Second week…

I’m now into the second week of this long Christmas break. I’m quite sure I feel more relaxed, though probably no better rested than I did a few weeks ago. Lying about in bed or whiling away the hours snoozing on the couch aren’t really in my repertoire. The psychological imperative to “do something” is far too strong, even if that something is just tinkering around with truly minor repairs or sticking my nose in a book.

I’d usually spend this week chasing down new (old) books for the collection or running errands/tackling projects that are more involved than is convenient to fit into typical weekends. Life in a plague year has given me ample opportunity to take on those projects already – or at least the ones that don’t involve any specialized skills or abilities and therefore need to be farmed out. The search for books, of course, will have to wait for a bit yet, despite the almost overwhelming temptation to mask up and roll the dice. I could plug in some online orders to scratch that itch, but seeing them fall into the black hole of the US Postal Service for delivery God knows when feels like it would do the exact opposite of improving my sense of relaxation.

Probably more than anything else, what this two-week reset has done is reaffirm my firm belief that I’ll be beyond satisfied not schlepping to work (either in office or virtually) at the moment I reach that magical congruence of age, years of service, and fiscal sufficiency. Even here, in the belly of a plague year, when I can’t or opt not to do many of the things that I so heartily enjoy, time is better spent than it would be knocking together version fourteen of a random set of slides or flinging email into the bureaucratic void. 

The consistent thread…

By the time this post goes live, it will be 6:00 Christmas night. This Christmas was different, to be sure, but there was one consistent thread the connects this Christmas to all the others; I’ve arrived at Christmas night having consumed approximately 30,000 calories and feeling like whatever’s larger than a beached whale. 

My estimate of what would constitute a nice, reasonable Christmas dinner here on the homestead ended up being something more in line to feed a family of five while providing them ample leftovers for the weekend. Overkill? Most assuredly. Still, having all the right flavors felt like an important part of marking the holiday in a plague year.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be on the couch… or possibly the floor if I can’t make it all the way to the living room.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Diminishing supply. My to be read shelves are starting to look a bit picked over despite the regular trickle of online orders over the last nine months. Sure, there’s still an easy 400 or so lined up in the fiction section and another 150 in non-fiction, but the gaps that weren’t there when the Great Plague started are starting to be noticeable. I’d usually spend the week after Christmas casting net through used book stores and thrift shops in a geographical area that stretched north to south from Philadelphia to DC and east to west from Dover to Frederick. It’s the second of what are historically my two big, bulk buying weeks I’ve missed this year. I’m not at much risk of running short on reading material, but I do miss the hunt – and finding the occasional rare-ish first edition, or signed copy, or the one long out-of-print volume I need to make the set. Book shops are probably a low threat environment, eminently suited for social distancing, but every trip out increases the chance of being exposed unnecessarily. With vaccines now ramping up to full rate production and being shipped out by the millions, it feels like a stupid time to force old patterns to fit present circumstances. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

2. Staying put. As I sit here finalizing this post, it’s Christmas Eve morning. Tomorrow will be the first Christmas in 42 years I won’t wake up in the shadow of Savage Mountain. Like a salmon driven by thousands of generations of history to swim back up stream to the gravel beds where they were born, the trip home for Christmas was as inviolable part of my yearly calendar no matter where in the country I found myself living. Staying put this year is absolutely the right decision… even though there’s a deep, primordial part of my brain is screaming that something is wrong.

3. Shipping. I ordered a book from a shop in Indiana on the 7th of December. It shipped out on the 10th. It pinged in various places on the 12th and 13th before coming to rest in York, Pennsylvania in the 19th, where according to the helpful USPS tracking website it hasn’t been seen since. By contrast, the package I currently have in transit from southern Sweden was picked up by UPS on December 22nd and flown through the night across the Atlantic bloody Ocean. It arrived in Philadelphia, and cleared customs on the 23rd, was driven overnight to New Castle, Delaware and now, on the 24th, is loaded on a truck for delivery. I absolutely paid more for the UPS delivery than I did for the package shipped through the postal service, but if that’s the cost of actually getting what you order in a timely manner, it’s a price I’ll happily pay. I fully understand that things ordered in December sometimes take a bit longer than usual to arrive, but come on, man.

Excess free time…

Being on leave at the moment, I’m living in a bit of a strange gray area – somewhere between paying attention to what’s happening in the broader world and not. The further I slide into this little vacation-in-place, the more “and not” that area takes up. Dispensing ear scratches, fiddling around the house, and the mountain of books I live with are slowly expanding to take up all the available white space. It’s hardly the worst way I’ve spent my time.

It would be easy enough to slip back into a mode of ranting about the president, or Congress, or the Great Plague. The closest thing I’ve come to that, though, is occasionally kicking a hornet’s nest on Twitter just to see what kind of reaction I can gin up. It’s a mildly entertaining way to pass the time. As it turns out, according to anti-vax / plague deniers on that particular platform, I’m a damned dirty commie who should shut my stupid mouth. Like I said, it’s entertaining enough, but not exactly an intellectual challenge. I am learning to appreciate their furious thrashing when I only respond to them using gifs, though.

I know I shouldn’t be using this time to feed the trolls, but honestly, I just can’t help myself. There are some honest to God issues in the world, but getting your blood pressure up on the internet doesn’t feel like a way to solve any of them. I’m sure the novelty will wear off in the next couple of days.

It’s a good thing the books and animals are always standing by to fill in as much of the excess free time as comes along. I mean I could finally get around to filling the 852 nail holes the previous owner left in the walls here on the homestead… but since that project has been on the list for five years and hasn’t gotten done yet, chances aren’t so good for it making the cut.

From me, to me…

I’ve reached an age when I occasionally wake up in the middle of the night when I inevitably have too many tasty libations too late in the evening. Usually, it’s a quick trip there and back where I’d barely qualify as being awake. Most of the time it doesn’t feel like my sleep has even been interrupted. Fine. It’s an inconvenience of getting a bit older I’ve mostly learned to accept. Well, not accept exactly. Maybe tolerate for lack of other options… and unwillingness to curtail my after dinner “hydration.” 

There’s the rare night when the return to sleep doesn’t happen immediately. Usually that’s resolved with a quick scroll through Twitter or calling up the dulcet tones of whatever BBC World Service presenter happens to be broadcasting at the time. A few minutes later and I’m happily back to sleep.

As it happens, Monday was one of those nights where I woke up. It must have been around 2:15. I know this because that’s the time stamp of the email receipt from Amazon… from that moment in my sleep addled mind I decided that I needed a shave ice machine.

Awake me would definitely not have ordered a $60 countertop appliance designed solely and exclusively for turning ice cubes into shards, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t recognize how having one would raise my level of frozen drink making to a new level. Yes, I could just send it back, but now I’m intrigued. I think I’m just going to write it off as a Christmas present from my subconscious. 

It gets here Friday, so I’ll be over here looking for frozen drink recipes if anyone needs me. 

Christmas pud…

Christmas pudding, or plum pudding as it’s always been called around my family table, as far as I’m concerned, is the definitive flavor of Christmas. It’s the treat that’s topped off every Christmas night for as long as I can remember.

It’s a dish so rich and tasty that the regicide Puritan and traitor Oliver Cromwell banned it in the 1650s. It’s dessert made with beef fat and a host of other sweet and savories, so you know it’s bound to be good, right?

I’ve mostly come to terms with the idea that I won’t be making my traditional Christmas trip home. Schlepping across the plague lands to a place that’s recently made it into the New York Times as having one of the highest positivity rates in the country feels like a bad idea, regardless of the justification. It’s a tradition I care deeply about, but when pitted directly against my instinct for self-preservation doesn’t really stand a chance. 

While I’ve settled myself on the idea not being home for Christmas, I realized quite late in the game that I don’t have the skill (or time) to make a proper pud on my own. Having a plum pudding to serve up on Christmas night, though, is a tradition I simply am not willing to forego even in the face of global plague. Fortunately, our friends across the water in the mother country are happy to drop one in the post and have it flown over. If the tracking is to be believed, it should be here tonight or tomorrow.

Now all I’ll have to do is manage the vanilla sauce and some semblance of proper Christmas tradition can proceed uninterrupted in spite of taking place in an alternate venue. For 2020, that’s probably doing alright. 

Absolute rubbish…

As we trundle towards the middle of December, we’re almost constantly reminded that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” 

Who came up with that nonsense? It’s cold. It’s dark all the damned time. For about two weeks people pretend they’re not truly insufferable douchebags the other fifty weeks of the year.  We collectively ignore all evidence to the contrary and insist that the vast sweep of human history on this planet has anything at all to do with peace and goodwill.

I don’t care about most of that, really. I can deal with the cold. I can tolerate fake ass people. God knows I’ve got enough experience at that. I don’t mind the snow or ice when it comes right down to it. 

It’s the fact that I’m sitting here at 10:00 AM on a Wednesday and the sun, shining through my home office window, is now nearly at its zenith for the day – and that means by the time I turn around again it’s going to be headed back towards the far horizon and it will be nearly dark by the time I shut the lid on my laptop for the day. Everything else is marginally annoying, but it’s the 27 minutes of non-work time daylight that makes this wonderful time of year excruciating. 

With the exception of knowing that the solstice is fast approaching and we’ll start adding precious minutes of daylight soon, this is just an absolute rubbish time of year and that’s absolutely a hill I’m willing to die on.

Two paths to a “good” December…

It’s the last day of November. That’s important for a couple of reasons – not the least of which is it means I only have 17 work days between me and a glorious 16-day weekend. That’s sixteen days to stow my laptop and neither schlep to the office nor work from home. It’s two weeks and change of just hanging out. Let me tell you, friends, even in a plague year that’s already been filled with time at home, I’m kind of living for the long end of the year time off.

Even if my standard two-week Christmas vacation wasn’t in the offing, there’s actually a different, and possibly mor important date fast approaching. The 11th of December won’t stand out to anyone who doesn’t draw a check from Uncle Sam, but that’s the date most of the federal government runs out of money and would be forced into another shutdown. 

Look, I have no idea what a government shutdown would look like in a plague year, but hey, what’s one more bit of fuckery in the mix? With a mostly useless congress and a president who clearly has no interest in governing (and has a propensity for last minute tantrum throwing), it feels possible, even if not likely, that we could have a as much as 40-day break between funds running out and the new president taking office. Even though Congress seems to be working to stave off the possibility, it remains a wildcard.

Now I’m not saying I’m rooting for a crippling Christmas themed government shutdown amidst a rising tide of plague… but hey, if it happens, I won’t be marching in the streets or anything. Obviously, everyone’s circumstances are different, but I should be able ride out a 40-day shutdown without resorting to cat food and tree bark soup… and from that perfectly selfish perspective, more than a month just dicking around the house hardly sounds like the worst thing in the world. 

That’s true at least if precedent is followed, meaning there will be back pay for the shutdown and they’ll restore the two weeks of pre-scheduled leave that got overwritten by the closure and add it in my bucket of vacation time for 2021. If a shutdown happens without those two key components, then I might just be tempted to take to the streets after all.

My eyes are firmly on the calendar for the next couple of weeks, either way.

The white tree of memory…

Every Christmas season for my entire childhood, there was a white ceramic Christmas tree given pride of place in my grandparent’s front widow. When I say I remember it, what I mean is if I sit here and close my eyes, I can see it plain as day sitting atop the console record player and flanked, most years, by electric candles (with orange bulbs) and a panoply of Christmas-themed ceramic figurines.

In my mind there’s no more iconic symbol of Christmas in the back half of the 20th century than these plug-in trees. As it turns out, while I’ve always had this memory of the holidays, I’ve now also reached the age where I’m low key obsessed with recapturing those objects from my youth that trigger the most powerfully positive memories.

I’d like to say I scoured the planet to acquire exactly the version of the tree that I remember – the vintage, not tampered with, undamaged, tree of my memory. Actually, I did scour the planet. And I did find the exact tree that I remember. As much of a premium as I place on authenticity, though, I balked at the $400 + shipping securing that particular bit of my childhood would have required. I’ll keep looking, of course, and now that I’m on the hunt, it’ll turn up at an estate sale or flea market somewhere once I start going to those again.

In the meantime, since it’s the day after Thanksgiving (and for the record, that’s the only acceptable day to light up the Christmas decorations), I’ll be making due with a modern, and slightly larger, version of my white tree of memory.

On Christmas music in a plague year…

I’m not a traditional “Christmas music” guy. In fact just about the only time I intentionally listen to Christmas music at all is during the holiday migration to Western Maryland from wherever in the country I happen to be living at the time. My Christmas playlist is approximately one hour and four minutes in length and features such luminary artists as Blink 182, Reliant K, Bad Religion, and The Pogues.

The only reason I mention it is that this morning I saw a Twitter post opining that “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” in all its variations should be cancelled this year due to the Great Plague.

I’m pretty sure our friendly twitter poster was going for the quick laugh, but missed the entire point of this particular song. Bing Crosby recorded the original version in 1943 at the height of World War II. American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines were posted up around the globe, and most assuredly dreaming of being home for Christmas, as democracy waged its desperate, existential battle with the forces of fascism.

According to the Library of Congress, “It touched a tender place in the hearts of Americans, both soldiers and civilians, who were then in the depths of World War II, and it earned Crosby his fifth gold record. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific and Yank, the GI magazine, said Crosby accomplished more for military morale than anyone else of that era.”

If ever there was a song fitting for Christmas in a plague year, this would be the one.

So, in conclusion, cancel culture really is stupid on its face.