Home

Ghosts of Christmas 1957… God Save The Queen

2 Comments

Christmas Singers

Sfffftttt pftttttttt clunnnkkk… The rambunctious sounds of children’s bare feet on chilly oakwood floors awoke Mom and Dad after their far-too-short sleep post-Santa preparations by the living room fireplace.

Wednesday, December 25, 1957.

Baby’s First Christmas… MY First Christmas…

My brothers and sisters rushed with visible excitement into the living room of our 2 storey brick-clad Pottruff Road house before the morning darkness had even considered dissipating.

Dreams of science books, 45 rpm records, meccano and train sets, transistor radios, and cushy borg-lined slippers around the Scotch Pine tree, ransacked the insides of my sibs’ young heads.

The skies outside that morn were sooty grey and misty; a cool, light rain drizzled down on our Hamilton, Ontario home. The red mercury-filled thermometer outside our backdoor teeter-tottered up and down around the freezing point throughout the day.

No, a soft, fluffy white Christmas wouldn’t grace our Steeltown this Christmas day.

Five months into my existence, I celebrated my first Christmas without teeth, without the use of words, without control over my bowels, without any idea of what the world I lived in would look like 60 years later.

My mother’s eyes were no doubt red-rimmed so early, her head groggy from Christmas gift buying and wrapping as she collapsed on the couch (we called it a chesterfield then) in the reflected light of the Christmas tree.

In her exhaustion from all the preparations for a family of 7, she still had yet to prepare the sage and onion-scented stuffing for the turkey.

Here she was a worn out 45 year old with a brood of 5, and one – ME – a newborn.

We were the standard WASP Canadian family of 1957 and the Queen’s Christmas message coming over our radio would have been a moment of collective calm.

queen 1957.jpg

Queen Elizabeth’s 1957 Christmas Message

I’m not a staunch monarchist.

I guess in a fashion similar to my religious tastes, I don’t really believe in it, but I happily accept its meaning and power to others.

I barely notice the rumblings of the folks who rummage around inside Buckingham or Kensington Palace.

I don’t dislike the Royal clan. I even truly admire the royal pageantry and regal trappings just as I admire the awe-inspiring beauty of the inside of an historic cathedral. Beauty is beauty regardless of the philosophy or circumstance that brought it to be.

Harkening back to my first Christmas reminds me that Queen Elizabeth II broadcast her very first TV Christmas message this day. It wasn’t her first Christmas missive but it was the first where she could be seen in the flesh as she spoke.

Here’s a sampling of the words she spoke (listen to it in her own voice here)  on Christmas day 60 years ago:

… But it is not the new inventions which are the difficulty. The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. 
.
They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honestly counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint. 
.
At this critical moment in our history we will certainly lose the trust and respect of the world if we just abandon those fundamental principles which guided the men and women who built the greatness of this country and Commonwealth.
.
Today we need a special kind of courage, not the kind needed in battle but a kind which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest.
.
We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future. 
.
It has always been easy to hate and destroy. To build and to cherish is much more difficult. That is why we can take a pride in the new Commonwealth we are building.
.
Last October I opened the new Canadian Parliament, and as you know this was the first time that any Sovereign had done so in Ottawa. Once again I was overwhelmed by the loyalty and enthusiasm of my Canadian people. 
.
Also during 1957 my husband and I paid visits to Portugal, France, Denmark and the United States of America… 

 

Really? 60 years ago? No way….

Over the years, I’ve rarely plunked down and listened to the Queen’s short talk where she opined on the state of the world.

It was my late father-in-law’s routine to insist on hearing her each year and I would smile at the tradition that meant a great deal to him and so little to me.

However, this Christmas season, as I nostalgically listen to Johnny Mathis sing I’ll Be Home For Christmas or the Muppets and John Denver sing The Twelve Days of Christmas where Fozzie Bear forgets his line (“Seven swans a-swimming”) and Miss Piggy over-emphasizes hers (“Five gold rings, ba-dum, bum, bum.)… or as I hum along to some of the actual hits of Christmas 1957 : Sam Cook You Send Me… Elvis Jailhouse Rock… Buddy Holly Peggy Sue… Everly Brothers Wake Up Little Susie

… I may settle into a warm chair with an eggnog latte and listen in with interest to a few moments of the Queen’s Christmas message, 2017.

I guess I’ve forgotten in the last while how invigorating it can be to listen in when a true statesman or stateswoman speaks of bright, positive opportunities and choices.

This year – more than any other year I can recall in my lifetime – the desire to listen to someone of substance say a few gentle, wise words about the goodness in the world, someone who attempts to speak to unity of disparate and desperate people of the world, someone who attempts to raise the bar of what humanity is and can be… well, my good friends… this is a part of the Christmas spirit I may need reminding of …

And in four short words… here are two institutions you’ll rarely hear me speak of in such tones of full, true reverence and admiration:

God Save The Queen…

… and yes … Merry Christmas To All …

Denver and muppets.jpg

Soup Kitchen Santa

Leave a comment

Today, a fictional short story based on a non-fictional person…

soup kitchen santa

If they had a chimney on this building, I could sneak in and bring us all out some warm cookies!”

John stood in line with the other early-comers in front of the plate-glass doors to the Soupateria. A few wispy snowflakes swirled and played in the morning’s light breeze.

His deep voice and laughter rang out over the quiet chatter of the others.

Looking at him, listening to him, you could become convinced in your ears and in your head – at least in the month of December – that Santa Claus himself had found his way south and joined the crowd waiting for some hot soup on a chilly Okanagan day, supping with those he had delivered special gifts to over many decades in their youth.

John hadn’t the stereotypical physique of Santa, he was fit and rode a bedraggled bicycle, no reindeer in the lead, on the chilliest of days.

He didn’t sport a rosy nose or chubby cheeks beneath the faded Santa hat that he wore today for the first time this year, instead of his usual Toronto Maple Leaf toque.

“You like cookies Betty Ann?”, he chuckledShe smiled a toothless grin and nodded.

What he did have was a fluffy grey-white beard, wire-rimmed glasses, a winsome, devilish smile and a charm in his speech that brought smiles to the faces of adults and children alike. You couldn’t be faulted for calling him jolly.

The tenor of his deep voice rang out loudly – like a low, rumbling avalanche in the distant hillside – as if he had a microphone hidden away in his woollen sweater or his old ski jacket.

John hadn’t worked a day in years even though he was probably 15 years short of normal retirement age.

His last job as a gardener ended with a soulless whimper one balmy day after lunch; he snuck in a nap while leaned against the tire of the boss’s work truck, and then just declined to get back up to mow the customer’s backyard lawn.

John was sweet and warm and jolly… and slightly deluded.

It wasn’t only you or I that might be fooled by his similarities to Saint Nick. Nope.

When John looked at himself in the mirror each day, the man staring back, he was convinced, was Saint Nicholas.

John believed in Santa Claus – John believed in himself. John is a current day Miracle on 34th Street.

After filing through the long lineup at the soup serving window, mischievously and with one eyebrow raised, he searched the dessert counter for a prized chocolate chip muffin.

Every day he prayed for chocolate chip muffins.

He’d chuckle when the serving person at the counter handed him his prize, then, solitary, he’d sit quietly at a far end table and munch away at his soup and sandwich with headphones wrapped over his toque and ears.

When he sipped the last dribs of hot chocolate and swallowed the final bite of his muffin, he turned his attention to the others lined up at the long tables and worked his way through the group, chatting in animation and laughter.

I don’t know John well other than our regular friendly small talk conversations outside the soup kitchen as he patiently waited for “door opening”.

A soup kitchen volunteer once told me that John had an older autistic brother that lived with him in a small basement apartment a block away from the beach.

For a long time, a couple of years at least, I’ve observed John and his gentle calm demeanour as he jabbered with the heavily tattooed; the itinerant fruit pickers from Quebec, Mexico, or France; those with pockmarked faces from meth abuse; and others indistinguishable from anyone else you know.

Last week, near the end of my dishwashing shift, a clatter arose in the dining hall behind me. No biggee. Just usual squabbling.

I finished off rinsing a bowl in the deep stainless-steel sink, popped it into the dish rack, then turned slowly to see what the din was about.

Often a minor kerfuffle breaks out amongst the Soupateria denizens over a toe clumsily stepped on or when someone gets deeply offended by a sandwich uneaten. Most arguments are worked out within seconds and calm settles back in like a duvet shaken over a bed.

This time was different. I looked out into the big room as a sizeable throng rushed out the front door as a smaller throng rushed back in. Hmmmm, that’s not typical.

The ones rushing in were signalling to us volunteers with crazed looks on their faces.

Man down!“, one woman yelled. The surreal scene began to take on the sheen of a movie set, I almost expected to hear another voice cry out… “CUT!

I had an immediate jolt of “this was happening“. For months, I had thought about this moment each time I came in to help out.

Fentanyl.

Linda, kitchen supervisor for the day, and I looked at each other with trepidation. We knew where the kit was located that we had hoped to never need to locate.  We also both knew that we were the only ones trained on site.

We were slightly stunned but our glances turned into reflex action; we both scurried towards the noise and activity.

Weaving through the crowded group, we exited the building onto the cement walkway out front where a human circle had formed like the ones kids make around a schoolyard fight.

There was no surprise in seeing a man’s body splayed on the hard ground, a few snowflakes resting on his dark blue ski jacket. Motionless and quiet. Still, with no breath.

The surprise arose when I saw the Santa hat on the victim’s head.

John.

Grey, lifeless, unsmiling John; his skin and beard colour not differing by many tonal shades.

The next few minutes – it might have been 5, maybe 10, maybe an hour, who knows –  were a blur as Linda and I went throughout the steps of administering naloxone as best we could remember.

Because of my previous lab experience in needle use, I did the injections into John while Linda made some attempts at artificial respiration. I drew up a cc of the drug into the syringe and plunged it into his now-exposed shoulder.

We waited and watched. One go round and we could see that John wasn’t responding. No movement, no breathing, no less grey.

There were sirens in the distant background. Linda said, “it’s been 3 minutes now, I think you should give him another shot.

I had the next needle deep beneath his skin when, oblivious to anything more than 12 inches away, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The EMT’s had arrived.

…………….

John… Santa… still ashen-grey, was whisked away with sirens blaring.

The crowd dispersed quietly as Linda and I gathered the detritus left on the sidewalk, the  plastic containers and latex gloves, the bits of paper and empty naloxone vials.

The last thing I picked up was John’s weathered Santa hat.

I carefully folded it and placed it into my apron pocket. I’d give it back to John after he recovered, next time I saw him riding his bike or at the soup kitchen window.

Later that evening, I received a phone call from Linda.

Quietly, haltingly, she said that John hadn’t made it. Street Santa was gone.

I hung up the phone and reflected. Our streets are replete with those who appear normal – well-adjusted – on the surface. And yet World War III has been waging all along in the background.

I guess I’ll track down John’s brother and return his Santa hat now.

Santa hat

 

 

 

 

The Sweetness of a Solstice Symphony

Leave a comment

paris-snow
.
Paris with the snow falling. Paris with the big charcoal braziers outside the cafes, glowing red. At the cafe tables, men huddled, their coat collars turned up, while they finger glasses of grog Americain and the newsboys shout the evening papers.
     The buses rumble like green juggernauts through the snow that sifts down in the dusk. White house wall rise through the dusky snow. Snow is never more beautiful than in the city. It is wonderful in Paris to stand on a bridge across the Seine looking up through the softly curtaining snow past the grey bulk of the Louvre, up the river spanned by many bridges and bordered by the grey houses of old Paris to where Notre Dame squats in the dusk.
     It is very beautiful in Paris and very lonely at Christmas time.”
Ernest Hemingway

………………………………..

Christmas. The Beauty and the Beast.

Merry Christmas. I mean that.

I’m a Godless atheist. But…

I look forward to Christmastime… perhaps more for the coming of Winter Solstice than the coming of a Jesus child.

Maybe that’s not true.

I loved Christmas as a kid when I awoke and dashed out to the living room and found Santa presents like electric car-racer sets and Slinky’s and ukuleles, and Mom sat, wearily exhausted on the couch from all the Christmas preparations but smiling through half-closed eyes, enjoying the excited sounds of her family gathered ’round a Scotch Pine tree in the living room.

I watch old 8 mm. home movies now and twinkle inside at the filmy dream of my family that shared warm cheer 50 years ago.

I love Christmas for the food. The ribbon salad and warm sage-scented stuffing. Chocolate and shortbread everywhere, gooey sweet rum caramel-sauce-laden Christmas pudding.

I love Christmas for the all-is-calm solemnity of a belief system that involves majestic pageantry and the echoing sounds of beautiful harmonious carol singing inside a high-arched church or cathedral.

I love Christmas for the little lights strung everywhere and the soothing warmth of a crackling fire.

I love Christmas because once, soldiers set down their killing weapons and stopped fighting; cold, worn-out men from both sides ventured into No Man’s land on Christmas Day to mingle, play football, and exchange food and souvenirs.

I love Christmas for the sappy movies and shows- Bing and Rosemary in White Christmas, Jimmy and Donna in It’s A Wonderful Life, Charlie and Lucy in Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch and Cindy Lou Who.

bing-and-rosemary

I love Christmas for the positive feelings shared by the people I encounter in my life passages. “Merry Christmas“, we call out to anyone and everyone. It’s about the togetherness of people; Christmas makes people ruminate about love and doing nice things for others. A mild Chinook Yule-breeze changes peoples’ attitudes at Christmas.

Like a laboratory centrifuge (forgive me, old lab tech talk!), Christmas concentrates the emotions, the glad and the sad.

Joyous tears. Melancholy tears.

Christmas brings me a soul-seeping inner sadness and pain because I know others, who either by choice or by chance, have no connection to the spirit of togetherness on Christmas. Family either doesn’t exist or is estranged. I want everyone to feel good on Christmas Day and I can’t make it happen. I’m impotent in a way that no Viagra can resurrect.

My soup kitchen experiences have brought me into contact with dozens who have no place and no one to bring them warmth. Many – the dejected and lonely, even many of the volunteers – gather for lunch at the soup kitchen on Christmas day so they feel a connectedness to something and someone. Family.

I struggle with the bittersweetness of it all.

We invest so much of our lives in one day… one day that reminds us of the best and the worst in our lives.

skating

But, bear with my warped mind here… maybe a way – one strange way- to celebrate Christmas is to get naked like old-style pagans and pay tribute to the wonder of our own birth… how we began our lives as a billion to one long-shot chance on a blind date between an egg and a sperm (despite definitely knowing that OUR Mom and Dad never did that dirty horizontal dance!).

A 9-month prenatal courtship followed by that violent jettison from a wet and warm den down a slippery hallway. Surrounded by tired, sore and smiling parents. Our first words were cries, our first meal the rich milk of our mother. Swaddling clothes but no manger. Definitely no sheep or oxen.

A small elf [us] was unleashed on the world.

A new birth… the poetry and wonder of a life unwritten. It’s a Bach cantata, a Beethoven Moonlight Sonata written one harmonious note, one bar at a time.

Our own personal Christmas story… a rebirth, a new page turned in the next chapter, the next few bars in our grand symphony.

Christmas and Solstice are a Dickensian-like recall of spirits from our past, misty connections and ephemeral moments that slipped past but live on and breathe in our interior world.

May your days be merry and bright….

………………………………..

Anyone who believes that men are the equal of women has never seen a man trying to wrap a Christmas present.”

santa resting.jpg

I’m Dreaming of a … Christmas Movie …

2 Comments

White-Christmas-1954-15
Sisters …
Sisters …
There were never such devoted sisters
Never had to have a chaperone “No, sir”
I’m there to keep my eye on her …

.

I’m a total sucker for chick flicks. 

So I should be one gloriously happy dude at this time of year.

Most Christmas movies tend to fall into the chick flick category, right?

Have you noticed that the Christmas movie racket has gone into overdrive apeshit production?

Old-time comedienne Lucille Ball, in her classic chocolate assembly line sketch wouldn’t be able to keep up with the output of Christmas moviemaking these days … it just might be a syndicate run by Harlequin. The plethora of made-for-TV-Christmas movies has snowballed out of control.

Even my tender girly-boy heart finds most of the Christmas movie scenarios just too cheesy, syrupy, sickly sweet.

Of course I don’t hate all Christmas movies. As a matter of fact I love a lot of them.

Formulas are everything in making a Christmas movie … heart strings must be tugged in just the right way.

A great Christmas movie must have a solid character(s), conflict that moves the story along, and deepset emotions that help us identify with the characters.

What we want is a big EMOTIONAL drive, heartfelt connection to the characters, and a sweet dollop of breath-releasing catharsis at the finish line.

elf

And truly, to have a memorable Christmas flick, it must contain at least one of the following scenarios (I’ve given examples with each scenario):

  1. Workaholic Character – A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE WALTON’S – The Homecoming
  2. Someone Wants To Shut Something Down – IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS
  3. Somebody Dead Or Is Dying – PRANCER
  4. Someone Straight Up Is Santa Claus – THE SANTA CLAUSE, MIRACLE ON 34th STREET
  5. Someone Is or Becomes Unemployed – NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION, ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS
  6. Someone Has To Repeat Christmas – A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL
  7. Someone MUST Find Love Via Christmas – ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, WHITE CHRISTMAS, JUST FRIENDS
  8. Car Accident – ONE MAGIC CHRISTMAS
  9. A Wacky Mixup – ELF, HOME ALONE
  10. And no matter what, make sure it’s snowing during the climactic scene, which takes place on Christmas Eve.

Sure, I can watch Christmas movies to have my heart twisted until tears spring from my eyes, but really I watch them for the simple pleasure of smiling at the end – of going on a journey with a glorious sunset trailing off into the sea.

So, less than two weeks out, here’s a list of my holiday favourites, followed by a couple of films often mentioned on TOP 10 lists that had a lot of potential but left me disappointed:

Anne of Green Gables (1985) – not a Christmas movie at all, but I first saw it with my little kids years ago at Christmastime, and so it leaves me with a warm Christmas-y feeling. A wonderful iconic Canadian story highlighted by an amazingly precocious Megan Follows as Anne. The beating heart of the story is the theme music by Hagood Hardy that brings a welling of tears to my eyes in its first few bars every time.
anne-of-green-gables
.

One Magic Christmas (1985) – a quirky Christmas film warmed by charming performances by Mary Steenburgen and Harry Dean Stanton as Gideon, the guardian angel. The film dives into darker, more realistic themes than you get in most Christmas movies, strange for a Disney flick. The ultimate message of the film is heartening and poignant – even for those who may have long-since stopped believing in Santa and magic.

White Christmas (1954) – the standard by which Christmas movies really should be made. It’s fluffy as all hell but who cares. Snow, romance, classic songs sung by classic voices (Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney), dancing and a just-syrupy-enough finish.

Elf (2003) – goofy and innovative with a Will Ferrell ELF character that is slapstick but not over-the-top crazy. I wish they had worked out a better “Santa” ending in Central Park, but there’s enough charm and humour to make it a keeper.

Prancer (1989) – a somewhat dark film that somehow pulls it off because of a real reindeer and a farm girl that nurses the wounded animal  she believes is Santa’s PRANCER, hoping to bring it back to health in time for Christmas. Filled with earnestness and heartache and hope. If your Christmas is too much take and not enough give, I prescribe hot chocolate, some hot popcorn, and a viewing of Prancer.

National Lampoon’€™s Christmas Vacation (1989) – a zany piece that makes me want to laugh in spite of myself. Poor Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), just can’t get anything right – something I often identify with –  and does such ridiculous things that we all identify from our own worst moments that we won’t even admit to ourselves.
.

Home Alone (1990) – an unbelievable storyline of an 8 year-old accidentally left behind from a family trip to Europe. It carries us smiling along with its wit and humour, some touching moments with a lonely neighbour and a madcap finale that could only happen in a movie. Great fun.

It’€™s a Wonderful Life (1946) – a cranky and charming Jimmy Stewart classic with an oddball angel Clarence that takes Stewart on a trip into a world where he was never born. Stewart gives a wonderful performance of a difficult character. A character all of us are familiar with … a person looking to find himself/herself and the struggle for finding what it is in life you really want to do. George Bailey teaches us the most important lesson of all, that life, although a long and challenging road, truly is wonderful…

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle and Natalie Wood as a little girl who’s been told by her cynical mother that Santa doesn’t exist steal this film. I like this version a lot more than the updated attempt starring Richard Attenborough as Santa (1994).
.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) – well, I’m a sucker for the Muppets so my bias probably shows here. But, the film possesses heart, whimsy, and an infectious joy. Michael Caine gives a masterful performance as Ebenezer Scrooge and who just can’t love Miss Piggy as Mrs. Crachit?

muppet xmas

The Santa Clause (1994) – Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, who replaces Santa after he falls off the roof. The plot is original, the script is fun, and the pace is surprisingly even. It’s not a classic like Scrooge(1951), or Home Alone or It’s a Wonderful Life, just a pleasant family Christmas film. The characters are likable, even though the parents are a bit clichéd and the film a tad too overly sentimental in places. Just a fun movie to eat popcorn to.

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) – the Grinch is a character Dr. Seuss could only have written for the malleable face of Jim Carrey. A great cartoon short adapted into a full-length movie with flowing rivers of colour and costumes and of course, the wonderful gargantuously green Mr. Grinch himself. What child could resist such a beautifully evil beast?
 …………..

Disappointments:

The Polar Express (2004) – CREEPY!! This is supposed to be serious animation but it just gives me the willies. I don’t like horror movies and this qualifies as one that gives me bad dreams.

A Christmas Story (1983) – little Ralphie and his dad are both characters who push my irritation button from the get-go for no particular reason. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’d like to take that Red Ryder BB gun and aim it directly at Ralphie and his obnoxious dad.

………………..

It’s nostalgic to watch an old friend – a movie we love –  each year as a tradition. It’s Nanaimo bar or Mom’s fruitcake without the scale creep.

Movies, like songs, take us back to years and events in our own lives that play inside our heads, inside our dreams.

And what is Christmas all about if it isn’t about dreams.

charlie brown xmas

An Okanagan Christmas Story

6 Comments

Summerland lights

It was an unusual year in that there was snow on the ground.

Not just a skiff of the white, but enough fluffy ivory to strap on the cross-country skis and glide quietly between the rows of trees in the apple orchard. Just a muffled swoosh swoosh swoosh and the occasional chirp of a tiny pine siskin perched in the tall evergreens at the edge of the field.

The sky was a dull-grey and the unseasonally chill air froze my eyelashes with a frosty glaze. No more than 15 minutes, I figured. A good hard ski to get the blood flow running and then back into the warmth in front of the woodstove, ablaze with the fragrant chunks of fir I’d cut last spring.

The morning’s light had surfaced only an hour earlier as the moments grew close to the winter solstice.

I got dressed in my day clothes after the combination of muscle heat and fire warmth had penetrated sufficiently. Then popping on my Sorel boots at the back door, I headed out into the cold once again.

My retirement “job” this morning was to spend a few hours at One-to-One reading with some grade schoolers at Trout Creek Elementary – kids who were struggling with their reading ability and could benefit from some one-on-one coaching.

I slipped through the fence gate into the school’s playground. It was fun to see and encounter the little tykes as they chatted excitedly about their families and friends as if we were old buddies. The experience was all the more heartwarming because in the back halls of my mind were the memories of the days I spent here on the same playground and classrooms in my childhood.

A snowy day like this in the Okanagan Valley was confirmation that Christmas day and Santa’s arrival would come about with certainty.

The morning passed. I saw four youngsters in half hour segments.

We sat next to each other in short chairs at a small shiny amber veneer-top table in the small library across from the computer room next to the school’s front entry door.

First, little Tyler, a 7 year-old who wanted to be a drummer-musician like his uncle Teddy and knew with robust confidence the life histories of each of the Beatles, as well as their song catalogue. When he was able to refrain from wiggling, his reading skills were not too bad – clearly he could read the words – although when asked a question about the story, understanding the words read was a totally different matter.

Next up to practice her reading was 9 year-old Melissa, a dark-haired princess with baby-blue-painted fingernails  – she might have been confused for a little Ariana Grande in a dimmed room. Melissa was very socially aware and would eye each student entering the library as if she were a talent scout seeking America’s Next Great Model. “Did you see the belt on that Grade 5 girl’s skirt, it’s the wrong colour. I’d choose something red for her.

Reading wasn’t a problem for little adult Melissa, she could likely pick up and understand words beyond my comprehension if she was able to focus on the page rather than on the social scene passing by.

Next. Joseph. Not Joe. Joseph. Taking his biblical name to heart, this Grade 1 youngster was timid but made it clear that the books he wanted to read were stories from the Bible. Public schools in this province don’t carry a selection of biblical material, so I convinced him that story books filled with characters of strong moral values, like Mortimer Moose, could be seen through a context of the Bible. He bought into this and we were on our way. Amen.

Finally, a skinny log of a kid with tousled blond hair and red red cheeks post snowy-recess, stood, looking in through the library door. “Are you Peter?“, I asked.

He nodded shyly and moved forward a step and stopped. “Come in and have a chair, Peter. I’m Mr. Green. You’re my last reading buddy before Christmas break.”

Peter nudged forward and plunked himself on the seat, arms flat at his sides. He looked down at the table and said nothing. No smile. No movement.

Never having read with Peter before, I glanced silently through the brief notes left in a manila folder given to me by his teacher Mrs. Jermyn.

Hmmmm. “Peter Briskman. 8 years-old. Grade 3. Moved to Summerland one year ago with his father, Jacob Briskman. Mother Carla, died from cancer 2 years ago in Calgary. Quiet boy – advanced for age in most academic areas.” Such a sad story, I thought to myself.

Thinking I’d break the ice first before we settled into reading, I asked, “I like snow days like today. Is one of the snowmen I saw in the playground yours?

Keeping his face pointed downwards, he spoke reluctantly in a quiet voice.

I used to build snowmen when I was little and lived in Calgary. But not anymore. Now I make Mountain Goats.

– Really? Mountain goats? That’s kind of unusual. Why mountain goats and not snowmen? Is there a Disney movie about mountain goats that I missed?

No. Mountain goats live on steep hillsides where it’s dangerous and they eat the little bits of grass that grow between the stones. It’s very hard for them to live, but they find a way, even if it’s -50 outside. And, even if they’re injured they protect their babies against cougars and eagles. Have you seen one before?

I had seen the white shaggy goats many times, clambering along the rocky screed hillsides overlooking Okanagan Lake north of Summerland. Often, I would see groups of 3, sometimes 5 or 6 way up high in the distance of the steep rises above the highway. But I didn’t want to stop Peter from talking since we were just establishing some rapport so I said, “No, never.

– I can show you one I made on the back field today. I started it before the bell rang at the beginning of classes and then finished it at recess. Would you like to see it? We don’t have to go outside, I can show it to you through the window.

– Sure.

Peter ran ahead, leading me past a few scattered little tables to the window in the corner of the library.

mountain_goat_

 

He stopped and pointed towards the area in front of the tetherball court in the centre of the playground. There was a lot of white out there; it took a moment for my eyes to adjust and take note of the large snow animal in the yard. It was an amazing likeness of the real thing. Even the sharp tapered white horns appeared genuine.

How had one little boy created such a sculpture? Had his Dad helped him build it before school began for the day? It was striking that it stood almost as big as the real animal; then, something unusual caught my eye.

– You’ve done an incredible job there Peter, but did you see that one of the goat’s legs is missing? Do you think maybe the snow wasn’t packed tightly and it crumbled?

The mountain goat had only 3 legs, a gap existed where the front right leg should be.

– Nope, that looks just like the one I see at home. I see it when I wake up and look out my bedroom window in the morning. It stands there and nudges its nose on my window. It gets the glass all steamy and gooey. Then it wont leave until I go and make it a cup of green tea and set it on the ledge outside the window. After it licks the tea all up, it turns and runs off into the trees behind our house.

I was about to respond when a man’s voice called out from behind.

– Peter? I’m sorry to interrupt, I’m Peter’s Dad, Jacob… I need to steal Peter away from you. I told Mrs. Jermyn I’d be here at a quarter to eleven to take him for his therapy session. I’m sorry if my timing is bad.

Peter turned and ran up to his father, “Hey Dad. Just gotta grab my backpack and coat and I’ll be set. See you in the new year Mr. Green.” 

I reached forward to shake Peter’s father’s hand.

Hi Mr. Briskman, I’m Mr. Green. Peter and I were going to do a reading one-to-one session but we never actually got started. It’s funny, but we got caught up talking about the snow creation he made outside. He’s an amazing little artist, such incredible talent for a youngster.

– Thank you. Yeah, Peter seems to have acquired some artistic skills from his mother, not me. I can’t draw a stick man that’s recognizable. But his mother, she could draw or make anything. She would sit around for hours – actually, she died a couple of years ago – but before she became sick, she’d be in her back art room drinking green tea, making charcoal sketches and working with clay, making sculptures of animals. Her animals looked so true-to-life that when people visited and saw her deer and mountain goat sculptures in the yard, they thought the beasts were real. We laughed so many times when visitors came to our door and mentioned the creatures standing in our yard. I guess Peter picked up her creative gene.

Mr. Briskman turned and began moving toward the library door. It was a moment of confusion for me listening to his words and the similarities with Peter’s story. I mulled the ideas about in my mind, trying to discern what was real and what was imagined; before he left the room, I asked,

 – I’m so sorry about your wife, Mr. Briskman. It must be very difficult for you and Peter coping with her loss. What was the cause of your wife’s death?

He paused momentarily at the door, and with a haunted look of longing for days gone by and a love that had left far too early, he replied,

She had an aggressive osteosarcoma in her right leg.

His eyes grew dewy and I could see a slight quiver at the corner of his mouth. He hesitated a few seconds before continuing.

– They eventually amputated her leg when the chemo couldn’t stop the tumour from growing. It was just too late to save her.

Shaking his head, he snapped back to the moment, regaining his composure.

– I’ve got to run now. Peter needs to get to his counselling appointment. He’s had a really hard time finding ways to deal with his Mom’s death. 

He paused.

– Mr. Green? Thanks for helping Peter … and … Have a Merry Christmas.

We shook hands once more; Mr. Briskman disappeared and I too paused in thought.

Then as I began to gather my things to leave, I turned to look out the window once more at the noble snow sculpture standing proud in the schoolyard and wondered if young Peter had somehow, already, in his own way, begun to work through the loss of a mother’s love and nurturing.

snowman

Boney M Must Die …

4 Comments

Boney M

I’m such a fascist.

I know it’s the season of goodwill and peace but all I want to do is smash and burn Boney M Christmas music CD’s.

Christmas. The splendour and fears, the joys and heartbreak mix together like a multi-hued fruit cake … loved to the heavens by some, loathed to the devil’s armchair by others. Strong, strong gut-felt sensations from heart to head to toe.

Smells of pine or fir needles waft softly through the warm rooms of our hearts and homes, scents of gingerbread and vanilla and shortbread, voices of grandparents, Mommies and Daddies, the thp thp thp of excited pyjama-clad feet over wooden floors.

Laughter at turkey-festooned tables, where long simmering bitternesses are subsumed by best behaviours… the notion that no ill words will be laid on the Christmas table; not this hour, not this day, at least.

Modern Family Christmas

And in the background of all this joy and tension lies music. Seasonal tunes emanating from vinyl record and CD players, cellphones, MP3 players, songs springing from the living room’s polished piano keys or the silken strings of Aunt June’s guitar.

I love so many carols and hymns played over the Christmas season, don’t you? And if a chanteuse sings one song I don’t enjoy so much, there’s usually another they perform that lifts me skywards to nirvana.

Holly_Wreath

Years ago I lived for a time in Canada’s arctic town of Yellowknife.

As Christmas approached, I’d sit crammed with a bunch of other revellers in the cheek-numbing open-air box of a friend’s pickup truck and drive through the dark at -40C under the warm, green-tinged swirl of northern lights to co-workers’ homes for carol singing and rum drinking. Staid old Dr. Igoe was always the most generous with the spirit bottle, so we unfailingly sang our best festive tunes in the warmth of his living room.

Our Arctic choir didn’t have one, but just about every artist in the recording universe has a Christmas album or two. I can enjoy a carol, a hymn from just about anyone … exceptBONEY M.

The gritty, irritating sand of the synthetic Boney M Jamaican/Disco sounds wear at me like fingernails screeching down the blackboard.  Every verse, every chorus, every song.

I want to scream and run over sole-searing hot coals until there’s more pain in my feet than in my ears.

When I tell my family and friends of my Anti-Boney slant, they look at me like I have two heads, as if there’s something terribly wrong with me, a sickness that needs a cure.

Maybe I have an aural allergy, is this possible?

But enough. I won’t spend my Christmas season in a funk because of one musical group who, for me, massacres the sounds I love so dear.

Each of us has a selection of festive melodies that find a way into our hearts, giving rise to joy, melancholy, desire, cheer, sorrow. Our range of human emotions is brought rolling to the surface in a huge wave when the annual litany of music hits the tidal sands of Christmas.

Christmas FaMILY AT PIANO

Today, I have a question or challenge to make you exercise your mind and hold the Alzheimer demons at bay. Are you ready?

If I were to send you away Tom-Hanks-Castaway-style for the next month and your iPod or iPhone or Galaxy S would hold ONLY 3 Christmas (substitute SEASONAL if you prefer) songs/ carols/hymns … what would your choices be?

To jog your thinking, I’ve gone to the wintry streets and canvassed a few folks nearby and received a few suggestions like:

Also, just as an FYI, a recent Nielsen Company survey of most popular Christmas song downloads are as follows:

All I Want For Christmas Is You (Mariah Carey)

The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) (Alvin and the Chipmunks)

Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Christmas Canon  (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

Rockin Around the Christmas tree (Brenda Lee)

The Chanukah Song (Adam Sandler)

Where Are You Christmas (Faith Hill)

Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano)

Jingle Bell Rock (Bobby Helms)

White Christmas (Bing Crosby)

My own musical tastes at this time of year gravitate towards the melancholy end of the spectrum, maybe because I like to plumb the depths of my emotional heart. So, restricted to just 3 pieces, I would go with:

  • Holly_WreathTom Jackson (Huron Carol) … the wonderful Canadian Christmas carol (likely written in 1642 by Jean de Brebeuf, a Jesuit missionary at Sainte-Marie among the Hurons) by deep-voiced Tom Jackson. The tremelo of his “In excelsis gloria” sends shivers down my spine.
  • Holly_WreathJohnny Mathis (The Christmas Song) … a favourite from my childhood that was always heard on the record player while we decorated the tree.

Released in 1958 by Columbia Records, Percy Faith provided the album’s musical direction. The Christmas album containing this song by Mathis peaked at #3 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart in 1959.

  • Holly_WreathVince Guaraldi (Christmas Time Is Here)… another childhood favourite… the swish swish swish of the brushes on the snare drum just makes me feel the snowflakes falling.

This song was written for the 1965 Christmas cartoon Merry Christmas Charlie Brown. In the weeks preceding the premiere, TV producer Lee Mendelson encountered trouble finding a lyricist for Guaraldi’s instrumental intro, and penned Christmas Time is Here in “about 15 minutes” on the backside of an envelope.

The recording sessions of the childrens’ choir were conducted in late autumn 1965, and were cut in three separate sessions over two weeks. They often ran late into the night, resulting in angry parents, some who forbid their children from returning – therefore, numerous new children were present at each session.

The children were directed by Barry Mineah, who demanded perfection from the choir. Mendelson and Guaraldi disagreed, desiring the “kids to sound like kids”. Each child was paid five dollars for their participation. In addition, the children recorded dialogue for the special’s final scene, in which the crowd of kids shout “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”.

                    charlie-brown

So, as you sit sipping an egg nog latte snuggled under a warm blanket, sugar plum fairies dancing in your head, snowflakes sowing themselves gently on your window frames, take a moment to ponder over your three finalists.

If you’re brave you can share them with me and I won’t laugh … or decry you … even if … a Boney M tune is among your selections. How’s that for Christmas Spirit? HOHOHO…


 

 

Five People I’d Like to Have for Christmas Dinner 2012

2 Comments

turkey-protest

HURRY…kill the turkey!

The year end is approaching quickly.  And this means that many of us spend the long, dark wintry days turning inwards (especially us Introverts!), becoming introspective, seeking meaning and reason in life. Do you think there’s more to it all than Facebook?

This search may be especially true for those of us who don’t put our trust in a higher power or being. Not believing in a deity and/or afterlife compresses the time allotted for finding significance to our existence. After all, to us heathens, existence and eternity usually means something like 40 up to about 90 years, really not a whole lot of time after you make your bed, eat breakfast, brush your teeth, and sleep. Turn off the TV I tell myself, time is running out. Time management for the atheist is the #1 priority right after food and sex!

So I say…

Damn you Christians with your eternal time in heaven with all of your loved ones and no worries about global warming.”

Damn you Muslims and your reward of 72 (some say only 40) virgins.”

Damn you Buddhists and your Nirvana and reincarnation.”

I won’t damn YOU Jews since you’re a bit confused on the whole afterlife side of things already, so why should I make you suffer more consternation with my words.”

Christmas 2012 will be unusual in my world as this will be the first time in 27 years that we’ve not had all or most of our 3 kids at home. They’ve provided the meaning to the season for so long, that I’ve forgotten that there were other reasons, you know… all of that birth of Christ child stuff and Wise Men and Shepherds and HOHOHO and pretty girls…oops sorry, I’ve slipped off on a Charlie Brown tangent. Blockhead!

Since the Christmas dinner table will be extra light on offspring this year, I’ve decided to enjoy a very special Christmas meal serving up 6 courses of my most appealing and satisfying guests from now and days gone by.

centennial-james-a-michener         Trinity by Leon Uris

Course 1 – Appetizers

With Authors James Michener and Leon Uris…a dinner that starts with appetizers should be filled with creative ideas and thought to whet the appetite. These guys aren’t literary heavyweights. But they have written a huge volume of amazingly researched, diverse, and well-written historical fiction covering all parts of the world. I devoured their books in earlier years. And today I’d love to bite into some of their ideas on the writing process and organization. I’m astonished by those who can be so determined to focus and deliver a huge body of work in one lifetime. Sure they’re old white guys, but inspiration comes in all colours, ages, and genders. I also loved radically individualistic Ayn Rand’s ideas in my younger days, but just can’t bring myself around to her level of narcissism at this point in my life. Fortunately, just looking in my bathroom’s mirror and seeing the “funhouse” image it reflects back is enough to keep me grounded at this point in life!


Course 2 – Soup

Mom photo

With My Mom...Warm and inviting and full of goodness, this soup course will be my visit with a Ghost of Christmas Past. It will be wonderful to have my Mom at my table this year. It’s been 39 years since she died and I was last able to sit at her table and share in the Christmas feast. She made the BEST roast potatoes. Like any good, doting son, I’d want to tell her how much I love her and miss her after all of these years. As the first person I encountered in life who showed me unconditional love, I would want to tell her about my successes and mistakes, knowing that she would listen, but not judge. And I’d want to tell her that she gave me the grounding and support I needed to go out and make a pretty damn good life, despite all of my fears and worries (Mom was a HUGE worrier herself). And I’d want to apologize to her for not knowing the basics of CPR when she needed it back in 1973.

Course 3 – Salad

Warren-Buffett-ninja

Buffett is my favourite ninja…

With Legendary Investor Warren Buffett…what would a Christmas buffet be without a Buffett? Well, not overly filling, but chock full of nutritious thoughts and concepts. Buffett is known as the Oracle of Omaha, and probably the best investor of this generation. He’s also such a folksy kind of guy. It should be fun to have him at the table, telling little stories about life and making great stock investments. It’s not very often that you meet people who are highly intelligent and independent-thinking who can also relate to people in a relaxed and personal way. Making billions of dollars, almost all of which will go to charity when he dies, while playing a silly NINJA makes him my kind of guy.   Buffett can take a story about a one-armed baseball player and an Iowa chicken and make a heartfelt parable of it that relates directly to the reality and oftentimes insanity of the investment world.

Course 4 – Main Entree

obama_clinton

With Former U.S. President Bill Clinton…Clinton needs to be the main course because, despite his personal foibles (I’m buying you pants without a zipper for Christmas, Bill!), he’s one of the most substantial minds in the whole wide political world. Clinton, like Obama, is one of the seemingly few rational and caring political-type Americans out there today. Clinton can spontaneously dissect just about any complex world issue and bring to it a common sense approach and potential solution. There are many minds out there to admire, but Bill Clinton’s is at the top of my list. One discussion with Bill and I’ll be feeling overfull this Christmas.

Course 5 – Dessert

With Actress Reese Witherspoon…dessert should be a light, fluffy, and sugary sweet confection. The perfect dessert, like fine wine, also has an underlying layer of complexity and depth. This is why I’ve invited actress Reese Witherspoon to this occasion rather than my gut-instinctive initial choice, Pamela Anderson. The Queen of Jiggle, Anderson is just too much fluffy cotton candy that leaves me feeling sickly nauseous after consuming. The first lick is sensually encouraging, but a few bites later you can only feel regret. I like Witherspoon even though she isn’t my favourite actress… she is sweet and light, but hidden behind her fluff-laden translucent facade is a woman of some core substance. She has a nice finish on the palate that leaves me satisfied and wanting more.

pamela anderson

Jello served in two cups…

Perhaps you'd like "FUDGE"?....

.

Course 6 – Cheese and Wine

With Singers/Songwriters Carole King and James Taylor…it takes two to finish this delectable Christmas dinner because they’re inescapably intertwined for me. After a large repast with so much to digest, some harmony is needed in this course for settling purposes. Other beautifully harmonious cheese and wine pairings could be Simon and Garfunkle, Karen and Richard Carpenter, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, Lennon and McCartney, Milli Vanilli (just kidding there!). But ultimately, what better finish could there be to a meal filled with symbolism and meaning shared with friends and relatives than with a blending of voices in “You’ve Got A Friend”? Whenever I’ve been “down and troubled”, a touch of musical melancholy from either of these two feels like rays of warm sunshine on the first sunny April day.

TaylorKingJT Carole King Now
.
Finally, the anxiously anticipated Christmas dinner is done, the turkey has been deboned and made ready for the next week’s soup and sandwiches. There’s an awareness of satisfaction in knowing that we’ve made it through another year, however tumultuous or sensational.  A year filled with events that made us jubilant, made us cry, made us impatient, made us content, made us angry, made us appreciate.
.
So. Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Happy Kwanza, Splendid Solstice…whatever you choose to pay tribute to, I celebrate with you and I can only hope that your gala feast with whomever you’d like to share it, is SPECTACULAR!

Dear Santa…or Sinterklaas…or Pere Noël…or Babbo Natale…

2 Comments

Virgina Santa letter

.

How are you and Mrs. Claus? Are you and the elves ready for another Christmas? This must be Christmas 551 coming up for you … am I close?

.

This past weekend I pretended I was you…

I hope you don’t mind.

DSCN3456

I HOHOHope my belly laughs were as good as yours Santa…

I pulled on your special red suit and affixed a fluffy white beard and a big pretend tummy. I have to admit I felt a bit nervous and pressured going into the gig. “Now what are all of the reindeers’ names again? Blitzen and Tony Danza and Margaret the Vixen…” played over and over again in my head.

A swarm of cute little poppets rushed up to me and gazed at me with hope and adoration and expectation in their eyes. Children have pretty high expectations around you Santa and there is a monstrous sense of responsibility in representing you. Who wants to screw up the magic that is Santa Claus in childrens’ eyes? I’d hate to mess up and discover myself on your — or maybe worse, a bunch of children’s — naughty list.

You have one of the glory jobs of this entire world. It’s tough and the expectations are North-Pole high, but everyone, especially little tykes, love you. You can make it onto anyone’s party invitation list. Why, politicians, movie actors, rock stars, and famous writers have a lot of admirers. Tons of people love George Clooney, millions admired Mother Teresa, Oprah Winfrey is a huge icon, and outside of the USA just about everyone loves Barack Obama (Sorry to you Prime Minister Harper!). But by the same token, they ALL have their detractors and boo-bears.

Not YOU Santa!

There’s a continuous stream of static concerning the over-the-top commercialism and crassness of Christmas, yet again and again you stay above the fray and are left unscathed by any critics that hunt the scent of controversial blood in the frigid, winter air.

And unlike religious prophets and apostles, no one ever suggests that you are probably a woman, or Jewish, or black-skinned, or a socialist. You don’t have a crew of spin artists out there smoothing out the bumps and scrapes that are directed your way, and still you get great PR year-in year-out.

How do you do it?

Well, after walking in your boots (and beard) for an hour or two, I think I have some ideas as to why you consistently top the global popularity charts. I hope you don’t mind me sharing the reasons why you make it onto everyone’s “NICE” list:

  • You don’t over-expose yourself…and I don’t mean that in the dark movie-theatre creepy kind of way. You show up once a year for a couple of weeks, and then we don’t see or hear about you for another 11 months or so. We don’t see you in TV commercials, movies, magazine ads, and tabloids every week or two. I’m pretty certain I’ve seen your enormous untanned tummy on some Caribbean beaches in post-Christmas relaxation though…the “all-inclusive” unlimited beer you quaff keeps you rotund for your job, I’m sure!
  • You are EVERYMAN. You don’t take political or religious views that would polarize you to one side or another. Gay, straight…you don’t care. And even though you come on the day that represents Christianity’s holiest day, you stay separate and apart from the religious side of things. I never see you popping up in Nativity stable scenes along with the lambs and wise men with a HoHoHo, or lighting the Hanukkah menorah. You don’t broadcast a message to the world like the Queen or the Pope on Christmas Day…just a simple “Merry Christmas to All, and to all a Good Night” as you fly past our rooftops is your classic annual message. It works for you!
  • You are dignified and mysterious, but fun-loving (HO HO HO!) and gentle. I do have to say you have a bit of a potential image concern on the “Naughty and Nice List” side of things. But kids and parents seem to forgive you for this as you never REALLY ever put anyone onto the naughty side of the ledger. Please be careful here Santa, this could tarnish your image if you were seen to be too judgmental.
  • Unlike almost every group that is run or headed up by men that interact with children, you’ve NEVER EVER been suggested as a touchy-feely pedophilic monster. You’ve always been a gentleman and this gives us all hope in a world filled with too many tragic events. I admit that when I played you this weekend, I was pretty careful not to touch the wee ones TOO much, or insist that they sit on my lap. Both hands on view all of the time makes a safe Santa (and kids)!

Cover of "Miracle on 34th Street (Special...

  • You are the quintessential bearer of HOPE. Anything and everything are possible when we think about or talk to you Santa. You have powers that bring people of all stripes together. In Miracle on 34th Street, when Natalie Wood wants her Mommy to marry and make John Payne her Daddy and buy a house where they can live happily ever after, you set up the conditions that make the dream possible. We all want to believe that you are capable of making our wishes come true. And every year, just as night follows day, our hopes rest in our belief in, if not the true person that is Santa, at least in the belief that a magical spirit exists within us all to make our dreams reality.

Until this past Saturday, I don’t think I ever knew how really special and important you are Santa. After wearing your robes for just an hour or two, I now realize that a germ or two of Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch have lived inside me. It may take more than one attempt at living inside your world to kick Scrooge to the curb, but I feel like I’ve awakened anew on Christmas morning after being visited upon by the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future. And I think I’ve breathed in the wondrous feeling the Grinch experienced:

Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch’s small heart grew THREE sizes that day.”

.

Have a wonderful Christmas Santa, but go easy on the cookies…we need you around for a long time to come.

Your faithful elf…

christmas-scene-santa