Sunday, December 12, 2010

Post-Chanukah blues (and reds, oranges, yellows and greens)

Last night, after I finished frying a tray’s worth of post-Chanukah potato latkes, I reached into the gleaming lights of the refrigerator – that bright, massive cavern filled with beautiful jars of jam, squares of white cheese, and bottles of sparkling water and wine – and pulled out a bowl, five inches in diameter, filled with pineapple sauce. The sauce, a golden heap of fruit that I had cooked down to a chunky custard of pineapple fibers, sugars and juices, seemed the right accompaniment for post-Chanukah deep fried potatoes, onions, eggs and whole wheat flour, thoroughly crisped in an inch of safflower oil. This was only the first course of a post-Chanukah dinner, which also featured red leaf lettuce in a mustardy vinaigrette and a pot of lentil, kale and vegan sausage stew. Chanukah was over and I was celebrating, several days after the fact.
I had already put away the menorah and the remnants of the fancy Chanukah candles my mother had purchased for me last year at TJ Maxx. Each slender candle had a beautiful twist of a secondary color winding its way from wick to base. Not lighting the menorah during a couple of nights (due to other obligations, of course) of Chanukah’s overextended tenure was the only reason a handful of candles remained. I made a note to myself that I need to pick out some new Chanukah candles for next year, and should start looking around soon at the after-holiday sales. I took the tray upon which the menorah had stood out of the freezer, where Brad had put it. He later told me it was there because a frozen ceramic plate apparently forces the wax to peel off with ease. I peeled the wax right off and scrubbed the tray and put it away.
In the other room. While I was cooking latkes in the kitchen and dealing with post-Chanukah cleanup, from around the corner, in the living room, came a subtle glow comprised of primary colors. The colors were muted, as if they were the coming from the back side of lanterns facing in different directions. This glow, in fact, was a result of my earlier efforts to string the large plastic faceted multicolor bulbs onto the Noble Fir, a Christmas tree I named Sigmund the Tree Monster. It towered above the remaining living room furniture, artwork, lamps and tables.
This is my first true Christmas tree that I feel I have ownership over. When I moved to Berkeley, my dear roommate Diane convinced me – it took no prodding, to be sure– to join her on an adventure to the Christmas Tree lot, just west of I-80, along the Berkeley Marina. The lot, which had transitioned from a pumpkin patch to a winter wonderland only a few weeks earlier, featured tree after tree, some flocked in spray-on California winter white and others seemingly artificial in their cone-like dimensions (Were they regular pines hacked to Christmas shapes, like the shrubbery down the street in the shape of a massive rabbit?). Children ran up and down the aisles and coaxed their siblings to talk to Santa or one of the elves working at the lot. Diane insisted that we buy a certain type of tree – as a Jew I could never tell the difference – and we found one of whatever tree that was (Pine? Cypress? Fir?). We asked the cheery young guy who worked there to hammer two boards crisscrossing each other in to the base, and put in on top of the car. As we pulled out of the Christmas tree lot, I rolled down the window to peer at the giant Frosty and Rudolph air-filled decorations. I saw the bouncy castle for small children, and the sparkle of Christmas lights in the foreground, with the twinkling lights of San Francisco and Sausalito across the bay, miles behind the lot. We drove the seven or eight blocks to our South Berkeley shared home and I realized just how much I had missed as a child: the Jewish kid whose only experience of getting a Christmas tree had been at Briar Vista Elementary School, when our teachers would walk our class into the forest behind the school (bringing along one of the custodians, who carried an axe and saw), and we would pick out a tree for the custodian to chop down and carry back our class. It sounds like something out of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood.
When we got to our home in Berkeley, Diane and I placed the tree in the corner to the right of the fireplace and she brought out one small box of ornaments. We put them on the tree. That was it: an enormous tree with a dozen small ornaments. So I went through my closet, and to the basement. I brought out some seashells and sand dollars, a couple of bones I found, and a few baseball caps and put them on the tree. Diane went into her room and pulled out some of her most colorful shoes. We hung them on the tree and admired what we had.
Eighteen years passed with no trees. And then this year, Brad and I went to a local Christmas tree lot after going to a local nursery, looking for Christmas trees. The nursery was expensive and the trees were not calling my name – each one seemed a little artificially shaped, with bits of white ooze (or paint?) at the end of each of the cut branches. These did not stir me and my first reaction was sorrow: “Brad, it’s almost as if they made the trees this shape artificially. We want a real tree.” Brad explained to me that they were real trees, but that all Christmas trees are artificially shaped. I disagreed and said I’ve seen Christmas tree farms with little trees creeping up from the soil in perfect conical Christmas shapes. Brad repeated his lesson to me: that Christmas trees don’t naturally grow in the shape of Christmas trees. I still think he’s wrong.
The Christmas tree lot across from the local nursery had trees lined up one after the next, distributed in long rows, marked in “departments” of trees: hand painted signs hawked Douglas Firs, Noble Firs, Green Pines, White Pines, some kind of pines, etc. But the magic of this Christmas lot was smeared by the mud of the drive and parking area, the men hustling for work to pick out trees for the people milling about, the sound of circular saws hacking trees to bits, and the five different men who approached and aggressively tried to steer us toward a magical tree of their choice. At one tree, I wandered over to peek at the odd shape of the branches and try to figure out how the top of the tree had somehow grown into a crook-like shape. With stubborn alacrity, I was immediately greeted by one of the hustling employees trying to show me the tree, pulling it forward from the fence. I told him not to pull it out, and that I was just trying to figure out what was going on with its weird hump. He gave me a nod and walked away.
We walked around the lot and saw the many trees that were still rolled up, waiting to have the wiry strings cut loose so they could be fluffed and displayed with the other trees that leaned on the fences, up and down the long aisles. We walked back to the third aisle of trees and two men where unfurling one of those that had been wrapped and tossed along the fence only a few minutes earlier. We watched as they snipped the last of the cords and pulled the tree out from its bindings. They shook the tree, spun it a little, slapped its behind, ran their hands up and down it, and left it leaning against the fence with the other upright trees. And there it was – our tree – born right in front of us. It was perfect: a beautiful shape, tall and green, a fresh smell. It was meant to be ours. The thuggish guy (did he just get out on parole?) picked it up and carried it to the gate and told us to follow. I stood there and paid the woman – with Brad’s credit card – a woman who seemed unable to add up the cost of one tree and 12 feet of garland: first too high and then too low. The various thugs thanked us for coming, as a Latino guy in a white Cadillac burned rubber trying to pull out the lot, unwilling to wait for us to finish shoving the tree into our truck.
The magic of the season. That was it, the magical moment that kicked off this Christmas season. We drove the tree home, squeezed it into the “pivoting tree holder,” wrapped it in those plastic faceted color lights and I walked into the kitchen to cook post-Chanukah latkes.


Jesse Costello-Good said...

Joey, we want some more blog posts from you. Where have you gone? We miss you!

Unknown said...

Nice Post...

Psychologist in Chennai

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