Monday, December 21, 2009

and so this is christmas

I've noticed a couple more things about this space as I try and remember to look at it more than once a month. One, it looks a lot like what it is -- something started about five years ago and generally untouched by any technological advance from the most basic template, apart from my ruthlessly pirated header above (thank you, artist who's name I forget!). Really hoping to get around to changing all that at some point but, eh, probably not. Suffice to say I'd like to apologize for my dated appearance, but that's a little consistent with real life. Plaid shirts, anyone?

Second, if you were to happen by and read some of this stuff you might be possessed by the impression that I'm one grim bastard, which is a less-accurate reflection. True, it's been a year and in some respects a bundle of years where there's plenty of material, we'll call it, to stare at my bellybutton about. But certainly not as much as others, and on the whole I'm generally not the guy at the end of the bar staring into the bottom of my glass and pondering the meaning of it all. Generally.

So today, a holiday story. Or at least an attempt at one.

One of the beautiful things about holidays is the extension of traditions, some of them so small you'd hardly notice they've been adopted until suddenly you're carrying them on. One of my favorites that we have quietly picked up through the years is acquiring odd or otherwise unique ornaments for our yearly tree, such that's it's been. We've never been the sort that rushes through Target, picks up a box of colored balls and icicles and called it a day -- not that there's anything wrong with that.

It's something that started with my dad when he was a teenager, visiting family from house to house in South Boston with my Grandfather on Christmas Eve. They'd deliver presents and have a drink and, without fail, steal an ornament off the tree at every stop. As I remember it this was an understood bit of holiday theft, and maybe there was even a moment where my grandfather would take some time to pick one out with the host's blessing, I'm not sure. But suffice to say by the end of the night my dad was fairly carrying my grandfather home as the drinks and houses added up, but out of that came my family's tradition of buying a couple new ornaments year after year.

And that's a lucky thing. When I was growing up I loved all the strange and otherworldly stars of our family's Christmas tree. I can see them now, the fake gingerbread/marshmallow house made out of chunky, Pepto-colored styrofoam. The little orange lightbulb with the clown face of yarn made by my brother in 3rd grade. A ceramic mouse napping on a crescent moon with my name on it, a gift from my teacher in 4th grade. The lanky stuffed elf in red, dangling from a rickety ladder as a string of metallic gold beads spills out of his hand and his little surprised face stitched to a tiny 'o,' only slightly larger than a pinhole. These are the decorations and stories that make up our tree, and I've adored them from every angle since I was little. 

So much so that I used to sneak down to our crawlspace in Ohio, where our tree was boxed up in pieces next to a taped up green Glenfiddich box that held our ornaments. My fascination would start every year sometime toward the end of October, when the weather would turn in that unmistakably biting and smoky way to let you know, yes, Winter is coming. It all usually happened right around the time the JCPenney catalogs were expected.

I'd crouch down there in my slippers and oversized Snoopy robe and dig for some of my favorites, unwrapping them from crumpled paper and plastic to hold them up to the pale shop light that hung over our sump pump, gurgling quietly to itself in the corner. Eventually my mom would fetch me out of there, but I appreciate that I was allowed to linger a bit on that cold concrete floor.

I remember our tradition with the lights, once the tree finally went up (usually somewhere in the teens of December.  My dad and I would 'build' the tree and string the lights (we've had artificial trees since I was about six or so, and I barely remember the few real ones apart from the absurdly rotund 'pregnant' Christmas tree from when I was four or five), and, like an aesthetic cavalry, my mom would come in and reshape before the decorating could continue.

The branches would be bent here or there to cover empty spaces, and the lights would be strung and restrung by my mom to get the solids over here, a series of blinking lights over here, all with the unspoken yet understood goal of giving each year's tree a unique pattern of lights to overlap with eachother on and off, a unique sort of randomness that always built a sort of tension and left no corner unlit in a thoughtfully composed holiday drama that you might see on a parade float, or some kind of gallery installation. Sometimes it took as long as an hour.

Then the ornaments would come out. My dad always placed the elf with the ladder first, just below the angel at the top, and then we cycled through the whole box, holding certain special ones up for eachother and remembering their stories. A lot of ornaments are marked by years, and inevitably those  say something about the state of the family. 1981 is a simple circle of sleigh scene on painted wood, indicative of the tough times after my dad lost his job during the PATCO strike. The 1985 ornament is a Santa in a bathing cap, a tribute to our first Christmas in California after moving from Ohio. Inevitably, we had more ornaments than tree, as well as more lights, garland and tinsel than anyone probably needs. But the tree always looked perfect, and somehow better every year.

Now my wife and I have some ornaments of our own, though not nearly old and weathered. We've got a matching pair of crocheted penguins, each for some reason carrying luggage. An armory of fuzzy wool balls, each with whimsical polka dot and stripe patterns in some sort of parody of holiday colors like olive green, maroon and harvest orange. A fuzzy rabbit in a scarf and oversized knit hat. A small army of angels given to me by my father each successive Christmas since my mother died.

These all were slowly acquired year after year, carefully put away in a box, and placed sort of at random on our abbreviated attempt at an annual Christmas tree. I say abbreviated because we had misgivings about dropping a full-size dead tree in the corner, so we had little, 3- or 4-foot varieties, sold to us by bundled carnies at the neighborhood tree lot and jammed into our little hatchback. (Seriously, have you looked at the staff at the average tree lot? I think we know what happens to that guy smelling vaguely of circus peanuts and Krylon while tending to the Zipper every summer.)

This year, there would be no more of that. B finally reached her breaking point and bought us an actual, 7-foot fake tree from, yes, Target. The best faux-fir totem $60 could buy, and it is, an awfully lovely and awfully grown-up kind of tree. The tradition, the holiday as a whole, feels like it's dug in a little deeper in our lives, and it's good. But the funny thing is how quietly the other traditions have been passed along.

A few of our ornaments already have their ideal placement on the tree, and I know they'll find their way there every year (that rabbit in the hat, our first ornament, seems on its way to becoming our thin little elf). The few heavy fake-vintage glass balls hang out at the bottom, and everything else fills in. The lights, however, are all white, a shift from the rainbow-colored blinky assortment my family always preferred as I was growing up. But this Christmas I noticed that I was the one bending the occasional tree branch after we put it up, then I was the one tangled in wires and stars as I rearranged the strings of light just so, making sure every corner of the tree was lit up just right.

These days my dad still trims the tree at his home up in the desert, joined by my seven-year-old niece who I'm sure has also grown to appreciate the magic in those weird little decorations. Over the years the ornaments have evolved to where some of them light up, some have strange little movements powered by the lights on the tree, and others play unsettlingly canned holiday music. I don't have nearly the same connection with these as I did with the ones from when I was a kid, which are still scattered around the tree, but I welcome them all.

The family tree has changed, of course. The lights don't blink the way they used to -- for expedience's sake, my dad opted for a tree with lights wired into the branches in the years since my mom's been gone, and I'm sure if i was to really take the time to look at each ornament I'd barely recognize the newer ones or know their stories, or even if they have them. But each and every year when we stumble into my dad's house after making the drive on Christmas Day, I know that tree is ours.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

tall, kind of gangly looking, doesn't talk much

My goodness two weeks can fly by, can't they?

Not entirely sure how that happened. I know there was this and that at work, but other than all that I have no real excuse. The ability to convince yourself that you've got something important to say can at times be elusive, I guess, and the wherewithal to sit down and start looking when it's not readily apparent is even moreso.

I'm going to set aside the facing-down-loss theme that we inadvertently stumbled upon for a moment and get into my week a bit. I work at a newspaper, you see, which already gives you a couple ideas about what my day-to-day can be like.

The industry, such that it is, is dying, a fact that by the simple virtue of your ability to read this or something else far more informative on an LCD screen makes you familiar with that, or at least a couple of its reasons. Thus, layoffs -- or, better still, 'rolling layoffs' -- have gone from being what were probably once considered necessary evils to combat economic downturns or some kind of claptrap have become A Part of Life, a semi-quarterly occurrence where first everyone is nervous, then everyone is sad, and then everyone slowly feels better though (of course) not as good as they once did until inevitably another rumor of layoffs comes to fruition.

This, of course, makes for shit morale.

I've been at my paper for just shy of 10 years. Ten years. I remember some 4.75 years ago I received a snazzy pin to commemorate my fifth year at my current place of employ, a pin I can probably dig out of a drawer if someone really presses me but may have accidentally willed into non-existence. I remember at the pin-presentation meeting -- which we don't have anymore -- I talked to a then-coworker (who shortly thereafter moved onto another, equally fucked company across town) and said something to the effect of, "If I'm here to collect my 10 year pin, please come by and shoot me in the brain."

I'd like to go ahead and retract that statement.

Because barring another layoff rolling across my desk between now and April (which is, of course, possible), I'll hit that 10 year mark. And it will, in turn hit me because while it's not me at the same job for a third of my life, it's quite close to a quarter.

Now, in my darkest moments my having the same job for such an unfathomable amount of time in this decade certainly says a few things about my personality -- i like stability, I don't go looking for change very much and, clearly, take a lot of comfort in "the devil I know." Given all the various slights, disappointments and blinding frustrations that have come with my time at the paper, it  hasn't been some joyless slog, and certainly it's improved from 4.75 years. I have Accomplished Things.

I came in a cog and will surely go out a cog, but the work has gotten less mundane, far less soul-crushing. I've written about artists who have meant a lot to me. I have enjoyed cover stories under my name (with varying levels of pride). I have taken in extraordinary shows and spilled my impressions of them to an unsuspecting world. I have been handed the reins of covering a style of music that has long meant a lot to me and recently published my silly notions of what the Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2009 in print -- a phrase that certainly shouldn't mean nearly as much to me as a journalism-destroying web journalist but it, still, does.

So now I've done that, and for all the time that's passed and minor milestones I've accomplished, I'm deep down still a Profit Depleting Unit in the grand corporate scheme of things, a feeling reinforced as I watched a ridiculously accomplished, gifted and hardworking writer who I had the pleasure to edit get shown the door because her name and skills didn't resonate with some balance sheet high above who makes these kinds of calls. It's not the first time I've watched this happen and, odds are, it won't be the last. For any of us in this warped little guild.

So despite it all, the accomplishments, the attaboys, the small little boosts of ego, it doesn't add up to all that much. My place of employ and I have a sort of abusive relationship in that I give it no greater than it deserves and they, in turn, keep a paycheck coming so I can try and be in as good a shape as I can when the hammer finally falls. This place, storied though it may be, is a paycheck. A frustrating, diverting, not as terrible as it could be but still a damn sight long away from its potential, paycheck.

Sometime in the last couple years, I've struggled to socialize at work, which is a little surprising as my cynicism gauge was practically pinned around the time I received the lovely and attractive 5-Year trinket. It's no reflection on my coworkers, really, they're still great people, but I think a good chunk of it is apart from a couple of people who I've known since the beginning everyone at work is part of this wildly malfunctioning machine, spitting parts and  debris all over everything it touches, occasionally clanging something heavy and painful across someone's chest and knocking them out of play. My goal when I arrive at work is to go home; I don't want to dig my hands into there any more than the required eight hours, and even those can be a stretch.

This, I realize, is not a good thing. I don't -- we don't, actually -- have enough time on this dot to be viewing hours as things that are to be ignored, sped through. Yet most of us do it, for about 40 of them every week, and I can't decide if that makes me strange for wishing that weren't the case or even stranger for thinking work in and of itself is anything but that, anywhere.

So we're at an impasse, the dayjob and I. It's capable of great things, even moreso in departments I'm hardly associated with, to say nothing of the great feelings I get when something falls out of my brain and onto a page and winds up being of use to somebody. But it's not my goal, it's not where I've always dreamt to call home like it has been for so many people inside its walls including -- all too often -- so many people who have been let go. Like this week.

So we're deadlocked. I take the money and accomplishment, keep improbably dodging the layoff bullets while I secretly hope to one day get tagged as I wait for a coconut to fall off a tree and conk me on the head with the idea of what I really should be doing. I have this feeling, like I've always had this feeling, it looks a little more like this at least as far as what I'm typing.

I'm not entirely sure if I'm right -- the burgeoning responsibilities of adulthood certainly make such an idea a terrifying one. But I'd like to hang out awhile and figure it out if there's any hope of it. That, I realize, is what this space has always been about.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

way down in a hole

So as you've probably noticed and as I've already addressed, I'm a bit hung up on this topic of grief. I'll get more to the why's and what's to this a little later, I'm sure, although I'm (mostly) happy to report that the raw emotions I shared below of the past few weeks have subsided. Time and the need to Get On With Our Lives demands that be the case but, inevitably, as I think about it now, there's a little bit of mourning that's in order for the end of mourning, so to speak.

Loss is something that's approached, processed and, if we're lucky, worked through -- preferably as fast as possible, at least while we're in the moment. God knows its not an experience anyone wants to have or hardly enjoys -- barring what I'd imagine are a couple fetishists out there (don't tell me there aren't, the very fact you're reading these words indicates you're on the Internet, and as such are aware of what a playground of fringe behavior it exposes we humans to be).

Yet while we are in the middle of what generally is crushing, all-encompassing, kick-you-in-the-tender-bits grief, it's truly striking how powerful it is. Think of this as the part in the movie where some scientist, probably of European descent, holds of a vial or perhaps stares intently at a microscope and marvels at a virus/alien being/professional killer's power, it's simplicity. And grief more certainly is both of those. I'd argue it's the most powerful emotion we can have.

At the heart -- or heartlessness -- of its strength is its speed, its inherent ability to go from Nothing to Everything in your field of vision in a matter of seconds. All it takes is a reminder, a part of the carefully tended system that you've built to fight off its relentless advances to fail and essentially you're back to start as far as assembling yourself for public viewing.

The most recent example I have of this happened last week, when Shenoa's eye doctor's office sent along a wonderfully sweet sympathy card, some two weeks removed from the Event. They had heard from our across-the-street neighbor, I'm sure, who by some then-wonderful coincidence worked at the same office where for years Shenoa received an assortment of magical and at times wildly expensive eye drops to combat her glaucoma. She frequently dropped Shenoa's prescription at our doorstep, saving us a drive out to Arcadia, which for those of you who don't know your Southern California geography is near absolutely nothing else of interest for our household.

ANYWAY, our neighbor told her office, who in turn sent a card, which I received last Saturday. I was ready for it -- I saw the return address, I knew what it was, I was -- as much as anyone can be to face grief -- Prepared.

Yet there I was, seconds after opening the card and its packed white space of hand-written messages of condolences from everyone on the office's staff, crying into my hand as suddenly as if I'd been hit with a bat -- even faster, because even then there's the moment of surprise and, presumably, the desire to get your shit together because, hey, you've been hit by a bat shouldn't something be done about this?

Its speed was truly remarkable.

I was fine, had things to do, was on my way somewhere else and was then, as I am now, at a sort of peace with saying goodbye to our beloved dog, and then I wasn't. It passed almost as quickly, but I'm still impressed with its capabilities. Attention, respect for its strength, must be paid.

But as I said, I'm back to 'OK' now, which I'm sure is a relief to you, gentle reader, who stumbled on her looking for a Boris MP3 I posted three years ago and may be puzzled, if you've gotten this far, why this guy can't stop talking about his late pets. So, yeah, I'm hesitant to follow through on my promise below of sharing the lengthy and hot-with-grief reaction to the loss of our cat earlier this year. We'll see. The editor in my head -- let's call him Francis -- takes great pleasure in asking from time to time the simple question of 'Who gives a shit' when it comes to some of these Unsolicited Personal Narratives. I work in the chaotic and generally short-attention-span ravaged world of the Internet, you see, and I imagine someone stumbling upon this corner of the world and spinning right out as if through a revolving door.

Still -- have you seen the news lately? Editors can't keep their jobs for shit.