This is all wrong, I know. Take the month off, but come back for the holidays. But Friday I realized something unusual: my work for the month was done. Newspaper feature sections are assembled way in advance, partly for production reasons, and partly because we have the next year scripted out, and like to work with a cushion. (First week in January: Paris Hilton run over by Lizzie Grubman. Sorry. We could not resist.) Because of these ridiculous deadlines I had pieces due every day, sometime two a day; the Christmas piece was due two weeks before Christmas itself, which meant I really had to pretend to get in the mood. I could have taken the week off, but there’s just something unseemly about not doing the column. It’s not like each piece requires three weeks of legwork andn 48 hours in a cheap hotel with an Underwood, a carton of Luckies and a gallon of Old Crow. Stop yer poundin’, copyboy, an’ tell the old man I’ll be done when I’m done. Destroyin’ a Senator’s reputation is the sorta thing that needs to be done with care, awright? (Wipes sweat from neck, loosens tie, returns to typing.) I work fast, which means I really don’t have any excuse for not working.

The big Sunday column between Christmas and New Year posed a challenge; that’s the Big Lacunae, as they say in those Latin-speaking parts of Hawaiii; what to write? Well, the night before I’d been watching the 1938 British “Christmas Carol,” which remains my favorite of all the versions. It’s just right in a way few others are. (I feel the same way about “A Night to Remember,” incidentally; if I had to chose between it and “Titanic,” I’d choose the former. It has inaccuracies galore and it's saturated with John Bull what-ho fair-play and all that, but it somehow inhabits the catastrophe in a way that Cameron, for all his obsessions about the details, could never grasp. “Titanic” is about the event; “A Night to Remember” is about the story.) It struck me: hey, how about Jacob Marley visiting Scrooge a week later to do the whole nocturnal-spirits thing again, this time to rekindle the spirit of New Year’s Eve? I wrote it in 25 minutes, and that was that. Probably my favorite piece of the month.

To sum it up: vacations should be for people who actually work. I am frequently busy, but that’s not the same as work. My dad worked. My dad hauled barrels and drove trucks and went out at 2 AM to keep the fire engines fueled when they fought a blaze. That’s work.

I’d like to say I’ve been scanning and writing stuff for this site every night, but I have not. When not working on the newspaper columns I have been playing games (up to 37 minutes a day!) or watching the “World at War” DVD series in a small window of the computer scree while I, er, scanned and wrote stuff for this site. I watched that series in college on a fuzzy black and white; it was one of the most important history lessons I ever got. It filled out the details. I knew the basic plot, the players; it was hard not to go through high school in the 70s and not learn the bone structure of WW2. But our dads never told us much about the war. The movies gave us sugared versions; the textbooks felt like mouthfuls of hay. “World at War” was exhaustive, unstinting, and masterfully narrated by Larry Olivier in full world-weary mode. I’d forgotten the theme, too – it has all the hallmarks of 70s film music. Mono, a little reverb, certain horn flourishes that make you think Richard Chamberlain will soon appear. But the more I hear it the more I hear Jewish melodies expressed through German musical idioms – and vice versa. It’s a striking piece of work, and I cannot imagine what the composer must have thought when he got the commission. A theme for a 22 hour documentary on World War Two? But of course; give me a day or so.

It’s been a good month. Gnat has enjoyed it all tremendously; 3 1/2 is a great age for Christmas.

“Daddy?” she said as we were driving to Target. “Santa has a beard, I think.”

That he does.

“And Jesus has a beard.”


“But Baby Jesus doesn’t have a beard.”


“Cause he’s a baby.”

That’s right. She apprehends the Holy Trinity of a toddler Christmas: Santa, Baby Jesus, and the Full-Grown Special Edition Son of God.

I have no idea what any of this means to her. Her preschool celebrates Christmas with untrammeled gusto, I’m happy to say. You got your manger, your big multi-pointy star, your kings on camels, your myrhh. The three- and four-year olds had an afternoon service last week, and it pegged the Cute-O-Meter – they filed into the great vaulted sanctuary singing “Jesus Loves Me” in that classic toneless toddler caterwaul that nevertheless finds a melody somewhere, and holds it aloft like the body of some strange & lovely creature that washed up on the village’s shore.

They sang five songs, including Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Same repertoire I sang when I was in the Elim Lutheran Cherub Choir back in Fargo in the early 60s. (As I’ve noted before, I’m still amazed by the way everything rolled around and clicked into place: Gnat was baptized in this church by the same pastor who baptized me in Fargo. Oy.) We had a choir director intent on unlearning our juvenile inflections. It drove him nuts when we hissed that wish: We WISSSSH you a Merachrismus we WISSSSH you a Merachrismus we WISSSSH you a Merachrismus anda HABBYNUYEER. Now I teach Gnat to lean on the Wish. Put your elbow into it, kid.

After the service the kids went back to the Educational Wing, and the parents hit the lounge for caffeine and sugar. The lounge is upstairs, but it’s still the Church Basement as far as I’m concerned. If you have a bunch of Lutherans standing around drinking coffee and eating those sugar cookies with a Hershey’s Kiss stuck in the middle, it is for all practical purposes the Church Basement. I talked to all the mothers oppressed by religion and the patriarchy, including one who’d taken a year off to tend to her newborn and was now going back to supervise large-scale construction developments. O ye invisible burqa of convention, begone!

We also had a Dance Recital at the neighborhood community center; like the church concert, it’s one of those events that defines a community, and is completely off your radar if you don’t have kids. Ever see those pictures of how insects perceive flowers, how they see structures and colors we don’t? That’s what having kids does to you. Or, to put in other terms, it’s like finding yourself in another country and discovering the community of people who speak your language and eat your foods. You become aware of a world that lives side by side with the one you knew, and you fall into it without effort or complaint. There’s a vast difference between remembering Dad coming to your recital and being Dad at the recital. The first is a memory that dead-ends with you; the latter connects you to him and to all the kids and dads to come. In the old days of recitals, of course, people just watched; now every other hand bears a camcorder aloft. Perhaps 40 years ago the rich hired courtroom sketch artists; perhaps in Roman times the Caesars commanded artisans to instantly fix the event in mosaic tiles.

Anyway, as the bad comics usually say: Thank you, and I’ll be here all week.

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