Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snapshots of a Decade

She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts / She's cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers

It has been the soundtrack of our post-Christmas days, this bouncy pop song from Taylor Swift. Santa was kind enough to place an iPod Nano beneath the tree, so as soon as Daddy was able to place some songs onto Katie’s tiny orange device, Miss Swift has been gracing every room with her tale of heartbreak. Katie sings along passionately, and her little sister immediately follows suit.

The year in review. The decade in review. No matter what media outlet you’re reading, watching or listening to, you’re being fed a tidy synopsis of the most important events and personalities of the year, as well as the nine that preceded this one. For 2009, we get Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and our beloved president, among others. For the ‘00s in review, we get everything from Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to Presidents Bush and Obama. We get Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as well as George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and reality television. We get Nintendo and Apple, as well as Enron and Madoff.

It’s enormously difficult to sum up a decade’s worth of news, notoriety and nostalgia. You can try and capture it all, but you’re bound to miss something. And the truth is, when it comes down to life, we rarely frame our existence inside of ten-year spans. When they talk about taking life “one day at a time” in 12-step programs, they’re on to something. At its best, life is more about snapshots than grand re-caps. It’s made up of moments we can recall with 12-megapixel clarity, and sounds we can hear with Bose-speaker crispness. And the beauty of it is that no one can remember a moment in exactly the same way.

I can feel the Boston Globe special edition in my hands as I rode the North Shore commuter rail home on September 11, 2001, and read of the madness and chaos that had enveloped the city of my birth and changed the world in which I lived. I can see the flickering candles at every intersection in Salem, Mass., three days later, as my neighbors stood vigil on their street corners in a collective show of mourning and respect for their country. I can see the charred pieces of metal still standing in Lower Manhattan when I walked by the Trade Center remains 3½ weeks later.

I can see the glistening brown hair on the head of our first-born child, and I can hear her first cries as she entered the world and nestled in her mother’s arms nearly eight years ago. I can feel the arms of my wife as we embraced after losing a child in utero two years later. More than a year after that, I can see our younger daughter’s calm demeanor develop as she took her first quiet nap in the hospital’s nursery. As I held Katie up and pointed out Chelsea to her, I can still hear Katie’s first words to Chelsea. It was an impromptu song, or perhaps a prayer: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / How I wonder what you are ... ” I can still taste the tears that slid down my cheeks at that moment.

I can feel the strong left hand of my grandfather, as I held him and explained to him that the cancer had spread throughout his body. I can see the tears as he came to grips with the reality of his situation. I can hear his nasally, North Shore-of-Staten Island accent as we talked about the Yankees in those final weeks together. I can hear him greet me with the “Peanuts” nickname he’d always given me: “Hey, Chahlie Brown,” he’d say. “Come in and eat som’in’. I got soup in dee icebox. You can heat it up. And dere’s plenty o’ ginger ale, too.” I can recall sitting down and listening to him talk about my grandmother with love, knowing that he’d be with her again, soon.

I miss my grandfather. And my grandmother, too, as well as my dog and all the other family members I’ve lost in the last 10 years. I remember them in moments that I treasure in the very core of my heart, just as I savor the moments of birth that Amy and I have experienced during this ten-year span. Birth and death, ever intertwined: It was a spring afternoon in 2001 when I leaned forward and whispered in my dying grandmother’s ear that we were expecting. She was unable to respond at this point, but I asked her to watch over the kid. At night, when Katie is drifting off to sleep, I tell her stories of the great-grandmother she never met. She listens, every time.

Snapshots. I bought Amy a camera for Christmas; it was time. In studying up on all the point-and-shoots, I learned that more megapixels do not necessarily make for a better camera. If you’re looking to bring in as much light as possible, sometimes less is more. And when the light comes in, and the angle is right, you’ve got yourself one beautiful picture. An image to hold onto, no matter what the year.

We take stock this time of year, we make resolutions, and we reflect. More than anything, though, we hold onto the pictures that fill the photo albums of our minds and souls. This is where time really does stand still, and where a decade is just a word.

Dreaming ‘bout the day when you wake up and find / That what you're lookin’ for has been here the whole time ...

You said it, Taylor. Crank up that iPod. Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crunch Time

The rush is on, for sure. Cars lined up by the dozens to enter the Watchung Square Mall, the Woodbridge Mall, the Menlo Park Mall. Here in Jersey, you don’t get anywhere without having to turn via the jughandle. And when you’ve got a jughandle jam, you’ve got traffic. This is the price you pay for holding out on the shopping ‘til the final days before Christmas in the most shopping-frenzied state in America.

I’d like to say I’m all done, but there’s always this nagging feeling I have when it comes to holiday shopping for my wife, Amy. This is a woman who, in one of our first Christmases together, produced a giant, 4-foot-tall box filled with presents, all of them for me. I have tried to keep up throughout the years, and have given her some thoughtful gifts. But she’s always been a step ahead. And, well, I do have some of those stereotypical guy shopping habits. I am not creative enough (“Wow, such a nice cookie sheet!”), I don’t keep the gifts secretive enough (“Honey, what size pajama top are you again?”), and, shame of shames, I dare to think about the cost of what I’m buying sometimes (“Such a nice book – and look, it’s still got the Borders $3.99 bargain price sticker still on it!”).

Oh, I’ve gotten better over the years, and I think I’ve got some fine presents picked out for her this year. But do I have enough? That simple question puts a lump in my throat and leads me back to the drawing board. Hmm, maybe just one more little thing for her. Can I find that perfect last stocking stuffer?

Let’s start with the Target circular. To use a baseball analogy, Target is the Mark DeRosa of retail. DeRosa, a free agent who’s played in recent years for the Cubs, Cardinals and Indians, can play all three outfield positions and all four infield spots. Target, like DeRosa, can fill all your needs, and he never feels like a cheap fill-in. Where else can I pick up an iPod, a new bicycle, some slippers, a gallon of milk and my prescription from the doctor, all while staring at a bright red bull’s eye? OK, I’m in the CD aisle at Target and I see a stocking stuffer – a Taylor Swift holiday CD for $6.99. But I flip over to the back side of the CD, and I see that it’s only got six songs. I guess that’s why it’s $6.99. And one of those songs is a re-make of a Wham! holiday tune. As a child of the ‘80s, there is one thing I know very well: You cannot improve on Wham!. On to something else.

Kohl’s has a touch-free soap dispenser for $24.99. That’s kind of strange: Wouldn’t a touch-free dispenser make our bathroom feel more like a public restroom? And what happens when the thing doesn’t work? Maybe she’d prefer the $9.99 dual foot massager. But how many people actually use the mechanical massagers they receive for Christmas? And wouldn’t they all prefer the real thing?

Now I’m checking out JCPenney, and my eyes are drawn to the tabletop air hockey game. We both would play that, and we’d really enjoy beating each other. (Nothing more therapeutic for a marriage than destroying your partner in a tabletop sports game.) But where in the world are we going to fit the thing, in between the kids’ American Girl dolls and Webkinz and play-kitchens and art supplies? Ugh … on to something else.

Macy’s: Ice traction slip-ons for $9.99. Very practical, true: But if I’m going to get her something this practical, I’d might as well buy her AA batteries. CVS has “Holiday Pup” from Hallmark, who, for $5.99, will wiggle his ears while “Jingle Bells” plays. Definitely not practical. And definitely not therapeutic. More like maddening.

There are popcorn makers galore, and they’re cute. But don’t the microwaveable bags work just fine? Wii games abound, and many are on sale. But how many do we really have time for in this house? There’s a cute Yankees throw blanket at Modell’s, but it says “27 Time World Series Champions” all over it, and that of course will be outdated by next fall.

And so the search continues. I may find something, or I may not. Either way, I think Amy will be cool with the gifts she finds under the tree. And I, no doubt, will slap my knee at some point in the morning and say, “That was what I should have bought her!” It will hit me.

Just a bit too late.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wonderful, George

“You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”

“I’ll take it.”

Our married names are Warren and Amy Hynes, but this time of year we often call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Bailey. During the holiday season, we like to slip It’s a Wonderful Life into the DVD player at night, and recite the words to the screenplay along with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re like a lot of folks in our love for this movie. A film doesn’t get its own board game, holiday ornaments and cookbook unless it’s got a solid fan base.

Granted, Frank Capra’s 63-year-old movie can be a bit corny, dated and silly at times. But it’s also so much more real than 99 percent of the films that strive as mightily as it does for a happy ending. Capra is going to let you leave his film smiling, but he’s also going to fill your eyes with tears as the credits roll. He has made this happen because the film has tapped into a universal feeling in the form of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey character.

We can work backward from the film’s final scene, as George finds a message from his guardian angel, Clarence, inside a copy of Tom Sawyer: “Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

These words are needed because George Bailey has nearly given up on his life out of a deep feeling of failure. His career and life are at a crisis point when Clarence arrives, as George is tired of the sacrifices and the unfulfilled dreams he’s endured throughout his life. Of course, he has not yet noticed the incredible impact he’s had on those around him – be it his wife, his children, his brother, his colleagues, or the hundreds of people he has helped through his job. He’s unable to see just how extraordinary a life one man can live, even in a small town, with a drafty old house to call home, and a job supervising a broken-down building and loan operation.

When Clarence shows George what the world would be like had George never lived, the stressed-out man has his epiphany. George realizes how much he’s done, how many he’s helped, and just how wonderful it all really is. He is brought first to a state of delirious joy, then to a moment of speechless wonder. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face if you tried. Not that we would try; we’re grinning along with the guy.

We know the story, after all. Many of us find ourselves wondering, at times, if we’ve really accomplished much, and if we’ll ever fulfill the lifelong dreams we’ve had. It can be hard to see just how much we’ve done, and just how many lives we’ve touched. It can be difficult to realize that the life we’re living is not equal to the dreams we once set simply because it has been better in some awfully important ways than anything we ever could have dreamed up in our sleepy adolescence.

The George Bailey who lives in the Hynes house has never found himself leaning over a bridge on a cold winter’s night. But he’s had his share of self-deprecation and frustration over the goals not yet achieved, or the material goods not yet affordable. I did not grow up to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, nor have I won a national teacher of the year award quite yet, nor published a dozen books before age 40.

And yet, when I look at my Mary – who, by the way, also plays the role of the angel in this family – I feel grounded and fulfilled in ways that feel an awful lot like the emotions George finds inside of him at the end of the film. When I see our children, and our family, and yes – of course – our many friends, I feel George’s joy along with him. It’s a joy of contentment, and of pride, and of deep gratitude.

“What’d you wish, George?”

“Well, not just one wish – a whole hatful. Mary, I know what I’m going to do
tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that.”

Here’s to the power of dreams. But more than that, here’s to the stunning beauty of the dreams we’ve fulfilled but not yet recognized. May the angels of our little worlds reveal them to us always.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Very Merry

We head out for a drive, and my wife pops in the new Bob Dylan Christmas CD. It’s Amy’s latest attempt at persuading me to listen to holiday music earlier in the season: Buy an album by one of my favorites, and dare me to turn it off. Smart move, of course. The music begins, and it’s a stunning sensory experience – the ol’ man’s craggy voice, playfully croaking out “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

This CD has been widely praised by music critics, but none of the reviews I read were written by a 7-year-old. Katie listens quietly for a moment, then offers her own critique: “Mommy, he sounds like he has to cough.”

Leave it to the babes to put it all in perspective. They are, after all, front and center this time of year. Whether it’s the holiday decorations, the letters to Santa, or – get this – the “Elf on the Shelf” who hops from one perch to another each night in our house, ‘tis the season for bringin’ out the wonder. (And spoiling them to the core as well, but that’s kind of a lost cause, especially when even Bob Dylan’s on board the sleigh.)

We try to let the merriment win out over the stress, but that can be hard when you’ve got an elf on your shelf. When Santa delivered this, it was designed in part to help an older sister who has been struggling in recent years to hold onto the magic. Katie’s had her doubts about the man in red, yet has also expressed a deep desire to believe. So when a little red elf appears on the entertainment center, with an accompanying book explaining that Santa has sent him to keep an eye out, the kid is fascinated at first. Until, of course, she lies down in the dark of her bedroom and sees the little guy’s big, brown eyes staring at her. She panics, and begins to cry.

“Why do we do this to her?” I ask Santa. “Don’t worry,” she says. The next day, Katie has rebounded nicely, naming the elf “Freddie,” declaring that he is a she, and asking us to buy a dress for the thing. Merry, indeed.

The joy of giving has long won out over the joy of receiving for Amy and me, and our favorite moments during this season always involve hosting friends, or shopping for others, or giving gifts. We’ve developed a little tradition in recent years of going out on Black Friday, at about 10 in the morning, to see if we can find a few deals. Shopping on the day after Thanksgiving is a lot like baseball’s free agent market at this time of year – there are a ton of potential purchases out there, some of them at really good prices. But still, you wonder, is it worth the money even if it’s 50 percent off?

We decide that the new Wii “Winter Sports” game, with two motion sensor devices thrown in, is worth $50, and so Amy now knows one of the gifts in her stocking. I tell her that the new Pearl Jam CD for $6.50 is a great deal, so there goes a drop in my stocking. We decide that three dispensers of Bath & Body Works antibacterial soap are not worth standing in a line 25 deep, even with the $10 sales price, especially considering the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against overusing antibacterial products in the home.

They are merry all right in Bath & Body Works – at least a hundred Black Friday shoppers, most of them women, smelling body wash and trying out hand-held massagers. Their voices, when jumbled together, sound something like Charlie Brown’s mother in the old Charles Schulz animated specials: “Whaaa … whaaa .. whaaa.” I take in the bustle for a moment, then begin to feel something akin to Katie’s feelings about Freddie, and bolt for the door.

It’s quieter in the car a day later, as we drive home from a Thanksgiving visit to Amy’s parents. The girls are watching a movie on the DVD player, while I pay attention to brake lights, speed limits and asphalt. As the movie ends, the girls watch the two principal characters kiss. Katie lets out a big ol’ second grade “Ewwwww.” Her 4-year-old sister, on the other hand, has a different take. “Katie, you know, someday we’ll be doing that too,” she says.

I manage, just barely, to keep the car on the road.

And so the holidays begin, with Dylan in need of some Ricola, Freddie popping up all around our house, the gifts piling up in the closet, and Chelsea talking with her sister about making out. She’s been chosen to play Mary for the preschool’s Christmas program, and the charming young boy who’s playing Joseph has been Chelsea’s “boyfriend” now for more than a year. She claimed him right away, and will no sooner give him up than she’ll relinquish the blanket she carries with her each day.

Should we worry about lovebirds in the stable? No, not yet. As she practiced her entrance into the church today, Chelsea happily skipped through the sanctuary, up to the manger. The preschool director asked: Chelsea, isn’t Mary supposed to be pregnant at this point? Chelsea nodded. True enough. Maybe a soft gallop next time.

It’s just so hard to hold back the merriment.