Living room. Fire. I sit on the couch. The girls, opposite me, form the other two points in a triangle. One’s on her Kindle, the other on her iTouch. I hold open my little notebook, stopped, and say, “Help me think of some nouns particular to our Christmas.”
Jane: Yeah, I’m writing something called the Twelve Nouns of Christmas.
Lydia: No. Do adjectives. Twelve adjectives.
Jane: But I’m a nouns person.
Lydia rolls her eyes.
It’s my blog, and I win.
On Saturday, when we get to Sally’s, Brian calls for coffee, and I second his request. “It’s either that or a nap,” he says, and we can’t exactly nap because we’re at our sister’s house, and it’s Christmas. I tell Brian that I run on coffee and, indeed, my blood volume is 25% coffee. Lydia, who sits between us on the couch and has her head on my shoulder, harrumphs. “Lydia,” I scold her, “Coffee is the source of my optimism.” My brother laughs, which is like a gift, me not normally being the funny one.
Michael, during Christmas Eve at my house, describes his work and the many ways he has his finger on the pulse of the web. He starts rolling up his shirt sleeve to show us what will be a surprise to everyone but me. “Is that the GoWearFit?” I ask. “A work friend wears one.” There are two factions in the room: some thinks this is overkill, and some are intrigued. Michael describes its usefulness. For example, it logs how much he sleeps. “Wait a minute,” says Jimmy. “Don’t you know how much you sleep?” Michael answers, “No. You really don’t know how much you’re sleeping until you wear it.” Everyone laughs because Michael is the funny one and because, in this instance, he is so utterly serious, such an advocate of taking a census of his own body. Perhaps this is the way the wired world is heading, and this makes us uneasy so we laugh it away.
On the evening of the 23rd, I see The Fighter with Betsy. Even though I don’t enjoy watching combat, or don’t think I do, I sat forward in my seat during the fight scenes. More than being about the fight, however, the movie is about family and how it can pull you down and stand by you — both at once. Perhaps the biggest fight waged by Mark Wahlberg’s character is to grow up and apart and find his way back again.
On the 26th, because of snow we do not drive down to New Jersey as planned. The five of us see TRON: Legacy instead. Even though the trailer emphasizes the reunion of father and son, it seems less to me to be about family, and more to be about the guilt of the middle-aged and our desire to start the world anew for the next generation. The Jeff Bridges character, trying to explain his life’s regrets, says to his son, “I screwed it all up. Chasing perfection.” The perfection he sought was located in the corporate, the entrepreneurial, the virtual. Later this kimono-wearing wise man — who now has what he calls a “Zen thing” going on — argues that perfection is actually our imperfect, human world and not the orderly digital one he created.
In our anxiety that there be enough food, there is too much food. When he returns from the grocery store and starts unloading the bags, Jimmy holds up the logs of goat cheese, admits to choosing the jumbo size over the regular size, and suggests that “the inconvenience of having too much is less than the inconvenience of having too little.” And that, it seems to me, is the essential problem of Christmas and of our lavish American life in general.
The ham I make, though: yum, finally I get it right, and a good recipe helps. Link. Between the two meals (Eve and Day) and two houses (mine and Sally’s), there are also pineapple salsa, twice-baked potatoes, Swedish meatballs, brioche, pecan pie, Chex mix, crabmeat on cucumbers, green salad, green beans, a chocolate cake with whipped cream, and more. The new star cook is Kenlie, my brother-in-law, born in the Caribbean, who has taken up the baking of the Swedish spritz cookies. They are a match for my mother’s, and better than any I have ever struggled to make.
Why is it that I want a gift to somehow make me feel known as an individual? Can commerce express or recognize personhood? Well, if I put it that way, the answer is “No.” And yet that is what I desire, and what I’d like to give to my recipients. Here, this sweater [these boots, book, or object] is so you.
It can’t be, though. I know that. Still, we try, and there is too much pressure, much buying, and several returns and exchanges. Gift giving and getting is a volume problem. For a gift to feel special, it must be singular, and it’s impossible to achieve singularity when there are, say, 10 recipients and a multitude of gifts to select or to receive. Sometimes I fantasize about one modest yet carefully made or chosen gift per person.
My parents bought the house they live in now from an elderly man who loved the house. Later, he died of course. Ned, this deceased man, haunts my parents’ house. Sometimes things fall from hooks on walls or clothes from hangers in the closet. Because it’s Christmas, Ned is activating an old battery-operated Mrs. Claus figurine. “It just starts playing the music, even when no one touches it,” says my mother as she sits in Sally’s living room. To activate the music, a person is supposed to press the figurine’s little hand. “But the music starts even when no one is near it,” says my father, backing my mother up.
I think of an essay I encountered in the December issue of Harper’s by Rachel Aviv, about new research on and treatments for pre-psychosis. I remember saying out loud to Jimmy, “Oh my god. I have symptoms of early mental illness.” One symptom was hearing one’s own name called from another room, even when alone. Another symptom was daydreaming. Another a propensity to monitor one’s own perceptions. Sometimes in my peripheral vision I see tiny shadows moving on the floor, like mice. Ghost mice.
I consider telling my family about this article. I imagine them taking up the subject very seriously and us all itemizing our individual experiences of the uncanny. I stop because I wonder too if I’ll be the day’s biggest buzzkill and prompt people to worry in a way that’s unproductive.
Grace, Sara, Eli, and Lydia play GLEE Karaoke for several songs while the rest of us sit, with our arms and legs draped over the couches and easy chairs. Lazy, lazy grownups plus 11 year old Elena, sitting out the big games and playing on her Nintendo DS instead. We tire of their singing and implore them to play another game on the Wii. “Yeah, play that waterboarding game,” suggests Sally. What?? She corrects herself: “Oh, wake boarding.” In the instant before she adjusts her word choice, however, I picture a Wii waterboarding game and, because Sally’s little dog Summer is scurrying around our feet, I picture the dog being waterboarded.
The mind is so susceptible.
We talk about high school and kids we knew and talent shows. I tell about my one and only talent show appearance. With my friend Carol and her brother Joey, we worked out and rehearsed incessantly what we conceptualized as an ironic set piece. Joey, in a red velvet smoking jacket, took the stage before us, by shuffling out with a candelabra, placing it on top of the piano, lighting the candles, and exiting the stage. Carol and I glided out serenely, holding sheet music and dressed in long black evening wear that Carol’s mother kept from the 70s. (I loved my black pantsuit, with batwing sleeves, a deep v neck, and bell bottoms in a swingy polyester knit. I felt like Cher.) We gracefully sat on the piano bench, looked at each other as a kind of cue, and then began to play as though a concerto. Really, though, we were playing four-handed “Chopsticks” with gravitas. Finished, we stood, faced the audience, and bowed from the waist in unison.
Someone at Sally’s — my mother? — asked, “What happened?” Nothing, I answered. People didn’t get it. A few clapped weakly. Joey came out after we exited the stage and retrieved the candelabra with the same seriousness he had placed it.
Jimmy mentions that people didn’t understand Andy Kaufman’s early performances. “The audience was confused.” That is a kindness, to be compared to Kaufman. We were only 14 or 15 years old, trying to be cool and cerebral.
For Brian’s birthday, which is a week after Christmas, Emily brings Brian the Awkward Family Photos coffee table book. We pass it around. Later, Em and Bri get in front of the portrait mirror and pose for their own awkward family photo. This is something to do after all the presents have been unwrapped and dinner not yet put on the table.
On the way to Sally’s, we go through Roslindale Center and take the Cummins Highway through Hyde Park to Milton. We pass a parochial school with a marquis sign out front:
Happy Holidays Words of the Week
Obesity Emphasize Primary
I try to deduce the significance of the words and their relationship to each other. Whoever chose them, I decide, is concerned with extremes, eschews punctuation, and likes syllables.
Weeks before Christmas I put the kids — Eli, Lydia, and Grace — in charge of music. They invite their friends to the party, including Ben, the lead singer for Hippos on Campus, and G Dubs, the back up dancer. We promise our guests (er, my family) music, and all night we wait for it. Meanwhile, the children are downstairs huddled around the television. Finally Heidi, Emily’s friend who has joined us for the night, good-naturedly insists we challenge the kids to a sing-off. We troop downstairs; Jimmy gets out the bongo drums; and we sing “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolf” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The kids watch us warily, and a few join in. The caroling peters out.
The next day at Sally’s, as we sit around the Wii, there is more childish energy for karaoke versions of “Say a Little Prayer,” “Push It,” “Hate on Me,” and “Don’t Stop Believing.” Before she takes hold of one of the mikes, Lydia — the most beautiful voice among us — says to Grace, “I am gonna beast you.”
This may have been the strongest sentiment expressed all day, although many others were felt, some I know of and some I don’t.
The photograph is one of many screenshots, literally, I took with my iPhone while sitting in the cinema and watching TRON. It was an awkward moment among the three main characters — the father the programmer or “creator,” the son the gamer or “user,” and the girl, an isomorphic algorithm who is the last of her kind and the hope of a new generation of them — and featured green beans, blue water, and, most weirdly, a suckling pig, all served in the digital grid.