RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: December 2014

Intermission

This is always a weird week, isn’t it, if you think about it?  That dead week in between Christmas and New Year’s – the big shindig of Christmas or Hannukkah or whatever is past, but it’s too soon to really call the holidays “over”.

I’m back at work all this week, but a lot of people are still out on vacations or family visits, and the rest of us are kind of half-assing it – catching up on some long-standing niggling things that we had to keep postponing, and now we finally have the chance now that no one is bothering us.  The office I work in takes a casual approach to work wear anyway, but a lot more people are turning up in jeans.  I’m actually the only person in my entire section of the floor, and am indulging in playing music as I work (here’s where everyone who passes by discovers that lately I have a fondness for Macklemore and the Blues Brothers).

It’s the same at home – my roommate is still with his family in the Midwest, so I’ve been more putter-y there as well, tackling some longstanding closet organization projects and kitchen weeding.  I spent most of the day Sunday reorganizing my cabinet o’ cookbooks (I have 126 of them, and that’s even after selecting 14 to get rid of; I think I have a problem).  I’ve vaguely nudged my friends Colin and Niki about catching a local neighborhood custom with me, the sounding of the steam whistles at Pratt University; but other than that I’ve made no plans for New Year’s Eve, and if they can’t make it I may honestly just sort papers and then go to bed at midnight. Take a walk New Year’s Day, and otherwise just putter.

It doesn’t feel right to tackle anything big or begin anything yet. The real work will come on Monday, when the New Year has started in earnest and everyone’s back in the groove.  Plus, the work of getting Christmas up and running – and let’s face it, it is work – is finally done, and you need a breather.

Honestly, it feels an awful lot like when I was doing theater, and intermission came along. I couldn’t be in-active – I often had a list of niggly things to do, props to check and lights to tend to, scenery to have moved, cast members and audiences to herd. The cast was also tending to niggly things like the button that they saw falling off their costume or the tag in their underwear or the fake moustache coming loose, or even such mundane things as having to pee or eat an energy bar or have a long drink of water.  But we weren’t doing Big Tasks – it wasn’t ready for the Big Push of the next act just yet.  We needed a break, and so did the audience, and we were all taking it; getting things sorted for the next push.

And I always got antsy towards the end of intermission, too – when everything I needed to do was done, but I still needed to wait for time to pass, for the audience to get back to their seats and the fifteen minutes for intermission to run out. I’d often devise entire fussy tasks for myself just so I could be doing something rather than just waiting out the clock.  Ultimately they helped – the few seconds fussing with the prop table kept it more organized, or tying a curtain tie more securely ensured it didn’t unfurl itself onstage accidentally during the love scene or whatever. But it was mostly nervous energy burning itself out because I was anxious to just start on the next phase, but couldn’t.

I’ve got vague ideas about what I want for the year ahead of me and how I want that to develop – writing more, traveling more, returning to keeping a paper journal – and part of me wants to jump in now, but another doesn’t.  It’d feel like starting things before the cue’s been given.  And on New Year’s Day and that weekend I’ll finally crack open a journal and write or even sketch in it, and then maybe take myself out hiking like I’ve promised myself I’d do next year – but that’s 48 hours from now, and until then it just feels wrong.  So I dig through my closet and find all the blank journals people have gifted me over the years and gather them in one place; or I salvage weird baking ingredients from my cupboard and use them up in making homemade granola bars I can slip in a day pack for a hike, or I finally sit down and try out the hundred pens cluttering my desk or I weed through the dozens of shoes cluttering my closet, getting rid of the ones that don’t work so I can more easily find the ones that do; and in time the next act will start and I can get going in earnest.

Advertisements

We’ll Dance And Sing “Noel Noel”

I was about eight.  It was sometime in December, an early evening a couple weeks before Christmas. The phone rang, but my mother was off elsewhere in the house, either doing laundry or hiding a present, and my father was also off busy somewhere.  I was just old enough for proper phone-answering manners, and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

The woman on the other end didn’t say hello, or ask for my parents or ask whether she had the right house. Instead, she simply started singing.

I stood there, the phone frozen against my ear, listening as she sang me a carol – I don’t remember what it was, only that it was something lilting and medieval-sounding, something I’d never heard before.  I also didn’t recognize her voice.  I was too rapt to call anyone else to the phone, and I just stood there taking in that beauty.

She only sang for a minute or so before finishing, and then she finally spoke – “Merry Christmas!” was all she said.

I snapped out of it, realizing I should be polite and say something.  “Merry Christmas!”

“Good bye!” she said.

“‘Bye!”

She hung up, and a second or two later so did I, and wandered back off into my room.

I never told my parents about that; not intentionally, but because by the time I saw either one again, it had pretty much slipped my mind about being anything noteworthy. Children just assume that small magic like that is prone to happen this time of year.

WKAW Holiday Playlist

(Portions of this appeared in an earlier blog and have been edited.)

Holiday music is a staggeringly rich field, and can be intensely personal. Some people favor the “traditional carols”, preferring to keep things focused on the spiritual, while others prefer the more fun and festive secular music.  But even here things can get contentious – if you’re talking about the traditional carols, which carols count, and whose traditions are you following?  And which of the myriad covers do you prefer?  And with the secular music – are you sick of the 1940’s and 1950’s recordings that have become canon, or do you favor more contemporary things?  Or are you just sick of everything since you’ve been hearing everything non-stop since early November?

I manage to avoid the whole question by falling back on a playlist I made for myself about four years ago; it’s a mix of lesser-known traditional things and some contemporary stuff I always fancied.  Every so often I add a song to the list, but I put that on instead of the radio every December and manage to avoid the stuff I hate (the endless repetitions of Wonderful Christmastime for one), and still end up in a fine mood.

For example.

I remember hearing Bruce Springsteen’s cover of this on the radio in the mid-70’s. I didn’t understand why Bruce’s voice sounded so stuttery and breathy towards the end; Dad had to explain that he was laughing at Clarence Clemons saying “Ho Ho Ho”.  Back then, it was just part of the everyjumble of background noise each Christmas, and I didn’t think much of it. Then I hit my teens, two things happened that made it a favorite.

First I met my friend Sue – the biggest Springsteen fan I’ve ever met, hands down. And over the years I’ve gained an appreciation myself; not at Sue’s scale, but I don’t think anyone is a Springsteen fan on Sue’s scale. She has old concert posters in her bathroom walls, she runs a day care where the alphabet goes “A is for apple, B is for Bruce, C is for Clarence…” and she’s driven across three state lines just to get to concert dates. One of my favorite things that Sue gave me is a live album by Clarence Clemons — not because I’m a massive Clarence Clemons fan, but because she let me know that she had actually been at the concert date when it was being recorded, and Bruce Springsteen was a surprise guest. And on the album, when Clarence brings Bruce out, I can actually hear Sue’s estatic whoop.

The second thing I did was learn how to drive. Now, I’m not a big car fan as such — I can’t tell the difference between a Subaru and a Cadillac unless I’m looking at the owner’s manual or anything. But I am a big fan of what you can do with cars. Of the kind of exploration and adventure you can have with them. I am very much in love with road trips, and with that kind of independence. This was especially big in high school — now instead of waiting to hitch a ride anywhere with Mom, I could drive myself to the local mall to run my own errands, do my own Christmas shopping, or what have you. But not just the local mall, though — I could also drive myself to the much bigger mall in Waterford, 30 miles away. And when I was in a car by myself, I could drive as fast as I wanted, and play music as loud as I wanted; and I very quickly came up with my short list of “driving songs” that would invariably make me sing lustily along.

And that’s when I really fell in love with this song – each year, during one of my solo jaunts to do some Christmas shopping, this would come on the radio while I was en route. And I’d crank the volume all the way up, speed down Route 6 towards Exit 19 and drum along with Max Weinberg on the dashboard, hollering, “Ya BETTER be GOOD for GOODness SAKE….”

I grew up in a small town that was pretty…homogeneous, both racially and religiously.  I think there were two Jewish kids in my class in first grade, and my town was small enough that they were also in my class all through second grade, third grade, and on and on up through junior high even. And each year, the teacher would invite either Seth or Molly’s mom to come visit sometime in December for a little show-and-tell about “okay, kids, not everyone celebrates Christmas – some people celebrate something called Hannukkah, and here’s Molly’s mother to tell you all about it.”

By fifth grade both Seth and Molly were looking distinctly sick of the whole thing.  But it was something I always took to heart – I was always fascinated by the fact that not everyone does things the same way, and celebrations in other cultures always intrigued me. So I grew up embracing interfaith things.  And so I wanted a Hannukkah song on my playlist, for Seth and Molly’s sake; this one is actually the best choice.

…I’ve since re-connected with Seth on Facebook; he is now a dentist in Pennsylvania, and recently posted photos of his three boys lighting the first candle on their menorah. Tempus fugit.

This is actually the newest entry on the list, and is on the list entirely because of another Saturday Night Live moment I didn’t think anyone else but me liked; something my then-roommate and I saw inexplicably appear on the show in 1999.

This silliness just sort of appeared on our screens when we were half-heartedly watching, and we fell in love with it immediately.  It made no sense, it was deliberately corny, and it was adorable.  It also all but vanished from public memory right after.

Or so I thought.  Apparently SNL brought it back for the next three years, and I somehow missed it each time, and then suddenly Jimmy Fallon left SNL and went on his own show, and then suddenly it was ten years later and Jimmy was re-introducing the act on his own show with Julian Casablancas and I pretty much lost it.  I just added it to the playlist this year and a couple days ago had it on a continuous loop on my way home from work.

Technically, “Soul Cake” is a Halloween song. But when I first heard Sting’s cover a few years back, I instantly remembered – for the first time in years – where I’d heard it before.

My middle school choir was tapped to take part in a big Boars’ Head Concert at my town’s Congregational Church. We were one of several groups tapped to perform; we’d have our one number, “Here We Come A’Wassailing,” and we were to sing it as we wandered down the aisles from back to front, where we’d take seats and sit through the other groups’ numbers. At the concert’s end, they’d bring in the big boar’s head, and all the performers would join in on “The Boar’s Head Carol.”

For a few weeks before, our choir teacher drilled us in the song, accompanying us on the little piano in our school music room, working on the harmony between the “ones”, the “twos” and the “threes” (Mr. B did that instead of calling us “soprano”, “alto”, and “tenor” or “bass” — probably because it was less disenheartening to refer to any of the boys who hadn’t yet hit puberty as “sopranos”). We were in fine form the last rehearsal before the concert, and feeling pretty confident; I was more worried about the costume I was still trying to put together out of one of Mom’s old prom dresses.

At the concert proper, we waited at the back before our number, listening through the first couple acts — something on the pipe organ, I think, and something by a couple soloists from the church choir. Then we were up. The church organ started the familiar chords, and we all wandered out to the aisles, splitting into our three groups, big smiles on our faces, singing the familiar “Here we come a’wassailing, among the leaves so green…”

I don’t remember whether Mr. B told us that the rest of the church would be joining us when we got to the chorus. But when we got there, suddenly the pipe organ cranked up to eleven, and the entire rest of the church thundered into song along with us – “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too…”

And then they all dropped out again for the second verse. I don’t know about the others, but I certainly was left a little freaked out by the wall of sound that had just hit us, compared to our reedy little voices singing “we are not daily beggars that beg from door to door…” I still had the brave smile on my face, but my voice was sounding meek and small, and it was one of the few times I’ve ever felt any stage fright.

The rest of the performers joined in with us on each of the choruses after that as well, as we shyly kept singing, continuing our slow march to our assigned pews. At the last verse, we all filed to our seats and stood, singing out the last meek little “God bless the master of this house and bless the mistress too…”And as soon as the last thundering chorus rang out, we all took meek little bows, and then immediately plunked down in our seats. I was a tiny bit shell-shocked, a little too distracted to listen to the first couple acts after us.

Then a small group of women came and did “Soul Cake,” accompanied by a single flute. I hadn’t ever heard the song before, but liked it immediately, and probably appreciated the smaller scale after that big bombast. By the time the Boar’s Head came parading in, accompanied by six guys in classic Beefeater guard costumes, I’d gotten over my nerves enough to enjoy myself.

“Come And I Will Sing You” is a Newfoundland carol, one I hadn’t heard until treating myself to a concert by the band Great Big Sea two years back. In fact, that clip is from that very concert, sometime in the middle of April – I’m somewhere in that very audience singing along.

I fell instantly in love with the song. I can’t say whether it was the complicated rhythm that got me, or the imagery of the words – the lyric “eight Gabriel Angels” especially jumped out at me – but when I got home after the concert, the very first thing I did was call up the song on YouTube and play it over and over for a solid hour, trying to learn the song through sheer repetition.

I’ve got the words totally down by now.  The next step is teaching myself how to play the bodhran.

I studied theater in college, and as such was required to take a theater history course freshman year. The end of the first semester, in addition to breaking us up into groups to work on a brief play in a certain historic genre, we also would have an individual music project. We were to each pick some type of music we’d never heard before, have a listen to some of it, do a brief paper and bring that and a tape of a selected song to our final class. However – since our final class was also to be our final class before break, he would also hold a small Christmas party in class that day, and the music we’d selected would be the party music.

I don’t remember much of the other student’s music — just my own, as that was my first real foray into Irish folk. But I do remember he went through all the music, reading off the brief commentary we’d each written for it, and then playing all of our samples, while we all munched on cookies and soda, listening politely.

But then he announced he’d brought in a song of his own to share as well. With a completely serious face, he spoke about how he’d recently found a touching contemporary song, one that concerned a loving couple awash with sentiment and…and I was starting to suspect that he may be winding us up, because he was really carrying on about this song quite a bit. But he stayed completely pokerfaced through his introduction.

And then he played us some Pogues.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it then. I do remember a lot of people in the class barking out surprised laughs when Kirsty McColl suddenly snarls out, “You’re a bum, you’re a punk…” and a lot of excited talk when the song was over, but I think I wasn’t sure about it just yet. However, I kept hearing it again and again each year, and each year loved it a little more. A few years ago I had a somewhat surreal conversation with my mother when we were doing some last minute shopping and this came on the store’s Muzak, and I excitedly told her I loved the song — and then watched her reactions.

This is another song that grew on me. When it came out, in 1987, I was still a very serious teenager who didn’t quite get the appeal of hip-hop.  This was cute, I thought, but it wasn’t my favorite song released that year.  I also was a bit puzzled at the lyric when DMC says that their mother is making “macaroni and cheese” as part of Christmas dinner – the only version of macaroni and cheese I knew about then came from a box, so I didn’t get why this was something he’d want to celebrate.

I should mention that I am very, very white.

When I was small, there were three albums my mother had in heavy rotation for the House Christmas Music – the Beach Boys, Johnny Mathis, and Barbara Streisand.  She would sometimes stack all three of them on the record player and just let them play out, while she went about her business.  So side 1 of all three albums are hard-wired into my subconscious as being part of the Christmas landscape.

I remember especially liking Barbara’s high-speed singing of “Jingle Bells” – and every time she got to the middle, when she speaks the word “Upsought?” in her Brooklynese, I would giggle like a loon.

This is from Sting’s “Winter” album – he took pains to avoid calling it a Christmas album – and is an adaptation of a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.

As I’ve shied away from the traditional carols I’ve grown up with (and heard done to death), I’ve been drawn more and more toward traditional music from England and Ireland; there’s still a lot of “Old England” in New England, and some of the older songs from that part of the world still carry some of the dark mystery that I felt hanging around the edges of the whole gaily-festooned Christmas glitz. Rural New England is good for that; especially around my childhood house, there were huge stretches of land where there were no lights or wreaths or…houses. A house with just one candle in each window gets overshadowed when it’s surrounded by huge light displays, but that same house is a cherished beacon when you’re in the deep of the dark. The older English songs still have that dark in them.

Every Christmas I’ve always ended up on Cape Cod; and no matter where I’ve been – whether at my aunt and uncles’, across from Marion Harbor, or at my grandparents’ house (which is now my brother’s), or my own parents’ current home, we’ve never been very far from the sea, and I’ve often looked out the window, either to watch a storm raging while we’re all inside safe, or to watch the silence and chill stillness lingering outside.

Sometimes people have a harder time finding their way in out of the dark on the edges of Christmas. Others get trapped out there for good.

I think I first heard this the year after a really sucky Christmas; I was still reeling from a really major breakup the previous year, and had gone from heartbreak to a year of unemployment, was feeling distinctly un-merry.

But then the following year I heard this Eels song for the first time, and my ears perked up at the first line – “Remember last year when you were on your own, you swore the spirit couldn’t be found/December rolled around and you were counting on it to roll out….”

Holy hell, they were talking to me.

The rest of the lyrics were even more welcoming and cheerful – they sang of friends, all gathered and waiting for you, and how everything was going to be fine this Christmas.  It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I relish it every year since, for its final lines:

“As days go by the more we need friends, and the harder they are to find/If I could have a friend like you in my life, I guess I’d be doing just fine.”

Every Christmas, or Hannukkah or Eid or whatever you celebrate, is a chance to gather with your loved ones, even if the rest of the year has sucked, and be around each other. And that is the something to celebrate.

Besides, how can you not love a song with the lyric, “Baby Jesus, born to rock”?

Fetch Hither The Fainting Couch

I’ve not ever really dealt that well with the mild levels of sickness.

Partly because it just plain didn’t come up that much.  When I was a kid I once overheard my father talking about the differences in the way my brother and I got sick – my brother was frequently sick, but it was always something minor, and he bounced back after only a couple days, or it was common; something a whole lot of other kids were getting and the pediatrician would already have stacks of prescription slips ready to be filled out with potential patients’ names, almost.

“But as for Kimmy,” Dad said, pointing to me, “she doesn’t get sick much, but when she does, it’s a doozy.” The same things that my brother took two days to shake would lay me low for a week and a half if I got them.  Or Mom would bring me to the doctor and she’d look at me, brow furrowed, and then mutter something like “that’s just…..weird.”  It’s a pattern that’s held up ever since – I’ve never had anything life-threatening, just serious and unusual.  I’ve had heartburn that’s somehow felt like a panic attack, I once had a a case of strep throat in which I manifested all the symptoms except for actually being infected with the strep bacillus, and a gynecological thing that was so rare that my own doctor had to look it up in her old med school textbook when I called to ask her about it a week after the fact.

But part of it is also just plain stubbornness about my body not working properly.  Unless it’s something serious, I just plain don’t like having to bother about my health.    It’s taken me nearly 40 years to come around to the notion that vitamins are occasionally good things to take, and even so I still frequently forget.  If I have any muscle aches I tend to want to take just one pill and be done with it; a doctor once literally prescribed me the recommended dosage of over-the-counter Advil because I was just taking one pill every other day to soothe a seriously knotted shoulder.  When he heard I wasn’t treating myself once every four hours like I could have been, he just stared at me and said, “er, it’s the recommended dosage for a reason.”  I had major abdominal surgery once, and I actually was okay with the after-surgical pain – however, I was thoroughly cranky because I often like to like on my stomach while I read, and whenever I did that it hurt and I’d whine about how my body had cruelly betrayed me.

This has all come to a bit of a head over the past couple years.  I’ve always had somewhat unusually-behaving sinuses, but in the past that’s only meant some dizziness whenever I had a cold.  But a couple years ago, I started noticing I was getting a chronic dry throat and stuffy nose in the morning, starting at about the time all the landlords in New York turned their heaters on in winter.  Like being on the cusp of a cold but without tipping all the way over.  Then one night, while an old boyfriend and I were turning in at his place, he remarked on my near-constant throat-clearing and offered to set up his vaporizer.  I watched dubiously as he set up an ancient-looking gizmo next to the bed – but the next morning was the first in a week that I’d had a clear nose.  “I bet it’s the dry air,” he said.  “The heaters just dry all the air out all winter and it’s probably that your nose has been trying to compensate.”  One of my first acts after he broke up with me was to look for a vaporizer of my own, and ever since I dig that out of the closet with a sigh every winter, after a few stubborn days of sore throat.

And then this year I suddenly added allergies to the party.  A stuffy nose every morning, followed by huge sneezing fits.  Once I even woke up my roommate, who actually once slept through an ambulance breaking down outside on the BQE.  I took every treatment I could get my hands on, but there were still mornings when it didn’t make a dent.  I finally broke down and got a small air purifier out of desperation, thinking that I could at least take care of the air in my bedroom and at least get decent sleep out of it.

The purifier has been set up in my room for about a month now, and I turn that on every night.  This afternoon I realized it was time to break out the vaporizer, and I’ve been trying to research whether I should have just one of those in the room, or both – but feeling faintly ridiculous the whole while because I’m a human being, and I’m being forced to treat myself like I’m a bloody orchid.

Trying To Kick

I was already in a bad mood a few days ago, in the aftermath of the Eric Garner case.  I spent the weekend focusing on things that would be fun, in an attempt to fight my way back.  And it helped.

And then this morning’s foul weather threw my subway off-kilter and made me late, and the beginnings of a cold are starting to creep up on me, and by noon I was already feeling like I wanted to crawl home and get a cozy blankie and some hot chocolate and lay on the couch.

And then the CIA report on torture use in the wake of 9/11 got released, and that’s all just knocked me back to square one.

I’m just spent.  I can’t get any more despondent.  All I am right now is cynical – I’ve got a couple friends outside the country and have sent them jokey messages about whether they want a roommate, but that’s it so far.

The thing is, I was already in a bit of a downswing anyway – I get moodier and pensive in winter, when the light is low and stays for a shorter amount of time.  Tonight is supposed to be the earliest sunset we get all year, and it’s going to be darker yet on top of that in the aftermath of a Nor’Easter that’s blowing its way inland right now.  The worst of it has passed, but it’s still not going to be sunshiny and cheerful during my struggle to get home.

It’s reminding me of a line from Bruce Cockburn’s song Lovers In A Dangerous Timeabout how you need to “kick at the darkness ’till it bleeds daylight”.  I listened to that a few days ago as well – and took that as my motto for the weekend.  Look for the light, look for the good things.  Kick back at the darkness, both the moral darkness that seems to be overrunning us now and the astronomic darkness that’s coming to us in the depth of winter.  Keep faith that it will turn back.  Find the light and hang in there.

That’s not cutting it today, though.  The light may be coming back, but it’s not here now. We have another couple weeks to get through before the solstice, and things are fated to get darker yet.  Trying to gather light in the oncoming gloom just feels premature, just like trying to put a brave face on the continued ills we’re uncovering just feels wrong.

And that’s…not fair.

I lied when I said I was cynical – what I am is angry.  Angry that I need to wait for the light, angry that we have yet more darkness to go through.  I’m kicking the darkness, alright – but because it’s a temper tantrum.

Childish Gestures

Seats were hard to come by at Brooklyn Museum’s cafe tonight. I had just sat down and was tucking into a very good plate of pernil, rice and beans and plantains when another pair of women came up to the table.  “Is anyone sitting here?” they asked hopefully.

“By all means,” I said, gesturing to the chairs.  They sat gratefully; they’d decided to claim seats first, and then one would get food for them both while the other stood sentry. I politely ignored them, focusing on my food; the crowds were big enough that I figured it’d be safer to eat fairly quickly and make way for someone else. Plus it was really good pernil.

“It looks like they have a decent hot entree,” one of the women said to the other, looking at my plate.  “But I’m not sure what that is – is that chicken or turkey?” she asked, turning to me.  However, that was the exact second I’d just put a huge bite of pernil into my mouth. I chewed a couple times, then apologetically pointed at my closed mouth and bulging cheeks. The woman chuckled her own apology. We all sat an awkward second as I chewed.

It was a big piece of pernil.

Then, just as the women were turning back to each other to speculate more about the food, I had an idea. I held up a finger to get their attention, then pushed back the tip of my nose, showing the women my nostrils.

They blinked a second, then figured it out. “Oh, it’s pork!”  I flashed them a thumbs-up, and turned back to my pernil as they chuckled and went on discussing the menu.

Probably not the accepted sign language term, but it got the point across.

Foley Square, God-Damn

I know that New York City recycles, but I never thought the city would make me want to recycle one of my own blog posts in the aftermath of the no-indictment verdict on Eric Garner’s killer.