Hi! It's R. Eric Thomas. From the internet?
This week: Politically charged holiday dishes and Martha rides an Uber.
If you are about to go through premarital counseling, or if you know anyone who is, please make sure your therapist or religious leader spends at least one entire session on styles and methodologies of Christmas tree decorating. When I become a charlatan relationship guru with my own afternoon talk show, I will spend half the season yelling at couples about the ways their holiday preparations styles diverge and what to do about it. "On the next episode: one of these judys loves garland; the other has a crush on the creche. Will they ever find common ground?! Should they just get divorced?!! I don't know! I have no training in this at all! Tune in!"
As you may be aware, I'm someone who has a lot of opinions. Please take all the time you need to recover from the shock of this statement. And, naturally, those opinions extend to holiday decoration. Or, at least, they used to. I was very into the winter holidays for most of my 20s, planning out theme colors for my trees, drinking my weight in egg nog lattes, hosting holiday cabarets and burlesque shows, you know, the usual. But for probably six or seven years now my enthusiasm for the holidays has been steadily waning. I used to get a lot of energy from all the extraness, the extreme planning, the way you just bring a living tree into your house like it's a normal thing, put that tree in drag, and then try to keep that living tree alive through sheer force of will. Once, in college, I auditioned for a variety show wearing battery-operated Christmas lights and singing The Drifters' version of White Christmas. The variety show was not holiday-themed. It took place in April. They were like, "Please devote your time to anything other than comedy and/or entertainment." I was like, "Hear you loud and clear. Next year I'll sing a Kwanzaa song and tell knock-knock jokes!"
Anyway, I've been pretty Grinchy for a long time. And when I met David I was initially thrown by his enthusiasm for the holidays. He reminded me of me, which was disconcerting because if he was me, who was I? Was I also me? Should I call myself by my name? What child is this?
The first year we were dating, David decided we should go get a tree together, which sounded romantic and very Instagrammable. Because I am a city person, I assumed this meant going to a Christmas tree lot a few blocks away. Because David is the only person to successfully complete The Oregon Trail game, he assumed this meant driving an hour out of the city to a Christmas tree farm. I was like, "And then what?" He was like, "then we cut it down." I was like, "With whose hands? Is there an ax involved? And does anyone know what child this is?!"
We brought the tree back to David's apartment and set about decorating it. And that's where the trouble started. David is an interior light-stringer; he likes the tree to emanate a glow from within. I am an exterior light-stringer; I like everything on the surface--there is no tree; there is only light. This probably says a lot about our personalities but we won't know until we reveal the test results on my talk show. Since the tree was in his apartment, I acquiesced and watched as he careful stuffed the lights into the recesses of the tree. I had to admit it was an understated delight. Which was wild to me because I was not aware that delight could be understated. Christmas: a time for learning.
Next was the ornaments. David has a lot of sentimental ornaments and this felt very much in my wheelhouse as my parents' tree is also very sentimental ornament-heavy. We have our basic colored orbs (orbs of color) but every year the tree is dominated more and more by the souvenir ornaments, the photo ornaments from various weddings and gatherings, the handmade ornaments by kids at various ages, and other glittery knickknacks. I don't yet have sentimental ornaments. Perhaps it was part of my descent into Grinchery, but the trees I'd decorated in the past had been very strictly themed--one or two colors, a central idea, no room for the personal. They were show pieces and I'm okay with that. I think having a showpiece tree is an essential part of becoming a Holi-gay or Christmas Mom, and those were both my goals. But if everything is on the surface, to be looked at rather than experienced, the whole endeavor starts to feel rather empty.
I didn't really understand how to get the family tree that I'd grown up with, with the years of memories and the mishmash of styles, on my own. So, instead I decorated trees like they were department store windows. "This year's theme is Cement and Aluminum. It's stark; it's daring; it's a comment on post-industrial cities; it will give you tetanus if you touch it! So chic!"
At David's apartment, I set about to exploring that lit from within lifestyle. I reached into a box of ornaments and pulled out a red British telephone booth. He told me he'd gotten it in London and launched into a story about his time there and the hotel he stayed in and the plays he saw and a whole branch of his life spilled out from one porcelain object dangling from my fingers. As I listened, I placed it on a branch and reached back into the box for another. David's voiced trailed off. I looked up at him. His eyes darted from me to the ornament and back again. "What?" I said. "It's just..." he sighed. "This doesn't really go there." He plucked the telephone booth from the branch and moved it to another branch.
Oh excuse me! I was like, "I'll let you take care of the rest of this," and plopped down on the couch to post Instagrams of how much fun we were having while I pouted. What was so hilarious about the moment (in retrospect) was that David was acting exactly the way I normally act. I was like "How are you going to treat me like I treat other people? Where are we, the Upside-Down? And what child is this?!"
That was years ago and though I tease him about it now, it's actually a memory I sort of cherish (he says as he writes about it to the internet). On Friday, we ventured out to Valley View Farms, a local Christmas tree farm/holiday village that my parents used to take us to when we were little. This place has everything: rows and rows of ornaments, creches, bows, baubles, and greens. This is the crown jewel of the glitter industrial complex. There is a whole segment for ornaments about people's jobs: nurse ornaments, fire fighter ornaments, phlebotomist ornaments. The big thing this year seems to be peacock trees, so there was a whole peacock ornament aisle. I resisted the urge to hijack our plans and stage my own peacock tree. But soon. SOON.
The Wine Mom section of ornaments is right next to the God Bless America ornament section, which is both a metaphor and an answer to a question. There was a tiny section with black Santas, next to the Mexican ornaments, which... sure, okay. It was so much and we had a great time sorting through it all (while I posted photos of Nativity Sets in which the wise men were, inadvertently, done up like drag queens).
We definitely did not cut down the tree ourselves and we definitely paid someone to tie it to the top of my car. We settled on base colors (red and gold) and decided that any sentimental ornament, regardless of the color, could go up. I deferred to him on placement while reserving veto power. We strung lights inside and outside. We played the soundtrack to The Preacher's Wife (my favorite Christmas album of all time) followed by Sufjan Stevens Silver and Gold (do I have to tell you whose choice this was?) while having small negotiations about what our tree would look like, what would make a happy memory, and how we'd do it together.
This week, a couple of pieces on festive togetherness! Martha Stewart deigns to take an Uber for the first time and it does not go well; and I suggest dishes that will help you bring up politics at Thanksgiving.
A Pie with 232 Blueberries and 200 Cranberries: Your family may not notice that this pie reflects the new configuration of the House of Representatives after what was unequivocally a blue wave, so you'll need to subtly remind them by saying "This pie reflects the new configuration of the House of Representatives after what was unequivocally a blue wave." If you're really feeling saucy, feel free to launch into a discussion of gerrymandering while you're cutting the slices. This recipe is fine if you mix the berries together, but will pack even more of a punch if you make 46 percent of the pie cranberries and 54 percent of it blueberries. How will you construct this? I don't know! This isn't a cooking blog. This is America. [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
Martha, to put it lightly, wasn't here for any parts of this. There's something so relatable about one of the richest celebs experiencing the same trials as us normals. Of course, her ride-share issues came after a glamorous breakfast at Tiffany's and ours come while trying to avoid surge pricing at last call, but same diff. And like all of the rest of us, she chose to document her experience on social media. After all, what is social media for if not complaining about bad customer service experiences for the benefit of a bunch of people who just started following us for our food porn and now are stuck on this journey of constant retail disappointment? [READ THE FULL COLUMN]
Booked and Busy
I spend so much time looking at various screens, that I really relish the opportunity to read something printed on paper. Even my Kindle, the old-school one that is just words on a screen and not a backlit, eye-tiring mini-iPad, doesn't inspire the same peaceful joy in me as holding a text and turning a page. We have, literally, thousands of books, however, so I really need to get my life together vis-a-vis bringing any more printed pages into the house that aren't property of a library system. I've been making use of the Baltimore County Public Library and the Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore City, two places that saved my life and transformed my world as a child and young adult and continue to expand my horizons while saving my wallet and the shelves of my personal bookcase. But every once in a while, something comes along that you need to read right now because everybody is talking about it and it seems essential. That's the way I felt this week about Garth Greenwell's short story "The Frog King" in The New Yorker. I knew the magazine was on its way to my house in print form, but I felt tempted all week to click on the link and just read it on my phone like I do so many other things. I knew the libraries wouldn't have the mag any sooner than I did and so I had to do that thing we so rarely have to do anymore: I waited. And it was worth it, if only for the ceremony of the thing. I curled up under a blanket last night, and picked up the print version of the New Yorker, and let myself enjoy words on pages. I let my eyes rest and let my heart fill up with Greenwell's extraordinary prose. Obviously, I recommend this story of love and travel and compromise and the small negotiations of being in relationship with another person any way you can get it--on paper, on screen, or even read aloud by the author himself.
The Frog King by Garth Greenwell, The New Yorker
Let's Hang Out
The Moth DC Grand Slam at the Lincoln Theater, November 28
The Moth DC Story Slam at the Miracle Theater, December 6
The Moth DC Story Slam at City Winery DC, December 17
Random Thing From the Internet
For some reason, I decided to read Leona Helmsley's obituary from August 2007 on Thanksgiving morning and then regale my family with half-remembered details from her life at Thanksgiving dinner. I'm a nightmare.
DOES ANYBODY KNOW WHAT CHILD THIS IS?