Bears, bunnies, buds…

Spring’s little green buds are out.  Nary a one on March 31, they were adorning every branch of our garden cherry tree on April 1!   Happy, and restless, I contrived an errand—paper towels—and headed for CVS.   Paper goods and other cleaning products are stashed in a dull aisle at the end of the store.  On the way I detoured to the “seasonal” aisle.  CVS’s definition of seasonal is always colorful and multifaceted.  This week seed packets, bug spray, garden stakes, novelty umbrellas, and the occasional gnome jostled for shelf space with Easter baskets, stuffed toys, egg-coloring kits, and oh the c-c-candy.     

The paper towels slipped from my mind.  A basket, some fake grass, jelly beans, neon-pastel plastic eggs, a big chocolate rabbit and a little stuffed rabbit…I could assemble it into an Easter gift for Sonny.   I did something like that most years when he was a kid.  … Push away the thought that Sonny is 23 years old and doesn’t even like jelly beans … That we already had a package of Peeps and a couple of Cadbury eggs in the pantry …  A woman with a little girl in tow expelled an impatient breath.    She had an eye on a cellophane-wrapped extravaganza on the shelf above my head.  

I socially distanced to the appropriate six feet, which took me outside the aisle.  That broke the spell.   

As I loaded the paper towels into the car, I admitted that the person who wants the pretty basket with candy and a stuffed bunny sitting in plastic grass is me.     

Mostly I want the toy.  I had a bit of a stuffed animal habit as a kid.    A pair of teddy bears, three dogs, a monkey, a red horse, and, yes, an Easter bunny lived on my bunk bed.  My favorite, placed at the center of the bunch, was a lion with a huge, scratchy mane.   Whenever we went to a toy store, I scanned the dollhouse stuff and then lingered at the plush display until it was time to leave.  I longed for an enormous panda bear with a big, soft belly and enveloping limbs, bigger than me, the kind you could barely fit in a car.  Obviously this toy, with its rent-payment price tag, was out of the question.  I knew that.  I could even predict what my mother would say:  “Where on earth would you put that thing?”  

“On my bed with the others,” I would have replied.   I wanted to have enough to cover the bed’s surface completely.   During the day I could look at them, and at night I could crowd them around me, making things nice and cozy and tight and safe.   

 Sonny’s birth was an excuse to troll the toy departments again.   We gave him teddy bears and easter bunnies and took him to places like FAO Schwarz (the plush animals displays, OMG).  He preferred exotic animals, such as the ones for sale at kids’ museum or aquarium gift shops.  Stuffed snakes, frogs, fishes, beetles.  Also he went for TV toys: the Abominable Snowman from the Rudolph shows,  Elmo from Sesame Street, various Teletubbies,  Gary from Sponge Bob.   None of them lived on his bed.   They got played with for a while and then were passed down to various cousins.  

The household member whose soft toy enthusiasms were closest to mine was definitely our golden retriever.  He adored a series of stuffed ducks from the pet store.  When presented with a duck, he’d shake all over, taking time to sniff the toy.  Then, very gently, he’d take the thing into his mouth and carry it around the house.   He’d use it as a pillow as well as something to catch and fetch.  And then at some point he’d rip a seam and pull out half the stuffing.          

For a while I switched to a grown-up version of plush toys, the throw pillow.  This was HGTV-approved (pillows add color and texture to a space, as well as comfort).  HGTV convinced me that one couldn’t have too many throw pillows, which turned out to be far from true.   Having to shift six pillows in order to sit on the couch turned out to be annoying.  Having no room for Dave to fold his laundry on the bed proved even worse.   He started dumping them on the floor and leaving them there.  I put many pillows in a closet and forced myself to stop buying new ones.    

 I’m still searching for comfort in all the wrong places.   Without being forced away from the display, I might very well have bought a toy.   That would have been bad.   I already have two stuffed animals in my bedroom, both on the headboard.  One is a little orange cat, very floppy, with big glass eyes.  Sonny gave it to me for Christmas one year so that I could have a cat that was always there for me.  (I love our evil orange tabby Capone madly, a passion that’s only intermittently requited.)   “My” cat fits nicely on top of a pile of TBR books.  The other animal is a purple hippo.  I was able to rationalize the purchase neatly: 1) I bought it in a store for grownups, and 2) it’s practically a medical device, since it’s infused with lavender and is microwavable so that you can get to sleep more easily.  And two is plenty; two is the last safe number in the one-two-many of my autism.  A third toy could trigger the deluge.  In two months the bed would be covered.    Forget space for laundry: neither Dave nor I would have room to sleep!   Probably better to look to the little green buds for comfort, instead.     

All roads

Tomorrow, February 15, is Lupercalia, an ancient Roman holiday that focuses on purifying for spring.   Unlike my spring cleaning sessions, approached with mops, the vacuum cleaner, and feather dusters and lasting until I feel I’ve worked off enough calories to enjoy a couple of chocolates, Lupercalia was a three-day event full of feasts and celebrations.  Also the festival included some elements that have me wondering why?  Why would people do this?   Clute, Texas’s three-day Great Texas Mosquito Festival, which includes a contest awarding first prize to the person who is bitten by the biggest mosquito, raises similar questions.  Members of the order of Luperci sacrificed animals, rubbed the sacrifices’ blood onto their faces, and then cut the animal skins into belts called februa (the origin of the word February).   Then they ran naked around Rome, using the belts to whip everyone they met.   Women, especially, shoved themselves into the Luperci’s paths, because it was believed that being smacked by a februa could help with problems with infertility and child delivery.   When in Rome…do weird stuff, I guess.  

Even once Christians dominated Rome, Lupercalia was still popular and broadly celebrated until around 500 CE.  This was probably because festivals are fun and profitable, boosting local businesses as well as attracting tourists and their dollars.   I bet every goat dealer, salve peddler, and midwife for miles around looked forward to Lupercalia.  Just as the lozenge manufacturers of today can’t wait for  Spivey Corner, North Carolina’s annual National Hollerin’ Contest.  

The other big holiday of the week is Valentine’s Day, celebration of romance and other sweet things.  Now that Sonny’s an adult, and given that the pandemic has nixed a nice dinner out with Dave, my Valentine’s Day preparations have been even more minimal than usual.   No longer do I need to count the students on Sonny’s class list to figure out what size valentine pack to buy.  We don’t have to find a free afternoon for writing notes and taping in stickers and candy hearts (sweet, but nowhere near as sweet as the marshmallow creme celebrated in the Somerville, Massachusetts “What the Fluff” festival).    I started prepping for Valentine’s Day roughly 18 hours ahead of time.   

    Of course I headed to CVS.   Drugstores are the one-stop shop for affordable cards, candy, gifts, and flowers.  The store was so crowded that I wondered if I had wandered through time and space to Ohio’s Annual Avon Heritage Duck Tape Festival, which attracts some 60,000 souls a year.  Nope: it turned out to be senior citizens arriving for their Covid vaccines and CVSers from other stores who were touring our store because it’s “going digital!”  Also the rest of the last-minute shoppers.   I edged past the buckets of stuffed animals, roses and baby’s breath, and perfume and headed for the greeting card section at the back of the store.   

I can’t blame the Romans for everything.  The  historical figure who bears responsibility for the lines at CVS is poet, diplomat, and international man of intrigue Geoffrey Chaucer.  His 699-line poem Parliament of Fowls, c. 1382, specifies Valentine’s Day (already February 14th at that point, but with no romantic associations), as the date that birds chose their mates.   “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,/When every fowl comes there his mate to take.”    I’m not sure if anyone at Elko, Nevada’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has ever recited these lines, but quite a few writers took Chaucer’s idea and ran with it.

I paid for my gifts and made my way home, relieved that the holiday would proceed in its cheerful, normal way.  Cards,  hugs, and candy.  Lace and red and white.  The same colors, coincidentally, as those of the New Orleans’ San Fermin Festival, in which Roller Derby girls wielding plastic bats chase happy people through the city streets.     All roads lead to Rome, as they say.  

Happy Valupercalentines Day. 

Persnickety Rockstar

Just when I thought I was done with my New Year’s resolutions, I realized I’d forgotten all about word of the year.  With 99% of 2021 yet to come, I may as well choose…but which word?   

Word of the year seemed cool when I first heard about it, a couple of years ago.  The trend seems to have picked up steam in about 2015, so as usual I’m a couple of years late to the party.  The idea is to find a word that encapsulates one’s aspirations for the coming year as a substitute for resolutions, though a lot of people use it as a supplement.  How focused I might be, if I chose the perfect word and measured myself against it every day! 

My mind clamped shut in panic.  However, there’s lots of help around for those of us who feel stumped.  Guided journals, workshops, and tutorials abound, as do lists of hundreds of words that might suit:  Unstoppable.  Bright.  Magical.  Creative.  Abundance.  Joy.   Grace.   Believe.  Rise.  Grow.  Imagine.      

Also there are plenty of sources for one to buy one’s word, beautifully typeset, on a coffee cup, a fridge magnet, a rock, a coaster, a sign, etc.    I have a little collection of embossed rocks— “Love,”  “Power,” “Act with Inte t,” “First Things First”—buried beneath my collection of eyeglass-cleaning cloths.)  

Even with possibilities laid out before me, I’ve felt blocked.  Maybe trouble picking a word may has something to do with being on the autism spectrum.   The abstractions seem remote, too big.    But I love words.  A rummage through the dusty boxes of my back brain for beautiful words brings up snap, bombast, lamb, bumbershoot, cylinder, helical, quoit, mnemonic, tyger, dramaturge, agate.    

There are words that have attached themselves over time, sometimes after a mild shock.  On a fine fall day back in the pre-plague era, my voice teacher told me I was looking “very rockstar today” as I neared his door,  with my boots and shades and hair.  “Ah ha ha ha, thanks!” I replied, awkward as ever, but I resonated with the word and wound up saying “rockstar” to myself many times as I was getting ready for a scary thing.     

One midsummer at Salisbury Beach, while Sonny and Dave queued for the rollercoasters, I visited a psychic in a dim, stuffy booth near the clam shack.   She took my $20, gave me the usual sorts of malarky, and then gasped and ordered me to come back later—with more money—so that she could lift a curse off of me.  When I declined, she glared at me over her purple candle and declared, “You’re quite persnickety.”   Which is an  Americanism, basically referring to a snobby or aloof attitude.   I’ve heard something like that before (autistic people are not always able to figure out how to make our faces work according to neurotypical people’s liking), and the colorful word stuck in my head.   Persnickety rockstar, though, seems awfully complicated for 2021.   

Therefore as my word of the year, I went for something simpler: bumbershoot.  Bumbershoots are battered, stretched, many-cornered, and protective.  Vulnerable to an ill wind, needing to be held tight.  Mary Poppins’ vehicle of choice.  That is, bumbershoot is an Americanism from the 1870s meaning umbrella.  The umbrella is an ancient invention, dating back at least four thousand years, and one of my favorites.  We have many around the house, but I always have to search high and low to find one when it’s raining.   

Theories about how the word originated speculate that bumber is from “umbr” and “shoot” is short for parachute, since umbrellas look rather like parachutes.   The resemblance to parachutes was more acute in the 1870s than nowadays.   Designs for parachutes have been around since at least the Renaissance–Leonardo daVinci, among others, made one.  The modern parachute, though was invented by Louis-Sebastien Lenormand, in the late eighteenth century.  His first attempts involved a pair of bumbershoots.    

I wonder if I could get that image on a coffee cup…

Resolutions and hopes

Babylon!  One of the first megacities and home to all kinds of wonders: the hanging gardens, Hammurabi and his code, epics, the 60-minute hour, ziggurats…and New Year’s regulations, a many-times-great granduncle to the resolutions of today.  Once a year, Babylonians tried to stay on their gods’ good side by making two promises.  First, to pay their (the Babylonians’, not the gods’) outstanding debts, and second, to return the things they’d borrowed.  

  Four thousand years later many of us are still making promises—or at least plans—at the turn of the year, though these resolutions are a bit different from the Babylonians’.  My theory is that the Babylonian thing arose because some priest with an overgrown hanging garden needed to get his sheers back from a forgetful neighbor. 

Roughly half of Americans commit to some resolutions at year’s beginning.  The success rate isn’t high: by the end of January about 75% of us will have given up. Only about 8% overall will ultimately reach the goals. 

Maybe we’re collectively insane at this time of year.  I’ve had as many as 23 resolutions, some years, while achieving at best a couple.  There’s value in figuring out what I’d like to improve, even if I can’t quite fix it yet.  And I quite enjoy the weird society-wide optimism and support for improvement during the first few weeks of January.  There’s a new school year hopefulness without the mean girls at the lunch table spoiling everything.  

I decided to follow a Babylonian-style plan this year and set just two resolutions for 2021:  1) organize some small part of my space daily, and 2) improve my (visible) patience.      

Also I decided I would write down some touchstones in the general direction of feeling better.  What would that mean?  

Back in elementary school I learned about the five senses: taste, touch, sound, sight, and scent.  During Sonny’s occupational therapy I learned about a sixth sense, proprioception, which is perception of the position and movement of the body.  It turns out, of course, that there are lots more, but six is already plenty, so I stopped there and made this arbitrary list.       

Six Sensory Hopes for 2021   

The taste of raspberries, tart and sweet and surprising.  Here’s hoping I have some ideas that are just as delightful.    

The feel of a river stone, solid, smooth, and ancient.  Hoping that this year’s big stuff flows over and around me.    

The sound of a chalumeau G on the clarinet, resonant with overtones, fading into the ghost of itself.  Hoping to be able to hear the nuances in the conversations around me.   

The sight of a sunset, purples, pinks, reds, and oranges dashed across the sky.  Hoping always to be delighted by something as simple as a cloud.   

The scent of a pine forest, sharp and cool.  Hoping to grow quietly throughout the year. 

To flow inside my body like water.    

Happy New Year! 

Part 3: holiday songs: revised

Lots of people going all out decorating and prepping for the holidays this year to compensate for all the canceled stuff. Prices have risen higher than a Douglas fir. A fresh-cut Douglas (or its slightly shorter cousins) will cost an average of 23% more than in 2018, says Fortune magazine. Assuming you can still find one, as many tree farms are sold out. As the song should go:

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, I looked all over for you!

O Christmas tree, rare Christmas tree, my mortgage payment’s soon due!

You look and smell so heavenly, but we’ll reuse our plastic tree.

O Christmas tree, dear Christmas tree, I really can’t afford you!

For those brave enough to spend extra time at the mall, Santas are still around. However, you have to make an appointment. No Santa lines in 2020–a small blessing.

My parents never encouraged us to believe in tooth fairies, Eastern bunnies, or Saint Nicholas. Nor did they pretend to us that our presents came from anyone but family. Maybe that’s because, as the children of two impatient people, too many of our presents didn’t make it to Christmas morning to support the fiction that Santa had delivered them on Christmas Eve. Once everyone’s shopping is completed and the gifts are wrapped, what’s the point of waiting?

I gave my wish list to my mom not Santa. But one time, when I was seven, I had an overwhelming craving for a particular present. The object of my desire was a mechanical dog that I’d seen in Toys R Us for the high price of $15.99 (batteries not included). I figured a visit to Santa could increase my chances of seeing FeeFee (as I had already named her) under the tree. FeeFee was so cute! She had soft pink fur and could bark, walk, sit, and even rise slowly on her haunches to perform a backflip.

My mother and I stood for almost an hour in the cold line that stretched from the front of JC Penney’s to Santa’s hut. Inside the hut it was stiflingly warm. Santa’s frizzy beard and bony knee and the existential question of whether I’d been a good little girl this year eliminated my ability to talk. Needing to move the line along, Santa said he was sure I had been good, asked what I wanted for Christmas, and leaned his hairy ear towards my face. I burst into tears. “She wants a toy dog,” my mother snapped. “Ho Ho,” sighed Santa, as the helper elf guided me off of the knee. And that was that.

I unwrapped FeeFee on December 23. Her batteries lasted almost 15 minutes.

Sonny, though never a Santa believer, loved to gaze at the mall Santas on their colorful thrones. However, he was always wary of “mascots” (his catchall word for people in costumes) and kept his distance. Smart kid. Sometimes in my caroling gig days (see the blog from 12/13) we singers would share back office space with the Santa of the day. When on break, all Santas strip down to their undershirts–that costume is hot–drink iced coffee and eat a sandwich. Often, for some reason, a tuna sandwich. Santas exhibit minimal jollity when backstage. The song should go

Jolly old Saint Nicholas, please stay far away.

You’ve been at the mall too much; I don’t want to play.

Christmas Eve I’ll be at home, eating cookie dough.

You can skip my house this year; no one has to know.

We’re not exactly canceling Christmas, but we’ll be glad when the holidays and this awful year have passed. On New Year’s Eve we’ll be in our bubble, waiting for the clock to tick from December 31 to January, and singing

Should 2020 be forgot and never brought to mind?

May 2020 be long gone and kicked in its behind!

For 2020’s been a time of strife, and fear, and plague.

I’ll take a stab of vaccine soon, and sing the year away.

I’m taking the next week off, but I plan to be typing again in this space on New Year’s Day. May your holidays be safe and sane.

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

We wish you a healthy Christmas,

and a plague-free New Year.

Good tidings we bring

of two new vaccines.

We wish you a healthy Christmas

and a plague-free New Year.

Holiday songs part 2: perils of caroling

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner, or at the mall, at a holiday party, or even strolling through your workplace or neighborhood. Carolers. People tend to love or despise them. I’ve felt both emotions on encountering these groups of smiling singers, especially if I have no warning ahead of time. However, I may as well confess: I spent a few years with a company that hired out a cappella caroling quartets.

We wore Dickensian (early Victorian) outfits. The men in high-waisted trousers, vests, and top hats. Women in long skirts puffed out with scratchy crinolines, bonnets decorated with bits of floral fluff and ribbons, and a wool wrap draped over the shoulders. These picturesque outfits were always wrong for the ambient temperature, leaving us sweating while singing indoors and shivering outdoors.

We worked from a book with around 120 tunes, most of them traditional carols photocopied from hymnals, plus a few Hanukkah songs and some mid-twentieth century hits like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, “Let it Snow!” and “The Christmas Song.” We strolled or stood, whatever the venue decreed. When we’d sung for a bit, drawn a crowd, we would invite people to request songs. Always interesting to see the audience’s reaction to being put on the spot. Some people would have a brain freeze, while others eagerly shouted out “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” or “All I Want for Christmas is You” only to get a “Sorry, we don’t have that in the book, would you like to hear something else?” This is when, inevitably, one of the following three songs would be suggested: “Jingle Bells,” “Silent Night,” or “O Holy Night.”

Over the course of a one- or two-hour gig we would sing Jingle Bells one miiiillion times. Okay, 10 or 15 times. It’s a short song even if you do all the normal verses, which tell a tale about the joys of riding in a “one-horse open sleigh” (the original title), even when the occupants get “upsot” in verse two. This song has a Massachusetts connection. Its composer was sometime-organist James Lord Pierpont, who was born in the state. High Street in Medford, MA, features a plaque claiming (mistakenly) that Pierpont composed Jingle Bells in 1850 while pounding ales in the town’s Simpson Tavern. Pierpont did live in Medford for a while, but in 1850 he was in California. He copyrighted “One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857 while living in Savannah, Georgia, so the people of Savannah also lay claim to the birthplace of the song. Like “Let It Snow,” this is a song about the winter sport of sleigh-riding rather than Christmas, but it’s been associated with that holiday since at least 1900. Fun fact: Jingle Bells was the first song broadcast from space, on December 16, 1965! Not so fun facts: Jingle Bells was first publicly performed in 1857, at a blackface minstrel show in Boston by the singer Johnny Pell. Also, after his move to Georgia Pierpont fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederates.

Despite its shady origins, Jingle Bells peps up a crowd. With a range of just a fifth, the chorus is eminently singable, and the audience often joins in. Silent Night, on the other hand…It’s a beautiful song, but with a big range for casual singers (an 11th) and a bunch of treacherous high notes in the second half. Maybe because of the high notes, the audience tends to listen to Silent Night instead of sing along. This was our most cried-to piece. It’s been stirring emotions since 1818. The lyrics were written by an Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, while the music was set by organist Franz Xaver Gruber. The first version was for voice and guitar because the organ in Mohr’s church was broken. I’m glad Mohr specified guitar: in my opinion the emotional content of Silent Night is beautifully expressed with voice and guitar.

The truly scary high notes come in O Holy Night. Many arrangements give the melody to the tenor, but our book followed the original performance practice and gave the soprano the high Bbs. (Fortunately I sang alto and stayed below the Death Zone.) Whenever a listener would request this this piece, if we’d already done it once or twice, the soprano got the veto. O Holy Night was our most-denied tune. It’s another song from the 1800s, 1847, to be precise, with music by organist Adolphe Adam set to lyrics by one-handed poet/wine merchant Placide Cappeau.

The original title is “Cantique de Noel,” and its lyrics are quite progressive, opposing slavery and elite abuse of power. Here’s a sample from verse 2: “Puissants du jour, fiers de votre grandeur,/A votre orgueil, c’est de la que Dieu preche.” This basically translates as “Mighty ones of today, proud of your greatness, It is to your pride that god preaches.” Even though the song was a popular hit, the French church authorities banned it from religious services for a time because it turned out that Cappeau was an atheist. John Sullivan Dwight , a Unitarian minister, liberally translated the lyrics into English in 1855, giving the last verse an expicitly Abolitionist bent.

I enjoy singing the old songs. Just as with reading a novel from the 1800s or a poem written in 900, there’s a thrill in the connection with the past. However, by the end of a 20-Jingle-Bell gig my singing smile could stretch a little tight.

Back at the dressing room, the first off would be the bonnet. Once I had my sweater and jeans back on and had shoved the last prickly bit of crinoline into the depths of the garment bag, I donned my headphones. Something non-holiday to drive the carols to the back of the brain, until the next time I needed to sing them with a smile.

December crash

I love museums. First choice is art, but I enjoy just about any space devoted to collections: local history, natural history, science, whaling, robber barons, dollhouses… The museum environment hits the sweet spot for my autism, pleasing the senses without overwhelming them. Color and light. Amazing objects hung on walls, suspended from the ceiling, piled on shelves. Grand, sound-diffusing spaces. Stone, wood, feathers, water, velvet, chrome. Mazy corridors peppered with mysterious Staff-Only doors. Other people sharing the experience, without weird social obligations needing to be navigated. Cafeterias with grapes, cheese plates and little bottles of wine. A magic space I can step into where my mundane life recedes. And when I’m pleasantly fatigued, done, I take a little calm with me into the real world.

I’m sure that a lot of people feel about the winter holiday season the way I do about museums. Enjoying the exertion of putting up decorations, cooking, and wrapping gifts. Happy to hear their holiday playlist every day, eager for the office party, the neighborhood cookie swap. Loving the colors and lights and traditions. By year’s end, pleasantly fatigued, they are ready for the mundanities of January.

Certainly such people exist. Why I don’t know any of them? Besides children, who don’t have to pay the rent, cook the feast, or climb icy ladders to string lights, who truly enjoys the holidays? Even my husband Dave, chill about many things, considers December his least favorite month and filters out as much as he can after Thanksgiving weekend.

My friends, especially the online ones (because online is the only safe space to admit some of these emotions), feel actively stressed and overwhelmed every December. Some of my friends are depressed as well as stressed. 2020 has made everything worse, of course. I don’t remember asking Santa for a civil war for Christmas (it’s going to be a bitch to regift). Maybe it’s the fear that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t feel holiday cheer. (Dave: “I’m not nine anymore. Why should I feel guilty about that?” Me: envious sigh) The media and stores and culture perform comfort and joy 24/7 and pressure us all not to ruin the magic.

Hoping that the winter holiday season can be scaled back culturally is probably as counterproductive as storing black sweaters in a basketful of kittens. Holidays expand. Thousands of years ago, humans lit bonfires for a night or two around the winter solstice to remind the gods to bring back longer days. Bonfires turned into annual celebrations like the Greek Brumalia and the Roman Saturnalia: days upon days of banquets, drinking, dancing, and (in Saturnalia’s case) temporary reversals of the social order such as slaves dressing in their masters’ clothes and vice versa, bosses paying their servants’ rent for a month, etc. Saturnalia was turned into Christmas in the mid fourth century AD and slowly grew to encompass all of December and a bit of January, and now Christmas starts sometime in October.

Maybe the Roman patrons and matrons got stressed out about Saturnalia. There weren’t any museums, per se, in ancient Rome. Art and artifacts were on display in private homes, in public, and in temples. I picture a Roman matron, worried about her holiday outfit, having run out of olives, wondering what to get her maid for Saturnalia. She’s heading for the temple to walk among the statues, looking for a little peace on earth. I hope at least they gave her a nice cheese plate and some wine.

Holiday song checklist: one

In which I measure my life against one holiday classic at a time, starting with the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn tune “Let It Snow!”

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…

July, 1945: Los Angelenos were sweltering in record heat. Styne wanted to go to the beach to cool off; his songwriting partner Cahn wanted to cool down by writing a tune about winter. The song doesn’t mention a holiday, but it was quickly looped into the December playlist in the Northern Hemisphere. (In the Southern Hemisphere, people sing “Let it Snow!” in July.) Styne and Cahn followed the song a year later with “The Things We Did Last Summer,” which was a hit, but small compared to the accidental winter classic.

A brief look outside: yesterday it was in the 50s; today it’s snowing sideways. Check!

But the fire is so delightful…

Our house has a big chimney with three fireplaces (one in the basement, one in the living room, and one in the master bedroom. When we toured the place 13 years ago, those fireplaces were a big selling point. Winter came and so did the fire fights–not fights handled by muscular humans hauling hoses, but relationship fights about how to get a fire started and keep it going.

Dave skipped a lot of the stereotypic manly man stuff in his formative years. His lack of interest in golf, for example, has saved us a lot of money, which we can then use to pay the odd jobs man for home repairs more complicated than picture hanging. However, he has a few regrets. Possibly due to his Boy Scout days, Dave views “fire-starting” as a core male competency. It turned out to be tricky to manage the fireplaces. I developed somewhat of a knack for starting fires that didn’t burn out 20 minutes later, and this led to the kind of little conflicts that afflict our marriage from time to time. Unlike Styne and Cahn, who wrote together for about eight years and then abandoned that partnership, Dave and I have stayed together (but we stopped making fires in our fireboxes).

The decision was made easier by the fact that every fire stunk up the house for days afterwards. Sometimes I wonder what the previous owners burned in there: angry ghosts of Christmas past? Definitely something with payback on its mind. We swept the chimneys annually without any improvement. Until 2020, our hearths remained purely decorative except in the case of winter power outages that require a substitute heat source. This summer we finally donated the cord of wood that had sat unused in the garage since 2011–it’s dried out for sure–to one of Dave’s buddies from high school.

Then I saw a picture in a magazine: a fireplace stuffed with candles and mirrors, et voila! I made my own version, so now we can have firelight without the mess. The candles, alit, do look quite pretty, but fall short of delightful. Maybe if we had some holiday lights up…

I’ll just take a couple of minutes and pop some Christmas lights on the mantle. Even though it meant a trip to the spider-ridden corners of the basement. Yay, me! They string a bit tangled–No, Capone, not a cat toy!–back to the basement to find the extension cord…

Cobwebs, cat scratches, and curses later: Delightful! Check!

Since we’ve no place to go…

Coronavirus wasn’t a thing in July of 1945. However, this banner year in world history also featured the first flu vaccine authorized for use on civilians in the US. We’re all hoping to get the COVID vaccine as soon as possible, so that we can enjoy the 2021 holiday season. Until we’re able to move about safely, though, most of the time we’ve no place to go. Check.

Let it snow!

No one will ever convince me that I have no influence over the weather. I can keep the rain away simply by carrying my umbrella. When I can find the darn thing. Did my wonder at Friday’s temperatures (in the 50s) and brief thankful thought that at least we hadn’t had any snow since the Halloween storm cause this Nor’easter? Probably. “Let it snow!” Check.

Let it snow!

Unfortunately I’ve never been able to work out a practice that stops a snowstorm. Cursing, putting the snow shovel on the steps, saying “tut tut, it looks like rain” regularly fail me. For now I’ll turn to a phrase I embroidered on a sampler, once upon a time: grant me the serenity to accept the things I can’t change. Check.

Let it snow!

The song keeps pushing this line. Maybe it’s asking something of me. Maybe an attitude adjustment? There is, I finally admit, something about being in a warm, sheltered place with people I love, watching Nature do its thing. Check!