Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas memory

Do you have a favorite Christmas memory? I revisit mine every Christmas morning, and each time, it reminds me what great parents I had, a childhood charmed. As it turns out, or at least as I turned out (not so terrible, if I don't say so myself), modest indulgence of one's children doesn't ruin them.

I was a one-big-thing kind of kid. Many of my friends produced annual litanies of Christmas wants, long lists for Santa well beyond the believing years. My style was to hold out for a single, impossible gift.
"What do you want for Christmas this year?" Mom would ask.
"All I want is _______________." When I was seven it was a horse, of course.
"Where are we going to keep him?" Mom asked. "In the garage?" My second-grade brain imagined that as not such a bad place for a horse to live, and dad would no longer have to mow the lawn and we never parked the cars in there anyway and I'd take care of him, I promised. Each Christmas thereafter, I asked for something I had little hope of getting. Some years, I came close. The year I asked for skis, for example, I got lessons instead, which included a bus ride to the mountain every Saturday. I had to pay for my own equipment rental, but I was thrilled nonetheless. The following year, I asked for the lessons again and got them, then bought the skis myself, from J.C. Penney, with money I'd saved picking berries and babysitting. I knew most years that my one-big-thing was often just out of my parents' budgetary reach (and, looking back, I realize that may have broken their hearts some). I asked anyway, but was never too disappointed when I did not get what I'd requested.
My junior year in high school, I wanted a stereo. I had it picked out; it was an Onkyo, pretty high end, with separate components, and a cassette player. It was expensive, and would have taken years to save for on teenage wages. The stereo of my dreams was more than pie in the sky. It was an entire bakery in the stratosphere. I asked anyway, but only once, humbly and contrite, with the disclaimer, "I know there's no way, but that is all I want. So if you want to skip this year, and maybe pay half next year, and I could pay the other half, and that could be my present for two years-- I really can't think of anything else I want."
That Christmas, I opened my gifts -- a nice collection of clothes, pajamas, socks, lotions and ornaments. Most of it I already knew. My mom was terrible at keeping Christmas secrets. She'd always divulge the best gifts well before the big day, unable to contain herself. She'd done so with the ski lessons. And the hot wheels I got when I was ten. So I knew when I unwrapped the last of the packages under the tree that was it, and I was content. My dad rose from the couch, Christmas toddy in hand. He stretched and wandered toward the tree, then veered to an adjacent chair and reached behind it with his free hand, careful not to spill his "coffee."
"It looks like we missed one," he said, and handed me a two-foot rectangular package with no ribbon or bow.
"I shook it, weighed it in my hands. Silent, and impossibly light, it felt like nothing.
"What is it?"
"Open it," he said.
"Go ahead," said Mom.  Dad looked smug, like he'd just pulled off the ultimate heist. The two of them stood close, hovering. I ripped off the paper. Inside was an empty, plastic box missing one side.
"What is it?" I asked.
"We wanted to get you the stereo," dad said, his tone solemn, "but that's the only part we could afford. We figured we'd start with that, and get the rest later, piece by piece."
I looked more closely at the flimsy object in my lap. It was the cover to a turntable. My sixteen-year-old brain imagined it sitting atop the entire system. "Thanks!" I meant it, instantly saw the potential and began mulling which component I'd save for next, then next. It didn't seem odd to me that the store would sell them just the cover. They really had tried their best to get me what I wanted for Christmas. I was genuinely grateful and completely clueless.
The two of them burst with laughter.
"You believe that?" asked Dad. I was stumped. A stupid look must have overtaken my face. "The rest of it is under our bed."
I sat there, frozen, staring at them, then down at the cover, then back at them.
"Go!" they said together, smiling-- big, rascally, mischievous Cheshire grins. I jumped up from the floor and sprinted down the hall. BEST CHRISTMAS EVER!

Merry Christmas, everyone. A hui hou. Aloha!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Look, it's like, you know, sort of, um whatever

I work at a bank. When I relayed this tidbit to my buddy Rich, he asked, "Couldn't you find something more ethical? Wasn't the mafia hiring in your area?" Yes, banks are evil. But repugnance comes in degrees, morality in shades of gray. My bank, the one from which I now collect an arguably honorable paycheck, is better than most; it accepted no TARP bailout money and enjoys pretty high ratings for customer service. I can live with that. But if somebody makes me an offer I can't refuse...  Most days, it's busy enough. I'm either helping customers with financial transactions, reading up on riveting new banking regulations and internal bank policies and procedures, filing, counting, organizing, sanitizing my hands for handling all that filthy money. But there are occasional lulls, during which a mind like mine is wont to wander. Today, on one such occasion, I was struck with snippets of self-amusing, cliché-riddled bank humor.

Hi. I'm Penny. Wanna meet my new boyfriend? His name is Bill.
You can always count on me to coin a phrase.
If bankers were gymnasts, they'd specialize in the vault.
Banking. Where nothing is constant but change.

Hey, it was just a few minutes.

Another few minutes, on another day -- though to be clear, I was not at the bank, but rather just cleaning the bathroom and listening to a painful interview on the radio -- had me pondering verbal fillers, those devices we all use to buy time to think, or to fill awkward silence between thoughts, especially when we're self conscious. There is, of course, the ubiquitous and timeless um and its famous cousin, uh. These were my favorites as a radio producer, because they're usually drawn out long enough to cut, which I always did, making the speaker sound brilliant. There's the teenager's favorite like, which has bled into the ranks of the middle aged. I have friends pushing 60 who use like like salt and pepper. In college, I had a friend who used all instead: She's all, "They were such jerks," and I'm all, "Why?" and she's all, "Because they were all, 'You look rich and snobby,' which I'm not, so I'm all, 'well, I'm not' and they're all, 'well you seem like it.'" And I'm all, "Wow, they do seem like jerks," and so on. I like all, much better than like.
There's the classy, Obama-esque look, which makes you seem smart as you pause to think of what to say next. It goes like this:
Wolf Blitzer: "Mr. President, you promised us change we can believe in. What happened?"
Barack (that's how he signs his personal emails to me): Well, Wolf, look, being president is not as easy as it seems, or as easy as we thought it would be and, look, we've had some setbacks, and certainly no support from the Republicans..."
There's a proliferation lately of what I'll call the intellectual's verbal filler of choice, sort of. I'm not fond of sort of. It's a pretentious version of like, but no less annoying. It works like an adverb, watering down verbs, diluting whatever follows. She was sort of pregnant. I was driving sort of fast when the cop pulled me over. They were sort of making out when his wife walked in. Right. There's Will Smith's fave, you know, which works well if used sparingly, but gets on people's nerves with overuse. I went through a you know phase as a kid. My mom was relentless with her parody in response, spewing back a plethora of you knows and worse, responding to every you know with, "No, I don't know," until I got the point. I know a fellow who uses please, which is, please, a very polite verbal filler. It's jolting for its weirdness, but effective in diffusing heated conversations. Not surprisingly, he's a lawyer.

When Bill Gates or Steve Jobs had time to think, they came up with ideas that changed the world. Of course, I don't suppose either of them ever worked at a bank, cleaned a bathroom or spent time splicing the opposite sides of ums together to make a sentence. Still, it appears the old NAACP slogan is true: a mind is a terrible thing to waste. Maybe it's the altitude.

More musings for Christmas. Until then, a a hui hou. Aloha!

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Chinese food and coffee

Ron called the other day to say he'd roasted the last of our coffee for this year and it's already sold.
"That's great," I said.
"It has an oriental flavor," he said.
"What does?"
"Our coffee. That's what they said."
"That's what who said?"
"The people who roasted it. That's how they think we should market it."
"So, our coffee tastes like shoyu and mono sodium glutamate?"
At this, he lost it, cracking up, laughing so hard I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Picture red cheeks, tears of hilarity. Ron collected himself with a signature, exaggerated sign, and said, "Good one, sweetie. I think they though it was kind of floral, like jasmine or something."
Our coffee is mellow and naturally sweet, but otherwise, it tastes like coffee. Really good coffee. Exceptional coffee. No bitterness. No bite. Smooth. Not jasmine or lotus or cherry blossom. Not salty, or sweet and sour. Not like hoisin sauce. It's a little fruity maybe -- it is fruit, after all -- but definitely not oriental. Coffee doesn't even go with Chinese food. "Gee, this pork fried rice and sesame chicken are delicious. I could go for a cup of coffee with this." Who ever says that? Nobody.

Here in Gunnison, I've enjoyed my grocery shopping excursions. This place is known for high prices, but food feels cheap to me after living in Hawaii. So I called Ron this morning to brag about all the good stuff I got today and the price I paid. He responded with, "How much do you pay for lettuce? I get that free. How about green beans? Free." He says this because he grows them in the garden, year 'round. Point for Ron. Of course, he doesn't count the potting soil he buys to plant it in, or the slug bait, or the fertilizer, nor does he factor in the gas at $4.25/gallon, fifty miles round trip to Hilo to buy it all. He used to feel pretty smug about getting "free" rooms in Las Vegas, too. Clearly, his definition of free is different from mine, but I'll give him the point anyway.

It's snowy, gray and wintry today. The view through the window looks like an Ansel Adams photograph. I suspect I'll be sick of it by March, but for now, it's nice. I'm a little upset by the notion that we may soon have an offer on the cabin. I've just settled in here. Ron tells me not to fret just yet, that it takes time for people to get pre-approved for loans, if they even can, and then there's escrow, and we haven't seen the offer yet and may not take it if it's too low-ball, and even if we do take it, it'll be weeks before everything is finalized. But weeks go by fast. Meanwhile, they've got me working full time again next week at the bank, and I'm writing more stories for The Gunnison Country Times, which you can subscribe to online, if you've a notion to do so. My legs hurt from too many presses at the gym yesterday. As my old boss and friend Jeanette Mushkin used to say (in a blatant rip-off of Sonny and Cher that she made uniquely her own), "And the beat goes on."

A hui hou. Aloha!

P.S. Matt Burt shot the photo of the tree, but since he posted it on Facebook, I figured it OK to snatch. I saw some of his photos at the gallery in town the other night, and they are exceptional. Go to to check them out.