holiday-spectacular-feature

This is the second annual Holiday Spectacular episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. The guests are Melissa Broder, Gene and Jenny Morgan, Amelia Gray and Lee Shipman, Ben Loory, Rich Ferguson, and Adam Greenfield. Recorded on December 10, 2016.

 

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PS. Here are links to some things discussed in the show:

Prince on Arsenio Hall, 1991

Jimmy Stewart reads a poem about his dog on The Tonight Show

I know it wasn’t easy being you. The endless search for food. The seeking for warmth and shelter. The foxes fixed on a quick meal. The hawks swooping from a great beyond so vast you probably wouldn’t have seen them until the shadow fell and you were seized screaming, picked apart on some remote tree limb, eaten alive.

That this did not become your fate must have been small solace. You knew the hawks were there, watching your every move, determined to reward the slightest lapse of your attention with certain death.

It was the very state of existence that caught up with you, the endless seeking and hiding.

trailer 2

My father’s farm in Virginia is called Oak Hill. When he bought it, not long after he divorced my mother, there was in fact a cluster of enormous oak trees that shaded a white clapboard, nineteenth-century house that stood on the hill in the center of the farm, but the house burned down before my father could move into it. Some of the oaks survived the fire, which occurred on a Halloween night, but despite whispers that the previous owner had torched the house, no charges were ever filed. I remember surveying the charred remains and spotting, not charred even slightly, an old board game called Why, the Alfred Hitchock Mystery Game, which, according to the blurb on the box, involved “real thinking, planning, and memory.” I took the game home with me—I lived a twenty-minute drive from the farm with my mother, brother, and sister—but I never played it, and don’t know what became of it. Maybe my memory wouldn’t be so faulty if I had better developed it by playing Why.

One is hard-pressed to find a more festive American than Andrew W.K. The muti-talented musician, artist, motivational speaker and TV host announced his arrival with his 2001 debut I Get Wet, and its narcotically-catchy anthem, “Party Hard.” The ensuing decade saw the classically-trained musician release a slate of hard-charging rock albums celebrating the time-honored art of partying, as well a record full of J-pop covers and an album featuring only improvised piano pieces. He has published advice books and delivered motivational speeches at some of America’s most prestigious universities, including Yale, New York University and Carnegie Mellon. Anything but a vapid party animal, Andrew’s unwavering positive attitude and magnetic charisma saw him recently commanding headlines amid rumors of a State Department appointment as Cultural Ambassador to the Middle East.

Is it that time again already?

Hell yeah, Dre.

Welcome to the 2012 holiday season. Are you ready for it? If you’re anything like the staff of TNB Music, you are most certainly not. But that’s OK, because once again, we’ve got you covered.

Seattle, December 1984

I was a teenage art-geek. Frizzy-haired and studious, I hadn’t yet learned to work a prodigious vocabulary and ample rack to my advantage. But junior year at my strict Catholic high school, I finally had my first real boyfriend, Chris. Both of us loathed our surroundings and this intensified our bond. We discussed Dylan Thomas at lunch and at night, after we finished our reams of homework, he played King Crimson riffs for me over the phone on his second-hand Stratocaster. I was in love.

My Greek parents, like most progenitors of our nationality, were hardly laissez-faire when it came to their kids, particularly their young daughter’s newly acquired romantic interest. At that time, Dad was Supervisor of the Sentencing Unit for the Criminal Division and Mom was a Deputy Prosecutor assailing fraud cases. So when Mom and Dad insisted on meeting Chris, I balked, sensing they would terrify him and that this was their intent. I relented, however, when Dad threatened to run Chris’s license plates.

“This house is like living in a cop show!” I yelled, eliciting a bemused smirk from Dad and an eye-roll from Mom. I posed no more threat to them than a gnat to an elephant. Resistance was futile.

The next day after school, Chris loaded his books into my used Mustang, and we drove to my family’s large brick house, festooned with multicolor lights along its perimeter and holly and snowflake appliques in its dining room windows. It was two weeks before Christmas and I’d told Chris my folks wanted to include him in a traditional Greek holiday meal. Once inside, Chris and I sat on the living room couch by the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad wouldn’t be home for a few hours and I thought my brother, 18 months younger, was at soccer practice.

“You’re my other half,” Chris said and put his hand on my knee. As he leaned in to kiss me, a moaning sound wafted down the hall. Barely audible at first, it grew persistently louder. I realized it was my brother.

“It sounds like someone’s jacking off,” Chris said, alarmed.

At that moment, we heard the bathroom door fling open and my brother raced into the living room.

“Aaaahhhh!” he yelled and ran directly toward Chris. His hands were coated with a viscous white liquid and he waved them maniacally.

“Is he retarded?” Chris asked frantically, tripping over the hassock in an effort to get away.

“I want to give you my baby juice!” my brother continued, and chased Chris into the kitchen. I heard my mom’s planter knock into a wall.

By now, I knew what was going on. My brother, reflexively hilarious and the ultimate class clown, was hazing my new boyfriend. Said boyfriend, however, had no clue.

“Goddamnit, Greg! Leave Chris alone!”  I sprinted into the kitchen, grabbed Greg by his shirt and yanked. He stopped and burst out laughing.

“Oh, my god! You should have seen the look on your face!” he told Chris, who was visibly shaken. “Lighten up there, pal. It’s just Ivory Liquid. I would have had to crank it eight or nine times to get that much jizz.”  He said this as if it were clearly self-evident.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Chris wailed.

That night at dinner, Chris endured my parents’ inquisition with aplomb. He answered questions about his college and career plans and made polite conversation with my brother as though nothing unusual had happened.

Then, two weeks later, he dumped me for a cheerleader. He said it was because she blew him. Yet I can’t help but think Chris preferred his Christmases white, and not Ivory.

 

For many years, I went out of my way to feel embittered and surly at Christmas, refusing to live in the moment, opting instead to wallow in memories of lonely Christmases past. Looking back, though, I’ve never actually been alone. The memories I wallow in are false.  They’re little stories, truncated and manipulated versions of reality, created by me.  They make it easier to share my past experiences with others and to convey a version of myself that best fits into—maybe not how I saw myself at the time, but how I want people to understand my past.

For a long time, I held tightly to the memory of the Christmas sixteen years ago when I was nineteen, pregnant with a baby I was going to put up for adoption, and homeless. Truth be told, I’ve never spent a night outdoors except when camping. I’ve never spent a night starving. I’ve never really been homeless. This fact, however, doesn’t fit into the story I’ve told about me.  It serves to make my bitterness justified—yet it no longer feels authentic or serves the new narrative I’d rather tell.  I realized recently that I’ve built an identity around myself that no longer fits into my current understanding of who I am.  It’s not who I want to be anymore.

Perhaps the most notable thing about the passing of essayist Christopher Hitchens was not that he retained his atheism to the end, but rather that he retained his love of alcohol. His esophageal cancer, which owes its appearance partially to genetic factors, was not aided by a lifetime of pre-noon scotches. But he never apologized for his drinking. He was born, he drank and wrote prodigiously, and then he died. At no point did he waste time with regret. A clean and sober Hitchens may have been humorless, or perhaps he would have reached Einsteinian levels of insight. Ultimately, his drinking was a choice he made that shaped who he was and how he died.

Somehow, carrying the snails falls to me. With the boatload of wrapped presents and scarves and gloves that will be lost within eight steps out into the street and small children who may likewise need carrying and possibly be misplaced in a momentary panic, I hoist two stacked platters of Burgundy snails.

They have been prepared in parsley and garlic butter to be recooked at my in-laws’ house. It’s more than a little dumb that I’m arriving with this particular dish because I’m the only one of the group not from around here. Not only not from Burgundy, where I helped pull these snails out of a dewy meadow this past July and where their cold weather preparation is the crowning regional specialty, but I am not of this nation. I’m not of this culture or even this particular coterie of exempted taste buds. The only thing I ever did with snails, before landing abroad, was proceed at their pace.

A few years ago, as 2004 slid into 2005, I was offered the chance to spend Christmas – and New Year – in Melbourne, Australia. It was with relish that my wife and I jumped at the opportunity to be overseas for the holiday season, a time of year that we generally associated with dripping noses and chapped knuckles. It felt perversely decadent to be contemplating cocktails on the beach while our families tackled frostbite and frozen pipes.

When we arrived in the Victorian capital we dusted off the residue of our 23-hour flight with a stroll along the Yarra River, admiring the leisurely stroke of the crews, before throwing away most of our stack of waxy Australian bills in the nearby casino. Even as I began to wilt in the sunshine, I marveled at the Melburnians’ dedication to relaxation and the indulgence of the senses. It was as if someone had relocated the Vegas strip to a British river town. Only with a thousand acres of clear blue sky, and temperatures in the hundreds.

The Australian climate shouldn’t have been a shock. I’d visited friends in Oz before, and this time I’d packed accordingly: board shorts as well as jeans, t-shirts more than sweaters, flip-flops instead of snow boots. But as we strolled past the cornucopia of eateries on Lygon Street the next day, regaled on every side by the impassioned cries of Italian waiters, I felt my sweating shoulders slump inside my Billabong shirt. What I’d intended as a Christmas getaway felt about as festive as the paper cup of gelato we shared on the walk back to our rental apartment. Kicking off my flip-flops beneath our three-foot plastic Christmas tree, I tried desperately to dredge up some holiday spirit from my swollen, sandy toes.

The next few days drove the point home with all the subtlety of a blowtorch. As my skin reddened and peeled beneath an unrelenting sun — one which, apparently, would give me sunburn even through dense gray cloud cover — I tried my hardest to rescue the drooping, heat-stricken holiday. Away from our families, my wife and I were buying gifts only for each other — but my shopping expeditions proved to be hopelessly flawed. The stores in Prahran were filled with bikinis and sarongs, not cardigans and knitted scarves. Even Christmas dinner became a carb-heavy marathon, three courses of fried and baked food endured in a climate better suited to salads and smoothies.

The experience was all the more unsettling because my head repeatedly told me that this was how Christmas should be. The Biblical story took place in a desert, not a snow-filled forest; the Three Kings traveled to see the baby Jesus on camels, for Santa’s sake. But over the years I had somehow disconnected the Nativity from the festive experience, and bringing the two back together seemed sacrilegious in its wrongheadedness. My Christmas had always been dipped in the icy heritage of Europe, recycled by Hollywood in classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. It was ‘I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas’, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’. If Jesus had been born in my version of the Nativity, Mary and Joseph would have been praying that the Three Kings came bearing blankets along with the gold, frankincense and myrrh.

For a Northern European with his heart in the snowy wastes of winter, Australia’s sunshine and merriment were simply too much to bear. In the end, we did the most festive thing we could imagine: dragging ourselves through the heat to South Yarra’s multiplex cinema, to catch the latest Pixar movie in a theater empty enough to feel like our own personal screening room.

It wasn’t my ideal Christmas, and there still wasn’t a single flake of snow in sight. But, thanks to the miracle of air conditioning, it was at least deliciously cold.

 

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a carminative, carnival-hating carnivore with a voracious appetite for plump pluralists speaking in the persnickety pluperfect; and was constantly being busted for driving drunk with an expired poetic license.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a highly intoxicated, contumacious succubus; a mealy-mouthed, heavily medicated, nitrous-huffing hitman that couldn’t shoot his way out of a greasy paperbag.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a snide, snafu-loving, crappy lapidary, whose drooling dreams of overly depressed dromedaries were more painful than a demonstrative dreadnought in your noggin.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a double-crossing, conniption-throwing con artist that was once busted for keeping an arsenal of saccharine, Silly String, and sodium nitrate in a mountain cabin once owned by the Unabomber.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a sarcastic, hotel towel-stealing, hangover artist; a hanky-panky practicing, skank-loving, loopy & loquacious Wall Street banker whose soul was an all-night crematorium for creativity & coincidences.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a defrocked and dehydrated follower of zymurgy and zombie logic; a bowlegged & brainwashed, jukebox-bashing bondsman, highly skilled in the ju jitsu of junkfood.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a Viagra-popping, far-from-demulcent denominator for the fraction of fractured faith healers; a hernia in the body of hope; a hemorrhoid on the ass of ardency; and a total cheater when it comes to Parcheesi.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a somnambulant, shrink-wrapped & wilted vibrator for the sex life of lethargy; a tantrum-throwing, Mother Theresa-hating headbanger whose great hubris & halitosis were far more unnerving than being tailgated by a time bomb.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a fainthearted & hypersensitive sesquipedalian; a distraught & divisive virologist whose life was a facsimile of a facsimile of a poorly written simile.

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was a cholera-ridden, mosquito-bitten polysyllable basher; a party-crashing conduit for slobbering dromedaries and fractured fairy tales full of false endings and wishes that never come true.

 

Happy a happy holiday season anyway, y’all!

 

 

We sit at my grandparents’ long dining room table, the worn green tablecloth unfurled, revealing years of red wine stains. My mother places a cassette recorder in the middle, trying to get it exactly center between the roast beef and the string beans, presses ‘play’ and ‘record’ at the same time. Nobody pays it much mind as the plates are passed, the gravy ladled over lumpy mashed potatoes, the pearl onions in cream sauce we all fight over. Father, we thank thee for this food. Bless it to our use.

The scene is cut from of the movie of our lives, a table full of cameos. There is my great-grandmother, her hair bobbed and dyed its purplish-blue. There is Uncle Bobby next to Aunt Kerri, who cuts his meat into bite-sized pieces. There are my grandparents at the head of the table, my grandfather inspecting a bottle of Cabernet. Beside him is my father, busting Bobby’s balls. “Does she tuck you in at night, too, asshole?”

I am two and my mother asks me if I want to sing. We pick “Frosty the Snowman,” but I can’t remember all the words, so we switch to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uncle Chuck makes me stop when I start again unprovoked a few minutes later. “No singing at the table,” he says.

Dinner conversation is entirely normal, everyone expecting perfectly well to be exactly where they are. On the tape, my mother is preoccupied with how much I’m eating and when I’ve eaten enough to be excused. My father and grandfather talk about wine.

“Did you know they’re making more wine in California than anywhere in the world?” my grandfather says. He is trying to impress my father. He thinks my father has connections to the mob, or at least knows people with connections to the mob. He assumes that men with connections to the mob know about wine. My father responds politely, says, “Oh yeah? No kidding, Doc.” He knows about wine, but pretends my grandfather knows more. It is a move of deference, an acknowledgment of the thin ice beneath my father’s presence at the table. His voice treads lightly.

At two, I have recently learned a valuable skill. I shove a final spoonful of peas into my mouth, and my mother releases me from the table so that I can show everyone my amazing discovery. “Jump?” I say to my family.

“Jump, Aunt Kerri?”

I circle the chairs. My grandfather, whose sternness occasionally breaks with his affinity for me, says, “Her mind is always at work.”

“Her mouth is always at work,” my great-grandmother says.

“Jump, Uncle Chuck?”

“Jump, Daddy?”

My father laughs, but not at me. “Yeah, right, let me just break my hip,” he says to the rest of the adults. He knows they are watching him. He was away for a while, and now my mother has let him come back.

When I listen to this tape with my mother and my husband two and a half decades later, each of us clutching a glass of wine, I recognize everyone but that tiny voice, my voice. I don’t know how I discovered jumping, or how I really felt about peas, but I’ve heard my grandfather talk about wine my entire life, and I know the sound of that silver on that Corelle ware, that collective, civil laughter periodically breaking up the silence of our eating. I know my uncle’s chiding and my mother’s assessing of my plate. But like my own, my father’s voice startles me, like somebody spliced the tape with a recording from someone else’s house.

“Jump, Grammy?”

My grandmother takes the bait, as she always does. We move into the background and begin our game. “Ready? One, two, three. Jump!” she says.

There are a few indications of the year. The California wine, my father and Uncle Bobby discussing Hill Street Blues. Someone asks my mother what she got for Christmas and I hear her fork clatter onto her plate.

“I got a microwave!” she says, and I picture her arms shooting into the air, her face scrunched with happiness. It’s a gift from my father, something to help around the house, and it’s expensive for 1984, my father writing out his love in a check. I do not mean this cynically. This is how he makes us happy. It is the only way he knows.

I thank my grandmother for jumping with me by making her an imaginary cup of coffee on my imaginary stove. The women prepare Jesus’ birthday cake—a large sheet of ice cream and cookie layers from Pat Mitchell’s. They light the candles and we sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. As the only grandchild, I get to blow out the candles.

While we eat, my father tells a story about Christmas Eve. “So, we’re coming back from church last night,” he says. “Kathy and I are horsing around up in front, teasing, you know. Well, Amy’s in the back, and I don’t know, maybe she’s tired. Anyway, she thinks we’re fighting and gets all upset. We’re up there laughing, and she’s back there going, ‘Mommy, it’s okay, Mommy, don’t cry.’”

Everyone laughs. My mother laughs.

Nobody is rude enough to point out the obvious—that I have barely seen my parents together and can’t recognize the subtle difference between my mother laughing and crying. That this is my first and only Christmas with my father in the house, and I have been told it’s only a trial.

I finish my first piece of Jesus’ cake and ask for a second. “More?” I say. There is a pause while my plate is inspected. “Christ, Amy,” my father says, “are you even chewing?” Everyone laughs again.

The tape is an hour and a half long, and this is as much as my father speaks to me, using me for a little levity around his in-laws, a little lightness to dispel whatever skepticism lingers around the table. Why does my mother record this Christmas and no others? Does she know my father will be gone again before the next? Does she know Aunt Kerri is about to discover that Uncle Bobby fools around? Does she know Alzheimer’s is wending its way down the pathways of my great-grandmother’s brain? What prompts my mother to borrow her friend’s cassette recorder and bring it to Christmas dinner this year?

“I don’t know,” my mother says when we listen to the tape. “I guess I just thought it would be neat to have someday.”

I listen to myself eating a second piece of cake, my mother complaining about the chocolate ice cream dripping down my chin and into the neck of my knitted pink sweater. No matter. I grip my spoon in a fist and shovel. It’s like the cake won’t be there if I look away for even a second.

“Jesus, Amy,” my father says. “What, are you going to jail tomorrow?”

 

When Seattle’s flannel-clad grunge army launched their assault on the hair metal Babylon that was L.A.’s Sunset Strip, only one band survived.

That band certainly wasn’t Motley Crue, who turned their post-80s attentions to plastic surgery and reality television deals. Guns N’ Roses folded as well, with Axl Rose, the only remaining original member, now looking like a keyboard player in a .38 Special cover band. New Jersey’s Jon Bon Jovi fared the worst of all pouf rockers, joining the cast of Ally McBeal and eventually resorting to selling teddy bears online.

The last band standing was Steel Panther.

A doorstep view of the Dublin mountains, the grazed sky lead and liquid, a radio mast scratching the clouds. Mam buttons your wool anorak up to the neck, kisses your face with her cherry-sticked lips, and you feel the tickle of her mustache, annoying and raspy. Before stepping across the threshold you dip two fingers in the holy water font and make the sign of the cross. This is what it’s like to be seven and about to walk to school for the first time in nine months.


The nephritis came with bloodied urine, straight to the hospital, where they put you in leather straps you called, “strainers,” so you wouldn’t make yourself sicker. At night you listened to Sister’s castaneted shoes on the polished ward floor, the swish of her starched skirts, the glint of steel from her spectacles as she made the night rounds. Always the smell, too. Dettol antiseptic and mashed potatoes and gravy. Even in the night you couldn’t move in the bed, the straps pulled tight against your chest. When you pissed the bed the first time it wasn’t a big rigmarole, but after the third and fourth time the nurse put rubber sheets under the starchy linen. Rubber and piss blended into the scent of a six-year-old’s sadness, the uncomfortable dampness as you lay shamed and silent in the dark.

No school for you, instead the stretched out days of hospital food and leather straps, of bed baths and blood tests. Every day, mam bused to town and walked to Temple Street Hospital to visit you, her little soldier. In the daytime an old man came to your bedside with the Irish Independent and read you the comics—Dennis the Menace, Count Curly Wee and Gussie Goose. Two flaps of hair were plastered to the sides of the man’s head, like a cruel Viking helmet. “Say the words after me,” he’d say, and fear pushed them out of your mouth, reluctant crumbs. This was how you learned to read. One day he stopped coming, Sister shaking her head when you asked where your friend had gotten to.

In time the nurse loosened the straps, the wetting of the bed lessened, and you began to walk the corridors, looking for your friend with the newspaper. In the old men’s ward you peeked between curtains, bruised skeletons sponged, nurses hoisting cracked limbs into clean pajamas. One old shitehawk wrinkled a finger at you and asked whether you’d like to know a secret. When you got closer he thrust his mousie at you and a trickle of piss ran down your leg. As you backed away from his bed he winked a moled lid at you, his tongue poking from the side of his mouth.

Paper chains and bright lanterns suspended from the ceilings, a string across the end of each bed for Christmas cards from home and friends. Mam and Da came with the boys to see you. She had a miniature tree in a pot, just like the one at home, except this one was covered with gold-flake and ornaments attached by bits of pipe cleaner—snowmen, silver balls, an angel in a white robe, gold-haloed, her face a smiling wooden ball. Packages in wrapping paper littered the bed, stuffed animals, baby bear, Lego bricks and a jigsaw puzzle with the Matterhorn in one corner of the sky.

When they let you out it was a Thursday, after breakfast. Mam came with your clothes in a bag and helped you dress. As you said goodbye to the nurses and Sister your eyes leaked. Mam held your hand as you walked down Temple Street towards the bus stop. On jellied legs you followed her as fast as you could trot. At home everything smelled the same, the cigarette smoke and the shepherd’s pie for dinner, an apple pie, crusted with sugar steamed on the counter.

Da was working and Ma hadn’t told him you’d be home, because she couldn’t phone him at work. At six, as the Angelus bells from Radio Eireann bonged, Mam hid you in the sitting room behind the curtains, and told you to wait until you heard your Da’s voice. When you jumped out from your hiding place his face lit up like you’d never seen before and he began to cry. “Don’t cry Da, don’t cry. It’s only me, it’s only me.” He hoisted you so high you were able to touch the brass lampshade with your tongue. That night, the bed did not smell of rubber, though the sheets once again were damp.