Reading on Christmas: We Made It through the Holiday!

prozac-holidays-taintor-screen-shot-2013-12-03-at-5-20-47-pmWe made it through another Christmas.  It was foggy and rainy:  too wet for a walk, so we went to the gym.  And then we got out the books we bought at Barnes and Noble for our gift exchange.  They say you can’t read all the time–my father said reading made me a “non-participant in life”–but I say,  You Can and It Didn’t.

everybodys-fool-russo-fool_coverI am racing through  Richard Russo’s brilliant new novel, Everybody’s Fool, a sequel to Nobody’s Fool. (You probably saw the great movie  Nobody’s Fool, with Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith.)

Russo’s new comedy, a pitch-perfect multi-character saga, is set in  North Bath, New York, a run-down small town. (And I guarantee it was never visited by Garrison Keillor!)   Russo chronicles the lives of barflies, misfits, and romance readers, the barely middle-class  and the downwardly-mobile.  Residents envy nearby Schuyler Springs, a prosperous sister town that is a tourist destination and has three colleges.   But even the springs in Bath have dried up. (They’re still bubbling in Schuyler Springs.)  And a horrible sewage-like stench has settled over Bath.  What IS it?

The rich cast of characters is endlessly fascinating.  Sully, the hero of Nobody’s Fool, is 70 years old now, living in a trailer outside the house he inherited from his eighth-grade English teacher, Beryl Peabody.  He has a heart condition, but refuses to have surgery: if he has only a year or two to live, he wants to go out with a bang. His old girlfriend, Ruth, the owner of Hattie’s diner, sees him every day and still occasionally has sex with him, but is focused on family problems:  she is furious that her obese husband, a junk scavenger, has installed an airplane-hangar-size shed in their yard, with the help of Sully, and  terrifed by the violence of her daughter Janey’s ex-husband Roy, just out of  prison.

My favorite character is Raymer, the policeman who was Sully’s nemesis in the first book. He has been elected chief of police, in spite of a campaign slogan malapropism that said,  “We’re not happy till you’re not happy.”  Raymer is depressed and a recent widower:  his beautiful wife, Becca, tripped down the stairs and broke her neck when she was leaving him for a lover she never identified.  Raymer didn’t have a clue she was unfaithful until she found her good-bye note.  With the help of a strange garage door opener found in Becca’s car, he hopes to point and click his way to her lover.  But then he faints at a funeral and falls in the grave and loses the garage door opener. He will do anything to retrieve it…

This book is funny, sad, and charming…and I must admit, terrifying when Russo reveals the consciousness of Roy the ex-con.   Russo is one of the best American writers working today, and though he won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls, he is underrated.  I agree with  T. C. Boyle’s reveiw  in The New York Times Book Review:

Nonetheless, taken together, at over 1,000 pages, the two “Fool” books represent an enormous achievement, creating a world as richly detailed as the one we step into each day of our lives. Bath is real, Sully is real, and so is Hattie’s and the White Horse Tavern and Miss Peoples’s house on Main, and I can only hope we haven’t seen the last of them. I’d love to see what Sully’s going to be up to at 80.

 

Rachel Ferguson’s Stocking Stuffers: A Doll’s Grand Piano & a Play about Seneca

harp-in-lowndes-square-ferguson-515nrd9tpyl-_sx322_bo1204203200_I love Rachel Ferguson’s brilliant novel, The Harp in Lowndes Square, which I wrote about briefly yesterday.

Her sharp observations and witty prose are irresistible.  And I love the captivating voice of the narrator, Vere.  She has to muster all her humor and stoicism to cope with Lady Vallant, the evil grandmother from hell.

Today I’m writing about Vere’s creative ideas for Christmas stocking stuffers. I  wonder if I could find a doll’s tin grand piano on the internet, and I wish I were clever enough to write an original play about Seneca, or any Roman for that matter.

Last summer I reread Seneca’s letters, in preparation for reading Peter Stothard’s excellent book, The Senecans:  Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.  I even dusted off my old Roman Letters notes.  So when Vere gives her  actor friend, Cosmo Furnival, a satiric two-minute tragedy  she has written about Seneca, I could not but laugh.

Here is her complete list of stocking stuffers:

I had filled stockings for them both; in Enid’s, a mass of tiny sparkling silliments including a celluloid goldfish in a talc ball and a doll’s tin grand piano; in Cosmo’s, a property monocle of window glass to which I had attached six yards of watered silk ribbon, and a tiny booklet I had made and written, containing a tragedy in verse called Seneca, which consisted largely of the direction, Another and more expensive part of the Forum: Enter Cosmo Furnival as Seneca, and whose concluding lines ran:

Bleed, wrist! and free my spirit from its chains,
Rome take my blood that gushes from these veins.

And you might as well add Ferguson ‘s A Harp in Lowndes Square to your gift list.

I hope you’re all inspired!

Reflections on the Eve of Christmas Eve

Fred and Carrie Brownstein in Old Navy commercial

Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in Old Navy commercial suddenly realize they need new clothes!

Christmas is a difficult time.

What have we got? Irony!  What do we need?  Christmas sweaters, the ones drab Fred Armisen and Carrie Browstein want in the deadpan Old Navy commercial.

It’s a jolly holiday if you go to a potluck with friends; less so if you spend it with your dysfunctional family.

Some years I have brightly done my duty, and traveled hither and thither to visit family members. We eat festive dinners of turkey, mashed potatoes, and homemade pie.  I have little to say; my scant social skills dry up. My smile is plastered on. One cousin is dying of cancer, plugged into oxygen, and my father thinks it is AIDS. The old people reminisce about their Mother’s Way with Chickens. When the football game starts, we women are doomed to dishes and gossip. A cousin doles out leftovers to everyone except the hostess, who is almost in tears. I’m usually a woman of action, but I say nothing.  What is wrong with us on the holidays?

This year I am grieving the death of an aunt and a friend.  I was also saddened by a visit to the hospital, shocked by the frailty of a relative I hadn’t seen since my mother’s funeral.  Looking at this paper-thin man, I remember him as a strong freckled man who drove home from the farm for lunch, shedding his dirty overalls at the back door, and on one icy day insisted on driving us to the movies. I have to push aside this sentimentality:  he is on antibiotics and is feeling better, and that is what matters.  Age doesn’t mean much to him and my pity means nothing:  he still has intrigues, still goes to various clubs,  and supports Hillary.  He does karaoke. He has a more active social life than I do.  When he told me the last of my aunts died in November, I was devastated.  Why he didn’t call at the time?  Did he forget? That is probable, I realize now. I am sure he is depressed.  One of the aunts once said,  “How will you feel if he dies and you don’t see him again?”  And now I am really feeling that. We can’t talk.  It’s just the way we are.

Next year's Christmas tree!

Next year’s Christmas tree!

Thank God Christmas distracts us from the sadness. It rained all day, then the rain turned into slanting wet snow, but we closed the drapes,  were warm under blankets,  and were drinking tea and reading.   I was like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, thinking she’s escaped the alien and  is alone, when it’s actually in the spaceship.

My husband dragged our artificial tree, the alien in my life out of the basement!

NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Oh, lord.  This is one of those holiday traumas.  The plastic tree from a box store was okay for a year.  It was very well-loved by the cats, who bent it up a little.  Now half the branches turn up, then there is a gap, and the rest of the branches point down. I may joke about Roseanne’s “White Trash Christmas,” but I can’t have it in my living room.

So I promise I will find a tree for Christmas if he just takes this one back down downstairs.

I don’t feel like riding the bus in the rain, then walking to a box store, then dragging a tree back to the bus, but I have an idea.  I go to work on the internet.  Are those cute small spruce trees with L.E.D. lights  available for one-day delivery? They are not!

And so I order a big evergreen centerpiece and a Christmas bouquet from a florist.  And my God!  It’s the nicest Christmas decoration we’ve ever had.

So all these years we could have had great decorations if I hadn’t done it myself?

Yes!  We’re finally in the Christmas spirit!

Jingle Bell Rock, Catalogues & Christmas Trees

The very cool 1960s Tammy doll house!

The very cool 1960s Tammy doll house!

Looking at catalogues used to be a mother-daughter bonding activity in our household.  In the 1960s, my mother and I pored happily over the Sears Christmas catalogues.  She put checkmarks beside  mini-dresses that would look “adorable”on me,  and I circled mini-dresses for my Tammy doll, and put multiple exclamation points beside the very cool Tammy dollhouse, which had a soda fountain, ping pong table, and jukebox.

In the last years of Mom’s life, I lugged a shopping bag of catalogues  to the  nursing home.  We spent hours flipping through Talbot’s, Land’s End, and Harry and David. We speculated,  “What would Michelle Obama wear?” or  “What would Hillary wear?”

Since Mom died in 2013, I have lost all desire to shop for the holidays.  Ironically, I am so glutted with catalogues this year that I schlepped 40 directly from the mailbox to the recycling bin last week.

Happy Holidays, Jingle Bell Rock, etc. but I no longer swoon over pictures of Christmas trees and ask , “Would our Christmas be improved if we ordered a tiny decorated evergreen tree from L. L. Bean that we could later plant outside?”

Or maybe I do.

My husband says we don’t need a potted evergeen.   He says the ground would be too hard for planting it.

I say, “You wait till spring!”

He says, “But do we want an evergreen?”

No, we’d rather plant a maple.

And yet I look at the catalog and think,  MAYBE THIS IS THE YEAR.

THE YEAR OF THE REAL CHRISTMAS TREE!

tinsel christmas trees and tigger IMG_0574I love our tiny kitschy tinsel trees decorated with LED lights. Put in a battery and they light up.

And the cats enjoy an artificial tabletop tree that lives in the basement year-round. The branches are so unkempt from cat love that we no longer bring it upstairs.

My holiday decorating has always been sporadic, but Mom took it seriously.  I fondly remember her silver aluminum tree with blue ornaments. After I moved away from home, she acquired some scary huge white-clad angel dolls that moved their arms when she plugged them in.   She also had a white flocked Christmas tree in the shower in the basement.  Obviously nobody used the shower.  “Do you want it?” she would ask.  No.  Now I sort of wish I had.  What happened to the angel dolls?

“Do you realize we’ve never had a real Christmas tree?”  I ask my husband.

“We have a real Christmas tree,” he says indignantly.

“That’s an artificial tree.”

Would I enjoy a real tree so late in the game of Christmases?  I’m past the age where I would enjoy stringing popcorn while we listen to Jingle Bell Rock or watch A Christmas Carol.  And the cats really prefer batting ornaments on the floor like soccer balls to seeing them on the tree.

And guess who would vacuum up the evergreen needles?

It is unnecessary to replicate the holiday from old Christmas cards or my favorite Betsy-Tacy books.  Every family has its own traditions.  Ours?  Go to the bookstore on Christmas Eve, plug in our tinsel trees, make a dinner from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking, and watch Christmas in Connecticut.  It’s good enough.

American Veg! or Do I Mean the Turkey & I?

Barbie with turkey better picture

Barbie with turkey!

When I did not roast a turkey on Thanksgiving, there was massive discontent in my family.  They ordered pizza for supper.

I roasted a turkey on Christmas.

Turkey is a tradition.  Without turkey, there is no holiday.  I can deprive them of gifts (no gift-giving this year) and a tree, but there must be a turkey.

I became a vegetarian in September.

But being a carnivore is the American way of life.

Americans eat 270.7 pounds of meat per person a year, according to NPR–more than anyone in the world except Luxembourgers.  (And why Luxembourg I can’t tell you.)

Hormone-and-antibiotic-fed-and-shot-up meat and poultry.  Mm, mmm.  Delectable!

Being an American meat-eater can be hard on the planet.  Raising livestock has an adverse impact on the environment. Not only does it require more land, water, and energy than plants, but animal waste pollutes the air and water.

I ate some turkey on Christmas.

It was vaguely nauseating.

It was the chemical taste that turned me against meat and poultry.  (You don’t want to know what they’re feeding them.)  Suddenly I couldn’t eat confined-animal-facility-raised meat.

It has been a good health decision.  My blood pressure (always very low) has dropped 10 points, my cholesterol is finally normal, and I am in excellent physical condition.  (Fat is not necessarily unfit:  it depends on diet and exercise.)

The holiday is over.

And I will not deal with the leftovers.  I don’t like to handle meat.

I refused to make the turkey sandwiches.

I refused to make the turkey noodle casserole.

And when I gave instructions for the turkey noodle casserole, “Someone” didn’t speak to me all night.

The issue isn’t exactly turkey on the holidays.  It is vegetarianism.   Although most know vegetarianism is better for the planet, meat-eaters consider it a personal attack on themselves.

Dining out isn’t a problem.  Most restaurants have vegetarian selections, though not always good ones.  (Fast food, for instance:  McDonald’s has better options than Wendy’s.)

Dining at friends’ homes can be difficult.

You are invited to someone’s house for dinner.  Either your vegetarianism hasn’t registered, or they don’ think it’s worth bothering about, so they serve you pot roast.

You (a) explain that you are a vegetarian and create a huge scene because your hostess then becomes super-dramatic, or (b) eat the potatoes and carrots and any salad you can find on the table.

“Would you like more beef?” your hostess says.

My cousin has a theory about this.  “They hate you because you’re a bohemian bicyclist.”

“Perhaps if I were a thin bohemian bicyclist?”

“They wouldn’t like that, either.”

And on that happy note, here is a vegetarian meal for New Year’s Eve that everyone likes, Mac, Chili, and Cheese from Mollie Katzen’s The Heart of the Plate:  Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.

Pills & This Is Dedicated to My Mom

idolatrysticker black fridayI do not shop on Black Friday.  I get depressed after Thanksgiving and stay that way till after Christmas.  It’s partly the holidays, but it’s more the dark and cold.

This is the season when, if you have pills, take them.  If you don’t have them, get them.

You can buy St. John’s Wort and other alternative antidepressants at the health food store. Or you can get prescription drugs.  As far as I can tell, anybody can get prescription antidepressants.  One tenth of adults in the U.S. take antidepressants, according to the CDC.

The holiday depression is partly because of my mother’s recent death.

Mom and me.

Mom and me.

Last year I bought her a tall hideous stuffed snowman at Walgreen’s, the kind of thing she very much liked.  My sibling moved it into a corner out of sight.  “He said it might catch on fire from the radiator,” my mother said.  We both laughed very hard.

Poor Mom.

Poor me.

The truth is I didn’t see enough of her.  Every time I went to the nursing home I came home and bathed, washed my hair, and washed all my clothes because it stank.  Doris Lessing writes of the smell of incontinence and old age in Diary of a Good Neighbor.  She writes,

 I was full of revulsion.  The sour, dirty smell was in my clothes and in my hair.  I bathed and washed my hair and did myself up…

I knew exactly what she was talking about.

So I was a good enough daughter, but not good enough if you know what I mean.

In many ways, my mother was the last person who loved me. I don’t mean  “likes,” but actually loves.   Mothers may dislike us as young women, but they approve of us after a certain age.  We wearily look each other over and know who is who, what is what.

Unlike me, she made very good Christmases.  “Gifts are fun.”  One year she gave me a beautiful patent leather billfold. “Where did you get that?” everyone asks.   And before her house was dismantled, I found two boxes with the same billfold, bought for and rejected by her grandchildren. It was one of her many sorrows, that she couldn’t give them anything they liked.

For years she sent me warm clothes–some I couldn’t possibly wear, like the white sweater with the faux fur collar–but the meaning was M-o-m  l-o-o-o-v-v-v-es  K-a-t-h-y!  So you’ll still see me in the fleece jacket with the reindeer design.  No, I wouldn’t have bought it for myself!

Stay married, she always advised during the holiday season. (She got divorced the week before Christmas, poor woman.)  You don’t want to break up over Christmas.  No, indeed.  But it can be a slippery slope:  your mate may turn into a serpent, a Minotaur, a griffin, or far worse. He won’t be giving you a patent leather billfold or a white sweater with a faux fur collar, now will he?  (And now let me put several emoticons here so you won’t take me too seriously:  🙂 🙂 🙂 )

Just listen to a LOT of rock music over the holidays because it makes everything easier.  Although I can’t say “Because the Night,” written by Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, is appropriate for the season, it should distract everyone and put him or her in a more affectionate mood.

Here is a video version with Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe.  Totally different styles, but it’s great to see them together.   Intense  Springsteen and his band do what I call “the Trojan horse” movements onstage.  (It always looks to me as if rock bands are forming a horse; don’t ask me why.)  Stipe has a different elegance.  I love Bruce’s sweat and Stipes’ dancing!

Holiday Musings: Gifts, Books, & Manners

Christmas in Connecticut

“Christmas in Connecticut”

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Are you breathing easier?

The big day is over.

Did you spend Christmas morning in bed with a heating pad for your lower back?

I got up later and did yoga.  Then I cooked beef stew. It is a family tradition.

Yet there was something about the day that didn’t feel right.

I know, I know.  We did everything.  We even went out in the  snow and looked at the beautiful blurry moon.  What could be better?

But…

It always feels empty to me.

I should have watched Christmas in Connecticut before the holiday.  If you haven’t seen this romantic comedy, you need to find a copy and sit down and enjoy.   Barbara Stanwyck plays a columnist for a women’s magazine who pretends to her readers she is a farm wife, mother, and excellent cook.  In reality, she is an undomestic single New Yorker living in an apartment.  When her boss orders her to entertain a war hero (Dennis Morgan) for Christmas, she has to borrow a farm, a baby, and her restaurateur friend, Felix.  This brilliant movie is an excellent break from holiday disappointments.

christmas-gift-isolated-over-white-backgroundI know some of you enjoy the holidays.  For you it is not about materialism.  You go to Midnight Mass and watch A Christmas Carol. Your family gathers round the tree for a reading of William Dean Howells’s excellent anti-materialism short story, “Christmas Every Day.”

Holidays are far from unmaterialistic in my household. I want to say Christmas is all about peace, love, and understanding, but it doesn’t always turn out that way.  The volume of family misunderstanding can get turned way up when too many presents on the coffee table confront us like an accusation.

As I get older, the present-giving feels sillier and sillier.  Shouldn’t Christmas gift-giving cease now that we’re too old to want Barbies and Legos?  Aren’t we capable of loving our families without gifts?  But perhaps not.  We just had Thanksgiving.  Too much family in too short a time.

The materialism ruins it.

Last year I spent a lot of money on gifts and was very excited about my choices.  Finally I had it down:  I had researched the perfect gifts for everyone.  I gave an organic watch made from corn to an environmentalist:  he explained it wasn’t organic, and the process of manufacturing the material from corn pollutes.  I gave an adorable cream-colored pant suit to  a relative in a nursing home, and then realized the hue is far from practical:  they wear bibs in the dining room.

I planned this year to move the holiday away from materialism. I said I would give one book per person, and  would only accept one gift apiece from others, too.   I took requests.  One person requested a Library of America volume of Melville, and I bought it shortly after Thanksgiving.  I bought P. G. Wodehouse’s comedies for the others.

Shopping was all done, but I felt uneasy.  The books sat in a drawer like a ticking bomb.  I say like a ticking bomb, because on Friday, having noticed many, many packages arriving at our house, I bought more back-up books (National Book Award winners and finalists) in case there were dozens of packages for me on the coffee table on Christmas morning.

And there were.

When I saw the pile, I sauntered into the bedroom and got out  Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, and David Ferry’s Bewilderment as though I had meant to give them all along.  They weren’t wrapped. I had planned to give them for various birthdays if they weren’t needed for Christmas.

There were no gift faux pas.  Everybody was satisfied, and I received some lovely gifts.  There was perhaps a little edginess over my books-only policy, but I had mentioned it in advance.

There were some delightful moments before Christmas.  We made chocolate chip cookies instead of Christmas cookies because we really prefer them, and they are delicious.  We played cards with my relative in the nursing home.  And she loved her gift,  a stuffed snowman with an adorable sweater and scarf to display with her other winter decorations.  She has wonderful manners, and even if she had not liked it, she would have pretended to. I thought idly how my generation does not have wonderful manners.

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The most astonishing thing about Christmas was thinking about how connected I am to all these people.  The bonds between us are strong and old.  The day itself is usually a disappointment, but I learn something from it about family this year.  I had an epiphany, which I won’t share with you, but am sure you had your own revelation anyway.