I first remember watching Betty White when I was thirteen years old. She had just joined the cast of The Mary Tyler Moore show as the host of a fictitious show-within-showed called the Happy Homemaker. Her character, Sue Ann Nivens, was super cheerful and upbeat while on her show, but was a sharp-tongued nymphomaniac behind the scene and often played the antagonist to other characters on the show.
And she was hilarious.
Given her career before that, I’m sure that I had seen her before she joined The Mary Tyler Moore Show on the many daytime game shows that she frequently appeared in during the 60s and 70s. I’m also fairly certain that I had seen the political thriller Advise and Consent in which Betty played the one and only woman Senator in Congress. But it was Sue Ann who wriggled her way into my heart.
Sue Ann wasn’t the only iconic character she played. Many more people hail her portrayal of Rose Nylund in The Golden Girls. Rose was a very different character–though one who like all characters Betty assayed, had a bit of steel in her.
Being as funny, personable, and playing such a diverse set of characters was an incredible accomplishment. But there was so much more to her than that. There was her activism for various animal charities. There was the time in the 1950s when she defied the network executives that she was letting tap dancer Arthur Duncan (who was black) have too much screen time in her variety show. Betty gave him even more screen time after that. And she became not just someone the gay community idolized, but one of our fiercest allies.
And every person who met her in persons said that neither the personability nor the wittiness was an act. It was who she was.
Betty was famous for loving vodka and hot dogs–and for refusing to apologize for not being into anything more fancy or stylish. So, join me in raising a glass as we bid farewell to the great Betty White.
Content Warning: Mentions instances of child abuse and animal cruelty. Reader discretion is advised.
I was raised by an extremely racist, angry, reactionary man who was physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive to his wife and children. Sometimes when I have mentioned this some people have felt the need to chime in to dismiss my description. So I will just mention that one time, when my at-the-time four-year-old sister wound up in the hospital with a fractured skull because of one of his beatings, and she accidentally mentioned to one of the medical personnel that he had been hitting her, and thus all of the family were interviewed by someone from the state department of child protective services, that afterward to punish my sister for not sticking to the lie he drilled into us on the way to the hospital (but knowing that authorities were now watching the family), he made us watch him kill the family cat while he explained to my sister that it was her fault the cat had to die like that.
So don’t you dare tell me that my father wasn’t an abusive evil being.
A bit over five years ago my father died. The last time I spoke to him was about seven years before his death. He had called me. I tried to remain civil during the call. The first time he went off on a rant using the n-word and a number of other racial slurs, I interrupted and reminded him that I have previously said I would hang up when he talked like that. He tried to argue that he was entitled to his opinions. I replied that while he was entitled to his opinions, I was not obligated to listen.
He muttered a half-hearted agreement and changed the subject.
But it wasn’t long until he went off on another similar screed–this one a bit worse because he suggested that murdering a particular African-American politician would be a good idea. Again I reminded him that if he insisted on talking like that, I would hang up on him. Once again, he muttered a half-hearted non-apology and tried to change the subject. I tried to lighten the topic even further…
But again, it wasn’t long until he was using several racial slurs while complaining about something he’d heard about on Fox News. I tried to interrupt but he started talking faster. So I raised my voice and said, "I told you if you keep talking like that I would hang up. I’m hanging up now, and if you try to call back I will not answer."
And I hung up.
He tried calling a few times that night. I didn’t answer.
He never tried calling again.
Some years later his sister called to tell me he was dying. She also said he couldn’t take any calls because he couldn’t hear well enough to understand. Which was fine be me, because I didn’t want to talk to him. Of course, a few days later for complicated reasons she was shouting into my voice mail how my next older sister’s persistence in trying to call him to say good-bye had forced them to remove the phone from his room so she couldn’t talk to him again, and now none of his "real friends" could call to say good-bye.
I had been relieved the day before when the same aunt said he couldn’t take calls. But I admit I was extremely pissed to find out that that was a lie, and that people on that side of the family were choosing to exclude some of us. Which I know is weird, because I didn’t want to talk to him. But my sister had wanted to. And she did (and because my sister always calls everyone on speakerphone no matter where she is, I have two reliable witnesses who say that he clearly could hear and understand her, that he knew it was her, and so forth).
The morning that I got the message that Dad had died, I was a bit shocked at just how overwhelming the sense of relief that came over me was. I had thought that I had mostly been over all the bad feelings from him for years, but I wasn’t.
Since he died, every Fathers’ Day, every anniversary of his birthday, and every anniversary of his death has brought a resurgence of that feeling of relief. I never have to talk to him again. I never have to deal with his BS again. So in some corners of the web I make a comment. And in some parts of my real life I make a comment.
Sometimes, people express the opinion that it isn’t healthy for me to continue to be glad that the abusive man who beat me severely for years–whose beatings sent me to the emergency room more than once, who sometimes made me watch him beat my siblings or my mother as an object lesson–is dead. I try to be civil when I say, "It makes me feel better to remember he’s gone."
I don’t know if I always succeed.
There is a myth perpetrated in our society that the only way to recover from bad experiences is to forgive and forget. It is not true. First, no one is ever, under any circumstances, obligated to forgive. At a minimum, the only point where forgiveness should become a consideration is if the offender makes a genuine expression of remorse and a reasonable attempt to make amends. Even in those circumstances, forgiveness is not required.
When they never acknowledge that anything they did was wrong, let alone never ask for forgiveness, then forgiveness isn’t even recommended.
There are times that I honestly wish I could forget some of the horrid things he did and said to me when I was a child. I don’t want to remember those things. Truly, I don’t.
Remembering those things has allowed me to recognize other abusive people who have come into my life. It was allowed me to put a bit of a barrier between myself and those abusive people. It has several times been a major benefit, as I had not allowed myself to become so entangled in the abusive person’s actions when for social reason I am required to occasionally have contact.
We learn through experience. And no matter how unpleasant the experience is, we should never reject the lesson the experience teaches us. So, no, I will not forget how awful my father was. I will not forget the pain he caused me, my siblings, nor my mother.
I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the presents my husband got me for Christmas was a replacement coffee maker, since the heating plate on the one I have been using for years was rusting out. I have only been using the coffee maker for about a month, so I was a little surprised after making the a new pot of coffee on Monday that the clean light was flashing on the maker. Which means that as soon as I finished drinking the coffee, I needed to clean everything out, load up the reservoir with a blend of vinegar and water and run a clean cycle.
Since that took a while late in the afternoon, I didn’t make a second pot of coffee.
My usual routine is to make a fresh pot of coffee on Monday morning, then after I drink the first pot, I make a second pot in the afternoon. I only drink about half of the second pot. Then usually on Tuesday morning I heat up the leftover from the previous day in the microwave until I finish it off, then I make a second pot which is usually consumed that day.
So I’ve used to having some coffee I can drink first thing on at least two days a week so I don’t have to try to make a new pot without already having some caffeine in my brain. I got through the rest of Monday by drinking a couple of cans of a brand of Cold Brew I sometimes mix with the homebrewed coffee to make a kind of mocha.
Even though I knew what had happened Monday afternoon, I was a bit shocked when I came into the kitchen Tuesday morning that the carafe was completely empty. I put some coffee beans in the grinder, then went back to my desk to boot up the work computer. There were several urgent messages awaiting me, so I started working on various things.
During a break between urgent calls from various co-worker, I headed into the kitchen to get some coffee. Except there wasn’t coffee. There were just fresh ground beans waiting to be put into the filter basket. I hadn’t remembered to come back and do the next part of the process. So I put the gounds into a filter.
And because there were a lot of alert sounds coming from the work phone, I headed back to the computer to deal with the follow up questions. By the time there was a break, I was developing a caffeine-deprivation headache. So I headed into the kitchen again…
…I had put the grounds into a fresh filter and put the filter into the coffeemaker, but I hadn’t put any water in the reservoir, let along turned the coffee maker on.
I didn’t get the coffeemaker actually going until about noon.
Last week I wrote about the fact that I had only just that Monday finished off the last of the many bags of Christmas/Holiday Blend coffee beans I bought in November and December. Later that week there was another transition related to coffee in my house. To explain, I have to take you back to September of 2014, just over six years ago, when the coffee maker I’d been using for some years died. We went out and bought a new one. One of the things I really liked about the new one was that it used carbon water filters between the water reservoir and the carafe which were the same filters that the previous two machines we’d owned had used. A lot of coffee machines by many different manufacturers have settled on that filter, so it wasn’t super difficult to find one.
I’ve been using that one ever since. Sometime last spring, during the couple of months that my husband was furloughed from his job and we were both home full time, he pointed out that the hot plate that the carafe rests on was getting rusty. I took a look and saw a little bit of rust, and noted that the black enamel that coated the plate was flaking off, but otherwise figured it was a minor problem.
My usual routine is to rinse out the carafe and the filter basket every day before I make new coffee, and to run the carafe, filter basket, and the gold filter through the dishwasher about once a week. I don’t usually clean the hot plate because, well, the coffee that I drink never touches it directly, and I’m lazy.
Some months after Michael had pointed out the rust, while the carafe and other bits were in the dishwasher, I decided to do a thorough cleaning of the rest of the coffee maker. The hat plate, once scrubbed, looked a lot worse. Essentially, every time I pull the carafe out or put it back in place, a little bit of coffee spills out and lands of the hot plate. Trapped between the hot plate and the carafe, the coffee boils away and burns and coats the hot plate with a layer of black burnt coffee. There was way more burnt coffee than enamel left on the warming plate, and a whole lot more rust than I had realized (because most of it was hidden beneath the burnt coffee).
The hot plate has a heating element attached to the underside, which means an electrical current runs through it. Depending on how bad the rusting gets, this might eventually pose an electrical hazard. Still, looking at it, I figured we were a long way away from in being a problem. Which was not really a wise thought, I know. But nothing continued to go wrong and slowly the issue faded away into the back of my mind.
Then, on Christmas Eve, while we were online with a bunch of friends, wishing each other Happy Holidays and occasionally opening presents, my husband carried over from behind our tree a large box that had been sitting there for some weeks with a tag identifying it as a present from him to me, and told me I had to open it in front of our friends.
Inside the box was not just a coffeemaker, but the exact same model as we currently owned… even though the manufacturer had stopped making it about a year ago. Several places on line still had unopened boxes, so he’d ordered it. I wound up telling the story above to our friends. And since it was Christmas Eve, I didn’t want to drop everything to go take the old maker down and open the new one.
The problem is… I left the new one in its box through Christmas, New Year’s… and Valentine’s Day… and it was still sitting in its unopened box last Monday when I made a pot of coffee using the very last of the Christmas Blend coffee beans. After posting that blog post, I realized what I needed to do next. So, that evening, I unplugged the old coffee maker, disassembled various bits, and set the water filters (I didn’t mention that this unit uses two: one for the coffee reservoir, and the other for the separate hot tea maker) in water to soak overnight.
The next day I made the first pot of post-holiday coffee with the new coffee maker. And everything works find. The coffee is good. It is, after all, identical to the old one just brand new. Let’s hope it’s another six years at least before I need to replace it.
It was anti-climatic. But then, I should have just unboxed the coffee maker a couple months ago, right?
While normally I would chalk it up to procrastination, I’m going to also throw a little bit of blame at the quarantine and how time has become a fog the longer I’m working from home, never going outside without a mask, limiting my shopping trips generally to once a week, and so on.
Speaking of, I didn’t think of commemorating my own quarantine anniversary until about a week afterward. So, this week is the 57th week of working from home, for me.
That’s right, just a little more than a month before our governor issued the first Stay Home, Stay Healthy order, I developed a severe cough overnight. So on the morning of February 19, 2020, I sent my boss an email saying I would be working from home until the cough went away. It was exactly one month after the first COVID-19 case had been identified in our state, in a man who lived only a few miles from our place. The cough (along with body aches) persisted for a bit more than two weeks. I never developed a fever, and never experienced the shortness of breath and deep lung pains that two friends who were later confirmed to have come down with COVID in the following month.
During the course of those two weeks, the corporate overlords at work had issues a series of all-employees emails, first announcing we were canceling our company’s participation in a big international tech conference we usually exhibited at (the conference itself was canceled eventually); then saying that any employee who needed to work from home could start doing so without going through the usual approval process; then encouraging people to work from home if they could, especially if they are anyone in their household was exhibiting symptoms.
It wasn’t long after that before the corporate line shifted to not just encouraging, but putting everyone, including those who could not work from home (people maintaining our data centers, for instance( on a schedule where only half of the employees can be in the office at a time.
And yeah, I’m making cocktails for myself more often than I used to. Because there is a lot of anxiety in my life. Even though I was very introverted, not being able to spend time face to face with friends has been stressful. I come from a long line of professional worriers, so I’m always fretting about people I know getting sick.
It’s a feeling that virtually everyone is sharing. And it isn’t fun.
Today I am drinking coffee made from the very last beans out of the last bag of the many types of Holiday Blend/Christmas Blend I purchased during this last holiday season. I opened the first bag of holiday blend coffee a day or two before Thanksgiving, and I have been working my way through them—without making coffee from any of the bags of non-holiday blend beans in my pantry—ever sense. I am not certain, but I think this year might be the latest I have gone into the year still trying to use up those Jingle Janglin’ Java Beans. I know I usually make it into at least mid-February.
One thing that is different this year is that I have adopted the habit of placing the coffee carafe and all other machine-washable bits of the coffee maker into the dishwasher on Sunday. Then make a couple of pots of tea for my caffeine intake that day. Also, Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) fell close to the last day of Thanksgiving that it can, so I had one less week than I do most years to get through the bulk of the holiday blend coffee. Therefore, I shouldn’t be surprised that it took several extra weeks to use up the holiday coffee this year.
But that isn’t my only coffee problem.
I have so, so many bags of non-holiday coffee beans. Partway through the holiday season I finally realized that there were at least three times as many bags of the non-holiday blends hiding on the shelf behind the holiday blends than I thought. And it really confused me for a moment. Then I realized what happened.
My favorite coffee, bar none, is Wings of the Morning Kona Coffee from Ka `Io Farms. Which is usually carried by Central Market (and which I originally discovered at Ballard Market back when we lived only four blocks away from that store). But the availability is kind of seasonal. It seems every year (but not at the same time of year), the bags of Wings of the Morning vanish from the store shelf for about three or four months. And the last time I found some on the shelf was in either late August or early September.
It’s a more expensive coffee than most of those I drink, so I save it as kind of a special treat. I have also often stretched the Wings of the Morning supply by mixing the beans with Lowry’s Dark Hawaiian Blend, which still tastes really good, but makes me feel less guilty about the cost per cup of the coffee.
Anyway, the reason I have so much extra coffee in the pantry is that every time I went to Central Market hoping to find Wings of the Morning, but found that spot empty, I would buy one or two bags of some of the other coffees they sell there. Of the stores I regularly shop at, Central Market has the widest selection of coffees from different roasting companies. And once in that some period Ballinger Thriftway had the Lowry’s coffees on sale really discounted, so I bought two bags that week.
Which all adds up to a whole lot of coffee beans in my pantry.
When I noticed, mid-December, just how much more coffee there was in the pantry than I thought, I added a new item to the Shopping List on my phone: “DO NOT BUY COFFEE.” So, unless, by chance, Wings of the Morning suddenly appears in the store in the next few months, I’m not going to be buying any new coffee. Because it will clearly take that long to make a significant dent in the coffee in the pantry.
And before anyone suggests that I used that as an excuse to drink extra: I drink, on average, one and a half pots of coffee per day all by myself. I really don’t think I need to increase my intake.
Otherwise, I might vibrate myself into another dimension.
Throughout December I started several blog posts without finishing them. There were more distractions than usual this holiday season. I decided that even though several of the unfinished post are seasonal, I should finish and post a few. So, here’s one:
For a number of years I ran a Steampunk-based roleplaying game. We got together about once a month for an afternoon game. And people brought food to share, it that it was also a potluck. My husband would frequently look for period recipes that could be adapted into a good potluck dish. In the course of this research he happened upon the origin of the liqueur known as Rock and Rye. It was invented in the 1800s by a guy who was trying to figure out how to turn a large quantity of bad-tasting bourbon into a sellable product.
This requires a short digression about bourbon, particularly bourbon in the U.S. during the 19th Century. Farmers had long been in the habit of turning a certain amount of their annual grain production into alcohol. Besides being a product other people were willing to pay for, barrels of whiskey and similar spirits could be stored safely for much longer than grain could. Usually. But every now and then something would go wrong (the storage building might have gotten to hot for a period of time, or could have been flooded, et cetera) and many barrels of the alcohol that should have aged into something quite delicious would be ruined.
So, this guy had come into possession of a quantity of such bourbon, and he tried various things to make it palatable. The process he settled upon was to mix rock candy (sugar), sliced up citrus, and some spices (most notably star anise) into the bourbon, let it infuse of a month or so, then strain out the liquid. The result was a sweet-tasting booze that carried a deceptive kick (because the citrus oil, sugar, and spices masked a lot of the alcohol taste). He patented it and began selling it for its supposed medicinal purposes. Many decades later, during Prohibition, because Rock and Rye was still often sold in drugstores as a medication, it was one of the few products containing alcohol one could buy in many states.
The point was that there was a recipe for how to make batches of it at home, rather than go to a liquor store and see if they carried the manufactured stuff. Pick of the cheapest kind of rot gut whiskey you could find (it didn’t necessarily need to be bourbon or a rye whiskey), slice up an orange and/or a lemon, put it in mason jars with rock candy, star anise, and so forth. Keep it in a dry cool place. Check on it and shake it every now and then to make sure the sugar dissolves, and eventually strain it out into bottles.
We tried it. And I was quite surprised at how good it was. I started experimenting some more. Any time I picked up a new bourbon or rye (assuming it wasn’t too expensive), if I decided I didn’t really like it for making cocktails, it would go on a back shelf until I was ready to make a batch of rock and rye. It’s difficult to find plain rock candy now a days—it almost always has artificial colors and flavors added—but I can usually find Lump Candy at the local asian market, which works just fine. You can also find big bags of star anise, as well as cinnamon sticks, at much cheaper prices than the regular grocery store.
What would usually prompt me to make a batch is if I noticed that I had an orange or a lemon or lime in the fruit bowl that was getting iffy. The skin was hardening and you just know in another couple of days it would start to mold. So I’d grab a couple of mason jars, whatever cheap bourbon was on the back shelf, a package of rock candy, and start assembling. For spices I tend to put three or four stars of anise in each jar, two or three sticks of cinnamon, and about five whole cloves. Sometimes if I have vanilla bean on hand I’ll slice one of those and throw in, as well.
And sometimes there would be other fruit. There was a bunch of dried apricots and dried cherries left over after my husband made solstice cake one year (and the leftovers had been sitting in the pantry for a few months at that time), so they went into a batch of Rock and Rye.
For the last several years I’ve made two or three bottles (one batch is usually two mason jars, which once you strain out the solid bits, turns into one bottle of finished products) in time from our annual Christmas party. I give each batch a name, based on what it tasted like when I sipped it, and I make labels for the bottles. I’ve been picking up small plastic shot glasses that are in the shape of the red plastic cups you see frat boys drinking beer out of in movies—I can usually find them in both red and green at Christmas time. And I set out cocktail umbrellas along with the shot glasses, just for fun.
Because it isn’t the same base booze each time, and because the citrus isn’t always the same, the batches do wind up tasting very different from each other.
Last year I ended up making three batches, plus I had a lot of the 2017 favorite, “Farewell to Ballard” leftover. The three batches I made last year wound up being labeled “You’ll Get a KICK Out of Me,” “Feel the Lemon Flow Through You,” and “As Sure as There’s an X in Christmas!” Two of those are song lyrics, and one is a riff on a line from Star Wars.
Because we’ve been caught in this slow-moving apocalypse for eleven months, I didn’t make any new batches of Rock and Rye. If we couldn’t get together for a party, there would be no one to share them with. And for whatever reason, I still had a lot leftovers from last year, any way.
I typed whatever, but I know a big part of the reason. It isn’t a beverage that you drink a lot of at a time. One of my friends misunderstood the first view years we did it, and was shocked after he had been sipping at a shot for a while at how the alcohol was hit him. When I describe letting the booze infuse with the citrus and sugar, that gives some people the impression that it is juice with some booze in it. It is not diluted. It’s still a shot of bourbon, it just has flavor added. No significant amount of the juice of the citrus winds up in the liquid. You get the citrus oils, not the juice.
It’s the kind of thing that you drink in small quantities. And sipping shots of flavored bourbon by myself isn’t that appealing. But I’ve invented a couple of drinks using the Rock and Rye as a base. One is a toddy: put a shot or two of Rock and Rye in a mug, top off the mug with hot water, add a slice of lemon and a cinnamon stick. It’s really good on a cold winter night. The other is a Rock and Rye and Soda: but some ice in a double rocks glass, add a shot or two of Rock and Rye, top off the glass with seltzer water. The latter is a bit better for warm weather.
I realized that I still had those bottles left over the week that we hosted the virtual version of the party. I have been trying to use them up so I can clean out the bottles and think about possibly making a batch for next Christmas. Because maybe we can have a party this year?
For many years now my final post of the year has been my New Year’s Wish for everyone who reads it and/or anyone who needs it. And I never know what it is going to be until I sit down to write it. This year is one of the most difficult ones to think about, because as I said in my previous post, not everyone made it through the year. Thinking about that brings tears to my eyes and also makes me really angry. And my new year’s wishes have always before been in one way or another about hope and empowerment.
When I say that thinking of all the people who have died needlessly this year it brings tears to my eyes, well, sometimes that all that happens. But I’ve found myself frequently not just tearing up, but breaking down into full sobbing. And as one of my best friends once observed, it is really hard to feel empowered when you are crying your eyes out. Then I found the image/meme on the right. “It’s OK if all you did this year was just SURVIVE.” I think I need to embrace that notion.
Alvin McEwen opined this week that it’s okay to feel exhausted by the year, and that it’s okay to be angry—because despite being exhausted we aren’t totally beaten down, and our anger is righteous anger. (If, by the way, you don’t follow Alvin’s blog, Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters you should check it out! He’s doing good work there.) He’s right. It’s okay if all we’ve done is survive. Because the first step in fighting back against the darkness is to be here, ready to fight.
And as I finished that sentence, I finally figured out what this year’s wish is:
Don’t look to others for hope. Be hope.
There have been times when other people gave you hope. Now it’s time to pay it forward. Be hope.
You can be the hope that changes the world. Show up. Remember that exhaustion, and be kind when necessary. Harness that righteous anger, and be resolute and unyielding when it is called for.
Ever since this slow-motion apocalypse started, many of us have commented about how time seems out of whack. Folks will talk about not remembering what day it is, for instance. One friend observed that it simultaneously felt as if time were flying by (“How can it be December already?”) while at the same time dragging (“Every week seems to be thirty or more days long!”). Recently I found myself contemplating one simply, personal paradox about this. Every morning there comes a point where I roll over, squint at the alarm clock, and decided whether I have time to doze back off. Part of that process involves one part of my brain asking itself: “What day is it?” And then getting an answer, which has almost always been correct. “Oh, it’s Wednesday? We have to call in to the 8:30 meeting, the 9:00, and the 9:30, then if that doesn’t run over, an hour to get undivided attention work done before the 11… so I better get up and get all my meds done now.”
I’ve had a variant of that conversation with myself on about 128 work days since going into quarantine, and virtually every time I correctly knew what day it was when I was barely awake. Yet, at later moments in each of those days, I would feel a confusion about what day it was. Which seems like a contradiction. But human minds are messy things. Our consciousness is processed in or through our brains, but those brains are not neatly and precisely designed microchips, with an organic melange of neurons and neurochemicals intimately entwined with our endocrine system and all the other messy imprecise organs and organelles evolved for various purposes that may not always be apparent.
When I said that my waking up process involves one part of my brain asking itself, I wasn’t merely speaking metaphorically. There really are multiple systems involves in making up this notion we have of our mind, and they don’t all function the same way. There is clearly a logical, verbal part of my mind that can respond to that question of what day it is by checking memory and finding out that yesterday was Wednesday, therefore today much by Thursday. But other parts of the system use different criteria and inputs to perceive and understand the world. It’s those systems that become confused with our personal routines are disrupted.
I’ve started quarantine on February 17, before our state had it’s first stay at home orders because I woke up with a persistent cough. I didn’t think it would be a big deal once the actual orders came out, because I had worked from one two-days each week for a few years at that point (and any time I got sick but was well enough to work, I’d work from home for longer stretches). My husband still works outside the home, getting up each morning at a godawful hour to commute in, yet he also has these moments of confusion about the day… because the routines around work have also changed.
I don’t feel free to just pop off to the store anytime I want an ingredient that we don’t have for a particular recipe. I should limit the number of times I go out and get exposed to other people, right? And if I am going out, I have to make sure I have my mask, have washed my hands, and have a plan on what I’m picking up so that I minimize the time I’m inside any buildings other than home. While there I have to pay attention to how close I’m standing or walking past someone. And that doesn’t even get into keeping a wary eye out for the fuckwits who refused to wear a mask or have it pulled down so their nose is hanging out, et cetera.
So familiar stores are no longer the same kinds of place they were, because how I behave there, how others behave, and so forth has changed.
It’s strange little things that sometimes get to me. For instance, in the before times, I tended to handle one of my weekly chores (putting away the recently washed laundry) while listening to a particular conference call (with my mic muted) on work-from-home Tuesdays. Sometime during quarantine I just stopped doing it. I stopped having the automatic thought—after logging into the meeting, greeting the other early joiners, and then muting myself when enough people were there to start the business part—that now it is time to go deal with the laundry.
I don’t know when it happened. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because every work day is a work-from-home day, therefore Tuesday doesn’t feel like Tuesday any more?
The way the pandemic is going, we’ve got a lot more of this to get through. And even when we do, the new normal isn’t going to be like the before times. We can’t predict what that new normal will be, exactly, but I know that some things are just not going back to the way we used to do them.
That is one of the reasons that, while I’m happy to see 2020 end, I don’t feel much like celebrating the arrival of 2021. I’m not going to be cheering, “We did it! We made it through that hellish year!” Which gets to the second reason I’m not feeling the celebration: not all of us made it. At least 333,000 Americans didn’t survive 2020—and a whole lot of them ought to have, and could have, if certain someone’s hadn’t made the politically calculated decision to abandon plans for testing and contact tracing and so forth.
So I’m flipping a page on the calendar, happy to kick that year out the door, but having a bit of trouble working up a lot of enthusiastic hope that next year is going to be significantly better.
My husband pointed me to a twitter thread by a Muslim American who has never celebrated Christmas, before, who is letting his Quarantine Roommates teach him how to have his first proper Christmas. It’s a funny and relatively short thread that has some good commentary on the way Americans tend to observe Christmas. I like his first characterization of Christmas as being a part-time job from mid-November to the end of December. I’ll link to the thread at the end of this post.
A proper Christmas means different things to different people, and I think that’s a good thing. I remember a few years ago when I was discussing this topic with a couple of friends, that one explained that what she liked about Christmas was that she could put up pretty lights and ornaments. The other friend interjected that what he liked about it was that you get to decide what “pretty” is, and if other people comment unfavorably on whatever outlandish or silly decorations, you could just gasp and claim that this is how your family always did it, and the person was socially obligated to accept that that was your tradition (whether it actually had been a family tradition or not).
It got me thinking about what sort of informal family traditions my family had observed. Most were pretty mundane, and some were the result of other circumstances. Unless there was an overwhelming reason, we always spent Christmas morning at my paternal grandparents’ house. Sometimes Dad’s sister’s family was there, too. Because Dad’s oil field job was nomadic, how far we had to drive to get there varied most years. If we got to the town where my grandparents lived early enough on Christmas Eve, we’d get to go visit my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents this evening. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see them until after Christmas dinner1.
By the time my great-grandparents died, my maternal grandmother was living 1200 miles away. But then my parents divorced and Mom, my sister2, and I relocated to the same part of southwest Washington, where I found out that grandma hosted a Christmas Eve open house every year, attended by relatives, in-laws, old family friends, and others. So for the next many years one of the traditions became you’d see all the extended family on Christmas Eve3, then Christmas morning would be each individual family opening presents together.
All the Christmas trees put up by my extended family were a bit chaotic. Everyone seemed to have some special ornaments that had been passed down from earlier generations, as well as an eclectic collection of glass balls and the like. The trees would thus have a whole lot of different colors, and since any kids in the home had done part of the decorating, there often wasn’t any sort of design involved in the placement of the ornaments, other than the star or angel4 always went on top.
I think I was nine when I saw my first non-chaotic tree in the home of someone I knew. I can close my eyes and still see it: a flocked white tree decorated with dozens of identical blue satin balls and blue satin ribbons, with a blue and silver angel on top. I was really shocked, and couldn’t imagine why someone would do that. A few years later another family I knew had a tree where the ornaments were red, green, and gold, and the mother of the family had very strict rules about which size of ornaments went how high on the tree6, and that the three colors had to be as evenly distributed as possible.
Of course, many years later Ray and I did trees all in a fairly simple color scheme… but even then there was a bit of chaos, because either of us could pick any “favorites” to go on the tree no matter what the color scheme was. Just as this year’s tree at our house has mostly purple and pink ornaments, but some of the traditional ones I put on every year7, and then just about anything I could justify as being gay.
I find that I am more concerned with food at Thanksgiving than at Christmas. I have certain favorite dishes that we always had at Thanksgiving when I was a kid that I crave on that day now, but Christmas food doesn’t get me quite the same way. I don’t know if that is because as a kid that the big part of Christmas was the presents and everything else was secondary, or if the family dinners were just more flexible at Christmas. I mean, as far as I remember, anything that was an accepted side dish at Thanksgiving could appear on the Christmas dinner, so you would think I’d always have a strong craving for some of those things.
Michael and I have had the tradition since our first Christmas that we make a nice dinner for Christmas Eve, as well as a big dinner for Christmas, and a nice dinner for New Year’s Eve. And we start planning the three together a few weeks before the holidays. But we don’t do the same things each year at those three events. Mostly. I mean, New Year’s Eve is often beef… unless we had decided to do steaks for Christmas Eve or something. At this point we’re a few days out from Christmas Eve/Christmas, and the plan is that we’ll pull either the ham, or the turkey breast, or the pork roast out of the freezer for those, and the small prime rib roast I found at a not entirely outrageous price we’re saving for New Year’s… maybe9.
When I started this blog post, I thought I would vamp for a little bit on some odd traditions, and then start talking about one very specific tradition I started about five years ago. But I see that the word count of this entry is getting up there, so maybe I should save that for later.
In the meantime, you should read the whole twitter thread if you haven’t yet.
Growing up, my Muslim family never celebrated Christmas. This year I am not going home, because pandemic, so my roommates are teaching me how to have my first proper Christmas.
I am approaching this with anthropological precision.
1. When I was very young, this just seemed to be the way things were. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 years old that I realized that Dad’s parents (specifically his mother) always got priority over everyone else, or else.
2. My half-brothers and half-sister remained with Dad and their mother, of course.
3. And you could use Grandma’s party as an opportunity to deliver gifts, but generally opening presents that night was frowned upon.
4. Almost everyone had either a star or an angel. I mostly only saw the spire or steeple style tree-toppers in stores or on neighbor’s trees. As an adult, for a while it was always either a star or one of the spires. Until we started getting more creative. This year, for instance, we have a flying fairy5.
5. It is most definitely not an angel.
6. Largest at the bottom of the tree, medium sized in the middle, small one near the top.
7. I have three small glass ball ornaments—one red, one pink, and one green—which belonged to my great-grandmother. I have three sets of crocheted bells that were made by my grandma. We have a pair of December Diamond Goom Mermen that were a present from a group of friends on the occasion of our legal wedding on the first day we legally could in our state—which happened to be in December. The two of them go on the tree side by side no matter what the theme is8.
8. This year they just happen to fit the Gay part of the theme.
9. I an totally blaming the pandemic on why we are less decided on the meals at this stage than usual10.
10. I mean, we’ve also got a beef brisket in the freezer, and we were talking about doing in on New Year’s… and then the prime rib could get shuffled to one of the other days11.
11. And I still need to run to the store before the holiday because I know we’re missing some ingredients for some of the side dishes we’ve discussed… and I might find something on sale that would completely change our minds on the other possibilities.
I haven’t been posting much all month. November’s semi-hiatus was planned, because I was doing NaNoWriMo1, so I was trying to put all of the time when I wasn’t working to writing for NaNo, rather than blogging. Once November was over I needed to shift gears to try to get the Christmas Ghost Story2 finished before the virtual Christmas Party, but I didn’t expect to almost completely stop blogging!
Part of the issue, I realize, is that things at work went super intense because we had an outlandish3 number of software releases scheduled to push out to customers before everyone goes into holiday hiatus, so I was working late several days of every week, and found myself so exhausted I needed to take naps a couple of nights each week.
I’ve been taking at least one vacation day every week since August because of some draconian changes in vacation policy. Which seems really nice until you realize that part of the draconian bit is that despite forcing most of the work force to take time off, the corporate overlords are insisting that none of the previously committed delivery dates can be adjusted. Which means that we’re still working just as many hours, but squeezing them into four work days a week instead of five.
And no, when you’re classified as a salaried and exempt employee that isn’t illegal, even though it ought to be4. Moving on.
I had Friday off, and I had worked very late two nights before that, but I managed to get up, moving, and out to do the shopping at a reasonable hour. I finished the Ghost Story in the wee small hours of Saturday morning6, as I almost always do. I always end up in a state where I’m spinning my wheels, ditching scenes and writing replacement scenes no matter how early I start the story.
I got the story finished and practiced and we were both in a good, rested headspace when it was time to log into the virtual party and start being social. I did not finish the story in time where I could both practice reading it aloud a few times and record the performance in advance to upload to either my Patreon or Youtube channel as I hoped7. I may still try to do that. We’ll see9.
Besides not getting to see people in person, another thing that was a bit disappointing about the virtual Christmas party is we didn’t have the usual gift exchange. A couple of people were willing to open presents on camera because they had received presents from some of the people on line, but it’s not the same. I could have, obviously, decided to open any number of the presents that I’ve received. But the truth is that my favorite part isn’t opening presents myself10, it’s seeing other people open presents and react to them. That’s where a lot of the laughter at the party occurs. And you get to thank the person who gave it to you right then. And you can hear the story about how the person who gave you the present found this thing and why they thought of you, when appropriate it.
So I wasn’t really chomping at the bit to open any of mine.
For the last few years Christmas day has been just Michael and I, whereas it used to be like that only on alternate years. We started this after barely getting through the first Thanksgiving after the Grifter-in-Chief was elected without punching certain relatives in the mouth12. It was a very unpleasant holiday, all right?
So for December 2016, ’17, ’18, and ’19 I have driven down to southwest Washington a few days before Christmas to drop off presents with my Mom, one of my aunts, my sister and her family, and my grown niece and her family. It’s always a day that I have off but my husband has to work13. Then we have a day or more to ourselves before the actual holiday plus Christmas Day itself.
I have to admit I kind of miss getting to do that trip this year. I like seeing everyone in person, and for whatever reason17 when we’re not down there on the actual holiday they talk a lot less about the various unpleasant topics. On the other hand, given the way the weather has been this week, which would normally be the time I’m most likely to take the trip, I’m just as happy not being on the freeway.
So I’ll just keep working from home for the next couple of days, enjoy gazing at our Big Gay Christmas Tree™, and keeping counting down until Santa arrives.
1. I did make my word count goal, though I didn’t exceed the last few years’ word counts as I had managed to do a few years in a row until now.
2. The annual tradition I’ve followed since 1995 is that I write an original Christmas Ghost Story to read at the party, and challenge other folks to read something they’ve written—or otherwise perform something. We’re had people sing, play a musical instruments, all sorts of things.
3. It really is edging up into the impossible at this point…
4. It is amazing how many times when I have mentioned something like this online, how many randos feel obligated to chime in to say this sort of thing is illegal. It just reminds me how many people don’t work in the sorts of industries where everyone qualifies for the IRS’s definition of exempt employee and therefore assume that hourly working regulations apply5.
5. It’s particularly amazing at how many of them don’t understand that virtually every company that has managed to get most of its employees thus classified does these sorts of thing to exploit their employees.
6. Sort of. I mean, I reached an ending by about 3:30am and then promptly crashed for a few hours. After I woke up I kept thinking about it and didn’t like how I’d ended it. I mean the very ending, yes, but the way I’d written the story and the fairy tale tropes I was using had prompted me to write a long denouement that a short story typically has nowadays. So sometime shortly afternoon I deleted most of the denouement, replacing it with a single sentence, and then I was much happier.
7. I need to upload things to both far more often…8
8. Given my activity thus far this year, by “more often” I really mean “at all.”
9. I’m not sure how much appeal there would be to hearing a Christmas Ghost Story after Christmas, so if I don’t manage it in the next few days…
10. Which is not to say I don’t enjoy getting presents. That’s fun. And trying to guess what’s inside and then opening it is also a lot of fun. I particularly love those times when someone finds something I didn’t even know existed, but if I had known I would have put it on my own wishlist11. That’s just amazing.
11. In the realm of books and music, my friend Mark is incredibly good at this.
12. The cliche usually mentions the racist uncle—the problem goes deeper than that. The homophobic relatives who don’t believe they are homophobic, the relatives who repeat white supremacist talking points from Fox News without thinking, et cetera, et cetera. That’s part of the reason we instituted the old rule of we would visit them for one of the big holidays each year, then stay home for the other.
13. I always got asked several times why Michael wasn’t there. They accept that I get more paid time off than he does, but I keep expecting them to start accusing me of keeping him away from them or something14.
14. I’ve mentioned before that I strongly suspect a bunch of my extended family on that side like Michael more than they do me. Which I’m perfectly happy with, because I think he’s awesome, and given how many of the family perceived my late husband, Ray, as some sort of evil person who surely must had done something diabolical to me to turn me gay15, them all enthusiastically liking my husband is a decided improvement16.
15. I have been gay for as long as I can remember, I just didn’t have words for it when I was younger, and then because I feared all the homophobic people around me once I realized what was going on after puberty hit, I hid it from them.
16. One of his reasons for not accompanying me on these trips during those years is that he doesn’t want to use up one of his more limited number of vacation days for that purpose, but also because he winds up biting his tongue a whole lot more than I do when they start parroting Fox News.
17. There are two reasons I can think of. First, there’s something about having a bunch of people together for several hours on a holiday that seems to make some folks feel obligated to fill any moments of silence with something, and so they are just more likely to spout off as the day goes on. Second, since I tend to be dropping off stuff at each individual house, and they know I have other people to get to and so on, they think of it as a visit with me, rather than a general group get-together. So topics remain focused on the social visit and catching up on our personal lives, rather then discussing world events, the coming apocalypse18, and so on.
18. I’m not exaggerating, here. The kind of Bible-thumping evangelical fundamentalism my extended family adheres sees every single world event as either a direct attack by demonic forces, or a sign that Commando Jesus is going to descend from the heavens soon, kill all the unbelievers, and take the true believes back up to rule in heaven.