Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Nice sky tonight to end the old year.

I'm pretty grinchy about Christmas movies. Never seen White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Miracle on 34th Street. Not even A Christmas Story (gasp!). Excepting Charlie Brown and that ancient stop-motion Rudolf (which rocks), I don't like any of the old animated TV "classics."

But I love, absolutely love, It's a Wonderful Life. Dark and moving, complex and profound. Zuzu's petals gets me every time.

Pretty fond of Bad Santa too.

Dock Ellis, the guy who pitched a no-hitter on acid, as well as once tried to hit every batter in the Cincinatti Reds line-up, died back on December 20. In our homogenized world, his full-tilt craziness will be missed.

The girls got Rumplestiltskin for Christmas. What a gloriously weird, dark story. I had forgotten. Everyone is so mean! The girl's Father, the King, Rumplestiltskin. She's pretty much all alone. And faces death every night. But ends up living happily ever after.

Although she's still married to that creepy King.

Puked all day yesterday. Yikes. The stomach flu, I assume. All worn out today. My New Years celebration will consist of snuggling in bed with the lil Hucky and watching some calm, undemanding romantic comedy. I'll be asleep well before midnight. Still, not a bad way to finish out the year.

Hope you have a happy New Year yourself.

Monday, December 29, 2008


I try not to put too much pressure on Christmas Day itself; there seems to be a little too much weight on it for one day to reasonably and realistically bear. I like the odd moments at the periphery of things: decorating the tree, putting up the lights, the lazy post-Christmas days of games and reading and cookies (parenthetical semi-original cookie joke: I was worried I would nutmeg a good husband, but my wife assure me she's never cinnamon so handsome before). With all that said, this was a good Christmas. Relatively low key, no drama, no present-overload, everyone loved what they got. My wife got the aforementioned memory cookies and an mp3 player, I got tons of books, and the girls got a Wii.

Yes, a Wii.

Oh, my.

They've been pretty TV-deprived up to now, maybe 2 hours a month. Not because we're anti-TV zealots so much as, prior to being adopted by us, they were dumped in front of the TV and ignored all day. When school starts we'll enforce the 1 hour a day, after homework is done rule. Bur right now, in the netherworld between Christmas and New Year's, it's a video game orgy.

I can literally play video games all day long.



We went to church today. Interesting. I thought parenthood would make me more religious; it has instead made me deeply suspicious of religion. I don't want them to get their fingers inside my children's heads. But the girls are curious, and they need to make up their own minds, and the questions church raises are good questions that I enjoy discussing.

Besides, this was a Unitarian church, barely even a church at all. Much blander than the Southern Baptist congregations I grew up in. An emphasis on community, which was nice. But, oddly, I missed the drama and sturm und drang of those crazy Baptists I grew up with.

We shall see where this all leads in the coming year.

I start The Novel on Friday.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas After All, And After All A Good Night!

Sporadically, I give the Huxster "memory cookies" for Christmas and/or her birthday. It's an idea I stole from Joan Didion; friends told her they always forgot all the cute things their kids said and did when they were young, so her husband wrote them down on scraps of paper so they wouldn't forget them. So that's what I do (sort of, it's a word document I keep on our network so I can access it from anywhere in the house whenever the notion strikes). Then, come gift time, I write then on slips of construction paper and put them in a pretty bag or box or, in one case, a vintage metal Beatles lunch box.

We're up to 150-ish of them. Here's some picks from the latest batch:

Our eldest calling pre-kindergarten "prettygarden"

Miss Muffett eating her turds and whey

The New Hamster primary

In kindergarten we have hookers for our coats

Can Santa even see us when we’re naked?

Our youngest putting fake fingernails on her toenails

Calling their tongues "lickers"

Our eldest asking if her pimple was a new nipple

Our youngest riding down the street on her tricycle, yelling "Merry Christmas After All, And After All A Good Night!"

Thursday, December 18, 2008


I wrote this last Christmas, forgot about it for almost a year, dug it up last month and found I still kind of liked it, well enough to submit it to a magazine (no response yet). It's about 1000 words, and a pretty fast read. I was going for a lean speed to weight ratio when I wrote it. Anyway. Merry Christmas.


The Christmas tree was up by the first weekend in December and fully decorated by Sunday night, just before prime-time TV, but all feelings of accomplishment faded when Renfield the cat jumped headlong from the entertainment center onto the top of the tree and rode it down like Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove, a movie Bob loved enough to have viewed multiple times (Karen had never seen it). There was surprisingly little calamity in the event; the lower limbs of the tree acted like bumpers and cushioned the fall so that the sound of the collision between tree and floor was more whoosh than crash. A few ornaments broke. Bob and Karen had been living together for just under six months, and out of their parent’s homes for only a few years, so the ornaments they owned were primarily mix-and-match second-tier cast-offs from immediate family. Nothing of great sentimental or monetary value. They had no memories of past Christmases, no established traditions. It was all one big blank slate, begging to be written upon.

They revved up the Tivo after hearing the crash, turned off the TV, and set about cleaning up the mess. The cat was long gone, hiding under the bed. They hoisted the thing back up without too much trouble and leaned it against the fake veneer of the entertainment center.

Upon examining the crime scene they found amid the debris a plaster hand-cast ornament from Karen’s childhood, faded gold paint along the periphery, the dirty white of decades-old plaster coloring the handprint itself, fingerprints and palm lines still visible. It was broken into five or six pieces, fairly cleanly. Bob was mildly surprised that Karen didn’t seem to care it was broken. It seemed the kind of thing one should express remorse for, if it were to break. Something about memory, something about the passage of time. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

They swept up the broken ornaments and cast-off pine needles and decided to put off remounting the tree until the next day. After Karen went to bed Bob dug the plaster pieces out of the garbage, then stayed up and glued it back together while watching generic late-night holiday fare, the bottle of Elmer’s sitting midway between his short glass of Jameson’s and a smoldering joint balanced on the edge of the ashtray. He didn’t do a perfect job of it--lines of glue and clearly discernable gaps showed between the pieces--but he thought he’d get enough credit for the effort to warrant the label of Christmas gift.

The next day after work they attempted to put the tree back upright again, but gave up after less than a half-hour’s effort. The cheap sheet-metal base from Walgreen’s was hopelessly askew, the eye-bolts that screwed into the tree no longer in line with the threads. Bob leaned the tree back against the entertainment center, promising to buy a new base for it the next day.

He never did. It grew to be a joke, first among them and then their friends, as the days passed and the tree stayed leaning in place. All manner of improbable solutions were offered to get the thing to stand upright, but none were taken. They accepted it as it was, in all its off-balance glory. They replaced the missing ornaments that had fallen in the original spill, put water in the bowl of the base where the bottom of the tree still sat, even began putting their presents under it when it became clear its temporary position was trending toward the permanent. When Christmas morning came they talked about how the tree had made the Christmas memorable, how they would reminisce about it for Christmases to come.

She thought the repaired handprint ornament was a sweet gesture, and told him so, kissing him on the cheek.

The novelty of the leaning tree quickly waned after Christmas Day, no longer a future amusing anecdote in the making. It was merely in the way. Annoying. The tree was shedding its needles at an alarming rate. The branches were beginning to droop, dropping ornaments on the floor almost daily for Renfield to bat around. They had to lean around its considerable bulk to insert discs into the DVD player. One loop of lights had fallen to the floor, several bulbs crushed beneath heedless sneakers and winter boots.

On New Year’s Eve one of Karen’s friends stumbled drunkenly into it, resulting in another fall and an ill-conceived group attempt to lean it back into its former position, but all it meant by the next day was a whole new pile of dead needles and more broken ornaments to sweep up.

The cat took to pissing on it in early January, as the last of the bowl games were petering out, and Bob and Karen knew it was time for the tree to go. It was a parody of a tree, an imitation. It reminded Bob of those inspirational movies that popped up at the multiplexes this time of year, stories that weren’t true, exactly, but “inspired by actual events.” It was a Christmas tree inspired by actual Christmas trees. They took off the ornaments, the lights, the tinsel and garlands and packed them haphazardly away, then loaded the denuded tree into the back of a friend’s pickup and took it to the dump.

Bob and Karen broke up just after Valentine’s Day and, like the fall of the tree, there was surprisingly little calamity in the event. Friends and trips home and a steady flow of liquor helped cushion the fall. A few years later Bob was opening boxes of Christmas gear--new tree, new house, new town--and found the hastily repaired plaster hand-cast, buried under a wreath in the corner of a box. The glue has turned clear, and he ran his finger along the ridge of the repair, the gaps now bridged, the texture smooth and hard, like a scar. He could still make out the fingerprints, the palm lines in the plaster. He wrapped the ornament in tissue paper and sent it to the last known address he had for her, with a pleasant if somewhat impersonal note of explanation, and no return address. He wasn’t sure why. Something about memory. Something about the passage of time. It was clearly not an ornament that belonged on his tree, but didn’t seem to be the kind of thing that should be thrown away.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Open Source Santa

This program has been around for awhile, and I've been meaning to blog about it since I discovered it, but with school out for two weeks and a great need to keep the kids occupied after all those plastic Christmas toys from Wal-mart break into ten thousand pieces, I figured the timing was good.

It's called Tux Paint, and it's basically free, open source Photoshop for kids. Incredibly intuitive interface: my kids got on and just went nuts, including discovering lots of stuff I didn't know was on there. You can draw and paint with the mouse, distort, add ripples and bubbles and blurs and smudges and shapes and patterns. The coolest bit is the stamps: pre-built images of ducks and planets and hats and spiders that you can put on a picture by just clicking on it. And if you save a photo as a .bmp, knock it down to 600-ish pixels wide, and save it in the stamps directory of the program, you can import your own photos! Which is what I've done below.

Did I mention it's free? Get it here.

I can't recommend this program enough. Big Fun.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I am teaching the eldest little clowncar to play checkers (I'd rather rip out my teeth with pliers than play Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, but I'll play checkers til the cows come home). Already, she's pretty good. But I'm stumbling across an issue no doubt encountered by countless parents before me: how hard do you try to win?

Clearly, I can't let her win, as she won't learn how to play - no strategy, no planning ahead, no joy of play. Just mindless self-esteem building that won't amount to much because it's false.

At the same time, I don't want to crush her like a grape. No joy of play there either. She'll never want to play again.

I'm gradually - and happily - learning the middle ground here. When she makes a mistake, gently show her the mistake before you take advantage (but take advantage). Occasionally make little clucking noises when she starts to make a bad move. And, throw her a bone every once in a while. Put a checker in harm's way and see if she jumps it. Pass over the occasionally gapingly obvious double or triple jump available to me.

She hasn't beat me yet. But she's caught me off-guard with a jump a couple of times now. And yesterday she even hit me with her first double jump she figured out all for herself.

Few things in life are as satisfying as your first double jump.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Secret Life of Lawns, Part Two

No one saw it but us.

A bright, relatively warm December morning, and the little clowncars were "helping" me hang Christmas lights while Hucky made preparations for the upcoming trip to chez Dancehall. There was nobody else outside. It's tempting to draw out the obvious moral that no one leaves their houses anymore, except to get in their car and drive somewhere, but I don't actually know that to be true. Only that it's true where I live.

Anyway. Me, the girls, the Christmas lights. A deer came trotting from out of the parking lot of the little community college that anchors one end of our block, then made its way across the trio of perfectly manicured lawns across the street, effortlessly silent. I shushed the kids and pointed.

"A reindeer!" exclaimed my oldest, but it wasn't, of course. It was a regular deer, a young buck, near fully grown, sporting small proud antlers. I called for my wife, it stopped at the noise. It relaxed, began to sniff around the lawn at its feet.

A dog from the back yard barked.

Then, in a moment so perfect it seemed scripted for the season, it began to bound away, all four legs pumping in unison so that it bounced improbably high in the air with each effort, looking as if it could fly (and I'm sure the girls were expectant that it would). It made its way quickly back up the block, paused briefly to sniff at the cars in the parking lot of the college, then disappeared around the corner.

I don't have an end to the story. This is a fairly small town, so it could have taken a route through the golf course or the park and have only one busy road between it and unincorporated land. And freedom. I hope he made it.

I told a couple neighbors about. They were polite but incurious, uninterested. Hurried back inside their houses, closed and locked their doors.

Fine with me. They're old and retired, and when I'm old and retired I'll probably be the same way. As it is, I'm often too self-absorbed to pay full attention to the world around me. It is easy to lose focus.

There is everyday magic outside the walls that surround us, waiting for notice. It's important to keep your doors open. It's important to step outside.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Open Wide

I think of it as the Good Book Vortex. Every so often I go through a period where I fall in love with every book I pick up. It doesn't happen often, maybe every couple years or so. And I'm open to the idea that it has more to do with my frame of mind than the books themselves (though I'd argue each one of the books are objectively good).

Anyway. I went through a few months this year where every book I picked up was mediocre (or in the case of The Emperor's Children, so ill-conceived it made me angry upon finishing it). But it seems I've once again stumbled into the creamy nougat center of the Good Book Vortex. It started with Seven Types of Ambiguity ("What is it about men that makes women so lonely?"), continued with Sharp Teeth (a wonderfully odd epic poem about werewolves, recommended by Maggie and her excellent on-line book club), then onto Under the Banner of Heaven (a book about the weird and bloody history of the Mormon church). And now I'm reading Life of Pi. So good I'll quote a little of it here:

"There is the story of the baby Krishna, wrongly accused by his friends of eating a bit of dirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to him with a wagging finger. 'You shouldn't eat dirt, you naughty boy,' she scolds him. 'But I haven't,' says the unchallenged lord of all and everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child. 'Tut, tut. Open your mouth,' orders Yashoda. Krishna does as he is told. He opens his mouth. Yashoda gasps. She sees in Krishna's mouth the whole complete entire timeless universe, all the stars and planets of space and the distance between them, all the lands and seas of the Earth and the life in them; she sees all the days of yesterday and all the days of tomorrow; she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope, and the three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature, village or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit of dirt in its truthful place. 'My Lord, you can close your mouth,' she says reverently."

I don't know if the power of that story has more to do with Hinduism or with Yann Martell, who wrote the book. But the image has been following me around for days now.

Good book.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The View From the Porch

Nothing fancy. Didn't use a tripod or a long exposure or anything. Just pointed the camera and pushed the button.

Monday, December 1, 2008


Ate the requisite turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, gravy. Witnessed the requisite acting out of both children and adults. Received the requisite contrite apologies via phone the next day.

Taught the girls fake Italian accents (hey! whatsamatta you!). Replete with gestures.

Walked in the Parade of Lights! Supposed to just be the girls on their school's float, but we got roped in to keep kids from falling off the back. Big Fun. We waved! We sang! We danced!

I cannot overstate how much I enjoy the movie "The Incredibles." Sharp and witty, with a deeply cool robot spider. And there's a open disdain for mediocrity you don't often see in a kid's movie.

Did I mention the robot spider? Because that's really my favorite part.

And, finally, from the Beating A Dead Horse Dept.: watch the sky tonight, just after sunset. Crescent moon, Venus, and Jupiter, grouped together as if sitting for a photo.