That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

A Story for Christmas, 2015

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2015

I have written in the past that when I was a kid, my parents had the whole “Christmas magic” thing down like nobody’s business.

When I was young, how Christmas worked for us was this: there would be nothing in our house – not a string of lights, not a decoration, not so much as a single strand of tinsel – all through December. There were these dreadful little electric candles my mother would put in the window, but that was it.

I don’t use the word “dreadful” here lightly. I am fairly certain that while these candles may not have actually been part of the very first batch of electric lights built by Thomas Edison, they were one generation removed from that at the most. These things were ancient. They were cardboard tubes with an electrical cord at one end and a light bulb socket at the other. So when we would first plug them into the wall with their same-size non-polarized outlet – polarized plugs were invented in 1948, if you were wondering – we were sending oodles of electrical current through, more or less, a very small paper towel tube.

So we were passing tons of electricity through a cardboard tube to these little light bulbs that burned so hot you could cook food over them. When I was in middle school we got blinds in all our windows (the last of which I have literally only gotten rid of this week) and the first Christmas we had them we put the candles in the windows with the blinds hanging directly behind them. Because my house was presumably designed by the same blind Spaniard who laid out San Antonio and built by the drunk mule he was riding, the window sills all tilt slightly away from the actual windows, and where the candle bulbs touched the blinds they actually burned through the vinyl slat.

My parents’ solution to the problem of their Christmas decorations setting the blinds on fire – I am not making this up – was to put matchbooks under the candles so they wouldn’t touch the blinds. Polarized plugs were invented in 1948; my research has indicated that safety was not invented until about 1953 and was not accepted as standard practice in this family until sometime in the late 1990s.

But I digress. Christmas magic.

Aside from the incredibly dangerous electric candles, there were no Christmas decorations in our house. Not even a tree. ESPECIALLY not a tree. On Christmas Eve, we would wake up and my sister and I would go out with my father to get the tree. This led to some surprisingly amazing trees. It also led to some unsurprisingly awful trees. There are at least a few years – again, I am not making this up – where my father somehow managed to score a $5 Christmas tree. This is less impressive when you recall that we used to put our tree up on a platform, so it had to be fairly small; if I remember correctly the tree couldn’t be taller than my mother, so call that about five and a half feet, give or take. Even still – a five dollar Christmas tree.

We would bring the tree home and put it in a bucket of water in the garage. (This was back when it was, you know, cold on Christmas.) We would do some family-kid-Christmas stuff, watch a special or two, and at bedtime my father would read us Clement Moore, the same red book I still have, and my sister and I would go to bed.

When we would wake up on Christmas morning we’d get my parents up, they’d make us wait at the top of the stairs for a minute or two, and then we’d come downstairs to find that Santa had gone completely apeshit while we were asleep.

The tree would be up on the platform, and lit, and decorated. There would be ribbons and lights and tinsel and decorations all over the house. There would be stuff EVERYWHERE. It would be like one of those Christmas stores exploded in our living room overnight. There would be piles of presents, and everyone’s stockings hung up on the mantle, and just JESUS. And my parents would say, “Santa did it all while you were asleep!”

All this happened because the second they determined that we were asleep my parents would run around like maniacs putting up decorations and wrapping presents and, most importantly, setting up and decorating the tree. The tree was the big thing. And as I have said before – one reason we went to get the tree on Christmas Eve was that waking up to a fully-decorated tree that was in a bucket in the garage when we went to bed was the cornerstone of my parents’ execution of Christmas magic. When you are six years old, this is absolutely mind-blowing. When you are 38 years old and know how it was done, it’s STILL mind-blowing.

The other reason we got our tree on Christmas Eve was that my father was really, really cheap.

When I was in high school my mother’s aunt gave us this artificial tree that I absolutely hated. Hated. HAY-TED. And even that we didn’t put up and decorate until Christmas Eve. It was what we had for a long time until my father finally relented in 2010 and agreed to go back to a real tree so long as we actually got it and had it up for a good chunk of the Christmas season. The agreement we came to was that we would buy the tree two weeks before Christmas.

On December 10, 2010, my bathroom fell into my living room right on the spot where the Christmas tree would go.

We delayed getting the tree until a few days before Christmas.

But finally we had a real tree again! And we would forevermore. Since then we have figured out a nice new Christmas tree tradition: the tree goes up about two weeks before and we put the lights on it, and then we do the actual decorations – the glass globes, and the stuff I’ve brought back from vacations, and the things me and my sister made when we were in grade school – go up on Christmas Eve.

This year, though, was the first Christmas where I was fully lord and master of the castle all by my lonesome. (I like to think of the cracked walls and creaky floors and dodgy wiring as unruly serfs.) But still! I certainly wasn’t going to back down. Everyone is welcome to do what works for them, of course, but for this Christmas traditionalist it is Real Tree Or GTFO.

About two weeks ago, when I got back from Vegas, I set out to get my Christmas tree.

Getting a Christmas tree is easy. In fact, it’s a little TOO easy.

I’m not going to lie to you – these last few years, buying Christmas trees, I have gotten some profoundly bad trees. But they are REAL trees, god dammit, and every year I am resolved to get a better tree, one that won’t die within hours of bringing it home.

There’s a reason I keep resolving the same thing: I’m not very good at this.

I went to a new Christmas tree place this year, thinking that perhaps the problems I’ve been experiencing have been because the places I have bought my trees in years past have had substandard product.

I am finally now coming around to the realization that “substandard product” is sort of the way parking lot Christmas trees tend to go in general.

This year, though, I came prepared. I knew that the most common cause of home death of Christmas trees is that the cut at the bottom of the trunk will sit out too long and clog with sap, preventing the tree from drinking water. I made certain to prevent this by buying a special pruning knife that I would use mere seconds before mounting the tree and getting it into water. And let me tell you, folks: that ain’t a knife. THIS is a knife. The handle is about the size of a lightsaber hilt and the blade is a solid nine inches long with a wicked curve and tons of enormous little teeth. It’s not so much a tool used to saw through a tree trunk as it is a brutal weapon the Predator carries to hunt sentient pine trees.

In the past few years when my trees have died prematurely – which is to say basically every year – I have attempted to make a new cut in the bottom of the trunk with a hand saw. This was a long, agonizing process that usually took a loooooooong time. We’re talking ten, fifteen solid minutes of hacking away at the tree stump – often with lights still on it after I took it out of the stand – but not this year.

This year, I set my tree stand up in the living room and went out to the front steps where the tree was waiting. I balanced it on the wall out there and began my first cut on the bottom of the trunk with the pruning knife.

I cut through the entire thing in about nine seconds.

I stood there and stared at the knife in my hand and remembered Church saying, “I could blow up the whole goddamn world with this thing.”

Now I had read that it takes something like 6-8 hours or more for the bottom of the tree trunk to actually choke off with sap, but I wasn’t having any of that. I hustled that thing right into the waiting stand in the living room and proceeded to put up my Christmas tree on my own.

Have any of you ever actually tried to get a tree into a stand on your own? I know some of you have. I can hear you laughing.

We have an old-school metal stand with a bowl, and four legs with holes in them and a metal collar that eye-bolts screw through to hold the tree up.

The first time I pushed the tree trunk through the collar in the stand and started to get down on the floor to put the bolts through, I had the passing thought, “wait, how does the tree stay upright while I’m down there?”

Spoiler: it doesn’t. I was on the floor for maybe three seconds before the tree fell on me.

This didn’t faze me in the slightest. It was a process, that’s all. I would iterate. So I moved the tree stand back towards the fireplace, pushed the tree through the collar, and then pushed it back farther towards the fireplace so that the top of the tree was leaning mostly upright against the mantel.

I got down on the floor to start pushing the bolts through the tree and had the thought – I distinctly recall this – “stupid tree thought it could beat ME.”

I learned the word “hubris” in ninth grade, for those keeping score at home.

This time I lasted almost thirty seconds before I had to rotate the base to get to the bolts I couldn’t reach and the tree fell on me.

I got out from under the tree and purposefully ignored the alarming number of pine needles that were coming off it and continued to work on my process.

Attempt number three: I would push the tree into the collar, then squat down in a catcher’s stance with one hand on the trunk of the tree and the other screwing in the bolts as best I could without being able to see them. Yes, it probably wouldn’t be perfectly level and the bolts would be a pain in the ass, but that would prevent the tree from falling down on me. And once it was in I could level it at my leisure.

It turned out that it was almost impossible to fit the bolts through the legs of the stand without being able to see them, so I pushed the stand back farther and leaned the tree against the mantel again. My new revision to my process was that I would lean it up again, but this time when I needed to rotate it to get at the other bolts, I would actually stand up and rotate the tree from there, then get back down under it. It would be more time-consuming and mean getting up and down off the hardwood floor more times, but it would keep the tree from falling on me.

If it only takes three tries to get to a perfect plan, I thought, this can’t be THAT hard. I had created a perfect, repeatable process for Christmas magic. I was as unto a Christmas magic GOD.

Crouching next to it, the second I let go of the tree it fell over on me.

I pushed the tree off of me, continued to even more purposefully ignore the even more alarming number of needles I was covered in, and started throwing wild right and left hooks at it while shouting obscenities about the tree’s mother.

I can safely say that punching a pine tree is one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had. I can hear what a lot of you are thinking right now, and: yes. Worse than THAT. Do not try this at home. You know, like I did.

Once I regained my composure, which took longer than I am comfortable admitting, I came up with a new iteration of my process: call someone else for help. The problem was that help was probably a day or two away at best, and the tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand until then. The tree wouldn’t stay up in the stand for a single goddamn minute. How could I keep the tree watered until help arrived?

I stood in my living room, pensive, staring at the tree. This, clearly, was actually the most important part of the process. On this, my own nascent version of Christmas magic depended.

What did I have that was big enough to fit a tree trunk, and strong enough to hold up a tree, but would also…

My gaze drifted to my right. Towards my kitchen.

Hold water…

I sent a picture of my solution to my father and the exchange went like this:

My father: Is that my crab pot?

Me: If by “your crab pot” you mean “my stock pot,” then yes it is.

A few days later my friend Kevin showed up to help me get the tree in the stand proper and when we pulled it out of the pot the gallons of water I had been pouring in it were still there, along with tons of pine needles, with tons more on the floor.

The tree was dead when I brought it in the house.

“Well,” I thought, “I’ve got a lot of years yet to perfect the Christmas magic process.”

Then I smiled, and thought, “at least I got a really badass knife to play with.”

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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A Story for Christmas, 2014

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2014

Okay, so, yes: I did not write a Christmas letter last year. At least three of you have expressed some consternation at this fact, and in the event that more than three of you were in any way put out by that, consider this tale my official apology. Inasmuch as I am official in any way, which I have come to learn over the years is in fact not very much.

There were two primary reasons I did not write a letter last year.

The story of the first reason:

Last summer – summer 2013, I mean – I got word that a friend of mine had taken his own life.

There are jokes coming, I promise, just bear with me a second.

So I get this news, and as you can guess if you don’t know already, I was thrown for loop pretty hard by this. I did what I did, you know, processed the whole thing in my own stupid, ineffectual, mostly useless way, and more or less carried on with my life.

Around about October of last year, though, I found myself having a tough time with a whole bunch of other things that were very pointedly not related in any way to my friend’s recent suicide, and for the first time in many years I went to see a psychologist.

If you’ve never been, seeing a psychologist isn’t too different from seeing any other doctor for the first time. There’s a lot of paperwork. A LOT. The big difference is that the paperwork at the psychologist, instead of asking things like “have you had any major surgeries in the last 5 years” or “how many medications do you currently take,” says “have you thought about harming yourself recently?” (Though, now that I think about it, it also asks about medication.) So I dutifully filled out the paperwork. I’m awesome at doctor’s office paperwork; I do a lot of it and once you get some practice you can get a decent groove going.

After I finished it I sat down with the doctor and we went over it together. We talked about the times I’d previously seen shrinks, my general life situation, stuff like that.

At one point he looked at the paper, frowned, and then looked at me.

He said, “on the question about ‘recent major events,’ you wrote that a friend of yours committed suicide?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Over the summer. But that’s fine, it’s not why I’m here.”

My psychologist raised his eyebrows.

I literally made a dismissive wave with my hand.

“It’s not a big deal,” I said.

Spoiler: it was a big deal.

The thing of it, though, is that my late friend was one of those folks who make a point every year, for some reason, of telling me how much they enjoy my silly little Christmas letter. And when the time came last year… I wish I had a better answer than “I just didn’t have it in me,” but that’s what I’m going with. I thought a couple times over the 24th and 25th about sitting down and banging out a little something, but I never got past the thought of doing it. I’d try to think of something to write about and no worthy idea would ever come up; there was not, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, any there there.

However, I did say there were TWO reasons, and it is distinctly possible that some part of why I was unable to string five words together in an acceptable order was because I was bone tired, just absolutely wiped out last Christmas.

The story of the second reason:

In the midst of everything else that was going on at the time, my mother managed to catch the world’s worst case of food poisoning last year on about December 22nd. She is and was fine, of course, but at the time it was very serious. She was in the hospital for a couple days and we didn’t know if she’d be home in time for Christmas until they discharged her around noon on Christmas Eve.

I am vaguely ashamed to admit that at the time I was… not AS worried about maintaining the appropriate Christmas traditions as I was worried about my mother, you know, dying in the hospital, but I’m not going to lie to you and say I didn’t spend at least a few minutes contemplating the inequality.

In an effort to maintain as much of our traditional Christmas as I could, though, certain sacrifices had to be made, and the biggest of those was that I wasn’t able to get out of the house. Someone had to stay home, man the phones, keep the place decent, etc etc, while my father was at the hospital.

So I stayed home, which meant that I could not get to the charity wrapping station at Willow Grove.

I would have to wrap all my presents for folks myself. And wrap my parents’ presents for each other.

I was, to say the least, not good at wrapping presents.

I was, in point of fact, astoundingly bad at wrapping presents, and frankly that kinda pissed me off.

You may have heard – not from me, mind, but around – that I am not a stupid person. I know essential survival phrases in something like 6 languages.* I can perform multivariate calculus in my head. I read the Aeneid in Latin and there are, at this very moment, satellites orbiting this planet that literally have my name on them.

Taping paper to boxes? Sorry, Johnny, no can do.

So in addition to being wrung out from the ordeal with my mother and her inability to keep nutrients in her body, I spent hours – hours, people, hours – the two days before Christmas sitting at my dining room table with piles of presents and scraps of garish red and green paper shouting “WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!” at volumes loud enough to get you kicked out of the Bellagio. (A decibel level I can now pinpoint with precision.) By the time the notion of writing the Christmas letter came around, in addition to my psychological issues with the whole endeavor, my brain was pretty much fried by tape and scissors and recurring daymares of Darth Vader wielding a cardboard wrapping paper tube instead of a lightsaber.

Which leads us to this year, and the fact that in addition to hearing around the water cooler that I am pretty smart, you have probably also heard that I may have a problem with what we will charitably call “hubris.”

On Monday I was at Willow Grove – Monday, not Sunday, that shit don’t fly no more – getting a gift for my mother. After my purchase was complete the very nice sales lady said, “would you like us to wrap that for you?” and my brain lit up and I said “YES! YES I WOULD!” far too intently.

The store would have people who are TRAINED in gift wrapping. Who were, most likely, experts at it.

I would watch them. I would study them. I would commit their every motion to memory. And then, when I got home, I would use my stolen knowledge to wrap my gifts myself this year. Not because I had to. No. Because I WANTED to. Because I COULD. I would steal their knowledge and use it to my own ends and become the gift-wrapping god that was my birthright – nay, my destiny.

And so I watched. I watched that woman practically without blinking. It’s a good thing she was concentrating very hard on wrapping my mother’s gift because I am fairly certain the way in which I was staring at her would not have been deemed polite, my excuses of “I was just watching your hands!” to the contrary. (Actually, as I read it now, “I was just watching your hands” is not really any less creepy.)

I watched. I studied.

When she handed me the box I said “thank you,” and meant it more than I’d meant a “thank you” in a long time.

I had studied her more intently than I’d studied anything since I had an Iranian chemistry professor who barely spoke English and I had to teach myself acid-base equilibria. I studied her carefully, and successfully. I had her secrets. I had her power. I was like Sauron with the One Ring in his grasp. I now had the ability to destroy all the gift-wrapping in my path.

I got home and took out one of my presents for my mother. I repeated what I had learned from the store wrapping person. I matched her movements exactly. I was her mirror image – she might as well have been there herself at my dining room table.

I smoothed out the last piece of tape, looked at my handiwork, and said, “oh what the FUCK?!”

My wrapping job looked like the thing from the transporter malfunction scene in the first Star Trek movie.

Now this is the part where what a normal person would do is look at the pile of presents on the table, then look at the epically atrocious job they’d done on the first, then look at their watch and say, “well, I’ve still got time, I can get this lot to Willow Grove and have the nice ladies wrap them for charity.”

This is the part where what I did was look at the pile of presents, then look at my epically atrocious wrapping job, then grit my teeth – literally grit my teeth – and say, “I can do this,” and pick up the scissors.

By this afternoon, the entire pile of my presents and those of my parents was wrapped and ready to go under the tree. I use the word “wrapped” in its loosest possible sense here, but still. The presents are ready to go under the tree, and yes, they are a mess of gaps and wrinkles and miles of tape that look like something the United Nations would issue sanctions for if a government dropped them on a civilian population.

Two years ago I wrote about how the important part of Christmas isn’t the present, but the time – the time you spend figuring out and getting that gift, whether it’s the “perfect gift” or just some little thing, that the gift is a physical distillation of time you spend thinking about someone else.

Staring at a pile of wrapping jobs that would make HP Lovecraft run screaming in terror I realized that I actually kind of liked having that extra bit of time thinking about other people. It is, after all, the thought that counts.

They don’t ever say what “the thought” actually IS, but I’m hoping “I AM WRAPPING THESE GODDAMN PRESENTS MYSELF NO MATTER WHAT” qualifies.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* “I am an American,” “where is the train station,” and “I need water.”

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A Story For Christmas, 2011

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2011

There are, over the years, things I regret saying.

Some of them are fairly obvious and can probably be guessed at by a lot of the folks reading this. “Uh, I guess I’ll have a vodka and cranberry? Are those good?” is one of them. “Nah, I don’t smoke… oh, what the hell” is another. Those are the top two, easy. “So, hey, Cindy, do you want to go to a movie?” isn’t exactly number three, but it’s certainly in top ten someplace.

One of my all-time classic boneheaded utterances came back in my final year of college when, mostly in jest, I said the regrettable words, “I find furniture shopping to be vaguely masturbatory,” which has put me in the both ridiculous and pathetic position whereby my friends seem to think they can make me go basically anywhere if they promise to stop at an Ikea along the way.

This is the very definition, the Platonic ideal, of ridiculous. My friends – who by virtue of being my friends are uniformly very nice people who I enjoy helping – thinking that in order to get me to help them with some undesirable task like finding a birthday present for their in-laws or going grocery shopping for a party, they must say some sort of magic code phrase like “we can swing through the furniture department at Macy’s while we’re there.” Thinking that, even if I didn’t want to go out that day, any resistance I might have had to filling their wedding registry would instantly evaporate at the thought of a series of tastefully-presented Queen Anne dining room sets.

It is pathetic because it’s true.

I would be willing to guess that a lot of the people reading this also know that I am a total nerd for Christmas – this is, what, the fourth or fifth of these that I have done? – but folks, I have to be honest with you:

Another thing that I regret saying was when I let it slip out in public how much I love bubble lights.

Now, let me walk this back just a little.

When I was a kid, I mean a really little kid, we had bubble lights on our tree. And, as I have said repeatedly in this very space, bubble lights are awesome. However, bubble light technology is something that has apparently declined in the intervening, er, [mumble mumble] years since I was a kid, and I didn’t see any for a long time.

The first of my adult interactions with bubble lights came a couple years ago, when my parents gave me a plug-in bubble night light for Christmas. Bubble light, Santa, etc etc. However, as long-time readers may remember, that bubble night light came with a warning label longer than a Thomas Pynchon novel which had the phrase “contact your local poison control hotline” in it. That very light, in fact, is gleaming right now in the kitchen, in open defiance of the warning label’s exhortation that every time you plug it in you have to stand there not taking your eyes off it for a single nanosecond, Sally Sparrow-like, while clutching an industrial fire extinguisher lest it randomly explode due to a minute fluctuation in local air pressure.

In each of the subsequent years, I have gotten bubble lights as gifts from various and sundry folk. For all the years in which the abomination that was the Christmas Stick was in use, my father steadfastly, absolutely refused to allow them on the tree. Last year, when he finally relented and this family reverted to an actual, real Christmas tree, he relented further and allowed me to put the strands of bubble lights I had been given as gifts on our new, live tree.

As the lights go on the tree first, later in the evening I was hanging one of our uncounted hordes of ornaments when I got my head close to one of the new bubble lights and said, “uh, this thing feels like it might be kind of hot.”

I worried that the lights might be a little too warm for the tree. To test my hypothesis – scientific method FTW – I firmly grasped one of the bubble lights between my thumb and forefinger and said, “GAH FUCK THAT’S HOT!”

Suffice it to say we unplugged the bubble lights, waited for them to cool enough to remove them from the tree, and packed them back up in the ornaments box. I love bubble lights, yes, but unfortunately I do not love bubble lights more than I love having a house and not being on fire, and as, I believe, the only person here who has actually BEEN on fire (twice, no less) that is a fairly easy decision to make.

This morning, then, came the Christmas gift giving, and after the torrents of “oh thank you” and “holy shit” – I will admit that very few people do shock-perfect gifts as well as this family does – I came to my final gift. I tore off the wrapping paper to find a square of clamshell styrofoam, which opened up to…

A 6-inch high desktop Santa Claus.

Holding a bubble light.

I stared at it for a second, put it on the side table I had set up to hold my tea, and then started rummaging through the packaging.

“What are you doing?” my mother said.

I said, “I’m looking for the warning.”

My father said, “what makes you think it has a warning?”

My head still in the box, I said, “trust me.”

And oh, does it have a warning.

We’re not talking the little UL tag on a tree strand of bubble lights, or the single paragraph on the back of the Santa night light packaging. Oh, no. This little Christmas WMD has an entire warning insert, roughly the size of a three-by-five index card, printed on BOTH sides in very, very small print. The warning label says “IMPORTANT SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS” at the top. This is followed by thirty-one – THIRTY-ONE (31)(XXXIII)(trentuno)(Curtis Marsh) – bullet points listing all the various ways one must be careful while using the dektop Santa plug-in bubble light.

The first safety instruction is, “READ AND FOLLOW ALL SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS.”

I said, “thanks, Mom.”

I thought, everyone I know is either trying to kill me, or thinks I’m waaaaaaay braver than I actually am.

My dad said, “go plug it in.”

I thought, yeah, after I get a fireproof box with an electrical outlet.

I said, “uh… I will later.”

Then I smiled, and thought, you know, they may be trying to kill me, but at least they’re trying to make me happy at the same time. And I’d rather be killed by bubble lights from people who care than live miserable without the light or the people.

So, let’s go plug in Santa.

Anybody got a fire extinguisher?

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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How about a nice… football?

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2010

A little more than a year ago I took up cooking as a serious hobby. If one can consider hobbies serious, I suppose. Either way, I made a concerted effort to learn how to really cook, and in stark contrast to my other hobbies, it’s paid off handsome dividends. Well, not exactly PAID dividends, serious cooking isn’t exactly cheap, but I find the whole process very relaxing, and you do still get to eat the food at the end.

I don’t mean to self-aggrandize – for once – but I’ve actually gotten pretty decent at the whole cooking thing. I’m no master chef by any means, and my success rate certainly isn’t 100%, but the things I’m good at I am pretty goddamn good at.

So, despite last year’s… let’s call it “lapse” with the mashed potatoes, this past Thanksgiving I decided I was going to take the plunge and cook the entire meal myself, with the centerpiece being a brined turkey. (Well, a turkey breast, but let’s not get caught up in semantics.)

This is how you brine a turkey for Thanksgiving:

The night before you cook up a gallon of vegetable stock and some spices in a big-ass pot, and then stick it in the fridge. Then, you wake up at 7AM on Thanksgiving and put the brine and some cold water in a big-ass bucket and let it sit in there for about 8 hours. You then cook the turkey as you would normally.

Actually, you don’t even have to cook it normally. The brining process certainly adds a ton of flavor to the turkey (which I would normally consider a somewhat bland-ish meat) but it has another useful feature: it basically supersaturates the turkey meat with moisture, which is a good thing when, before you put it the oven, you ask “how long does it take to cook the turkey?” and instead of a certain someone – I’m not naming names, but it rhymes with “my mother” – saying “eleven minutes a pound,” i.e. the actual cooking time, they say “twenty minutes a pound.” The brining makes the turkey meat so moist that you can cook it for TWICE AS LONG as you are meant to, and after all that it is still absurdly tender and delicious. It was the greatest turkey ever.

The end result of the success of the brined turkey was that when the time came, even though we decided that I wasn’t going to cook the entire Christmas dinner, we did agree on one thing: I was going to brine the turkey.

********

When I was younger – and we’re talking as late as my senior year in high school – my mother used to tell me that I had a “serious mad-on for tradition.” Knowing what we know now, of course, this is something of an understatement. I don’t have so much as a mad-on for tradition as the obsessive-compulsive parts of my brain are biologically incapable of functioning without it.

Let me be clear: I do not have the kind of serious, debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder that most mainstream culture seems fit to simply make fun of most of the time. For the most part my obsessive-compulsive behaviors don’t ever rise above the level of annoyance. There are even some positive sides to it. I haven’t locked my keys in my car in 14 years because I now won’t ever close my car door without having the keys in my hand. All the TV shows on my computer are perfectly organized with matching syntax in the episode titles for easy reference. And, hygienically-speaking, I am one clean son of a bitch.

(This last, especially, is good habit to have when you cook, where microbial dangers abound.)

It does, however, tend to make me somewhat hidebound to tradition. Now, I have finally gotten myself to a point where I am not just slavishly doing the same things year after year. For the first time since I got my driver’s license I didn’t go to Willow Grove Mall this past Sunday for my shopping. Some traditions, however, ARE sacrosanct, and for me the most important one that is still with us is my family’s Christmas Eve.

Let’s walk this back a little bit, to a slightly earlier version, when I was a kid. The 1.0 series of Christmas Eve, if you will.

When I was young – I mean a little kid – me and my sister would go out with my father on Christmas Eve and buy a tree. There were two reasons for this.

One was that for everything else, my parents definitely had the whole “Christmas magic” thing down. Me and my sister and my father would go out and get the tree, and leave it in the garage, and then after my dad read us Clement Moore, we’d go to sleep, and when we woke up we would find that overnight Santa went berserk in our house. The tree would be up and festooned with lights and ornaments, the house would be decorated, and there would be piles and piles of presents under the tree. Santa did it all while we were asleep. Pretty awesome, huh? This was one of the reasons we got our tree on Christmas Eve, so Santa would have something to do when he got to our house.

The other reason we got our tree on Christmas Eve is that my dad is really cheap.

Over the years it has changed somewhat. Once Santa wasn’t necessarily part of the equation anymore we all did the decorating together. And, in a move that I reviled for a decade and a half, after I graduated from high school my parents got an artificial tree which I derisively named “the Christmas Stick.” This year, though, I finally negotiated with my parents that we would go back to a real tree.

(Yes, in truth, the negotiated price had been that we get a real tree two weeks before Christmas, but our unplanned home renovations put a slight crimp in those plans.)

In the interim, our Christmas Eve has metamorphosed into a pretty solid set of traditions: we order Santucci’s, decorate the tree and the house, have a big fight about the decorating, watch a movie not remotely related to Christmas, and at various points throughout force other people to leave the room so their presents can be wrapped. Last night went pretty swimmingly throughout, with an interesting exception: the big Christmas Eve fight never happened. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that everything was still in pretty good shape house-wise (even with the recent construction), perhaps it was because I ducked out for an hour or so to hit Wigilia over at Nick and Reg’s (in time for cookies), or perhaps it’s just because I am of a generally more amiable nature anymore (the reasons for which you are free to speculate on). But there was no fight. Pretty sweet.

Once the pizza was eaten and the tree and the house were decorated and everything was done, I went into the kitchen to do two final things before we sat down to watch the movie: I got the brine going on the stove, and I poured my father a whiskey. With brine cooking and whiskey whiskeying, we settled down to watch our Christmas movie for 2010: Inception. (On Blu-Ray, in 5.1. Pretty awesome.)

Throughout the course of the movie I got up to stir and store the brine and refresh the whiskey – last night was the fourth time I’ve seen Inception, so I didn’t mind missing the occasional bit – and once the credits rolled at about 115AM everyone was pretty much ready to drop. It had been a long day.

***

I, however, wasn’t going to get to sleep long. I had to get up at 7AM this morning to actually put the turkey in the brine.

This is not as simple a process as it sounds.

For starters, you have to actually have a bucket big enough to hold 3-4 gallons of water and a 7-pound turkey breast. The first time I tried this, a month ago, I kept meaning to head over to Lowe’s and pick up a 5-gallon bucket to brine the turkey in, but come 10PM the night before I’d never actually done so. We went over a number of possibilities, all of them stupid. Stock pot? Not big enough. Bathtub? Too big. Kitchen sink? Can’t take the sink out of commission all day.

Eventually my mother said, “what about your father’s crab bucket?”

The crab bucket is this giant plastic bucket my mother got for when my father goes crabbing down the shore so that he would have something other than a plastic bag to bring the crabs back to the house in. It is very large, bright royal blue, and has “John’s Crabs” and a bunch of fish hand-painted on it.

(Why fish? Fish are easier to paint than crabs.)

I said, “that’s ridiculous, that will never… hmm, hang on a second.”

I rummaged in the shore stuff in the basement, found the bucket, cleaned the sand out of it – still sand in it, in November – and stuck it on the kitchen counter next to the sink.

“You know,” I said, “I think this is going to work.”

This is why I was standing in my kitchen this morning, at 7AM on Christmas, barely awake, filling a bright blue plastic bucket that says “John’s Crabs” with ice water and turkey brine. Don’t misunderstand – when you haven’t slept as much as you’d like this is not a simple procedure. You have to add the water, and the ice, and the brine, all without spilling ice water or brine all over the kitchen floor, no small ask when you consider the very strong urge to just dump everything in there as quickly as possible, and the fact that the lip of the bucket (on the kitchen counter) is at about shoulder height.

But befuddled by undersleeping or not, getting the liquids into the bucket without making a mess is the easy part. The hard part is getting the TURKEY into the bucket without making a mess. This involves getting the turkey out of the multi-layered plastic prison it comes from the store in.

First, you have to cut away the sort-of mesh bag it comes in. I tried getting my fingers in between the mesh and ripping it open with my bare hands. It didn’t budge.

I muttered, sleepily, “fuck.”

I tried to look around for my kitchen shears. I knew they were there someplace. They could cut open the mesh bag.

I eventually found them – under a bag of potato chips, naturally – and dimly tried to cut away part of the bag without damaging the turkey. I was way too tired for such a delicate maneuver. Eventually I just ended up grabbing the mesh bag by the top with one hand, hoisting it over the sink, and with the scissors in my other hand just cutting across where I was holding the bag.

The turkey landed in the sink with a wet thud.

I said, my eyes still only partially open, “fuck.”

I stripped away what was left of the mesh bag and then contemplated the next layer of turkey security: the actual, metal-grommeted plastic shrink wrap the turkey is shipped in. I turned the bird over to find the cavity and tried to push my fingers through the wrapper so as to rip it open with my bare hands.

My fingers didn’t even come close to getting through the plastic.

I muttered, “fuck.”

I set the turkey down in the sink and, as carefully as I could considering I still wasn’t really awake in any measurable sense, tried to cut open the bag at the cavity without damaging the (soon-to-be) sweet, delicious turkey inside. I managed to get a good sized opening going without actually touching the bird, and once the plastic was partially removed I shifted the turkey around to get a better grip and get rid of the rest of it.

When I turned the turkey cavity-downwards I learned that I had actually defrosted it MORE effectively than last time, when what on Thanksgiving had simply fallen out as a solid mass of frozen turkey juice and guts spilled out, in full-on liquid form, all over my hands.

I said, both squeamish and tired, “fuuuuck.”

I finally managed to get the plastic off and firmly gripped the turkey with both hands. It was time to get the bird into the bucket. Even half asleep I knew there was only one way to do this without making a huge mess – smoothly, carefully, with two hands, just lower it straight into the water.

I gave myself a “1-2-3-GO!” in my head, and in one motion, lifted the turkey out of the sink, moved 10 inches to my right, and swiftly, still clutched in both hands, dunked the turkey into the brine, which was, at this point, essentially 4 gallons of seasoned ice water.

I shouted, “FUCK!”

That woke me up.

So, okay. The turkey was in the bucket, where it would sit for 8 hours soaking up the tasty goodness of the brine. Thanks to the thermal shock of plunging my hands and forearms into the Arctic Ocean I was completely awake, but had to kill some time before the rest of my family woke up. But before I did anything, though, I had a slight problem: I’d been handling raw turkey for the last few minutes. My hands were a Union Station of cross-contamination. Bermuda for germs. I had to wash my hands before I did anything.

I turned on the hot water, ran my hands under it, and poured some soap into them. Finally awake, I cheerfully whistled “O Come All Ye Faithful” while I scrubbed away at my hands.

I got my hands nice and rinsed when I looked at the bottle of soap. It was just regular detergent. Not anti-bacterial. Not anti-microbial. It was just hand soap.

The trained cook in me said, “oh, no, that’s not good enough. You’ve been handling raw poultry. You won’t be able to cook anything later. You have to sterilize.”

The obsessive-compulsive in me said, “don’t even fucking THINK about leaving this sink without killing every single microorganism that is living on your hands right now.”

I stood there, with my hands now dripping with hot water instead of cold, thinking about what might be under the sink that I could clean my hands with. I knew what was down there. The only thing that would appropriately clean my hands to both kitchen and OCD standards was a can of Comet cleanser, but in addition to killing any germs that would also strip off most of my skin.

At this point I was convinced that I was going to have to stand there with my hands over the sink until someone else woke up, drove to Walgreens, and brought back some anti-bacterial Dawn.

Wishing I’d put on shoes, my gaze rested slightly down and to my right, to the space on the sink just behind where the bucket was sitting, and saw it:

The bottle of Tullamore Dew from last night.

I thought back to my chemistry class last year and tried to remember what molarity an alcohol solution needed to be to act as an effective disinfectant, then did some quick calculations in my head trying to convert ABV to molarity.

I looked at my hands. I looked at the turkey in the bucket. I looked behind me at the clock on the microwave.

I looked at the bottle of whiskey.

I said once, quietly, exasperated, “fuck.”

I washed my hands.

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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I think it’s ridiculous, impossible and insane! I wish I’d thought of it first.

Posted by kozemp on December 25, 2009

Folks may recall that a number of years ago I attempted to move to Southern California and failed miserably at it.

My time in Los Angeles was made even worse by virtue of the fact that I was trying to spend my first Christmas alone there a very short time after I arrived. Now, don’t misunderstand me: for a number of reasons, most of which stem from an absolute refusal to even momentarily consider how my own actions might affect me, the entire endeavor was doomed to failure before it began. Looking back on it almost ten years after the fact it is obvious that moving to Los Angeles was one of my All-Time Bad Decisions, right up there with taking up smoking, taking up drinking, and asking Cindy Hennessy if she wanted to go to a movie. I knew the second I arrived there – literally the very instant I stepped out of my car – that I hated the place and I had to get out. The impending arrival of Christmas only made my burning need to escape from LA burn that much hotter, but it did afford me a single interesting experience: for one year and one year only I did my shopping somewhere other than Willow Grove Mall.

For this one year I did my Christmas shopping at Fashion Square Mall in Sherman Oaks, CA. I am someone who has a strange affinity for shopping malls, and as such a person let me tell you that Fashion Square is unmitigated crap.

Fashion Square is a total lack of imagination given form and then crammed with crappy, little stores. To wit: Fashion Square is smaller, square-footage wise, than Neshaminy Mall, but has twice as many stores. It’s design makes “boring” look like the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark: it is simply two department stores with a bunch of stuff between them in a straight line. When I first got there I couldn’t believe it. The entire mall is just a giant rectangle. It is, like the city surrounding it, designed to chip away your soul a little piece at a time until you are nothing but a shambling husk that once was a human being.

It was bad enough that I was in Los Angeles and wanted to leave more than I ever have wanted or ever will want anything, but having to do my shopping in this godforsaken retail hellhole instead of Willow Grove was actually something of a watershed day for me. Standing there in the center of that horrible place I resigned myself for the first time to the fact that there were parts of my brain I simply couldn’t control. Once you get past this fail-safe point, once you let yourself be okay with the fact that a part of your psyche is always going to say ridiculous things like “if you don’t keep your keys in your front right pocket you are going to die” and you agree to accept these statements as reasonably factual they actually become much easier to cope with.

I also decided standing in the center of Fashion Square that a dream that made you miserable and unhappy was no dream at all, and I resolved to get myself the fuck back home.

That, however, was going to be something of a problem.

I had driven out to Los Angeles and I couldn’t afford to drive back home – problematic since I had driven out there with quite literally everything I owned in a U-Haul trailer. The compromise I ended up going with, eating up every last cent I had, was that I would fly home, have a moving company carry my possessions, and have my car hauled back by a company that specialized in such things. This was actually cheaper than driving back cross-country (a feat I wouldn’t learn how to do cheaply until recently). I learned a little later that it was that cheap because the moving company I hired was the sort that would go through your boxes and steal crap from them – all of my Playstation games and, bizarrely, nothing else in my case – but that’s another story.

My car, though, is this story.

I got the call that my car would be delivered to a parking lot on Broad Street across the street from the Sports Complex. Why there? I have no idea. But I went down there to get my car anyway.

It is important to note that my car at the time was a 1988 Caprice Classic that I had bought from a friend, who himself had bought it secondhand from the Bristol Police Department. This meant that it was, essentially, the Bluesmobile. The car was fantastically large, fantastically heavy, and supercharged under the hood to an extent that would make the Millenium Falcon blush (the actual Falcon, not my ill-fated first car). The fact that the car was heavier than it was supposed to be ended up being a serious hassle for the driver who brought it back to me.

I have since been reliably informed that getting a car down from the stern-most position on the upper deck of a car carrier should take 10-15 minutes. Getting my car down took an hour and a half.

The driver of the car carrier was a guy named Booker, and he was… he was an odd duck. He had an awful lot of trouble getting my car down from the second deck of the carrier, and every time he ran into a snag – which was every 45 seconds or so – he would walk in semicircles around the back of the truck and say, as near as I could tell to no one, “this is gonna cause me problems.” At one point only three wheels of my car were actually touching the ramps of the carrier, a situation I am still unsure as to how it is even POSSIBLE, a mere few inches away from falling 10 feet off the back of the carrier and smashing into the street trunk-first, and Booker just looked at it and said, “this is gonna cause me problems.”

If my car had actually plunged to its death off the carrier I was fairly certain that it was going to cause ME more problems than anyone else, but over the 90 minutes Booker spent attempting to get my car onto the ground in once piece, he simply kept saying “this is gonna cause me problems” as though it would, Zatanna-like, magically levitate my car onto the blacktop. He kept on saying this over and over again as he worked various levers and jerked my car up and down and back and forth as he tried to get it onto the ground. After 90 minutes of my car barely clinging onto the deck of the car carrier and Booker muttering “this is gonna cause me problems” it somehow miraculously got down onto the street – I have no recollection of exactly how other than that after 90 minutes of near-death it was just suddenly on the street – and I drove home and proceeded to be absolutely, inconsolably miserable for the next two and a half years.

At this point let us fast forward to December 20, 2009.

After last year’s realization that I could do all my Christmas shopping online so long as I did it at the traditional location of Willow Grove Mall on the traditional Sunday before Christmas Eve, on Sunday I braved the aftermath of the worst December snowstorm in Philadelphia history to go to Willow Grove Park and get my Christmas shop on.

I arrived at the mall to find that the lot which contains the traditional parking space hadn’t been plowed.

I sat in my car and said to myself, “all right, deep breaths… deep breaths… this is okay. It’s okay. Come on, buddy, we can do this.”

(I don’t know why I’ve started addressing myself as “buddy” when I talk to myself, but I’m as mortified by it as anyone. This, though, is another one of those brain things that I don’t seem to have any control over.)

I parked as close as I could to the traditional parking space, grabbed my laptop, and headed up to the food court to do my Christmas shopping. For the Sunday before Christmas the place was remarkably uncrowded – I would estimate it wasn’t much worse than an average strong Saturday. I got a good table in the food court very easily, off in that corner that overlooks the entire center of the mall.

At that point I was pretty much set on what I was getting everyone, with one exception: I hadn’t pinned down what I was going to get my parents yet. The HDTV from last year was going to be tough to top. I toyed with some ideas, but they were all pretty crap – I couldn’t afford to get them plane tickets to Florida, I had long since given up on things like books or movies for my father since he never touched them, and my mother already had the complete set of Magnum PI seasons on DVD.

While poking around on Amazon I looked at the clock in the bottom right corner and realized that if I wanted to make it home in time for the Eagles game I wouldn’t have to hurry, necessarily, but that I couldn’t really dawdle.

It was that thought that set off one of the bizarre chain-reaction series of associations that are an annoying hallmark of my thinking (annoying because it’s hard to stop them before they inexorably get to things that are horrible). It went something like this:

“Eagles game – game on TV – Joe Buck is such a fucking douchebag – had to listen to that twat Al Michaels at the bar last week – at least at home we have Merrill – do we use the home theater for anything other than listening to Merrill any more? – no, it’s too old, it doesn’t have any digital inputs – can’t hook up the receiver to the DVD player or the TV – damn thing IS almost ten years old – at least at home we have Merrill – I wonder how favored the Eagles are – ”

Whoa, whoa, WHOA, back that shit up. What was that bit about the home theater?

It was then I realized: I didn’t have to try and top the HDTV (and probably couldn’t anyway), but I could COMPLEMENT it by upgrading our old home theater system, which has now been reduced to an oversized radio, to a slick-ass new receiver with a Blu-Ray player.

I am a Christmas gift finding GOD.

So I bopped around Amazon and found a Blu-Ray home theater that fit the requirements I had come up with and then some: multiple digital inputs so that the TV and… you know…. other peripherals could be plugged into it (COUGH Xbox COUGH), enough power to level a small city, an iPod interface, built-in access to Pandora and Netflix, and bookshelf-size speakers so that I could just quickly swap them out with the ones we currently have strewn around the perimeter of the living room. I went over the specs once more, decided that it was perfect, and tacked it on to the rest of my Christmas gift order. The entire process, from firing up the laptop to order placed, took less than thirty minutes.

I may not be able to shut out my insane compulsions, but I can at least trick them sometimes.

Flash forward once again to Wednesday afternoon. Everything else I ordered has already arrived, but the home theater isn’t here yet. I’m not that worried – unlike everything else I’ve ever ordered from Amazon it has for some reason been shipped by FedEx. But, around 3 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, there was a knock at the door. FedEx was here with my home theater and I was all set. I’d cleared a little space behind my bed where I could hide the box until Christmas Eve and I had been sneaking covert glances behind the TV to see what I’d have to do to rewire everything.

I opened the front door and all I saw was a giant box.

The box said, “are you John?”

I thought, what the fuck?

I said, “what the fuck?”

A head appeared just over the top of the box. It was wearing a FedEx hat. The delivery man.

He said, “you ordered the home theater?”

I said, “I… yeah… I… what the fuck?”

The delivery guy said, “is it okay?”

I said, “yeah, it’s just… it’s a lot bigger than I expected.”

“Well, here you go.” The delivery guy pushed the box into the sunporch with a grunt and then headed out the door. “Merry Christmas!”

“Yeah, uh…” I said, still staring at the box. “Merry Christmas to you too.”

I stood there transfixed by this giant box – its dimensions are almost exactly those of a coffin – standing upright in my sunporch.

The only thought in my head was WHAT WENT WRONG?!

I pulled out my iPhone and booted up the Amazon app while I circled the box in a vain attempt to figure out exactly what the fuck has happened here. I ordered a Blu-Ray receiver with a center, a sub, and 4 bookshelf speakers. Even with padding and everything, I made a rough estimate that this box was about 400% bigger than it should have been. There was no way it would fit in the space I had cleared behind the bed. The goddamn thing wasn’t much smaller than the bed.

When I got around to the far side I realized the problem – this home theater system has TOWER speakers. Not bookshelf speakers. Well, what the crap, of course the box is fucking enormous, the speakers are 4 feet longer than they’re supposed to be. They must have sent me the wrong home theater.

Just about when I realize why the box is so big my phone has finished pulling up my order on Amazon and tells me that this is, in fact, the home theater I ordered. I didn’t order the model with bookshelf speakers. I ordered this one, the giant coffin full of consumer electronics on my sunporch. Amazon also informed me that the package weighs 79 pounds. I poked at the box to see if it was that heavy and almost jammed my finger for my trouble: she didn’t budge.

I started trying to break down the issue as rationally as I could.

My first thought was: how am I going to get this thing upstairs? My back is so fucked up I can barely pick up my boxers off the bathroom floor. This thing weighs 80 pounds and is the size of a person.

My second thought was: even if I can get it upstairs without dying, where am I going to put it so they don’t see it until Christmas? It’s the size of a goddamn PERSON.

My third thought was: okay, so, if I killed someone, where on the second floor of this house could I hide their body?

I looked at the box, looked at the stairs, looked at the box again, and said out loud to the empty house, “this is gonna cause me problems.”

Merry Christmas, all.

JLK

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