Thursday, December 24, 2009

Day seven hundred and nineteen ... A Christmas wish.

Cars and bags and carriages careen, crinkle, and crash everywhere.

Christmas Eve paces and peeks like a nervous bride with a too-tight dress.

I sail around in traffic with a cart designed to put food inside. I take it out and let it roll and tumble past the wrestler with a temper and on towards the happy man bagging and whistling and wishing me well.

The sound of bells is everywhere.

I sail around with my cart in a different kind of traffic designed to get me home, lucky if I am, and make it indoors. I take it out and put it in different places in my house. Places where I've learned over years of watching, helping, forgetting, and regretting sometimes.

I put the food away and listen as some things claw the insides of the bags they're in.

And I sit waiting for a girl to come by. The girl I love. The girl who calls me everyday.

It's time for our first Christmas.

It was different last year.

It was different the year before that.

It was different two years ago.

And there were never really two years that were exactly the same, come to think of it.

It'll be different next year.

And the year after that.

And if there was one year when it actually was the same as the one before I would hazard to suspect that something was wrong.

So I'll turn the lights on around me because it's getting dark quick. But I'll cherish the four and a half minutes we've gained.

I don't know when I'll call for them.

I don't know how they will get used.

I just know that I have to play this game just like everyone. The game of conjuring up happiness from the bottom of my feet to the tips of my hands on up to the back of my neck and the place where the ruler rests to tell me how tall I've gotten.

At least that's the game I play.

And just like I won't know when those four and a half minutes will get used I won't know when I'm winning the game. Because if we play it right and we play it long enough it ceases to be a game. Its beginning becomes void. And we hop off of the second hand we've been clinging to--stuttering and jolting us each forward move--and run around the face of the clock past the numbers, date, markers, and make.

All I know is that it's time for our first Christmas.

Let it begin now.

Let it be remembered.

And let it be different than every other one.

So far it's always been that way so I see no reason it won't today.

Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Day seven hundred and ten ... For my aunt.

My Aunt Lynda is definitely smiling down upon me right now.

See, today would have been her sixty-second birthday. She passed away a year ago last September after a valiant battle with cancer. It was a tragic end to a great woman. But this great woman loved her birthdays like not too many people I know.

December fifteenth was always a big day in the Johnson household. My aunt was the third of three children, which meant that she always had to share almost everything growing up ...

Everything except her birthday.

For many years I had renewed her subscription to Cat Fancy magazine. She was known in certain circles as "Catlady J." and it seemed only appropriate that if I got Guitar Player Magazine being a guitar player, that she get her interest-appropriate magazine every month. Some people are hard to buy for; my aunt, not so much.

My mother would always find something nice for her, as well as taking her out for a semi-expensive meal (made extra delicious by way of a 2-for-one coupon, per her wishes). Her cats would inadvertently get added into the mix and get a small present or two, being an extension of herself.

All in all it was a grand time for Ms. Lynda J. Johnson. And for a woman who seemed to have a few too many worries on a regular basis this day was an exception.

Two years ago on this day, I was on tour with the Young at Heart Chorus. We were in France for three weeks with a return date of December 16th. This, of course, was one day after my aunt's sixtieth birthday. It wasn't the most ideal of circumstances but a job is a job and we decided to celebrate when I got back.

My responsibilities were simple back then. All I had to do was make sure that she got a card on time--handmade, of course--as well as a few selected chocolates. My aunt loved chocolate. So, I stayed up late one night with a pad of hotel paper, some magic markers I had brought along, and an active imagination and drew her up a nice one. I spent half a day trying to find some unique chocolate for this very particular woman. Surprisingly, it wasn't too hard to do, and so my next task was to put it all together and get it in the mail.

Sounds easy, right?

Not in France. No sirree.

I found the post office. I found a clerk. And then I found myself at a complete loss for words--French words, that is. And I stood there pantomiming that I had a card and a bunch of chocolate for my aunt and could he please help me find the right box that would get it to the USA on time for her birthday.

Luckily, my mom must have been listening because as I was about to just turn around and walk out disgraced a woman turned my way who had been listening and said, "would you like me to help you?"

Would I? Heavens! Within a matter of ten minutes we had the right box picked out and I was putting the addresses in the right places. I found some newspaper to ball up so that the chocolate wouldn't get broken in transit. I thanked the nice French lady, and then I stood in line with my number--you have to take a number there--and waited, watching the big digital display above me, hoping I could piece together which teller had called out "85."

It's not that they make you feel stupid in France if you don't speak the language. It just happens, regardless.

So I brought my package up and gave it to the nice French postal employee. He smirked and stamped it and put it in a big box in the middle of the row of tellers. He swiped my debit card and gave me a receipt, another smirk, and then he called out some other number loudly as I walked away triumphant.

And I almost got halfway down the stairs before I realized I had used the wrong god damned zip code!

Holy crap! This can't be. It won't get to her on time for the 15th if it gets to her at all. All I could picture was some French postal office back room with four or five employees breaking off big hunks of my aunt's birthday chocolate, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, sipping espresso, and swearing in French about the stupid American who doesn't even know his own zip code. Sacre bleu!

So I swung around and ran back in. I raced to the ticket dispenser and took another ticket. Then I took my place in line again. Again! And I stood like I do sometimes when I know I'm going to be called by someone in an official position, but I don't want to go to them--I want to go to the other person who looks nicer, or better yet, knows me. I stood slightly outside of the line without being in the line--without giving up my spot--and craned my head towards the person I wanted to see, and I hoped for the best. Kind of like when I'm in a wicked rush and am in traffic and I sit forward a few inches almost as if it gives me an edge ... inside my car!

I ended up in front of the man who had taken the package the first time and somehow I managed to convey that I needed that box back--I had made a mistake. Now, this probably would never happen in the U.S., but he walked over, dug into the big postal laundry cart-type container and fished out my package ... the one for the Catlady, and he let me do my thing.

Then he smirked at me again--this time somewhat more relieved than superior--he put the box in the cart again, and then he called out another number as I walked out the door triumphant.

And I called Catlady J. up on December 15th and sang her Happy Birthday, then Stolat (the Polish birthday song), and we chatted on the phone for a while about how excited she was to get a package from France of all places. She loved the chocolate, she loved the gaudy little cat figurine that I had picked up for her at a French truck stop, and she absolutely loved the card I had made for her with hotel paper, some magic markers I had brought along, and an active imagination wishing her a "Happy Sixtieth Birthday" in 5 or 6 languages (I had even called down to the front desk to ask how to write it in French).

And as I hung up the black hotel phone receiver I felt like I had done what she wanted. All she wanted was to get a card on time, a phone call, and a couple of short, happy songs.

It was a great birthday.

So today, two years later, I woke up and I came downstairs and lit a candle under a picture of her. I sang a couple of short, happy songs into the air. I wrote out a check to her two favorite animal charities (Habitat For Cats, and A Helping Paw). And I used a coupon for two dollars off any meal at one of my favorite restaurants. I even brought back something that didn't work to the store where I bought it and I got my money back, no questions asked.

And these are all things she would appreciate.

These are all things that she valued.

Celebration, generosity, thrift, and recompense.

And I absolutely know she's smiling down upon me right now.

Because in addition to those thing that she loved ... she loved a good story with a happy ending most of all.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Lynda.


I love you, I miss you, and I thank you.


PS: thanks for reading.

I would be remiss not to give further information on my aunt's favorite charities:

Habitat For Cats
P.O. Box 79571
North Dartmouth, MA

A Helping Paw
P.O. Box 387
Buzzards Bay, MA

Friday, December 11, 2009

Day seven hundred and six ... The days on either end.

The days on either end of Christmas are so jealous.

I know a lot of people who--for non-religious reasons--could do without Christmas. I can't understand them any more than I can catch a spiraling football thrown at me from 50 yards away. That is to say I can't understand them at all.

But I would hazard to guess that my mother made that happen for me. She was the great orchestrator. She made sure the presents were wrapped and the ornaments safely put up on the tree. She got out the Christmas records and put up the paper cutouts of Santas and reindeer and elves on the wall. She made sure that I had a little something to wrap up for everyone in my family when the big day came.

And she instilled in me that not only is this time of the year special, but if you do it right you can elevate the rest of your days in each year to try to keep up with Christmas--to make them jealous.

It took me almost 40 years to understand, but I finally did. Thank god.

This year, like last year, the coming cold weather reminds me of how I felt right before the big change, when the great orchestrator passed on. I have a habit of saving my calendars. And if I looked for it I could find the date on the same calendar that was hanging on my wall that I got at the bank for free, like I always did, the year before ... when she was still very much here.

And, just as life suddenly changes forever, it somehow involuntarily retains its similarities.

The coats come out of hiding in the recesses of the closet crying for the lint brush. The gloves stuffed into hats fall on the floor for lack of remembering. The scarves get placed around necks, prepared to lose a few thousand strands more on our shoulders. And they all collectively say, "is it that time already?"

When this all happens I can't help but get a little worked up.

When this all happens the days on either end of Christmas get just a little more jealous.

I was never raised with much organized religion in my life. My babush (grandmother in Polish) was the last of the stalwart Catholics. When she died in 1980 there was a big mess with the local priest and what kind of service we should have. Shortly thereafter we actively parted ways and never looked back. So I don't really remember letting god muck up the holidays. Christmas was, for me, not about the birth of Jesus any more than it was about the birth of my aunt on December 15th (that holiday was far removed as if it happened in the summer, as per her request). This was a time for family, food, jokes, soda, T.V. and presents. Oh, and dressing up the dogs in little elf outfits. Although it really was just a switch of type of outfit; they wore at least some kind of clothes--be it a hat, a vest, or a fancy collar--on a semi-regular basis. But like I was saying, it wasn't so much of a religious time of year but a time of year when time was celebrated. When each clock ticked just a little louder. When the sun went to bed just a little bit earlier. And when the schoolwork got just a little bit easier, knowing that the pens, pencils, crayons, rulers, math paper, safety scissors, and lunch boxes would get stowed for a week or so to let overworked brains safely transition from letters and numbers to colors, shapes, tastes, sounds and smells.

In a time before remote controls--before video tapes even--before we could watch our life and the lives of others on screen in slow motion at the push of a button, the holiday season let me take in each frame and document each detail not caring if it would ever come again, because if it were done right the world could end on January 1st and I would feel like I got my money's worth.

It's only the 11th of December and there are plenty of days left of this holiday season. Jodi and I have been hard at work sending out cards and plotting who gets what for whom.

We went, together, and picked out a tree at the same place where I got one, alone, last year. The guy seemed to remember me. I definitely remembered him. We brought it home on her lunch break and put it in the corner of the dining room where it goes, then I drove her the half mile back to work. My hands got a little sticky from the sap. It smelled like cold, excited nature. That, I love.

We made a pot of potpourri on the stove with some cloves and cinnamon and allspice that my aunt had given me a couple of years ago. I forgot I had them until I pulled the pot out to make it. Nothing smells like that. Nothing.

We've been trimming the tree slowly. I now possess so many family ornaments it's staggering. This year we are making a few of our own and, at the same time, trying to use some restraint and choose each one that goes up carefully so as to not overdo it. There are a few that have yet to make their way on that are a must. But there is still--as I have said--plenty of time.

I have each year--for thirty years now--happily honored my very favorite Christmas album with a post-tree trimming listening party. That album would be John Denver and The Muppets: A Christmas Together, and this year was no different. If you grew up with it (it came out in 1979) then you know what I'm talking about. If not you may still enjoy it. It embodies all of what was good and right in the 1970's. John Denver was in his prime and The Muppets were the biggest non-human stars in the world (only to be rivaled by Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2). It's got some holiday classics and some originals played by studio greats (orchestrated by Ray Charles!) and sung with welcome restraint by a master of the sentimental. The whole album affects me and there is a certain gravitas that accompanies its debut every year.

I laid on my living room floor with my girlfriend in front of a roaring fire and pushed play ... and then came the tears. I cried and cried and cried. Because, for me, the 45 minutes of music it contains reminds me of so much. My babush would pass away a year after the album's release. She loved The Muppets, she loved Christmas, and she loved me. And each year following my mother tried so very hard to not let her absence overshadow the holidays. And each year we listened to this record. Needless to say it marks the end and the beginning of a way of life for me.

She was the first one who I loved to leave this earth on my watch.

This time of year means many things to so many different people. In almost every culture there is some kind of celebration, some kind of emotional enunciation, some kind of sharing of customs. I don't recall ever looking around and asking why we did what we did. When I was a child there was no such thing as political correctness (or not any I was aware of) and so, I never once restrained myself from saying "Merry Christmas" to anyone and everyone. Although, I would hazard to guess that if it came from a child--any child--one would be hard pressed to not smile and thank them regardless of what faith one claimed allegiance to.

Because the way I saw it then and the way I see it now is not much different. Our world is our world as long as we can claim it is. The voices carry only for so long and only for so far down the line from one person who heard it to the next. I'm telling you how it makes me feel. I'm giving you a first hand account. And this may seem like it's all a big emotional sneeze--it builds up, it happens, it's over, and someone acknowledges it ...

And hopefully, there will always be a reason for us to connect like that. Hopefully, there will always be a need to lock eyes and smile, or cry, or even look away if that's what it takes to remember why we're here.

And hopefully, the days on either end of Christmas will get jealous every year.

Thanks for sharing yours with me.

And, of course, thanks for reading,