Archive for December, 2013
I am quite a sight. Despite the fireplace next to me, an afghan covers me from the waist down to my legs. I am squinting into a book about World War II and donning the Italian onesie – matching sweat suit – so that I sort of resemble a retired mob boss in an old age home. Part of me is living in total content; another part of me is swimming in shame. I am wondering where it all went wrong.
And then I remember: I came home for the holidays.
I am a 39-year-old reasonably successful man. I am good at my job and have a great career. I enjoy cerebral hobbies like reading, writing, and hating Michael Bay. And I enjoy active hobbies like walking, jogging, and hating Michael Bay. I speak and write in complete sentences. Usually. And I eat vegetables, I swear.
When I arrived in Langhorne last Saturday, I resembled this man. I wore a tucked-in shirt and glasses. I wasn’t forced to squeeze into my pants like an overpacked sausage. I was able to have, maintain, and follow through on coherent ideas. I even managed charming conversations on Christmas Eve.
But then things started falling apart.
I am driving through intense Christmas Eve traffic in Langhorne. It is 12:30 pm; there are a $55 salad and 32 coffee cups in the back seat. Paul McCartney is singing his horrific Christmas tune about A Wonderful Christmastime. I want to strangle Sir Paul with a Christmas wreath. I am dreaming of the moment I can hand over the keys and open a bottle of beer.
Every year on Christmas Eve, my crazy family gathers at my grandmom’s house for an evening of complex carbohydrates, Christmas cheer, and beverages. We shout, eat, drink, watch football, communicate at an impossible volume, and wonder why the neighbors haven’t called the police. My grandmom leads the proceedings from her headquarters (the kitchen), where she mostly stands at the stove and gives quiet orders amidst the madness.
It always turns out fantastic. The food is first-rate, the Christmas cheer palpable, and the company insane enough to keep the night interesting. For these and other reasons, Christmas Eve has become the barometer to which all other family gatherings are measured. Boy this Easter ham is nice, but do you remember the ravioli on Christmas Eve? mmm
This year, due to grandmom’s travel plans, my mom offered to accept the burden. When she accepted the Christmas Eve challenge, my brother, sisters, and I knew that it made sense. It was a minor change after all and one that would be dealt with later.
We had no idea.
Returning to the U.S. at Christmas means watching a lot of American football. There’s nothing like a football Sunday. There are three games, at 1 pm, 4 pm, and 8:30 pm. Three games of the specific joy brought on by watching 22 men beat the remaining brain cells out of each other. If your team is playing, the intensity is dizzying. This intensity is supplemented by an atmosphere made of up other people – fans – and sometimes meat and alcohol.
Though I was a devoted fan for most of my life, I don’t watch football in the Czech Republic. I did at first, but it was a totally different experience and I found that watching a game with a grumpy cat in the middle of Europe didn’t bring the same sort of irrational pleasure. And it occurred to me shortly after that I didn’t love football as much as I did the surrounding ambiance. This has always piqued my interest.
Today, as I watch with two dozen rabid fans, I realize that I am a participant observer. And in this role I dedicate this Sunday to an embedded research in order to study the phenomenon of and surrounding NFL Sunday.
The following is my report.
I am heading home for the Christmas holidays and making my mental list of things to glut upon. There’s the holiday food, of course, the peanut butter, the cheese steaks, the meatball sandwiches, and free tap water at restaurants.
But when I come home, I crave something that’s specific to that trip. Each time I come back to the U.S it’s different. Last summer it was grocery stores and baseball on TV. Two Christmases ago it was driving and good pizza. Two summers ago it was the Atlantic Ocean and funnel cake.
This Christmas it’s my corner bar: The Langhorne. The Langhorne is about seventy feet from my parent’s front door, an aspect which surely adds to its attractiveness. It sits right there on the corner of Maple and Bellevue where a black sign tells me it’s been there since 1764. There are neon beer signs in the windows, Open Sunday signs, and a Bud Light banner. It’s been a corner bar for 250 years.
Little Tristan plays with his little wiener all day long.
Little Chloe touched an old lady’s boob and barked like a seal. So cute!
I see status updates like this every day on Facebook:
Little [Enter trendy baby name here] has been [Enter embarrassing activity here].
But there were lots of logical points going against this possibility. For one thing, it was 7:40 a.m. on a drizzly Monday in September. Nobody ever plays a piano on Monday morning. Second, and this is a biggie, I was in Hlavní Nádraží, Prague’s main station. The only things prevalent in Hlavní on Monday morning are miserable commuters and the occasional bum fight.
Moreover, in my late 30s and with hedonistic habits, a stroke wasn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility. And my propensity for daydreaming sometimes creates a worrying blur between reality and Walter Mitty.
But sure enough, as I rounded the corner, there was an old man tapping out one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. His briefcase was leaning against the piano and his bag of shopping was under the bench. He hummed along with the music as he played. I wanted to poke him to see if he was real.
I resisted this urge.
It’s Thursday night, December 5th, and the girls in my late lesson are summarizing St. Mikuláš’ Day, which is tomorrow. So, on the night before, St. Mikuláš walks around and interrogates children as to whether they have been good or bad. If they have been good, then one of Mikuláš’ assistants – an angel – treats them with sweets, nuts, or potatoes.
The bad ones get a scolding and some coal from Mikuláš.
The really bad ones get Čert.
Čert is the Slavic demon who acts as Mikuláš other assistant on his December 5th rounds. If kids are really bad, he kidnaps them and brings them back to his lair in Hell. He carries a whip or a switch and gets fed booze throughout the night. So that makes him more pleasant.
Čert is a big, hairy beast with horns and a disturbingly long tongue; imagine Jean Simmons on steroids and hormone pills. Though he is Slavic, he has a counterpart in many cultures. For example, Krampus joins St. Nicholas on his rounds in cuddly Germany.
It’s December and as kitsch as it sounds, I desire that which is Christmassy. I’m sure you have a favorite Christmas movie or even book. Every year I slap my knees at Clark W. Griswold and chuckle when Ralphie finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun and then almost shoots his eye out. And who doesn’t get a little misty eyed when Clarence gets his wings?
This December, however, my interests seem a little different. Whether it’s the gloomy weather or the fact that I watch zombies eat people every week, I want tales of holiday horror. Here is my list of books and films that add a bit of the macabre to Christmas.
Feel free to add to it.
I was on the tram when I first realized I was having trouble concentrating. It was a linguistics article, and it occurred to me that I was reading one paragraph over and over again. Naturally I blamed the attractiveness of Czech women for my inability to get through the article.
Later, on the couch, I had the same problem with the same article. The only Czech female afoot was the cat, and she was busy licking her butt on my kitchen table. Determined, I set a time limit and read the article. By the time I finished, I was sweating and soon thereafter dozed into a long nap born of weariness.
It’s become clear that my attention span has been waning. This struggle to read a simple article is just the latest symptom of this problem. In hindsight, I should have started to worry when I lost interest in the middle of a chicken recipe.