Sunday, December 23, 2007

Looking Backward Through The Tunnel

Here is a picture of three of Santa’s reindeer, resting up for the big night (tomorrow night!). I took this picture several years ago at an arctic animal zoo in Swedish Lapland beyond the Arctic Circle. (I am very pleased to say that I have been beyond the Arctic Circle, just as I have also been as far south as Stewart Island, New Zealand, which had been used as the southernmost disembarkation point for explorers headed to Antarctica…although, sigh, I have not been to Antarctica, itself.) I think these animals are extremely cute and elegant with that immense rack of antlers they carry like emperors’ crowns on their heads.

These magnificent animals are, for the Lapps, like buffalo were for the plains Indians, except that the Lapps have domesticated the reindeer, like cattle. It’s because of their selection as Santa’s mode of transportation in Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit From Saint Nicholas that I have become more fascinated with them. I think Professor Moore needed to locate Santa Claus in a secluded hideway and somewhere way up north was a great idea. What better beast of burden to select for pulling Santa’s sleigh than the reindeer (whose name is a derivation of the Old Norse “hyreindyri”, meaning “horned animal”)? I don’t think vicious and deadly-dangerous polar bears would have worked as well, for example (although, heaven knows, they sure are cute).

I’ve ordered for myself from a beautifully-illustrated children’s book, The Reindeer People, by Ted Lewin, which I hope to read to some children’s class or another next year, as we head into the Christmas season. I notice that has continued what I see as a recent trend to include some pissy negative review from an unhappy librarian from somewhere (but I choose to follow my own eyes which were strongly drawn to the art on the cover, plus the immensely glowing review by another reviewer). Honestly, I understand and trust what some view as “capitalist greed” more than I accept a hidden sociopolitical agenda, whatever that exactly is for I wouldn’t mind too much if every single review they publish is glowing for the product they are trying to sell—I would expect that and keep it in mind. (Does the local car dealer, for example, publish articles about how their cars are lemons?) Of course, I realize that one of the good things about is that basically they sell everything, so they aren’t picky about product. And they are already more or less quite fair in letting the general public review the books, as well, and it seems at first glance that they publish the bad as well as the good. Whenever I order a book from them, I glance at both the very positive and the very negative reviews, to get a good spread of opinions. But lately I have noticed that will remove some negative reviews, which I most recently discovered them doing with the reviews of Al Gore’s latest book. So obviously shares the Al Gore agenda and feels that it is within their right (as a what?) to support his point of view, as do other corporations whose product I otherwise enjoy or admire, such as Apple Computer and Starbucks. (It’s been reasonably simple for me to boycott Starbucks, but Apple, I can’t boycott as I think their products are the best ones going, and in their case, Gore is actually on their board of directors--yikes!)

I guess corporations have had political agendas all along, but when that agenda is socialist (or downright communist), I get very confused. That’s been explained, though, by several analysts, that socialism is only for the “people”, not for the “elites” (I dislike that term, particularly when applied to those who are anything but really “elite” in my mind, but human garbage, instead, but I haven’t yet figured out another word to use), so I guess I should understand it. After all, I did have the dubious privilege several decades ago of helping escort a Russian Communist party member on a tour of Disney World (not a good combination of energies). While most of the people in the Soviet Union were living a cold, somber, gray life waiting in long lines for bread, this privileged party member was buying all her cosmetics and fashions from France, could buy a new car whenever she wanted one, and lived in elegant quarters with a glorious view of the Kremlin. She would spit out expletives whenever you mentioned the name “Gorbachev” and his “glasnost,” which she abhorred. Her main reason for coming to the United States was not to see the sights (which she cared nothing about), but to buy as many computers and peripherals as she could carry back home on the plane (Aeroflot, of course).

Those beautiful reindeer may be waiting for the big trip, but I doubt if they are stopping at my house. This is looking like it will be a “solitary” Christmas this year, which I guess is about 65% my fault.

For one thing, I’ve had a terrible case of the flu these past couple of weeks. I had it a couple of weeks ago where I stayed home from work for a couple of days, attempting my usual healing regimen of sleeping the whole time, except I really couldn’t sleep. But it did seem that I got better (but not all the way), so I went back to work. I had things I wanted to do there, anyway.

However, this last week at work, it came back upon me very seriously and while I really didn’t want to do it, I just had to stay home some then, as well, which meant that I missed out on a lot of the Christmas goings-on and only returned to work that last half-day before the break began. Even now, I still don’t feel really well—while the cockroach-throat and whooping cough is bad, it is body aches, especially in the neck and upper shoulders, that are getting me the most—but I can’t see staying in bed this whole break, so I’m doing my best by being out and about in a limited way.

Meanwhile, I finally figured out that Christmas is only two days away, Christmas Eve is tomorrow! I had been waiting, once again, just like I have been ever since October, for my brother to say that the work on our parents’ house is done and the house is now on the market. He wants us to come up there to see the completion of his (and our) glorious handiwork. I’ve been saying all along that he definitely deserves the great family “ooh and ahh” show, plus we all want to see it, but waiting like this for this call to come any minute messed up my sailing lessons which I couldn’t sign up for, so now they’re held off until February, and Thanksgiving was almost ruined because of it, too. Since the house wasn’t ready for Thanksgiving, Christmas, for sure, was the chosen time. So I have been waiting to hear about that and finally called one of my sisters last night to ask her if she had heard anything—and just got her answering machine. (Calling my brother feels like pushing him, which I am in no way trying to do…I only want to know what kind of holiday plans I can or can’t make.)

She called me back this morning and the gist of it is that the house is still not ready and my brother went back home to Las Vegas without telling anybody, so now she feels that there is no way to expect him and his wife to drive all the way up north (again!) for Christmas at her house, which she doesn't feel like having anyway, and he seems totally dispirited and disinterested in Christmas right now as well, so for sure there won’t be Christmas at his house, either.

I feel stupid and helpless waiting around like this for OTHERS to make Christmas plans, but I do not have a place where anybody can come to, so no matter what happens, I’d be some kind of a hanger-on to whatever family Christmas somebody else was going to devise or else have no family Christmas at all. Not really a good situation, but that’s how it is.

I think the deeper truth is that none of us really know how to celebrate it without our parents, and since things are still in flux, we’re all in a state of limbo.

Last night as I tried to fall asleep with my aching neck on a heating pad (didn’t work, so I gave up on the heating pad which felt like it was just burning me anyway), I reviewed how many Christmases in my life I had had without my parents and the rest of the family. I could think of only three times. There might have been more, but I sure don’t remember them. That means that out of my total lifetime of 59 years, 56 Christmases were with the family, and the nucleus of all 56 celebrations was our parents. And since I don’t have a family of my own (i.e., no wife and kids, for example), I’m just a loose ball bearing running around aimlessly on a field.

Not every family Christmas was total joy (a few of them were blasted miserable), and one of the non-family Christmases was, strangely enough, one of the best Christmases I ever had. The other two non-family Christmases were not good though; they were when I was a guest at some OTHER peoples’ Christmases, and that is something I know I don’t want. Plus I don’t like the idea of a couple (or a group) of pathetic solitary individuals getting together and attempting to make something of a holiday for themselves sans family. I’d rather be alone.

I was alone for that one great Christmas, alone in New York City at the age of 24. Not that it had been a quiet Christmas season…just the opposite. Spending the Christmas season in New York could not be more glorious. It was all “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and “Mame” and maybe even “Miracle On 34th Street”. I remember one of my grandmothers, who lived in North Carolina, would go to New York twice every year, once in the summer to go to all the plays on Broadway, and once in the winter to do all her Christmas shopping. Having been in New York for Christmas, I could see why she would do that. I bought tons of presents for everybody--Bloomingdales, which impressed me because they had their own subway stop, was where I bought most of it—but I bought things from several other stores as well, including FAO Schwartz, Macy’s, Barnes and Noble, and a few tiny stores and some street vendors, as well. I saw President Nixon and his wife Pat, who had come to New York for the holiday, at Rockefeller Plaza, and Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, who had also come at that time, docked their yacht, The Christina, right near the street on which I lived, so I walked two blocks over to the Hudson River and feasted my eyes on that beautiful thing. It had two lighted Christmas trees, one on the bow and one on the stern. Very exciting!

Even though it was cold and the sidewalks were slippery, I loved New York for Christmas. I never felt alone, and actually, I wasn’t until the final days of Christmas, because I had friends and we were busy partying, drinking, and dancing. But then they all took advantage of days off from work (or school, where they were getting advanced degrees) and flew off to Athens or Italy or London. So that’s why I was alone on the actual day, because I stayed in New York.

I loved the apartment I lived in and had a bay window all the way across the width of it that allowed me to look out onto the street, West 71st Street. There was always stuff going on outside my window. I know it sounds peculiar, but I kept my TV tuned to a station that broadcast a constant view of the cheery fireplace in Mayor Lindsay’s mansion while Christmas music played. I know that sounds corny now, but somehow tuned into that fireplace kept my apartment warm and cozy. If I wanted to experience the crush of people, all I had to do was walk two blocks in the other direction to the 72nd Avenue subway stop and hop a train, which I would usually take south to Battery Park and from there catch the Staten Island ferry for a round trip that cost only a dime (this was 1972). This “ocean voyage” would take me past the Statue of Liberty (in both directions) and on the way back to Manhattan, I’d feel my heart thrill at the sight of that famous skyline (which, in those days, included the World Trade Twin Towers). I was proud to be a New Yorker.

On Christmas morning, I woke up and made myself a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, and ham and eggs. Then I opened the box of presents that had arrived from my parents, which had come several days ago, but I wouldn’t open them until Christmas morning. Later that day, I called them and talked and we all missed each other, but it was okay, I felt warm and loved inside.

In the late afternoon, I decided to get out of the apartment and go on a trip up the Hudson River, one of my favorite regions in the country. I telephoned the garage up the street where my car was kept and to let them know I was coming to get it, which they brought up from down below for me to pick up when I got there. I drove across the George Washington Bridge (thrilling, once again, at the sight of the wall of Manhattan buildings that spread out along the Hudson River) and then turned right at Fort Lee to head up north along New Jersey’s Palisades Parkway. It was dusk just about the time I got to Bear Mountain State Park, New York, right near West Point. There was thick snow all over the place and it was a perfect place to go play in the snow until it got dark. Then I was drawn to the welcoming glow of the Christmas lights decorating The Bear Mountain Inn and realized that that would a great place to have Christmas dinner. They had an IMMENSE Christmas buffet of almost every imaginable kind of food, and since I was by myself, I had no trouble getting a table without a reservation and without waiting. That was one of the most glorious meals I have ever had in whole life, even though I was by myself--the atmosphere was so loving and full of such great cheer--and I don’t think many settings could top it except, perhaps, for Christmas dinner at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, but that dinner requires a reservation at least a year ahead. Another wonderful place for Christmas dinner along these same lines is The Grove Park Inn, but it made me cry to look at that site, because that is the area where I am from and we had numerous holiday and other special occasion dinners there as a family thoroughout most of my life. The Grove Park Inn was such a major part of our life. (For example, my mother’s parents met there at a summer dance.) The Grove Park Inn was within walking distance of both sets of grandparents’ houses, and also the last house my parents had there until they moved back to California to what became their final home. I see those pictures and feel in a painful flash how many loved ones of the past two generations are now gone. We’re the ones that are left, now. And wow, even that slogan that pops up on the Grove Park Inn site, it’s as though it is speaking directly to me: “Over nine decades of history. It’s time for your story now.”

Yes it is. Yet none of us quite know right now what kind of story we want to tell.

My phone conversation with my sister was cut short. I don’t know why. We were talking and suddenly I sensed quiet on the other end of the line. I said, “Are you still there?” but everything was dead. I heard no dial tone, so figured her cell phone had drifted away somehow. I hung up, waited a while for her to call back, but she didn’t, so I tried her and only got her answering machine. I left her a message. That was half a day ago and I still haven’t heard back. Now I’m beginning to think that she had hung up on me somehow (why else hasn’t called back?). Why, what did I say? But I have experienced that the family has been very sensitive this past year. You have no idea what you will say that will set somebody off, even the most innocent thing, which is another reason why there have been so few phone calls among us. I am sure there are still too many unhealed wounds there, and, if nothing else, my sister might have been overcome by the realization that we all were stuck without any plans and Christmas is only the day after tomorrow. Mom and Dad’s passing left such a void that we don’t even know how to celebrate Christmas without them. Or maybe it was just her battery died and she had forgotten to bring her phone charger with her to the lake house.

At any rate, this looks like it could become another “New York” Christmas if I can make it one, but I’m not in New York, I’m not in an apartment that I love, and I’m not 24 years old. Life looks different from this end of the tunnel.

But I won’t be depressed, only sentimental. Is sentiment a bad thing? Some people think so--they want you to forget the past and forge ahead, bucko! Well, I'm all for forging ahead, but give me a minute, okay?

Perhaps on Christmas day I’ll take a drive into the nearby mountains. Is there snow there? Any cozy mountain lodge with a roaring fireplace and a welcoming Christmas buffet? Should I do an Internet search, or just cast my fate to the wind? Or maybe just stay home with the covers pulled on tight.

Meanwhile, I hope everybody has a wonderful Christmas, however you are able to celebrate it.

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