Radios were rife when I was a kid. My father would listen to Fanny Brice, and laugh, and we would listen along, laughing too. Neighbors repeated important radio news: I’ll never forget sitting in the yard at dusk as a toddler when the neighbor lady came out to tell us what our yard picnic had caused us to miss on the radio: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor! I’m two years old: what do I know what Pearl Habor means? But I saw that it was important. It terrified the adults.
And so it went till I was near ten or so. Then I was visiting a classmate up the block. His father was fiddling with a heap of electronics with a tube, an oscilloscope, near their center: this engineer was building a TV! There was no sound, no picture, yet. But a month later I visited again and there was Howdy Doodie: not yet looking at all like Howdy Doodie would come to look: looking rather like Pinoccio. Cheez, on another channel there was a ball game! And there were other channels! mostly showing network symbols, just a pattern, no show.
TVs began appearing in the stores. Other neighbors had them. Milton Berle! movies!
Well, you know what happened. But I tell the story to arrive at this image, in context: One day, marauding on my bicycle, I passed a store, it sold TVs, had a display window. And in the widow, displayed, side by side, was a bank of TVs! side by side! a row of TVs! and they were all showing
the same thing!
OK. Step back, breathe a moment. I want to set up Act II, then Act III: different settings for the same play!
Christmas morning! The toddler is taken to the living room, there’s the tree the toddler was aware the evening before his parents devoted so much care to decorating. The toddler is carried to the fireplace, before the mantel. Stockings hang from the mantel. The toddler is held before one of them. It’s for him!
In another year or two I’d be able to reach the stocking myself, or at least carry it off for inspection if Mom or big Sister handed it to me. (Did Dad ever hand it to me? before Mom threw him out? No such memory.) The important thing is: there would always be a wrapped gift atop the stocking opening. Mom would unwrap it for me, hold it for me to see, hand it to me! And it would always be … something wonderful! a toy soldier! a plastic airplane!
Next down in the stocking would be some other wonderful Christmas wrapped thing. a tiny Teddy! a pair of dice!
My eyes were already popping, how much joy did I have left on tap? it didn’t matter, because, before long, instead of a stuffed monkey, there was an orange. What did I want with an orange? There were oranges in the bowl, lots of them. Then there was an apple. Same yawn. Then, Ooo what a crash, there was a lump of coal! Bad boys got lumps of coal! What had I done wrong?
Before you’re many years older, well before you can reach to unhook the stocking yourself, you already know: something-you’ll-like on the top, indifference in the middle, an insult at the bottom.
But from the beginning there were also big presents to unwrap: stuff that wouldn’t fit in a stocking, not even in a specially big Christmas stocking, bought for the purpose. Oh, boy! a Monopoly set! But then there were pajamas, that didn’t fit, from an aunt I thought I loved. Every year, they never fit, and I didn’t wear pajamas past ten anyway.
Mever mind, here’s the pattern. First there was a tiny bit of wrapping. It didn’t clutter the floor for long. Mom held it in her hand, carried it away. Then there was a pile of shucked wrapping, puffed further with tissue: for a shirt, my sister’s sweater was wrapped in … My pile of discard paper mingled with my sister’s, with Mom’s …
You’d visit the neighbors: their piles of garbage were enormous, dwarfed ours: they had fathers! their fathers worked, made an income … the whole suburb would float away on the torn wrappers, reconfigured by the sticky tape, the mangled tissue …
Like islands in the ocean there were the piles of presents, tall as Hawaii (from ocean bottom to mountain top). But how many more presents were there inseparable from the killer waves of trash? How many diamonds went out to the curb in the trash barrels?
image of christmas trash expired
When I was a kid each family had one garbage can. When I was ten some families had two, sometimes both were filled.
By the time I was eighteen and working my freshman summer for the sanitation department some families had a dozen cans, ever bigger.
And by the time I was twenty-three my army buddy wrote a Trash Wars story where man rockets his garbage into space and some pissed aliens retaliate: recycling our trash to us and adding theirs to boot!
Here’s a twin lane on the same road: I especially loved Christmas when we visited my cousin. I liked the time before Christmas as much as I loved Christmas itself. I loved watching my cousin Pat wrap the presents more than I ever enjoyed opening one. Pat practiced wrapping the gift bottles in their liquor store: each one a gem. Only a fool would want to get at the liquor by severing that wrap. But my cousin Don was the same: watch him mince the onion for the cocktail sauce! Perfection!
Anyway, wrapping presents sometimes involved a bit of filler, so the book wouldn’t rattle too much in the box, giving away its identiy: same as what the tissue was for around the sweater. President Ike would soon say that the future of American commerce was in wrapping: instead of going to a store and taking a handful of nails out of a barrel, or molly bolts, a pair of molllies would be shrink wrapped, so you couldn’t get at them, and had to buy two when you only wanted one.
Well, we were cooperating: we: the man in the street, the child in arms.
If the present rattled in the box we rumbled some newspaper, we filled the gap. Jeez, who else remembers how that world was filled with old newspaper, everybody had stacks: to light the fire, to protect the sun room floor from snowy galoshes … to fill that corner of that box for that present. But soon shipping fill was manufactured! sold in a store, like the little paired mollies you couldn’t open with a knife! nor a scissors! Soon there was styrofoam. And then: styrofoam peanuts.
I remember it being natural for a kid to run to the biggest wrapped box near the tree with his name on it. When Mom opened her presents the best gift had always been in the smallest package: that’s where the ring had been, the earrings: the “diamonds.” Still, many a parent, many an older sister, knew how to fool the kid: give him a pair of dice but wrap it in a box big enough to hold a basketball, fill the corners with rumpled paper, with styrofoam.
I didn’t invent this. My sister didn’t invent this. Or, we do, each, re-invent this!
We’re promised freedom, but we’re put in school!
We’re promised reading skills, by people who themselves couldn’t get 600 on the GRE!
Worse! we’re told we do have freedom: while we’re in the compulsory school!
while we’re drafted into the military!
We’re told we’re “under God” by … by … by people indistinguishable from Caiaphas, Pilat …
The teachers, the senators, the journalists obviously do not know what the words mean!
But you know if you can read, even just a little bit, if you have the tiniest clue what words could mean, what they maybe once meant, then you may suspect that once upon a time, there was a phrase or two that were gems: before they got hidden by the trash tsunamis.
Indeed, half of the automata pretending to teach you to read, will refer to such. They’ll tell you about the Bible! the word of God!! They’ll show you words printed in red letters!
They’ll tell you that Jesus said them!
How could we possibly know? We, who bury the gems under mountains of styrofoam? Who lie every time we speak, who mis-see every time we look in the mirror?
But you know: however many diamonds got tossed, not every gem got tossed. However many words in red were not said by Jesus, I bet one or two of them were. And if they weren’t, not every phrase printed as Chaucer, or Shakespeare, is a fraud.
If only there were some way of knowing the real from the fraudulent. I used to think I knew. Despite being promised Jesus, but handed Jefferson, who kept slaves: Franklin, who sent whiskey to the Iroquois while stealing their democratic bicameral legislature: Obama, who … who …
I used to tell people I knew, at least some of the time. But now that I’m 73, going blind, deaf … who can tell?
that oughta be good enough for a quick first draft, i bet i ain’t quite done though
Last week I gave my TV antenna to a neighbor. Apparently mine had bown down from its tower to the ground. I didn’t know it: I unplugged my TV decades ago when it went digital. I don’t watch TV anyway, I can’t be bothered with upgrades to the hardware or the software. I upgrade the WiFi, the Mac; I ignore the TV. (For tennis and basketball I watch with Jan, in her big set, at her house.
But of course I miss things. Sometimes I even discover what I’m missing: then I don’t miss it, I go out of my way to see it. A Monety Python reunion in Aspen for example.
Hilary and I were introduced to Monty Python’s Flying Circus when my buddy Dave returned to Columbia Architecture after a year’s exchange with Cambridge. We were downing our usual string of martinies when Dave guided us all to the TV, somethig special was coming on. England had gone nuts, American TV was about to break the ice. I laughed my ass off. That was the late 1960s. I’m still laughing.
On YouTube I was just sitting, exhausted, when an old David Letterman show came on, Terry Gilliam the guest.
Quick aside: I first learned John Cleese by name, then Michel Palin. One at a time I came to know five of the six Pythons: Terry Gilliam was the short stick. Until I revised my opinion, though Gilliam may have been the best of all of them, the greatest movie maker.
Regardless, Gilliam was the one American in the bunch. Miraculusly he meshed with the Cambridge crowd. Then I noticed, just an hour or two ago: Gilliam and Letterman were interacting beautifully: they both have comic genius, everything they did was a funny mix, utterly compatible.