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Archive for December, 2010

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things.

This time, it was a scrawny, fake pine tree, bent over by the weight of the one red ornament atop its spindly frame.

It was a replica of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, made infamous in a holiday cartoon which many of us started watching as children of the ’60s and continue to watch today, not only for the message and the music (and the dancing), but the tradition.

Christmas is about a lot of things. More, I bet, than I could list here. But whether we get into it from the true meaning side or the accompanying greed-poisoned retail orgy side, that, for at least one of us in this conversation, has all but ruined it, there’s a good old country comfort in our individual traditions that hold it together, to keep the Grinch from winning.

(The annual viewing of “The Grinch,” by the way: another important tradition.)

The time and effort our parents put into it when we were children was lost in the fact that we were children. Mom and dad, I eventually learned, used Christmas Eve — after I left a plate of cookies and glass of milk on the dining room table and waddled off to bed — to wrap my presents from Santa.

While I dreamt of sugar plums and that giant plate of cookies, mom and dad stayed up to wrap — in red tissue paper for me and green tissue paper for my sister — all the cool toys I would find under the tree in the morning.

Mom micro-managed before it was even a word. She figured I’d want to know how Santa was able to find the same wrapping paper that she used on the shirts and pants and other stupid, yucky presents I got from her and dad, so she made sure Santa’s presents had a generic appearance.

Then dad ate the cookies.

[Spoiler alert: Little children should not read the following paragraph.]

It wasn’t until fourth grade (yes, I believed in Santa Claus until the fourth grade; dork) when my teacher in the Ghent school, Mr. Griffin, announced to the entire class that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, that this green-and-red-tissue-paper world of illusion came crashing to the ground. I, like all my other classmates, didn’t let on that I still believed.

(No Santa? Oh, I knew that. Known it for years. Been faking just to keep the parents happy.)

This revelation was so memorable, I can still picture where Mr. Griffin was standing in the classroom when he spilled it. I remember telling dear mother and sister of my new-found knowledge and hearing them explain the elaborate ruse they had carried out for the better part of the 1960s. It all came crashing down while the three of us sat in a beige Mercury Comet station wagon (which I would kill to own today) on Main Street in Chatham, waiting for yet another train to pass.

Things like this, I can remember. The dates of my brothers-in-law’s birthdays, not so much.

The touch and feel of the holiday adjusts as we grow older. The wide-eyed anticipation of the days leading up to the flat-out joy of the day itself wane as youthful innocence fades into the responsibility of adulthood. The transition can be overwhelming.

And not a little disappointing.

At some point, traditions become entangled when, as parents (and, more challenging, divorced parents), we learn that it’s not all fun and games.

Christmas morphs from a day of yay to a day of loading everyone in and out of the car as we make the obligatory trips to this set of parents and that set of grandparents. And then, the following weekend, to the other sets of parents and grandparents. Add another layer of divorce into the mix and Christmas can turn into one of those Family Circus cartoons when the little kid goes from Point A to Point B via a circuitous heavy black dotted line.

Responsibility adds a whole ’nother layer of intensity to the most joyous of seasons.

Fast-forward to today.

With the kids all grown and off on their own, Christmas has become a when-can-we-get-together holiday. The coordination — balancing work schedules among numerous sides of the families — can take more effort than the gift wrapping.

And there’s the magic word, right there. Gifts. I have soured so much in the past decade or so on the idea of Christmas, and for one reason: greed. I hate the greed.

Christmas should be about giving and not about getting. And I don’t mean giving the new iPad or iPod or iPud. There are so many among us who are ill or homeless or incapable of fending for themselves or their loved ones. And we as a species spend a stupid amount of time walking right past them as we spend our stupid amounts of money on the stupid things we don’t need and — in more instances than we dare admit — cannot afford.

Gotta have the new iCrap because the bright, flashy lights on the TV told me so.

I can no longer bring myself to shop for Christmas presents. Karen and I take the money we would spend on useless gifts for our families and send it off to a worthy organization. We buy the kids stocking stuffers (rubber bands, canned potatoes; things I think most of us associate with the holiday). The grandson gets a couple of toys, in an attempt to keep the magic alive in his young heart.

But that’ll stop soon and translate into some sort of college-related fund.

(“I hate going to pappy’s, because all I get is money.” I can hear it now. The atmosphere in which our young ones are raising our younger ones can make a person retch.)

Add this all together, and it can make the most child-like among us not want to put up a tree. Or decorate the house. Or go through this same rigmarole year after year. (For what? Gimme. Gimme. Gimme. Ugh.) So obviously have we lost sight of the true meaning of this time of year that it can raise feelings of dread and hatred.

Then, one day, a person can walk into his office, see a scrawny little pine tree bent over by the weight of one shiny red ornament, and feel the warmth of the season crush any animosity that dares to tread. That there are others among us who appreciate the tidings of comfort and joy is a refreshing and welcome discovery.

Of this, we need more. Telling those around us that we really do care about things other than ourselves. Offering help to those who most certainly need it more than we do. More of this, indeed.

I was actually dreading another Christmas. Now, thanks to that scrawny little tree, those feelings have (thankfully) been replaced.

Gonna tie some antlers to my dog’s head, jump on my sleigh, and carve some Whoville roast beast. Gotta love those Whos.

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Made me wonder the other day, as I was picking myself off of the driveway yet again with a sore knee, snow-covered coat, blacktop-stained jeans, and bruised ego, how often in a lifetime the average human being falls to the ground.

I’m not talking about real old people or real young ones — the ones for whom falling is … well, I wouldn’t say it’s expected, but it’s far less surprising.

I’m talking about someone who still has all of his arms and legs. Someone in the prime of his adult life who should be able to negotiate a driveway dusted with a confectioner’s sugar coating of snow.

Someone who should, by all rights, still have complete control of their six senses. (The sixth being balance.)

Someone, for the sake of argument, named me.

But, for reasons known only to the god of cartoonish pratfalls, I have, more times now than I can remember, hit the ground like a bag of dirt.

Tuesday was no different.

It was the day Karen was coming home from her annual girls’ weekend in Florida. We had received an overnight dusting of snow. When I got home after work, I wanted to make sure it looked like I slaved around the house during my sentence of forced bachelorhood (empty the dishwasher and the cat box; vacuum and dust; neatly stack the unopened and ignored pile of bills; throw out the 51 dead fabric softener sheets from the dryer — well, all but a couple, which get stuffed inside pant legs and blouse sleeves in her closet, solely for entertainment purposes; and shovel the driveway.)

That last part became my latest downfall.

(Oh, also, I didn’t vacuum and dust. I intended to, but the dryer sheet hide-and-seek jaunt took longer than expected. And most of those 51 sheets.)

Falling, I have had occasion to learn, is a misunderstood and oft-ridiculed art form. Kind of a free-style thing. Performance art. And I could open my own one-man show. Sell tickets.

What happened was pretty simple. I stepped on a camouflaged patch of ice. And it wasn’t until I was on the ground, trying to get some momentum into a good rolling action so I could get a leg and an arm under me to start the lifting process that I realized the entire fall was — at that very instant — flashing before my eyes.

It wasn’t pretty. If I had seen it from a neighbor’s perspective, it would have driven me into a convulsing muscle of monkey laughter. Karen often makes such noises at my expense.

This wasn’t the typical whoop-boom fall with which I have gained the most experience.

When my foot touched the ice, I tried — thinking against all reality that in a split second of consciousness I could draft a court order repealing the law of gravity — to save myself from the inevitable. With a shovel in one hand, a foot sliding off a patch of ice, another hand apparently hailing a taxi, and the other foot looking for anything solid to land upon, I went down in a flailing Disney-animated whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop-thud.

In all my falling experience, I have found the fall is usually finished almost before it’s started. Never before had it replayed like this in my brain, almost as if it actually happened twice. Like the slow-motion instant replay was already queued up and running before I was off the ground.

My immediate reaction is the same every time it happens. After I was back on my feet, I made the goofy bowing-and-arms-raised pose that gymnasts make following a dismount from the uneven parallel pommel mat ring bars. And while standing there awaiting the judges’ scores, I was peeking over my glasses, scoping out the neighborhood, seeing how many of my loving neighbors were standing in their front windows, doubled over in convulsive monkey laughter.

I couldn’t see anyone, but I could sense their presence. They were hiding behind their Christmas trees. I just know it.

I can specifically remember seven other times in my life when I have fallen for no good reason. Whoop-boom. Which means the number has to be closer to 10. But probably higher.

One of my earliest childhood memories — I was probably 4 or 5 years old — is of me running next to an in-ground pool owned by friends of my parents. I stepped in a puddle of water, and down I went. They fawned over me as I cried (which I remember thinking was pretty cool. Who knew fawning stops shortly after marriage?).

A few years after that, I fell down the stars in the house where I grew up. I had a few rubberbands in my left hand; I couldn’t concentrate properly on holding the handrail. Boomboomboomboomboom down the stairs into the basement.

And no, I don’t remember why I was carrying rubberbands into the basement. Probably had something to do with strapping a small living creature onto a Matchbox car or some similar gross boy thing. Yet another practice I was forced to stop, once married.

So, snow and ice have not always been at fault. Although they have been on plenty of occasions, thank you. But it’s not because I’m not paying attention. I mean, I shuffle like an old man when I walk across snow and ice.

The other day, with the dusting of snow on the ground, my footprints to the mailbox looked like they were made by a conga line. Scared to death that I’m going to fall again (I wonder why) I barely pick my feet off the ground. I make fists with my toes inside my sneakers, thinking that if I can get my toes to grab ahold of something inside the shoes, they’ll have something to hold on to in the event I start to go down.

And I walk back up the driveway in the same conga-line foot trail so as not to break another fresh path in the dangerous half-inch of torture powder.

A few years ago, I fell in the exact same place, at the exact same time of day. Foot hit a patch of ice under the snow and down I went. Thar he blows.

After getting to my feet, I went in the house for some loving comfort from the wind beneath my wings. Instead, she ran to the window to look for the snow angel I left in the driveway.

The sense of humor on this woman.

Married the living heck out of her, I did.

When we lived in Pennsylvania in the mid-’80s, we had an upstairs apartment accessible only by a giant flight of outdoor steps in back of a two-story house. It had snowed. It was midnight. The steps were icy. About half way up, I went whoops and lost my footing. I fell over the railing, out into the yard, into a huge pile of snow about 10 feet below. Keys went flying.

(Didn’t find the keys until the next morning, a couple of hours after Karen found me, at the bottom of a giant Kevin-shaped hole in the snow.)

Not to be outdone by myself, in the late ’80s — when we still laughed at one another’s ineptitudes because they were still funny and not yet geriatric — I fell down the flight of stars in our house. I was coming from the bedroom to the living room, encountered the cat on the stairs, was rendered incapable of determining what to do next with my feet, and for an inexplicable reason decided throwing them all the way down the stairs, while still attached to me, was probably the quickest way to solve the dilemma.

I landed on a pile of something by the front door.

I didn’t know what it was, though. It wasn’t until Karen stopped laughing and finally rolled me over that we found out I landed on sneakers.

Which, thankfully, was not the cat’s name.

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Sometimes you just flat run out of things to say.

Sometimes, through the cruelty of the human condition, you run out of useable material.

Sometimes, you need a third example — like this one — to provide argumentative symmetry with the first two sentences.

And that’s pretty much what we have here.

If memory serves, the last time we spoke, I was sharing skewed observations of life around me in my role as a devoted and dedicated, if not often confused and derided, professional husband, brother, son, father and food afficionado.

I am glad — for reasons that will hopefully keep me in good stead on the home front, and which I can’t currently remember — to say I remain firmly ensconced in that role.

And by ensconced, I, of course, mean matrimonially tethered.

The role of the self-titled observationalist does not always lend itself to lengthy dissertations about the things most learned — and normal — people couldn’t care less about. I discovered this the hard way, after blathering on for several years about things I saw and did.

This — allowing words to flow from the tips of my fingers and into the newspaper — was once a vehicle upon which I rode mostly for my own sanity. You, greatly appreciated reader, just happened to be on the receiving end of my personal sanitation.

The fact that my flippant view of life included real-life discussions about what my family was doing at the time worked out great for me.

I used it as a sort of therapy, to help me deal with the things I would never in public admit were causing my dwindling gray hairs to jump ship.

A lot of these were things that wives and other family members of the opposite gender cooked up and threw at me, as a form of amusement to them.

Like, why squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle is bad if I do it but OK if someone else in the marriage does it. Stuff like that.

(Truth be told, squeezing the toothpaste tube in any other location than the bottom should be outlawed. A point upon which the wind beneath my wings and I completely agree. I use it here merely as an example of something I can’t possibly get wrong, or, more importantly, in trouble for.)

Actually, if I was going to choose a real example, it would be the dishes. But I’m not going to get into it here.

And it’s not just because I’m always (95 percent of the time, anyway) the one who empties the dishwasher that I think I should have complete control over what goes where when the dishes are placed inside. Nor is it because I do 100 percent of the cooking and, therefore, have a system that works best for me.

It’s probably more because my system doesn’t make any sense and for that reason alone is stupid. Just stupid.

Stacking the dishwasher is an art form — I don’t care what you say — and deviation from the way I want it stacked is something in which I find no humor.

I look at it like this: If the only reason you’re dirtying utensils is because you’re hungry, then maybe the person who spent the better part of the past three days purchasing and preparing the meal should be granted the privilege of deciding the dirty knives go here, the spatulas go there, the cutlery that only comes out when there’s someone else to impress goes over there, and, for pete’s sake, the small bowls go here and not there. And how many times do I have to remind you, dear heart, my good knives do not go in the dishwasher? Yes, including that one.

And I say all of this purely as an example. Not because it’s how I’ve spent the past 20something years of wedded bliss.

I also don’t want to convey the idea that I put more than a millisecond of thought into things like this. Stuff never crosses my mind.

In any event, I came to a point a few years ago when the ones closest to me and for whom I have the most love and devotion ran out of stuff for me to prattle on about behind their backs and without their approval. The material dried up. Out of fairness, I had to — and, more importantly, wanted to — step away and regroup.

Family, no matter how much I blather, always comes first. Still does. And today,

it seems things are beginning to settle back into place. Feels that way, anyway.

Dear mother is alive and well and shuffling through her mid-80s in a skilled nursing facility in southern Pennsylvania. The cruelty of Alzheimer’s disease is making her remaining years more challenging than any of us would prefer. When people talk about the unfairness of Alzheimer’s, they are not exaggerating.

Dear sister, who lives just a stone’s throw from mother, is waging her own daily battle against the effects of a stroke she suffered a few years ago. Many in her condition have it far worse than she. That being said, she has been handed more than her fair share of the short end of the stick.

And the love of my life has gone through her own struggles — both personal and familial — that for a time necessitated a warmer shoulder upon which to lean. She still gets that shoulder, but today it’s out of desire rather than necessity.

While these bumps in the avenue remain, we as a family have mapped their locations. We know where they are and what it takes to skirt them as best as possible on a daily basis.

As adults, we adjust to life as it is dealt to us. Some of the stuff we are forced to deal with as we get older is not fun. We do what we can, then we move along to the next thing.

Which brings us back to today, where things have begun to level off. And by level off, I mean return to their normal state of abnormalcy.

For this reason, I am taking this opportunity to resume my therapy sessions with you.

Also, there was a big hole to fill on this page. So I gathered up some words and told them to meet me here.

I promise not to keep you long. Just long enough to get some things off my chest and clear others from my cluttered head.

After I empty the dishwasher.

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