Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti

A story by Moss Hart narrated by José Ferrer reminds this blogger of a story from his own childhood

At Christmastime, I often hearken back to Simple Gifts — a vintage PBS production which has proven a rich source of reflection for me.

I can relate to this Christmas story because it deals with hope and dreams versus harsh reality, and reminds me of an incident from my own childhood.

My father sired me late in life, so when I was ten years old he had already passed his sixtieth birthday. My arrival was not planned, and though he loved me in his own way, my father later confided to me (with some bitterness) that “Mommy stuck me with you.” His genuine love had to struggle against his unpreparedness (due in part to poverty and illness) to become a father, with all the attendant responsibilities.

My father suffered from insomnia, aggravated by physical illnesses, and by worries and sad memories. As a result, by the time I was in elementary school he had taken to sleeping during the day. The flat where we lived was comfortable, but it was a railroad flat with only one bedroom at the far end, where the three of us slept. My bedtime was 9 PM, but my father would sometimes just be arising at that time, and was preverbal in his first hour after waking. So during that portion of my childhood, we lived in the same house, but (sleeping in shifts) had surprisingly little contact.

Still, there were weekends and holidays and other times when our schedules overlapped, and there were happy times when we were together as a family, though these became increasingly rare as my parents approached the breakup point. I can remember a disastrous Thanksgiving with my father posing for a photo as the family patriarch, carving the turkey, and a mocking look on my face like Who is this guy? Any resemblance to a Norman Rockwell poster was disappearing at breakneck speed.

But for the most part, as a child in elementary school I had no sense of normalcy where families were concerned. I lived from moment to moment, accepting things as they were, with very little questioning.

I loved my father with a child’s love, but also feared him for his angry moods. I believed the stories he told me, and came to share in his love of vintage audio equipment, which he would futz around with in our living room (which was the front room) during his waking hours. He had an assortment of old tape recorders and microphones and tuners and amplifers and speakers which he enjoyed hooking up in a variety of ways. I was always fascinated by the infinite possibilities. Making “cable spaghetti” in search of some hitherto undreamt of combination was maybe the most fun I had as a child.

I remember in particular how his old, dying tape recorders made uncharacteristically youthful chirping sounds, as if their innards housed a chorus of newly hatched robins blinking at the capstans and pinch rollers which otherwise inhabited the same wood-and-metal nest. My father, however, thought more in terms of Orthoptera than Erithacus, and referred to the sounds made by these ancient instruments as “crickets.” Though never entirely absent, the cricket sounds sometimes became especially pronounced, and then my father would curse those “goddamn crickets,” and proceed to take apart and put back together the offending recorder, usually with no noticeable improvement. But I suppose it provided him with the much-needed illusion of work, as my own tinkerings with computers do today.

Isopropyl alcohol in tiny vials, Q-tips, and 3-In-One oil were the liniments my father routinely applied to any dead-man-walking gizmo located within his dominion. Some, perhaps several of such gizmos owe to him a few added months or years of life lived in a kind of techno limbo between functioning and non-functioning — a questionable form of Grace arising from his limited repertoire of home remedies for ailing mimetic devices.

While sitting idly and blowing smoke from Pall Malls which he smoked from a holder, my father would fill my head with stories about 45th Street in Manhattan, where all the electronics stores were located. I had never been to 45th Street, but as a budding technophile I could picture them all lined up, filled with an unending supply of alligator clips and speaker wire and phono plugs, and massive woofers pumping out earth-shaking bass tones, and tiny titanium tweeters supplying the highs — highs I was vicariously in search of.

(Dim rumours reached our household now and then of a new development called stereo, but as all my father’s equipment was antiquated, hand-me-down mono gear, we rejected such rumours and lived in our own heavily insulated monophonic bubble. And though my father died in 1980, I don’t believe he ever succumbed to the stereo fad.)

I remember a Father’s Day in the fourth grade when we pupils were asked to create an art project using scratch art — the kind where you scratch out the black to leave a line drawing in coloured crayon.

An example of children’s scratch art, or crayon etching

Mine (lost long ago) was inspired by the one area where my father and I still pleasantly interacted. It was no Precisionist masterpiece, or even of mechanical drawing quality. With its cable spaghetti flying in every direction, occasionally alighting on a vaguely rectangular object, it was more Abstract Expressionist — possibly something Miró would have banged out, a constellation that never quite made it into the night sky.

One of Joan Miró’s “constellation” pictures, this one titled “People at Night, Guided by the Phosphorescent Tracks of Snails.” Look carefully and in addition to fish and birds, you’ll also see a small likeness of Eleanor Roosevelt.

I don’t recall if my father ever saw or commented on my youthful masterpiece, but I do remember pressure mounting on him to take me to the tech oasis of 45th Street, which he had inflated in my mind, and which I had further inflated with the imagination-power that only ten-year-old boys possess.

Finally, the great day came! My father rose earlier than usual — as early as 3 PM. We departed from home by 4 PM on a cold winter day, as the light was fading. (Did we ride bus or subway? I can’t remember…)

We arrived at the Mecca of 45th Street around 4:30, and the Fairy Lights which lit up my brain were noticeably absent. We managed to visit one or two electronics shops, but it was drawing nigh on five minutes to five, and it began to dawn on me that the Great Transformation of Life which I expected as a result of beholding the Awe and Mystery which was 45th Street had not yet happened, and wasn’t going to.

I don’t recall that my father bought anything at either store. I asked wanly whether we would visit more stores, but my father replied matter-of-factly that they were just closing up. He was a fairly cynical person, but perhaps my own imagination had somehow cross-pollinated with his on this occasion, and he too was expecting more from the experience.

Rather than a shared epiphany, this was like a moment of unshared existential sadness — my father realizing that this one short trip wouldn’t make him Best Dad Ever, and me realizing that 45th Street was just another place with shops — human-sized shops not bulging with electronic toys for the taking, and not providing a gateway to Paradise. We both felt let down, but it failed to bring us closer together. We walked onward, each managing his expectations in his own way, and neither outwardly acknowledging defeat.

Of course, this anticlimactic ending was not entirely my father’s fault. True, he could have gotten up earlier, could have planned the trip better, and could have arranged some concrete purchase (however small) which would have made it all seem worthwhile. But much later on in life, in the course of my spiritual studies, I came to understand that it’s the nature of desire that its fulfillment can never compare with the imagined thing. We have an innate core longing which all desires merely animate or focus on small trifles. Experience teaches us that what we crave will not really satisfy us, yet we become accustomed, or habituated, or addicted to fulfilling our desires, in spite of knowing the fruitlessness of their fulfillment.

Had I learned nothing since the days of childhood, I would now be preparing to go to that Big Electronics Store in the Sky. I suppose the modern version would involve cable TV with 10,000 channels, a fully interactive supercomputer, a smartphone with built-in 16-track recording studio, unlimited Internet access with no data caps, and a host of other things that Big Tech promises us in ads, then takes away in the fine print or the doing.

I am fortunate that through reading, study, meditation and dreams, I now look forward to something much more meaningful, and not based on Fairy Lights. But that is another tale, and today’s tale is only a Christmas Story or Winter’s Tale.

My father was a proud and often emotionally inaccessible man. This was true until his death. Like Moss Hart, I was with my father in the period leading up to his death, when he was in a nursing home. Unlike Moss Hart, I can’t claim that we shared a moment of perfect closeness. I do remember a day, sitting quite near to him as he sat in a wheelchair. It was a sunny day, out on the grass, overlooking the river in Riverdale, New York. Running out of things to say, I closed my eyes and meditated on peace. When I opened them again, he too looked peaceful, almost as if meditating. He remarked that it felt peaceful.

I don’t suppose it was more than a month later that he died, and while that moment of shared peace is less than I might have hoped for, it is more than many are granted. I remain grateful for it to this day.

May all be granted Peace at Christmastime, especially those who have shown me kindness beyond my imagination.

* * *


Remembering Teddy Roosevelt in the Era of Trump

Though Donald Trump is arguably the most unhinged president in modern history, Theodore Roosevelt is often recalled as a “picturesque” or “exaggerated” personality. This larger than life quality was lampooned in the 1944 film Aresenic and Old Lace, considered one of the great screwball comedies.

It’s centered around a husband-to-be (played by British expat Cary Grant) whose crazy relatives temporarily sabotage his nuptial plans. His brother Teddy thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, and goes around leading imaginary charges, digging the Panama Canal, and preparing graves for yellow fever victims in the family cellar. Between trumpet blasts and cries of “Chaaaaaarge!,” he sprinkles his conversation with liberal helpings of the word “bully” (a period colloquialism similar to “fab” or “awesome”).

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Teddy Brewster (played by actor John Alexander) from the film “Arsenic and Old Lace”

A more sympathetic portrait is painted in the PBS production Simple Gifts, about which I have written more here. This clip is a short vignette based on a page from the actual diary of an 11-year-old Teddy Roosevelt:

It is charming in its own right, but does little to dispel the sense that Roosevelt was the product of extraordinary privilege. (The truth is more complicated. His early life was marred by illness and tragedy.)

Writing in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, Richard Norton Smith describes him in ways that may seem eerily familiar to a 2017 audience:

Certainly Roosevelt brought to the White House a child’s need to control events, coupled with a carnival barker’s ability to call attention to himself. His self-dramatizing flair found expression through the agitation of foreign rebellions, the cult of the Teddy Bear, TR’s famed “Bully Pulpit,” which converted the presidency from an administrative to an exhortatory office, and an exuberant family life tailor-made for the emerging mass media of the day.

Between obstacle races and pillow fights, lunch with Buffalo Bill, nightly “romps” and helpings of Norse mythology, every day in the Roosevelt White House was filled with violently pursued enthusiasms. It was Roosevelt’s madcap daughter Alice who, when not sliding down banisters or shocking traditionalists by smoking cigarettes and betting on horse races, complained that her father wished to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral and the baby at every christening.

— Richard Norton Smith, “Roosevelt Family Values,” Chicago Tribune

While some portrayals focus on TR’s eccentricities, this clip from a History Channel documentary strikes me as a more balanced picture:

Though he possessed an extravagance of style, he was genuinely concerned with the plight of laborers such as coal miners, and his so-called “Square Deal” was actually a precursor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”

Thus, while he shares with Donald Trump the effect of “sucking all the air out of a room,” history remembers TR as a fundamentally good president who (paradoxically) was both Republican by party, but progressive in many of his policies. His legacy includes welfare legislation, regulation mitigating the most devastating effects of industrial capitalism, the breakup of huge corporate monopolies, food safety regulation, and conservation of America’s wilderness.

According to the National Park Service, “Theodore Roosevelt is often considered the ‘conservationist president.’ [His conservation legacy] is found in the 230 million acres of public lands he helped establish during his presidency.”

He was bold in the area of foreign affairs. If TR’s policy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” DT’s policy is to “speak loudly and carry a sack of alternative facts.”

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War. Though his look and manner may strike us as archaic a hundred-odd years later, he’s actually considered the first modern U.S. president, bringing an unprecedented level of energy and charisma to the office.

teddy-roosevelt-with-teddy-bearInterviewed for the documentary, historian Douglas Brinkley says:

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy is with us every time you turn on a faucet and take a sip of water that’s not contaminated. It’s with you every time you cook a hamburger on a grill and know you’re not going to die from it. [Editor’s note: Not quickly, anyway.] It’s with you every time you want to take a hike up through the Sierra Nevada mountains or go for a swim in the Great Lakes.

Can President Trump amass such a legacy which redounds to the benefit of millions of Americans? Only time will tell. The fear among political analysts is that he has promised working people a lamentation of swans, but is delivering up a travesty of Goldman Sachs executives.

Does Trump care about America’s unspoiled wilderness as Roosevelt did? His orders to revive the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines answer with a resounding “no.”

If TR is remembered fondly by history, it’s because his eccentric manner was joined to numerous good works, and because his nature encompassed an air of jollity — even teddy bear cuteness.

By contrast, Trump’s first month in office has been marked by gruffness, rudeness, combativeness, and grim humourlessness. If few good works follow, it may not go well for him in the annals of history.

TR was a voracious reader, and the author of literally dozens of books. Mr. Trump is reportedly “not a big reader,” and while he’s published books such as The Art of the Deal, they’re typically co-written, perhaps extensively ghosted. When extemporizing, Mr. Trump does not give the impression of one who cares about ideas or language in the manner of an intellectual. (This is my entry in the Understatement of the Century contest.)

It’s hard to imagine him as an ebullient and precocious boy in the TR style. It’s hard to imagine him anywhere near a teddy bear, though Trump teddy bears in baggy suits, clutching piles of green folding money, are shamelessly marketed to rubes.

In fact, it’s really hard to imagine him as president. If I were marketing a Trump-related tchotchke, it would probably be a button saying “Somebody slap me.” (And with my luck, somebody would.)

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from Vomitorium not included.

The Trump teddy bear, only $79.95 from Vomitorium not included.

History tells us that we must let Reagan be Reagan, and Trump be Trump. But Teddy Roosevelt Donald Trump certainly is not.

To learn more about TR in historical and political context, read this article by Fordham University professor Kirsten Swinth.

Michael Howard
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Joke of the Day

In response to a claim by former House Speaker John Boehner that Trump “kind of reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt, another guy who saw himself larger than life,” commenter Kim Hamilton wrote: “Trump’s very much like Teddy Roosevelt — they’re both currently brain dead.”

Of Further Interest

“What we in 2012 can learn from Teddy Roosevelt in 1912” on
John Alexander plays Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace (video clip):

* * *

Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer

simple-gifts-christmas-truce-benjamin-bowmaneerThat good old Christmas depression has lifted, or at least there’s a break in the clouds for me, so I’m trying to get in the spirit by sharing some Christmas items.

Simple Gifts is the name of a Christmas special developed by PBS circa 1977. It features six animated vignettes all tied together around the theme of Christmas. Prized by those who know it, it seems all the more valuable for having largely disappeared. Great animation, fine art, and it deals with themes which are eternal, as well as events etched in the collective consciousness of generations. But let’s lead into it with bits & bobs about Benjamin Bowmaneer…

British folk artist Kate Rusby, in her 2016 release Life in a Paper Boat, begins with that very song:

It’s an old English ballad sometimes classified as “Roud #1514.”

Have you heard how the wars began,
Benjamin Bowmaneer?
Have you heard how the wars began?
Castors away!
Have you heard how the wars began
When England fought to a man?
And the proud tailor rode prancing away.

The song can be taken as an ironic commentary on the transformation from peacetime to wartime, when many a peaceable tradesman might suddenly find himself called to be a soldier. Kate Rusby’s version sounds surprisingly modern; but let’s see how that same ballad was used to introduce a remarkable vignette on the subject of the Christmas Truce of December 25th, 1914, as recounted by Captain Sir Edmund Hulse:

The way the music was edited to create a counterpoint between English and German Christmas carols is fantastic, and contributes much to the expressive power of the vignette. (Compare this scene from Casablanca depicting dueling anthems.)

Eliza Carthy does a simple piano-and-voice version of “Benjamin Bowmaneer”:

Haunting, but perhaps a bit gloomy for Christmas. More cheerful is the song whose name mayhaps inspired the title of the PBS special: “Simple Gifts,” here sung by Judy Collins (from her 1970 album Whales & Nighingales):

It’s a traditional Shaker song from 1848, later popularized by composer Aaron Copland in his 1944 orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, here performed by a local band known as The New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein (We wish them well!):

Of the animated shorts comprising Simple Gifts, the one perhaps best remembered and garnering the most praise is “No Room at the Inn.” Created by R.O. Blechman (who also produced the special), and faithfully inked by fellow animator Ed Smith, it remains for me a high watermark in hand-drawn animation, due to its simplicity and power:

I cannot say enough about this piece, which is such an eloquent, wordless retelling of the Nativity story, with totally excellent music by Arnold Black using early instruments. If the omnipresent A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) humorously bemoans the commercialization of the birth of Jesus, “No Room at the Inn” does so poignantly, with a richer set of observations about the human condition and the eternal themes surrounding the Nativity. We see King Herod troubled by the light which steals into his bed chamber and cannot be shut out:

herod-troubled-by-the-star-of-bethlehemHe arises in anger and dispatches his army to slay every male infant in Bethlehem, in the vain hope that doing so will preserve his own corrupt reign. Blechman portrays the commercial hostelers as two-faced, bending to whatever cause will line their pockets. When Bethlehem is abuzz with pilgrims, they put up signs welcoming pilgrims. When Herod’s army invades, they welcome the soldiers with equal gusto. To see a sign saying “Nativity Town” lying in a burning heap is a sad commentary on the fickleness of human affection for Avataric beings. Truly, “You are now leaving Bethlehem” (wonderful anachronism!).

nativity-town-you-are-now-leaving-bethlehemAs Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus flee into Egypt, they carry practically nothing with them and are confronted with a familiar phenomenon: The road they travel is solitary, but is lined on either side with hotels welcoming rich merchants.

mary-and-joseph-flight-into-egypt“No Room at the Inn” is drawn in a minimal style and contains no dialogue, yet it’s one of the most moving tellings of the Nativity tale I’ve ever seen. In one sense it’s the epitome of modern art, with the theme reduced to bare essentials (like Picasso’s successive drawings of a bull). Yet, the music by Arnold Black adds tremendous warmth, hopefulness, a sense of walking onward through adversity, and some sadness or wistfulness.

There’s also a connection with the world of Charlie Brown, because when hostelers rudely refuse Joseph, their voices are represented by discordant brass, not unlike the peevish teacher in Peanuts cartoons, played by a muted or “wah-wah” trombone.

“No Room at the Inn” has remained close to my heart since I first saw it 35 years ago because it captures essential spiritual truths in a simple but powerful way, and is an exquisite artistic creation which spans great distances between the ancient and modern worlds. In that sense, it’s a distant cousin of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, whose hallelujahs seem to come dancing and echoing to us from a corridor in time which is thousands of years wide:

Not Christmas music, but no less joyful than Handel’s Messiah for being sung in Hebrew. These different examples of ancient and modern art remind me of the immortal words of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy:

Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

–Sri Chinmoy

This is Michael Howard wishing you (in the words of Colleen Dewhurst): “a Christmas of simple gifts, richly bestowed and warmly received.” Special thanks to those who have helped me survive a difficult year through their kindness.


Sidebar: The Christmas Truce of 1914

The Christmas Truce has come to be regarded as iconic, perhaps because it offers hope for peace and underscores the arbitrariness of the circumstances which turn brother against brother. The Truce has been explored in productions both documentary and dramatic because, in the middle of a war, peace broke out.

The Truce was re-eneacted in the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War, but the scene is not very effective because it quickly degenerates into drinking, smoking, and idle chitchat. More inspiring is this clip from the 1996 mini-series The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century:

In December 2014, the UK’s Sainsbury’s supermarket chain produced a 3:40 advert which also re-enacts the Christmas Truce:

Another version (courtesy Gogglebox) shows the reactions of selected British viewers:

An editorial in The Guardian by Ally Fogg decries the ad as “a dangerous and disrespectful masterpiece,” but it clearly touched the hearts of some viewers, and is considered a stroke of marketing genius, having gone viral on YouTube.

For more on the Christmas Truce, see this archived links page. There are a number of songs about the Truce, with some lyrics collected here. Part of Cormac MacConnell’s “A Silent Night, Christmas 1915” goes:

Oh silent night, no cannons roar,
A king is born of peace for ever more.
All’s calm, all’s bright,
All brothers hand in hand,
And that young soldier sings
And the sound of peace still rings,
Though the captains and the kings build no man’s land.

Here’s the full song sung by his brother Mickey MacConnell:

As for “Benjamin Bowmaneer,” according to the band Colcannon (which also does a version), the song appears “in the Penguin Book of English Folksongs — the old, and now rare, edition edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.E. Lloyd.”

Trivia: Does Arnold Black’s music for “No Room at the Inn” remind you of anything? At times, it reminds me of “Up, Up and Away” — the part that goes “Would you like to ride, in my beautiful balloon?” And as folk tunes go, “Benjamin Bowmaneer” somewhat resembles “Spanish Lady.”

For Further Reading/Viewing

“The Gutsy Scribbling of R.O. Blechman”

R.O. Blechman CBS Christmas Message (1966)

“Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths”

Brother Jesus by Sri Chinmoy

bethlehem-star-animated* * *