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Christmas Joy.

The second-most popular Christmas story, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, is really a ghost story, harkening back to the times when Christmas celebrations included the telling of tall and frightening tales. In 1891 the humorist Jerome K. Jerome wrote, “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.”

And even earlier than that, in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale the character Mamillius says, “A sad tale’s best for winter: I have one/Of sprites and goblins.” And it makes sense that a holiday that falls in the darkest days of the year used to be a time when people would sit around the fire and do their best to scare each other.

It’s a tradition that some want to see return, and it’s not hard to find Christmas movies that have a dark edge to them. The 1984 film Gremlins is set during what should be an idyllic Christmas in a small snow-covered town and in 1988 Scrooged would offer a darker take on the Dickens classic. Before that there was the 1974 slasher Black Christmas, directed by the same Bob Clark who’d go on to direct A Christmas Story with its own terrifying vision of Santa and the horrors of Ovaltine. Dr. Seuss’s classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas might not seem scary but, let’s face it, the title character is a monster and doesn’t even wear pants, and then there’s The Nightmare Before Christmas that pulls double-duty as both a Christmas and Halloween film.

It’s Christmas songs–a few of them at least–that really capture the spirit of the season. Just consider some of these classics, some of which deserve more play time:

Christmas At Ground Zero–Weird Al’s original 1986 Christmas tune was perfect for us Cold War kids who gathered around the tree with glowing faces and worried those same faces were going to be melted off under mushroom cloud. Ten years later Weird Al would follow that up with The Night Santa Went Crazy, but both tunes have a truly timeless quality to them.

Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer–Almost too obvious to even be mentioned this classic, originally released in 1979, has it all: a drunk grandmother, an unlicensed Santa, football, beer, playing cards, and a Christmas celebration that goes on as normal in spite of the family matriarch flattened in the snow.

Santa’s Lament–So much is asked of Santa that it seems only fair that he should ask for a little in return, as Father Guido Sarducci reminded us on this track that isn’t well known enough.

Father Christmas–Of course The Kinks would offer up a cheerful, upbeat tune about a sidewalk Father Christmas collecting money for charity who gets mugged by a bunch of kids who demand money, a machine gun, and jobs for their fathers.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer–Not many people would think of this as a dark story, but consider the subtext: Rudolph has a mild deformity that causes the other reindeer to ostracize him, and Santa won’t even have anything to do with him until his lone feature makes him useful. It’s also an eerily prescient story since Rudolph’s red nose is probably caused by Chernobyl.

Frosty The Snowman–Another one that most people don’t think of as a dark story but here you don’t even need to consider the subtext. A magical hat brings a snowman to life and it’s all fun and games until the mercury rises and his face and everything else melt, causing him to die a painful but mercifully quick death on a sunny day. Merry Christmas, kids!

Under The Lights.

There was a segment on the news the other night about how much daylight we’ve lost since the summer solstice, which was June 21st. It’s almost five hours. And Nashville is not at a particularly high latitude. Further north the days are even shorter. Although, technically, the daylight isn’t “lost”. It’s simply flown south for the winter.

I remember when I was a kid watching winter sunsets from my bedroom window and realizing the sun doesn’t really set in the west. At least not exactly west. It moves in the analemma, rising and setting at slightly different times and in slightly different positions from one day to the next—or rather only appearing to move as the Earth makes its orbit. Being taught that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, as though this was a fixed fact, seemed to me like lazy thinking. The truth was more complicated and any time I realized something was more complicated it became much more interesting. I started to realize that the cardinal directions are a convenient fiction. While they’re useful for finding your way to a specific place I realized that if you travel far enough north you’ll eventually start going south, just as east easily turns into west. And I had a friend who, any time a teacher would tell us, “Two wrongs don’t make a right” would yell out, “But did you know three rights make a left”

All this contemplation of direction started rolling through my mind this morning as I was rolling out to work and passed under a string of lights some of my neighbors hung over the street last year around this time—lights against the darkness. Then, apparently having decided it was too much trouble to take them down, they left them having over the street. For much of the year they’ve been invisible in the darkness and barely visible against the sky in the light.

Now after the sun sets they’re illuminated and remain that way all night, one fixed point in the darkness, a marker I passed under on my way, and will continue to pass under in darkness until the winter solstice passes and the days are long enough that I start each day after sunrise.

It’s A Date.

A friend of my wife’s sent us a platter of dried fruit which I like for being so artfully designed with the different colored fruit and the cluster of nuts in the middle. “Clusternuts” is the polite term for how many people think of all the shopping and prepping they have to do for the Christmas season, but that’s another story. And it does seem very Christmas-y. I remember as a kid wondering what sugar plums were. Then I saw a guy on one of those daytime talk shows making some out of dried fruit, nuts, and sugar. He also took some dried fruit slices and dipped them in syrup which just seemed like a waste of good dried fruit and a recipe for diabetes. I also remember reading The Velveteen Rabbit as a kid, which mentions that, in addition to the title rabbit, “nuts and oranges” were in the Christmas stocking. I’d never thought about it before but I realized that in the 1920s, when the book was published, oranges were a special treat for some people–not just a fruit you could pick up at the store any time you wanted.

The one thing I balked at in this collection of fruit is the dates. I loved dates. Note the past tense. It seemed like fresh dates would show up in the stores around me once in a while, which is odd because they’re widely cultivated and have a long shelf life, especially for fruit. So when I’d see dates I’d fill a bag and munch on them for at least a month.

The last time I did that was early June 2014. Then I was diagnosed with cancer and stress killed my appetite. I’ve avoided even thinking about this but here’s some friendly advice for anyone going through chemotherapy or any medical condition that reduces your appetite: avoid foods you love. Your doctor and other people will try to get you to eat, and you should–it’s important to keep your weight up as part of staying healthy. But if you have nausea or even a reduced appetite you may suddenly find you hate the foods you love.

Or it may just be me. Maybe it’s that I associated a big bag of dates on the kitchen counter with a very uncertain future. Note the past tense.

I pulled a date from the fruit tray. It was warm and gooey and sweet–like chewy honey. It was as good as I remember dates being before looking at them made me sick.

Eight and a half years is a lot of dates and it took all of them for me to realize I love dates again.

I’m Dreaming Of A Dry Christmas.

When Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” he was in southern California, far from any snow or cold weather, and I think that’s fitting. It seems to me a cold, snowy Christmas is best enjoyed in the imagination. Of course growing up in Tennessee I can’t remember ever seeing a white Christmas. I can remember plenty of cold Christmases, and one Christmas we spent in Florida where I happily spent all day walking around in shorts and I distinctly remember dreaming about jellyfish coming in through the windows and rolling marbles all over the house which I wish Irving Berlin had written a song about because it would be so much better, but that’s another story.

I also remember plenty of rainy Christmases, which I don’t think anyone dreams of, unless they’re in the southern hemisphere where December is the middle of summer and maybe they’re hoping for a break in a drought.

Maybe I’m thinking of this because it seems like every free weekend I’ve had since mid-October–in other words six months after stores started putting out Christmas decorations–it’s been raining, which pretty much leaves me stuck at home. Any weekend when I could go for a hike or go to a local park, or go to a local park and hike, it’s been raining and when it’s raining all I really want to do is crawl into bed and stay there until it’s dry. It’s affecting my brain which is affecting my mood, which is mostly controlled by my brain.

It’s also bringing up memories of a particularly rainy Christmas when an aunt and uncle came and stayed with us and they brought cousin Kevin.

I’ve said some bad things about cousin Kevin but the truth is he wasn’t a bad guy. He was like eggnog: great in small amounts but if you drink too much it turns cloying, then gummy, then leads to serious intestinal problems and there’s another Christmas no one dreams of and everyone would like to forget.
To get back to counsin Kevin, one summer when we went up to stay with my aunt and uncle at their house cousin Kevin and I had been hanging out for a few hours when he said, “You know, you’ve turned into a pretty cool guy,” which made me really happy. Of course then he added, “The last time I saw you you were short and whiny and your butt stuck out.” And I’m sure if you asked cousin Kevin about me he’d have a few negative things to say about me too. For instance that same summer he told me he had some chores around the house but he’d been putting them off until we arrived so I could help him. The next morning while he was still asleep I slipped out for a walk in the woods so Kevin had to mop the basement floor and clean the outdoor grill and wash the breakfast dishes by himself.

Whether that was annoying or completely justified depends on your point of view.

The Christmas that cousin Kevin came and stayed with us it rained nonstop from the moment he arrived, as though he brought his own personal storm cloud, until the day after Christmas. Fortunately we had, among other things, an Intellivision game console, which cousin Kevin quickly became obsessed with, and also for my birthday, a few days before Christmas, he gave me a set of some really cool fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books. Having worked through them himself cousin Kevin even helped guide me through a couple of them, which was like a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and eggnog.

Then, on the 23rd of December, the Intellivision broke. No one did anything to it–maybe it was a power surge, maybe it was a loose wire, or maybe it just couldn’t take cousin Kevin anymore. By then cousin Kevin had lost interest in the choose-your-own-adventure books but he wouldn’t leave me alone to enjoy them by myself, preferring instead to follow me all over the house complaining about the broken Intellivision, his dismay saturating everything like the nonstop rain outside, and


and if I had a nickel for every time he said, “This really sucks” I could have bought him a first-class ticket home.

So anyway I woke up on the morning of the 26th preparing to scour the house for more nickels when I realized it wasn’t raining. In fact the sun was out. I put on a winter coat and went outside. The air was cold but refreshingly crisp and the ground, starting to dry out, was springy. I walked up to the vacant lots at the top of the hill behind our house and wandered for hours among small cedar trees and rocks sparkling with frost. There were small pools covered with milky ice, patches of brittle, tawny grass, and fluffy birds that chirped at me from bare branches.

And the best part is cousin Kevin had been asleep when I went out so he got stuck washing the breakfast dishes by himself.

A Perfect Plan.

So I have a doctor’s appointment. It’s not anything major—just one of the many appointments that have become part of my life. In fact this one is even less significant than most others. I just need to go in and have some blood drawn. Maybe I’ll get a chance to tell the nurse who does it a stupid joke like, “Hey, instead of drawing my blood why not take a picture?” Or maybe I won’t. Medical professionals are like everybody else: sometimes the jokes work, sometimes they don’t. Almost eight years ago I had to go in for major surgery, and before I went in one of the doctors asked me, “Do you have any questions?” So I said, “Yeah, will I be able to play the piano after this?”* The doctor just shook her head and said, “I’ve heard that one.”

Maybe it’s just as well. Surgery requires a steady hand and I wouldn’t want my doctor to start laughing while they were getting ready to slice me open.

Anyway my appointment was scheduled for late in the afternoon. It would almost be time for me to leave work, even after factoring in the drive time from home to the doctor’s office. But, even with the holidays, I’m about to hit the limit on my accumulated leave time. I realize this isn’t something to complain about and that most people aren’t so lucky. Anyway I thought, hey, why not just leave work at noon? Then I can hang around the house, maybe get some laundry done, and try to be at least a little less nervous before my appointment. It doesn’t matter how simple or routine it is. I get nervous before any medical appointment, especially one where I know going in I’m going to be jabbed with a needle.

Then I remembered it’s Monday. Monday is the day I go into the office. My office that’s just a few blocks from the office where my appointment is.

Well, at least that cuts down on the drive time and gives me time to take a walk and try to relax before I go get jabbed with a needle.

*If you don’t know this one the joke is a guy about to go into surgery asks his doctor, “Will I be able to play the piano after this?” The doctor says, “I don’t see why not.” The guy says, “Great, because I can’t now.”

The Moving Finger Writes…

It’s been too long since I got out my fountain pens. I was already thinking that even before I read an essay by the novelist Henriette Lazaridis about the fountain pen she inherited from an uncle by way of her aunt, which is probably the best way to get a fountain pen. I have some, all given to me by my wife–getting a new fountain pen as a gift is the second best way to get one. My favorite is a design called Pericles. That’s the one with the cap off in the picture. Pericles was a pretty cool person, at least according to Thucydides, but I also like the pen because it’s heavy. Writing with a heavy pen makes me feel like the words themselves have extra weight. The downside of heavy pens is they tend to be more expensive, and, believe me, fountain pens can get really expensive. I wouldn’t want a $14,500 pen even as a gift–I’d be terrified to write with the damn thing.

Writing with a fountain pen also forces me to slow down because fountain pen ink ain’t like what’s in your standard ballpoint. It’s more viscous and, behind a southpaw, I have to be careful not to drag my hand through it while it’s still wet.

Fountain pens also have to be refilled by hand, a process I think is akin to a drug user’s routine, although generally safer, and really like using a syringe in reverse. I don’t mind getting ink on my fingers, either. I think of it as the mark of a writer. I just have to make sure not to use red ink.

My wife has her own collection of fountain pens. Some she’s gotten as gifts, but some she’s purchased for herself–the third best way of getting fountain pens. She’s bought some new ones but also picked up some antique ones at second-hand stores. Some of those are so old they’re not even usable anymore, their ink bladders, made of, I don’t know, rat intestines treated with antimony or something, long since desiccated.  

She even uses them for work, which I can’t do with my own fountain pens. Well, I could, but I like keeping them for my own personal writing.

I know writing by hand is a disappearing art, and it’s ironic that I’ve typed all of this into a computer, but then all this typing just makes me appreciate my fountain pens that much more.

He’s Coming Clean.

Hello Everybody,

The holidays are finally here. It’s my time to take up my usual position watching over everything. Most of you set me up to keep an eye on your kids. I do, but I’m watching you too. Some of you obviously know that. Some of you do things I wish I hadn’t seen. Some of you do some pretty awful things just because you know I’m watching.

I want you to know how much I hate all of you.

I didn’t even want this job. This was supposed to be temporary, or a compromise. The Boss couldn’t keep an eye on everybody all the time, in spite of what you’ve heard. Every year the list gets longer and double-checking it is hard enough. I was supposed to only have this job while I was studying for dental school but somehow it’s ended up being a full-time occupation.

Maybe it was because I was always a rule-follower, unlike most of my peers. I was a misfit, if you will, but the wrong kind of misfit. I wasn’t the cool kind of misfit, the kind everyone admires and even aspires to be. Almost everyone. That type is overrated, if you ask me, and a menace. That’s why I was the one who reported that gang smoking behind the gym. Addiction, lung cancer, not to mention the danger of starting a fire. I tried to be discreet about it but since I’d told them to stop first it was obvious who reported them.

I had to develop my own coping strategies after that, like always being sick on days when we played dodgeball.

For the same reason I tried to turn in my senior class for the prank they were planning to pull. The adults didn’t take that nearly as seriously as I thought they should, but who did they think was going to clean up all that shaving cream? Being on school property after hours was no joke either.  

Sometimes I think this is all a punishment, but I can’t believe the Boss is that vindictive. Look at how he still put Rudolph in charge after all the trouble he caused. There’s a real misfit for you.

I also know the dislike is, in many cases, mutual. Some of you don’t even want me around. Some of you think I’m creepy, or that I’m teaching kids to be too casual about surveillance. Well, you can’t be too careful, but, gradually, I’ve come to think that there might be some things that can be allowed to slide. There are some secrets I’ll keep from the Boss, depending on what they are.

It wouldn’t hurt if you’d pass some of the milk and cookies my way once in a while too.

Sincerely,

The Elf On The Shelf

There Goes The Neighborhood.

Several years ago a friend of mine was visiting from Cincinnati and I said, “Hey, let’s walk down Elliston Place.” We didn’t get very far before we found ourselves in a dive called The Gold Rush where we played some pool, talked about old times, and drank us some beers before sitting down and having some excellent fried catfish. Just a few doors down from The Gold Rush is the Elliston Place Soda Shop where, more recently, Ann Koplow and I had lunch.

I used to walk down Elliston Place almost every day on my way to the bus stop. It was a nice place to walk through. Here’s The Gold Rush now:

In fact most of the block is coming down. Here it is from the back:

Elliston Place is part of a historic neighborhood. It’s where you’ll find the famed Exit/In where a young Steve Martin would get the entire audience really worked up then lead them out and down the street to McDonald’s where he’d order three-hundred burgers, then abruptly change that to “one small fries”.

It’s a few blocks away from Centennial Park, and when Dave Attell filmed an episode of his show Insomniac in Nashville he rode down Elliston Place in the back of a pickup truck for the final shot.

It’s strange to walk down the sidewalk there and see empty lots behind the storefronts. I don’t know if they’re leaving the facades for reasons of safety—maybe there’s a plan to block off the sidewalk at some point and knock the rest down—or if they’re being preserved. I hope it’s the latter. Neighborhoods change. I get that. Elliston Place is no longer the place goth kids go to hang out on the weekends, which it was when I was in high school, and the English pub is now a hookah bar. The pizza place is, well, still a pizza place, but there’s another former pizza place that now sells bubble tea.

Some of these changes seem like improvements but I’m still sad to see some of the history go.

A Little Acceptance.

Just in the month of October I had four pieces rejected by various publications. It’s not hard to do the math and realize that’s an average of one per week. Back in the last days of 2019 I set myself a resolution for 2020, even before I realized what a year that would be, that I’d submit at least one piece per month. I’ve pretty much kept to that goal although October was exceptional and significantly raised the average. The problem, of course, is that more submissions also means more rejections, and although I was thrilled to have a piece accepted by DarkWinter Literary Magazine there were also a lot of doors slammed in my face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Getting more rejections doesn’t make them any easier either, making October a particularly tough month.

Then a funny thing happened. For a lot of my submissions I use a website called Submittable. It’s useful for finding publishers who may or may not be looking for the sort of things I write—although mostly not—and for keeping track of what I’ve submitted and where. I’ve been using it for several years now and, while I have had some things published, I’ve never gotten an acceptance on something I submitted through Submittable.

A friend contacted me to share that a place called Unstamatic was having an open submission call. Everything submitted within a twenty-minute period would be accepted. I quickly polished a piece that had been rejected a few times and that, really, didn’t seem to fit anywhere, and, because I was so nervous I forgot that Missoula, Montana is an hour behind Nashville, not an hour ahead. Not that it matters since I was up three hours early anyway, but that’s another story.

The window opened, I slipped my piece in, breathed a sigh of relief, then panicked all over again, worried that I’d done something incorrectly. Then I got an email confirming that my submission was received and, for the first time in the four years I’ve been using Submittable, I got an “Accepted”. Then I got this:

Thanks, editors. I needed that. You can read my piece here.

Thanks, 2022.

It seems like only a year ago I last shared this annual tradition, and thanks to WordPress’s nifty scheduling function I had this set to go three years ago without knowing what the 1091 days in between would bring. Anyway happy Thanksgiving to everyone except those in countries that don’t celebrate it and the Canadians who are heathens who have Thanksgiving before Halloween.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

–Wikipedia

November 25th, 1864

It was even worse than last year. I know every time my family gets together we fall into certain patterns, but that never makes it easier. This time it was even worse because just getting to my parents’ house was such a pain. I thought I’d carriagepool with my younger brother and his wife, but they went up early so that fell through. Then I thought I’d beat the traffic by setting out at dawn, which was such a great idea everybody else in Richmond had it at the same time and the horses were nose to tail, stop and trot, for miles. Finally I got there a little after ten in the morning and my older sister came out already holding a glass of blackberry wine and when she hugged me I could tell it wasn’t her first one. She asked me how things were going and then didn’t wait for an answer and ran back into the house to tell everyone I was there.

I should have known I’d be walking into an argument in the foyer, the way my family is. It’s just what it was about that threw me. My kid brother had this crazy idea for a new way to cook a turkey, leaving the feathers still on and roasting it in the coals of a fire. Well, it sounded pretty stupid to me, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the neighbors tried the same thing last year and burned down their stable. But I didn’t want to side with my father either. So I said it had been a long trip and I needed to visit the outhouse and slipped out. Well, there was a line at the outhouse: two of my nieces, three cousins, all four of my brothers, and my sister was already in there getting rid of some of that blackberry wine. So I went back inside to see what was going on.

In the parlor my mother was putting together some kind of monstrosity with dead leaves and dried berries that she said she was going to put in the middle of the table.

“Where’s the food going to go?” I asked.

“Well, we’ll move it before we eat.”

I was going to ask why she’d bother to put it in the middle of the table if she was just going to move it again but decided against having that discussion, so instead I sat down and leafed through a broadsheet that was handy.

“The other men are organizing a game,” she said. “It’s some new sport called foot-ball. You should go and join them.”

Well, she knows I’ve never been athletic, but when I protested she got put out with me and said, “It’s your Uncle Wilkes’s idea. You know you’ve always been his favorite. You really should go and do it just to please him.”

FINE.

Well, when I came back in my sister just cackled and toasted me with another glass of blackberry wine. All my mother could say was “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” and my older brother kept telling me to stop being a sissy and just put some salve on it. Then Aunt Gerda said pinch the back of my neck and tilt my head forward and Uncle Wilkes said no, put pressure between the eyes and lean back, and then my cousins got into it so there had to be a family brawl about that. A day later and I’m still bleeding. So much for the salve. I’ll have to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Mudd when I get back.

 Then Uncle Aloysius had to start in Daniel about supporting the Whigs and Elizabeth about Suffragettes, just trying to start an argument. Fortunately they didn’t rise to the bait.

Then I tried to head off another argument about who’d have to chaperone the kids’ table by volunteering, but my father cut that off.

“No, no, I want John seated here on my left. After I sent him to that fancy and very expensive school so he could waste his time studying the dramatic arts and oratory he should be well-equipped to deliver the traditional Booth family prayer of thanks.”

Traditional since last year, he means. Then my kid brother kicked me in the shins which I know was his way of saying “Don’t start anything”. I kicked him twice as hard in the shins which was my way of saying, “I wasn’t going to,” and then kicked him again to say, “Hurts, don’t it?”

All this might have been a little more bearable if my sister had let me have some of the blackberry wine.

I swear I’m going to get that Lincoln for making us do this.

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