Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31: Balloons, Cheetos, and Hope

Well, I finished decorating for the New Year's Eve party.  The balloons are inflated and dangling from the ceiling.  Pretty much, it's all over but the eating and drinking.  And blogging.

I've been trying to come up with some scrap of wisdom I've gained from the year 2012.  It hasn't been easy.  I mean, nothing has really changed for me.  I'm still part-time at the university (although, I'm unionized now, so I'm officially underpaid).  I'm still working for the outpatient surgery center (although, the surgery center is owned by a national health care organization now, so I'm being undervalued locally and from a distance).  I'm still looking for a publisher for my new book of poems, and I'm still living in the same house.  Money is still an issue for us, and exhaustion is still pretty much my constant companion.

President Obama was reelected, and Mitt Romney was sent back to his multi-million dollar estates and life.  (I'm still not sure who got the better deal there.)  The Middle East is still in upheaval, and school shootings in the United States are still a constant reality.  America is still a long way away from universal healthcare, and I still haven't won the Nobel Prize in Literature (or the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award) or been named Adjunct of the Year.

My daughter is gorgeous and twelve.  My son is destructive and four.  The oil companies are still bleeding us dry at the gas pumps, and Cheetos are still one of my favorite snacks.

Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, I will raise my cup of sparkling fruit juice and toast the new year with my family and friends.  It will be a moment of happiness and hope.  A time when anything seems possible.  A tenured professorship at the university.  A new home.  A Best Actress Oscar for Miss Piggy.  (Hey, I said anything.)  Hope is the flavor of the day.

Saint Marty is ready to sing "Auld Lang Syne."


December 31: Back to Our Regular Programming

Well, it looks as though The Catcher in the Rye will be the book of the year for 2013.  One vote, and Holden Caulfield wins the contest.

We will be returning to our regular programming in a day or so.  I'm not quite ready to give up the holidays yet.  Tomorrow morning, I will begin the year of J. D. Salinger.  I will miss Charles Dickens and Ebenezer Scrooge, but I guess it's time for a change.  Yes, I just used the "c" work without breaking out in hives.  I have prepared myself for this change.  I have my copy of The Catcher in the Rye in my book bag, and I've already done a little research on Salinger.

Stay tuned for Saint Marty's New Year's Day special:  How I Met Your Salinger, or Two and a Half Holdens.

Holiday programming still coming your way....

Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 30: Favorite Movie, New Year's Decorating, New Cartoon

I am sitting on my couch, watching one of my favorite movies ever--Stranger than Fiction.  It stars Will Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.  I don't know why this film appeals to me so much.  Ferrell plays IRS agent Harold Crick who discovers that he's a character in a novel by reclusive writer Karen Eiffel (Thompson).  It's a love story.  It's a tragedy.  It's a comedy.  It's postmodern.  It's old-fashioned.  It sort of defies categorization.

A few years ago, my DVD of the movie got scratched.  It started jumping and skipping.  I threw it away, and I've missed it ever since.  This Christmas, my sister bought me a new copy of the DVD, and last night, I watched it for the first time.  I'm watching it again tonight.  Yes, I love this movie that much.

I'm also really tired.  I spent the day shopping and decorating for the New Year's Eve party at my parents' house tomorrow night.  The cheese and crackers are bought.  The crescent weenies are cooked.  The streamers are streamed.  It's been a very long day.

I'm almost at the end of the movie.  Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell have finally met.  Death is looming for Ferrell's character.  Dustin Hoffman just explained the nature of tragedy to him.  I'm telling you this movie is full of beauty and poetry.  And it's a Will Ferrell film.

There aren't many perfect days.  With Stranger than Fiction in the DVD player and 2013 looming, Saint Marty is having a favorite thing kind of perfect day.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 29: Good Read, Truman Capote, Fruitcake Weather, New Cartoon

”Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”

One of my favorite Christmas novellas is by Truman Capote.  A Christmas Memory is about a young Capote (“Buddy”)  and Miss Sook, a child-like old maid cousin Capote lived with as a youngster in Alabama.  The plot centers on Miss Sook and Buddy’s annual tradition of making fruitcakes for family, friends, missionaries, and even Eleanor Roosevelt.  They collect pecans.  They buy whiskey.  They go hunting for the perfect Christmas tree.  They make tinfoil angels.  They give Christmas kites to each other.  Reading the book is like staring at a daguerreotype, tinged in sepia and clouded around the edges with memory.

A Christmas Memory was the first book I ever read by Truman Capote.  I knew Capote’s name, had seen pictures of him.  I didn’t know anything about his alcoholism and drug addiction.  I didn’t know he was gay.  I didn’t know he had written the first nonfiction novel (In Cold Blood), a book that changed the literary landscape.  I didn’t know he started working for The New Yorker as a copyboy when he was a teenager.  I didn’t know he was eventually fired from that job for offending Robert Frost.  Basically, I didn’t know anything about Capote when I first encountered his tale of Buddy and Miss Sook.

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know any of those details about him.  It would have colored my enjoyment of A Christmas Memory.  There’s something incredibly innocent and beautiful in Capote’s prose.  It touches a place that, I think, exists in most readers’ Christmas remembrances.  It’s a place that’s warm and happy.  A place where darkness and anger and death are held at bay.  A place where Buddy and Miss Sook can forever make their fruitcakes and decorate their tree.

Capote starts the book in much the same way Dickens begins A Christmas Carol, with the hint of fairy tale:

Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.

Dickens begins his Christmas story in earnest with the words “Once upon a time”; Capote does much the same with his instruction to “Imagine a morning…”  Both writers invoke a primal childhood response, telling us to get ready for a good story.  The scene Capote describes could be Grandma’s kitchen in “Little Red Riding Hood.”  It’s warm and inviting.  It reminds me of my mother making sugar cookies on a December afternoon, of the smell of ham baking in the oven on Christmas Eve.

Of course, Capote cannot hold off the real world forever.  Throughout the novella, it keeps intruding on Sook and Buddy’s adventures.  Angry relatives chide Sook for letting Buddy get tipsy on leftover fruitcake whiskey (“A child of seven!  whiskey on his breath!  are you out of your mind?  feeding a child of seven!  must be loony!  road to ruination!  remember Cousin Kate?  Uncle Charlie?  Uncle Charlie’s brother-in-law?  shame!  scandal!  humiliation!  kneel, pray, beg the Lord!”).  A rich mill owner’s wife tries to buy Sook and Buddy’s perfect Christmas tree (“Giveya twobits cash for that ol tree.”).  For most of the story, however, Capote maintains the silver tones of memory.  Until the end, when reality reasserts itself.

Capote writes,

…a morning arrives in November, a leafless, birdless coming of winter morning, when she cannot rouse herself to exclaim:  “Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather!”

And when that happens, I know it.  A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting loose like a kite on a broken string.  That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky.  As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

New Year’s Eve is in a couple of days.  We will gather at my parents’ house on December 31 to play games and eat a lot of food.  An old friend who lives in New Zealand will be at the party this year.  He was the best man at my wedding.  At midnight, we will hold up cups of juice and toast memories of the past and look to the future.  We will reflect on all that is good and happy in our lives.  For one night, we will be Buddy and Miss Sook, eternally young, eternally together.

Saint Marty will hold onto that Christmas memory. 

The Confessions of Saint Marty

December 29: Lynn Emanuel, "Whites," Frodo

I didn’t get a chance to post a poem for P.O.E.T.S. Day last night.  I had a friend from New Zealand come over for a visit.  Let’s call him Frodo.  Well, Frodo, my wife, and I spent the evening visiting and playing the game Life.  I don’t like Life.  However, I couldn’t talk Frodo and my wife into a movie.  I even suggested Annie Hall and Stranger Than Fiction, two of my favorite films.

Anyway, I thought I’d give you a poem today.  It’s not quite Christmas-themed, but it is by a poet named Lynn Emanuel (“Emanuel” is Christmassy), and it does mention the Savior.  And it is a great poem.

Saint Marty dedicates this poem to Frodo, his atheist friend from Down Under.


The scar, the moon, the blind man’s cane, the gluey soup of barley,
the bread, the milk, the chalked concoctions that coat the ulcer,
the blind man’s eye, the banker’s long, pale, trembling fingers
poking at the family ledgers until even the neighbors come by
to get a look at folks so relentlessly unsuccessful.  The tubers,

the roots, long and damp and weeping, the nurses’ noses stuck
into our business.  Weevils in sacks of spoiled flour,
grandmother’s feet pared with a paring knife, Dulles, Eisenhower.
Glaciers’ paunches, slow and heavy, the body of the Savior
on the altar wall, in the tub upstairs, Pierre, the naked sailor.

My friend's feet aren't quite this big

Friday, December 28, 2012

December 28: P.O.E.T.I.O.V. Day, Getting Work Done, Choices

Yes, today is P.O.E.T.S. Day.  That’s Piss OEverything Tomorrow’s Saturday Day.  This morning, however, it’s actually P.O.E.T.I.O.V. Day.  That would be Piss OEverything Tomorrow I’m OVacation Day.  Yes, I’m off for two weeks after I complete my work this Friday.  

I haven’t had this much time off in years, so I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do with myself.  I’m sure I’ll figure it out pretty quickly.  There are still tasks I need to complete during my vacation (like finishing my syllabus for the winter semester).  For the most part, though, the next two weeks are blank pages.  Now, as I writer, I can’t stand blank pages.  I have to fill them with something.  A poem.  A short story.  A dirty limerick.  Something.  But the great thing is that I have a choice of what I want to do.

That’s one of the things I struggle with a lot in my current job at the medical office.  I don’t have a whole lot of choices.  The place is owned by a fairly large health care organization, so the welfare and happiness of one tiny, insignificant employee does not make a huge blip on its radar screen.  Pretty much, the company asks, “Can we make money with this office/person?”  If the answer if “yes,” then you’re safe.  If the answer is “no,” start packing up the pictures of your kids on your desk.

I don’t resent the company for being that way.  They’re huge, and they’re in it for the money.  It’s as simple as that.  It leaves little room for individuality or autonomy.  I’m a good employee.  I was named Employee of the Month a couple of years ago.  For the past few years at the university, I’ve been nominated for Adjunct of the Year by the English Department.  I work hard for my employers.  That mentality was pretty much driven into me by my parents.  I always try to do my very best at my jobs.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed the jobs I enjoy the most are the ones that allow me a lot of freedom.  I think that’s why I love teaching at the university.  I’m assigned classes and have to follow a certain curriculum.  However, there’s this little thing called academic freedom.  I can decide how I want to teach.  I can choose the textbooks, the movies, the novels for my classes.  I can shape the entire semester to my liking.  I even get to decide when I want to hold my office hours.  I appreciate the ability to make choices.

For the next two weeks, I can pretend that I’m a full-time professor at the university.  Set my own hours.  Prepare for the upcoming semester at my leisure.  I won’t have to get up at 4 a.m. to leave for work by 5 a.m.  I’ll be able to see my kids in the morning.  I’ll be able to drive my daughter to dance, visit my son’s Head Start classroom.  I might even do some pleasure reading.

Saint Marty is ready to live on the edge.  He may even sleep in until 6 a.m.

Which way do I go?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27: One Day Left, Holden by a Nose

I have one day left of work for the year 2012.  Less than 24 hours.  I thought for a while, when my wife lost her job last month, I was going to cancel my vacation.  I could get a lot of extra hours in those two weeks.  However, after much deliberation and soul-searching, I decided to keep my time off.  It will make for a tight January, financially, but I need a break before I have to start dealing with college students again.

I’m not going anywhere for my vacation.  I’m not doing anything.  I’m not making any plans.  I want to read.  I want to write.  I want to relax and not worry about anything.  (That last thing is not going to happen.  I will worry.  Can’t help it.  It’s in my DNA.)  However, I will de-stress my life as much as possible without heavy alcohol use.  By this time tomorrow night, I plan to have my feet up, a cup of spiked hot chocolate in my hand, and an episode of The Walking Dead on the DVD player.

By the way, the last time I checked, Holden Caulfield is still ahead by a nose in the 2013 Book Race.  To be honest, I’ve received only one response, but it was from a person whose judgment I trust.  I’m waiting to see if I get any other book suggestions, but, at the moment, it looks like The Catcher in the Rye will be the book of choice for next year.

If you don’t like J. D. Salinger, you better let Saint Marty know pretty soon. 

J. D. Salinger by a nose so far

December 27: We Need a Little Christmas, Joy to the World, Have Yourself a Merry...

This morning, we take down the Christmas decorations at work.  It’s one of my least favorite days of the holiday season.  It’s too early to do it, but, as I explained last night, I have to stow away the holly and ivy before I go on vacation next week.  Officially, Christmas doesn’t end for me until after New Year’s Day.  I understand the impulse to pull down the garland.  I don’t like it, but I understand it.  Pretty soon, Christmas trees will start appearing on snow banks up and down my street.  They will have scraps of tinsel clinging to their needles and will look like cast-offs from A Charlie Brown Christmas.  

Some people are ready to tear down their Christmas finery on December 26.  My coworker in the medical office was going home last night to do just that, even though she has three children under the age of five who were dead set against the plan.  I’m still playing carols on my desk computer and have presents to deliver to some friends.  Christmas is alive in my heart.  (Remember, I’m the guy who just spent a year writing about A Christmas Carol.  I can’t get Ebenezer Scrooge et al. out of my bloodstream that quickly.)  So, for the humbuggers out there, I apologize if my sustained holiday spirit annoys you.

Today is Blessing Thursday, the day where I reflect upon some person or thing that brings joy into my life.  The blessing I’m going to speak about is the Christmas music I listen to at work.  I’ve had AccuRadio going 24-7 since before Thanksgiving.  (I know you’re thinking, “His poor coworkers.”  They don’t mind.  At least, I don’t think they do.  They know I’m the insane Carol fanatic, so they give me a lot of space.)  I leave it on when I leave at the end of the day because I like being greeted with a Christmas song when I arrive in the morning.  It’s comforting, like a glass of hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Since I can’t have the latter at the office, I will take the former.

It’s not like I play the same songs over and over and over and over.  I switch up the stations.  Sometimes, I play classical Christmas music.  Other times, it’s Broadway Christmas.  (By the way, the musical version of A Christmas Story has some killer numbers.)  Yesterday, I was feeling a little nostalgic, so it was An Old Fashioned Christmas all day.  Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Andy Williams, and Rosemary Clooney.  The stuff my mother played while I was growing up.

I’m going to need a lot of Christmas music to get through this day of undecorating.  A couple of the ladies in the office are going to help me, but I can feel the Spirit of Christmas Put-This-Crap-Away breathing down my neck.  It’s not going to be pretty.

Saint Marty might be hitting the chocolate drawer a lot today. 

My favorite display this Christmas

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December 26: One Vote and Counting...

So, The Catcher in the Rye has received one vote.  That's one more vote than I thought I'd receive on any book.  It looks like Holden Caulfield is in the lead at the moment.  Other authors have five more days  to beat Mr. Salinger.

It was tough getting back to work today.  I'd like to say I enjoyed myself.  That it was easy.  However, after being on vacation for four days, it wasn't quite like riding a bicycle.  It was more like strapping on roller blades for the first time in my life and rolling down a street in San Francisco into the Bay.  Tomorrow's going to be hideous.  I have to take the Christmas decorations down because I will be on vacation for the next two weeks, and nobody else in the office will do it.  It's going to be really depressing.

So, let Saint Marty sum things up:  J. D. Salinger--one, Christmas Decorations--zero.

They're coming down tomorrow

December 26: Life after "A Christmas Carol," Holden Caulfield, Another Useless Poll

It seems strange not to be starting this post with a quote from A Christmas Carol.  After a year of combing through that novel every day, I sort of feel like I’m bringing my cocker spaniel to the pound and leaving him there, hoping he’ll be adopted by somebody else.  There’s much to be learned from Ebenezer Scrooge, and not just about Christmas spirit and generosity.  I discovered passages that spoke to me when I was worried about finances, concerned for my daughter’s happiness, and anxious over my wife losing her job.  This fall, when I was celebrating getting a raise at the university after ten or so years, I had the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, to make a toast with me.  And, if I got too wrapped up in my own selfish problems, I was confronted with passages about stark poverty, Tiny Tim with his little crutch.  This book kept me honest on many levels.

Which brings me to my worry for this Worry Wednesday.  Now that I am leaving Charles Dickens and company behind, I’m a little panicked that I may run out of things to write about.  See, another thing A Christmas Carol did for me was provide something to write about every day.  If I came to the blog well and found it dry one day, I could always flip open the book, put my finger on a page, and find a subject.  There was something very comforting about having Scrooge in my corner.

I’m actually considering choosing another book to focus on in the coming year, the way I did with A Christmas Carol.  I’ve been thinking about it for a few days now, but I can’t come up with a book that really appeals to me.  It would have to be a book with which I’m already familiar.  A book my disciples would know a little bit about, too.  I thought about another Dickens novel, but I’m not sure I could spend a year with Oliver Twist or David Copperfield.  Plus, I’m not as familiar with their stories.  I could go down the Mississippi with Huck Finn, but I get seasick really easily.  I thought about a collection of poems from one of my favorite poets, Sharon Olds or Donald Hall or Phil Levine.  None of those ideas really intrigued me enough.

The one book that I know well enough that sort of interests me is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  I’ve been reading that novel since I was a teenager.  Holden Caulfield is one of my favorite characters in literature.  I must admit, my feelings toward him have changed through the years.  When I read the book the first time, I remember responding to his unrequited love for Jane Gallagher.  As a teen, I carried around a lot of unrequited loves.  When I was in college, I loved Salinger’s style of writing, his use of profanity and voice.  A year or so ago, I read the book again.  I found myself a little irritated by Holden.  I wanted him to get his shit together and buckle down.  I think that’s the parent in me now.

I’m still not sold on The Catcher in the Rye.  I would like to ask you, reader, for some other suggestions.  However, I never get much response when I put questions out there.  I tried a poll on favorite Christmas movies a week ago.  Nothing.  I’ve run contests with prizes and gotten no entries.  It’s a little depressing.  But, ever the optimist on this Worry Wednesday, I will ask:

Do you think I should choose a new book to focus on for 2013?  If so, what book do you suggest?

Saint Marty knows he’s not going to get any answers to this query.  He’ll probably end up with Holden Caulfield.  However, he’s open to any and all possibilities, short of a Nicholas Sparks novel.

Do you want to spend a year with this guy?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

December 25: God Bless Us, Every One, Keep Christmas Well, A Gloop Christmas

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, the he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

And so, I have come to the end of my journey with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.  For 365 days, I have lived with the lessons of the book, walked in the footsteps of Ebenezer Scrooge.  I do believe I am a better person for this little exercise.  Even at my lowest points of the past year, Dickens reminded me to think of the Tiny Tims of the world.  I have a good life.

Merry Christmas to all the disciples of Saint Marty.  I hope your holiday is filled with countless blessings.  Remember, even if things seems dark right now, there is always a Light to turn to.  Keep your eyes on that Promise of Hope.

Saint Marty now offers you his annual Christmas essay.  God Bless You All, Every One!

A Gloop Christmas

I never liked Charlie Bucket when I was a kid.  He was too skinny.  Too desperate.  The illustrations of him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were in black-and-white and reminded me of the Great Depression stories my dad used to share at the dinner table.  My siblings and I would be turning up our noses at some dish my mother had prepared (usually involving liver or cabbage), and my father would launch into some tale of poverty, saying, “When I was a kid…”  And I would picture him as Charlie Bucket on a street corner, begging for a nickel to purchase a magical chocolate bar wrapped in gold foil.  As my father spoke, guilt settled on me like a hard snow.  It almost made me want to consume the sauerkraut or haggis on my dinner plate.  Almost.

Thankfully, I never had to experience the kind of deprivation my father or Charlie Bucket had to endure.  My idea of deprivation was having to eat Rice Krispies instead of Lucky Charms for breakfast.  When I read Roald Dahl’s book, I identified much more closely with another Golden Ticket winner:  Augustus Gloop.  Gloop was the ultimate candy hedonist, eating anything and everything that contained or was coated in chocolate.  The illustrations of Augustus were a little off-putting.  He resembled Jabba the Hut Jr.  No neck.  Folds of skin rippling off him like tsunamis after an earthquake.  However, I knew that, if I were let loose in the chocolate room of Willy Wonka’s factory, I would be on my hands and knees at the river, right next to Augustus, lapping up the liquid chocolate like a thirsty bison.

Writer Steve Almond coined a term for people like Augustus Gloop and me.  We are candyfreaks.  As kids, candyfreaks categorize and hoard candy.  For example, at Halloween time, I had several tiers for my confectionary booty.  In the top tier were all chocolate products—Milky Way and Twix and Hershey and M&Ms.  In the next tier fell chocolate products that tried to sneak in healthy ingredients—things like Chunky bars with their raisins and Snickers with their peanuts.  Anything chocolate that left an aftertaste not derived from the cocoa bean ended up in this category.  Tier three consisted of gummy and taffy products.  JuJu Fruits and Swedish Fish and Gummi bears and Laffy Taffy.  This ilk of candy stuck to my teeth and wreaked havoc with dental work.  The bottom tier was filled with the most loathsome treats—Smarties or jawbreakers or Lemonheads.  Hard candies requiring patience and persistence and a great deal of mouth work.  I have always been a chewer, not a sucker.

Steve Almond identifies Halloween as the High Holy Day of the candyfreak year.  I disagree with him.  While I’m not against the spoils of All Hallow’s Eve, there’s a certain aspect of quality control that has always bothered my Gloop nature.  People are not picky about trick-or-treat candy.  Over the years, the chocolate bars have gotten smaller and the Sweet Tarts more prolific.  By the second week of November, Halloween candy stashes start emitting a sugary vapor that almost makes me want to throw out the remaining Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers.  Almost.

With all due respect to Mr. Almond, I would like to make a case for Christmas as the pinnacle of the candyfreak/Gloop holidays.  While an argument could be made for Easter (with its chocolate bunnies and Cadbury Cream Eggs), I can’t go along with this line of thought for one simple reason:  Peeps.  Any holiday that has as its centerpiece a sugar-coated marshmallow that tastes like crude oil should be automatically disqualified from consideration.  Valentine’s Day is ineligible because it is the equivalent of a middle school dance.  The “popular” kids are out on the gym floor, swaying to a Journey song and exchanging cardboard hearts stuffed with chocolate creams, while the wallflowers are left in the bleachers, drooling and hungry and unsatisfied.  Thus, by default, Christmas wins.

At the beginning of Frosty the Snowman, Jimmy Durante explains the difference between a regular first snow and a Christmas first snow.  There’s something special, even magical, about Christmas snow, Durante explains.  The same can be said about Christmas sweets.  They hold a certain power that Halloween or Easter sweets do not.  When a plate of homemade Christmas cookies is placed in front of me, I find myself impelled to try confections I wouldn’t give a second look any other time of year.  I have even been known to nibble on snowballs, which are cookies rolled in powdered sugar and coconut.  Steve Almond correctly describes the experience of eating coconut as akin to chewing on cuticles.  Coconut should be banished from all chocolate and baked goods.  Mr. Almond and I agree on this point.  During the yuletide season, however, even my aversion to this ingredient takes a holiday.  Everything tastes good at Christmas.

And everybody has a signature Christmas creation.  My Grandma Hainley had a chocolate chip cookie recipe she took to her grave.  My sister, Sally, makes pizzelles, an Italian waffle cookie that is so delicate and light I can eat two dozen of them in one sitting and still have room for a ham sandwich and a mug of hot cocoa.  One of the reasons I married my wife was her Christmas buckeye.  I’m not generally a huge fan of peanut butter, but my wife’s buckeyes are the Gloop equivalent of crystal meth.  I have been known to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to get my buckeye fix.  I even get a little panicky when my daughter puts a buckeye with Santa’s plate of cookies on Christmas Eve.  I’ve lied to her, saying, “Santa has a severe nut allergy, sweetheart.  We don’t want the big guy going into anaphylactic shock in the middle of our living room.”

My specialty is brickle.  It’s a candy of my own creation.  Part milk chocolate almond bark, part Planters Dry Roasted Peanuts, part Heath toffee, part crispy rice, it has been known to cause riots at family gatherings.  I have been asked for my recipe on more than one occasion.  However, the recipe seeker stares at me like I’m a member of the Manson family when I describe my brickle-making process.  “The almond bark and paraffin should pour like brown silk,” I say, “and, when you mix it with the other ingredients, it should sound like wet cement.”  I can’t provide exact measurements.  I work by instinct, the way Grandma Moses worked in oils or my best friend in college worked in marijuana.  It’s all about brush strokes or soil humidity.  No one has been able to duplicate my brickle, despite my attempts to pass on my secrets to several apprentice Oompa Loompas.

Of course, Gloop Christmas is not limited to homemade creations.  There are several products that start appearing soon after Halloween that, for me, mark the official beginning of the holidays.  Eggnog, thick and yellow and sweet.  White fudge Oreos, which compete with my wife’s buckeyes for supremacy in my heart.  And my latest discovery:  Extra Creamy Hershey Chocolate Bells.  Generally, regular Hershey’s chocolate ranks as the Thunderbird or Boone’s Farm of my candyfreak addictions.  It’s good for a cheap, quick thrill.  Hershey Christmas Bells, however, come from a whole different chocolate wine cellar.  Smooth and a little nutty, they have the staying power of a Godiva truffle or Ghiradelli dark square.  And they taste even better chilled or frozen.  Put them on top of peanut butter blossoms, and I’d sneak away to a cheap motel with them for a weekend.

There is one Christmas candy product that I have been dreaming about my entire adult life.  At Easter time, the shelves at Wal-Mart and Target are lined with hollow chocolate rabbits.  From the cheap Palmer variety to the more upscale Russell Stover kind, these bunnies all provide a singular thrill.  Whether I start with the ears or tail or feet, I know what will happen with my first bite.  The chocolate lepus will crumble between my lips, and I will taste the air trapped inside.  As a child, I always thought that air tasted like Lent, full of sin and guilt and the promise of redemption.

The Christmas equivalent of this Easter staple would be a chocolate manger scene.  It doesn’t exist, although it seems like a no-brainer to me.  Chocolate shepherds and sheep.  Cows and camels.  Angels and magi.  I imagine picking up a chocolate donkey and biting into it, the air inside tasting of desert and rock and thirst.  Or sinking my teeth into Joseph’s head and finding fear and courage and strength.  Or wrapping my lips around Mary’s hands and feeling the chocolate give way to surrender and faith.  And the Golden Ticket of Christmas:  a chocolate baby Jesus, small and fragile.

I would place that tiny manger on my tongue, letting it slowly melt, flooding my mouth with hope, expectation, joy, and love for a world without Great Depressions and hunger and want.  An Augustus Gloop world.  A world filled with buckeyes and Hershey Bells and Christmas brickle.

Time to take some more insulin

December 24: The Good Days, Christmas Eve, Let the Fun Begin

Once upon a time--of all the good days in the year,on Christmas Eve--old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house...

Yes, I am back where I began on this year-long journey with Dickens' A Christmas Carol.  It is Christmas Eve, and Scrooge is sitting at his desk, pre-Marley and pre-Ghosts of Christmas.  Bob Cratchit is freezing in his little office corner, and Fred, Scrooge's nephew, has just extended his annual dinner invitation to his uncle.  Yes, the stage is set.

In about an hour's time, I will be heading to church for the first of two worship services.  At 8 p.m., I will be at the piano, playing for the children's program.  Three months of rehearsals all boil down to fifteen minutes tonight.  It will be over before a single angel has a chance to tune a harp.

I am a little tired of Christmas music at the moment.  I have been practicing like crazy this past weekend.  This afternoon, I went to the church and practiced one last time.  I feel prepared, but I've been doing Christmas programs long enough to know that something is going to go wrong.  It always does.  A little girl angel will lift her skirt.  A little boy angel will scratch himself in an inappropriate place.  I will play a song in the wrong key.  Mistakes will be made.

But, at the end of the night, candles will be lit; the organist will play "Silent Night"; and we will raise our voices and eyes to heaven, looking for the light of the Bethlehem star.

That is Saint Marty's Christmas Eve.  No Marley.  No gruel.  No Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, or Future.  Christmas will come quietly, like fresh, soft snow.  Like a sleeping Infant.

Mistakes will be made tonight

Sunday, December 23, 2012

December 23: Miracle on 34th Street, Believe, New Cartoon

I'm watching Miracle on 34th Street as I type this post.  It's one of my favorite Christmas movies.  Of course, it's the original version with Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle.  While I don't mind the 1994 remake with Richard Attenborough as Santa Claus, it doesn't really hold a candle to the original.

The reason this film is one of my favorite things is its focus on faith.  Santa Claus is put on trial for insanity, and the plot hinges on a question of belief.  The lawyers, psychologists, and judge, basically everyone, are all forced to reevaluate their ideas about love and charity and compassion.  At the end of the movie, Maureen O'Hara says, "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

I was listening to a program on NPR this past week.  It was a bunch of scientists discussing the origin of the universe, the Big Bang and what came before.  These scientists all kept circling back to the same question:  how did figgleblank come into being?  (You can substitute anything for "figgleblank":  hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, dark matter, whatever.)  Not once during the entire hour-long discussion did the word "faith" or "God" get mentioned.  It was the elephant sitting in the middle of the room that everyone was ignoring.  I was actually laughing at the end of the show.

Those scientists need to watch Miracle on 34th Street this Christmas.  They need to learn that not everything can be measured or calibrated or distilled or equated.  This time of year, belief takes center stage.  Santa Claus does ride around the world on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.  The Son of God was born in a stable in Bethlehem.  As the hymn says, Love came down at Christmas.

Saint Marty believes that with his whole heart.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Saturday, December 22, 2012

December 22: Other Ministers, Carl Dennis, "Practical Gods," New Cartoon

“Jacob,” he said imploringly.  “Old Jacob Marley, tell me more.  Speak comfort to me, Jacob.”

“I have none to give,” the Ghost replied.  “It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.  Nor can I tell you what I would.  A very little more, is all permitted to me.  I cannot rest, I cannot stay, I cannot linger anywhere.  My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!”

Marley’s Ghost hints at the mysteries of Heaven and Hell, of the divine, in this exchange with Scrooge.  There are other ministers who convey comfort and compassion to humankind.  Marley and company lift the veil to the spirit world a little to let us see both the redeemed and damned.  The afterlife, Marley seems to hint, can be blessing or curse, eternal torment or eternal joy.

Last night, for P.O.E.T.S. Day, I gave you, my disciples, a poem from Carl Dennis’s book Practical Gods, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002.  It is a collection of poems that, like Marley’s Ghost, touches upon both the sacred and profane.  Dennis draws from myth and religion, the pagan and the Biblical, to probe the mysteries of life in this universe.

Shortly after Dennis won the Pulitzer, I had the opportunity to hear him read from his book.  He was a soft-spoken man, difficult to hear from where I was sitting, even though he used a microphone.  At points, I remember straining to listen to his words.  Several people around me kept whispering, “What did he say?”

After reading Practical Gods, I realized that his performance was in keeping with his poems.  They are not showy.  Dennis doesn’t use the verbal pyrotechnics so in vogue in modern poetry.  His poems are quiet, sneaking up on the reader like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Dennis doesn’t deal with answers.  He deals with questions.

In the poem below, Dennis touches upon the question of selfishness versus selflessness:

To A Pagan

It’s sad to see you offer your prayers to the sun god
And then, when you really need him, discover too late
That though he’s willing to help, other gods more potent
Decide against him.  It’s too late then to regret
You didn’t invest your trust where we’ve invested.

Join us, and if help doesn’t arrive at once,
At least the deputy angel assigned your district
May hear your groans in the wind and track them
Down to your attic apartment in the outskirts
And mark the coordinates on her map.

Then she’s off on the long trek through the voids
To report the crisis.  Imagine the vault of the stars
As a tundra stretching away for a million miles
Without so much as a hut for shelter,
Without a tree or a bush for a windbreak.

Imagine how lonely she is as she builds a fire
Of tundra grass in the mouth of a cave,
A fire that proves too small and smoky
To warm her icy plumage.  Then add her voice
As she quakes a psalm to keep up her spirits.

Dwelling on her, your heart will fill with compassion
And you’ll want to cry out, “Great friend, I’m thankful
For all you suffer for my sake, but I’m past help.
Help someone more likely to benefit,” the prayer
Of a real convert, which is swiftly answered.

Yes, Carl Dennis asks questions with his poems in Practical Gods, but he doesn’t provide many answers.  He provides conclusions that are rife with more questions.  There are no easy solutions in life, he seems to be saying.  As the pagan learns in the above poem, it is through our struggle and need that we learn where real salvation lies:  in human connection, in the impulse to reach out a Samaritan hand and heal a wounded traveler.

Saint Marty hopes he can live up to that challenge.

Confessions of Saint Marty

Friday, December 21, 2012

December 21: Tough Snore, Snow Storm, "Jesus Freaks"

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Scrooge had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of One…

Scrooge is always waking up in the nick of time to meet the next Christmas Spirit.  He never sleeps through the appointed hours.  He has some kind of internal alarm that goes off when something paranormal approaches.  Perhaps it’s fear.  Perhaps it’s annoyance.  Perhaps it’s an enlarged prostate.

This morning, I woke at 3:58 a.m.  I was pissed.  I hate waking up just a couple minutes before my alarm sounds.  I just lie there, in bed, waiting for that buzz that tells me it’s time to drag my butt from my warm bed into the cold, dark work day.

Today, I stepped out onto my front porch first, to check the weather situation.  The forecast was for high winds and near blizzard conditions.  The wind was there.  The snow was there.  And across the street was my sister, trying to dig her car out of the drifts.  My wife got up; we got dressed; and we went outside to get my sister’s car unstuck.  I could hear the snowplows roaring up and down nearby streets, but my street was still thick and white.  It took about ten minutes of pushing and rocking to get my sister moving.

I did not get stuck on my way to work.  In fact, I was barely late.  Then I cleaned.  I filed.  I typed up surgical schedules.  Each time I thought I was done with my work, some other task presented itself.  I left the office over an hour later than I planned.

The snow storm was pretty much over by the time I headed home.  To make a long story even longer, we are going to have a white Christmas.  A really white Christmas.

For P.O.E.T.S. Day, I have a poem for my disciples from the poet Carl Dennis.  It’s from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection Practical Gods (which you’ll hear more about tomorrow).  It’s about belief and doubt.  It’s about passion and resentment.  Mostly, it’s about the human need for companionship.

Saint Marty is going to be getting a lot of companionship this weekend.  Music rehearsals.  Worship services.  Christmas programs.  He’s going to have companionship coming out his wazoo.

Jesus Freaks

The approval they get from above is all they need,
So why should they care if they offend me
Here in the parking lot of the Super Duper, my arms full,
By stuffing a pamphlet or two in my pocket?

No point in shouting at them to keep back
When they’re looking for disapproval.  No reason
For them to obey the rules of one of the ignorant
Who supposes the perpetual dusk he lives in

Sunny noon.  Their business is with my soul,
However buried, with my unvoiced wish for the truth
Too soft for me to catch over the street noise.
Should I rest my packages on my car a minute

And try to listen if I’m sure they really believe
They’re vexing me in my own best interest?
To them I’m the loser they used to be
When they sweated daily to please themselves,

Deaf to their real wishes.  Why make it easy for me
To load the trunk of my car with grocery bags
When they offer a joy that none of my purchases,
However free of impurities, can provide?

Their calls to attention shouldn’t sound any more threatening
Than the peal of a church bell.  And if I call
On the car phone to lodge a complaint,
Jail will seem to them the perfect place to bear witness

In this dark dominion where Herod rules.
In jail, but also guests at a banquet, while I,
They’re certain, stubbornly stand outside
Shivering in the snow, too proud

To enter a hall not of my own devising
And warm myself at a fire I didn’t light
And enjoy a meal strangers have taken pains with.
Yes, the table’s crowded, but there’s room for me.

Some of the best people I know are Jesus Freaks

Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 20: My Time is Very Short, End of the World, Snow Day

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost.  “My time is nearly gone.”

Marley’s time with Scrooge is very limited.  In the space of a few pages, Marley scares the crap out of Scrooge, tells him he’s a cheap bastard, and warns him about the upcoming visits of the Ghosts of Christmas.  Marley doesn’t explain why his visit must be so short.  I always assumed he had some important afterlife meeting to attend, maybe a twelve-step program for residents of Hell.  You know, Marley standing up and saying, “Hi, my name is Marley, and I’m a damned soul.”

Tomorrow, according to the Mayan calendar, the world is coming to an end.  Thus, like Marley, my blogging time is short.  You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing a second post for the last couple of days.  Christmas preparations have taken priority.  I had to get a picture of my kids in their Christmas outfits for our Christmas cards.  Then, I had to go online and order some prints from Walgreens.  The hardest part of the whole process was getting my son to stand next to his sister without crying.  It was a half-hour battle.

The problem was that my daughter and son had a snow day from school.  They had been together for almost twelve hours straight.  That’s almost 540 years in big-sister/little-brother time.  They were ready to kill each other, so I have many photos of my son pouting, stomping, and looking like he’s ready to have bowel movement.  And they’ve already canceled school for tomorrow.  That means another 540 years of forced sibling interaction.  My wife is hoping they both sleep until noon tomorrow.

However, this point may be moot.  Remember, the world is coming to an end.  So, on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse, I want to give thanks for my son and daughter; they made my final night a living hell.  I want to give thanks for my wife; she didn’t kill our kids on their final day.

Saint Marty is a blessed man.  Now he needs to load his rifle and count his bottled waters.

My Christmas photo

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

December 19: Sobbing, Church Musicians, Stress

He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call.  He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.

Scrooge is still a mess on Christmas morning, after his night with the Spirits of Christmas.  He doesn’t know what to do, where to begin.  He’s laughing, crying, dancing, sobbing.  He knows he’s still a broken person, but he has the chance to redeem himself now.  He will make mistakes on this road to redemption, but he will always have a Christmas carol in his heart.

This time of year for church musicians is stressful.  I have been an organist/accompanist for nearly 27 years now.  That’s 27 Christmases, with an average of two to three worship services each year; two children’s programs a season; and at least two or three extra rehearsals per week, from November through December 25.  That’s a lot of hours.  By the time I sit down with my ham sandwich on Christmas morning, after I have played my last carol and sung my last chorus of “Joy to the World,” I’m sometimes drained of cheer.  I get through the rest of the day on eggnog and the TNT marathon of A Christmas Story.

My biggest worry this week is the upcoming Christmas Eve/Christmas Day church services.  There’s this whole pressure for music to be extra good, extra special on those days.  I have a children’s program at 8 p.m. on December 24, plus two solos that were just handed to me in the last week.  No matter how much I practice the music, I never feel quite good enough for the occasion.  After close to 30 years of being a part of this yuletide insanity, I still suffer from low self-esteem when it comes to my musical abilities (or is that low elf-esteem at Christmas?).

On the flipside, I know that, come noon on Christmas, nobody is going to remember a single bloody mistake I make at the organ or piano.  Unless I become catatonic at the keyboard or decide to do a bad Jerry Lee Lewis impersonation, I should be fine.

I think we put way too much pressure on ourselves at Christmas.  We strive for perfection.  Perfect music.  Perfect gift.  Perfect card.  Perfect mashed potatoes.  It’s an impossible goal.  I willscrew up on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  I will probably duplicate a gift with someone.  I will burn the sugar cookies.  I will forget to send a card to Uncle Ned in Arizona because I thought he was dead.

Christmas is not really about perfection.  Christmas is messy.  Mary was an unwed, pregnant teen.  Jesus was born in a barn, with dirty animals and manure.  The shepherds probably drank out in the fields; they certainly didn’t shower.  Herod sent out soldiers to kill babies in Bethlehem.  The nativity narrative is full of unpleasant smells, unpleasant sights, unpleasant people, and unpleasant events.

The true miracle of the holiday is that, out of this whole broken mess, came the Son of God.  So I’m not worried too much.

Saint Marty will take care of the mistakes this Christmas.  God will take care of the perfection.

Time to get dirty

December 18: Christmas Concert

My daughter was well enough to go back to school this afternoon.  My son got on the school bus this morning.  Things are getting back to normal after a couple of days of bubonic plague at our house.  When I picked my daughter up at the dance studio tonight, she was back to her normal self, ignoring me and playing with her iPod and Kindle.

Tonight, I went to my daughter's Christmas band concert.  Imagine an hour of music played by sixth grade to high school students.  I think I heard about seven or eight versions of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" in that space of time.  My daughter is not self-conscious enough yet to be embarrassed by me; she actually waved at me and laughed when I stood up and clapped for her.

Tomorrow, I'm hoping to attend my son's Christmas program.  I say "hope" because I'm not sure I'll be able to get away from work.  I asked for the time off, but I don't think my boss remembers.  At least my wife will be there if I can't.  Last year, my wife couldn't get away from work for his program.  It looks as if our roles are going to be reversed this time.

Work really gets in the way of Saint Marty's life.

Sad, but true

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December 18: Melancholy Dinner, Sacrifice, Saint John of Kanty

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s book, went home to bed…

Scrooge is not generous with anybody, including himself.  By all indications, he is very wealthy, but he won’t even buy himself a decent dinner.  I don’t know what a “melancholy dinner” consists of, but I’m sure it’s not turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, and pecan pie.  I’m thinking the movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol pretty much get it right:  a bowl of gruel and a crust of bread.  I would be pretty melancholy if I had to eat that meal.

Scrooge doesn’t live this way because he’s pious or holy.  He’s not donating food to the poor or going home to pray and fast.  He’s just a stingy bastard with all humankind.  Of course, his lifestyle changes at the end of the novel.  He’s throwing his money at beggars by the time Christmas morning dawns.  I’ve always had this dream of meeting Scrooge on the street on December 25, him walking up to me, shaking my hand, and slipping a bag of gold coins into my jacket pocket.

That’s one thing all good and saintly people have in common:  a complete lack of materialism.  They give away everything they own, including the cloaks off their backs and sandals on their feet.  That’s pretty much the way I imagine Scrooge living the rest of his life.  Saint John of Kanty, whose feast day is December 23, pretty much fits this mold of holiness, as well.

John was born in Kanty, Poland, in the year 1403.  Of course, as a boy, he exhibited the normal, annoying traits of all saints-in-the-making.  Raised by “virtuous” parents, John became a professor at the University of Krakow, where he taught his students science and tried to “instill into their hearts the sentiments of piety with which he was himself animated.”  Then he was ordained.  OK, so he had a full-time job at the college (probably tenure-track), and he was a priest.  

That wasn’t enough.  He was devoted to sacrifice.  He travelled to Jerusalem to preach “Jesus Crucified” to the Turks.  (I think John had a little bit of a death wish.)  Then he walked to Rome four times.  That’s right.  He walked.  He barely slept or ate, and he abstained from meat for the last 30 years of his life.  Then, after giving away everything in his house to the poor, he died in 1473.

When it comes to sacrifice, John of Kanty pretty much has almost all of us non-saint type people beat.  I live frugally, with many melancholy dinners, like Scrooge, but it’s not a matter of choice.  If I could eat lobster and prime rib every night, I would.  For a little while, anyway.  Then I would switch to risotto and shrimp.  

I like to eat.  And I like things.  Too much.  I am a product of my materialistic society.  I don’t beguile my evenings with my banker’s book.  That would be too depressing.  But I do like to dream of a better life.  A life without past-due bills and debt.  A life without financial dread.  Maybe a life with a trip to Disney World every couple of years.

Saint Marty isn’t a very good saint when it comes to sacrifice.

Me having dinner last night

December 17: Christmas Panic Attack

Tonight, I had my annual holiday panic attack.  I realized that I am one week away from Christmas Eve.  I ordered a ton of presents from Amazon and made a gift list.  I even checked it twice.  I am tired and ready for bed.

As I was putting on my pajamas a few minutes ago, my wife asked, "When are we going to take the Christmas picture of the kids?"  I looked at her and said, "Are you trying to kill me?"

Tomorrow is my daughter's Christmas band concert, and I don't know if she's going to be well enough to participate in it.  She has strep throat and the stomach flu.  I'm convinced I will eventually become ill.  Too many germs floating around not enough hand washing.  I don't even want to touch the TV remote.

Saint Marty needs some rubber gloves and a Valium.

Time to press it!

Monday, December 17, 2012

December 17: Resentment, "Carol" Dip, Job

I have a confession:  there is a part of me that resents the fact that my wife is able to stay home and take care of our children.  I know she didn't choose to be pink slipped.  The day she lost her job, she called me, crying, and said, "I'm not sad about getting fired.  I'm sad about not being able to help you with money.  I know how hard you work."  All I think about right now is how to pay the next bill or buy the next Christmas present.

Since she joined the ranks of the unemployed, my wife has been visiting my son's classrooms and going to Bible study at church on Tuesdays.  She's catching up on the laundry, and dinner is usually made by the time I get home from work.  But, when my alarm goes off at 4 a.m. every morning and I have to drag myself out of bed, there's a part of me that gets a little bit angry.  I can't remember the last time I slept past 6:30 a.m.  I'm tired.  I was thinking of canceling my vacation at the beginning of January because I could earn a lot of overtime pay if I worked, but I can't bring myself to do it.  I am really looking forward to having two full weeks off.  Now, I feel guilty about my vacation.

I've said before that I know I'm lucky for having the jobs that I do.  Not many Americans have jobs that give them health insurance and paid time off and vision coverage.  Many people would kill for the kind of benefits that I have.  I'm lucky.  I'm blessed.  I'm grateful.  There, I've said all the things I should say.

But I'm still resentful and tired.  I don't want to get up at 4 a.m. for the rest of my working life.  I want a normal existence.  One job with decent hours and pay and benefits.  Of course, my choice would be to work for the university as a full-time instructor.  It's the one thing I do in my professional life that provides me with a sense of fulfillment.  I love being on campus and teaching.

I bet you can guess what my question for Carol dip Monday is going to be:

Will I get a full-time teaching job at the university this coming year?

And the answer (although I don't hold out too much hope) from Scrooge and company is:

...What's Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen months presented dead against you?

Hmmmmm.  Paying bills without money.  Balancing my books and having every item for a year listed as a debt or liability.  Sounds pretty bleak.

Looks like Saint Marty's going to be setting his alarm to 4 a.m. for another year.

My least favorite time of day