Monday, December 25, 2006

The tree you really are

Last week, I spent $25 on a used CD: a children's Christmas album by Nat King Cole, one I'd worn out in both vinyl and cassette form over the past 34 years. You can't go too wrong with Nat; "The Christmas Song" is a musty old roasted chestnut indeed, but that butter-rum voice of his just pours into every fissure in your soul. It heals what ails you. This particular record has been rereleased multiple times, even recently...but the latest CD has a slightly altered track listing; hence, my costly acquisition from Eric in Texas, who surely has no idea how deeply he's improved my Christmas this year. Brace yourselves, everybody--this will be both long and sentimental.

In December 1972, I turned three years old. My parents and I were living with my maternal grandparents, waiting on the completion of our split-level ranch in the suburbs; Sis was still a seven-months bun in the oven. For my birthday, my great aunt Nannie, Grandma's sister, gave me a record, on vinyl, Nat King Cole's "Christmas is for Children." I can still see the album cover perfectly in my mind's eye: late-60s graphics, broad vertical stripes of red and green. In each stripe was a photo illustration of a little kid opening (or staring with bewilderment at) a glittery wrapped present. All of those pictured kids are comfortably in their 40s, if not 50s, today.

The most current version of the album is missing "Buon Natale," the loopy Eye-talian verve of which is sorely needed, I think. Because the core of "Christmas is for Children"? Is a first-class tearjerker of the highest order. For example: "The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot," the protagonist of which looks enviously on at other little fellows' holiday bounty, and then goes home "to last year's broken toys." "I'm so sorry for that laddie...he hasn't got a DAAAAAADDYYY," Nat sings. Apparently this was a big hit during World War II. As a kid in the divorce-a-riffic 70s, a few years later, it meant something different to me...but that's another story. No, the weeper I'm going to talk about here is "The Little Christmas Tree." Penned by Mickey Rooney (!), as I was dumbfounded to learn from the newest liner notes.

Little Christmas Tree
No one to buy you, give yourself to me
You're worth your weight in precious gold, you see
My little Christmas tree

Promise you will be
Nobody else's little Christmas tree
I'll make you sparkle, just you wait and see
My little Christmas tree

I'll put some tinsel in your hair
And you'll find that there's a strange new change
That you have never seen
I'll bring my boy a toy
He'll jump for joy
To see his bright new queen

With me you will go far
I'll show Saint Nick the tree you really are
And there'll be peace on Earth when Daddy lights your star
My little Christmas tree

You're big enough for three
My little Christmas tree
I can only guess, now, at why this song completely devastated me, at three. I think it's partly that reality, when you're that little, is not made up of points on a spectrum, but exists as a level plane. Santa, God, your parents, your pets, Mickey Mouse, stuffed animals, the t.v. clown who hosts the morning cartoons, Sunny Jim smiling on the peanut-butter jar--all are equally valid and sentient beings, with needs and longings as simple and straightforward as your own. Hell, I'd probably just seen Charlie Brown's limp, needle-dropping tree for the first time, too. For whatever reason, I was utterly convinced--and entirely destroyed--by this song. Somewhere out there was a tiny tree, unloved and forgotten on the salesman's one to take it home, decorate it, wrap its base lovingly in an old flannel sheet to keep its toes warm. I was inconsolable; I cried, even as I begged the adults to play the song over and over, lift the needle and reset the little tree tragedy time and again. I went to bed in tears, cried myself to sleep.

And my Grammy listened to me. If I know her at all, I am sure that she first turned on Nannie--why would you buy such a horrible album for a little child!--because she and her sister lovingly, tirelessly bickered every single solitary day of their adult lives, over the trivial and the extremely trivial. But after she finished chewing out Nan, Grammy went to my father. She stuffed a handful of bills into his pocket and told him, "Go out and find the tiniest tree you can buy. Don't come back without it." She was five feet tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds with her wig on, but Dad knew what side his bread was buttered on; he went.

Why did Grammy listen to me, after all? I was three years old, three days before Christmas; I'd had one rough night, but in the morning surely I could be distracted by toys, her clip-on earrings, a frozen waffle. From my friends with kids, I know that parenting toddlers is largely a long daily litany of tiny peace-keeping fibs and distractions: oh, the battery must have run out! oh, Barney isn't on today! sorry, sweetie, but there IS no more candy! But she saw something in my grief, that night, that resonated with her. As an adult, I can look at the story now and see Grammy's own thread running through it. When she was three years old, she lost her mother to breast cancer. December 25, 1925. Merry Christmas.

So she thrust money at my dad. I don't know where he went--a florist? a nursery? Maybe the drugstore, because I saw a few Little Christmas Trees at the Walgreen's last week, exactly like the one he procured: a tiny dwarf evergreen, not 12 inches high, a live tree in a colored-foil-wrapped pot.

And that's what I remember, the confusing Christmas-light haze of being roused from bed and carried to the kitchen. My father sat me on the grey Formica-topped kitchen table next to the tree, and my Grammy said "Look! Look what your daddy found! It's the tree. It's the Little Christmas Tree! Your daddy saved it and he brought it home!"

And I BELIEVED. I sat on that table in complete awe and I BELIEVED with all my heart, that my father had saved that tree, that a genuine Christmas miracle had occurred. Grammy came up with a handful of ornaments the size of gumballs, a garland that might have been one of her own beaded necklaces; we decorated that dinky little tree and stood it on the bookshelf, and for days I stood near it and whispered to it and stroked its bright-green blunt needles like it was a pet. Surprisingly or not, it thrived. It's planted in front of the house I grew up in. It's about the size of a Volkswagen Bug, 34 years later--too big really to dig up under cover of darkness, though there have been tipsy nights since we sold the old homestead when I have thought about it.

I got an embarrassment of riches from Santa in 1972, and all the years afterward--toys I remember playing with, some toys I loved. In between I've had magnificent Christmases, and kind of crummy ones, and at least one where Santa brought everyone the stomach flu and we all spent the hour of Jesus's birth fighting over prime bathroom real estate. But nothing has stayed with me quite like waking up to that little tree; nothing has matched the absolute wonder and joy of that instant, a true Christmas miracle in my eyes, and that rooted my love of the holidays right into the core of my soul. It's the first Christmas I remember, and on some level it remains the very best.

Happy Holidays, everyone who's reading; I hope the closing of the year and the birth of a new one bring you as much astonishing happiness and complete wonder as they bring me. Then, and still.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Winter blast blasts

So! We have survived the great Windstorm '06 here on my block of Ballard. Despite the fact that I have a gigantic evergreen on both the northwest and the southeast corner of my lot, I was not crushed to bits in my bed last night, perhaps because I lay awake keeping the two trees firmly rooted by sheer force of will. The power to the NerdCo campus in its entirety was out, and so I have spent the day in slippers, congratulating myself on my good fortune and wondering why so many service and delivery trucks were driving up my street in reverse.

Whoa! Turns out the south end of the block wasn't as lucky, and another huge honking pine tilted out of someone's front yard and covered the entire road, sidewalk to sidewalk. New tenants, in that house--they've been there maybe a week. I trotted down to check, and aside from pulling down the power lines, nobody had so much as a scratch; the tree just rolled over and settled gently between parked cars, away from the house. So of course we all had to stand around in the street with coffee mugs and camera phones, marveling at this grand, playing-hooky development as well, giddy with our own safety.

I didn't have a restful night, however, between storm terror and the wretched cold/flu I've battled all week. For some reason this one started as a sore throat and has migrated upwards; my sinuses were so swollen last night that I could feel the pressure shift in my gums as I rolled to one side or the other. I am wearing my contacts instead of glasses right now because the bridge of my specs actually hurts my face. I tried to blow my nose this morning and figured it shouldn't hurt in the back of my head, to do that.

So. I finally hauled myself to the hippie co-op and bought myself a neti pot; it was that or a gun. I've resisted this for a while, mostly due to the "ew" factor. A little Interweb research suggests that the average user is way too happy about using his or her neti pot:

The lady pictured on my neti pot package and accompanying materials is positively grinning, something I found too challenging as I hung my head over the sink wearing a towel bib and pouring salt water into each nostril in turn.

But it worked, sort of. It felt a bit like doing an overzealous cannonball into the pool, as a kid--that faint tingling burn--but my nose was actually clear. For about 15 minutes. Sigh.

Oh well. Between this and regular gulps of Safeway-brand CoolBURST nighttime minty blue cold liquid not found in nature, I should be right as rain in a couple more days. Plus, my new nostril kettle informs me it is dishwasher-safe. Good to know.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

They're jingling, baby

Sunday morning, I did the 22nd annual Jingle Bell Run 5K in downtown Seattle, to benefit the local Arthritis Foundation. Mr. Sis decided to do this race, too, but because he is an Accomplished Triathlete, he left in the first wave of high-speed runners, clad in his aerodynamic, body-hugging, moisture wicking, solar-powered tracksuit. I was slotted in the third wave of slow-ass plodders, wearing the giveaway t-shirt and with a few Christmas bows stuck on my head. There was a costume contest, which some folks took quite seriously; if the gent in the full-on Bumble suit a la the Rankin and Bass "Rudolph" special reads this, I'd like to buy him a coffee. Or a beer.

The route took us on a veeeeery subtle-but-deadly incline through the festive holiday streets of downtown Seattle, kicking up a twee cacophony via the free jingle bells distributed to one and all. Then we doubled back uptown through the express lanes underneath I-5, which was fun for about a minute--I'm running on the freeway, yo!--and then dark, echoingly loud, and exhaust-a-riffic for many minutes more. Eh, it was for a good cause. Plus the last four blocks or so were all downhill, so you could make a dramatic show of barrelling through the finish chute Rosie Ruiz-style.

Anyway. The disparate finish times gave Mom, Sis, and Mr. Sis ample time to appreciate some of the other wonders of the season...DOWNTOWN! (cue Petula Clark belting here). To wit:

1. The big Macy's, nee The Bon Marche, has for years set up a Christmas train window, with model trains in assorted scales tootling around and around, airplanes whirling from fishing line, etc. This year, it seems there's been a tragic derailment at Gingerbread Gulch:

Note the little plastic child, once innocently frolicking on ice, now cruelly pinned beneath the coal car.

Mommy? I', Mommy...

2. The drunk hobo who leaned directly into Mr. Sis's face whilst the fam was awaiting my return, and said "Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck." According to eyewitnesses, his belly did indeed shake like a bowlful of jelly, and could perhaps have used a shirt.

3. Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Sis, stop acting so corny!

It's that little corn arm waving that makes it art.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Another reason for the season

A semi-rural church in western Washington is drawing crowds with its "Live Nativity" production that includes sheep, goats, actors (in their dads' bathrobes, I'm guessing), and an eight-foot-tall, 2000-lb, one-hump Arabian camel named Hannibal.

Here is my favorite, favorite part, a quote from pastor Chris Hill: "We'd like to think that it is Jesus, but the camel is the main draw."

And somewhere, John Lennon is no doubt rolling in his grave like a pig on a rotisserie. But laughing, probably.

Friday, December 08, 2006


Well, gracious. Two different people e-mailed me messages headed "OMG!!" this morning, noting that my post on cafeteria tray affirmations had been linked by Seattlest. I did a little flattered capering around, then wrapped it up by notifying Sis, who said "What's Seattlest?" But I enjoyed my 15 minutes. Meanwhile, both Gael and Erin flagged my commentary on poor James Kim. I feel a little like I ought to tidy up around here a bit. Sorry about the cat hair and Starbucks cups everywhere, folks.

In an earlier entry, Erin also prodded us to reveal our blog crushes (via Mitali): who would cause you to dork out and stutter a bit if they gave you a mention in their blog? In all honesty, I got plenty excited by the props from the aforementioned ladies I actually know, never mind the Ist-a-verse. I'm usually astonished enough to find that someone besides Mike Pope is reading this thing.

But there are a few writers I aspire to emulate, and who would no doubt reduce me to a blushing, tongue-tied dolt if they had the least clue I existed. Sarah Bunting at Tomato Nation inspired me to start my own blog; likewise, Heather Armstrong of Dooce is so awesome that I am occasionally tempted to compose a grammatically unsound, loony hate mail just to merit her attention. When I grow up, I also want a cool husband, a ham-obsessed daughter, and the ability to hold my liquor just like Mimi Smartypants.

Of course, my ultimate dream job is to be the announcer on "Supermarket Sweep" (speaking of ham! Watch Gloria load up on those smoked hams! Meanwhile Howard is going for the jumbo bricks of Velveeta. But will anyone find the Tide Super Bonus?)But my second-tier dream job would be to recap just about any damn thing on TWoP. Then I would totally be welcomed into the DHAK stable of hilarious smart people, and we would all be BFF and go to the same parties and be the funniest people ever, on Earth. And it would be even better than the time I won the Olympic Gold Medal in figure skating with Scott Hamilton (he learned pairs, for me), or when I got my Oscar and totally thanked everyone except my dad, for holding up the child support checks, and Joanna J. from 4th period social studies because we all know she's a complete bitch. Yeah, man, it'll be awesome!!!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006


I'm wrecked by the James Kim story. It seems such an appalling caprice of fate: that these people made a simple mistake, one wrong turn, and that single choice spiraled into horror and tragedy. I don't pray, exactly, I am unconvinced that there is any particular higher power in charge...but for a week I followed this story, sent up a periodic silent supplication to what or whomever might be listening--mostly a litany of just please, please, please. Redoubled when the mother and girls were found on Monday...but there is no happy ending here.

A commenter on Seattlest nailed the excruciating familiarity of this story, I think--pointing out that the Kims are a scant few degrees from being "us." A cute, smart, young family of appealing tech nerds; James Kim a blogger, a technical editor--that detail particularly resonant in my mind. They came north for a Thanksgiving vacation, and on the way home Saturday they stopped for dinner at a Denny's, that road-trip staple of every family vacation I myself remember. Back in the car, they missed their turn, and consulted a map for another option. Probably James and his wife put their heads together over the Rand McNally road atlas, angling it under the dome light. Maybe as they headed into the woods, there was a little friendly ribbing: Honey, are you sure? This is the bucolic wilderness!

The first night was probably still an adventure, scary but a tiny bit thrilling. Tell the girls we're camping out for the night, and count on backtracking out of the snow by daybreak. How long did it take to become a nightmare, to realize they were well and truly trapped? They had a few snacks in the car, baby food and bottles of water, but they must have blown through that quickly. When it was gone, Kati Kim began nursing not only her infant daughter but her four-year-old, kept the girls hydrated and alive. When the gas ran out and the heat shut off, they started burning the tires. How, how did they make the decision that James would walk out for help? What must husband and wife have said to each other, after four days, five, seven, watching their babies grow visibly thinner? One report noted that the little girl had lost so much weight, when she stood up her pants fell off. Yes, that would drive me out into the snow in tennis shoes.

James Kim told them that if he couldn't retrace their path back to civilization, he'd be back in a few hours. Back by 1:00. I can't begin to imagine what Kati Kim went through at 2:00. At dusk. For two more days. Her husband left them to save them; he was a smart man, he knew, of course they both knew, that the lost should stick together, stay put, wait to be found. But it had been more than a week. He left desperate to save them, and he didn't come back.

Actually it shames me, that I can so easily imagine it, a lot of it...let my mind run down that narrow lane dense with snow and contemplate the full love and terror and anguish these people experienced. It's sickeningly easy, a glittering bleak fiction I can conjure out of the air. Except it's real, heaven help them. A holiday drive turned hellish, James Kim a geek with a cell phone who plunged out into the snow in sneakers in a heroic effort to save his family.

No, I don't pray. But I am thinking hard about the Kims tonight, pleading with the universe in my clumsy agnostic way to please please give them any small measure of peace.