Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Happy Holidays - Just To P.O. Bill O'Reilly

To start, I am not a religious person. I have probably seen the inside of a church more often as a tourist - you know, gazing at the gorgeous, stained glass windows and medieval statuary - than for any occasion of worship. But I like Christmas. I like the trees and the wreaths and the pretty colored lights, and the cheesy decorations. I like the carols and the songs. I like getting together with friends and family. Hey, I like presents!

You move away from home, and, if you're lucky, you start to form your own traditions and holiday rituals. I have a number of them. Every year, I say I'm going to get my own tree, and then I never do. Ditto with sending out Christmas cards. And I shop at the last minute.

Then there are the social gatherings. There's the annual work "holiday party," which is generally a bore. Plus, it usually occurs during my annual "Christmas cold." I don't get sick that often, but I will, every year, get sick in December. It's like, all the hard work of the year is over, okay, you can get sick now. This year it came slightly early, but made up for that by lingering as a mild sinus infection.

And then there is, for me, the traumatic holiday psychic reading.

Now, I can't claim this as a full-fledged ritual yet, as it's only happened twice. But it's happened within the context of one of my genuine annual events, Jodie's Christmas party.

I can always count on Jodie to have this party, even when she claims she isn't going to have it. At the last minute, she'll change her mind. It will start as, "well, maybe I'll have a few friends over for potluck," and morph into a full-fledged party in about 48 hours after she announces it. With the party comes the psychic.

I am like a little kid in many ways. "Oooh, there's a psychic? Cool! Sign me up!"

I was fourth on the list. This was not the best set-up for the psychic, as she was in residence in the front sitting room where the stereo was located - the stereo which is so sophisticated and complicated that no one can figure out how to make the speakers work in the main house. So this poor woman is trying to give psychic readings with Johnny Mathis crooning "White Christmas" loudly in the background, in the hopes that the music will be heard in the living room too.

Plus, she had a cold and couldn't stop coughing. "I never get sick," she told me. "But I've been in bed for the last week."

This particular psychic does a combination computer-assisted astrologic ("I use Indian astrology, so this may not look familiar to you") and tarot card reading, helped by her spirit guides, one of whom is Merlin - I don't know whether this is the Merlin or some other less well-known spirit guide. And I didn't ask.

Because, as mentioned above, this was a sort of traumatic psychic experience. Oh, it started out harmlessly enough.

"I can see by your chart that you're a very creative person. Do you see yourself as a spiritual warrior?"

Me: "Erm...I don't know."

From there, it was all trauma, baby. Without going into all the details, let's just say that my chart made her want to cry, and that she gave me her card, saying, "I haven't given this card to anyone else, but I think you could really benefit from an extended reading and some healing soul work."

To her credit (I think), I surveyed others who'd had readings, and in fact, none of them received business cards.

Afterwards, I shrugged it off and went forth to mingle. I had a nice time. Towards the end of the evening, I mentioned the trauma aspects of the experience to several friends (and nope, they hadn't gotten business cards either).

One of them said, "Oh my god. Don't you remember?"

"Nooo..."

"I saw that psychic and I thought you must have recognized her, and I couldn't believe you signed up for a reading."

And she proceeds to tell me how, several years ago, I'd had an even more traumatic reading with this psychic, to the extent that I came out of it teary-eyed and mumbling about how this was a great capper to a really shitty year.

I thought about this. I sort of, kind of, remembered it. I couldn't pin down the year, though. I'm thinking, huh, maybe 1997, that kind of sucked, but my friend insisted it was more recent than that. Now I'm thinking, it must have been 2002; the end of that year was just a tad gnarly.

Lest you think this is the result of, oh, too much drugs and alcohol, I've always had a kind of weird memory. I mean, I can remember song lyrics (and tunes and orchestrations) pretty much forever; I'm good with foreign languages and facts; I can learn lines for plays and up to a point, recall conversations with a high degree of accuracy. But in terms of that last category, I only remember up to a point. Then I might remember that something bad or intense happened, but I can't remember what it was.

Certain events I remember with a high degree of vividness. Or I forget the actual events and remember the relevant sensory details. This is the kind of stuff I mine when I'm writing fiction (and for whatever it's worth, I'm pretty good at writing fiction. Apparently I'm better at creating characters than directly deconstructing my own).

And if you remind me what happened, I usually will remember it myself.

Unfortunately, my friend with the better event memory didn't witness the first traumatic psychic reading, so I'm still not sure what the psychic said that got me so upset that Christmas party...erm...whenever it was...okay, I'm going with 2002.

This year, I wasn't all that upset. I've learned to accept that, as much as I in general enjoy the holiday season, for me it is also suffused with an inevitable melancholy. Another year has passed. My life is pretty good, but there are things I think I'm missing. Some of what's lacking I could name, some of it...

Well, I'm just not sure. There's the inchoate sense that I'm not quite doing what I could be doing, what I should be doing, but I don't know how to get from where I am to a place I can't even define.

Jodie's party is only one of several gatherings that I attend this time of year. There's the Monday Before Christmas Musicians' Party. Working musicians tend to work this time of year, so one of my former bandmates has always thrown a big bash on the Monday before Christmas, when musicians are more likely to have an off-night. He mixes up this concoction called "Gin Alexanders" in a blender - the starter is something that's decades old and passed down from family members to the next generation, and it lives in the freezer, in the dark, until it's loosed in December, and the resulting drink tastes like a minty milkshake that will drop you to your knees if you aren't careful. And he serves Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale - more my speed. I see people I see maybe a few times a year; we talk politics (good, lefty politics, because these are musicians we're talking about) and stay up really late, and eat samosas and drink beer.

Then, Christmas Eve. My other bandmate has, for the last ten years or so, thrown a party. His parents were from Sicily, which means the party includes a huge vat of cioppino. My job is to bring the desert wine. I did this once, sort of by accident, and Tony's mom, born and raised in Sicily, was so pleased that I did it every year. When she passed away a few years ago, I brought a couple of bottles to her wake.

This year, I brought a bottle of excellent port (from Lion's Peak Winery - try their cabernet!). About the time we opened it up, Dave sat down at the upright piano and started playing tunes - Christmas songs, Vince Guaraldi. Tony got out his guitar. One guy had brought his hollow-body metal electric bass along - that came out too. Christmas blues came next. I had to sing "Rocky Raccoon" - because Tony's wife, Nancy, asks me to every year, mainly for the line, "But everyone knew her as Nancy."

We do some Beatles. A guy with a great soul voice sings "My Girl," and hey, this is a houseful of musicians, so we have an entire girl choir for the backups.

And somewhere in the middle of this impromptu but predictable jam session - it happens every year - I am having this flurry of thoughts, like: this is what most people in America have lost, the ability to get together and entertain each other, to sing and play and make a joyful noise.

And, more importantly: this is what I do, every year. To bring some ritual and meaning and joy into my life.

Christmas day, I drive to my folks' house. We exchange gifts, eat party mix and ham and pie. I will read at least one mystery novel. My mom and I will take a walk. I'm in no hurry for this to change. I want it to go on as long as possible. All of it. Jodie's party, the musicians' party, Christmas Eve at Tony & Nancy's, Christmas with my folks (and New Years Eve with Billy, but that's another story).

If there are things I am missing, there are so many more things that I have.

I'm not so sure about the traumatic psychic readings, though.

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