Wednesday, December 22, 2004

O, Juletræ 

I can't say, as perhaps some parents can, that I'd always dreamed of the day I'd take my own son or daughter to pick their first Christmas tree.

I don't have any particularly resonant memories of picking out Christmas trees with my own parents and I didn't anticipate any particular "magic" in conducting this particular retail transaction with their newest granddaughter. You go somewhere. You look at trees. You buy one. Done deal.

It's a damn good thing I'm a man of low expectations. It's cold today, and the gloomy skies were already darkening into dusk as the three of us made our way toward the tree "lot" earlier this afternoon. The air was wet with the strange Scandinavian snow-mist that's been moistening Copenhagen for the past two weeks, and the wind was gusting strong enough to peel whole layers of skin off our faces. We trudged two blocks to the guy selling trees in front of Frederiksberg Svømmehal and eyed our options with disappointment.

We could choose between massive forest pines of Bunyanesque proportions and tiny table-top shrubs. The only middle ground was held by a cluster of scrawny, six-foot pines that didn't have needles on their branches so much as stubble.

Trine asked the salesman if there weren't any normal-sized trees with recognizable pine needles on them.

"Yes," he assured us, "maybe. Tomorrow. But only maybe. You never know."

We didn't want to wait until tomorrow. I eyed the little baby trees. They were tiny—no more than 18 inches high—but had perfect form. They reminded me of Bansai trees. They also reminded me of A Charlie Brown Christmas. I imagined us putting one of them in my pocket, going home, setting it down on the dining room table, standing around it, waving our arms in random spasms, then stepping back to behold a tall, luxuriant, opulently decorated tree. Then I imagined looking at pictures, twenty years hence, of Molli's first tree being smaller than Molli herself.

"It's got to be bigger than Molli," I said.

Trine didn't even acknowledge my comment. That's her default setting when we're shopping. It's sensible of her.

"I don't think it's worth waiting until tomorrow," she said. "We'll be done with the tree in four days anyway. We don't want to spend 300 kroner on something that goes in the trash on Sunday."

(I'd forgotten her ruthless nature. My own inclination has always been to keep Christmas trees around until St. Patrick's Day.)

So we bought the best of the sickly little bastard trees, schlepped it home, and decorated it after dinner. While we decorated, Molli lay on the floor, sucking her toes between bouts of mortal combat with Willie the Cat. She was indifferent to the tree. I wish I could have been. I have my Platonic Ideal of what the ideal Christmas tree would look like: minimally adorned, classic, tasteful, but gently luminous. Trine shares this ideal. Every Christmas we try to hold ourselves back but end up adding "just one more ornament" over and over until our tree looks like it was designed not by masters of classic minimalism, but colorblind preschoolers on speed. This year we even ended up with tinsel on our tree. Tinsel, for the love of god.

And little ruthless cossack bastards made out of pipecleaners. (Trine says they're elves, but elves don't wear those tall cossack hats, do they?)

The main thing is, the tree is up and decorated and we're done with it. Molli was unimpressed. We held her up in front of the glowing tree and said, "Look! Pretty! Christmas! Yay!"

She gurgled and drooled and stared at the bookcase.

"No," we said, "no, the tree! Christmas! Pretty! Shiny! Look!"

And she yawned and stretched and made her little I'm-About-to-Get-Fucking-Hysterical sounds, so Trine rushed her off to bed.

And that was that. First Christmas tree with my daughter.

I'm still such a stupid sap I'll probably be reading these words five years from now and weeping. "Remember that night? Wasn't that a beautiful night? Wasn't it magic?"

Note to future self: no, it wasn't magic.

But it didn't suck, either.

[FYI: December 22 is the birthday of BeeGee twins Maurice and Robin Gibb (1949), Steve Garvey (1948), Diane Sawyer (1945), Barbara Billingsley (1922), Gene Rayburn (1917), Lady Bird Johnson (1912), and Giacomo Puccini (1858). It's Unduvap Poya Day in Sri Lanka, Army Day in Vietnam, and Unity Day in Zimbabwe.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Through a Move, Darkly 

There's a light at the end of the tunnel. Again.

Today is December 21, the Winter Solstice, the date on which the sun is the furthest away from the Earth. So although it's a darker day than yesterday, our days are only going to get lighter and longer for the next six months.

The Winter Solstice also marks the beginning of winter, a season defined by scientists as "the season that begins on the Winter Solstice."

I have therefore survived my second onset of the Danish darkness without having taken recourse to alcoholism, psychoactive drugs, or suicide. I'm proud of myself. I believe all of us in the northern hemisphere ought to give ourselves a big round of applause. And we can now safely snicker at those poor bastards in the southern hemisphere, for whom every day in the next six months will be a little shorter, a little darker, and a little colder.


* * *

There've been flurries, but there hasn't been much accumulation.

We've been settling in. The new apartment is in a classic Frederiksberg building from 1906. (I use "classic" in the sense of "typical" rather than "superior.") We have beautiful, unfinished wood-plank floors, solid wooden doors, high ceilings, massive windows. It's airy and beautiful and Molli seems very happy in it. There are only two drawbacks: it's a third-floor walk-up and the bathroom is the size of a telephone booth.

Regular readers may suspect me of exaggeration, but I'm only stating the facts here. The bathroom is only just big enough to accommodate a toilet and a tiny little sink. There is no bathtub. There is no shower stall. So how do we keep clean?

The bathroom is a shower stall. You shut the door, draw a shower curtain before it to protect its lovely wood, put the toilet paper up on a very high shelf, then turn on the shower. What seemed so very cramped a moment ago suddenly isn't. You shower as you would in any shower—simultaneously, and without any particular effort, cleaning your bathroom. When you're done, you turn off the shower, squeegee the tile walls and floor, do a little detail drying with a couple of little towels conveniently hung just outside the door, replace the toilet paper, and that's that. It sounds worse than it is. Our visitor from the states was horrified when we first explained the procedure to him last week, but by the time he left on Saturday he was planning to install such a bathroom in an apartment of his own. He actually liked it.

I'm a bather by nature—if I could, I'd end every night with a big glass of scotch and a good book in a hot bath. Or, if the mood was right, instead of the scotch and the book I could do with a blonde—but even then I'd probably want the scotch and the book once she got out of the tub. So the lack of a bathing apparatus is a little annoying to me. . . but it's a small price to pay for the other significant change in living arrangements: I have my own office again. With a door.

Besides, water here is so obscenely expensive that a small leak in one of our faucets at the old apartment ended up costing about a thousand dollars over a twelve month period. It was a slow leak that our Americanized sensibilities didn't pay any attention to until that water bill came in. It was fixed the next day.

(Yes, I said dollars, not crowns.)

Anyway, given the frightful cost of dihydrogen-oxide here in Denmark it's probably just as well that I can't take a bath every night.

* * *

I passed my Studieskolen exam and won't have to take another test of any significance until May, when I take the Danish competence exam. If I pass that, I'll be considered fluent in reading, writing, speaking, and understanding Danish. So I may beat Molli after all.

Molli's been developing significantly over the past couple of weeks. She's capable of sitting upright for a couple of seconds before capsizing and is now rolling from back to front several times a day. This morning she made three such unprovoked rolls before 8:30. Her noises become less shrieky and more human every day. She's eating two big servings of porridge a day. She's getting grabbier—and anything that's grabbed goes straight into her mouth. We think she may be on the brink of teething. She's also sleeping well and seems to have a very sunny disposition—she giggles and laughs more than she cries or screams.

* * *

I still have a lot of catching up to do on work and Christmas-related activities, and I'm still way behind in my correspondence, and I make absolutely no claim at all that I'll be a very regular poster in the immediate future, but there will be new posts here from time to time through the holidays, and the Almanac will resume as scheduled early in the new year.

That much said, I can't let today slip by without publishing one of my favorite Almanac classics. . .

Little Joey

Josif Djugashvili was born in the Gori District of Tiflis Province in Georgia, Imperial Russia, on December 21, 1879. His father was a drunken and often unemployed cobbler, illiterate, and like Josif's mother Ekaterina, had only been emancipated from serfdom in 1864.

Papa Djugashvili was a violent man, and often beat little Josif, whose left arm was permanently injured in a childhood "accident." Josif was also afflicted by small pox at the age of five, scarring his face with a crosshatching of pockmarks.

To say that the cobbler's son had no shoes would be the grossest of understatements.

At the Gori Elementary School, little Joey Djugashvili was unexceptional in terms of grade point average, aptitude, and physical education. His self-esteem was in tatters. He was a moody, sullen boy, but even in the benighted educational environment of nineteenth century Imperial Russia, his teachers knew that beneath his brooding exterior there beat the heart of a wounded, frightened child.

"Joey only needed a little encouragement," one teacher recalled in an interview published shortly before her disappearance. "He'd never speak up in class, but if you took the time to talk to him one-on-one he'd open up like a flower."

Another teacher recalled Djugashvili's difficult home life. "His parents never came to our Meet the Faculty suppers," the pedagogue reflected from his cell not long before his execution. "So I visited his home on several occasions. His mother was not very affectionate, but his father was a brute and a tyrant and would only address him as 'dumb-ass.' You knew even then that the cards were stacked against the poor kid."

His peers taunted him mercilessly at school, and his high school class voted him "most likely to die alone and unloved." But one cannot help but be startled by the Djugashvili staring out from the photograph in his high school yearbook. The overall look is haunted, but even then there could be seen the galvanization of will, the hardening of determination, that in a few short years the world would learn to know and fear as Josif Stalin.

One can only feel pity for this troubled soul, this poor, sweet child who never wanted anything more than a little love and attention. Even as one watches the same old familiar footage of a laughing Stalin quaffing a martini while marching over a path paved with human skulls, even then if one looks closely one can see the eyes of the child he once was: frightened, sad, and alone.

Was Little Joe truly a wellspring of bloody malevolence, or was he perhaps a victim himself, a frightened and insecure little boy who wanted nothing more than a little approval and a few kind words? It's easy to hold him responsible for the thirty to forty-five million deaths that occurred on his watch, but was it really all his fault? Can we not properly lay some, if not all, of the responsibility for the sins of the son on the deeds of the father?

Perhaps a little love could have gone a long way. Or a little Ritalin. Either way.

I hope that parents everywhere will give their children a little extra love and attention and medication this holiday season, because the world needs another Little Joey like I need a samovar up my ass.

And While I'm At It. . .

December 21 is the birthday of Florence Griffith Joyner (1959), Chris Evert (1954), Samuel L. Jackson (1948), Frank Zappa (1940), Jane Fonda (1937), Phil Donahue (1935), Paul Winchell (1922), Kurt Waldheim (1918), Joshua Gibson (1911), "Little Joey" Stalin (1879), and Benjamin Disraeli (1804).

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