Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Newsletter

Every year, I get Christmas newsletters from people who use the forum to boast about their unbelievably perfect lives. It's always the expensive schools their children are attending, grandiose vacations, the dog with pockets, or the often-ballyhooed promotions. And some actually send Christmas cards decorated with vacation photos that are essentially saying, "Look at us; aren't we swell. We've been to the islands and sat next to Ron Popiel on the plane, and this makes us better than most everybody else who hasn't been to the islands and doesn't know Ron Popiel, especially you, you poor bastard."

From the get-go, I'd hoped this would be my year. As far back as last January, I planned to do some stuff worth trumpeting about in a Christmas newsletter. As it turned out, I got sidetracked by many things that prevented my true wonderful self from shining through the muck.


--Recklessly toyed with a cranberry pie recipe that necessitated continual testing.
--There were several late night cable channels offering abundant opportunities for viewing reruns of the Cisco Kid.
--A pesky squirrel needed constant shooing to keep him away from the bird feeder.
--The laundry just piled up, despite my disregarded policy of everyday being swimsuit day.
--Angry bees made a nest at the side door, giving rise to the Great Bee War, requiring a daily flurry of swatting and raucous language.


--I spent most of my travel dollars at the Presbyterian Spring Carnival, trying to win a stuffed monkey.
--Who in their right mind could leave a mailbox chocked full of exciting free offers, every day.
--Discovered, through a recent photo, that I look less than rakish in shorts.
--Kitty's Kandle Nook had a sale almost every week on a different scented candle.
--Someone always had to be home to jiggle the handle on the toilet.


--The pipes in the kitchen wall stopped making that creaking noise.
--The stain on our porch morphed into a likeness of Micky Dolenz.
--At last, the forgetful Ruth Prickett returned my Cagney and Lacey salad tongs.
--Took a ride in Lu Lu Gilkey's convertible.
--Almost bought a kayak.
--Snagged a free parking space at the Mott the Hoople reunion show.
--Saw Sally Struthers in line at the Popcorn Shack.

There you have it. While it may seem like a bunch of excuses and whatnot, it's rather a delicate balance that allows me to carry on in harmony with my own unfulfilled grand expectations. Next year will be different; I'm staying away from those scurrilous Presbyterians and their alluring carnival games.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Window Caroling


The Window Carolers, my new community-spirited club, are recruiting for their annual night of Christmas caroling. Last year, I caroled solo and it proved to be both lonesome and dangerous. There's safety in numbers, so some companionship (aside from Lu Lu Gilkey who can't carry a tune even when sober) would be greatly appreciated.

Window caroling is the latest trend in spreading holiday cheer. It involves getting uncomfortably close to people's windows. Most of the songs in the repertoire are traditional folk ballads and madrigals which must be sung quietly in order to preserve the nuance of the melodies. These are not those obstreperous Deck-the-Hall type songs that are belted out by well-meaning church choirs and shopping mall sound systems. This is a new form of caroling that I am spearheading from appreciative windowsills all over town. Some call it "roots caroling."

I've found that most people can't hear the songs from inside their homes, so it's often necessary to sing near a window, and sometimes it's best to check and see if they are listening. This somewhat personal style (which I've had to explain to law enforcement on numerous occasions) takes some time getting used to, but in the end, usually turns out to be very rewarding.

For practical reasons, the Window Carolers only sing at homes where the drapes have been left open. This is strictly a tactic that lets us know we are being appreciated. No one likes standing out in the snow, singing to the side of a building, taking a chance that the beautifully crafted melodies are simply dissolved into the cold night air. The window carolers want to be certain of an audience. Occasionally there are misunderstandings as to the intent of the caroling, and sometimes a friendly smile will smooth things over. But other times, it's necessary to sing while fleeing, so bringing any bulky instruments is not advised. My instrument of choice is a ukulele; when pressed, I can run pretty fast with it.

A few years ago, I caroled as a duo with Duane Jembly, and he insisted on bringing his stand-up bass. Well, of course, carrying that lifeboat-sized hindrance made him easy prey for the first irate homeowner on our route. It cost me fifty dollars for Duane's bail, and his bass was damaged while being loaded into the squad car.

So please join me on Christmas Eve and help make window caroling a time-honored seasonal tradition. Our first stop will be at Lu Lu Gilkey's house. She's promised to leave all the curtains open and will welcome all carolers inside to sample her holiday beverages. In years past, the caroling has gotten mired at Lu Lu's, so it will be necessary to muster our focus and move on after a few goodwill drinks.

Dress warm, wear dark clothing, and bring a good pair of running shoes. No cameras, please; they can be confiscated and used as evidence against the mission of the Window Carolers. And bring fifty dollars, just in case.
Don't make me go out alone; I'll never make it past Lu Lu's.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pastry Sculpture Class

I'm enrolled in a pastry sculpture class where we eat what we make. Each class is devoted to making a specific item out of pastry. The sculpture is supposed to be something that is troubling, bothersome, or connected to some kind of life stumbling block. Once our work is completed, it is baked, decorated, then consumed. It's the latest therapeutic trend. The star of the class, Denise Higley, said it helped her deal with her job as a school bus driver. She made and ate a good-sized yellow school bus during every session (she also put on quite a bit of weight during the process, but as Chef Garth, our pastry therapist says, "Everything has a price").

Most people make miniature versions of childhood houses, old schools, and such. My specialty is making miniature versions of people I dislike, but I find it disturbing to eat them so I bring them home. This flies in the face of the class goals (which is to devour your demons), but when I look at the little people I've made, I often begin to take their side, and generally come to the conclusion that it is me, and not they, who is troublesome. The figures wait patiently on a special shelf in my tiki room and, though some mock me in their own silent way, others appear worried about their fate.

My creations don't speak (I'm not crazy) but one, the "salty waitress at the diner," changes positions ever so slightly when I'm out of the room and is gradually developing a scornful demeanor. Not that I'm afraid or anything, but it is cause for concern.

Another one, the chubby Mr. Waldron, my creepy 7th grade science teacher with the slicked-back Dracula-hair, is still creepy enough that I avoid looking at him, and in fact, in honor of his own ineffective and hurtful disciplinary technique, I'm ignoring him and have faced him towards the wall. What goes around, comes around, I like to say.

Then there's the series of pretty girls who ignored me in high school. This is a very large grouping, and I had to build another shelf in order to accommodate their growing numbers, as each class session yields another one or two (the cheerleaders keep to themselves in a small huddle, and in their pastry-selves, as in high school, they don't mingle with the other girls).

One evening, before class began, Chef Garth pulled me aside and said it was necessary of me to eat one of my works in front of the class, as my lack of consumption was undermining the direction of the therapy. Apparently, a few of the more emotionally-fragile class members had stopped baking entirely. So, to boost the spirit of the class to dizzying heights, I made a pastry version of Narrow Bob, a self-important co-worker who makes disparaging remarks about hippies, and is a primary suspect in the taffy apple theft from my lunch. To show my displeasure with his world-view, I crafted his head upon David Crosby's body, complete with long hair, a bushy mustache, and a fringe jacket. And I molded his two fingers into the "peace sign." It was, perhaps, my finest work, and rivaled in size to one of Denise's school buses.

When Narrow Bob was pulled from the oven and properly frosted, I gave a little speech about what kind of a person he was, and promptly bit off a hunk of his mustache. The class applauded, and in a moment of glorious abandonment, I gestured toward the figure and welcomed everyone to dig in. I don't know if it was the rich butter-cream frosting, their sympathy with me, or their dislike for Narrow Bob, but they proceeded to dig at Bob like jackals on an antelope carcass. In a matter of a few minutes, Bob was nothing but a few crumbs on a cookie sheet.

Once home, my celebrity subsided and I was able to reflect on the effectiveness of the therapy. I felt a little sorry for Narrow Bob and managed to save some of his crumbs. But I'm still not eating my collection of pastry figures (even though I promised Chef Garth I'd begin a little nibbling in my spare time). I've grown accustomed to their presence and would miss them if they were gone. Instead, I made a mental note to ask the paint guy at Lou's Hardware if he could recommend a high quality marine varnish that would preserve pastry for an extended period of time.

And I placed Bob's crumbs on my display shelf, which I believe, shows some progress. When I look at the little pile of Bob crumbs, I think of him as Crummy Bob, and he doesn't seem so menacing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Fishbowl Theatre

For two years we had no drapes, curtains, window treatments or whatever you'd like to call them; nothing covering our sizable bay window that looks out onto the street. During the evening, while we sat in our living room with the lights on, it felt like we were living in a fish bowl. People walked by and waved to us, and some began to comment on our furnishings. Once, I bumped into Gina Torpe at the Bowl and Roll, and she made a comment about our easy chair not matching the couch and mentioned a place where they did reupholstering for a reasonable price. She, of course, was correct, the chair didn't match the couch, but what was more unsettling is that Gina had never set foot in our house.

I've been told I have no decorating style so my lovely wife was handling the drapery situation, but two years was an awfully long time to be playing Yahtzee with all the world watching. I dropped hints, big hints. Like one night, I wore a scuba mask complete with a snorkel, swim fins, and bathing suit while sitting in the chair, reading National Geographic magazine. My wife said, "Who are you supposed to be, Jacques Cousteau or something?"
"No," I replied, "It's just that if we are going to live in a fish bowl, we might as well dress for the occasion." The intention was to lighten the gravity of the situation, but the whole thing backfired when she stormed out of the room, and in my haste to follow and apologize, one of my swim fins got snagged in the carpet (those floppy fins are not made for walking; it's no wonder it took aquatic life so long to evolve onto land). I tripped and accidentally broke her Fred and Ethyl Mertz ceramic action figures. "Nice going Jacques," was all she said before going upstairs to bed.

Some say the next step was drastic. I didn't want to do it, but it was really one of the few alternatives left open to me. One afternoon while my wife was out shopping, I concocted a simple a sign with white poster board. It filled the entire window. The sign read "Drapes Wanted, Top Dollar Paid," and could be read clearly from the street. I checked to make sure the effort was not wasted. The clever strategy doubled as both a plea for service and a temporary privacy curtain.

The first call was from the people across the street, wondering if this was an effective strategy for seeking a service. Interwoven in their inquiry was the fact that they enjoyed watching us at night; plainly revealed when they mentioned that we'd almost become a part of their family and really enjoyed the skin diver outfit.

Upon my wife's arrival, her displeasure was noticeable. The sight of my poster-board being ripped from our picture window and torn into little pieces was unsettling. The "little pieces" part revealed how my sometimes-even-tempered wife felt about the advertisement. So nothing more was mentioned about it or the lack of drapery. We went on living as before, with the world as an audience. Only, once it became apparent that the Peepers across the street were watching on a regular basis, a new lease was added to my life. Little character sketches began appearing for them right in our very living room; after all, as they said, we're almost family.

My first costume was Zorro. It was pretty easy. I made the cape from an old black sheet and used a bandanna for the mask. I waited until way after dark before turning on every light in the living room and dashing feverishly around the coffee table, cutting signature "Z's" in the air with a broom-handle sword. Only when my cape occasionally blocked the TV, did my wife make any comment, saying things like, "could you please play outside with the other children." It became apparent that I married someone with no appreciation for the theatre (this is why it's best to live with a person before making any kind of commitment). But the Peepers loved every minute, revealed the next day when there was a finger-drawn "Z!" in the dust on my car door.

That little "Z!" was inspiring, and I began to understand the lure of the stage. It wasn't long before most of my time was spent thinking of new characters as well as sketches to go along with them. The costumes were put together in the kitchen, so as not to spoil the show by revealing them prior to the performance.

One of my favorites was "The Morton Salt Girl." It truly rivaled Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie, though Peggy Woolley, who walks her dog past our house every night, said the rubber boots gave the character a Gorton's Fisherman look. The big salt shaker was made from a plastic bucket, and the umbrella, well who doesn't have an umbrella. I waited for a rainy night to add a sense of realism to the show. It was a stellar performance and despite twirling the umbrella around the room while doing my best version of "Singing in the Rain," no furniture was damaged. Of course there were the sarcastic comments from my wife, delivered, while knitting, without missing a stitch, "Too bad we don't have a dog to pull on the back of your underpants; you're a dead ringer for that Coppertone girl." This thinly-veiled effort to insult my theatrical ability left me speechless and provided an insight as to how actors must suffer in silence when they receive bad reviews, despite what they consider the finest work of their careers.

The whole thing came to an end when, at last, drapes were installed in the living room window. Nice drapes, plain off-white, done by a woman named Annie, hired by my wife. So the Fishbowl Theatre is now closed and the costumes, Abe Lincoln, Tonto, Jiminy Cricket, Merv Griffin, along with several members of The Village People, have been put to rest. Many of the characters were historically significant, and my feeling is the Fishbowl Theatre was both entertaining and enlightening. I miss the performances, but frankly, the pressure of coming up with new characters that were believable, as well as possessing a certain amount of depth, was beginning to wear on me.

I saw the Peepers the other day, and they, too, seemed genuinely maudlin, staring blankly at the ground like they were searching for lost coins or answers to something. It's a little boastful, but I take pride in knowing that the Fishbowl Theatre, however brief its tenure, made the lives of the people on my block all the richer for its existence. We all mourn it's closing, but now at last I can sit in our living room in my underpants without fear of criticism from people other than the knitting theatre critic.