Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 12

Five Golden Rings!

Wait? How did we get to day 12 already? I thought we were on day 4 yesterday?

No, you’re not mistaken. We were on day 4 yesterday and now we’re done. Because the thing about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is that nobody wants to hear all 12 verses. Have you ever been to a concert or carol sing-along where they start doing “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Pretty much once you hit five golden rings, people start mumbling and asking around, “They’re not really going to do the whole 12 days are they? Seriously? Oh, Jesus.”

No, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is like 99 bottles of beer on the wall: once you hit 97 or 96 bottles, everyone returns to what they were doing before, usually drinking bottles 95 and 94. Even the inimitable Bob and Doug McKenzie had the good sense to cut things off at, like, verse 6 and who I am to try to outdo them and their five golden tukes? God, how I love that song. They never play it in these parts, even on the all-Christmas-music station. It must be because of the anti-Canadian bias that’s so palpable around here. Surely the DJ’s have sufficient air time to play it, considering that they play that Carpenter’s song, “Merry Christmas, Darling” on a loop with about ten other Christmas songs 24/7. That Carpenter’s song has a line in it that cracks me up every time I hear it: “The logs on the fire fill me with desire.” Maybe it’s just me and my dirty mind but singing about flaming phalluses with your brother….kind of weird. Karen Carpenter had a lot more issues than any of us ever realized.

But more to the point, the reason I must break off the Twelve Blogs of Christmas is because I need to stay off the naughty list by making amends with the Handicapped Newsmen’s League of Upstate New York, who did not take kindly to my characterization of them in a recent post. I also did not endear myself to the Italian-American Bakers Union, and I am being flamed like kids pajamas at the Consumer Reports lab for suggesting that Italian Christmas cookies are anything but fabulous. It’s a good thing I didn’t mention how much I hate panettone, which is always, always stale. I think they make it that way.

No, instead I’m choosing to concentrate on getting my New Year’s resolutions in order. So far my resolution list only includes one item: going metric. That’s right, I’m tired of waiting around for the good ole U S of A to get with it. I was told growing up that the reason we needed to learn the metric system was because by the time we were all adults, America would be using the metric system. Well, it never happened. Obviously. So starting in 2010 I am taking matters into my own hands and going metric. If you ask me what the temperature is, I’m going to give it to you in Celsius. If you ask me how far something is, I’m going to tell you the distance in kilometers, and if I refer to buying milk at the store, I’m going to translate it from gallons into liters. I’m going the whole nine yards – er, I mean, meters -- whatever that works out to be. In other words, I’m going to be an ass about it, which probably puts me right back where I started 2009.

Anyway, I hope to see you on the flip side of the holidays and I'll sign off now by wishing you the joyous light-filled warmth that only a Christmas tree on fire can bring. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 4

Italian Christmas Cookies of Doom

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-teens that I realized that Christmas cookies could actually taste good. My mom wasn’t much of a Christmas cookie maker, nor my grandmother, but my mother had this friend who loved to bake. We’ll call her “Mrs. Fields,” even though Mrs. Fields was first-generation Italian-American. All right, instead let’s call her Mrs. Fieldazzo just to make the pseudonym a little more culturally accurate.

It was accepted wisdom that Mrs. Fieldazzo was a good cook and baker, and every year Mrs. Fieldazzo would bring over this elaborate tray of Italian Christmas cookies she’d prepared. At the time, I didn’t know they were necessarily Italian Christmas cookies, they were just plain old Christmas cookies to me. So she delivered her cookies, and everyone seemed to ooh and ahh over them. They did look good. They really did. It’s just that they tasted like poop-covered poop with a chewy poop center. Every last one of them. The ones with icing and the ones with raisins and the brown ball things. God almighty. They were just terrible.

For years I assumed that Mrs. Fieldazzo just didn’t know her way around the kitchen at all, the poor addled thing, but over the years I tried several different versions of the same Christmas cookies that Mrs. Fieldazzo used to make, and I realized that it wasn’t her. Italian Christmas cookies, as a rule, are heinous. As far as I’m concerned the Italians have one decent dessert: tiramisu. Everything else? Pleh. Those pizelle cookies? Awful. The pine nut cookie things? Horrid. Those anise-flavored thingamabobs? I need to gargle with haggis to get the taste out of my mouth after eating one. How can a people who have created some of the most beautiful food in all the world – people who created Parmigiano-Reggiano, which, were I wealthy enough, I would buy four wheels of and put them on my car as tires -- get Christmas cookies so painfully wrong?

Not that the English are much better. I realize that the English practically invented Christmas with all its decking of the halls and sleigh riding and God Bless Us, Everyone, but the English as a people are responsible for some of the awfulest holiday desserts in human history. You know what mince meat looks like to me? Stewed flies. And hey, gingerbread ain’t much better taste-wise. There’s a reason they use it to build houses. I don’t want to eat a cookie that could also double as drywall, but maybe that’s just me. And lest we forget, I believe it was King George XIV who directed his chief cook to create the first fruitcake, only back then they didn’t have access to any good fruits so they used chopped kidneys instead. I think there’s a reason the English soak everything with booze. They’re probably hoping everyone will be too drunk to notice that there’s beef tallow in the Christmas pudding.

But let me get back to trashing Italian baked goods because it didn’t just end with my realization that Mrs. Fieldazzo’s Christmas cookies were bad. As an adult I have been to any number of wedding showers and baby showers and holiday fetes that feature those plates of assorted Italian cookies for dessert. Waiters put them down in front of you like they’ve just delivered the Baby Jesus himself to your table. I’m talking about the cookies with the chocolate cream filling; the ones dipped in chocolate and covered in colorful sprinkles; the ones with raspberry jelly centers. These cookies were made by professional bakers and you know what? They look great but they suck too. They do. They suck, they suck, and they suck some more.

You know what nationality makes good Christmas desserts? OK, yeah, the French. No surprise there. The French have wisely concentrated their national capacity not on doing stuff like stabilizing the Post-World War II economy, but on propping up the cheese makers union with trade subsidies and perfecting a holiday specialty known as croque en bouche, which is, if you are unaware -- and if you are, I am very sad for you -- a CARAMEL-COVERED TOWER OF CREAM FILLED PASTRIES. God, that is beautiful to think about, isn’t it? You have to love a people who take one good thing – profiteroles – and combine it with another good thing – custard – and then add yet another good thing – caramel – and then pile all of those things up and up and up into a dizzying display of redonkulous Christmas excess. Vive le France!

The French are also responsible for another favorite for your bouche: the bouche de noel, otherwise known at the Yule log cake, which is equal parts whimsy and tastiness. The only thing the French make to go along with the bouche de noel that I have no use for is meringue. I don’t understand meringue, especially in cookie form. The only time I want to eat a meringue cookie is when I’m in the mood for a cookie that doesn’t taste very good. And when that happens, well, then I just pop over to the Italian bakery and ask for three amaretti cookies to go with a paper bag on the side for when they come back up again.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 3

Heart-warming Stories of Holiday Tragedy: News at Eleven

As you’re rushing through your to-do list this holiday season another thing to remember is not to set your house on fire. Where I grew up, in Upstate New York -- or as we liked to call it back then, “Quebec” -- every year, like clockwork, each and every local television station ran a piece wherein the local fire department would demonstrate what happens when a kiln-dried tree is not given sufficient water, is sprayed with highly flammable, aerosolized fake snow, and then wrapped in a shorted-out string of lights. Poof, kids. Poof. “So tell your Daddy to remember to put that cigarette out before putting the star on the top of the tree."

I slept with a fire extinguisher under my pillow every Christmas Eve just hoping to make it ‘til morning without perishing in a blaze of pine-scented flames. I never got any rest. You just can’t sleep with a loaded canister of chemical foam under your pillow.

For years I thought this fiery Christmas tree story was just a “down market” kind of news story. By down market I mean, if you’re covering the local news in Upstate New York, you probably graduated last in your class from journalism correspondence school or you have a second head or you were recently released from a penitentiary and you're just trying to get back on your feet. We had local news anchors with speech impediments and two glass eyes. Upstate New York is just not the kind of place that attracts people at the top of their field, and like I routinely tell folks nowadays, but for the pedophiles we wouldn’t have had any Little League coaches at all when I was growing up. So don’t knock ‘em.

Now I live in an up-market television locale, and yet I still see these same news stories every year, which oddly makes me feel better somehow because it’s one less bumpkinny thing I have to feel self-conscious about. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ruined Christmas parties by asking why there weren’t any cocktail squirrels.) The up-market addition to this flaming Christmas tree story is the news broadcast concerning a fire breaking out and displacing a local family of nine. You’ll see these folks talking about how they have nothing left and perhaps in the background you’ll see the smoldering remains of their home and all their water-soaked possessions. Always there’s a mattress on the lawn but then, it’s quite possible that the mattress was there before the fire even started.

The reason the Seasonal Home Fire story is so great is that it then provides opportunities for follow-up stories about neighbors reaching out in the wake of this tragedy to provide clothing, toys, and chewing tobacco. In other words, it's a great way to finish out the year without having to beat the bushes for actual news. I hate to say it, but I suppose it’s entirely possible that journalists all over America are the ones setting these fires so they can keep busy during the holidays. But really, who can blame them? The last two weeks of the year are called the news hole for a reason.

Now, just to reiterate: I do not think you should put lit candles on your Christmas tree. It's a bad idea just like sticking your sneaker into a moving escalator is a bad idea and licking cane toads is a bad idea. Additionally if you see someone in your yard with a can of gasoline and a boom microphone, get the hell outta the house. But don’t call the fire department, whatever you do. They’re busy doing a dry run of next year’s public service announcements on lighting fireworks in areas of drought and the perils of deep frying turkeys. In other words, they, like everyone else between Dec 20 and Jan 2, are phoning it in at work.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 2

Yo Christmas Tree

As God is his witness my husband will not abide a fake tree for the holidays. Where this commitment to natural evergreens comes from, I don’t know. Had he been raised on a Montana Christmas tree farm and his family driven out of business by the excesses of the corporate fake Christmas tree industry, I might understand it. But the man grew up in Flatbush so it’s not like he and his dad were out cutting down Christmas trees with an axe every holiday season. In Brooklyn real Christmas trees can only be acquired by ambushing tourists in Times Square and taking theirs.

In deference to his need for a recently-deceased tree to adorn our home at Christmas, every year we celebrate the holidays by gathering ‘round Ye Olde Tannenbaum to decorate with our odd assortment of Christmas tree ornaments, most of which are missing limbs for reasons that you are about to find out, and then we step back to admire our handy work. Then we shout, “Timber!” Because for the fourth time in the last six years, the goddamned tree has tipped over after we finished decorating it.

A fully loaded Christmas tree falling over has a certain sound that you will never forget once you’ve heard it …four times. Imagine British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson in full military dress, his chest full of war medals, and now imagine him having one too many egg nogs and hitting the ship deck face first. It sounds just like that. Following that there is the rush of water out of the tree stand accompanied by the sound of a dog lapping up the puddle off the floor because, you know, we don’t give her any water in her water dish ever which is why piney fresh, sap-tainted tree water is so precious to her. Immediately following this is the sound of someone’s wife saying, “That is IT! Next year we’re getting a fake tree! I am SICK OF THIS!” In the background, children are weeping softly.

Getting a fake tree is an idle threat, however, because a real Christmas tree makes my husband happy. Or rather, having a fake tree would make him unhappy, and unhappy husbands have a way of ruining the holiday mood, especially when they start drinking and muttering about nobody having any standards anymore because fake trees are morally WRONG and the day he gets a fake Christmas tree is going to be the day he starts using moisturizer and wearing sandals because that’s a day that is never going to come and if it ever does, we’ll all know he’s gone cold and dead inside, and when THAT happens, then you can get your damned fake tree. Our compromise is that we have rigged up a guy-wire between the Christmas tree and the wall. You know why it’s called a guy-wire, right? Because some guys from Brooklyn will never stand down on the real Christmas tree thing. Not ever.

And so every year I must reconcile myself to picking up the pieces of our toppled tree and vacuuming pine needles out of the rug until Arbor Day. Perhaps next year I will find a store that sells rubber Christmas tree ornaments, or better yet, maybe next Christmas we can save some wear and tear on everybody’s nerves and just set the stupid tree up horizontally. We’ll call it “Brooklyn-style.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Twelve Blogs of Christmas, Day 1

On Sending Packages to Loved Ones: Going Postal

Surprisingly enough, the only time I ever have the urge to kill strangers is when I stand in line at the post office during the holidays. OK, not really kill, I just want to vanquish them – vanquishing is a lost art, really.

It’s just, as I stand there, watching the precious moments of my life tick away while the postal employees repeatedly disappear into that back room for minutes at time only to reemerge to assist the four idiots ahead of me who have shown up to mail unwrapped items without having boxes, packing materials, or tape because they assume it’s the post office’s job to provide them with these necessities, I get this very vivid image of myself standing triumphantly atop a heap of squirming, broken bodies with a scimitar in one hand and a human ear in the other.

The reason I say this is surprising is because it seems hard to believe, even for me, that there aren’t more situations in my life that arouse a desire to do violence upon the general public, holidays or no.

Yes, I’m well aware of the stereotype of going postal. But that has more to do with postal employees themselves going on shooting sprees. What I’m saying is that maybe we should consider “going postal” as synonymous with “self-defense.” If I, an upstanding and not-very-homicidal American citizen from an intact nuclear family, can be pushed to the limits of my endurance after a mere 19 minutes in the post office, what hope do postal employees have for not getting twenty-five-years-to-life? It’s a miracle that each and every employee of the U.S. postal service isn’t a cannibal by the time they hit retirement.

The reason for this? Most people sending packages at Christmas time are hateful narcissistic slime. I am continually amazed at the demonstrations of oblivious, entitled behavior on the part of people sending things out at the holidays. Sometimes I want to just step out of line and say: “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I direct your attention to the man mailing a glass jar filled with marbles who has just expressed shock that he’s being charged extra for bubble wrap! Yes, and now he’s wondering what’s taking so long and why everyone is glaring at him! Let’s give him a round of especially slow and sarcastic applause for being the most self-absorbed jackass of the decade!”

Here's my suggestion: let us, the American people, pledge to do better this holiday season. Let's redefine “going postal” to mean this: “I have properly prepared my package to the best of my ability. I know the zip code to which I’m sending this package. I have a job to which I need to return immediately, and I understand that other people’s time is as precious as my own.”

We should encourage all Americans to regard package mailing the way we regard auditioning for "American Idol." You should be prepared. Professional. Brilliant. People should gawk at the taping job you’ve done, at the elegance of your address label, at the civility of your dismount as you depart the postal counter after a mere 45 seconds. If we could all do our part, yes, Virginia, there need not be a shooting spree this Christmas.

Monday, December 7, 2009


One of my first few blog posts was about renewing my love of classic rock and music in general through the acquisition of an iPod (see “Deep Cuts,” 10/28/09). About two weeks after that posting, I suddenly started receiving a subscription to Spin magazine. I can only assume Spin must have some software program that seeks out bloggerians who are talking about the music scene to trawl for new subscribers. Little do they know how hip I am not.

But here’s the funny thing: the December issue of Spin includes this article called “33 Rock Myths, Legends and Lies Debunked.” You know the ones: Ozzy Ozbourne bit the head off a bat, Nirvana killed heavy metal, Rod Stewart swallowed a whole lotta you-know-what -- and all that gossipy rot. But there’s this one short article about the punk rock band Fugazi, famously revered for never selling out and for charging only $5 for concert tickets. The myth Spin was debunking was that the members of Fugazi, though admirable in so many ways because they stayed true to the spirit of punk, were actually big jerks. Spin magazine says the public got that all wrong; they weren't jerks, they were misunderstood. They were actually “the most fun-lovin’ band of the 90s.”

Huh, I thought, how odd. And here I believed I had nothing to contribute to discussions of the rock scene, but it seems I do after all. Let me share with you a little anecdote that illustrates the point that Fugazi was not mean. At least lead singer Ian MacKaye was not mean. The reason I know this is because he used to be my neighbor, which was something I found out just before our elderly-lesbian-diabetic-chain-smoking neighbor died.

So here’s the story: we moved into our house in 1997 and our neighbor across the street, Virginia – the aforementioned elderly-lesbian-diabetic-chain-smoker – immediately endeared herself to us by calling the cops on us for parking backwards in the street while we were unpacking our car, literally the first day we moved in. To make a long story short, my husband, being the good guy he is, had no hard feelings -- unlike me -- and one day offered to help carry Virginia's groceries in from her car. After that we became friends. At least we were as good a friend as one can be with someone who is housebound and drinking herself to death. But she would knock on the window and wave at us sometimes, and one time when my husband and I were both at work, she shooed away a vagrant who had decided our back porch looked like a nice place to take a load off and drink some malt liquor. No doubt he bought the malt liquor at the 7-11 on the corner, about twenty yards up the hill.

The 7-11 figures prominently in this story, which is why I mention it. For many years I noticed this grungy office on the lower level of the equally grungy commercial space on the corner, which also housed the 7-11. It looked like the kind of place where young men were wasting vast quantities of their youth avoiding responsibility (which I in no way condemn). Whole walls of the place were filled with CDs. There were a few desks and a phone or two. The UPS man stopped daily for pick-ups, and there was always a steady stream of hipsters going back and forth between this basement office and the house across the street, which was your average-looking group house complete with a couch on the front porch. Occasionally I’d see one of the guys who lived there skateboarding around the neighborhood.

One day I was finally moved to ask another neighbor, Judy – who lived directly next to the “hipster house” as I called it -- “Hey, I've always wondered what the heck goes on over there in that office in the basement of the 7-11. What’s the connection with that office and the hipster house?” Judy told me that the people who worked there, they sold CDs. I said, “Like used CDs or something?” No, she says, they sell their own CDs. “Oh,” I snorted derisively, “What, they’re like a band or something?” Yeah, a band, she said. She couldn’t think of the name right off the top of her head. “It’s kind of weird name,” she told me. “Let me think. Oh, yeah… Fugazi.”

Fugazi. Seriously? Well, don’t that beat all.

Fast forward about a year, sometime after Virginia, the elderly-diabetic-lesbian-chain-smoker’s death, and I happened to speak to Mr. MacKaye about a matter relating to the fact that 7-11 totally sucks to have as a neighbor because people just loved buying Bud King Cans and then sauntering around the corner to party and piss behind the building, which happened to be about fifteen yards from both our houses. So in the course of our conversation Mr. MacKaye -- I won’t call him Ian because I wouldn’t presume to be more than a neighborly acquaintance -- told me some funny stories about the neighborhood, like that the people who had previously owned our house were two middle-aged queens who used to sunbathe in the front yard in matching banana hammocks. He also told me this tale about Virginia, the elderly-diabetic-lesbian-chain-smoker. Seems when he and his housemates moved into their house several years before we moved into ours, Virginia took an instant dislike to them much as she had done with us. When she found out they were a rock band, well, that made things even worse, and any time they had a party – which was quite often -- she called the cops on them. Even when they were having, you know, a really quiet punk rock party. This really irked several members of his household/band, and they began playing their music even louder during party time and then one night, a couple of the guys erected the band’s stage lights on the front porch and aimed them at Virginia’s house. (Note for future reference: do NOT get in a pissing match with a punk rock band because you will lose.)

Well, apparently the idea of blasting this old woman with stage lights made Mr. MacKaye realize that things had gone a bit too far. He couldn’t in good conscience act like this toward this poor old lady, even if she was calling the cops on them routinely for no good reason (she had told the cops they were doing drugs, which if you know Fugazi's rep, ain't so), and he was moved to extend an olive branch to her. He apologized for their behavior, and thereafter, a truce was observed, and a cordial if unlikely relationship sprang up between them.

When Virginia died, it was one of those typically grim deaths of the old and lonely. First a trip to the nursing home that gets extended and then, suddenly, people were cleaning out her nicotine-soaked house. We didn’t even know she had passed away until a few weeks after the fact, when I was invited in to take whatever I might like. Seems she had no one who wanted any of her things. I found out later that the only people in attendance at Virginia’s funeral were two neighbors, including Judy, who had sort of looked after her over the years… and Fugazi.

So Spin magazine, you got it right. Fugazi were indeed nice guys or at least Ian MacKaye was a nice guy. It’s just weird that that article should appear in that particular issue of Spin that I got for free after writing about rock music even though I am not hip. Seems like there’s a song about that phenomenon. Synchronicity or something.