Saturday, December 25, 2004

 

Lighting the Yule Blog

If you're reading this, it must be Christmas time again. To give you a sense of what the holidays are like around the Magazine Mansion (and those who frequent it), here are a few carefully wrapped posts to put under the tree:


The Family Tree

Every year of my childhood--and a few rare years in my adulthood--my dad and I trek up into the 120-acre woods he owns in New Hampshire in order to find a Christmas tree. One year, I was lucky enough to have a photographer friend with me. Until we turn it into a coffee-table book, this version of the story will have to suffice.

Family Tree, The Prequel
Being the story of an early Christmas tree-hunting trip with my father and my grandfather.


Making A List...

My mom found one of my old letters to Santa, written when I was eight (and a half). My mother was a stickler for etiquette, so I'm sure she was pleased to note that I remembered my manners and had the presence of mind to thank Santa for the M-16 rifle from last year.

The Brownie vs. The Scalper
One of those instant classics, in which my little nubbin of a daughter squares off against a hulking, nose-breathing, mom's-basement-dwelling toy scalper who was hogging all the goodies. Sit back and enjoy.


Run, Baby Jesus!

If you're new to the blog, this may well have been what brought you. It's one of my more popular entries, and with good reason. My son's interpretation of the birth of Christ is priceless, and the thought of it will warm me for many Christmases to come. Hope it does the same for you.

Happy Holidays.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Thursday, December 23, 2004

 

Family Tree, Teeny Tiny Epilogue


All photos copyright 2004 by www.aeternus.com
Hope you enjoyed my little story, and many thanks to those who've commented here and by email (so many New England ex-pats out there who have a Gorry-worshiper in their family!).

I just wanted to add that, yes, this really IS my dad, not some central-casting curmudgeon I plucked off someone else's Web site. The copyright link under each image will take you to the site of a dear friend who got snowbound with me. Lisa happened to be a photographer for a great metropolitan newspaper at the time and it was our good fortune she was on hand to capture this ritual, which I had always remembered fondly from my childhood (Lisa has gone on to be a leader in the digital photography arts, and her site is well worth a look).

Alone or with family, my dad still makes this journey to the hill every year. One of these years, I'll return to join him. And I'll bring his grandson along.

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

 

Family Tree, Conclusion (Being A Series Of Random Anecdotes)


All photos copyright 2004 by www.aeternus.com
With the wood stacked for retrieval later, Dad grabs the top of the tree and stands it up appraisingly. "Yessuh, this will make a humdinger of a Christmas tree."

He shakes most of the snow off and its branches unfold, still green and lush, despite the decline of the tree that bore it. Above us the sun, high and weightless, sends down a light that glance off the boughs, dazzling us. For a moment the tree seems to have an aura, and in that aura, I can almost see it layered in tinsel, dripping with ornaments, lit with a yuletide glow. In that brief moment out among the trees, under a cold sun in middle December, this dying tree has been reborn into a new life.

Dad starts to drag it down the hill. Then stops, takes a breath.

"By Gorry, I reckon you better spell me for awhile. Besides," he winks one snow-flecked eyelid. "I can't have all the fun."

I start down the hill, dragging the tree, expecting a hard walk ahead. After all, it took us over an hour to walk in here, slogging uphill through heavy, moist snow. But as the hill descends, my feet move faster, the tree seems lighter. In a minute, I'm bounding down the hill and the woods are flying by on either side. To my left, I think I see a flash of movement, the briefest impression of being watched by eyes as ancient as the woods. Is it the moose?

I'll never know. The tree is skimming across the crust of the snow now, its momentum pushing me down the hill faster and faster. Any minute, I'm sure I'll trip and tumble ass over teakettle down the hill, the tree sailing off into the bushes. But I keep my balance, kicking my boots high, sending snow everywhere. I hear a rumbling laugh next to me, and though I can't see him, I know Dad is running along beside me.

In minutes we are sliding to a halt at the bottom, laughing and whooping, cheeks red with delight. We each take an end of the tree and, arm in branch in arm, we march for the house, where strong, hot coffee is steaming on the stove and a space has been cleared in the living room for our prize.

Later, as our mittens and my foolish cap dry on the stove, we sit back and admire our evergreen treasure one final time before it is adorned for Christmas.

My dad notices some imperfection in the way the tree is resting in its stand--he just knows, the tree tells him. He instructs me to tighten this bolt or that on our old wrought-iron tree stand. And while I'm on my knees under our tree in our house in the snow, I offer up a brief prayer for the miraculous blizzard that allowed me to be here.

Thanks be to Gorry.

And Merry Christmas to you and yours,

From Somewhere On The Masthead


EPILOGUE>>

Sunday, December 19, 2004

 

Family Tree, Part 4 (Being A Series Of Random Anecdotes)


All photos copyright 2004 by www.aeternus.com
"Will ya lookit this!" Dad says excitedly.

I come over to the stump he is touching. My first thought is that he has found something embedded in the wood--an old musket ball from the Revolution maybe. I've read about these things happening in New England. As soon as I say this to my dad, he nods sagely.

"Ayuh, that's true," he says. "A'cawse, since this tree's only about 40 years old and the Revolution was 220 years ago, I'd say whoever fired the gun woulda hadda be one helluva shot."

"How do you know how old this tree is?" I ask, feeling knuckleheaded. At this question, my dad's face drops at the wonder of my stupidity, as if I had just asked him what kind of tree maple syrup came from.

"It's all right here." He is pointing to the rings, circling the soft yellow interior, swirling around the soul of the great pine--roughly one ring for each year of its existence. "It's had a hard life," he muses. "Lookit how thin these rings were--it was pretty sick when it was young," his finger slides along the rings, like a record needle playing out the song of this tree's life.

"Here it got better, right here where the rings get fatter." He stabs at a feeble ring right in the center. "This right here is from the forest fire of 1966; all the younger trees that survived it have this ring--the fire stunted their growth."

He stops, peers, then points to a prominent ring. "That there's a good one," he says assuredly.

"Why?" I ask.

"I reckon that's the year you was born," he says, suddenly tugging my cap...


NEXT>>

Friday, December 17, 2004

 

Family Tree, Part 3 (Being A Series Of Random Anecdotes)


All photos copyright 2004 by www.aeternus.com

My dad doesn't like to cut a young tree. We pass fields of beautiful 6- and 10-foot tall trees. These trees would bring $50 each and more on the streets of Boston or any big city this holiday season; but Dad moves right past them; or to be more precise, right over them. He marches on, and always his eyes are turned upward, to the tops of the bigger, older trees, ones growing close together, too close.

"You can tell by lookin at em," he says. "They don't look so good at ground level. Only up top where they can breathe. These are trees you want to thin out. Because eventually, one or more'll fall over and crush the younger ones, won't give em a chance to grow. That's bad for these woods." When he finds the right tree, he'll fell it, and cut it into firewood, except for the very top of the tree. That, he'll lop off in one 6- or 10-foot length. And that will be our Christmas tree.

Suddenly he stops again. I freeze, straining my ears, listening for the moose.

I close my eyes to open my ears. In this era, it's sometimes hard to believe there are still places so remote that the sound of cars and planes cannot touch you. But it is not a quiet place. You can hear snow fall, if you listen for it. And always, above you, the voice of the wind in the boughs, a perfect white noise that both slows my pulse and quickens my heart. It's the most peaceful sound I know. And then, to my left, I hear the faintest crump of something in the woods and my eyes snap open.

"I think I hear it!" I hiss.

My dad looks at me, blinks twice. "I don't know what in hell you're yammerin about." He points up. "I stopped because that there is our tree."

I have never cut down my own Christmas tree before. So I heft my axe and step up. With a mighty swing, the axe falls, and bounces back off the tree, the blunt end almost smacking me between the eyes. I slide to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Dad is laughing. "Amazing how an axe just bounces right off cold wood, ain't it?" he says.

With a practiced flip, he takes the chainsaw off his shoulder. "By Gorry, I do like to live the old-fashioned way," he says. "I like to kill my own meat, build my own home; and I ain't above havin a shit in the woods now and then as the urge strikes me." He pats the chainsaw. "But every so often there's something nice about fallin back on modrin technology." He continues in this vein, but the rest is lost in a proud roar...


NEXT>>

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

 

Family Tree, Part 2 (Being A Series Of Random Anecdotes)


All photos copyright 2004 by www.aeternus.com
The idea to go find a Christmas tree was mine, but I knew as soon as I said it that the same thought had been running through my dad's mind all morning, endlessly, like the teeth of a chainsaw. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than he was in his lumbering togs: snow boots, denims, sweatshirt, and his beloved red plaid L.L. Bean XXL wool hunting jacket. This jacket is older than I am; almost older than Dad is--an inheritance from my grandfather. So too are the 120 acres of timberland that my father now owns, the last unspoiled remnant of a land grant that has been in my family since the 1600s. This is where we'll go to find the tree.

"I remember the year we were hard up for some spending money at Christmas, and we went up on the hill to farm out some trees. You musta been about five or six," he says, as I struggle into mittens and a old cap with a ridiculously long peak that droops down the side of my face--a foolscap if ever there was. My mother knitted this for me when I was five. Because she always made everything too big when we were kids, it now fits almost perfectly, 20 years later.

"Yessuh," my dad continues. "We musta cut 30 or so trees, and slid em down the hill on that frozen brook. We sold them for five dollars apiece. And on Christmas Eve, I gave away the last three to folks who stopped by."

"We are not getting 30 trees today," say, flipping the peak out of my eyes.

"Nope," agrees my dad, as he grabs his gloves and steps out the door. "I reckon we'll keep it to 10 or 12."

In an hour, we are deep in the woods on one of the hills surrounding the village where my family lives. The air is still, except for my labored breathing. The snow makes it hard to walk, and I have to step carefully so as not to fall and gut myself on the axe I'm carrying. Just ahead, Dad moves effortlessly through the snow--and he's carrying 20 pounds of chainsaw on his shoulder.

Suddenly, he stops. Every so often my dad will do this--stop and cock his ear, shush me. In these moments, with his great, bulbous nose and his bushy beard, he looks like a wood gnome, ready to duck from sight and disappear into myth.

"What?" I hiss.

"Shhhusssssshhhh!" he hisses, a great cloud of steam jetting from between his teeth. "Lisssen!"

I listen.

A moment later, he straightens up, grinning from ear to ear. "That was a moose, just off to our left." Then he trudges on, the chainsaw bobbing on his shoulder, leaving me knee-deep in snow, straining to hear. I console myself that he's kidding, but my dad has always had a special sense for that which the land conceals. He says it's his Abenaki blood. But he must have kept all of it--I can't hear a damn thing...


NEXT>>

 

Family Tree, Part 1 (Being A Series Of Random Anecdotes)


Copyright 2004 by proprietor of www.aeternus.com
My father believes in three things: the land, good wood and Gorry, an obscure deity worshiped by my people, the people of northern New England.

"By Gorry, bet you wan't expectin' that, were ya?" he asks. He is talking about the blizzard; and the 17 inches of snow it lathered on the town where he was born; and the fact that my impromptu day trip up to visit the folks here has turned into a long weekend, an early Christmas present for me and my family.

Dad is beaming this morning, brimming with light, smiling at the snow as he gazes out the kitchen window of the 210-year-old Cape house where he and my mother and their cats live. "Yessuh! That were quite a blow last night. I reckon it musta been snowin about three inches an hour for awhile." he says this last with an inexplicable note of pride, as if he were somehow responsible for it. He certainly was the only one expecting it.

Last night, when I showed up for dinner, my dad clapped his rough hand on my shoulder and said, "Good thing you pulled up when you did. Snow's on the way; I can see the signs." I laughed at the time. I had decided to drive up because it was such a clear, beautiful day. The drive from New York had been under icy blue skies, and no weatherman was calling for snow for at least three days. But my dad knew--some twingy telemetry from his arthritic knee; something in the way the ground crunched under his feet; some list to the branches of the ancient maple in the front yard.

Sure enough, just a few minutes past 10, the wind began to blow, waves of a ghost ocean crashing against the bow of the house. As I sat in my old room and watched the small, soft flakes fall by the millions, I heard my dad cackle downstairs. The wind seemed to stir something in him. I could hear him thumping from window to window; and occasionally to the door and outside, to check the progress of this storm. Every so often, he'd emit some exclamation to himself or one of the cats. "Whoa! That were quite a gust, wan't it, Moxie? Lookit that big bastid of a flake!"

"You're the flake!" I yelled downstairs, laughing.

"Nossir!" he called back. "Not crazy--maybe just a bit touched," he allowed.

Touched by the hand of Gorry...


NEXT>>

Monday, December 13, 2004

 

In Which I Spin Out on the Learning Curve...

I've been dispensing a lot of advice these days, which always makes me feel uncomfortable. Somewhere deep in the clockworks of my mind, there's a little personal chronometer that is set to age 22 and it continually gives me false readings. So that when someone who really is in their early 20s starts hitting me up for advice, or introduces me to college audiences as a "veteran writer and editor" my first thought is, "That can't be me. I'm only 22."

Really, who am I to be giving advice, when I know so little? Don't these people know I'm on the learning curve, too? I mean, I've barely figured out how to embed links in this blog (granted the little tool bar that would make it so easy only shows up half the time, but still). I don't understand why I can't post comments on some people's blogs, while every time I post to Nickerblog it gets sent twice (sorry, Shane!). Socrates said it, baby: All I know is that I know nothing.

And now here I am, closer to 40 than 30 and I'm telling 22-year-olds--who were all born with the ability to embed links in their blogs, probably via telepathy--how to get internships (more story ideas, less clips), or write an irresistible cover letter (it's all in the opening sentence). And then these people write or call and tell me how my advice for conducting themselves in an interview or whatever helped them land the job at the newspaper, or get the freelance assignment, and I'm just thanking God that they didn't get their asses handed to them on my account.

Sigh. Well, I do know this: I'm not 22, whatever the internal age-clock tells me. And once I recover from the shock of that realization, it occurs to me that I have no real desire to be 22 again. That was the age when I had $30,000 in student loan debt hanging over me. It was the age when I had to put my old dog to sleep. It was the age when I arrived in The Big City with 43 cents in my pocket and the knowledge that I knew no one and had no place to live. It was the age when I wrecked a car that I still hadn't quite paid off. About the only thing I could afford at that time was the advice of people who knew better.

As exciting as it was in retrospect, I felt pretty desperate and uncertain in the moment. On my worst days, I used to wish that my future self would travel back from 10 or 15 years up the line and just reassure me that everything would work out. I always wondered what that older Me would say.

Some days, I think I know.

And some days, I'm still waiting for that guy to pay me a visit.

Yours,
From Somewhere On The Masthead

Thursday, December 09, 2004

 

In Which I Don't Know Which Way Is Up...

Quick entry today as it was a very long day: we had monthly story pitch meetings, made all the more interesting by the fact that I have a vicious head cold and lost my voice. God's judgment on people who talk too much, says my mom, who could use an attack of laryngitis herself now and then.

Today my voice was like a cell phone on the edge of its coverage area: it kept dropping out on me in speech. When it does work, I sound like a cross between Gollum and Brenda Vaccaro. And of course PMS meetings are chiefly oral presentations. What am I going to do? I tried to work out some charades, but in the end one of my editors gave me a piece of chalk and a little slate so I can at least reply in simple declarative statements. You think I'm kidding.

The big news--and of course I was out sick on the actual day--is my humble little blog was named Blog of the Day by the fine people who run the, er, Blog of the Day site. Many thanks for the kind notice.

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

Friday, December 03, 2004

 

In Which I Get The Picture...

So today, I'm going through the slush pile (which I try to do on Fridays) and I see a query from a professional writer who sent me a few clips and...a picture of herself. Nothing undignified or erotic or anything but...a picture of herself?

A little later, my editor drops by with a stack of intern applications. So now I'm looking through a bunch of resumes set in VERY large type so as to fill the page despite a paucity of experience (a trick I remember using). And halfway through I stop dead. I'm staring at a young woman's resume whose main feature is...a picture of herself. Nothing undignified, but it's not a head shot either; it's cropped to just below the sternum. And she's vamping a little. Twenty resumes later, by God, here's another one (this time just a headshot)!

What the hell? I'm thinking. Why in the name of God would you send me a picture of yourself? I mean, think about it, you smart young women out there, looking to loose yourself on the industry: Do you really want to work for someone who would be swayed by this tactic? And what kind of message are you sending to the (I hope) majority of editors who will NOT be swayed? That's right, we're thinking: This is all she has to offer? A pretty face? Same goes for the freelance writer (although really, not a looker, so that's like two strikes on her. Not that I care about stuff like that).

All I can figure is this is some new tip that's wormed its way into the universe of advice designed to help you get a job. When I was starting out, it was the rage to print your resume on neon-hued paper, bright enough to stand out from a pile of submissions on an editor's desk...except of course that when he looked at it full on, the lurid color either gave him a migraine or induced blinding cataracts. I suppose a picture of a pretty young woman is easier on the eyes but...well, it's cheap.

As far as I'm concerned, stick with a plain resume. Use a large typeface if you want to. And spend some time writing a kick-ass cover letter. Those words are worth a thousand pictures.

Yours,
From Somewhere On The Masthead

Thursday, December 02, 2004

 

On Account Of Jerry (Being a Recurring Series of Random Anecdotes)

There are some stories I don't tell often. Some are a little painful to relate (such as the day I came home from school to find my dad with a bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other); some still make me twinge with embarrassment to think of them (as when the college football star opened his car door one night and found me fiddling with his radio); and some I don't tell because they're just too incredible to be believed. My experience with the paranormal in a certain 220-year-old farmhouse, for example.

This story falls in the latter category, but it's a unique one for me, because on the few occasions I have told it, I pretend that it was my mom or a friend who experienced what I did. I'm not sure why. Partly because I can scarcely believe it happened to me, and partly because somehow it sounds truer when I tell it as happening to someone else (ladies and gentlemen, the birth of the Urban Legend). But it DID happen. And here's how:

Several years ago, after I graduated college but before I finally broke into my chosen profession, I worked for a certain bank in New Hampshire.

How I got the job was still a mystery. As a writer, I'm almost completely math impaired, but the bank was desperate for tellers, and I soon found out why: it seemed that particular branch was the favorite one of every local curmudgeon in the area. Old folks coming in to harass us about where their money was (as they waved a passbook which was stamped CANCELLED in 1964). Young folks wanting to cash checks from other banks, then screeching at us when we refused them (the staff break room was papered with notices of bounced checks from such folks).

I had more than my share of the crazies, but I knew what I had gotten myself into: this was a service job and if I didn't like it, I could go back home and haul trash for my uncle, the town rubbish collector. So I sucked it up, smiled til my face hurt, and tried to be pleasant to everyone, even the jerks. Especially the jerks.

In the year or so that I worked there, my boss determined that I had a particular flair when it came to helping the crazies and the curmudgeons open accounts, so I was often as not at the customer service desk, helping people buy CDs (no, not the musical kind), or get new passbooks (yes, we still handed out passbooks when you opened a savings account. Oh those were the days).

To be honest, it was an easy job. This was New Hampshire, after all, a state that seemed to be in perpetual financial straits. We would maybe get one person a day who required me to open an account.

One grey, wet Thursday, I was at the service desk when I saw an older man shuffle in. He was shorter than me and looked like every other old guy I'd ever waited on, had kind of a fishing hat on, a dark cardigan sweater and an even darker scowl on his face. He was with a very much younger woman, I remember that. I took her to be his daughter. She turned out to be his wife.

He walked towards me and I smiled and said, "May I help you?" The old man ignored me and brushed right past the desk. "Where's Marilyn?" he bellowed. Marilyn was the branch manager. This happened a lot. People who knew the executives at our bank would insist on speaking to them first before allowing themselves to be led right back to my desk to open their account, as if going through this ritual would get them a better interest rate or finer grade of lollypop for their children.

Marilyn took these requests for her presence in stride, but this morning I couldn't help but notice that she came out of her office REALLY fast. As though her chair had been spring-loaded.

"Well, hi Jerry," she beamed. And she spoke to the woman, whose name I didn't hear.

Jerry growled on for a bit and Marilyn was hanging on his every word, nodding intently, placing a hand on his arm every now and then and in general treating this guy like he was the president. Maybe he was on the bank's board of directors, I thought.

And then they came to me.

"Jerry would like to open a new account and close an old one. Please take care of this, right away," she said, emphasizing the last two words.

If you've ever worked at a job where you file very specific paperwork over and over for months on end, you know how it is: the routine of it blurs for you and a mechanism engages, so that when you ask for someone's vital information--name, address, social security number, etc.--it goes in one ear and out the other. I filled out Jerry's account application for him, closed out his old one, gave him the paperwork to sign. The guy seemed very intense and I decided not to engage in the usual small talk, just went about my business.

We wrapped things up in about 20 minutes (you didn't think I was going to tell you anything about his bank accounts, did you?), and as we stood up, I offered my hand, as usual. He hesitated, then shook it. "That's the way I like it," he said. "No small talk, no nonsense, right down to business." And then he gave me the briefest of smiles, bellowed to Marilyn (who, I then realized, had been hovering nearby) and left.

As soon as he was gone, she scuttled over to my desk. "Well?" she said. "I thought you'd get a kick out of that."

I gave her what I'm sure was a blank look. "Kick out of what?"

She gave me a sad look. "You don't know who that was?"

I looked down at the paperwork, at the form, listing last name first. "Sure," I said, "Salinger, Jerome..." and I froze as the light finally went on. "Oh my God!" I shrieked, realizing I had just met the state's--arguably the nation's--most celebrated literary recluse.

Marilyn nodded. "He usually wants me to do help him, but I thought you might want to, given what you were reading last week."

And I felt a hot lump of regret fall from my throat to my stomach. Last week at lunch, one of the books I'd been reading was Nine Stories. If only I had brought it with me this week, I thought, maybe he would have seen it on my desk and signed it for me. Maybe we'd have become best friends and he would have taken me under his wing, introduced me around to his pals at the New Yorker...

Marilyn burst my bubble. "Good thing you didn't have that book with you today. He'd have been furious if you asked him to sign it."

I don't know whether that's true or not, but I do know I got to shake the man's hand.

I stayed at the bank for another few months, and never saw Jerry again, but I must confess that he still had an impact on my life. Within a few months, I was interviewing for an important writing job, that crucial foot-in-the-door job that would lead to the career I wanted to pursue. It had been a tough interview and the manager who had been drilling me was a former chief editor of a big New York magazine. I had tried to give this guy every right answer, but it was clear he wasn't warming to me.

Out of nowhere, he says, "Give me one good reason why I should hire you!"

His general demeanor and bellowing voice reminded me of that brief encounter at the bank all those months ago. And before I knew it, I blurted, "Well, I have J.D. Salinger's address and phone number." (It's true. I had memorized it that day when we met and copied it down when I got home, a personal little trophy in honor of my brush with the man.)

The manager froze. Looked hard at me, then smiled. "I gotta know how you got that," he said. I told him the story I just told you and that finally broke the ice. A week later, he phoned me to offer me the job. The guy turned out to be a Salinger nut, and spent the next two years trying to weasel the information out of me. I'd like to think it wasn't the reason he hired me (at least, not the only reason). And in the end, I never gave it to him.

I still have Salinger's address in my Rolodex. And though I've never used it, out of respect for the man and the privacy he's worked so hard to build around his life, having it makes me feel that I still have some connection to the great writer. That if things got too bad, maybe I could call him up, ask for his help or advice.

But he'd probably just hang up.

Yours,
From Somewhere On the Masthead

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