December 28, 2007

Silent night, electronic nights

How did we survive the holiday season in the pre-electronic era? Gifts of my childhood that required electricity came along the lines of LiteBrite, an EZ bake oven, a set of trains. Nothing required more than one outlet or more kilowatts than a lamp.

We played board games; we chased each other around the house; perhaps we listened to music in the background; we talked; we made each other laugh; we teased each other; we made messes in the kitchen; we yelled from time to time -- we were vocal.

We also hugged one another, kissed everyone good-night. We got one another's attention without waving frantically to relatives with iPods glued to their ears.

That was then; this is now. In Maine at my cousin's house, his 10-year-old got a Wii (whatever that is) with sports pack. Now she can stand in front of the TV and pretend to play tennis with an electronic opponent. On the bright side, this masterpiece requires physical exertion beyond the overuse of her thumbs.

Last year her brother got a GameCube, or an X-box, or whatever $400+ video game was in demand. It, too, required a TV set for use.

This year, the brother got a computer video game that I understand some adults are obsessed with: World of Witchcraft. Or is that Warcraft? In either case, I didn't know quite what to make of his play date: a neighbor came over and played video games on the downstairs TV, while my 13-year-old cousin busied himself at the computer.

Apparently it is enough for teenagers to be in the same room. Conversation is optional. (Last summer a strong silence emanated from the basement playroom when the four boys had to cease their video game due to a power failure.)

Between cell phones, email, and Crackberries, it is entirely possible for adults to share the same disconnection. The late Ma Bell's slogan was "reach out and touch someone."

No, she didn't mean in the same room, unless your house was equipped with two phone lines and two people too lazy to walk across the living room into the kitchen. She did, however, profit mightily from two people speaking to each other.

Remember, speech? A form of verbally conveying your thoughts to the person toward whom they were intended? Who knew that conversation would become such a multidimensional form of communication, one almost antiquated now, unless you possess the ability to convey tone and mood with words alone, something that was once considered the province of writers, people who could express themselves on a page.

Text messaging has replaced telephoning for the younger segment of society. Great, now they not only won't be able to convey subtleties of meaning; they won't be able to spell either. What kind of relationships will these kids grow up to have? Their expectations won't be anything like the ones of generations preceding them.

This Christmas, three generations gathered around the electronic hearth, watching DVDs deemed acceptable for the youngest. We were seven people, sitting in the family room.

The only audible dialogue, if I'm feeling generous with my definition, in an action movie where car chases, impossible leaps from rooftop to rooftop, and blowing up cars, people, and whatever else special effects can demolish, was barely comprehensible.

The other video stream (straight from the cable TV) came solely from the Disney Channel. No news or shows that depict adults interacting with one another, not even on a game show, made the cut. I saw High School Musical. As if any 21st -- or 20th -- century high school remotely resembled the idiocy displayed in that gem.

You want to show me high school? Give me Fame any day. Give me Grease. Let Mickey & Judy put on a show. I'd even take Beverly Hills 90210 -- anything not directed at the "tweenager," a marketing demographic that sounds as pathetic as the products it generates.

Seven people, eating dinner around the TV set: the grandparents, parents, children, and I, the sole cousin. Did that count as quality time? Is that what happens when two parents think they don't have enough time to spend with their children? What kind of holiday memories -- of shared experience -- will that scenario generate?

The children ignored their grandparents in favor of any and everything electronic. I'm sure we were more interested in our presents than in our grandparents, but they could interact with us. How do they compete with all the gadgets under the tree today?

How will stories of generations gone be relayed to generations present? There's no space on a text-message screen to explain "why." Email leaves so many shades of emotion out of the realm of existence.

All that aside, my cousin's family welcomes me every Christmas, and they understand why I refuse holidays with my mother, she who chased after the waiter into the restaurant kitchen, she of the expletive scrawled in ballpoint pen on a Frette linen tablecloth on Christmas eve.

I don't see family life, suburban strain, in all its hues very frequently. Perhaps what I question about electronic proliferation and means of communication is simply due how odd it seems to the reluctant technologist that I am.

Still, I folded laundry, chatted with my cousin's in-laws, decorated two Christmas trees, wrapped children's gifts until close to 4 am Christmas eve, attempting to get out of bed on less than 6 hours of sleep. I'm not cut out for that life full-time, but in its own way, it is my cousin's family's best gift to me.

December 19, 2007

Ghost of Christmas Past

My family has a history of being clever or cute about the to/from tags on presents. This year my mom sent gifts from "the laundress" and from "Mr. Claus." The laundress referred to her having browsed her building's cache of give-away books in the downstairs laundry room, and wrapped up one she thought I would like. (I suspect I've read it already.)

The other gift was labeled "From Mr. Claus." I said, prior to opening it, is this from Daddy? Yes, it was. He's been gone almost 17 years, and my mother thought it appropriate to regift me with something she had never used that he bought for her.

What was it? A very expensive, very pretty, not-very-practical wallet from Cartier. It probably cost hundreds of dollars 17+ years ago. All it did was remind me that my father is gone, and no one is going to give me gifts like that again. To top it off, the wallet was empty.

The symbolism hurts. To me, it's a reminder that my father left, for all intents and purposes, no money to his children. (He did in his will, but his estate didn't have the cash, so my brother and I had to sign what are legally called "disclaimers," meaning we accepted that we wouldn't receive a cash inheritance from him.)

An empty wallet that my father bought to please my mother: Merry Fucking Christmas to you, to, ma. It makes me weep just to think of it. Sure, I wanted a wallet -- mine is old and fraying. But this -- a regifted present from a man who tried to make his wife happy -- all this does is remind me, more sharply than most years, that my dad is dead, and my mom is cheap and has neither an ounce of sentiment in her nor a clue that this would make me so sad.

She is supposed to know better: she knows on good days I cry at the drop of a hat, and she will never discuss my father, unless it's in the context of a funny story from years ago. Somehow she has inured herself to the emotional pain of losing him, and failed completely to remember that I have not. While he may not have been the best of husbands, he was my father -- and as I recently noted, you only get one, and try to make your adult peace with the person who he is/was.

I had made peace with my father as a person six months before he died. I suppose I should be grateful for that -- that the promises he failed to keep were not due to any meanness of spirit, but simply because he could not provide what he had hoped to offer. That's real life. That's being an adult.

In a good year, the holidays have become something to be survived. I'm not sure this ghost will ever fade, or that I will ever ask my mother for anything other than good, hard cash again. If this is her idea of creativity, spare me. Please.

An empty wallet from a ghost, a man who never got to meet his granddaughter, Kayanna Rosalie, whom he would have adored and showered with all things pink and pricy, a man to whom I never got to say a final good-bye. I love you.

This is my mother's idea of a holiday celebration. It is not mine.

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December 13, 2007

Darkest before the dawn

As we hurl toward the winter solstice, Alice seeks comfort she cannot find. The holiday season is never her favorite, but this year it is darkened by another death in the family -- Clover's Companion's father had a massive heart attack and died at home over the weekend.

Alice's own father met the same end, and while it was many years ago, everytime someone's father dies the same way, Alice relives the days following her own father's demise. Each time she remembers something different -- she remains foggy on many of the exact details -- but a girl only has one father, and Alice knows the ache of losing that one suddenly and without warning.

It was winter, too, when Alice's father died, when she received the phone call she couldn't believe, when she had to call back to make sure her mom said what Alice had thought. The memory alone makes Alice shake with sorrow.

So, it's not happy holidays around here. Christmas lost whatever luster it may have retained after Alice's father died. He was a master of celebrations -- the food, the gifts -- it was his time to shine. No one in Alice's family has the same high spirits; no one makes us feel that good, makes Alice feel adored as the daddy's girl she was.

And, face it: after a certain age, any present that anyone is willing to buy for you is probably something you could easily obtain yourself. Basically, it's letting your friends and family run the errands you are too lazy to do. The stores are crowded; the streets full of tourists, and midtown isn't fit for New York natives between Thanksgiving and New Years.

If you felt like shopping online, it would be a simple matter to type in the credit card number you've had the opportunity to memorize. Then, you could get whatever is in the $50 and under department without the gift wrap, delivered straight to your door. You still get to open a box.

The newest element is credit card recitation seems to be sharing your so-called secret code to verify your identity. It seems like as much consumer protection as the T.S.A. offers passengers in the way of airport "security."

As it is, all our shopping seems pretty much a wash. Sure, the shiny paper and bows adds an element of surprise, but more years than not, Alice would just as soon go from Thanksgiving to Groundhogs Day, without making stops for the rest of the politically correct "holiday season." The only exception to this desire is Alice looking foward to exploiting her role as Aunt Alice to niece Kayanna.

What would Alice like for Christmas? Her dental aspirations include retaining her two front teeth and the rest of the matched set in her mouth. A pony wouldn't fit in the living room, and Alice is too old to believe in happily-ever-after. She would like to see her father. She would like to see CC's father. She would like to see Dona. But as Jim Croce sang 30+ years ago, she has only "photographs and memories...all that I have are these, to remember you."

Frequently it is the intangibles, the memories of what once was, or the stories Alice has created to match the memories that may or may not be factural -- or the idealized hope of what might be. Failing that, she wouldn't mind enough money so that she could live off investments for life. (Alice will never understand the people who define themselves by their jobs; she is looking forward to being able to answer the "what do you do" vocational question with, "I'm retired.) The work place is way overrated as a place to absorb her energy, or most people's, she thinks.

To top it off, the sky is pitch-black (inasmuch as a Wonderland can be, given the ambient lighting that abounds here) by 5 pm, maybe earlier. For whatever reason, it tends to be much easier to get though the day when the actual daylight sticks around. S.A.D. lamps give Alice migraines, something she would rather avoid, thankyouverymuch. In short, come winter, Alice's brain chemistry can't win for losing.

So, she apologizes for the melancholy tone of this post, but warm and fuzzy are not how Alice is feeling at the moment.

They say it's always darkest before the dawn. Alice will be very appreciative when the sun rises again.

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