My Christmas memories are an amalgam of simultaneous dread, distortion and melodramatic nostalgia that could have all occurred on the same Christmas that I was seven, nine or twelve. With the Tree-Returning Incident, for example, I said I was nine but I may have been seven. Or twelve. That event may, in fact, have been the same year my father and his brother chose affirmative action as the topic of discussion to best celebrate the birth of Baby Jesus.
I do not recommend this...ever.
Grandma -a lady who believed that you could outgrow being Chinese and thus had very little perspective to add to a discussion on affirmative action- was there and I had to give my bed up to her -I always had to give my bed up to her and I felt this was a great injustice since no one else had to give up their beds. She and my mother only ever greeted each other through clenched teeth. Like all good Jewesses, my mother decorated the house in all its Christmassy fashion, right down to the red bow on our Westy terrier, who, quite matter-of-factly, chose my other uncle's foot as his fire hydrant. Andy Williams was singing carols on the record player -yes, indeed, I said "record player," people. My father even bought a 3D puzzle of Yuletide London, which tormented us into believing that at least three pieces were missing. Everything was perfect, especially the twelve-foot tree my father erected after three relentless hours of fir needles and curses. The arena was optimized for the self-destructive forces of sibling rivalry and familial angst. In other words, the scene was primed for the Bumpuses's dogs to destroy our turkey.
Yes, sir, affirmative action. Not the least probability that such an intellectual venture could spew forth such vitriolic tidings of Christmas joy.
Two hours after the table was cleared, my father and uncle were still asserting liberal and liberal-liberal standpoints with their overly assertive Italian eyebrows. I had long ago immersed myself in the foam-and-picture world of 3D London to avoid any verbal spillover. The debate was no longer about affirmative action. It was simply about anger. Although the Tree-Returning Incident and the Great Affirmative Action Debate may or may not have been the same year, something nasty had undoubtedly gone viral in our home at the holidays because this may also have been the same Christmas on which we thought family friends had lost their son to a fatal car crash.
The Houstins* moved with us from Long Island to the same neighborhood in Connecticut. Brian and my brother played soccer together. I remember not liking them because when my parents vacationed in Hawai'i for their fifteenth anniversary, leaving my brother and me at the Houstins's home, I held my s*** in for all five days. It was my way of saying, "Mrs. Houstin, I find your peculiar brand of cuisine most displeasing, your disposition most unkind, and your oddly masculine voice somewhat petrifying. I shall, therefore, not defecate this morn."
My father warned my brother that Brian was the kind of a**hole that would one day be driving a car in which the passenger would be killed, that Brian wouldn't die. My brother paled when the prediction came true. We actually received a phone call reporting that Brian died in the hospital, to which my mother buried her face in her hands. I didn't understand why. The other boy was dead on impact. I knew his father and had heard that he was a nice boy. We didn't like Brian. And, he killed somebody else on Christmas Day. I remember thinking the wrong boy died when I heard that Brian was still calling the hospital nurses "bitches" after the accident.
Sometimes I don't understand Christmas. We struggle so much to be with the ones who we love but who we can't bear to be near for longer than it takes to say, "Hello." We try to please the ones who don't want to be pleased. We try to talk casually with people we can't chat with. We try to love the people we wish were dead and try to be sad when we think they actually are dead. You needed to be vigilant to avoid catastrophe. You could never let down your guard lest you allow a poor discussion topic to enter the room. And, then we spend the rest of our lives wishing we had back the Christmasses that went bad. Is this the meaning of Christmas? Love the friends and family you have now because they might be gone tomorrow? Love them because you might not have the chance to love them ever again? Is the message of Christmas Spirit so obvious? Is it this contrived? This trite?
When I was nine, my mother instructed my father to return our Christmas tree to the local Christmas tree vendor because it was too small and simply not Christmassy enough. My mother is Jewish. My father refused. She took me with her and brought the tree back herself.
In the history of Christmas, I don't think anyone has ever returned a Christmas tree, especially when the customer's predominant religion requires said customer to be celebrating Chanukkah at the exact moment that he or she is returning said hypothetical Christmas tree. In this case, however, my mother was a veritable Lucy to my father's Charlie Brown. Although this may have been my father's passive aggressive plea against having to erect a twelve-foot tree under our family room's vaulted ceiling, my mother would have none of it. Everyone driving by on Branchville Road needed to see our tree for miles in either direction from our massive bay window as if it were the light of Baby Jesus himself. An eight-foot tree was simply not enough Christmas for this half-Christian family.
So, with my mother I went to return our tree on a frigid December morning. I pulled my hat down over my face -there were no eyeholes- not in order to hide it from the cold, but rather to hide my embarrassment from the Christmas tree vendor whose expression bordered the line between frustration and disbelief. My mother was incredulous that the vendor would even sell this sub-par Christmas tree to a well-paying family such as ours. Not only did my mother return the tree but so hot was her fervor that she opted to take her patronage to a different vendor entirely, effectively conveying the message, "Your business, kind sir, sucks and, therefore, you will not receive our monies this morn. Good day."
Such is the wrath of a Jew on Christmas.
My mother and I drove to another vendor on the other side of town, carrying with us her refunded money and a complaint about the former vendor. The new vendor listened to our woes, confident that his inventory stored only the straightest, largest, and fullest Christmas trees. A superhero of Christmas tree sales, this vendor immediately led us to the plus-size models, all of which were ten feet or taller. My mother bought a twelve-footer and waited patiently and triumphantly outside the car as our new Christmas tree hero strapped our new new Christmas tree to the roof of our car.
Every holiday season, my mother made it her mission to Christmasize the house, right down to the empty wrapped boxes on the landing, the additional four-foot tree in the living room, and the Christmas menorah that once belonged to her father. She even hung a name-embroidered stocking for our very waspy terrier, Spencer. Spencer had his own holiday bow. Thankfully, I didn't. In her younger years, my mother even went so far as to paint her own wooden ornaments and hang one, in particular, that read, "Shalom."
I wonder what so motivated my mother to become such a champion Christmasser, being a Jew, and all I come up with is this: when we are no longer what we once were, we embrace something...anything. She saw the writing on the wall. Chanukkah had nothing on Christmas. It was popularized by a couple of rabbis in Cincinnati to make Jewish children feel better about their lack of presents in December. My mother had one son who half-heartedly embraced his bar mitzvah and one who would never have one at all. She was losing. Sons are supposed to be the religion of their mother, damn it! We didn't care. We wanted presents. Eight wasn't enough. So, what does she do? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And while we're at it, we'll celebrate Chanukkah, too!
Our holiday season was packed. That year, my father spent hours raising the twelve-foot tree my mother and I purchased, dropping countless f-bombs and sweating profusely from his Italian brow. After the fallout cleared, we lit a fire, blasted the Andy Williams Christmas Album, and chased the dog away from the lower tree limbs and rogue ornament hooks, as we leaned and contorted to decorate the branches we were too short to reach. Each year, we had the shiniest star, the classiest white lights, and coziest holiday dinners. We lit our menorah and donned our tree, opened the small gifts on Chanukkah and the big ones on Christmas. We liked Chanukkah but we admittedly liked Big Brother Christmas a little bit more.
And, no matter how big or awesome it was, we communally hated that f***ing tree.
Thanksgiving was never exciting. It was never hostile. It was usually quiet. All except for the drive to my aunt's in Pennsylvania requiring a pleasant morning cruise across the George Washington Bridge to the Palisades.
With eight million other families.
Through a land of ash and fire-spitting smokestacks that is New Jersey.
With my family.
If you've never travelled this route with an Italian (who just so happens to be your father), then you've never truly experienced the splendor of such a sensational expedition. Road space was only a slight issue as my father was quite adept in diminishing the front end of a twelve-food span closest to the forward car to seven inches, give or take six inches depending on whether he was accelerating or slamming on the brakes. Once he determined the car in front was being operated by an incompetent driver, he'd swerve into the middle lane, close the next gap and weave somewhat more speedily back in front of the former car -with a comfortable two inches to spare. To say this was exhilarating on the Jersey-bound lanes of the George Washington Bridge, the roadway about 212 feet above the Hudson, is sort like saying the Empire State Building was never really all that special.
In the interest of full disclosure, nobody died.
Were you the offending driver, you'd be assaulted by a most hostile barrage of expletives, a sharp, upward "what-the-f***-are-you-doing" hand wave, and the darkest, angriest furrowed brow ever imaginable. You would not actually hear the obscenities through the windows and white noise of speeding cars, but you would clearly understand what was being said as my father would deliberately over-annunciate his message to compensate for lack of sound. This was especially thrilling as embarrassment coupled with fear of high-speed death forced my body deeper and deeper into the seat. We'd reach Jersey and I'd look wistfully for the Statue in order to displace the panic with oblivion.
Of course, if we had left the house ten minutes later, we'd likely not be moving at such pace. Rather, we'd be crawling over the bridge amidst the exponentially thicker density of vehicles packing the roadway. There would still be a lot of cursing.
This adventure, by the way, was by no means exclusive to our family. Plenty of other fathers racing down the interstate spat out these most lovely compliments while careening towards the slow-pokes disinterested in reaching their holiday destinations. For those faster and more aggressive than my father, he simply cursed back, "You f***ing a**hole!" for so nearly threatening his family and car.
Unscathed, we'd emerge from our death-skirting speed race upon reaching our destination. We'd collapse onto the couch, weary and exhausted, pop in the Star Wars Trilogy or The Godfather, wait hungrily for the turkey to be sliced, and anxiously dread the drive home in three days.
Our holiday wasn't so different from anyone else's, at least not in the Tri-state area.
Okay, maybe the meal wasn't so different from anyone else's. But, Thanksgiving felt like the one holiday when we weren't different. There exists in this country the notion that some are more American than others. On Thanksgiving, however, no one asked if I wore a yarmulke. No one asked if we spoke Italian in our house. On Thanksgiving, we were an American family. At the time, I wanted to get the heck out of there, especially with the impending doomful drive home. It's trite, I know. It's cliché but, in retrospect, I'm grateful that for one night we could feel ordinary.
President Obama's critics seem to have made an unlikely comparison between Mr. Obama, himself, and the notorious villain we all love to hate, Adolf Hitler. You see, if you look carefully at this picture, President Obama and Mr. Hitler share one defining characteristic: the mustache.
Really, Mr. President, you should think twice about styling your facial hair in such a dismaying manner. I have to believe that when he posed for this picture, he had failed to familiarize himself with the facial hair fashion of former war criminals responsible for systematically annihilating millions of their citizens on the exclusive basis of ethnicity. This is certainly not what we expect of a president, Mr. Obama. You had better shave off that mustache and fast! Another mistake like this, some other ill-advised beard and your critics will be calling you a Muslim or something crazy like that!
Well done, Obama critics, in keeping our nation's standards high. Good eye, ol' chaps. We do not want our leaders to be mistaken for evil-doers. We have to keep that president of ours on his toes.
With the passing of James Gandolfini, most will remember him for The Sopranos, a show certainly worthy in television history; but I remember him for a lesser role, one which did not earn any awards and barely, perhaps, a credit. I remember him in True Romance as Virgil, a wise guy, one of Vincenzo Coccotti's (Christopher Walken's) hired thugs feverishly in pursuit of Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), as they flee a murder with a bag full of cocaine. Arquette plays a call girl hired for Clarence's birthday, Slater an employee in a comic book store, Dennis Hopper his father and retired cop, and Val Kilmer the image of Elvis who tells Clarence to kill Alabama's pimp (Gary Oldham). The film, directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, is ripe with other cameos, including Michael Rappaport, Bronson Pinchot, Tom Sizemore, and Brad Pitt. It is a film in which the male audience members are supposed to fall in love with Alabama, the females, sorry for Clarence, admitting they would also sleep with him on his lonely birthday, and all parties vehemently loathing Virgil for the manner in which he assaults Alabama.
When Virgil finally catches up with the couple in their hotel room, Clarence is out. Virgil begins with pleasantries before unloading his massive strength upon her face, which includes throwing her body from her throat across the room and tossing her through a glass shower door. The fight climaxes as Alabama, with blood streaming through her teeth, stabs Virgil in the foot with a Swiss Army knife, torches him with a flaming aerosol can, and shoots him multiple times in the chest. It is Tarantino violence in a way that only Tarantino can make violence. Of course, the couple escapes in the end -no spoiler alert necessary since the movie is twenty years old and I imagine those who have not seen it yet are not going to see it now- a happy finale and the beginning of the couple's new life together.
As a teen, I loved this movie and, sadly, never thought much of Mr. Gandolfini's character or acting prowess until now. I always felt he was type casted: it was not a difficult challenge for him to play a gangster. In retrospect, though, I imagine it was nearly impossible to play a role in which he so badly beats a woman likely only a third his size. I am no media critic but I imagine that in many ways, those brief abusive moments in True Romance demanded more from Mr. Gandolfini than the entire six seasons of The Sopranos. I also imagine that will be a fairly unpopular statement, with many readers deeming me a motion picture lightweight. I also do not care: anyone, even me, can pull out their best mafioso I-tal accent and pretend to be a wise guy. It takes a truly inspired actor to play a part that no one could possiby like. Virgil loses from the start and, at 51, Mr. Gandolfini loses too early.