Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry “Kitschmas” to All…

Ah! The Holidays! Chestnuts roasting on open fires, Jack Frost with his pesky nose-nipping habit, Yule logs in fire grates, holly and mistletoe swagged over door jambs, and the lights. Oh, the holiday lighting! Not since Edward Johnson first electrified his family’s Christmas tree back in 1882 have we seen such spectacles of illumination gracing our lawns and public venues. For some "illuminating" history, check out www.oldchristmaslights.com.

Me? I’m a bit of a holiday lighting connoisseur, one with a specific eye for tasteful and tacky ornamentation, which I firmly believe harkens back to my Midwestern, Bible Belt youth.

My personal preference decidedly leans more toward the traditional, Currier & Ives style of holiday d├ęcor. I remember a stunning, red brick, Georgian home – black shutters, white trim, wide, looming porch, and two chimneys – festooned in holiday splendor. Real holly and evergreen wreaths adorned the doors and porches, white lights (long before white only lights were fashionable) wound around manicured shrubbery, and huge red velvety bows held each element in place. From every window shone a single candle to light the prodigal’s path home, while the main event, the family Christmas tree, seemed from the street to fill the entire living room with glowing warmth, red ribbons, sparkling glass ornaments, and if you bent down just so, an ethereal, golden angel hovering on top. For me, it was, and remains, the apex of tasteful holiday decoration.

Another street in my old home town has long been famous throughout that little community for its coordinated holiday decorations. Candy Cane Lane, they call it. Besides the obligatory, four-foot, illuminated, red and white candy cane obstructing the mailman’s access to the box, each home displayed a variety of lights spilling multi-colored cheer from its eaves, and a sequential three-block tableau of early ‘70’s, animatronic Santas, elves, and reindeer. There was, of course, the one house on the lane with its life-sized, garishly painted, two-dimensional manger scene complete with floodlights for night viewing of the Baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Magi; and "O Holy Night" looped through the not-so-neatly hidden loud speaker behind the Heralding Angel’s derriere. At least the snow – when we had it – covered the cords and other wiring. It wasn’t my Currier & Ives house, but it was on our way home from midnight Mass, thereby making a wee-hours, drive-by ogling a family tradition, of sorts. Another ploy by overworked parents to tire excited children before stuffing stockings and hidden presents under our own, limp, sadly artificial tree.

But that was a long time ago, and in a far different climate than my, now, Central Florida home. Here, many of us hope and pray for a cold snap to swoop down the Eastern seaboard before fully feeling the holiday spirit. Native residents plan Carolina mountain excursions so their young children can experience snow. (No need…I’ve got pictures and a vivid memory.) And then there are the lights. No, not the lovely Georgian manor lights that I so fondly recall; those are reserved for public venues and mall atriums. What “graces” the homes of many Florida neighborhoods is, well…definitely not Currier & Ives, and even less like Candy Cane Lane.

Who knows if the trees displayed mid-picture window are real or not? With advancements in rendering the lifeless lifelike, who really cares? Just spritz the evergreen smelling air freshener, and you’re set.

Here we have Santa – fat, red, and jolly – sporting shades and speeding through the holidays atop inflatable speed boats, or Harley-Davidsons, or NASCAR replicas, with a phalanx of elves dashing haplessly after dripping tattered, tinsel presents in their wake across green, irrigated lawns. Santa’s rosy cheeks (not his face, mind you) are seen clamoring into unused, ornamental chimneys. Monochromatic lighting displays abound on spiraling trees, or icicle strings, or netting draped over ragged shrubs and palm fronds. Sheets of blinking lights illuminate rooftop landing strips. Manger scenes are faded, free-standing, plastic statuary with a 40-watt bulb screwed into the back of each piece. There are Christmas-y carousels, and dancing penguins, and bounce-house snow globes revolving on practically every block.

Those who attempt the more tactful opt for cleverly wrapped light strings, or glowing balls, or glimmering tubes hung from the branches of oak trees with a downward sputter that is more reminiscent of the static charge climbing rabbit ears in the science museum than it is of holiday cheer and merriment. Some people over-light their lawns, synchronizing the display to holiday music. One homeowner in a neighboring municipality has a sign in the yard informing viewers which station on your A.M. dial to tune in to as you drive by a lighting display worthy of competition with the now Disney-owned Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights.

Then there are those who fully embrace the snow-less, Florida lifestyle, and fill their front lawns with Santas in board shorts, diving into inflatable kiddie pools while martini-swilling elves laze in inner tubes, and porpoises tail walk around neon pink flamingos wearing red, fur-trimmed stocking caps. Perhaps I’m just too old-fashioned, too traditional in my holiday mindset. I want poinsettias, ethereal angels and Nutcracker Suites. Give me sleigh bells, silver bells, The Carol of the Bells, or nothing at all.

During one of my evening strolls, neighbors with far too many lawn ornaments year-round – my township’s “kitsch” house – were busily rearranging, restringing and resetting their holiday fare following a rather breezy afternoon. The spiraling light trees were rearranged into a little corner of Christmas forest strewn with gaily colored, twinkling presents beneath. The eight tiny, light-sculpture reindeer were firmly staked before a miniature plywood sleigh. Red, stuffed-nylon Santa-doll was stapled securely behind the reigns, while winking-mooning Santa was bolted to the chimney.

“Wind did some damage,” I asked.
“Just a bit,” one of the bent figures replied. “At least it will be calm for our new manger scene.” The bent figure pointed to a cumbersome box with yards of nylon spilling out of the top. The picture on the box top was covered, and I didn’t want to snoop, so I continued my constitutional.

Rounding the corner towards home a good thirty-minutes later, and much to my dismay, I was greeted with the newest holiday addition to the “Kitschmas” house. A 6-foot, inflatable, bounce-house style manger scene with cartoonish Joseph, Mother and Child grinning whimsically to one and all beneath a pinwheeling Star of Bethlehem. Ah! The Holidays in Florida!

We wish you a very Merry Kitschmas!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

On such sweet sorrow...

Another 30 day leave is coming to an end, and I'm feeling like I usually do when I watch my son, my soldier, pack his bags for another tour of duty in some far away land. Gut-punched. Raw. Morose. And just a little bit envious.

You see, in his military career, my son has traveled the globe. He's been to Mass at Vatican City and seen the tomb of Pope John Paul II and the Sistine Chapel. He's scarfed real German beer and bratwurst at Oktoberfest and retraced the length of the Berlin Wall. He's snowboarded the Swiss Alps and glutted on chocolate. He's gazed, awestruck, at Buckingham Palace and waved to the Queen somewhere inside. He's intoxicated himself on champagne, the Mona Lisa, and other treasures of le Louvre in Paris. He hopped a flight to Brazil, rode the cable cars in Rio up Sugarloaf Mountain, and went day-tripping through Uruguay. He's stood on the edge of the Sahara in Egypt and touched the Great Pyramid at Giza. He almost got arrested for that, but he reached out his hand, and he touched history. He's seen as much of the world as he could on 4-day passes and weeks off.

Now he's packing for his next overseas tour - three years in Okinawa where he intends to complete his goal. Just Asia and Australia left to visit before he can say that he's set foot on every continent of the globe, except Antarctica. Of course, should he decide to re-enlist (again), he could go there, too. And knowing my eccentric goofball of a son, he'd muster his best Hawkeye Pierce, reporting for duty wearing a loud, Hawaiian shirt under his Army-issued parka, and cobbling a bunk-side, Rube Goldberg gin still.

It hasn't been all fun and games for him, though. The fun junkets have come at an awful price. My soldier has survived three tours of duty in Afghanistan, one in Iraq. Along with the beauty and awe and wonder that this world has to offer, he bears witness to the ugliness and pain and brutality of its human inhabitants. These stories he doesn't tell me because, as Jack Nicholson's character in "A Few Good Men" says, "...you can't handle the truth."

The truth is my son is a hero. The quiet, unsung type that moves obsequiously among us, unacclaimed, but effective. His dress uniform is covered in ribbons. He has disarmed IED's and faced down AK-47's. He has patched up his comrades and carried them to safety through fire fights. He has provided medical care to prisoners of war and to injured civilians - at least those civilians he was allowed to touch. He has watched his buddies bleed to death, or get blown to bits, or swallow a bullet. I ask him how he feels about all the things he's experienced. He says he doesn't really think about it, he just does what he's been trained to do. I ask him if he talks to many people about it. He says the typical American will never understand the sacrifice he and his fellow soldiers make for the freedoms we so rudely, so glibly, so blindly take for granted. I ask him if he's cried. He says not where anyone else could see.

We don't always think what it must be like for our wide-eyed nineteen-year-old boys and girls in the wastelands of the world fighting the old men's wars. We instill in them a sense of duty and country and patriotism, and tell them that they are preserving our freedom when, in fact, they are merely pawns on the chessboard - jockeyed for position, expendable. The politicos battle over land or oil rights or what name to call God, or some other nonsense, while the best and brightest of their country's future huddle filthy and cold in sleeping bags on desert mountain sides with a line of rocks blocking an untimely, mid-sleep downward roll . We "adults," we leaders of our country and commerce, don't always think what we do or how our short-term gain will affect long-term growth. He's right. We can't handle the truth.

The truth - the real truth - is that, like others of his generation, my son has the power to change the future for his offspring. A power that those of us in my generation (and my mother's generation, and her mother's, and so on) attempted, but failed miserably to accomplish. He can call upon the memory of his past experiences as a soldier, and fight for what is best and brightest for mankind's future. IF, unlike his forbears, he remembers all he has seen and done and experienced, both the good and the bad, perhaps he will select a different path than the one our nation, our planet, is on. It's an old path. A path that has been gilded and ravaged and gilded again, and again, and again over time, throughout human history.

I'll probably spend the evening crying into a glass of wine instead of working on the papers I have due for classes this week. It's a good thing I decided to go back to college. The curriculum keeps me from dwelling and worrying - a long-cultivated characteristic of my matriarchal lineage. I know the wine will only dull the heartbreak temporarily. My son is a man now. He has an excellent sense of self-preservation, and a lust for life which, I flatter myself he inherited from me. He's spent too long in harm's way, but he's also grabbed for every brass ring offered. He’s even caught a few. He has no regrets. I wish I could say the same.

The sound of zippers and closing drawers reminds me that we have only one hour left together before I drive him to the airport. I will hug him and kiss him and weep. He'll say, "Don't cry, pretty lady. I'll be back soon to make your life a living hell and drain your wallet and you'll want to get rid of me again." And then he will smile. He will hug me, kiss my forehead and say, "I love you, mommy," and before I can return the sentiment, he will disappear into a crowd of other travelers chugging through security checkpoints. I'll stand gazing after a white-capped head bobbing over that sea of mouse ears and goofy hats until he's lost on the horizon. It's nothing new, saying good-bye to my hero. I've done this before.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Before we get started, a little bit about me…

A favorite college class was an introductory anthropology course. I’ve always been interested in people – why they do what they do when they do and how they do it. One assignment was rather thought provoking, and for my initial blog, it seems only fair to give you a feel for me. The assignment was to answer this question: Who would you be if you weren’t who you are?

Whoa! Let’s take a moment to ponder this. Who would you be if you were not you? This is an impossibly paradoxical question. Assuming that we limit the discussion to planet Earth, where was I born? In a hospital or a mud hut? What gender am I? What era or century is it? Which continent was I born on? What natural resources are available to support my existence? How far is the nearest water source? Do I schlep 10-gallon containers three miles to collect my day’s water from a dirty stream, or do I stroll three feet for a 10-ounce glass of filtered, refrigerated, chemically treated H2O? Which language do I speak, if I use spoken language at all? What socio-economic and religious ideology is instilled in me? Am I educated? If so, how? Is my household/community/culture androcentrically biased, or is my mother running the show? Are my parents rich or poor? Educated or not? Business mavens or subsistence farmers? Do I even have parents? Who or what is the dominant governing/political power in my immediate geographic area? And is that power localized or globalized?

As I told my professor, I’m not copping out here. I promise. This is only a sampling of the questions that any good anthropologist must ask long before delving into a project. It would be fun to embark on a hypothetical recreation of me, but even as the story builds, more questions would arise that would require answers, so let’s keep it simple. If this blog becomes what I fear it will, I’ll be spouting epistemological wisdoms for the benefit of my progeny, my followers, and future generations. If this blog garners a regular readership, which I truly hope it does, I feel it only fair that you, dear readers, understand from whence these little life lectures stem.

I was born into a close-knit family in Central Kansas. Famous for endless wheat fields, turbulent weather and sky-writing witches, the state’s economy was founded and remains indelibly rooted in agriculture. I was fortunate. My parents were college-educated school teachers. This meant that, unlike others in my immediate social order, my early life was diverse – part academic, part survivalistic – despite having every second of every day ruled by the weather.

My mother and step-father supported me and my three half-siblings on bare necessities and subsistence level luxuries. Christmas stockings were filled with oranges and nuts, not toys and money. There was no allowance, no video games, and very little television – and then only after all the homework was done and checked by each parent. We had chores to do before and after school because my step-dad had a farming habit that rivaled crack cocaine. He still does. We grew much of our own food, we learned to make our own clothing, we supported community (read “church”) charities, and we fabricated most of our own entertainment. We rarely bought packaged food, or shopped at clothing stores, or had movie nights, or donated to national causes. We observed Roman Catholic doctrine and customs. My little brother was an obligatory altar boy. There was church every Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation, confirmation and communion ceremonies, lots of incense, baptismal oil, ashy foreheads, and Latin.

We girls did all the house work and other “womanly” chores, while my only brother went to the farm with my dad once he came of age. Until then, as the oldest, I was indoctrinated into both the stereotypical female arenas and the family business. Besides cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, I also was exposed to crop management, animal husbandry, and the economics of buy low/sell high come harvest time. Had daddy been a bit more astute, I probably would have learned effective financial management and money-making skills, but alas, he generally listened to his father, a grain buyer by profession, and bought high/sold low. Besides, I was a girl, so what did I really need to know about money anyway. From the gender perspective in that society, I was an exception to the rule because I was taught how to do everything expected of a male child, and I managed to physically and mentally accomplish each challenge except for the hardest, heaviest manual labor…and peeing standing up.

I learned the mating rituals of my mid-twentieth century, middle-of-nowhere farming community. Because blended families were not as prevalent then as they are today, I suffered the disenfranchisement of having a divorced and remarried mother in the 1960’s. I was taught that men are to provide food and shelter for their women folk, and that women are to obey their men folk. My high school guidance counselor strongly suggested that I marry a nice farm boy and pop out a dozen kids, but conceded that if I was hell-bent on college, I should forget about BA’s or MA’s and focus all my energies on getting my MRS because that’s a woman's true purpose.

I was told that books are acceptable entertainments, that comic books were just so much garbage, that Shakespeare is brilliant, but dead, and that the Bible is the only book worth reading because it is the source of my salvation. I discovered that God gave all man free will, and that He will burn your immortal soul in eternal hell for using it – but He loves you.

By 21st century standards this may sound like an impossibly hard, mundane and contradictory life, and in many respects it was. As a child and well beyond my awkward, rebellious teen years, I was so confused, so torn, and so unsure of myself, I’m truly amazed that I’m as balanced and rational as my friends and supporters believe me to be. Yet, it is each and every aspect of this devoutly religious, family dominated, agro-economic culture that instilled within me a distinct sense of duty, almost unattainably high standards, and rock-solid core values. It is this strength and sensibility that my friends flock to. I brag not. My friends and supporters tell me they love me because of my strength, so I must believe them even though I’m fully convinced that most of what I think and write is irrefutable evidence that I'm in dire need of serious psycho-therapy. Freud would have a field day!

This conundrum of an upbringing also fostered an unquenchable desire to learn and experience more of the world outside of the confines of my Central Kansas birthright. It is this boundless curiosity that sparks my intellect, spurs my writing, and sustains my soul.


So, who would I be if I weren’t me?

Oh! The possibilities are endless!