12/14 That One Time…

He laid in a crib made from scrap plywood, 1X2’s and a smattering of nails. The crib is long gone, but i’m pretty sure that the beige (yes, beige) paint that was used to cover any imperfections lives on somewhere. It was simply far too ugly a color as to not have some sort of half-life associated with it. In fact, thinking back, this crib was one of the rare items my dad created without the aid of shellac. Possibly because it was before he had yet discovered the stuff, but i tend to think it was really just all in a effort to enforce our memories of the crib – and the tradition associated with it – all the more.

Baby Jesus wasn’t in the crib when it first took it’s honored position in the corner of the kitchen, atop a T.V. tray that was made of fake dark wood top and completed by fake golden trim and leg. The kind of legs designed to snap easily into little plastic junctures located beneath the surface, that simply screamed anytime you placed anything greater than a pound or two upon the tray’s top. Beside the crib was a bag of hay, freshly purchased but never blessed. i have never once taken the time to ask my folks where, exactly, they found a source for little plastic bags of hay, but trust me, that’s all it was. And usually the bag was just big enough as to fill the crib to overflowing should all of it’s contents be dumped within. But all of it’s contents never were. No, as noted last time, how much of the stuff went into the crib was dependent upon us. Well, our good (or bad) deeds at any rate. Fortunately for both us and the babe, our activity was only monitored in this fashion from the time Advent began until Christmas morn. For every good deed, a handful of hay went into the crib, and for every bad deed, a handful came out.

i seem to recall hazily at one point that we were able to convince dad that he created an offense so great as to warrant his removing a handful of hay, but other than this one partially-remembered instance, the task of filling or emptying the crib lay solely on us three children. The parents apparently thinking they were above judgement and/or contribution. As to what my dad’s offense was, i can’t remember. But both the fact that we had mom on our side AND he actually conceded in pulling his fair share from the trough ensured that whatever it was, it must have been a doozie, even more grievous than our child-like minds understood it to be. Dad was never one to admit wrong-doing or error of any sort, and i have a inkling that once he does get up to heaven, he’ll spend a good amount of time telling God just exactly how He should have done it all.

Regardless, from the day the crib was laid down upon the table to the morn of Christ’s birth, we worked feverishly to perform some sort of good deed on an almost daily basis. The bad deeds seem to come a lot easier, and sadly, it took the three of us much too long to recognize the fact that tattling on each other when these deeds occurred served absolutely no one’s best interest. Bad deeds by the way, also included (but never were counted) items such as making up tales of fictional good deeds as well as randomly sneaking partial handfuls into the crib, both done to bolster the hay count before the blessed day of birth. Never was a full handful attempted on the sly, for surely mom would know. And she would have. All said, i’m none too sure if the crib-stuffing practice helped us to be good boys, or simply aided us in our training of the art of deceit. Possibly a bit of both. None of it mattered however, as long as the crib was at the level of “comfy” for Baby Jesus to snuggle down in by Christmas day (i seem to remember that one year it was not, but the memories of that event are far too sketchy as to recall them here).

Then, bright and early on Christmas morning (and in my house, it was much more early than bright, in that the sun hardly ever rose to meet with us at four AM when we were jumping from our sacks), we would get up and huddle close together under the tree in nervous anticipation of mom and dad also getting out of bed. Once they did, we would move the TV tray to the living room beside the tree. After placing Jesus – resplendent in a blue wrap and bow long since lost – into his crib and lighting the candle that was jammed happily into his birthday cupcake, we would rush through a half-hearted version of “Happy Birthday”. The faster we three sang, all the slower our parents did in response. It took several years to figure all this out and determine that the quickest way to get it over with was to simply sing it correctly first time around. We sang in haste, because it was only after we completed the song, blew out the candle and… well, i have no earthly idea or recollection as to what we did with the cupcake. Who the flip cared? The song was over! And while the cupcake was apparently having something done to it seeing as we never saw it again, the three of us were ravaging through the brightly packaged boxes under the tree, all in the hopes that the store Santa we saw was the real deal. Or at least had taken careful mental note of our desires (seeing as he was never with pen or paper), reporting them back correctly to the big man.

We followed this tradition each and every year for i don’t know how many years. Each and every year except one. As is the case so often, i firmly place all the blame on what we have dubbed “That One Time” (as in, “do you remember that one time…”) upon my older brother. He had to be the one who told us that morning, as we sat glassy-eyed under the tree in wonderment, that he had checked with mom and she had said it was OK to unwrap the gifts before we sang. If it wasn’t him who said it, it would have been my little brother. And that couldn’t have been the case, because we never listened to him anyway. By the time mom and dad became aware of our transgressions, almost every box was unwrapped, every Christmas dream revealed, and while i don’t remember specifics, i do recall that it was a year with a  particularly good haul. Mom was devastated that we had done such a thing, and dad – who had yet had the heart attack that would mellow him – went utterly and simply. Ape. Shit. Do you know how in cartoons, a character is occasionally shown with their head expanding to the point of explosion? i could swear that on that morn, my dad’s head actually did exactly that. Fortunately a new one grew back relatively quickly, but unfortunately as soon as it had, he made us re-wrap all the presents and place them under the tree again. OK, that last part might be a bit of an exaggeration – i can’t recall if we actually had to rewrap the gifts (but it sure felt as if we did), but we did have to re-tree each and every one and march off promptly back to bed, empty-handed.

We all three laid there, wondering if we were ever going to celebrate Christmas again. The pain was made all the worse by the fact that we already knew what awaited us, present-wise. After what felt like 80 years or so, my folks finally told us we could get up, and when we sheepishly returned to the living room, we saw Baby Jesus there by the tree, the cupcake in place and the candle lit. We were actually being allowed a “do-over” from my dad! Christmas miracles abounded! The thrill we felt at being saved further punishment far outweighed even the desire to get back to the presents, and i’m pretty sure that year was the very prettiest we ever did sing “Happy Birthday” to Baby Jesus.

To this day, mom always puts in my kids cards “remember to sing to Baby Jesus”, but we never do. i may be a bad parent, but i just don’t want my children to be bullied into their faith. It took me too many years to actually come back around and actively “choose” mine. Now, while we don’t sing as a family, i will let you in a little secret – i don’t sing it alone either. But every year, i do catch myself at one point or another very quietly closing my eyes for a brief moment and saying “Happy birthday Jesus.”

10/21 muscle heads and misconceptions

I’m sitting on the airplane feeling peckish.

Well, I’m not actually feeling peckish at all, but it’s such a lovely word, I thought I would throw it in for effect. What I am actually feeling, in fact, is remorseful.

When I first arrived at my point of departure within the New Orleans airport – concourse D, in case you’re interested (a simply dreadful little hub consisting solely of one restaurant/bar, one news stand, one overpriced trinket shop and about six gates all trying their best to devour the people waiting to go through them, one painfully slow passenger at a time) and found a “crew” of muscle heads at the bar, I thought for sure I had found material for my next post. Boisterous, beer-toting and dripping with machismo, this group almost embodied everything I find distasteful about American males – John Waynes on steroids, if you will – and it appeared to me that had they their bodies not, their confidence would be vacant as well. I was glad that the time I would be required to “enjoy” their company was limited, and hopeful that none of them would share my flight. But one of them did.

And he sat in the row directly in front of mine.

He had the window seat (the muscle head would get the choice seat of course), and beside him sat an elderly gentleman of British descent, who had a very cool accent and – I would later find out – not nearly anything nice to say with it. The aisle seat was open and less-than anxiously awaiting the African-American woman who would occupy it for the 57 minute flight we were about to embark upon. But, when she arrived, she also had a very young daughter in tow. While the seat said nothing, it’s very appearance gave notice that it would only support one human being at a time thankyouverymuch, and the daughter would simply need to find somewhere else to sit. Luckily, the flight attendant must have already known about the seat’s attitude on all this, and she had come armed with a second seat assignment and a question to the two men already seated – would either one of them please give up their seat, and take the child’s (just a few rows back) so that the daughter could sit with her mother? The elderly Brit said yes. The muscle head said nothing. Of course.

The daughter was resplendent in her Garanimalesque white shirt/pink pant combo, topped off with white bows keeping her two almost out of control pigtails firmly in place. She was smiling ear-to-ear while waiting in the aisle, but once the go-ahead was given for her to take the middle seat that was now vacated, her face twisted in fear at the realization that she would have to sit right next to this strange man. At such a young age, she too, apparently already knew disdain for those of the muscle head persuasion – smart, this little one was. And then the damnedest thing happened – the muscle head looked at her with the softest eyes imaginable and – while I couldn’t see his mouth – a smile was evident in his tone when he said, “don’t worry, I won’t eat you.” The girls face lifted into a grin even larger than the one she wore while awaiting her seat – almost as if she actually was afraid of being eaten at some point in time – and relieved to know that today at least, was not going to be that day.

She plopped right down next to the muscle head – and – the two of them spent the entire rest of the flight talking to each other. About everything. In hushed tones they spoke about the in-flight magazine, the safety instructions, the muscle head’s own children, the in-cabin overhead light and the in-cabin overhead air valves, not to mention the where they had been and the where they were going to next – both geographically, and in life. The mother tried to jump in whenever she could, but the girl and man spoke so much that precious little room was left for anyone else to invade their chat.

Odd – it occurred to me – here I was, condemning a man I had never spoken with to something akin to hell simply because of what I imagined he must be like, while at the same time, a little girl actually opened her mouth in an effort to know him better and sainted him as a result. And trust me, I could tell by the look in her face when they finally parted ways that she could plainly see the golden halo she had placed above his head. And by then I could (finally) see it as well.

St. Sebastian: patron saint of muscle heads – err – athletes

As this was going on, it also dawned on me that while this man and girl were taking advantage of fate by getting to know another human being that, while they would never see each other again, they could learn from and enjoy right now – I sat rigid-backed in my seat, my iPod headphones jammed defensively into my ears – protecting me against having to ever acknowledge the existence of the elderly woman sitting right next to me. I mentally smacked my wrist and pulled the headphones out, opening my mind at the same time just enough to let someone else in. And she turned out to be a lovely woman who had successfully raised five children and had earned herself a trip to Venice – based solely on frequent flyer points, no less. It appeared that she was flying alone, and she was old enough that I had the good sense not to ask her if anyone would be joining her on her trip. I didn’t really need to know any way, and there was no reason to risk upsetting an otherwise jolly traveler.

The flight ended. The lesson was learned. The experience, embedded in my soul. I felt good about what I had been brought to understand, even as I felt bad about the fact that I needed it brought to my understanding. The man and the girl made their goodbyes, and while I won’t say they hugged (because I can’t recall if they did), it certainly felt as if they should have. The girl and her mother made their way down the aisle to debark, and then the man stood up. He wasn’t the muscle head I thought he was at all! He had the same haircut as the muscle head I was thinking he was, and the same general face as well (understanding that all I ever saw of it was his forehead and eyes). But other than being very tall, and proportional to that height, he was no more a muscle head than I am a person who is willing to judge an individual based on their character instead of their appearance. It was then that I replayed the scene from the airport, only to discover that none of the muscle heads were worthy of my disdain in the first place, and none of them were really even that boisterous in fact.  They just happened to be very large men with beers in their hands, trying to get to where ever it was they were going without hassle or care. And in my apparent rush to judge, I decided that they were the issue, when I fact, the issue was me.

So, in 57 minutes, I learned that muscle heads are people too, little girls (at least one) are much smarter than I, it’s quite all right to introduce yourself to a person that you’ll never see again, you can get quite far on frequent flyer points, people are not always going to fit nicely into your preconceived notion of who they should be  – and possibly most importantly – as a general rule muscle heads, or rather large men at any rate, do not eat children.

Even if they’re feeling peckish.