Monday, December 31, 2012

My Own Unique Hell

I wasn't planning on writing anything here until after the new year. What with becoming redundant (as it is so charmingly put by my British friends) and having to take care of particulars concerned with that (filing to get unemployment, figuring out how to roll over my pension into an IRA so I don't get soaked on taxes, buying a machine gun to go shoot up my former office...)

(That's a JOKE. Not a very good one, but still... I don't need the FBI up my ass now on top of everything else. JOKE - JOKE - JOKE!!! OK?)

Anyway, I wasn't planning on writing anything. What just happened to me, however, is so uniquely part of what could only be my own personal hell, I just had to relate it to you.

In Massachusetts, one can file an unemployment claim over the telephone. They ask you to call in on certain days of the week depending upon your Social Security number. My day to call, to file a new claim, is today. So I did.

You all know what I did for a living, right?

I was a voice-over guy who also produced recording sessions for other talents. I edited the voice files made during those other recording sessions. I then added music, formatted the files for various applications, and did other niceties to make them sound really swell. I was (am) damn good at what I do.

The place that fired me after 20+ years mostly specializes in telephone applications. That is, the jobs I voiced and/or produced were usually for clients who would place the finished files on their telephone systems. Then, when people would call in, they would hear those files, that music, etc.

Are you miles ahead of me here?

I just called to file my unemployment claim and the recorded voice on the other end of the phone is from a session I produced, recorded, edited, polished, formatted, and sent off to the unemployment office some 5 or 6 six years ago.

I did an excellent job on it.

I would say, "Shoot me now, please", but it gets better.

I was informed that, due to a high volume of calls, they would be unable to process my claim at this time. The recorded voice requested I call back later and ONCE AGAIN LISTEN TO WHAT I USED TO DO FOR A LIVING BEFORE I FILE FOR MY UNEMPLOYMENT.

What else can I do but laugh? God has a seriously good sense of humor.

(OK, sure, I could cry. But I'm saving that for later in the day when the recorded system tells me, again, to call back some other time.)

Soon, with more bitter stuff.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy New Year To Me

I have become unemployed.

After 20+ years at my place of employment, I was let go this morning.

I think I'm somewhat in a state of shock. I didn't expect to work there forever, but I expected to at least be there for the next year or two.

The owner, a man I'm grateful to for my 20+ years of paychecks, decided to retire. He is 70, so the loss of my job due to something like this was not totally unexpected. What was unexpected was the way in which I received the news.

Yesterday, he let the five of us full-time employees know that there would be a company meeting this morning. The way he said it to me did not sound like it would be something good being announced. I thought that he might be telling us something to do with our employment ending at some time in the future, so I braced myself for that sort of announcement. I hoped for something more pleasant, but given his age, and the general downturn of business for us lately, I thought that it would be bad news.

I had no idea it would be this bad.

He did, indeed, decide to retire. But the good news, as he told us at the meeting, was that he was selling the business to another person. Operations would continue. I won't go into the other details discussed, but it seemed to me that the worst was that some adjustments would have to be made and perhaps I wouldn't be able to be as free and easy around the office as I had become accustomed to; maybe take on an additional duty or two of some sort, some small cutback of hours or perks.

I was really pleased for him, actually. Why shouldn't he have some time to enjoy things and not worry about business? He works hard.

Then, after the meeting, he asked me to come into his office. Again, without going into a lot of detail - I was told that, as part of the sale, payroll and staff needed to be cut. And, of the five of us, I was the payroll and staff cut.

I conducted myself with all due dignity. I told him that I understood his position. I thanked him for putting bread on my table for 20+ years.

What really hurts is that I went back to my office and found my computer locked. I had wanted to grab a few small personal things - mail, photos, music files, writings - and perhaps put them onto a flash drive. No. Standard business procedure to lock an ex-employee's computer.

As though I were not to be trusted after 20+ years. That was cold - and unnecessary. I hadn't created a scene. I had pretty much thanked him for everything and told him how much I understood his position. And then I was told that I couldn't come back on my own to clear out my things, that I would have to be accompanied. And my computer was locked.

That will stay with me. It makes my final thoughts concerning the place not as pleasant as I would have liked.

That's the news for today. I may be away from this space for a while, or maybe I'll post something every day as I sort through my feelings. I don't know. My life has suddenly become much more unhinged than it was yesterday. In any case, as I said to one of my co-workers before I left, I always land on my feet. By the grace of God, that has always been the truth, so I do expect life to continue...

Soon, with more better stuff.

P.S. I am unable to access my usual e-mail address as of right now. Please feel free to use these addresses: -or-

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Stuff

Me and the woman I married. She's the one without the beard.

Of the previous eleven posts on this blog, seven have been repeats of one sort or another. This is not a repeat. This is all new stuff. That's not to say the repeats have ended. The next post will be another repeat (and not only will it be a repeat, it will be stupid as hell.) Meanwhile, here are some things I've had on my mind that didn't quite fit in anywhere else.

1 - The Boston Celtics have two players on their roster who have had heart surgery. I'm pretty sure this is a record for a professional sports team. As medical science advances, of course, this record will be broken. For now, though, I can't think of another sports story as amazing.

Jeff Green, with scar

Chris Wilcox, more modestly dressed

When I was born, heart surgery was pretty much a medical fantasy. Until recently, a diagnosis of heart problems was the equivalent of a death sentence for an athlete's career. Now players can have surgery, come back, and play a rigorous professional sport. Put this together with athletes such as Oscar Pistorius, who ran in The Olympics with no legs...

... and it seems the future may someday be limitless for any athlete with the guts and determination to overcome the obstacles placed in his or her path.

2 - MY WIFE heard a radio commentator say that he liked Dolly Parton as the new choice to be on The View because it was nice that they gave it to an older woman. MY WIFE's response: "Older? Older than what? Context, please!"

3 - I'm rooting for Notre Dame in the National Collegiate Football Championship on January 7th. I'll stop short of making a prediction, but only because I have an almost unbroken track record of putting the jinx on any team I publicly declare will win any particular game.

Come on! How can you root for an elephant against a leprechaun?

I can't say that I have anything against Alabama per se, but I'll almost always root for the underdog in a game wherein none of "my" teams is playing. Notre Dame has shown great heart this season, playing exciting ball, and those games I've witnessed have been a lot of fun to watch. Alabama, meanwhile, has been anointed since the beginning of the season as THE TEAM THAT WILL WIN IT ALL. They aren't evil, but still, rooting for them is like cheering for Potter in It's A Wonderful Life.

If you're not an Alabama alum, or at least from a region where SEC football (Alabama's conference) is played, and you're rooting for Alabama, you were probably the sort who pulled the wings off of flies when you were a child.

4 -  A Very Monkey Christmas is a decent animated holiday show.

I sat and watched this on Christmas morning with MY WIFE (and no children present) and I really enjoyed it. The fact that MY WIFE can do a spot-on Curious George imitation helped matters, but I think what truly put it over for me was the scene where The Man In The Yellow Hat runs down the street shouting, "I understand my monkey!"

(MY WIFE and I collect random phrases from TV shows and movies. We utter them to each other at odd times. Someday, in the not-too-distant-future, MY WIFE and I will be in a nursing home. She will quote Henrietta Pussycat getting snippy in the kitchen with X The Owl: "Meow cooked before!", and I'll reply, "I understand my monkey!"  We will then have our medications doubled by the staff. I'm looking forward to it.)

5 - MY WIFE and I played the lottery when the jackpot grew to be a half-billion dollars. I had not heard the winning numbers yet. She came out of the shower, dripping wet, with her head wrapped in a big towel that hung down over her eyes, and said: "We're not millionaires and I have a towel in my face..." She then turned around and walked into the bedroom making sad small animal sounds.

6 - I've come to the conclusion that I no longer really care as much about the Red Sox as I once did.

Sorry, Papi. I can't help it.

(This does not make My Mom's gift to me for Christmas, of a Red Sox coloring and activity book, any the less loved. Yes, My Mom gave me a coloring book for Christmas. She knew I'd like it, I wasn't insulted, no one else in my family was the least bit surprised, and if you are, you haven't been here long enough.)

Anyway, I was once a fanatic. I loved the Red Sox. Now, I still like the concept of the Red Sox, but the reality doesn't do much for me. It's a combination of things, most of which come under the heading of "Old Fart Complaints About How Much Better Things Were During The Golden Days Of My Youth"

(I actually wrote five paragraphs full of complaints, but I deep-sixed them. You're welcome.)

Oh, well. I guess I'm not the demographic anymore. I still have the M Street Softball League. Sitting in the stands there is free (and stress-free.) The players play for the love of the game, and I'll take a doubleheader at M Street every time, these days, if I have to choose between there and Fenway.

7 - MY WIFE, bemoaning a lack of anything she felt like wearing to work, said: "I had beautiful clothes when I was younger. I wish I had crummier clothes then and lovelier clothes now. Growing old stinks. Nobody will remember that you had lovely clothes when you were young."

8 - The Mets traded R. A. Dickey to Toronto.

You either know that this was a hideous move on their part or else no amount of explaining will ever make it clear to you.

9 - MY WIFE, while visiting her brother in New York, attended a Brooklyn Nets game. She now has somewhat divided loyalties between that team and The Boston Celtics. While at home with me, we watched a show on The Food Network extolling Brooklyn as a locale with great gustatory delights. Then a Celtics game came on wherein they were playing The Brooklyn Nets. MY WIFE said: "Foodtown! Brooklyn! Number One in the ACA... uh, NAB... The... uh... Oh, heck, let's see Rajon Rondo marry a Kardashian!"

10 - Did I mention the next post here will be a repeat? Well, it will. In the meantime, though, to finish this off, here are some photos from this Christmas.

Tree (with color wheel), many cards, bear with Santa hat. If you don't see your card on the door, it's because you didn't send one you lazy slug.

Crummy photo, as is usually the case when a camera finds its way into my hands, but here's the coloring book My Mom gave me. And you thought I was kidding.

This is an angel face made by my niece, Ava, in one of those nail art thingies. It looks much better in person, but I figured I should document it before the time inevitably comes when one of us knocks it over and ruins it while dusting.

And that's that. My brain is now cleared. Thank you for listening and saving me the fees for a therapist.

Soon, with more better stuff.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

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!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Last-Minute Gift-Giving Ideas

No, this is not one of the gift ideas.
This is just a gentle reminder to be aware that there may 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 figure it out 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 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 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 since that obviates the need for any more jokes, I'm outta here.

Soon, with more better stocking stuffers (which closer I already used once this season, but I'm re-gifting in reverse, whatever the hell that means.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

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 I certainly get my id 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 considering 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 - January 6th) 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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

It's Not Really Christmas Until I Hear...

Last week, I gave you a post about what you may need to SEE before Christmas really hits home. Now we can talk about what is, to my mind, even more important viscerally - the music.

We all have our favorite - and least favorite - holiday songs, and I'll list a few of mine in a minute, but I also want to know if you see the hierarchy of Christmas music in the same way that I do. I'll explain.

The way I see it, all tunes fall into one of three categories:

1 - Carols

2- Traditional, But Non-Religious

3 - Pop

The distinction, for me, is that the first category contains those mainly concerned with The Deity as subject matter; the second category is comprised of very traditional tunes about the holiday Christmas, but not specifically about Christ or other religious personages; and the third contains those about Santa, snowmen, skiing, getting drunk, eating, exchanging presents, snuggling up with a loved one in front of a cozy fire, and other "secular" pursuits.

Within those categories, I've always felt there was a "King" of each, then a few that may be just a small step below in popularity. To explain further, perhaps unnecessarily: If asked for one song in each category, the choices below would immediately spring to mind. These are just the songs that I feel hold these spots, not necessarily my favorite songs. Your mileage may vary wildly. If so, please sound off in the comments. Say something like, "Jim, you're insane! The most popular pop song is easily such-and-such!"


The King - Silent Night.

Contenders for the crown - O Holy Night; Joy To The World.


The King - Jingle Bells.

Contenders - Deck The Halls; We Wish You A Merry Christmas.


The King - The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).

Contenders - White Christmas (which was positively the champ at one time, but I think "Chestnuts" has surpassed it now); Jingle Bell Rock; Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.

Again, just my perception. Does yours differ?

If we're talking about my personal favorites, I'd go with O Holy Night for a carol, maybe God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen for a traditional (although, really, that one could come under "carol", I suppose - so sue me), and Silver Bells for a pop song.

O Holy Night, when sung by a talented vocalist with the necessary range, always sends a shiver up my shine. If you haven't yet heard them, I would particularly recommend two versions: Andy Williams and, most especially, Mariah Carey. I was never a great fan of hers until last year when, for the first time, I heard her rendition of this carol. Absolutely stunning (although the arrangement, and audience response, may leave traditionalists with something to desire. Magnificent pipes, though.)


I would also give a nod to the instrumental version by The Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

I have a soft spot for God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen because it was the first Christmas song I ever taught myself on the bass (I used to toss it into the middle of any bass solo I did in December concerts.) I've always liked it, in any case. If I had to truly fit my own categorical divisions and choose one with no mention of God whatsoever, I'd go with the "sleighride" segment of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kiji Suite. That was the second wintry theme I ever taught myself on bass (and I threw it into this silly tune, about 2:25 in.)

Silver Bells is my favorite Christmas song, period. The lyric really spoke to me as a child when I spent lots of time in downtown Boston.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air there's a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you'll hear

Silver BelIs, Silver BeIls
It's Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Strings of street lights, even stop lights
Blink a bright red and green
As the shoppers rush home with their treasures.
Hear the snow crunch, see the kids bunch.
This is Santa's big scene.
And above all this bustle you'll hear

Silver BelIs, Silver BeIls
It's Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

(There is actually a verse preceding the "City sidewalks, busy sidewalks..." bit. Most singers choose to ignore it, for whatever reason, but it IS part of the song and I much prefer those versions which include it.)

Christmas makes you feel emotional
It may bring parties or thoughts devotional
Whatever happens or what may be,
Here is what Christmas time means to me...

(Trivia: The song comes from the film The Lemon Drop Kid and was sung by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. The first commercial recording of it came the following year, by Bing Crosby.)

(Useless aside: I have no idea why the font has changed, and I also have no idea how to get it to be what I want it to look like. Oh, well. It's almost Christmas!)

Now let's talk about LEAST favorite tunes.

I can listen to just about any Christmas song once and get a kick out of it. In order to be included in this category, a song has to so annoy me that I don't even want to hear it once during the entire Christmas season.

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer

I absolutely abhor that tune. I'm trying to stay in the spirit of the season and not tell you what sort of eternal punishment I would gladly see inflicted upon the author.

Bruce Springsteen's Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Just that version of the song. Something about it crosses my eyes and grinds my teeth. Other versions are just fine.

MY WIFE's Choice - Dominick The Christmas Donkey

I realize some folks absolutely adore this song. I'm not overjoyed to hear this one come on the radio, but I don't get apoplectic. MY WIFE, on the other hand, will claw her way over anyone in her path to get to the dial and change the station.

I could keep going, but I suppose I've filled enough space for today. What are your favorite - and least favorite - Christmas or holiday songs?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Solomon The Milkman

Here's something to break up the endless parade of Christmas reruns. Since Chanukah began Saturday evening, here's a rerun about my being Jewish (which I'm not, but my grandfather... eh. It will become clearer - at least bissel - when you read the story.)

(By the way, in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'll clue you in. My goal is to write 365 really good pieces. Once I've done that, I'll keep trotting them out in perpetuity and never again write anything new. So far, I figure I've got about forty-six, but your count may be lower.)

Anyway, without further mishegas, here's Solomon The Milkman.

Let me tell you about my Jewish roots.

My grandfather Sullivan was a milkman for H. P. Hood for many years. He told this story, which took place during the days when he did his route on a horse-drawn wagon.

His route traveled through the Mattapan section of Boston, which at that time was almost exclusively populated by Jewish families. Now, some of the people to whom he delivered milk thought he was Jewish. They thought his name was Solomon, not Sullivan.

I'm not positive concerning how this assumption came about, but it's not a stretch to imagine what might have happened. Someone in the neighborhood probably asked what his name was and he (or, more likely, one of his customers with perhaps an Eastern European accent) said, "Sullivan", and whoever had asked the question, with the idea already in mind that he might be Jewish, heard "Solomon". That person told someone else, and so on.

It was possible. My grandfather didn't have the map of Ireland on his face like I do. He could have passed. Since he delivered milk in a Jewish neighborhood, his customers might naturally have assumed that he was Jewish, too. I don't suppose he would have had any reason to disabuse them of this notion. He probably figured it wouldn't hurt business to let them keep on thinking it.

Anyway, one day while he was doing his route, some of the older Jewish men called for him to come down off of his wagon so that he could help them meet the required numbers for a minyan; that is, so that they could have enough for prayer service, which required at least 10 men.

They yelled to him, "Solomon! We need another for a minyan! You got time maybe?"

My grandfather was sharp enough to know what they were talking about. He had been delivering milk in that neighborhood for some time, so he was familiar with words and phrases and customs that an Irishman might otherwise not be expected to know. The question was, what should he tell these men? Should he spill the beans and let them know that he wasn't really named Solomon, but Sullivan? That he wasn't Jewish, but Catholic, and that his ancestry was Irish and French?

Well, my grandfather figured it this way: Who did it hurt if he helped them out? As long as they thought he was Jewish, God wouldn't be mad at them for including an Irishman in their prayer service, and he also figured that God would probably look kindly on him for doing the old Jews a mitzvah. So, my grandfather parked the wagon and made the minyan for them.

He faked his way through by following the lead of the others. Having attended Catholic mass for many years, he knew he could probably get by with indistinct mumbling as long as he did the right body motions, so he kept his voice low and bowed when they did and so forth. Afterwards, the old men thanked him and he got back on his wagon and finished his route. Of course, from that day forward there was little doubt along Blue Hill Avenue that Tom Sullivan (that is, Solomon The Milkman) was Jewish - and a fairly devout Jew, at that.

Therefore, if someone calls me "Solly", instead of "Sully", I won't complain. My grandfather wasn't really a Jew, but he played one on his milk route.

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amein)

Happy Chanukah!

Friday, December 07, 2012

It's Not Really Christmas Until I See...

... fill in the blank.

What we're talking about here are movies or TV shows; the visual presentation of some aspect or another of Christmas that you have to see every year in order to get into that "just right" mood for the holidays.

I have my favorites. I'll tell you about them. Then I hope you'll tell me about yours, either in the comments or over at your place.


It's A Wonderful Life

With this one, I don't suppose I'll be turning anybody on to something they don't already know about. This one is deeply engrained in the American psyche. And you either love it or hate it.

(If you love it, you probably find it hard to believe that anyone would hate it. And, personally, I have a little bit of me that says anybody who hates this movie is probably a few twists short of having his screws tight. I do, however, know of at least one family member of mine who is far from fond of it, and he's a right guy in most other ways, so... well, anyway, it does tend to engender strong feelings.)

What some people don't know is that the movie was a flop when it was first released. It was so much of one, as a matter of fact, that the original copyright holders let the copyright expire rather than renewing it. And that's the main reason it became so popular. After the copyright had expired, every TV station with time to fill  (and no storehouse of money with which to buy something else to fill it) dragged it out of the mothballs and put it on the air. As it turned out, it had aged well. People enjoyed it. The showings increased as program directors saw that it pulled good ratings.

Finally, after many years of saturation showings which built an enormous base of rabid fans, the original copyright holders filed to regain their copyright. They won, then sold the rights to NBC. Ever since, it has aired ONCE a year (which somehow doesn't seem in the spirit of the film, but if it was my story, and I wasn't getting a penny for it, maybe I'd feel differently.)

(No, I wouldn't.)

It's a warm slice of Americana, but with almost universal appeal. How can you not root for George Bailey? He's a moral, loving, intelligent guy who gets into hot water through no fault of his own. His main nemesis in the film is a rotter (who, by the way, against all motion picture codes of that day, gets away with theft. Next time you watch the movie, note that he never does return the cash.) There is good comic relief here and there, the other characters are mostly loveable types (except for those who aren't intended to be), and I always, without fail, cry during the final scene (and I'm not in any way ashamed to admit it, either.)

If you've somehow missed seeing it? I'd recommend that you buy it or rent it, so you can enjoy it without commercial interruptions. The film is somewhat long, but the story will carry you along without you noticing because you aren't annoyed every ten minutes or so by ads for the sorts of commercial concerns Potter (the rotter) might have had a hand in.

A Christmas Story

While Wonderful Life is my favorite drama, here we have what I consider to be the funniest Christmas-themed movie ever made. And, as with Wonderful Life, it was pretty much a bomb when first released.

I would have supposed this one had been seen on TV by everybody, too, but I've come across comments on various blogs that would indicate some folks still haven't had the pleasure. By all means, if you haven't seen it, see it. If you don't have at least one huge belly laugh, I'll personally come to your house and do you the favor of killing you (because your life couldn't possibly be worth living without a sense of humor.)

This is Jean Shepherd's masterpiece (Trivia: He has a cameo, as the man with the beard who is waiting in line to see Santa.)

"You'll shoot your eye out, kid."

Enough said.

The Great Rupert

Now here's one it's quite possible none of you have seen.

First off, it stars Jimmy Durante. That in itself makes it worth seeing. In addition, there is one of my favorite character actors - Jimmy Conlin - in a small role.

And if the above isn't enough, there's a dancing squirrel.

Very cute story about down-on-his-luck Durante and his family becoming recipients of the squirrel's misdirected largesse around the holidays.

I know. That's not telling you much that makes sense. But it will if you see it. So see it.


A Charlie Brown Christmas

The only television Christmas show, outside of the obviously religious (shows about The Nativity, The Three Kings, etc.), that specifically mentions Jesus Christ by name.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

For that alone, it has a spot in my heart. Aside from that, my nephew Michael can replicate, in real life, every single one of the dances in the scene depicted below. The first time I saw him do it, I thought I was going to die from a busted gut. I laughed so hard, I couldn't breathe.

Even if you don't have a nephew who can imitate Shermy, the show is a gem. If you've somehow managed to live on this planet without having watched it yet, I... well, heck, I don't even have a punch line. Just watch it. And listen to it, for that matter. The musical score is phenomenal. I highly recommend buying the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack album.

(One other irrational thought: Every year, when it gets to the scene where Linus gives his soliloquy, I expect the network to bleep out the mention of Christ. So far, it remains intact. I suppose it has to, really, being integral to the change of attitude Charlie Brown has, but since it IS the only overt mention of Christ in any of the traditional CHRISTMAS specials on TV, I think I'm entitled to a small bit of paranoia.)

(Actually, I found out, while reading the Wikipedia article on the show, that my paranoia isn't all that irrational. Before it aired the first time, in 1965, network executives wanted to excise that scene. Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez took a stand and insisted it remain. And, so far, it has. But I still get scared every year when it comes time for Linus to recite from The Gospel of Luke. Now that both men are dead, you never know what idiotic idea from a network "brain" might wreak havoc upon perfection.)

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The entire show is about being a misfit but finding the courage to go on. I can't think of another show that teaches such solid lessons to children concerning the pain that bullying causes or how miserable it feels to be unloved because of one major fault (or what someone else sees as a fault, but may actually be a strength.)

Rudolph and an elf named Hermie are the main protagonists, but the scene for which I always found myself on the verge of tears when I was a child was the Island Of Misfit Toys. And it appears quite a few children felt the same. Kids across the country were saddened by a lack of denouement when the first showing of the special, in 1964, didn't show Santa keeping his promise to Rudolph to rescue the toys and give them to children. Parents lit up the CBS switchboard. From the second showing, until the present day, a new scene was added at the end showing Santa landing on the island and picking up the toys for Christmas Eve delivery.


I could have added a couple more in each category, and gone on (as is my wont), but I think this is a good place to cut out and let YOU have your say. What are your favorite Christmas/Holiday movies or TV shows? What makes them so special to you? What do you have to see before you really feel like it's the holiday season?

Soon, with your better stuff in the comments.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Uncle Jim's Christmas Stocking

The other day, Buck left a comment saying he had a sense of deja vu concerning my previous post. He was, of course, being wry. He knew damn well he had seen it before. And I admitted as much in my reply to his comment. Today's post is also (as a used car dealer might phrase it) pre-read.

I'll be truthful with you here (which is a step in the right direction, I suppose, and maybe I'll be truthful with you all the time someday) and tell you that most of what you'll see here this month will be material that has appeared here before. Three reasons:

1 - These are Christmas stories and holiday reminiscences that received a good reaction the first time around, so why not trot them out on stage again for an encore?

2 - I'm lazy.

3 - I was told if I recycled posts often enough I would receive green certification from the EPA and get federal funding for this blog.

OK, so only two of those are truthful statements, but here's another one to make up for it. If you haven't read any of them before, they're just the same as brand new to YOU. Also, if you smack yourself over the head with a frying pan enough times, you'll forget you saw them before, so why not go do that? I'm fairly sure that sort of thing will make anything I write seem more coherent, anyway.

Enough blather. Here comes the old stuff!


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 the main character herein 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.

Soon, with more better stuff.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Christmas Trees, Past & Present

Last year, MY WIFE bought me a Christmas tree. It is silver and shiny and I love it.

There will be a photo later. In the meantime, here are a few past Christmas trees I've known and loved.

This is not my new shiny silver tree. This is a really old shiny silver tree. It belonged to my Grandma and Grandpa, on my Mother's side, and the first time I saw it, I thought they had both lost their marbles. My eight-year-old brain could not process the idea of a tree that wasn't green, smelling of pine, and otherwise real and traditional. I was a staunchly conservative eight-year-old. Anyway, there it was in their living room, with the only lights on it coming from one of those spinning disks of color (which is not seen in that photo, but here's one, anyway...)

Well, once I got used to my grandparent's weird aluminum tree, it was kind of cool and I looked forward to seeing it each year. Having such a thing in a house full of people who love you - and give you presents - will tend to make you like it more, I think. I've had fond memories of it for many years, but the last remaining vestige of the thing is the photo I showed you. The tree itself is long gone.

The person standing next to this somewhat odd-looking bush is Aunt Pat, my great aunt, sister of my grandfather on my father's side, a.k.a. Aunt Agnes to some others in the family. You may ask why she was Aunt Pat to me and Aunt Agnes to others. It seems that she didn't care for the name Agnes, and had decided that she would prefer Patricia. I never knew she had the name "Agnes" until I was a teenager, so she was apparently successful in convincing me that her name was Pat.

(Aunt Pat had an outstanding physical characteristic that I found utterly fascinating as a child. One of her eyes was a milky sort of light blue, while the other was hazel. This came about via an accident at the eye doctor. He mistakenly put ether into her eye and she was immediately blinded on that side, permanently. To show you the non-litigious nature of things in those days, she did not immediately sue him for everything he owned - which she no doubt would have had a chance at if she had sued - but instead just chalked it up to a human mistake and went on with her life. Can you imagine that happening now? No, neither can I, not even at Christmas.)

This Christmas tree was at my paternal grandparent's apartment in Roslindale. From the curtains, the wallpaper, and the date on the back of the photo, I'd say it was 1961.

One of the things I always liked about the Sullivan side of my family is that they were mostly not sticklers for symmetry. Whatever branches the tree came with would likely remain with the tree for the duration. Also, if a bigger clump of tinsel was on one of the branches than was on any of the others, so what? Live and let live (and if you don't like it, drink until you do) was the motto. Notice the clump of branches hanging over the doorway. Waste not, want not (especially when it comes to the drinks) was another motto.

(I don't want to leave you with the impression that they were a bunch of totally drunken inebriates. They weren't. They were wonderful people whom I dearly loved. Many of them did enjoy their alcoholic beverages, though, and that sort of pleasure does tend to bring out the beauty in sparkly things and perhaps lead to pinning up the trimmings over the door frame. For what it's worth, I think it's a lovely tree, and I'm disgustingly sober at the moment.)

From my childhood in Dorchester comes this photo of the best use for any tree, as a giant toy for a cat to play with. Another shot of the same thing...

I could watch that sort of action for hours at a time when I was a kid. Heck, I'd love it now. I'm still very easily amused.

A tree of more recent vintage, perhaps 1995. You'll notice that I took the classic Sullivan approach to things like trimming off branches and distributing the tinsel evenly.

Actually, I did prune this tree a bit. When I got it home, I discovered that it was too tall for our room. I had to cut about six inches off of the trunk. The problem was, the only tool I had to work with was a coping saw. If you're not familiar with what a coping saw looks like, here's a photo of one.

Notice the very thin blade. A coping saw is used to make intricate cuts in thin pieces of wood. It is not meant to take the place of a rip or crosscut saw, the types usually used to tackle such things as logs, which is basically what I was cutting. Also, a coping saw blade builds up heat very quickly and snaps very easily because of it.

It took me a good 45 minutes and I went through four blades. I think I lost two pounds in sweat and five years off of my life due to the aggravation. My hands were covered in pine resin and as sore as if I were a 112-year-old arthritic. Of course, I could have hopped down to the hardware store and bought a big cheap saw for about ten bucks, saving myself a half-hour, but where's the fun in that?

This was the year that we used Pointy The Poinsettia as our Christmas tree.

Some of you may be wondering why I haven't re-run that story yet, as is my wont, and instead only gave a link to it here. I hate to break the news this way to those of you who may be fans of Pointy and who hadn't yet heard the news, but Pointy, alas, is no longer with us. He went to poinsettia heaven, a couple of years back, due to a case of root rot. I had been so successful in anthropomorphizing him, even to myself, that I actually cried when I put his remains out for the trash pickup. Anyway, it just seems wrong to re-run the story, with its happy ending, since I know he's gone. What can I say? I'm a sentimental goof. It's still there at the link, though, if you want to read it.

My office manager, Kim, knew how I felt, so she gifted me with the altogether wonderful replacement, Simon Peter Poinsettia...

... who is, I'm happy to report, still living (but will not be the Christmas tree this year since I have a SHINY NEW SILVER TREE, which, yes, sooner or later I'll get to here.)

The Bunch O' Tree (trademark pending) from two years ago. Here are a couple of previous incarnations...

MY WIFE once worked in retail. She had an opportunity to snag five trees of varying heights that had been in window displays. For most of the past ten years, we've used those five trees (or random combinations of them) for our Christmas tree. But now, I've got a SHINY NEW SILVER TREE and I guess it's about time I showed it to you, so here it is!

I'm being deadly serious here. I think my new tree is THE most beautiful Christmas tree ever. Your mileage may vary, and that's allowed. I won't pop a gasket if you believe the best trees are green, smell of pine, shed needles, and present a better place for cats to play. For me, though, this is the one. And, since last year seems to have begun a semi-tradition of having family to our place for Christmas - if a tradition now entering its second year can truly be called a tradition - this tree is the TRADITIONAL tree and MUST make an appearance every year while the tradition continues. And so it shall.

Soon, with more better stuff.