Sappy New Year

Exploding With Joy, or Not
Exploding With Joy, or Not

Raise your hand if the mere thought of another New Year’s Eve makes you queasy with dread.

I’m all for auld lang syne and whatnot. A cup of cheer and thou beside me singing in the wilderness suits me fine. But the prospect of another loud, stimulant-fueled night of forced merriment to celebrate a new calendar leaves me less than thrilled.

I can count on one hand the New Year’s Eves in my life that actually lived up to the hype. I mean, seriously, in real life, how many times can you hope to: a) fall in love; b) achieve some sort of epiphany of hope and wisdom; or c) land a publishing contract, on the last night of the year? Let’s face it, to accomplish even one of those small miracles, on any day, at some point in your life, should be considered as cause for celebration. But to have to celebrate regardless of one’s current state (or status, if you accept the Facebook terminology) can transform what might be an ordinary night into an ordeal.

Still, ready or not, the champagne’s on ice, the crystal ball is suspended above the lurching mob in Times Square, and the tuxedo and tiara set, presumably, are polishing their dancing shoes.

A Cup of Kindness
A Cup of Kindness

Me, I’m searching the lists at Netflix hoping to come upon the perfect movie to distract me from the whole business.

But I do wish the whole world  a Happy New Year. Preferably one in which fewer children starve. Considerably less violence against women would be good. Also less war.

If all the people who begin each New Year with the resolve to lose weight instead put that dedication toward being a little more compassionate, would the New Year be happier?

I’ll drink to that.

“Community” Delivers Outside the Box

At this time of year sometimes I find myself wishing that Elf would get Scrooged.

Some may suggest that this is merely a sign that I’ve wasted too many hours watching Christmas specials on TV, and I can’t deny it. I think I watch them, repeatedly, in hopes of recovering that twinkling sensation of Potteresque magic,  when the story was fresh and Hogwarts School cast its architectural spell in the minds of millions of impressionable viewers.

The wizardry of modern media is such that most of us have become numb to special effects. You see one apocalypse, you’ve seen them all. But at Christmas time, the inner child whines anew. Where’s my Christmas miracle?

I do think Scrooged comes closer than most of the other holiday fare to providing a kind of updated cocktail of cynical materialism and over-the-top Dickensian transformation, and for that I thank Bill Murray, whose performance ranks as one of the all-time best in the Christmas makeover category.

But, after you’ve watched it a couple of dozen times, you find yourself yearning for something new to provide that holiday moment when, okay, maybe you can’t and never were able to believe in Santa, but you could sort of embrace the concept of giddy hope that keeps the myth alive.

This year I found my measure of cheer in Community.

I was already a fan of the NBC show about a group of misfits in a struggling community college in the middle of anywhere USA. The show manages to avoid most of the clichéd tropes of the majority of sitcoms. With a light hand and nimble pacing the show both mocks and celebrates its characters, who are all struggling to find purpose or connection.

The central character, Jeff, a disbarred lawyer trying to make a new fresh start, is played by  Seattle native Joel McHale, so Seattle viewers were quick off the mark for this show. But what keeps me tuned in are the brilliant concepts and witty writing. And, of course, Abed, my favorite character, played by Danny Pudi with a kind of understated grace that slips past all my defenses.

So when I saw that the Community Christmas episode was called “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” I was ready to give it a go, even though it was created in stop-motion like the pathetic, albeit classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, never one of my favorites. But Community didn’t let me down. The episode is everything a Christmas special should be, and more, much more, including the wonderful John Oliver as a sort of Christmas wizard.

So, if anyone out there is weary of It’s a Wonderful Life, or simply can’t stomach another minute of Charlie Brown and his sad little tree, I suggest going online and checking out a Community Christmas. It’s special.

Heading to the Light

Look homeward, angel.
Look homeward, angel.

I just read in a new poll taken in the United States that the majority of respondents claimed they felt they were not as well off as they’d been two years ago.

Were these people living in Shangri-la two years ago?

I would argue that the vast majority of Americans are far better off today, at least in a material sense, than most other people on the planet, just as they were two years ago, or ten years ago for that matter.

America is, for the most part, a rich country. Yet we’re never content with our comforts. We want more. More houses, more cars, more toys, more entertainment, more gee-whiz technology to keep us abreast of all the new stuff to buy.

At Christmas time this national feeding frenzy seems to peak, with shoppers rushing around buying items of dubious worth and wasting hours online looking for “that perfect gift.” Is this what Jesus had in mind, you think?

Pardon my Grinchitude. I used to be as crazed as anyone else by the season of sugarplums and mistletoe. I was born of Christmas Eve. As a child I  always thrilled to the way the whole world lit up on my birthday, and people seemed happier, kinder, for at least a few hours.

I think that sort of holiday lift still happens. But it feels like something’s gotten skewed in the last twenty years or so. Maybe it has something to do with the nationwide plague of sarcasm. We started out as a nation of proud and courageous dreamers, explorers, hard workers. We were never perfect. But we hadn’t given up on each other. Lately it feels as if we’re in danger of becoming a nation of whining cynics. I think we can be better than that.

I know I need to work on controlling my own negativity. Things are bad enough on the planet. It will take a lot of cooperation and goodwill among men and women to turn the tide of destruction and despair toward the light.

So this year for Christmas I’m going back to the basics. All I want for Christmas is world peace. No bells, no speeches, no fireworks. Just an end to the bickering. People are starving all over the  world. People are homeless. Desperate. Does a bigger flat-screen TV really seem like a step toward making the world a better place?

Well. OK. I hope everyone has a merry Christmas, or whatever you want to call the end of year rite. The longest, darkest night of the year is a few days from now. The planet will tilt back toward the light. Maybe our species will take the hint.

Lenin Lights Up

Lenin Shines
Lenin Shines

Christmas spirit is a matter of opinion. The “right” way to celebrate, or even acknowledge the curious amalgam of traditions and customs which surround the last week of the year has become a popular political football in the last thirty years or so. And each year the game gets louder, thanks to the huffing and puffing of stuffed shirts claiming that the Christmas celebration is in need of as much “defense” as the custom of marriage.

Such a clamor. Reindeer on the roof don’t even compare.

Fortunately, in Seattle there exists a long and proud tradition of reinventing tradition. Thus, while other communities across the globe light trees and candles to honor whatever is dear to their hearts, in Seattle, along with the trees and the sugarplums, the lights go up on Lenin, our beloved, if misunderstood, hero.

In Fremont, where this statue of Lenin is a relatively new addition to the eclectic and stubbornly independent iconography of Seattle’s most free-thinking neighborhood, the lighting of the Lenin statue signifies the spirit of tolerance and charity which, if I remember my Bible school lessons correctly, are synonymous with Christianity, as well as being common themes in most of the world’s popular religions.

Lenin himself, of course, was not a religious man. His cause was justice for the common man, the workers of the world, and the enemy, as he saw it, was not some imaginary devil, but the very real tyrants who rose to power under the capitalist system.  As Lenin wrote: …”capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races.”

Not exactly the spirit of Christmas. How ironic that Christmas has come to represent the apex of the consumerism which fuels capitalism.

At Fremont’s annual event children drink cocoa and Santa mingles with the crowd. Carols are sung and goodwill abounds. It’s not a particularly holy event. But, like the Christmas holiday itself, it fosters a few moments of genuine peace and hope.

Neither Lenin nor Marx found much to praise in religion, seeing it primarily as a cruel hoax used by tyrants and political schemers to keep the workers of the world from fighting for themselves in this life. But even those early Socialist leaders recognized the vital role that religion can play for the disenfranchised masses. Marx once called religion “the heart of a heartless world.”

At Christmas time, that heart beats a little louder. Even in Fremont.

Burning Bright


We had our first big snow in a while here last week. Supposedly, Seattle was ready for this one. The newscasters filled hours with coverage of the city’s new state of preparedness, telling us how much salt, sand and plowing we could expect to see.

We didn’t see much of anything in our neighborhood, except ice and snow and happy kids whizzing down the frozen streets while their watchful parents stood guard at the intersections. For a couple of days it was sweet. Then the novelty wore off, the slush turned that kind of sloppy gray that suggests everything that’s wrong with life, and the regular rain resumed its usual routine.

It’s nice to have a break from the norm every once in a while. A change allows that little wisp if hope to catch a breeze and lift off into the blue skies of illusion. Maybe this year the economy will turn around and soar. Maybe this coming year the opposing political parties will lay down their rusty barbs and sheath their swords and try to work on the problems of the country and the planet instead of spending all their energy on insulting one another. And maybe this will be the year that Americans care as much about taking care of the real problems we face as a nation as they do about who’s winning American Idol.

Right. This is why I stick with fiction, where illusions and delusions make every impossible idea seem possible.

I know I’m naïve. But I’d like to believe things can get better. Even when all the evidence suggests otherwise.

Last week the headlines on the internet brought us the dismaying news that the planet is down to its last three thousand wild tigers. Those of us who only see them in zoos may be the only ones who really care about this issue. And you could say that the world will get along just fine without tigers, just like we get along without dinosaurs. But the loss of tigers would hit harder than loss of dodos. Tigers symbolize the power, mystery, and terror of the wild world. Now they’re being hunted to extinction by poachers seeking the supposed sexual enhancement qualities to be found in their organs. Sigh. Why can’t these people be satisfied with Viagra like the rest of the world?

I guess the men who are hoping to become better lovers by putting some tiger in their junk have their own illusions. It just seems criminal that the rest of us have to pay for them.

Well, I guess Thanksgiving must be over. Back to another season in Rantsalot. It would take more than a foot or two of snow to whitewash the world’s problems at this point. But that won’t stop me from hoping that we can dig our way out.

I Become English

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, “Not From Around Here.”

For a shy child, one problem with reading books to escape the difficulties of live human interaction is that if you’re always reading, you’ll never make eye contact with another human. Tunneling into books to escape being alone becomes a kind of self-defeating tactic. You read because you’re alone, and you’re alone because you read.

After sizing up the available companions in my school and new neighborhood, I swiftly came to the conclusion that the only people I could trust not to ridicule or attack me were my family. I read constantly. And when I got my first library card I was elated to have access to a quiet place where I could get as many books as I wanted for free.

All of this reading took its toll on my eyes, I guess, because by the time I was eight I had to get glasses, another nail in the coffin of my socialization. This was long before glasses became the trendy fashion accessory worn by hollow-cheeked models in ads from Dolce & Gabbana and Prada. This was back when young women were trained to accept the axiom “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” as if that were a bad thing. Since I had no interest in any of the boys my age, I didn’t care. My first pair of glasses was made of red plastic with a brick pattern. I thought they were cool. Which just shows how truly far out of touch with reality I was as an eight-year-old.

However, I went even further after I discovered the literary love of my life on the shelves of the public library. I don’t remember which book it was. At that point in his long career he’d already written probably sixty. But I do know that the first time I encountered the sentences, the vocabulary, the tone, and the timing of P.G. Wodehouse I wanted to live in his world. Of course, it was an imaginary world, an England which had ceased to exist even before the Second World War. But I didn’t know that, nor, I suspect, would I have cared. In Wodehouse’s carefree world no one dies, no one really suffers, and it only rains if it helps the plot along. And the plots are a confection of confusion, quirky characters and adroit literary style that simply made all my childhood angst vanish like an 18th century silver cow creamer. You had to be there.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before I began to act out my allegiance to this rarified literary world. I began to use phrases like “right ho” and “surely not” and to call people in my family “Old Bean.” I affected an English accent and imagined that it convinced strangers that I truly was not from around there.

My mother must have seen all of this as a cry for help. She kept pushing me to go and make friends with this or that neighborhood child. On the occasions when she would force me out the door and I had to try to play whatever mindless game was the order of the moment – kick the can or hide and seek – I would sneak back at the earliest opportunity and sequester myself in my room with a good book.

I had accepted the idea that I would never have friends, when suddenly, later that same year, I had two. The first was a boy five years older than I and confined to a wheelchair by muscular dystrophy. Tex had two younger brothers, who became friends with two of my brothers, and I was introduced to Tex, who pretty much lived in one room in his house. He was smart and lonely, and when he asked if I wanted to play a card game we began a friendship that lasted for the next two years until he died on Christmas Day. Tex taught me to play chess, and we worked our way through the entire book of Hoyle, as well as playing all varieties of board games. I had never considered the possibility of him dying, and neither his family nor mine ever took me aside and mentioned that it might happen. When it did I was stunned, and completely non-plussed by the “celebration” of his life which took place afterward. All my plans to grow up and find a cure for muscular dystrophy so Tex and I could live happily ever after were shattered.

But my grief was alleviated by the newfound wonder of the girl next door. I never would have met her if my mother hadn’t pushed me outside and told me to go over and knock on the door. It took me hours to work up the courage. This girl was pretty, blonde, blue-eyed and well dressed. I wore hand-me-downs from my older brother, or clothes my mother picked out for me. My hair was not something I understood how to “do” and I had no concept of chitchat.

Yet, in spite of all this, miraculously, Cyndie seemed to want to be friends. Only in retrospect can I see how as an only child of a mother who moved around a lot and was working on her second, or maybe it was third, husband, Cyndie may have had to learn how to make friends fast out of necessity. At any rate, I was elated that she accepted me, Old Beans and all.

Little did I know that my friendship with the sweet, wholesome-looking girl next door would crack open the door to a life of bohemian pretensions and kickstart the motorcycle of rebellion that roared into full-throated life in the mid-sixties.

We called him Uncle Rick. After all, he wasn’t Cyndie’s father. He wasn’t the type. In spite of being married to Cyndie’s mother, he still had the fresh scent of a boyfriend hardly broken in. He was dapper but casual, sort of like Cary Grant on a tropical vacation. He drank, smoked, and told risqué jokes that made my mother laugh. My father took an instant dislike to him. Naturally, I worshipped him. Cyndie and I sang songs for him, planned parties for our parents in an unsuccessful attempt to bring them together, and generally hung out together, even though she was a year ahead of me in school. The year we were together in a mixed class, with fifth and sixth graders studying in the same room, was the highlight of my elementary career. At the end of the year we performed in the school talent show doing an apache dance to the theme from “Peter Gunn.” I played the part of the man, with my longish hair under a hat. At the end of the dance, which was choreographed in classic fifties TV-style by Cyndie’s mom, I took off my hat and let my hair down. The audience ate it up. It was my first, and only, stage success until years later in high school when I made a brief splash in the Junior Jollies as Cher, singing “I Got You Babe” with Mike Willis, who later went on to become a respected professional actor, as Sonny.

But getting back to Uncle Rick. I should have seen the end coming. But of course, in my childish way, I imagined we would live next door to each other forever. Instead, six months after Tex died, Cyndie went off on a trip around the world with her mother and Uncle Rick. She sent me postcards, a present from the Philippines, and eventually a letter from Hawaii explaining how her mother was divorcing Rick, who was on his way to Tahiti alone. Tahiti. Cyndie stayed on in Hawaii for a few years, while I moved on to junior high where I resumed my natural position in the social pecking order, among the solitary geeks for whom the mere prospect of a  school dance was a form of cruel and unusual  punishment. This was long before geeks acquired the kind of regional chic that provides some social cover in urban areas at least. Back then, there was no technological glamour to protect the socially awkward.

And then, just when it seemed it couldn’t get worse, we moved to a new neighborhood several miles down the highway. The house was bigger. I had my own room for the first time in my life, at age thirteen. For a few months this seemed like it might be the start of something good. But that was before any of us knew that the contagion of recklessness that Uncle Rick had broadcast like a kind of seductive pollen had taken root in my mother, who had made a whole lot of friends in our old neighborhood, including a wild bunch who liked to drink hard and party long. My father hated them all. I think he may have hoped that by moving us a few miles away he could stop their influence over my mother. Of course, at the time, none of us had any idea just how far gone my mother was, and how much farther she would go.

Here Comes the Night

All the best cats appreciate literature.
All the coolest cats appreciate literature.

Draw the shades. Light the fire. Dig into that pile of books you’ve been saving for this: The Long Dark Tunnel of the Northwest Night.

In November the whiplash-inducing sudden end of Daylight Saving Time sends many of us inside to seek bright cheer through various means. Some turn to social networks. Others to cable TV. Still others, creatures of the night year-round, embrace the darkness, I suppose.

For me, the saving grace of the season isn’t the twinkling lights festooned on trees and houses, or the comforting abundance of nature’s harvest, but the freedom to burrow into the piles of books I’ve stored against this time.

Squirrels can keep the nuts. I sustain myself with books.

Seattle is a booklover’s haven. Even in these testing economic times, the plucky independent bookstores in this town continue to provide a forum for ideas, community and progressive action that is as cheering as a cup of ale, or cocoa if you prefer, beside a crackling fire.

Others may prefer the thrills to be found in skiing, or snowboarding, or the dizzying swirl of ice skating. But not for me. These old bones will settle with a good book in a cozy chair until the planet tilts back to the light.

Court Date

A coach's work is never done.
A coach’s work is never done.

See ball. Chase ball. Hit ball, catch ball,  throw, kick, lunge for, jump for, dive for ball.

Dogs aren’t the only species whose eyes light up at the sight of a ball. We humans feel the pull, the ‘catch me if you can’ spell of the bouncing, flying ball. And though not everyone feels inspired to play a ball sport, or join a team to do so, for those of us who do, the rewards go far beyond the obvious pay-offs in fitness and friendships.

I came to sports late in life, although I dabbled in basketball and field hockey during high school. This was long before Title Nine cleared the path for women’s sports, and decades before soccer mania took root in America’s suburbs. I never took any sport seriously until I was over forty. That’s when I fell for Wilson and Penn. I’ve been chasing those bad boys ever since.

This past weekend my  love affair with tennis took me farther than ever before, when my USTA Women’s League 3.5 team from the Pacific Northwest Section traveled to Tucson, AZ, to compete in the National tournament. Teams from sixteen sections of the country, representing all fifty states and the Caribbean, gathered for three days of match play under the hot Arizona sun.

It was an amazing, exhilarating, exhausting experience. I had imagined  before we went that there might be a few hours here and there during the tournament to see a little bit of Tucson, maybe buy a few souvenirs. Silly me.

Between the practice matches, real matches, team meetings, dinners, lunches and vital social gatherings there was hardly time to squeeze in a little precious sleep. I felt as if I were trying to keep up on one of those moving walkways at the airport while bouncing tennis balls and juggling water bottles. And  as anyone who’s traveled with a large group knows, the logistics of coordinating movements can be testing. The fluid nature of time and the peculiarities of the human temperament reveal hidden truths.

In many ways a good team is like a car. Different players bring different strengths. You need a strong engine, good wheels, fiery sparkplugs, smooth linkage, a reliable clutch. But a car, no matter how well put together, needs someone with a clear head at the wheel to stay on the road. Our team was lucky. Our coach, Jason Chapman, is younger than many of us on the team, but in tennis years he’s  older and wiser. He’s been to Nationals eleven times before, once as a player before he started coaching.

It takes a rare sort of person to bring out the best in a dozen women with widely varying skill sets, personalities and ages. It helps to have a deep well of patience, a good sense of humor, and an inner compass locked on the goal.  Jason has all these attributes, and more.

He asked us to trust him, and we did. Under his guidance, we worked hard for eight months and got to the Big Race. We made it to the Final Four and nearly to the finish line before we were edged out in the final by a scrappy team from Arkansas.

Does it lessen the sting to know that two of that team’s best players were young women who came from the Pacific Northwest? Not really.

We came to win. We nearly did. And as far as I’m concerned, my team is second to none.


octoberblestSome say it’s the beer. Others praise the pumpkins, the rainbow foliage, the costumed craziness. Of late, zombies seem to be in vogue.

But October has other charms, less flashy, perhaps, but equally satisfying.

An afternoon beside the lake, the whisper of leaves in the breeze, the distant slap of oars as the crew teams skim back and forth,  the sparkle of slanting sunlight on the still water, the whir of rollerblades and the murmur of dog walkers on the path – heaven may be far from this. But this is close enough for now.