Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Auld Lang Syne” Revisited

A night when old and new become indiscernible is a cause for celebration. 

The modern young in sequined gown or cummerbund and tails know this and faithfully obey.  They spare no expense for guests as well as for themselves.  Occasionally they may survey the large ballroom or intimate living room with its streamers and balloons and noise makers and favors, and smile.  They then merge into the flowing moment and cheer with the feeling of accomplishment and success from all that has been done over the course of an hour, a day, a season, a passing year, a passing lifetime and the hope or what still lies ahead.

At some point in that evening when the fabric of time cuts through us like the glint and glitter of that sequined gown, someone will inevitably break into song:  “Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And never brought to min’?/ Should auld acquaintance be forgot,/ And days o’ lang syne?”  The song was written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns over 200 years ago.  Burns was known to be quite addicted to excesses at social events, which offers us a better understanding to the glass clinking tune.

A pleasant ditty to be sure and barely tolerable for the umpteen renderings within the twenty-four hour period known as New Year and I hesitate to entertain one more.  However, very few people have ever heard the song in its entirety and, for that matter, know what in the world it means. 

Here to follow then is a modern translation from the Scottish and a somewhat liberal interpretation of the New Year’s Eve perennial, “Auld Lang Syne.”  Please note:  the lines in quotations ought to be read aloud in the deepest Scottish accent you can muster.  The other lines should to be read aloud like Regis Filbin or Rosie O’Donnell.

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to min’?”
Hey!  Great to see you.  It’s been way too long, you know.  What was it again we had that fight about?  Shouldn’t we all just forget about those things that have happened between us in the past?  Wasn’t it something about a G.I. Joe?
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o’ lang syne?”
Shouldn’t we all just forget about things we said long ago?  To forgive is to forget, right?

(chorus) “For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne,”
Come on, let’s let bygones be bygones for old time sake, I mean, let’s be reasonable.  Your eyebrows grew back, didn’t they?
“We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne!”
Look, let me make you a drink.  Really.  This time I promise, no flaming Grand Marnier.

“We twa hae run about the braes, And pu’d the gowans fine,”
Hey, remember when we were kids and got into your mom’s room wearing her gowns around our necks jumping up and down screaming “I’m Batman,” and using her bras as parachutes for our collection of G.I. Joes as we flung them all out of the second floor window and watched them soar. 
“But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot, Sin’ auld lang syne.”
But we’ve grown and matured and have come a long way since those days of long ago.  But I’ve still got my G.I. Joe in near mint condition except for that foot that busted when you threw him off the porch screaming, “High Dive!”

“We twa hae paid’t i’ the burn, Frae morning sun till dine:”
Do you know how much money I could have been paid for a G.I. Joe in mint condition?
 “But seas between us braid hae roar’d, Sin’ auld lang syne.”
A lot of water under the bridge since those days when you did the following to me listed here in no particular order:  sat on my lunch box, connected my chicken pox, squashed my ham and cheese, pelted my head with peas, pushed me in the girls room, sprayed me with cheap perfume, referred to me as a so-and-so, ate my last pistachio.

“And here’s a hand my trusty fiere, And gies a hand o’ thine,”
So, put ‘er there, pal.  All’s forgotten.  Now how about a nice flaming Grand Marnier?
“And we’ll tak a right guid willie waught, For auld lang syne!”
Whoa!  Hold it a minute.  Who you calling a willie waught, you rotten son of a…

“And surely ye’ll be your pint stoup, And surely I’ll be mine;”
Fine!  Ya ingrate.  Take your stupid pint and go your way no more will I impose.
“And we’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.”
I’ll take this cup o’ kindness yet and stick it up your nose.

(chorus) “For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne,”
For old time sake, Bud, I think we’ll come to blows.
‘We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne!”
I’ll take this cup o’ kindness yet and stick it up your nose.

Remember, a new year is a fresh start, an opportunity to start anew all the excuses we’ll be using when the holiday season finds us once again scrambling for rationalizations and running for cover. 

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

True Confessions of a Fruitcake Convert

Here's a holiday piece that I resuscitated.  It appeared in a slightly different form in the Christian Science Monitor in December, 2003.  Long live the fruitcake!

I used to be one of those people - the kind of person who repeatedly dusted off old jokes from that guy who preceded Jay Leno -- the first time -- on the "Tonight Show," chortling and pointing at stacks of fruitcake tins in the grocery store, ridiculing anyone who would actually admit to ingesting one.

Ten years ago, I would have applauded the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority's recent ban on fruitcake in the interest of safety - fruitcakes are so dense they could hide not just a knife, but an entire kitchen drawer full of cutlery. I would have quipped that humanity had long known about other fruitcake-related risks such as chipped teeth, broken toes, and severed friendships.

But all that has changed. I have eaten my words.

Ten years ago, my wife announced one December morning that she wanted to make that cumbrous Christmas classic. Ignoring my litany of one-liners (one doesn't make fruitcake, darling, one mines it), she told me that every year her grandmother, an English immigrant, made traditional Victorian Christmas "goodies" that included plum pudding, figgy pudding, mincemeat pies, and fruitcake.

She confessed having fruitcake in the house every yuletide and actually enjoying it. My wife described the cake her grandmother made in terms I had never fully associated with the dessert before: spicy, sweet, nutty, and fruity. Alas, her grandmother, who measured ingredients by the palm of her hand and the arc of the pour, never wrote down any recipes. And ever since her grandmother's passing, my wife had been feeling a holiday culinary void. Thus began her quest for the perfect recipe.

She researched and gathered recipes from books, magazines, websites, and newspapers. Then came the experiments. With the somber seriousness of biochemist, she tested this recipe and that recipe, taking ingredients from some and adding to others.

As she performed her empirical lab work, I reviewed some of her findings. Roman soldiers apparently carried cakes made of raisins, pine nuts, and pomegranate seeds mixed in a barley mash (tasty). Some food scholars dated fruitcake all the way back to the ancient Egyptians, who considered it essential sustenance for the dead in the next life (hardly surprising).

"Hey, honey," I called from the dining room, "now I know how the pyramids have lasted thousands of years." A green candied maraschino projectile sailed from the kitchen in response.

But one night a few weeks later, while I was engrossed in the evening news, my wife entered the living room and handed me a round, deep brown cake. The top had a glossy sheen and was decorated with colorful bubbles of candied red and green cherries. It was weighty.

She handed me a knife and tentatively, I cut a slice. The knife passed through without effort. I took a bite. And then another. Before I knew it, I was helping myself to another piece. Some may say that it was the systematic deadening of my taste buds from unremitting subjections to one failed experiment after another, while others may argue it was simply fatigue, but the fruitcake tasted good. In fact, it was delicious. It was moist and chewy and laden with spice that lifted the corners of my mouth into an unavoidable smile. She had done it.

Ever since, I have been an advocate, eagerly explaining to unbelievers that fruitcakes are sort of like people: Some are dry and dense while others are packed with fruit and spice. And some just need a little extra holiday care to help them turn out just right.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Holly Jolly Holiday Final

This time of year always reminds me of that great feeling of finishing that last fall semester final.  Regardless of the outcome, the cessation of academic stress is gratefully replaced by the sensation of holiday stress and a few weeks of time found.

I’m thinking about finals because I’ve just heard on the radio Burl Ives’ rendition of “Holly Jolly Christmas."  Whenever I hear that song, I cannot help but think about my biology final at Atlantic Cape Community College in southern New Jersey because the professor looked just like Burl Ives, though, to tell the truth, he resembled more the snowman on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I dreaded my biology final.  Every time I’d try to study for it, I would easily find more a more pressing activity like cutting my toenails.  It wasn’t that I disliked the course; I just wasn’t into it.  What made it even worse for me was the professor seemed to take the approach that everyone in the class was destined for a career in medicine or some sort of scientific hodge-podge which couldn’t have been further from my own aspirations.  Science has never been a favorite subject of mine.  I would much rather dissect fiction than frogs. 

The morning of my biology final I woke up with a high fever.  I had two finals scheduled for that day:  Psychology of Adolescence/Adulthood and Biology of Our World, and I thought I would have been fine if I could only stop shivering.  I popped a couple of Tylenol and drove to campus.

Midway through my Psych final my chest began burning with every inhale, I struggled to hold back coughs, and the little dots on the Scan-Tron form started moving around in dizzying swirling patterns.  I randomly filled in the last five questions to put an end to the misery.  But I still had a second exam in a half an hour.  When I broke into uncontrollable fits of coughing, I realized I had little choice.

I walked into my professor’s office and explained to him my situation.  Keeping to the other side of his desk, he jotted down his home phone number and told me to call him as soon as I felt better.

Four days later, two days before Christmas, I called him expecting to schedule a make-up exam for sometime during the first week of the spring semester.  Instead he asked me what I was doing that afternoon and gave me directions to his home.

At his front door, I held out a doctor’s note, written evidence of my bronchitis, but he only smiled, bid me entrance and led me into his kitchen.  The house was decorated for the holiday for both sight and smell.  Hints of cinnamon and nutmeg lingered about boughs of garland, laurel and holly.

The professor offered me a seat at the table and asked if I liked mulled cider.  I confessed that I had never tasted it.  Cider was only served cold in my house, I told him.  He smiled again, walked over to the counter and lifted the lid off of a crock-pot.  What I had taken for a scented candle when I entered the house was actually the aroma emanating from this potion.  He placed an oversized coffee mug in front of me and then handed me a stapled packet of papers.  Enjoy, he said and then left the room.

I reached maybe the third question when his wife walked into the kitchen, placed a plate of holiday cookies and some napkins on the table, said she had some last minute shopping to do, wished me luck, and left the room.  For the next hour and a half I worked on the exam interrupted only once when my professor refilled my cup and told me to help myself to more if I so desired.

When I was done, I took my test into his living room.  The professor was sitting in an easy chair reading a book next to a Franklin Stove with doors ajar enough to show a glowing flame.  The whole scene seemed almost too cliché to me, and yet there it was. 

I thanked my professor for his trouble.  He insisted that it was his pleasure, and he wished me a merry Christmas. 

On my drive home “Holly Jolly Christmas” came on the radio. 

Maybe it was the fact that what I presumed as a stogy science professor treated an undergrad in a gen-ed class with empathy and genuine kindness that had made a life-long impression on me, or maybe it was the image of the snowman that told me the story of Rudolph every year of my life sipping a mug of mulled cider, nibbling on a Christmas cookie and grading my exam because without any degree of certainty, I couldn’t name one thing that was on that test. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Let's Blame TV...Again!

And once again, our beloved TV is under attack..

Health experts are stating that television influences what, where and how much children eat showing a direct correlation between television viewing and obesity. A California study said that a quarter of a child’s total food intake occurs in front of the TV, while another study claims a direct connection between the number of commercials advertising unhealthy foods a child views and the child’s weight.

Come on.  Obesity is now TV’s fault?  Weren’t there any fat little kids before television?  What about the Little Rascals character Spanky?  He certainly tilted the scales on the jolly side.

Haven’t we already blamed child violence, disrespectful attitudes, failing grades, illiteracy and a multitude of various domestic disturbances – especially during football season – on television? 

Is there nothing we can’t blame on good ol’ television?

Why not road rage?  Besides being inspired by examples of the violent highway phenomenon on the evening news, being stuck in traffic while hurrying home to see a specific show on TV will rile up the dander of the most passive driver.

All crime could be televisions fault as well.  What could be more rousing to the aspiring criminal than a slick bank robbery, a cool chase, and a mutual respect between robbers and cops as seen on TV?

Stupidity itself, if not wholly television’s fault, could easily be correlated to the amount of television viewing from the simplest, a dumbest, childish stunt on a skateboard to corporate abracadabra.  One interesting study could be how many hours big bank executives watched Dallas and Dynasty during the Eighties.  It’s surprising that greed was listed in the top seven most deadly sins before television.  How could everyone have known about it without seeing it on TV?

It is obvious to me that television, like lawyers in the Eighties and disco in the Seventies, has become the scapegoat of our time.

But where are her defenders?  Where are all those who were raised on television?  Have they abandoned her when she needs them the most?

Lest we forget that she has always been there for us.  When we were learning how to count and to say our ABC’s, who was there to sing them to us?  When we had nothing to do on Saturday mornings, who was there to animate our day?  When we were feeling sad, who made us laugh with the likes of Bill Cosby, Michael J. Fox, Tony Danza and Tom Hanks wearing a dress?  When we were feeling unloved, who gave us hope with the Love Boat?  When our lives seem dull, who gave us Fantasy Island?  When we needed good, wholesome fatherly advice, who gave us Mike Brady?  When we needed to learn how to be cool, who gave us the Fonz?  When we were never cool, who gave us Square Pegs to tell us it was okay?  When girls were supposed to live at home until marriage, who showed us the way with Laverne and Shirley?  When we would do something embarrassingly dumb, who gave us Seinfeld to show us how to laugh at ourselves?  When we would feel guilt for tinges of prejudice in our jokes, who was it that gave us Archie Bunker to show us just how funny bigotry is.

Who did all this for us?  Television, that’s who.

She needs us now more than ever.  We must rally to her defense.  We must show her support by taking responsibility for our own actions, for allowing our children to watch television unsupervised for hours upon hours.  You can’t blame the cigarette for emphysema, the drink for alcoholism, the gun for murder, right?  So you can’t blame television for anything but fine, loving companionship.

We don’t need anyone to tell us about our television.  Remember, how it felt when we were too sick to go to school but not to sick to watch TV.  Remember how we’d watch the Price Is Right and how we knew that a box of Rice-A-Roni (that San Francisco Treat) was less expensive than a box of Bisquick because we always had to go grocery shopping with our mothers on Saturday mornings.  Mmmm.  Rice-A-Roni. That reminds me, I am getting a little hungry.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas Future

I am sitting watching the six o’clock news while my youngest son plays on the floor in front of the TV.

Yet another story comes on about some towns and cities across the nation referring to Christmas trees as Holiday trees.  I look at my son and wonder how far all this will go.  I think about how it will be when he’s in his golden years; I imagine ghosts of Christmas future:  an aged grandfather and a bright little boy:

“Will you tell me about what Winter Holiday was like when you were a little boy?”

“Sure.  Come here and sit by me.  Way back in the early part of this century, things were very different from the way they are today.  First of all, when I was small, the holiday was still called Christmas and, even though there were many people trying to bleach Christmas out of our social fabric, the holiday was still pretty much widely accepted.”

“You mean people didn’t have to hide in their basements with blackened windows and celebrate in secret?”

“No, not at all.  We’d decorate the house while listening to Christmas carols on the radio.”

“What, did you have to buy a special channel or something?”

“No.  As Christmastime approached, you would just start hearing Christmas songs.  Of course this was back when radio was free.  I remember my father telling me about when television was actually free.  There may have been fewer channels to choose from, I remember him telling me, but with less of a selection came greater quality.”

“Christmas songs on the open airwaves?  Wow.”

“Talk about putting things out there, I remember my father hanging Christmas lights outside on our house. We even had a nativity scene.”

“Outside?  Where everyone could see it?  Wasn’t he afraid of offending a passer-by and being arrested for religious intimidation or even being sued?”

“Back then things like that didn’t happen.  Well, it did, but not to individuals.  Only municipalities were being sued for openly acknowledging Christmas for was it really is.”
“For what it really was?”

“Mmm hmm.  Christmas was the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.”

“Giggle giggle, giggle.”


“You said a bad word.  Don’t worry, I won’t tell.”

“I appreciate that.  It wasn’t until the late Twenties when even Christmas displays on private property were being outlawed.  There was this idea called tolerance that meant you were supposed to accept and celebrate differences in people.  And that idea seemed to work well unless your own particular difference happened to be in the majority; then it was view upon as politically incorrect and culturally insensitive.  So the tolerance movement became a front for erasing any differences among all people.”

“Mommy says ‘we must oppose the tendency towards selfish departmentalism by which the interests of one’s own unit are looked after to the exclusion of those of others.’”

“Yes, and so did Mao Tsetung.  But I suppose the roots to the change go back to when I was only two years old, right after a huge hurricane called Katrina had hit.  You see, the government realized that private industry could do a better job at providing support services for natural disasters and people in need, so the government began taking over corporations.  It wasn’t too long after that when the Electoral College was dissolved and all elected officials were voted in office by people living in places like Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington.  That’s why we’ve had nothing but democrats in office since 2008.”

“What’s a democrat?”

“Oh, that’s the name of the People’s Party before they changed it, back before people were forbidden to cross boarders of certain towns unless they were driving a particular type of car with a specified mileage and had an x number of passengers, before cameras watched our every move, before the tobacco speakeasies, before keeping Christ in Christmas was considered an inexcusable offense.”

“Aren’t you glad we live in times like these now, Comrade Grandfather.”

“I supposed I’d have to say yes, now wouldn’t I, or you’d report me to Comrade General, wouldn’t you, you little scamp?”

“Oh, Comrade Grandfather, you’re so silly.”