned it upside down, and out rolled a lump of coal and an onion.

While good little boys and girls receive toys and candies, a lump of coal and an onion are, by tradition, what bad boys and girls receive. Seeing those things come from Uncle Jim’s stocking, my father laughed and laughed. Uncle Jim was a bad boy! He got a lump of coal and an onion!

While my father was laughing, Uncle Jim said, "Oh! This is wonderful! A lump of coal and an onion? These are just what I needed!"

My father thought his Uncle Jim had gone round the bend. How could someone be happy to have received a lump of coal and an onion in his Christmas stocking?

Uncle Jim picked up the lump of coal, then took my father’s hand and led him to the basement. They stopped at the furnace. Uncle Jim said, "It’s so cold today, this lump of coal is the perfect gift. I can put it in the furnace and we’ll be nice and warm all day!"

Uncle Jim then led my amazed father back upstairs. They returned to the family parlor, where Uncle Jim now picked up his Christmas onion. He led my father into the kitchen. While my father sat and watched, Uncle Jim chopped up the onion, and then mixed it with celery, bread, and spices. During all of this, he went on rapturously about how his stuffing for the turkey would have been no good whatsoever without an onion.

Later on, as my father sat in a warm house eating delicious stuffing with his Christmas dinner, the lesson was permanently burned into his memory: It doesn’t matter what you’re given. It’s what you do with it that matters.

(I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that in mind when you see more re-runs from me in the coming days.)

Soon, with more better stuff.

(Some of the more perspicacious among you no doubt realized that this entry, itself, is a re-run. I appreciate your loyalty and persistence in having reached this final parenthetical without bailing. May you find superb uses for all of the coal and onions life gives you.)

Thursday, December 09, 2010

If You Need A Reason To Be Thankful This Christmas, Here's One...

I enjoy Christmas. The music, the lights, the giving and the receiving of gifts, the visiting of relatives, the good food, the religious aspects... All of these things bring me pleasure during the month of December (and even into a bit of January, what with Epiphany and all.)

Some folks, however, have a hard time getting their jolly on. I couldn't possibly list all of the reasons for humbuggery, but I can certainly understand some of them. If I were an atheist, for example, or maybe a follower of a different religion, I'd be hard-pressed to find happiness in a celebration of someone's birth whom I considered either fictional or highly overrated. On the other end of the spectrum, extremely holy rollers get their sacred underwear in a twist concerning the secularization of the season. Me? I think it's all more-or-less swell. I'm a Christian - and proud to say so - but I dig the traditional Santa Claus stuff, too. Live and let live, as they preach at some 12 Steps Of Christmas programs. As long as nobody is harshing my buzz, I see no reason to harsh theirs. And, in that spirit and in order to actually increase their enjoyment, I offer the following.

The other day, at work, I came across something that I'm positive will put into perspective any misery you think you're experiencing. You may already know that I do voice-overs and commercial production for a living. And, if you didn't know it before, now you do. One of the jobs I'm often called upon to perform is the editing of recordings by other talents (which is what we voice-over folk call each other, whether we really possess any or not.) The script this talent voiced was for a company that supplies sanitary facilities for job sites, concert venues, and other places without permanent plumbing fixtures.

In other words, they supply port-a-potties.

Obviously, any such script is bound to be rife with opportunities for cheap laughs, but I won't be going for any here because there was one paragraph in the script that made me realize life is pretty darn good for just about all of us. I don't want to detract from that message by offering up scatological humor. Perhaps some other time.

Meanwhile, here's the paragraph in question:

Restroom trailers are the way to give your most important guests a "just like home" bathroom experience. These trailers come with heat and air conditioning, sinks, lighted vanities, flushing toilets, and porcelain fixtures. We have trailers as small as 2 stalls and 10 feet long, for small private events, to units with 10 stalls and 28 feet long, for larger gatherings. We can also provide restroom attendants to ensure the complete satisfaction of your guests.

So, think you're having a tough time of it this holiday season? Wipe that scowl off your face, Ebenezer. No matter how bad things may seem, at least you aren't a freakin' restroom attendant in a port-a-potty.

(Unless, of course, you are. If so, then feel free to bitch, and God bless you.)

Soon, with more better stuff.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Fun Facts!

This is another in the seemingly endless series of re-runs I foist upon you each December. The reason for the riptide of warmed-over Yuletide pieces isn't because I think everything I've ever written concerning Christmas or Christmastime activities is amazingly good. While that part of me that isn't Id certainly gets fluffed by the annual response to some of them, even an egomaniac like me realizes that they aren't all gems. Basically, I just like taking most of the month off. In this instance, however, not only am I being as much of a slug-a-bed as I have a tendency to be, I'm not even re-running something of my own!

The following bit of brilliance comes from the pen of my swell pal, Cricket. He really is amazing. Not only is he a fantastic writer, but he's also a tremendous whimsical cartoonist. In addition, he plays a mean guitar. All of these things I envy greatly. I mean, sure, I write, I play bass, I draw (a check each week) but I think he outshines me in every one of those endeavors. I'm seriously thinking of having him bumped off.

In the meantime, check this out. Click to enlarge, of course.

This cartoon is especially meaningful to me and MY WIFE. We've been exchanging gifts on Epiphany (or 'Little Christmas', as it's known in some circles) for many years now. It really is a way to make the whole season a bit less stressful, allowing us to concentrate our December 25th energies toward making other folk's celebrations brighter and more meaningful, while not shortchanging our own spiritual enjoyment. You might like to give some thought to doing something similar. As Cricket notes, it's a decent blow to strike for making the holiday of Christmas less of a greedfest and more of what it may need to be for your pleasure to be maximized.

Anyway, I love this cartoon. And you should go visit the artist NOW. His words are, if anything, even better. You'll want to read them while there's still time to do so. Once he figures out how to put some of his guitar playing on the web, I'll be viciously jealous and sending out the hitmen to do him in.

Soon, with more stuff.

(As a matter of fact, I'll actually have something NEW for you tomorrow. I hope the shock won't croak you.)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Pointy The Poinsettia

As with much of my output thus far during December (and also after this, as you'll soon find out) this has seen the light of day before. It has always gotten a nice reception, and I thank you for that. I had some trepidation concerning running this piece again, though, and you'll find out why when you reach the bottom of the page. In the end, I still believe it's one of my better bits of writing, and my need for slothfulness (overwhelming) won out over any other considerations.


Once upon a time, there was a poinsettia named Pointy.

(His given name was Poindexter Poinsettia, but everybody called him Pointy for short.)

Pointy liked living in the large greenhouse with his poinsettia family and other plant friends. The world was a wonderful place full of bright sunshine, all the water he wanted to drink, and dark, rich soil for his roots. He thought that he couldn’t possibly be happier.

Then, one day in November, some of Pointy’s friends weren’t around anymore. Pointy wondered where they had gone. He also wondered how they got wherever they went. They were plants, after all, and thus only able to walk extremely short distances.

Pointy asked his uncle, Pedro Poinsettia, where his friends had gone.

"Oh, it’s a joyous time of year, Pointy!" said Uncle Pedro.

"What do you mean?" asked Pointy.

Uncle Pedro leaned close to Pointy and whispered in his ear (or, at least, what passed for an ear on Pointy.) He said:

"In November, all the poinsettias who have grown big red leaves are taken from the greenhouse and sent all over the world to give joy to the people who celebrate Christmas. The people are very happy to have a poinsettia in their home or school or office. They smile and say things like, ‘What a beautiful poinsettia! How pretty it is, with its big red and green leaves! Merry Christmas!’"

Pointy was very excited to hear this news. He had never before considered the possibility of travel, but now he hoped that he might be able to go far away, to see many interesting people and things. He enjoyed the thought of bringing great joy to people celebrating Christmas. He packed his bags and waited to be shipped.

(Well, OK, he didn’t actually have any bags. As a matter of fact, even if he did have bags, he wouldn’t have known what to pack in them. But, you get the idea. He was excited and ready to go.)

Finally, the day came when Pointy was planted into a big pot, all trimmed with pretty gold foil. He felt extra-special now! He was then loaded into a truck, along with about thirty other plants. As the truck was driving away, he waved good-bye to his Uncle Pedro.

(No, he didn’t, really. No hands, you know? He did what he could, though. Uncle Pedro understood.)

As they were bumping down the road, Pointy looked around. He appeared to be the only poinsettia plant in the truck. He struck up a conversation with the flower next to him, a girl. He knew she was a girl because... well, he just did, that’s all.

"Hi, I’m Poindexter Poinsettia, but everybody calls me Pointy. What’s your name?"


"You're really pretty, Rose."

"Thank you. You have nice big red leaves."

Pointy blushed.

(To be truthful, he didn’t actually blush; his leaves were already red. But he WAS a bit embarrassed. Rose really was pretty, and it was nice to get a compliment from her.)

Pointy asked, "Do you know where we’re going, Rose?"

"Yes, I think so, Pointy. My aunt Petunia said we’re all going to office buildings in Newton."

"Newton? Where’s that?"

"I’m not entirely sure, but I believe it’s east of Worcester."

"Oh! Is that a good thing?"

"It’s better than being in Worcester," said Rose.

Pointy looked out the window of the truck. Having never been out of the greenhouse before, he was amazed at how many plants there were everywhere. He saw great huge trees, and big green hedges, and large bunches of scary weeds, and gigantic expanses of grass, and even a few pretty flowers, like his new friend, Rose. However, he didn’t see a single poinsettia anywhere. This worried him a bit.

He asked Rose, "Am I going to be the only poinsettia in Newton?"

Rose shrugged her shoulders.

(Nah, not really. She didn’t have shoulders. She did indicate that she didn’t know the answer to Pointy’s question, but shoulders never entered into it.)

The truck turned off of the road and into a parking lot. After it stopped, the back door of the truck opened and a man reached in and grabbed Rose.

Pointy said, "Good luck, Rose! I hope you bring much joy to the people in this building!"

Rose blew a kiss to Pointy, and then she was gone. The man carried her inside of the building where they had stopped.

The man had left the door of the truck open. Pointy was able to see, through a window in the building, Rose being carried by the man. The man stopped and handed Rose to a woman who was sitting behind a desk. The woman immediately became very happy, a big smile appearing on her face. As the man who delivered Rose was leaving the building, Pointy saw the happy woman carrying Rose all around her office, showing Rose to all of her friends. Everybody smiled as soon as they saw Rose, and Rose was very happy in her new home. Pointy was also very happy, for now he was extra excited about how happy he was going to make the people in the building where he was going.

The man closed the door to the truck. Soon, the truck was moving again. Pointy imagined being carried into an office where all the people would smile and say, "What a beautiful poinsettia! How pretty it is, with its big red and green leaves! Merry Christmas!"

While Pointy was imagining this, the truck stopped in front of another building. The back door to the truck was opened, and suddenly Pointy was in the man’s hands, being carried outside.

"This is it," thought Pointy, "I’m about to make many people happy! I can’t wait to see their smiles, and hear them say ‘Merry Christmas!’"

The man brought Pointy up some stairs and then through a glass door. There was a woman at a desk just inside the door. Pointy tried to make his big, red leaves stand up as straight and proud as possible. As he did so, he heard the woman say:

"What the hell is that?"

The man said, "Gift from your landlord. It’s a poinsettia."

"Duh! I can see it’s a poinsettia. What are we supposed to do with it?"

"I don’t know, lady. I just deliver ‘em. Merry Christmas."

Pointy didn’t understand. The woman didn’t seem happy at all. Had he done something wrong?

The woman yelled to someone, "Hey, come see what we got."

A man came out of an office, saw Pointy, and rolled his eyes. He said, "Ugh! Another poinsettia? Every year we get a friggin' poinsettia, and every year we have no place to put it. What in the hell are we going to do with it?"

"Don’t look at me," said the woman at the desk, "I don’t have any room here for it."

Other people came out of their offices to see what the noise was about. As each one saw Pointy, they laughed and made faces and said mean things.

Pointy wanted very much to be back in his friendly greenhouse. This wasn’t at all as he had imagined it, or as Uncle Pedro had told him it would be. He wanted to just shrivel up and make himself as small as possible.

Finally, the woman at the desk took him and placed him on a wobbly table, near some stacks of old yellowed paper and bent paperclips and dried up pens that nobody ever used. Every so often, someone who hadn’t seen him before would walk by. At first, Pointy tried standing up proud and showing off his pretty red leaves. However, it was always the same story. Either the person just walked by without noticing him, or laughed and said something mean about him.

After a while, Pointy just gave up. He stopped caring what the people said. He started losing his big red leaves that he had been so proud of. As he did so, the people in the office started saying even worse things about him. They kicked at his fallen leaves and, when they picked them up, they threw them in the garbage, cursing. He could feel his roots drying out. Nobody gave him any water. Nobody cared about him. There was no sun; just a cold bit of light from some fluorescent tubes. As much as a poinsettia had a heart, Pointy’s was broken.

Pointy lost many more of his leaves. He was dying. He wanted to die. Life was a miserable thing. Christmas? It was just a cruel joke. He had imagined much love, and had received none.


One day, about a week after he had been delivered, a new person came into the office. Pointy hadn’t seen this person before, but he expected that he would hear more of the same insults and derisive laughter. He didn’t care. What could this person say that would hurt him more than what he had already heard, already lived through?

The new person said, "Hey, who gave us the poinsettia?"

The woman at the desk answered, "Oh, the landlord gave us the damn thing. It’s been shedding leaves ever since it got here."

Pointy listened disinterestedly.

The new person said, "Well, heck, maybe he needs a little water. Has anybody given him a drink?"

Pointy’s ears perked up (or, at least, what passed for ears on Pointy.)

"Let’s give him a drink," said the new person.

"Knock yourself out," said the woman at the desk.

The new person went into the kitchen, and Pointy could hear water running. As much as he thought he was beyond caring, he felt himself thirsting for a drink. The new person came back out carrying a cup full of water. He poured it into Pointy’s dirt.

Pointy was shocked by how good it felt.

The new person said, "There you go, guy. How’s that?"

Pointy fairly yearned to jump out of his pot and give the person a hug.

The new person said, to the lady at the desk, "Hey, do you mind if I take him into my office? Maybe I can bring him back to life."

The woman at the desk said, "Give it your best shot, Jim, but I think it’s a lost cause."

Jim! That was the friendly man’s name! Pointy tried to make what leaves he had left stand up a bit for Jim, but he was too weak to do very much. He noticed with gratitude that it didn’t seem to matter to Jim. He was picking him up and taking him into his office, anyway.


Every day, Pointy waited for Jim to arrive. Every day, Jim did something nice for Pointy. He gave Pointy a drink of water, or he put him where he could get a bit of sunshine. When one of Pointy’s leaves was withered and painful, Jim gently removed it, giving Pointy space to grow a new, stronger leaf.

Finally, it came to the day before Christmas. For all of the love Pointy was receiving from Jim, there was still the pain of knowing that what he had heard about Christmas was untrue. Nobody had seen him and said, ‘What a beautiful poinsettia! How pretty it is, with its big red and green leaves! Merry Christmas!’

Pointy had grown back some big, green leaves. The few red ones he had left were strong and bright now. He wished that someone would get to see them for Christmas. He wished that he could bring someone some joy. Of course, Jim liked him, but he still wanted to believe in what his Uncle Pedro had told him during that time which seemed so long ago now. He wanted to be a plant that made someone smile at Christmas.

Pointy saw lights being turned off in the office, and he heard people saying cheery good-byes, and wishing each other happy holidays. Well, he had been lucky to find one new friend, he supposed. Maybe that would get him through the holiday. Jim would be back in a couple of days, and that wouldn’t be so bad. At least he made Jim happy.

He heard the door lock. It was dark and cold now. His leaves drooped a bit. Even though he had known what was going to happen, he had still hoped that Jim might...


Pointy heard the door to the office open and he noticed one light come on. "Probably the cleaning people", thought Pointy. But then, there was Jim! Jim bent down to pick him up, then carried him out of the office, down the stairs, and out into the... SNOW! Jim put Pointy down into the cold white stuff.

Oh, no! Was Jim tired of him, too? Was he leaving him to die in the snow? What a cruel world it truly was!

Pointy only had a few seconds to entertain such morbid thoughts. Jim picked him up again, put him into the front seat of his car, put a seat belt around Pointy's container, and turned on the heat. Then Jim started driving. Jim was taking him home! For Christmas!

And so Jim DID bring Pointy home for Christmas, and Pointy saw Christmas lights and Christmas trees, and he had sunshine and warmth and as much water as he wanted to drink. And love. Pointy had love. And Jim (and JIM'S WIFE) said to him, on Christmas morning...

"What a beautiful poinsettia! How pretty you are, with your big red and green leaves! Merry Christmas, Pointy!"

They even knew Pointy’s name!

And when spring came, Jim planted Pointy in the front yard. And Pointy told his story to the gooseberry bush, and to the little pine tree, and to all of the dragon lilies. He grew big and bushy and bright green. And when the frosts of autumn came, and his leaves turned a little yellow, and he thought that maybe Jim had forgotten all about him, Jim dug him up and brought him back into the house. And he is there even now.

And this year, not only does Pointy know that Christmas will be a happy time, Pointy IS the Christmas Tree - at least for now. And he is the happiest poinsettia in the whole entire world, even though he has no big red leaves at all.



This was written, and first published, three years ago. That's when the final photo is from. Since then, Pointy has had some chance to grow bigger and bushier while planted outside. The first year I put him outside, he flourished. After that...

Poinsettias can get root rot rather easily from too much water, and there was a torrential downpour while he was outside. This occurred while he was still in his non-draining pot. To my shame, I completely forgot that he was out there getting soaked.

After the storm, I remembered him. I was heartbroken to find that his pot was filled to the brim with rainwater. Much of his soil had been violently washed away, and some of his roots were exposed. I immediately did what I could, which wasn't much, unfortunately. I poured off the excess water, added some fresh soil to absorb what was left, and took Pointy back inside to dry off. He survived, but it was touch and go for a week. He lived, but it was obvious he might not continue to do so.

After I was sure he had dried sufficiently, I planted him in the front garden for the summer. He did okay, but only okay. He didn't flourish as he had during the previous plantings.

When it became too cold outside, I dug him up and brought him back in. All of the combined shocks to his system were too much. He lost his leaves in bunches. I did what I could by pruning away the dead bits, giving him some Miracle Gro, making sure he had sunlight, and (yes, I bought into the anthropomorphism I had used in the story) talking to him in soothing tones. It didn't work. Long past the time when anyone else would have reasonably given up on his surviving, I had to admit to myself that Pointy was gone. He had nothing left but dry and hollow leafless stems.

I truly teared up when I discarded what was left of him. MY WIFE and I had referred to him by name so often, he did seem like some sort of family member (or beloved pet, at least.)

Sorry for the bummer ending, but (once again buying into the anthropomorphism) I somehow feel I'd be doing Pointy a final disservice if I didn't give you his entire story, now that it's over.

But, he lived more than three years longer than he would have if I hadn't rescued him in the first place. And I've heard tales of poinsettias surviving for 15 and 20 years, at least, so if you somehow get a poinsettia for Christmas, it doesn't have to be tossed to the curb with the old tree and discarded wrapping paper. With a bit of love - and a careful eye on how much water it receives - it can keep growing big and bushy. It probably won't have big red leaves for too much longer, but green is a nice Christmas color, too!

Soon, with more better stuff.

Friday, December 03, 2010


I've been called worse.

Those of you who have been coming here for a while might recognize this piece. It is from two years ago on approximately this same date. And also from two years before that, as a matter of fact. It's my biennial tribute to sloth!

(If you're new here, I'll give you a general warning: the longer you come here, the more you'll find out how lazy I am. As long as nobody threatens to dismember me, I'll keep reprinting scads of old stuff. My master plan is to stockpile 200 good* pieces in the archives and then never write again. I'll just trot the old pieces out on appropriate dates, dust them off slightly, and make them do their pitiful little dances into eternity.

* "good" is subjective, and I'm the subjecter.

The general warning also applies to what I laughably call "new" pieces. I'll recycle the same jokes often enough to deserve an award from The Sierra Club. It's not all bad, though. You can pretend you're part of an exciting social experiment! This could end up being the first totally green blog, with nothing but post-consumer materials.)

Be that as it may - and I've given you no reason to believe it isn't - here is my heartfelt plea for clemency concerning one of my favorite anvil-like desserts.

(By the way, in addition to this brutal foreword there will be a brutal addendum. See you then!)


I am about to make an extremely shocking admission, even for a reprobate like me. You should probably sit down. You might even wish to take a medicinal belt of booze. That way, the enormity of the truth I'm about to reveal won't send you into immediate cardiac arrest.

I love fruitcake.

There. I've said it. And I feel better for having done so, too. I admit it's not something very many folks would admit to these days. I've never been particularly reticent concerning my peculiarities, however, so there it is. Little fluorescent green things that purport to have been alive and growing at some point? Love 'em. Cake with an approximate weight equal to lead? Bring it on! Cherries of a bright red hue not found in any part or portion of nature? I just plain can't get enough.

I realize I'm in the minority these days. There's a whole bunch of unabashed fruitcake bashing going on. Many folks seem to have no better use for fruitcakes than to desecrate them. Some folks get their jollies launching them into space via catapults. At best, they are used as doorstops, or perhaps something with which to whack an intruder over the head.

I, on the other hand, like to eat them.

Say what you will about my taste - or lack thereof - I really love fruitcake, and it pains me every time somebody makes the blanket assertion that nobody likes the things and everybody dreads receiving one. I absolutely love receiving fruitcake as a present. As a matter of fact, the only thing I love more than receiving one is chowing down on it. Saying that nobody wants them makes it much harder for me to find one when I want one, and makes it damned near impossible to get one as a present (which I very much appreciate, by the way.) It seems that almost nobody is willing to risk incurring the wrath of the snarky jokesters who have made "fruitcake" some sort of holiday curse word.

Screw the self-appointed arbiters of holiday taste. I love fruitcake. And I'll defend it to the last delicious bite.

MY WIFE used to make a really great fruitcake, but she hasn't for a few years now. She lost her recipe and isn't one to improvise. Oh, the tears I've shed! That was my best shot at getting fruitcake for Christmas without having to buy one.

Look, if you have fruitcake that you want to get rid of, please don't hurl it into space or relegate it to anonymous doorstop duty. Send it to ME. I'd love to give it a nice home (in my belly) and I will sing your praises should you send me one. Here's an address, and you can feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might be interested:

Suldog's Home For Abused Fruitcakes
93 Winsor Avenue
Watertown, MA 02472

No joke - send 'em! Believe me, you'll build up whole bunches of swell karma points if you do. I look forward to you giving my mailman a hernia.

Previously Promised Brutal 2010 Addendum

I have already received two fruitcakes this holiday season.

To be truthful, it's actually FIVE fruitcakes. I'll explain.

One came from my Uncle Jim. He sends me one every year, God bless his soul. And a mighty fine fruitcake it is, too! His was made by monks, so it gets bonus points for being all religious and stuff.

I also received a box of FOUR smaller-sized cakes from good friends Thimbelle, Twinkie, and The Wrench (who doesn't get a link because he appears to be the only one in the family without a blog. Slacker!) I know that one of them is wonderful, as I was recipient of the full-sized version last year, but I haven't yet tried the other three varieties. I have no doubt they will be superb.

Let me be sure you know where I stand, though. As delicious as those I've already received are (or will be), and as thankful as I am for them (which is very), they will not be enough. More! I need more fruitcakes! Send them - NOW! - and if I don't die too soon after eating them, I'll be sure to keep you in my prayers.

Soon, with more better stuff (and maybe an extra fifteen pounds I'll have to shed before next softball season, but I'll worry about that when the time comes.)

P.S. My Uncle Jim's fruitcake came from HERE. Thimbelle & Co. sent theirs from THIS PLACE. Both are excellent, if vastly different. The one from the monks is heavy on raisins, for instance, while those from Collin Street have Pecans as a major ingredient. The photo of multiple fruitcakes on a snowflake background came from HERE. I have not sampled their delicious-looking treats, but I'm willing. The other fruitcake picture came from THIS JOINT, and the site has links to more fruitcake information and lore than you'll ever need in two lifetimes. I found the reading material to be fun. I haven't actually tried the fruitcake - yet. Again, I'm up for it.