The holidays usually do for this Curmudgeon about the same as alcohol does for the denizens of the local bar. Just as a few drinks will make a sad person despondent and a happy person euphoric, the holidays generally turn my normally only irascible and churlish view of human society into a nasty and vitriolic hostility. But perhaps not this year. My family has all embarked to New York for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, where my son’s high school band is marching for the eighth time in its rather limited history (going all the way back to 1976). So I get half a week as a sort of bachelor, with no requirement to endure the awkwardness of gathering around a big feast among people with whom the only thing I have in common is a genetic or legally-recognizable relationship.
My mother’s passing this summer means that Christmas won’t involve the utter dread and trepidation I’d always felt in anticipation of the Christmas day family gathering at her house. She spent the last twenty years of her life infusing my natal family with her hatred for me, but I endured it because I wanted to do better by my kids than she did by hers. I hardly knew my grandmother on my mother’s side (she was the the only one with whom I had genes in common, as I was adopted at age four by my dad and my mom was a bastard who never knew her own dad) because my mother hated her own mother, and pretended as if she didn’t exist. It was only for the kids to know their grandmother that I endured that side of my family, and now that my mother’s gone, even if the remnants (my three sisters and their families and my dad) decide to continue the banal tradition, they can do it without me. I have another excuse for skipping the event–a confrontation with my nephew (26 years old, even if still a child in every respect of the word) at my mother’s funeral. Out of the blue, he told me that I should leave the graveside service–that nobody wanted me there. He really has no idea how close he came to getting the living shit beat out of him that day, but as I’ve done time and again when mother’s hench men (mainly two of my sisters, one of whom was his mother) did her dirty work for her, I restrained myself, this time mostly out of respect for the proceedings. But that’s the last time anyone from that side of the family will ever get away with something like that. If I were to see him again, I don’t know how bad my lack of impulse control might get. Because he’s really not worth going to jail over, I’ll be avoiding any further contact with him, which in practical terms means I’m finished with family gatherings of that clan. Hallelujah.
All in all, it means I’m feeling positively giddy about this holiday season.
The Homewood High School band to which my son belongs has almost 350 members, which is to say, over a third of Homewood High’s students march in the band. It is a life-consuming and all-encompassing exercise to have a child in the band. Or it can be. It isn’t for me, because I refuse to get involved. I rather consider the band more of a cult than an ordinary extracurricular student activity. Every day I get at least two or three e-mails from the band leadership exhorting me to contribute my time to help uphold the band’s great traditions by sewing buttons on uniforms, or selling hot dogs in the concession stands, or whatever, blah, blah, blah. The parents are asked to do all the heavy lifting for the band, so that it can achieve its goal of…what, I’m not sure. Marching in the Macy’s parade, again? The band proclaims itself the biggest and best band in the state of Alabama. Perhaps it is the biggest at the moment (I don’t think anyone actually compiles such statistics), but a goodly number of students will likely drop out after this year when there’s no Macy’s parade to compel participation (the band’s been doing the parade about once every four years, so it’ll be another three or four before it goes back). But by what objective standard can a band proclaim itself to be the best? The scoreboards of the football games in which the bands march do not change at halftime after their performances. Alas, at Homewood High, and in the local community, there are a great many folks who believe that the point of a football game is to provide a stage for the band to perform, and for cheerleaders to lead cheers, and for preening big wigs to see and be seen. I don’t know if things were like that when I was in high school. Since I played on the football team, the whole point of a football game, at least for me, was winning the game. I never even saw a high school band’s halftime performance until many years later and my son joined the cult, er, band. And frankly, I don’t figure I was much deprived for having missed them. If marching band performances at half-time are so great, how come you never see much of any of them on television when watching a college game? Exactly.
The high school’s colors and mascot are fashioned, to the point of trademark infringement, after those of the New England Patriots (the football helmets have the identical logo as the NFL’s Patriots have on theirs). Which is sort of appropriate for the community in which the band is situated, where the streets have names like Mayfair, Roxbury, Kensington, etc. The community was founded in the early twentieth century by mid-level managers, bureaucrats and technocrats working in the booming new steel industry in the city just to its north, Birmingham, which is itself named after the city in England. Birmingham’s steel industry titans were all from the industrial Northeast, and so relating their new steel colony in the South to old England made sense. Doing so at once provided a history and an aspiration that the place had never had. Because Homewood High is the “Patriots”, and the band dresses in uniforms inspired by the American Revolution, all the way down to the tri-point hat, you can bet that they specialize in patriotic songs, like the two they’re doing for the parade–You’re a Grand Old Flag and Yankee Doodle. At least they aren’t proclaiming that their patriotic fervor is meant to show their support for the troops, or some other such nonsense (or at least haven’t yet). But still, going to a Friday night football game at Homewood High is like a change of command ceremony on a military post, with parades and ceremonial flag-raisings and lowerings, the national anthem and taps, etc. With the flourish of militarism attendant to the ceremonies, the actual football game seems almost pacifist. Alas, the last few years, the school’s football team seems to have captured the martial spirit of its surroundings, and has performed about as well as those at the service academies.
I watch too much football, all of it, except for those Friday night games at the high school, on TV. So I see way too many commercials. Most of them are banal, or just plain stupid, like the Cialis commercials where, after that special moment arrives (presumably, an erection?) the man and woman end up sitting in separate bathtubs situated next to each other, holding hands across the space between them. I’ve done the nasty in a lot of different places, but never in two separate bathtubs. How exactly is that supposed to work? Some rare few of the commercials are good, like the Chevy pick-up truck commercial where the guys keep searching for a place where their cell phones won’t reach so they can truly get away from it all. Clever. Some few make me want to puke. Like the iPhone 4S commercial where a woman asks her phone to tell her how her day looks, and the phone responds, “Not bad, you only have two meetings today.” Are you kidding me? We’re now letting phones subjectively decide the value of our days? What if the two meetings she had were with a cancer doctor and a funeral parlor, because she knew the meeting with the cancer doctor was over his plan for her palliative care? Is that a “not bad” day, Mr. iPhone 4s? Even humans have a tough time evaluating the value of the days of their lives. Are we really so stupid as to believe a phone–an artifact of human creation–could do it better? Perhaps the Apple geniuses believe the cosmic value of a human life is easily resolved via a cleverly-designed algorithm. I deign to disagree.
If the meaning and purpose of life is lunch, as I’ve explained numerous times, then Thanksgiving captures the essence of life’s meaning and purpose quite beautifully. Or it perhaps would, if there were some pre-gluttony deprivation to make one appreciate the bounty laid before them. In this age in America where a great many people don’t even know how a hunger pang feels (if their waistlines are any clue to the amount and intensity of hunger pangs they suffer) how can tucking into a meal that’s only just a bit more gargantuan than what is already regularly consumed operate as an expression of thankfulness? It’s time the holiday tradition were changed from gluttony to deprivation. Make Thanksgiving Day a day of fasting. Only then might it be possible to appreciate the bounty that this land and our efforts have laid before us. Then the Black Friday Bacchanalia can also involve the acquisition of food, along with the trinkets and baubles ordinarily purchased, making it even more decadent.
I wonder if the Christians in this land get the irony attendant to the fact that “Black Friday” has made it into the popular lexicon as denominating the big shopping day after Thanksgiving? The original Black Friday was Christ’s crucifixion. It only became “good” with the passage of time and the perspective it allowed. The reigning American theology (in practice, if not profession) of acquisitive consumerism has adopted “Black Friday” as the name for its most important day, ostensibly the day when American retailers first start making money each year (in the black). Now every economist and business journalist nervously tallies Black Friday receipts to see if the parishioners are dutifully paying their tithes and submitting their offerings such that the temple priests (i.e., the capitalists) can keep adding to their piles of cash in a manner that indicates growth in the economy. If you are Christian, it ought to be somewhat offensive that a secular theology like acquisitive consumerism has adopted as its own a name that originated with Christ’s crucifixion. I think I would consider it mildly blasphemous. And if you are Christian, then of course, you already know that there can be no other gods (like consumer trinkets and baubles) before the Holy Trinity, and that Christ instructed his followers to live in the world but not of it, so you should be immune, possibly even disgusted, at the consumerist mania that is Black Friday. I would imagine that part of what the retailers give thanks for on the day preceding Black Friday has something to do with how few of the Christians that profess the faith actually follow it.
With that, Happy Thanksgiving, from the Curmudgeon. Now, I’ve got some bachelor living to go do.