Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Greatest. Christmas. Present. EVER!

We'll start with an excerpt from one of my favorite books simply because the author is far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be:

After I read The Field Book of Ponds and Streams several times, I longed for a microscope. Everybody needed a microscope. Detectives used microscopes, both for the FBI and at Scotland Yard. Although usually I had to save my tiny allowance for things I wanted, that year for Christmas my parents gave me a microscope kit. In a dark basement corner, on a white enamel table, I set up the microscope kit. I supplied a chair, a lamp, a batch of jars, a candle, and a pile of library books. The microscope kit supplied a blunt black three‑speed microscope, a booklet, a scalpel, a dropper, an ingenious device for cutting thin segments of fragile tissue, a pile of clean slides and cover slips, and a dandy array of corked test tubes. One of the test tubes contained "hay infusion." Hay infusion was a wee brown chip of grass blade. You added water to it, and after a week it became a jungle in a drop, full of one­-celled animals. This did not work for me. All I saw in the microscope after a week was a wet chip of dried grass, much enlarged. Another test tube contained "diatomaceous earth." This was, I believed, an actual pinch of the white cliffs of Dover. On my palm it was an airy, friable chalk. The booklet said it was composed of the siliceous bodies of diatoms--one‑celled creatures that live in, as it were, small glass jewelry boxes with fitted lids. Diatoms, I read, come in a variety of transparent geometrical shapes. Broken and dead and dug out of geological deposits, they made chalk, and a fine abrasive used in silver polish and toothpaste. What I saw in the microscope must have been the fine abrasive‑grit enlarged. It was years before I saw a recognizable, whole diatom. The kit's diatomaceous earth was a bust. All that winter I played with the microscope. I prepared slides from things at hand, as the books suggested. I looked at the transparent membrane inside an onion's skin and saw the cells. I looked at a section of cork and saw the cells, and at scrapings from the inside of my cheek, ditto. I looked at my blood and saw not much; I looked at my urine and saw long iridescent crystals, for the drop had dried. All this was very well, but I wanted to see the wildlife I had read about. I wanted especially to see the famous amoeba, who had eluded me. He was supposed to live in the hay infusion, but I hadn't found him there. He lived outside in warm ponds and streams, too, but I lived in Pittsburgh, and it had been a cold winter. Finally, late that spring I saw an amoeba. The week before, I had gathered puddle water from Frick Park; it had been festering in a jar in the basement. This June night after dinner I figured I had waited long enough. In the basement at my microscope table I spread a scummy drop of Frick Park puddle water on a slide, peeked in, and lo, there was the famous amoeba. He was as blobby and grainy as his picture; I would have known him anywhere. Before I had watched him at all, I ran upstairs. My parents were still at table, drinking coffee. They, too, could see the famous amoeba. I told them, bursting, that he was all set up, that they should hurry before his water dried. It was the chance of a lifetime. Father had stretched out his long legs and was tilting back in his chair. Mother sat with her knees crossed, in blue slacks, smoking a Chesterfield. The dessert dishes were still on the table. My sisters were nowhere in evidence. It was a warm evening; the big dining‑room windows gave onto blooming rhododendrons. Mother regarded me warmly. She gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill. When I left the dining room that evening and started down the dark basement stairs; I had a life; I sat to my wonderful amoeba, and there he was, rolling his grains more slowly now, extending an arc of his edge for a foot and drawing himself along by that ` foot, and absorbing it again and rolling on. I gave him some more pond water. I had hit pay dirt. For all I knew, there were paramecia, too, in that pond water, or; daphniae, or stentors, or any of the many other creatures I had read about and never seen: volvox, the spherical algal colony; euglena with its one red eye; the elusive, glassy diatom; hydra, rotifers, water bears, worms. Anything was possible. The sky was the limit.
--Annie Dillard, An American Childhood

Yes! So similar to my own experience I actually, literally gasped in astonishment when I read this passage a few years ago!

I hadn't asked for a microscope as a Christmas present, but my ever-indulgent parents, caught up in the "science toys are GREAT gifts for children and by encouraging YOUR child's interest in SCIENCE you will help America DEFEAT the ever-growing COMMUNIST MENACE" thinking of the early '60s, bought me a nice little Tasco number:

I am not exaggerating when I say the microscope changed my life.

My father built me a little workbench in the corner of our laundry room and it was there, armed with a relentless curiosity and a copy of Hunting With the Microscope, that I discovered worlds within worlds within worlds.

Oh, sweet Crom, the hours I spent looking at things most people never suspected were out there. I rooted around in, well, unspeakable things. And yes, I saw the fabled amoeba and yes, my parents were perfectly content to sip their coffee, acknowledge my enthusiasm, and go about their business while I went about mine (actually, Mom, uh, preferred not to know what I was looking at and from whence it came after I showed her the... things... living in the water supporting her plant cuttings).

Soon thereafter a chemistry set became an integral part of my basement laboratory:

(and here's some trivia: my Uncle John's family was the "Porter" in Lionel-Porter)

I wound up becoming a hard-core biology geek--through junior high, through high school, through college and grad school*, never abandoning the "screw simulations; let's-get-dirty," hands-on, interactive approach fostered by hours alone in a basement room looking for and staring at the next neat thing.

It was a great way to spend my time.

These days I make a living preparing microscope slides for other people. Sad to say, I rarely get to look through one anymore.

* where I, uh, graduated (ahem!) to electron microscopes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Attention Academics!

From PHD Comics via Boing Boing, your basic peer-reviewed Christmas Reading List (click to embiggen)>

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"A Christmas Memory"

Not mine, Truman Capote's.

Mom used to read this to me way-back-when and it remains my favorite Christmas story. Someone had posted the entire text to a GeoCities site to which I used to link, but GeoCities is gone and I figured it needed a home on the Web, copyright violation or no.

Keep your hankies nearby.

A Christmas Memory

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.

A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. "Oh my," she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, "it's fruitcake weather!"

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something, We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880's, when she was still a child. She is still a child.

"I knew it before I got out of bed," she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. "The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear. And there were no birds singing; they've gone to warmer country, yes indeed. Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat. We've thirty cakes to bake."

It's always the same: a morning arrives in November, and my friend, as though officially inaugurating the Christmas time of year that exhilarates her imagination and fuels the blaze of her heart, announces: "It's fruitcake weather! Fetch our buggy. Help me find my hat."

The hat is found, a straw cartwheel corsaged with velvet roses out-of-doors has faded: it once belonged to a more fashionable relative. Together, we guide our buggy, a dilapidated baby carriage, out to the garden and into a grove of pecan trees. The buggy is mine; that is, it was bought for me when I was born. It is made of wicker, rather unraveled, and the wheels wobble like a drunkard's legs. But it is a faithful object; springtimes, we take it to the woods and fill it with flowers, herbs, wild fern for our porch pots; in the summer, we pile it with picnic paraphernalia and sugar-cane fishing poles and roll it down to the edge of a creek; it has its winter uses, too: as a truck for hauling firewood from the yard to the kitchen, as a warm bed for Queenie, our tough little orange and white rat terrier who has survived distemper and two rattlesnake bites. Queenie is trotting beside it now.

Three hours later we are back in the kitchen hulling a heaping buggyload of windfall pecans. Our backs hurt from gathering them: how hard they were to find (the main crop having been shaken off the trees and sold by the orchard's owners, who are not us) among the concealing leaves, the frosted, deceiving grass. Caarackle! A cheery crunch, scraps of miniature thunder sound as the shells collapse and the golden mound of sweet oily ivory meat mounts in the milk-glass bowl. Queenie begs to taste, and now and again my friend sneaks her a mite, though insisting we deprive ourselves. "We mustn't, Buddy. If we start, we won't stop. And there's scarcely enough as there is. For thirty cakes." The kitchen is growing dark. Dusk turns the window into a mirror: our reflections mingle with the rising moon as we work by the fireside in the firelight. At last, when the moon is quite high, we toss the final hull into the fire and, with joined sighs, watch it catch flame. The buggy is empty, the bowl is brimful.

We eat our supper (cold biscuits, bacon, blackberry jam) and discuss tomorrow. Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pine-apple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we'll need a pony to pull the buggy home.

But before these Purchases can be made, there is the question of money. Neither of us has any. Except for skin-flint sums persons in the house occasionally provide (a dime is considered very big money); or what we earn ourselves from various activities: holding rummage sales, selling buckets of hand-picked blackberries, jars of home-made jam and apple jelly and peach preserves, rounding up flowers for funerals and weddings. Once we won seventy-ninth prize, five dollars, in a national football contest. Not that we know a fool thing about football. It's just that we enter any contest we hear about: at the moment our hopes are centered on the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize being offered to name a new brand of coffee (we suggested "A.M."; and, after some hesitation, for my friend thought it perhaps sacrilegious, the slogan "A.M.! Amen!"). To tell the truth, our only really profitable enterprise was the Fun and Freak Museum we conducted in a back-yard woodshed two summers ago. The Fun was a stereopticon with slide views of Washington and New York lent us by a relative who had been to those places (she was furious when she discovered why we'd borrowed it); the Freak was a three-legged biddy chicken hatched by one of our own hens. Every body hereabouts wanted to see that biddy: we charged grown ups a nickel, kids two cents. And took in a good twenty dollars before the museum shut down due to the decease of the main attraction.

But one way and another we do each year accumulate Christmas savings, a Fruitcake Fund. These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient bead purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend's bed. The purse is seldom removed from this safe location except to make a deposit or, as happens every Saturday, a withdrawal; for on Saturdays I am allowed ten cents to go to the picture show. My friend has never been to a picture show, nor does she intend to: "I'd rather hear you tell the story, Buddy. That way I can imagine it more. Besides, a person my age shouldn't squander their eyes. When the Lord comes, let me see him clear." In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never: eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of oldtime Indian cure, including a magical wart remover.

Now, with supper finished, we retire to the room in a faraway part of the house where my friend sleeps in a scrap-quilt-covered iron bed painted rose pink, her favorite color. Silently, wallowing in the pleasures of conspiracy, we take the bead purse from its secret place and spill its contents on the scrap quilt. Dollar bills, tightly rolled and green as May buds. Somber fifty-cent pieces, heavy enough to weight a dead man's eyes. Lovely dimes, the liveliest coin, the one that really jingles. Nickels and quarters, worn smooth as creek pebbles. But mostly a hateful heap of bitter-odored pennies. Last summer others in the house contracted to pay us a penny for every twenty-five flies we killed. Oh, the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven! Yet it was not work in which we took pride. And, as we sit counting pennies, it is as though we were back tabulating dead flies. Neither of us has a head for figures; we count slowly, lose track, start again. According to her calculations, we have $12.73. According to mine, exactly $13. "I do hope you're wrong, Buddy. We can't mess around with thirteen. The cakes will fall. Or put somebody in the cemetery. Why, I wouldn't dream of getting out of bed on the thirteenth." This is true: she always spends thirteenths in bed. So, to be on the safe side, we subtract a penny and toss it out the window.

Of the ingredients that go into our fruitcakes, whiskey is the most expensive, as well as the hardest to obtain: State laws forbid its sale. But everybody knows you can buy a bottle from Mr. Haha Jones. And the next day, having completed our more prosaic shopping, we set out for Mr. Haha's business address, a "sinful" (to quote public opinion) fish-fry and dancing cafe down by the river. We've been there before, and on the same errand; but in previous years our dealings have been with Haha's wife, an iodine-dark Indian woman with brassy peroxided hair and a dead-tired disposition. Actually, we've never laid eyes on her husband, though we've heard that he's an Indian too. A giant with razor scars across his cheeks. They call him Haha because he's so gloomy, a man who never laughs. As we approach his cafe (a large log cabin festooned inside and out with chains of garish-gay naked light bulbs and standing by the river's muddy edge under the shade of river trees where moss drifts through the branches like gray mist) our steps slow down. Even Queenie stops prancing and sticks close by. People have been murdered in Haha's cafe. Cut to pieces. Hit on the head. There's a case coming up in court next month. Naturally these goings-on happen at night when the colored lights cast crazy patterns and the Victrolah wails. In the daytime Haha's is shabby and deserted. I knock at the door, Queenie barks, my friend calls: "Mrs. Haha, ma'am? Anyone to home?"

Footsteps. The door opens. Our hearts overturn. It's Mr. Haha Jones himself! And he is a giant; he does have scars; he doesn't smile. No, he glowers at us through Satan-tilted eyes and demands to know: "What you want with Haha?"

For a moment we are too paralyzed to tell. Presently my friend half-finds her voice, a whispery voice at best: "If you please, Mr. Haha, we'd like a quart of your finest whiskey."

His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too. "Which one of you is a drinkin' man?"

"It's for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking. "

This sobers him. He frowns. "That's no way to waste good whiskey." Nevertheless, he retreats into the shadowed cafe and seconds later appears carrying a bottle of daisy-yellow unlabeled liquor. He demonstrates its sparkle in the sunlight and says: "Two dollars."

We pay him with nickels and dimes and pennies. Suddenly, as he jangles the coins in his hand like a fistful of dice, his face softens. "Tell you what," he proposes, pouring the money back into our bead purse, "just send me one of them fruitcakes instead."

"Well," my friend remarks on our way home, "there's a lovely man. We'll put an extra cup of raisins in his cake."

The black stove, stoked with coal and firewood, glows like a lighted pumpkin. Eggbeaters whirl, spoons spin round in bowls of butter and sugar, vanilla sweetens the air, ginger spices it; melting, nose-tingling odors saturate the kitchen, suffuse the house, drift out to the world on puffs of chimney smoke. In four days our work is done. Thirty-one cakes, dampened with whiskey, bask on windowsills and shelves.

Who are they for?

Friends. Not necessarily neighbor friends: indeed, the larger share is intended for persons we've met maybe once, perhaps not at all. People who've struck our fancy. Like President Roosevelt. Like the Reverend and Mrs. J. C. Lucey, Baptist missionaries to Borneo who lectured here last winter. Or the little knife grinder who comes through town twice a year. Or Abner Packer, the driver of the six o'clock bus from Mobile, who exchanges waves with us every day as he passes in a dust-cloud whoosh. Or the young Wistons, a California couple whose car one afternoon broke down outside the house and who spent a pleasant hour chatting with us on the porch (young Mr. Wiston snapped our picture, the only one we've ever had taken). Is it because my friend is shy with everyone except strangers that these strangers, and merest acquaintances, seem to us our truest friends? I think yes. Also, the scrapbooks we keep of thank-you's on White House stationery, time-to-time communications from California and Borneo, the knife grinder's penny post cards, make us feel connected to eventful worlds beyond the kitchen with its view of a sky that stops.

Now a nude December fig branch grates against the window. The kitchen is empty, the cakes are gone; yesterday we carted the last of them to the post office, where the cost of stamps turned our purse inside out. We're broke. That rather depresses me, but my friend insists on celebrating—with two inches of whiskey left in Haha's bottle. Queenie has a spoonful in a bowl of coffee (she likes her coffee chicory-flavored and strong). The rest we divide between a pair of jelly glasses. We're both quite awed at the prospect of drinking straight whiskey; the taste of it brings screwedup expressions and sour shudders. But by and by we begin to sing, the two of us singing different songs simultaneously. I don't know the words to mine, just: Come on along, come on along, to the dark-town strutters' ball. But I can dance: that's what I mean to be, a tap dancer in the movies. My dancing shadow rollicks on the walls; our voices rock the chinaware; we giggle: as if unseen hands were tickling us. Queenie rolls on her back, her paws plow the air, something like a grin stretches her black lips. Inside myself, I feel warm and sparky as those crumbling logs, carefree as the wind in the chimney. My friend waltzes round the stove, the hem of her poor calico skirt pinched between her fingers as though it were a party dress: Show me the way to go home, she sings, her tennis shoes squeaking on the floor. Show me the way to go home.

Enter: two relatives. Very angry. Potent with eyes that scold, tongues that scald. Listen to what they have to say, the words tumbling together into a wrathful tune: "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-inlaw? shame! scandal! humiliation! kneel, pray, beg the Lord!"

Queenie sneaks under the stove. My friend gazes at her shoes, her chin quivers, she lifts her skirt and blows her nose and runs to her room. Long after the town has gone to sleep and the house is silent except for the chimings of clocks and the sputter of fading fires, she is weeping into a pillow already as wet as a widow's handkerchief.

"Don't cry," I say, sitting at the bottom of her bed and shivering despite my flannel nightgown that smells of last winter's cough syrup, "Don't cry," I beg, teasing her toes, tickling her feet, "you're too old for that."

"It's because," she hiccups, "I am too old. Old and funny."

"Not funny. Fun. More fun than anybody. Listen. If you don't stop crying you'll be so tired tomorrow we can't go cut a tree."

She straightens up. Queenie jumps on the bed (where Queenie is not allowed) to lick her cheeks. "I know where we'll find real pretty trees, Buddy. And holly, too. With berries big as your eyes. It's way off in the woods. Farther than we've ever been. Papa used to bring us Christmas trees from there: carry them on his shoulder. That's fifty years ago. Well, now: I can't wait for morning."

Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter woods. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burrs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and molted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitchblack vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, and frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend shivers, too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat's ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy air. "We're almost there; can you smell it, Buddy'" she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.

And, indeed, it is a kind of ocean. Scented acres of holiday trees, prickly-leafed holly. Red berries shiny as Chinese bells: black crows swoop upon them screaming. Having stuffed our burlap sacks with enough greenery and crimson to garland a dozen windows, we set about choosing a tree. "It should be," muses my friend, "twice as tall as a boy. So a boy can't steal the star." The one we pick is twice as tall as me. A brave handsome brute that survives thirty hatchet strokes before it keels with a creaking rending cry. Lugging it like a kill, we commence the long trek out. Every few yards we abandon the struggle, sit down and pant. But we have the strength of triumphant huntsmen; that and the tree's virile, icy perfume revive us, goad us on. Many compliments accompany our sunset return along the red clay road to town; but my friend is sly and noncommittal when passers-by praise the treasure perched in our buggy: what a fine tree, and where did it come from? "Yonderways," she murmurs vaguely. Once a car stops, and the rich mill owner's lazy wife leans out and whines: "Giveya two-bits" cash for that ol tree." Ordinarily my friend is afraid of saying no; but on this occasion she promptly shakes her head: "We wouldn't take a dollar." The mill owner's wife persists. "A dollar, my foot! Fifty cents. That's my last offer. Goodness, woman, you can get another one." In answer, my friend gently reflects: "I doubt it. There's never two of anything."

Home: Queenie slumps by the fire and sleeps till tomorrow, snoring loud as a human.

A trunk in the attic contains: a shoebox of ermine tails (off the opera cape of a curious lady who once rented a room in the house), coils of frazzled tinsel gone gold with age, one silver star, a brief rope of dilapidated, undoubtedly dangerous candylike light bulbs. Excellent decorations, as far as they go, which isn't far enough: my friend wants our tree to blaze "like a Baptist window," droop with weighty snows of ornament. But we can't afford the made-in-Japan splendors at the five-and-dime. So we do what we've always done: sit for days at the kitchen table with scissors and crayons and stacks of colored paper. I make sketches and my friend cuts them out: lots of cats, fish too (because they're easy to draw), some apples, some watermelons, a few winged angels devised from saved-up sheets of Hershey bar tin foil. We use safety pins to attach these creations to the tree; as a final touch, we sprinkle the branches with shredded cotton (picked in August for this purpose). My friend, surveying the effect, clasps her hands together. "Now honest, Buddy. Doesn't it look good enough to eat!" Queenie tries to eat an angel.

After weaving and ribboning holly wreaths for all the front windows, our next project is the fashioning of family gifts. Tie-dye scarves for the ladies, for the men a homebrewed lemon and licorice and aspirin syrup to be taken "at the first Symptoms of a Cold and after Hunting." But when it comes time for making each other's gift, my friend and I separate to work secretly. I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries (we tasted some once, and she always swears: "1 could live on them, Buddy, Lord yes I could—and that's not taking his name in vain"). Instead, I am building her a kite. She would like to give me a bicycle (she's said so on several million occasions: "If only I could, Buddy. It's bad enough in life to do without something you want; but confound it, what gets my goat is not being able to give somebody something you want them to have. Only one of these days I will, Buddy. Locate you a bike. Don't ask how. Steal it, maybe"). Instead, I'm fairly certain that she is building me a kite—the same as last year and the year before: the year before that we exchanged slingshots. All of which is fine by me. For we are champion kite fliers who study the wind like sailors; my friend, more accomplished than I, can get a kite aloft when there isn't enough breeze to carry clouds.

Christmas Eve afternoon we scrape together a nickel and go to the butcher's to buy Queenie's traditional gift, a good gnawable beef bone. The bone, wrapped in funny paper, is placed high in the tree near the silver star. Queenie knows it's there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge. Her excitement is equaled by my own. I kick the covers and turn my pillow as though it were a scorching summer's night. Somewhere a rooster crows: falsely, for the sun is still on the other side of the world.

"Buddy, are you awake!" It is my friend, calling from her room, which is next to mine; and an instant later she is sitting on my bed holding a candle. "Well, I can't sleep a hoot," she declares. "My mind's jumping like a jack rabbit. Buddy, do you think Mrs. Roosevelt will serve our cake at dinner?" We huddle in the bed, and she squeezes my hand I-love-you. "Seems like your hand used to be so much smaller. I guess I hate to see you grow up. When you're grown up, will we still be friends?" I say always. "But I feel so bad, Buddy. I wanted so bad to give you a bike. I tried to sell my cameo Papa gave me. Buddy"—she hesitates, as though embarrassed—"I made you another kite." Then I confess that I made her one, too; and we laugh. The candle burns too short to hold. Out it goes, exposing the starlight, the stars spinning at the window like a visible caroling that slowly, slowly daybreak silences. Possibly we doze; but the beginnings of dawn splash us like cold water: we're up, wide-eyed and wandering while we wait for others to waken. Quite deliberately my friend drops a kettle on the kitchen floor. I tap-dance in front of closed doors. One by one the household emerges, looking as though they'd like to kill us both; but it's Christmas, so they can't. First, a gorgeous breakfast: just everything you can imagine—from flapjacks and fried squirrel to hominy grits and honey-in-the-comb. Which puts everyone in a good humor except my friend and me. Frankly, we're so impatient to get at the presents we can't eat a mouthful.

Well, I'm disappointed. Who wouldn't be? With socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater, and a year's subscription to a religious magazine for children. The Little Shepherd. It makes me boil. It really does.

My friend has a better haul. A sack of Satsumas, that's her best present. She is proudest, however, of a white wool shawl knitted by her married sister. But she says her favorite gift is the kite I built her. And it is very beautiful; though not as beautiful as the one she made me, which is blue and scattered with gold and green Good Conduct stars; moreover, my name is painted on it, "Buddy."

"Buddy, the wind is blowing."

The wind is blowing, and nothing will do till we've run to a Pasture below the house where Queenie has scooted to bury her bone (and where, a winter hence, Queenie will be buried, too). There, plunging through the healthy waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel Satsumas and watch our kites cavort. Soon I forget the socks and hand-me-down sweater. I'm as happy as if we'd already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

"My, how foolish I am!" my friend cries, suddenly alert, like a woman remembering too late she has biscuits in the oven. "You know what I've always thought?" she asks in a tone of discovery and not smiling at me but a point beyond. "I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when he came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark. And it's been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I'11 wager it never happens. I'11 wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are"—her hand circles in a gesture that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone—"just what they've always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."

This is our last Christmas together.

Life separates us. Those who Know Best decide that I belong in a military school. And so follows a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim reveille-ridden summer camps. I have a new home too. But it doesn't count. Home is where my friend is, and there I never go.

And there she remains, puttering around the kitchen. Alone with Queenie. Then alone. ("Buddy dear," she writes in her wild hard-to-read script, "yesterday Jim Macy's horse kicked Queenie bad. Be thankful she didn't feel much. I wrapped her in a Fine Linen sheet and rode her in the buggy down to Simpson's pasture where she can be with all her Bones...."). For a few Novembers she continues to bake her fruitcakes single-handed; not as many, but some: and, of course, she always sends me "the best of the batch." Also, in every letter she encloses a dime wadded in toilet paper: "See a picture show and write me the story." But gradually in her letters she tends to confuse me with her other friend, the Buddy who died in the 1880's; more and more, thirteenths are not the only days she stays in bed: 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 it 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.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Musically Speaking...

I'm not a particular fan of Christmas music. I blame my father, the tire salesman, who for several years during the '60s dragged home Goodyear's annual Great Songs of Christmas albums and played all of them over and over and over until I wanted to scream. Good thing he made a mean eggnog; a few surreptitious sips of that evil bourbon & rum-based brew made anything bearable.

Even novelty Christmas songs--well, most of 'em--leave me cold... except for this number from Twisted Christmas:

Well, a couple of years ago I ran across this:

Greatest. Christmas performance. EVER!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas List!

Two weeks till Christmas Day; I guess I'd better get my annual letter to Santa posted...

Dear Santa,

First, as I do every year, let me remind you of how incredibly good I've been (relatively speaking):

I've fixed no elections, fomented no revolutions, nor have I overthrown any governments this year, despite almost overwhelming temptation to do so. I haven't engaged in mass murder, no serial killings, no random acts of violence, no choke sex (hell, no sex at all!), no waylaying of strangers to harvest their body parts, and only minor, completely excusable corruptions of youth. I've refrained from kidnapping any heiresses, selling any government secrets, disrupting the ozone layer, or even holding the planet for ransom. I haven't tampered with things man was not meant to know (much) and that annoying human sacrifice thing is now in the dim, dark, distant past. I've limited my stalking activities to the online realm and I haven't propositioned any of my female associates to do that...thing...with the Waring blender in quite a while.

We'll conveniently ignore the fact that my being good wasn't entirely by choice; after all, at my age (and income level) the opportunities to be truly bad are few and far between. Still, we must judge people by their actions and not their thoughts, mustn't we?

Well, whatever.

Books, CDs, and DVDs are always appreciated and I just happen to have an Wishlist set up for your convenience. Keep in mind that the more items you bring, the more I'm distracted from plotting World Domination--a bored G. W. is a dangerous G. W.--and besides, I'm well-armed and I know where you live.

Neighborhood Domination is another matter altogether and I'm figuring that some Catapult, Trebuchet, and Ballista kits would keep me busy, help me protect my backyard from pesky random insurgents and drunken college students, plus increase my Coolness Factor by, oh, a lot. Throw in a Rip Saw UGV tank with suitable armament and I'll guarantee you everyone on my street will be good!

Speaking of transportation and the Coolness Factor, there's not much of it when cruising around Richmond, VA in my faded black 2000 Mitsubishi Galant, so I was thinking what I really need is a car that makes a statement, something like the Aston Martin DB9 for tooling around the countryside pretending I'm James Bond, the classic 1955 Lincoln Futura for tooling around town oozing Geeky Goodness, or maybe the greatest of all mechanized memes, Carthedral: "a 1971 Cadillac hearse modified with 1959 Cadillac tailfins. Welded on top is a VW beetle and metal armatures with fiber glass. Carthedral is a rolling Gothic Cathedral complete with flying buttresses, stained glass pointed windows, and gargoyles."

We all recognize the value of Gothic street cred, right?

And speaking of Gothic cred, a H. R. Giger Harkonnen chair would be just the thing for those relaxing evenings at home. Perhaps a nice coffin beside it as a coffee table and you may as well throw in a Coffin Clock to tie the room together. That way I'll know how much time I've wasted perusing Alan Moore's Lost Girls which, uh, I'll be needing a copy of as well.

Well, that's about it for this year. As usual, I'll be leaving a little something for your efforts, only instead of milk, cookies, and Fentanyl I figured you might like a change of pace--you'll be finding a couple of bottles of genuine (and now fully legal in the US!) absinthe on top of the television set: Kubler for you and Lucid for Mrs. Claus, so put on your best Bohemian garb, grab a sugar cube or two, drink up, get nekkid, and see the Green Fairy! Leave the cat alone; he's touchy and liable to rip out certain valuable portions of your anatomy.

Have a Merry Xmas!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

You Can't Go Home Again

For those who've asked about my Mom, she's currently residing in the Assisted Living/Medical Unit of a retirement community in Waynesboro, VA (Summit Square). How's she doing? Well...

I got a letter (actually, a bundle of letters) from Mom this weekend. Her Nov. 29, 2009 missive ended with this:

"Harry (my Dad) worked in Harrisonburg (VA) last week and he did not contact me after he left Wednesday morning, he did not come home this weekend, and he has not called! Has he contacted you? What do you suggest I should do? I am so upset and I don't have any idea what to do. I don't know where he is supposedly staying or anything. Please say a prayer for me and please let me know if you hear anything from him that keeps you from feeling worried about his health or his condition or anything. And please say a prayer for me!"

Three things you need to know:

(1) Dad retired in 1983 from his job in Waynesboro, VA; he never worked in Harrisonburg. He may have gone there on business in the '50s when he was a traveling salesman for Goodyear, but he resigned from that job in 1959.

(2) Dad has never gone anywhere (except once) without either taking Mom along or contacting her at least daily.

(3) Dad died Tuesday, April 29, 2008.

My mother is 87 and has Alzheimer's Disease. Her mental status is declining rapidly, but most of the time (not always, and not entirely) she seems perfectly contented, completely in the moment, and even serene! I've since learned that this is not unusual in AD patients; in fact, about half are "pleasantly demented."

I take some comfort from this even as those things which made Mom "mom" are disappearing. I'd rather deal with this new, emergent personality than have her be totally cognizant of her deteriorating condition.

Yesterday I got a Christmas card from Mom:

I got ready to write to you tonight and realized that I had no stationery (she probably does; I bring her some on a regular basis but she misplaces things). I can and will get some during the coming week but I have none tonight to use for you or our parents (she's shifted gears for a second and thinks she's writing to one of her sisters and she's forgotten that her parents died some time ago). Such poor planning on my part and I know how disgusted mother gets when I run out of usable stationery (Grandma died in 1976). It is my own fault. I bring it on myself! (this is kind of revealing re: Mom's relationship with her mother).

Harry (again, my Dad) is away on a week's trip to Florida to a big annual meeting of the Goodyear Tire Company (see above) --in Sacramento, I think. Or is that in a western state? I pray there will be no tragedy that makes me need to get in touch with him before he gets back home at the expected time at the end of the week. But I guess I could contact the Goodyear Co. and find out where he is, couldn't I?

How was your week which has just ended? I hope it went well and in good form. I am so sorry that I was away when you came on one of your rare visits when I was away (she hasn't been anywhere). Wouldn't you know it would work out that way?

Nothing much happened to write about on my trip (again, there was no trip) but it was good to get away and I enjoyed it. Harry was busy with Goodyear meetings and such (cue my momentary WTF? reaction) but I enjoyed the time away from my usual routine (see my note about "Pleasant Dementia"). Now I am back in my little rut.

I hope that you are fine and I hope that I will be in better shape when I try to write the next time.

Where the card said "Merry Christmas" she scratched out "Christmas" and wrote in "Easter."

I'll see her on Christmas Day. She won't remember my visit (she never does), but at least I will.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I-Mockery... U-Mockery... We All Mock(ery) ("mocking pop culture and whatever else we can get"), which is a graphically annoying (intentionally so, I'm guessing) but blasphemously funny website, reminds us that a little Holiday satire goes a long way-- check out their Christmas Holiday Collection, should you be in need of a seasonally-appropriate time-waster.

Since I have a low tolerance for the maudlin and overly sentimental, I particularly enjoyed being reminded of The Ten Best Things About Scrooged, especially the fake trailer for The Night the Reindeer Died:

Oh, and since this year December Belongs to Cthulhu, here's a Cthulhu carol for ya:

Too much? Okay, here are the Jingle Cats singing "Silent Night":

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Blast From the Past!

Sorry, Holidailies folks; this one's not Holiday-related at all. Bear with me.

I'm always reading about how you should be extremely careful about what you post about yourself to the Intarwebs-- ya never know what may come back to bite you on the ass. But what about what other people post?

Case in point:

Yep, that's what I looked like in Junior High School. Posterity and I could both do without that particular image, but no; my (ahem!) friend Sam had to go and plaster this all over Facebook when I mentioned recently I'd gotten a haircut and the last time it had been so short was 7th grade.

After weathering the resulting comment storm I figured, "Well, things could have been worse. At least that wasn't overly humiliating."

But I forgot about...

Oh, my. High School days. A bit embarrassing, but people will figure it's just youthful exuberance and think no more about it. At least there's nothing else.

Wrong. SO wrong. These, Crom help me, surfaced today on a friend's sister's Facebook profile (and I'd forgotten this... incident... had been documented):

I'm guessing these were taken about 1978. As I recall, I showed up at Wally's house one afternoon (Wally's the guy kneeling in the 1st photo) to see if anyone wanted to do anything that evening (a movie? A McDonald's run? Cruise the bustling main drag of Waynesboro?). With no forewarning (and an air of mystery) Wally's (awesomely attractive) sister ushered me into the living room and there I beheld Wally and Scott, dressed as you see them above, sitting side by side, striking identical poses on the couch.

The (uncomfortably tight because they were meant for actual children, not childish twenty-somethings) toy space helmets were emblazoned with "LUNAR PATROL" and sported two cute 'n' nifty, semi-adjustable antennae on the back, just the thing to make young ladies' hearts go pitter-pat.

"Where. Did. You. Get. Those. Ridiculous. Things?"

"At (some local toy store)... and we got YOU one, too!"

"I... you... uh... *sputter* oh, f*** it, get me some coveralls! We're HEADIN' OUT!"

And this is why I'll never hold a political office.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Welcome, Holidailies People!

Help yourselves to virtual milk and cookies!

(for those of you who have no idea what's going on, Holidailies is "a free community writing project that promotes sharing your writing and other online creative endeavors during the winter holiday season. Holidailies 2009 participants try to update their personal websites consistently -- perhaps even daily -- from December 7, 2009 to January 6, 2010." I did something similar with the Countdown to Halloween)

A few words of warning:
--This is not one of those sweetness 'n' light, brimming-with-cuteness kinds of blogs. I do not embrace the Holiday Season without a fair amount of cynicism, snark, and blasphemy. The things I find funny are often offensive to more right-minded individuals.*

--I am 54-yrs.-old, single, never married, have no children, and I don't date**. I have some serious social deficits and I am not a "people person." I rarely leave my (small, cluttered, dusty) apartment. TV, books, and the Intarwebs are my windows to the world. These facts place a... peculiar... spin upon my philosophy of life (see also "Fifty Things About Me").

--Grammar nazis fiends take heed: my writing abilities are somewhat limited. What you read is not polished (think of it as first draft stuff). I am overly fond of parenthetical expressions, footnotes (a la David Foster Wallace), and the word "that." Mrs. Forbes, my 11th grade English teacher, would be horrified by my overuse (and misuse) of commas***, ellipses, hyphens, dashes, my occasional lack of subject-verb agreement, my laughable attempts at parallelism, and my frequent lack of transitional phrases. Accent marks are non-existent. I know about these things; I simply do not take the time to make sure they're correct. I'm a good speller, though.

--I checked "no" on the "Adult Content?" option on the Holidailies registration page because I don't post porn or discuss anyone's sexual exploits here. I do use the occasional four-letter word and may link to what many may construe as scatological content (see below). Sorry 'bout that.

--In the coming days I will try very, very hard to be amusing. Failing that, I will certainly link to things I think are amusing.

-I'm a comment whore. Let me know you've been by even if it's just to say "Sweet zombie Jeebus, you are one messed-up individual!" I won't be offended (probably).

Anyway, welcome! I'm truly looking forward to reading your entries for the next month (keeps me off the streets and out of public view)!

*I find this hysterically funny in a very juvenile kind of way (I am deeply in touch with my Inner 10-yr.-old):

**I'm not against it; it's just that the opportunity rarely arises for reasons that should be glaringly obvious.

***I often use 'em to indicate a brief pause in speech, something that was expressly forbidden when I was in high school.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

'Tis the Season!

My friend Anne reminds us that it's Krampus time (be sure to watch the catchy Krampus YouTube video). In fact, tonight (Dec. 5) is Krampusnacht for Austria and several other European countries who know a good thing when they see one.

For those who don't know, Krampus is no less than the Anti-Claus, the guy jolly ol' St. Nick put in charge of doling out suitable punishments to bad little boys and girls. He might take away your presents and leave you with nothing but a lump of coal. He might whack you with his big stick/bundle of birch branches (and should you happen to be an attractive young female he'll do this to you anyway, just for the hell of it... maybe copping a feel or two in the process). If you've been really bad, he might stuff you in his sack and... take you away (where is left unspecified, which is much scarier than a particular location).

Yeah, Krampus is sort of a demon frat boy on a drunken rampage, but he's a Big Deal in Europe where on this very night men dress in elaborate Krampus costumes and parade through the streets having a grand ol' time (more here). People even exchanged Krampus postcards, which beats the hell out of the sweet, sappy, maudlin, Yuletime crap my relatives send.

The Saturnalian, Cacophonic, Discordian aspects are slowly gaining popularity in the U. S. which, believe me, I'm all over like maggots on garbage--alternative December belongs to Cthulhu and Krampus! Let's make it so!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"I Double-Dog Dare Ya!"

So last night I got a text message from my friend Margie: "Check yr email."

Easy enough! But wait... what's this? "Merry Christmas" and a hyperlink? Hmmm...

My friend Bill G. has a nasty habit of e-mailing me links to.... unpleasant... web sites, (it's exactly what you think it is and, no, I will NOT make it easy for you to investigate) being the least offensive to date (let's not talk about his deliberate--and my unwitting--forays into; as a consequence I'm deeply suspicious of unannotated URLs. Still, this is Margie we're talking about--she loves a good piece of crude humor as much as any of my acquaintances, but she's not likely to send me somewhere utterly disgusting... right? Besides, it was a YouTube link; how bad could it be?

Bad. Really bad.

I acknowledged her text with an appropriately snide comment to which she replied, "blog THAT!"

G.W.: Is that a dare?
M: yep!
G.W.: What's in it for me?
M: my respect
G.W.: Does that come with cheesecake?
M: absolutely
G.W. Will you deliver it to my door? Nekkid?

(because naked women bearing cheesecake--or pizza, or nachos, or fried chicken or garlic hummus--are always welcome at my place!)

M: sure
G.W.: Okay, then.

Brace yourselves...

Scary. The only way for me to get through this without massive insulin therapy was to imagine David Bowie suddenly ripping off his clothing to reveal an outfit from his Ziggy Stardust days. Or even better, Bing Crosby rips off his clothing to reveal an outfit from Bowie's Ziggy Stardust days.

With lederhosen.

Personally, I'm more a fan of Cthulhu Carols, especially since has declared December Belongs to Cthulhu.

There's a seasonal celebration I can support. In fact, there's my theme for the month!

So, Margie? You now owe me cheesecake and gratuitous nudity. I don't care how cold it gets, hop to it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

This One's For You, Sarah!

A few years ago my friend and occasional fake-date Sarah commented on my MySpace entry, "For Your Christmas Reading Pleasure,"

"yes! i know it's officially christmas when you post "the junky's christmas".

"now all i've got to do is find the cd of the alternative rock christmas songs, listen to it on repeat, spend time listening to my senile mother (and cassie) talk to my dog about the christmas tree, and get a "it's a wonderful life" speech from everyone who's known me for over five years and thinks i'm suicidal because i didn't go to college. then it'll really feel like christmas..."

Well, Sarah; it's officially Christmas!

The Junky's Christmas by William S. "Uncle Bill" Burroughs

Note that this year I'm linking to a more legible version instead of that godawful, semi-psychedelic, seizure-inducing webpage to which I normally direct you. Hell, I'll even make it easy on you and embed the YouTube video versions:

Part 1

Part 2

Bonus Link (and mandatory reading, by the way):

As Harlan Ellison pointed out ever-so-long-ago (see "The Deadly Nackles Affair" in Slippage), Santa Claus implies Anti-Claus: "Nackles" by Donald E. Westlake

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

And So It Begins...

Christmas is an awfulness that compares favorably with the great London plague and fire of 1665-66. No one escapes the feelings of mortal dejection, inadequacy, frustration, loneliness, guilt and pity. No one escapes feeling used by society, by religion, by friends and relatives, by the utterly artificial responsibilities of extending false greetings, sending banal cards, reciprocating unsolicited gifts, going to dull parties, putting up with acquaintances and family one avoids all the rest of the year... in short, of being brutalized by a "holiday" that has lost virtually all of its original meanings and has become a merchandising ploy for color tv set manufacturers and ravagers of the woodlands.

--Harlan Ellison in "No Offense Intended, but F*** Xmas!" from The Harlan Ellison Hornbook

Well, okay, I'm not that anti-Christmas, but neither do I disagree with ol' Harlan. I've seen what this season does to sane, rational, kind, well-meaning people-- filled with the best intentions for their families, for others, for the world, they get so caught up in the Holiday Madness they eventually snap and either unleash their Inner Assholes and thereby negate everything the Season is supposed to stand for or descend a godawful spiral of depression and guilt because (1) they can't possibly do all the things they think are expected of them (but won't stop trying) and (2, a direct corollary) they stop feeling the way they think they should feel at this "most wonderful time of the year."

But trying to opt out winds up being just as bad. Here's another quote from HE:

Christmas is constructed and promulgated in such a way that to defy it or ignore it makes one a monster. To refuse to send cards, to toss the ones received in the wastebasket, to refuse to accept gifts and refuse to give them, to walk untouched through consumer-crowds and never feel the urge to buy Aunt Martha that lovely combination rotisserie-&-bidet, to maintain one's sanity staunchly through the berserk days of year's end makes one, in the eyes of those who lack the courage to eschew hypocrisy, an awful heretic, a slug, a vile and contemptible thug.

Now, just so we're clear, I am not as much of a curmudgeon as Harlan (I couldn't be--he's had years to hone his craft and he's much better at it and far more, uh, eloquent); I don't hate Christmas. I hate what it does to people. I hate seeing unrealistic expectations being crammed down people's throats. I hate seeing people drive themselves crazy over it and I hate that many people feel the need to drag other people into the madness. Luckily for me my circumstances are such that I can choose to be away from Seasonal Ground Zero... for the most part.

In the meantime, I'll be kibitzing from the sidelines in such a way as to ensure I'll never be featured on The Best of Holidailies sidebar.