In glowing words I’m trying hard

This time last year I was in New Mexico and we had just opened a cache of family stuff that had been packed away for years.  Not just the photos I keep mentioning, but papers and letters and scrapbooks and notebooks, old receipts,  ration cards, newspaper clippings, jotted notes. Lots of things looked like they could crumble into soft little scraps before I figured out their significance.

I insisted on opening up the boxes in the first place because I was looking for things about my great-grandfather, who was a writer. (He is the boy in this photo. And here is a short biography I wrote for him, on a site I’m slowly building. It should give you some idea why I’m fascinated with the guy.)

I was hoping to find manuscripts. Instead I was flooded with all these other pictures and relics that needed sorting, and it had to be done in the short span of my holiday visit. I would up spending an entire day in a spare room at my dad’s house making piles of photos and trying to figure out who was in each picture. I had a terrible cold that was so bad I lost my voice, and the dust from the boxes felt like gravel in my lungs.  I was overwhelmed and exhausted and more than a little sad to be surrounded by all this family I never knew, whose histories I hadn’t bothered to learn back when there were people around who could tell me about them. And then I kept picking up this thing, this bit of wood:

My great-grandfather Malcolm, living in New York City, had written these wobbly verses and used a heated tool (possibly a small icepick) to burn the letters. In the 1930s he’d devised a hobby where he’d copy antique maps onto wood using the burning tools and Mercurochrome paint. We had couple of the pieces he’d made in our living room when I was growing up. He’d sold a few of them, too. By 1938, though, he was starting to move on to another creative pursuit. He had published his first two stories in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction this year, and he had likely already sold a few others. He was just in time for what is now called the Golden Age of Science Fiction, though he wouldn’t live to see the end of it.

He may have made this card for his wife (who is in the photo here); maybe he made others, too. It wasn’t until I’d picked it up and looked at it for the fifth or sixth time, in the midst of all my desperate sad sorting, that I remembered that it was Christmas Eve. And that my great-grandfather was wishing me a merry Christmas and a happy future.

Retreat to win

I used to try a lot harder to win at Christmas. I’d be strategic about the cookies I’d bake and the music I’d play and the time I’d spend under Christmas lights, trying to increase my levels of holiday joy like it was some kind of hormone. I’m not sure when all that changed but I suppose it was gradual. I think to some extent it was something I did more when I was single—some need for joyful mindfulness that lost its focus once I met Chris. And then we travel for most Christmases these days, and there are now significant parts of my life that are ruled by deadlines, so it comes as no surprise (and with not much regret) that the little rituals dropped away. And then do you remember a few years ago when LED holiday lights first came on the market and they were weird and strange and cold, like cyborg tears? I think that sort of broke the spell and set me free a little.

And so I manage, not quite winning at holidays. (And clearly not at Holidailies either, though if I wind up with a dozen entries this month I’ll be happy.) I did make some cookies on Saturday, because I’d had a box of gingerbread cookie mix that had been in the pantry for a couple years and had been meaning to use, and it was a rainy gray day where I kept meaning to run errands but couldn’t quite bring myself to leave the house, and instead I’d been writing and running the hot water kettle all day for tea, and suddenly I felt like using some of the old tin cookie cutters from my mom and grandma that my dad had sent me last year. And so I made the dough and rolled it out and cut it and baked the cookies in the same amount of time it took to play the Carpenters Christmas album on the TV room turntable. So score one for me.

We won’t go until we get some, we won’t go until we get some

It is coming slowly, the Christmas feeling. I think having this overseas trip wedged in the first weekend of the month didn’t help. We had to put up our tree right after Thanksgiving, when I am not quite on board yet with the Christmas, and then the usual process of letting the holiday sparkles crystallize throughout my brain was interrupted by the travel. And truly, nothing kills Christmas cheer like airport holiday decor—all those big dull plastic ornaments and industrial-strength swags of greenery and lights. Nothing should twinkle at O’Hare, ever. Efficient blinking only, please, so everyone can get wherever the hell they’re going.

I thought my spirit would improve once we were in England, since as far as I’m concerned, that is where all the Christmas comes from—all the ancient traditions and the greenery and the Dickens. And most of the songs, except for the German hymns and that one by Mariah Carey.  It’s just the essence: London is to Christmas as Vegas is to Liberace. And yet as I looked at the lights decorating Regent Street and Covent Garden and Somerset House, I felt only the slightest twinge; I could tell that my Christmas receptors weren’t really humming yet. Maybe it was the low-level exhaustion, or the low-level anxiety, or maybe I was trying to reconcile everything with the olde gas-lit cobblestoned Christmas London in my head. I don’t know. But somehow it’s lovely now as I remember it and look back at the photos.

I think the Christmasy feeling has something to do with an altered experience of time and space. To drive down a street at night with all the houses lit up feels a bit like your life has cracked open; you were just going home but then suddenly the world is all Candy Cane Lane crazy, and you’re okay with it. The windows of your days fog up and everything becomes a benevolent blur for awhile. On my commute home last night, finally, I could feel it starting to happen—the night slowing down and beginning to glow a certain way, burning over my memory with the merry little Christmas now.


2011 in Review: facts & figures

Hotel rooms occupied: 13

Flights taken: 19

Rental cars driven: 3

Roughly estimated number of book events: 21

Attendees at first Barnes & Noble event: 5

Attendees at second Barnes & Noble event: 125

Total pounds of butter churned at book events: about 4

Percentage of above flushed down hotel room toilets: 20

Estimated number of times Chris had to carry the butter churn to or from the car: 8

Public churning failures, attributed either to the half & half instead of cream or to improperly sealed container: 2

Pieces of storeboughten candy distributed at book events (approximately): 450

Instances in which I trekked down to WBEZ studios to remotely record content for public radio: 4

Instances in which I had to conduct a live radio interview via cell phone in a NYC cab stuck in traffic on the Willamsburg Bridge: 1

Words in The Wilder Life, not including front and back matter: 98,547

Words in The Wilder Life that are legally considered profanity, according to FCC guidelines: 3

Words in The Wilder Life legally considered profanity occuring in a quote attributed to Michael Landon: 1

Written complaints about “excessive profanity” in The Wilder Life, either by Amazon reviews or handwritten letters: 3

Highest Amazon sales rank: 104

Books ordered for relatives in fruitless attempt to bump sales rank into coveted top 100: 2

Seconds the animatronic figure of William Clark at the Museum of Western Expansion in St. Louis spends twitching: 25

YA manuscripts considered at day job: 41

Yards of bubble wrap accompanying wedding presents, estimated: 25

Minor finger injuries sustained while making brooch bouquet: 7,200

People who misheard the phrase “brooch bouquet” as “roach bouquet”: 5

People at our wedding who asked us, “Wow, who’s that guy with the kilt?” (It was Eben!): 8

Requests I have made to my husband to sing like Gordon Lightfoot: 11

Hours of delight this video, involving weird perspective and a very tiny complimentary soap in our hotel room in Minneapolis, has brought our household: MILLIONS:

I’ll stop here because I don’t think I could make a list long enough to convey what an incredible year 2011 has been.

And here’s to 2012—”this is now,” as they say, and may your now be a happy one.

Bah Humbug! No, that’s too strong, ’cause it is my favorite holiday

Just another night in the village


1. While people are free to record their own renditions of any traditional holiday song in the public domain, if they want to change the lyrics for commercial purposes, they should have to pay a massive, exorbitant royalty to do so. If some jackass wants to foist upon the world a line like Deck the halls with Walgreen’s Savings!, it’s only fair that he pay through his very shiny nose for the privilege. Proceeds from the royalties would go to various charities. Obvious exception to the rule: “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” because that is a classic.

2. The few dozen holiday pop songs that are now part of the contemporary canon should NOT be covered by other pop artists for a certain number of years following their original release date. Like maybe even fifty years. No, really, I feel this rule has become necessary due to the many recent terrible versions of Wham’s “Last Christmas” swirling around the airwaves, like a crap blizzard that grows thicker every year.

Look, I don’t even like “Last Christmas” that much, but I just think Taylor Swift and Hillary Duff and Coldplay and all the other posers need to back the hell off and let George and Andrew have their hammy synthesizer pop-ballad glory every holiday season until around Christmas 2035, when middle-aged Miley Cyrus can record it as a duet with the cryogenically preserved head of Bret Michaels. Until then, she and everyone else ought to try writing their own original songs instead of cashing in on someone else’s successful bid for holiday music immortality. Because one of the things that I love about modern Christmas music is that it’s such a crazy collage of decades, with Bing Crosby and The Ronettes and the Carpenters and Jose Feliciano and The Waitresses all captured in little retro snowglobes of their eras. Remaking those songs to sound more up-t0-date and/or fit some acceptably hipster aesthetic seems control-freakish and sad, like those color-coordinated Christmas trees that you see in magazines. IT IS NOT RIGHT.

3. I enjoy “The Little Drummer Boy” enough that for most of the song I am able to suspend whatever general skepticism I may have about the existence of percussion instruments and drum majors in the Biblical era. I’m totally with the Little Drummer Boy all the way up to the line “the ox and lamb kept time,” and then the bubble totally bursts. The ox and lamb kept time? Are you kidding, song? Am I really expected to suddenly just imagine livestock jiving along in some crazy bullshit Max Fleischer cartoon scene right then and there? Seriously, it ruins everything until the next time I hear the song.

4. “Let it Snow” is still pretty demented, but I love when Ella Fitzgerald sings it.

5. “The Christmas Song” still makes me feel dead inside, but I tolerate it in order to be part of society.

6.  The Paul McCartney Christmas song is way more fun than the John Lennon Christmas song.  This is partly Chris’s doing, because he pointed out that “(Simply Having) A Wonderful Christmastime” sounds for all the world like Paul’s in his living room on Christmas morning trying out wacky chords on the new synthesizer that he just unwrapped. Barrp-barrp-barrp-barrp BOINGG! Barrp-barrp-barrp-barrp BOINGGGG! “Brilliant keyboard, Linda!”  Not to knock John and Yoko and the whole “war is over if you want it” thing, but sometimes what you want is to just sit around in your pajamas for awhile.

Am I the only one who thinks this much about Christmas music?