All She Wants for Christmas . . .


December 2009

On a blustery Saturday afternoon in December, one of Santa’s elves is teaching me a lesson on crowd control. I’m standing at a break in the line at the Macy’s in New York City waiting with my nephew David for the family to catch up to us. And, being a little bored and naturally curious, I start chatting with the 20-something elf as she keeps the line moving and prevents chiselers from slipping in undetected.

She laughs and shows me the proper way to pump your arm and to gently nudge stragglers along. I swing my arms around and jump up and down with the enthusiasm of a hungry beagle catching a whiff of cheese at supper time. The elf says I’m a quick learner and should go talk to Human Resources about a job.

Unfortunately, her boss isn’t impressed, and as he lifts his weary eyes from the clipboard balanced atop his protruding stomach to voice his displeasure, I consider asking him if he’s angling for Santa’s job once he pulls the enormous candy cane out of his behind. But I refrain in deference to my new elfin friend, and the fact that the good folks at Macy’s are kind and have allowed me to wait for my family at this juncture in the line. A few moments later, the family arrives.

This is the first year I’ve ever had a reason to visit Santa at Macy’s. I remember my parents taking me to see the inebriated Santa at Tepper’s Department Store in Plainfield when I was a tyke. Then we’d race out of town before someone threw a brick through the windshield of our Dodge Dart.

Since Penelope is only two years old, Bernadette and I would probably have waited another year before visiting. But our niece and nephew have five children, several of whom are the right age for visiting Santa, so we happily tagged along.

It takes an hour before we meet Santa, but along the way, a conductor ushers us into a train, and we stroll along a winding path decorated with Christmas trees, singing bears and skaters. The presentation is stunning.

We marvel at the decorations until the moment arrives when we meet the big guy. Penelope climbs onto Santa’s lap. He asks her what she wants for Christmas, and in that moment comes the highlight of my holiday: “APPLE JUICE!!!” she cheers. Someday, my daughter is going to ask for a cell phone, or a television for her bedroom, or a car, and I will wistfully recall the day when all she wanted was apple juice.

This incident led to a lengthy conversation between Bern and I about gifts for Penelope. My point in our discussion was simply that Penelope is a typical two year old when it comes to playing. If you give her a toy in a box, she’ll take the toy out of the box and play with the box. If you give her a puzzle, she’ll dump the pieces on the floor and walk into the kitchen to ask for an orange. I understand: She’s two; that’s her job.

So, I suggested rather than empty the shelves at Target, we buy Penelope the things a two year old enjoys playing with: an empty box, a dish rag, a roll of toilet paper, maybe a broken cell phone.

Needless to say, Bern didn’t exactly love the idea. “Twenty years from now our kid is going to be in therapy because you gave her an empty box for Christmas.”

“She will not,” was my less-than-snappy reply. “I wasn’t suggesting a crappy box from the liquor store. I was thinking more about re-wrapping that box that her Little Einstein bath toys came in and giving that to her.”

“She does play with that box every time I take her down to the basement, but no you cannot give our child an empty box for Christmas,” Bern said. “Twenty years from now when she’s in therapy, it’ll be your fault.”

Some discussions you know you’re going to lose even before they begin, and I had no doubt I was losing this one. Besides, I wasn’t serious about the idea. Just wondering. So, it’s off to Toys ‘R’ Us and after being in a toy store just before Christmas, perhaps a quick detour to Super Saver Liquors on the way home.

Oh, and of course, a final stop at ShopRite for that apple juice.

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Burning Down the Clubhouse

December 2009

I want to torch the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Generally, I’d never consider resorting to violence when it comes to cartoon characters, but having repeatedly watched several mind-numbing episodes of the Disney Channel show, I think my desire might be justified.

I’m not a big television viewer. I pretty much stick with movies, hockey and Charm School. (Yes, I’m kidding about that last one.) It’s not that I’m anti-television or a TV snob, it’s just not how I prefer to spend my limited free time. When I was growing up, my parents watched every program that featured gun fire, and I suspect I developed some type of cop-show burnout because of it. Bernadette watches “24” but has banned me from the family room when it’s on because she’s tired of hearing me criticize Jack Bauer for not shooting out the tires of the weekly getaway car.

With Penelope, Bernadette and I limit the amount of time (one hour maximum per day) and the television programs that our daughter watches. In fact, the only three shows we allow her to view are Sesame Street, Little Einsteins and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.

Recently, Penelope and I sat down to watch “Mickey’s Camp Out” before bedtime. Perhaps it’s an unhealthy dose of cynicism that impels me to look for veiled messages in seemingly innocuous cartoons, but I noticed something peculiar.

To earn “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Campout Badges” the gang — which consists of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald and Daisy Duck, Goofy and Pluto — must travel to a park and set up a tent. Now, I was confused right off the bat because if it’s Mickey Mouse’s Clubhouse then who is giving out the badges? Is Mickey a puppet master who gets a rise out of jerking his friends around? Or is there a mysterious hidden power lurking behind the clubhouse pulling the strings?

The gang travels to the park, and Herr Mickey figures out sleeping arrangements. Since there are three tents and six campers, they break into groups of two. Donald Duck is immediately pissed off because he has to share a tent with Goofy. Now I suspect Donald is upset for two reasons. First, if there’s one clubhouse member who’s gay* it’s Goofy, and Donald isn’t wearing any pants. Second, I’m convinced Donald’s got some Shunga erotic massage oil and a mojo bag hidden in his cap, and he’s got his beady little eyes fixed on Daisy. But naturally, Mickey the Killjoy puts Minnie and Daisy together. A sexually frustrated Donald storms off by his lonesome, refusing to bunk with Goofy.

Now, on each episode Mickey has a device at his disposal called a “toodles,” which contains four Mouseketools to help him out of a jam. For example, he’ll have a fishing rod with a hand on the end of it, or a set of keys or an ice cream cone that he’ll use to plug a leaky boat (yea, like that’s gonna work). I’m not exactly sure what kind of lessons in responsibility and preparedness are being taught here, but I’m Mickey Mouse clueless when it comes to these matters. Actually, I would have loved a “toodles” when I was in college as long as it contained beer, pizza, cigarettes and truck-stop speed. (Note to my sister: If you are going to pass this blog along to our parents, please excise this paragraph. Actually, maybe it’s best if we keep this one to ourselves.)

Anyway, long story short: All the tents except Donald’s meets some tragedy, so everyone is forced to bunk in Donald’s crib. Donald, of course, is as happy as a Porky Pig in mud because he’s hoping to take Daisy on a ride to his magic kingdom.

But, I bet things don’t end as Donald hopes. Daisy’s the smartest egg in the clubhouse. In another episode, Daisy, Mickey, Pluto and Goofy travel to Mars to meet a character as annoying as Mickey Mouse: Yep, it’s Martian Mickey Mouse. For some reason they bypass Daisy and elect Goofy to captain the ship. I was thoroughly incensed and clamored about sexual discrimination. I mean who picks Goofy to run anything! Granted this country elected Goofy president twice, but I expect my animation writers to be smarter than your average voter.

I think Donald would have better luck with Minnie, but I’m not sure how the whole mouse-on-duck love thing would work. Species rightfully tend to stick together. Even in that crappy song by America from the 1970s, it was: “Muskrat, Muskrat candlelight.” You didn’t hear them singing: “Muskrat, Hermit Crab candlelight.”

Besides, if I were Donald I wouldn’t trust Minnie. I’d never trust a woman who owns only one pair of shoes and those are two sizes too big for her feet.

The other cartoon Penelope watches is “Little Einsteins.” Each episode features a piece of art by, say, Monet or Degas, and a classical composition by Mozart or Beethoven. That idea for the show I find clever, but I’m not so sure sometimes about the brain power of the four Little Einsteins. The kids travel around in a rocket ship which they never fly when they get stuck in a jam. For example, they’ll have to find a missing puppet in a maze and rather than fly over the maze, they’ll drive around in it. So, I have a hard time thinking of these kids as a couple of Einsteins. Then again, I guess no one would let their children watch a show called “Little Dumbasses.”

Look, I realize I’m watching these shows through the immature eyes of an adult, but would these Einsteins have had a prayer if confronted with the likes of Dick Dastardly and Muttley? I doubt it. But what do I know? Thanks to Martin Zellar, I still think Lancelot Link could have captured Osama bin Laden five years ago.

(*Note: I cast no sexual-preference asperions here. I just wonder about Goofy from time to time, that’s all.)

Tryptophan Triptych (Part 3)

November 26, 2009

Few holiday moments compare with the brief anticipatory Thanksgiving Day pause when your dinner plate is arranged exactly the way you want. You’ve sprinkled the salt and pepper over the turkey; buttered the corn and dinner roll; arranged your foods so the cranberry sauce isn’t touching the stuffing; and poured the gravy into the mashed-potato swimming pool. That was how I arranged my meal, my fork hovered six inches above my plate. . . .

Then three little words from Penelope brought my culinary swoon to a screeching halt. “YIN YAN YAO!” I don’t know if any of you remember a TV program from the 1970s called “Emergency!” but it popped into my mind at that moment because every time paramedics Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto sat down to eat dinner, the loudspeaker would blast: “Rampart 51! Rampart 51” and off they’d run to rescue some dopey teenager trapped in a sewer pipe with his pet alligator.

I’ll skip over the actual visit to the bathroom, but let me just note that by the time I stumbled my way back to the table with the toxic toddler, I wondered if my appetite would recover. Of course, it did. My sister Sue is a terrific cook, and my Mom makes the best pumpkin pie this side of the Great Pumpkin’s pumpkin patch.

I learned something new this Thanksgiving that I’m going to pass along to you. If you like wine, do yourself a favor and get an aerator. An aerator will expose more of the volume of the wine to the air, allowing the wine to breathe properly. You can pick one up for about $25, and trust me, you will be amazed at the improvement of the bouquet, taste and finish of your wine. We were using the aerator on everything from a decent Merlot to a bottle of Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio and comparing it to non-aerated wine. The difference was astounding. Oh, did I mention my sister and brother-in-law watch an awful lot of QVC?

Anyway, I discovered this Thanksgiving that my family isn’t very skilled when it comes to passing food around the table. Now, I know what you might be thinking: With all that aerated wine, everybody was too shellacked to pass food around. But that’s not true because only a few of us were drinking, and my daughter sobered me up plenty during her bathroom break. This poor familial food distribution skill means you better like what’s sitting in front of you. Naturally, I wound up seated beside the big heaping bowl of rutabaga, and all the turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing were partying together at the opposite end of the table. But, I considered my wanderings around the table as an opportunity to work off a tiny bit of the meal. Now if only the table were a mile long, that might have actually worked.

But the best thing about Thanksgiving was finally getting my side of the family together under one roof for the first time in 13 years, and for Penelope to spend time with all her cousins. And while I thought for a moment that I heard my little Pop Tart pick up her toy cell phone and ask the Chinese embassy to take her back to the mother country and away from the insanity, I realized the tryptophan had indeed kicked in. Actually, this year we skipped the annual Thanksgiving tradition that puts everyone to sleep: watching the Detroit Lions.

Two days later, I squeezed myself behind the car steering wheel for the long slog back to New Jersey. We handled the 13-hour journey in one day, and Penelope was an angel through most of the car ride. (She did get a little cranky in West Virginia.) If she wasn’t sleeping or snacking, she kept picking up her toy cell phone to call Shu Shu (Uncle) Joe to babble her unique mix of Chinese and English. New bonds with family members formed or strengthened. Is there a better way to celebrate Thanksgiving?