Give me a winter wonderland over a wonderful Christmastime

The Jewish community is owed a debt of gratitude from anyone who celebrates Christmas. It’s no secret that many of the classic carols we’re all so fond of were written by Jewish men and women. Some of the standouts are “The Christmas Song” so often sung by choirs, “Winter Wonderland,” which has invoked many a dream by the fire, and oh by golly “Holly Jolly Christmas,” among many others.

They’re the songs we hum absent-mindedly when we do the dishes, brush our teeth, and fold laundry. This year “Holly Jolly Christmas” has been on a permanent loop in my head. It’s replaced every now and then but before I realize it, I’m back to “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

I dare say that many of the carols written by Jewish composers are better than the carols written by non-Jewish composers. I have a theory.

Jewish songwriters have the distance necessary to write about the beautiful side of the season. If you haven’t had to wait in line for an hour juggling presents while you shrivel up like a raisin in your winter coat, the hustle and bustle of the season might look appealing.

Who can deny the magic of twinkly lights during the darkest time of year? It looks magical, especially if you haven’t stood outside freezing on your porch attempting to unravel a string of lights in the dark while balancing on a wonky ladder. Then, when they’re finally perfectly placed around the porch, and they’re plugged in you discover half the lights are “cool” white (also known as bluish) and half are “warm” white (also known as yellowish). Who knew there were so many different whites?

There are few things less romantic than packing up all the decorations, sweeping up pine needles, and lugging everything back down to the basement once it’s all over. It’s like a mini-move every December.

There are no songs about that, yet. I’m waiting for one though. Songwriters from a Christmas tradition of one kind or another—Christian or secular—have written some miserable holiday songs.

That wasn’t true before electricity and shopping malls. There are lots of great carols written by Christians in the 1700s and 1800s—“Joy to the World,” “O Holy Night,” and “Silent Night,” to name but a few. After that though things get dodgy.

Two of the carols that make me grimace when they come on the radio—and they always do—are “Last Christmas” by Wham! and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney.

“Last Christmas” is just so sappy it gives me a stomachache much like the ones I get when I drink too much white wine with too many brownies.

“Last Christmas I gave you my heart/But the very next day you gave it away…” That’s some speedy regifting and I think I know why.

The lonely misery of “Last Christmas” is reflected in a lot of holiday songs now.

Besides the depressing songs there’s also the just plain awful.

Few lyrics illustrate the joy of having a wonderful Christmas time better than, “Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding/Oo-oo-oo-oo/Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo/Doo-doo, doo-doo, doo, doo.”

To be fair that’s the worst of it. Here’s the best, “The mood is right, the spirit’s up/We’re here tonight and that’s enough/ Simply having a wonderful Christmastime/Simply having a wonderful Christmastime.” Virtually Shakespearean.

It sounds like Paul McCartney wrote this one on a scotch-infused bar napkin 10 minutes before heading into the studio. We know you can do better Sir.

“Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues is super-depressing but not because it’s poorly written. The first verse hits me with a wallop every time I hear it.

It was Christmas Eve, babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me
“Won’t see another one”
And then he sang a song
“The Rare Old Mountain Dew”
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

It’s a whole lot grittier than “Silver Bells,” which was written by a Jewish composer, and encompasses the most idealized version of Christmas, the one I’ve been chasing since I was a child but that always eludes me.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas
Children laughing, people passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you hear

Silver bells, silver bells…

With so many brilliant Jewish composers I wonder what kind of Hanukkah songs there are. Other than Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” I don’t know any. Maybe Jewish songwriters don’t bother because Hanukkah songs will be drowned out by the mainstream rotation of Christmas jewels like “Last Christmas.”

That’s likely part of it but I think my theory translates into Hebrew. When I walk by a menorah partially lit up in a window I imagine the potato latkes and jam-filled donuts laid out on the table and the people inside laughing and celebrating. I get a warm feeling. From my spot outside it’s so easy to romanticize the holiday.

But I’ve never experienced the stress of being one candle short on day eight. I’ve never dealt with the frustration of matches that break as I strike them.

And there’s all that cooking in oil and gift buying and prep just to get to the good stuff. It starts to feel familiar when I see it that way.

Holidays in general are a respite from the afflictions that follow us all. Perhaps there’s no better way to be transported somewhere magical than through music.

When I catch myself singing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” I remember sitting cross-legged, knee to knee, in the hallways of Bala Avenue Public School as we sang morning carols during the days leading up to Christmas. This is when we saw a different side of our teachers as they stood up front dancing and being goofy.

And when I find myself humming “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” I’m extra grateful for what these songs evoke. The warmth of my childhood home, the windows steamed up, as my grandmother boiled the Christmas pudding for eight hours—the pot lid bouncing and clanging.

I can see my grandmother standing on the arm of the couch, tying our tree to a nail in the wall with cord she’d “hide” with tinsel.

I get to travel back to stringing porch lights with my grandfather, his toque askew in the dark, our only light streaming from the living room window. “You hold this,” he’d say, placing one end of the row of lights in my mittened hand.

Those songs take me to places I can’t reach easily without them. They take me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go, until I’m there. It’s always the gifts you didn’t know you wanted that are best.








Putting the fun in funeral

I’ve started thinking about my funeral. I’m not at the point where I’m thinking about it in a morbid kind of way but more as an event-planning exercise.

I have to confess, I’m hoping this doesn’t turn into a tragically ironic post. You know the kind where I talk about my funeral, insist I’m healthy and have decades of duck-feeding time ahead of me, and then die 10 minutes later.

If that does happen and you end up at my funeral, don’t talk about this post. I’m not a huge fan of irony.

And now I’ve just doubled the irony quotient. So don’t talk about how I didn’t want you to talk about this post.

I think it’s important to get things squared away at this stage in my life because you never know what might happen. Any number of things could wipe me out; I’m not going to name any possibilities—see the irony factor above.

But if I expire unexpectedly and I haven’t written down my wishes, the next thing I know I could be facing eternity wearing those flamingo slippers I thought were soooo hilarious, because my family thinks that’s what I would have wanted.

You hear that phrase a lot at funerals: “That’s what she would have wanted.” It’s usually said by a kindly aunt who is positive the deceased would have wanted her hair done up in a proper beehive and a shrine to apple-pie candles placed near the coffin. “She just loved that band the B-52s and we used to get her those scented candles for Christmas every year, she adored them.”

Meanwhile, her friends are walking past the casket thinking, “Did the mortuary-makeup artist get here in a time machine? And what’s that smell? It smells like my grandmother’s apron after it caught fire that time.”

I want to avoid that.

If you Google fun funerals one of the first images that comes up is a casket carried by clowns. Is that actually fun?

There are all kinds of themed funerals including Star Wars where Storm Troopers march behind the casket. Dessert is a theme too. A sign reading “Life is short, eat dessert first” encourages the grieving to munch on an RIP gravestone-shaped sugar cookie.

An Ohio man in his 80s named Bill Standley wanted to be buried on his Harley-Davidson, so his over-size plexiglass coffin was hitched to a truck with Standley perched atop his beloved hog so he could have one last ride as the procession went to the cemetery (watch a clip HERE).

Of course Pinterest is all over the do-it-yourself funeral crafts, like memorial photo necklaces and tips on how to make memory jars surrounded by twinkly lights and rocks with inspirational sayings on them.

In case there’s any confusion, I don’t want any of this. I don’t know exactly what I want, but I do know this: no plodding and dull farewell full of organ music. And no sing-song-rhymey-Hallmark-card poetry.

There will be a dress code too. No black, grey, navy or brown. Surely it’s not too much to ask people to wear something festive even if it’s February. I don’t want some kind of tracksuit affair but maybe the men could leave their suit jackets in the car. They usually look like awkward children wearing suit jackets their parents figured they would grow into and I feel sorry for them. Middle-aged men may grow bigger but their arms don’t get any longer.

A summer funeral has loads of possibilities, there could be a waterslide and old-timey fair games like the one where you throw a plastic ball into the goldfish bowl and win the goldfish.

I have a real fondness for Nerf guns but haven’t quite figured out how to include them. Feel free to leave a note if you have any ideas.

For the anti-social funeral planner who wants to kill people with boredom, 30 minutes of interpretive dance is a great idea. I considered this briefly.

Music is the trickiest part. No surprise, Pinterest can help with that too. Someone posted a list of the 40 saddest songs with Adele’s “Someone Like You” in the top spot. I don’t want sad. I want Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy,” I’m just not sure exactly when, and Kermit the Frog’s version of “Rainbow Connection” is about as sincere as I want to go.

Maybe it’s vain but I want people to remember my funeral. I want people to talk about the three-tier cake and the chocolate fountain in the car on the way home. I want someone to find a stray Nerf bullet in her purse a day later.

I want people to arrive at my farewell party somber and devastated, of course, but leave uplifted with a fresh scone smothered in clotted cream and strawberry jam wrapped in a floral napkin.

Maybe this is all just desperation coming from an only child with no children of her own hoping to leave a small mark on the world.

But a post-mortem legacy is harder to come by than finger sandwiches and tea served in pretty china teacups.

We’re all going to kick off sooner or later and there will be plenty of bad days before then, so why plan one? Bring on the New Orleans jazz band and a tray of Cosmopolitans!


I’ve got music…

I went to see the folk trio The Good Lovelies recently and they were amazing as usual. They make singing in perfect harmony seem so effortless. I’ve never heard the three—Kerri Ough, Caroline Brooks and Sue Passmore—hit a bum note. They also play a bunch of instruments, from guitar, to banjo, to mandolin, to percussion.

What must that be like?

I’ve always dreamed of being musical. I’ve always liked to believe that I’m a musical genius whose talent has yet to burst forth. I just haven’t found my instrument.

Preparing for my Massey Hall debut.

However, on the way to finding my instrument, I have left a trail of musical debris behind me. I began with the cornet. I never quite got the hang of it. Everything I attempted sounded like a version of Swan Lake in which the swan was choking on a discarded pop can tab. When you’re eight you can’t argue your music is Avant-garde.

So I was given a euphonium instead. That also went badly and my music lessons ended abruptly. I was fine with it. There is something about a “spit valve” that turns me off anyway.

In Grade 7 I got another chance to embrace the wonderment of creating sounds that when strung together resemble a song. I was dying to play flute. I imagined myself wandering through the forest entertaining the woodland creatures and finding peace deep within my soul.

Unfortunately, my lip size put me in clarinet. I don’t actually think that’s a thing. I think the music/history/geography teacher made it up because no one wanted to play clarinet.

I loathed everything about it. I hated licking the reed—it was gross—and I hated the sound of the instrument, also gross. So I spent the class moseying around the room and hanging out with my friends in the flute section.

For my lack of interest and lack of aptitude I was duly punished in Grade 8. I was put into the “special” music class with the other losers who couldn’t master a band instrument. We spent the year making xylophones out of hockey sticks.

We were encouraged to go down to the local arena and beg for broken sticks, as if we were method actors cast in Oliver! We were instructed to look out for fiberglass sticks because they have the best sound. And by the way, that’s all I learned from that class. It’s been incredibly useful through the years. I’m waiting for it to come up in Trivial Pursuit.

We spent every music period trying to cut through the sticks with a dull saw. By the time the bell rang I was typically only halfway through one stick and there was a line of people, mostly boys, waiting for the saw. There should have been a fundraiser to beef up the music/shop program budget. Maybe the gifted band nerds could have played during a bake sale.

At the end of the year, we each had our moment to shine when we stepped to the front of the class to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on our xylophones. It was magical. Ting tang bing tang ting ting ting.

I’ve always prattled on about how I wanted to learn piano but never got the opportunity. Tony signed me up for private lessons about a year ago. I hate it when he does that—you know, listens to me and then takes me seriously.

It was a huge risk to take lessons because it could shatter my long-held belief that I’m a natural. I might discover that like the cornet, horn, clarinet, and hockey-stick xylophone, the piano is not my instrument. I may be left with the triangle.

Because my musical education was so neglected, there is a part of my brain that has been in a coma for a couple of decades. I wondered if it was too late to learn an instrument, from ground zero, smack dab in the middle of middle age.

I went to my first lessons somewhat reluctantly but soon discovered at 40-something I am in fact a prodigy. So there you go folks: follow your dreams and all of that.
Maybe prodigy isn’t the right word but I am a standout. Claryssa’s students have homework and parents who drive them to lessons. I don’t have homework and I drive myself. I’m probably the oldest student by three-and-a-half octaves.

Claryssa is sincere and adamant when she insists it’s never too late to learn. That’s easy for her to say, she’s been playing since she discovered she had hands. She’s about 23, a Laurier University music grad and general musical genius. She has played violin and piano, and practiced voice all her life. She can play anything with strings.
She has perfect pitch and can tell, without looking, where a fiddler is on the neck of the instrument, which fingers they’re using and the direction of the bow—up or down.

She’s trying to train my ear. To do that she plays middle C and then another note and I have to figure out what note she played in relation to C. That exercise usually goes like this: Claryssa, “OK, here’s C and what’s this?” Me, “E?” Claryssa, “No. Close. I’ll play it again.” Me, “F?” Claryssa, “No. Here it is again.” Me, “D?” Claryssa, “No. One more time.” Me, “Q?”

A little note from Claryssa.

She encourages me to sing and experiment a little bit so I added my own lyrics to “Ode to Joy.” I wouldn’t categorize them as “joyful” so much as a spontaneous rap that could make Snoop Dog blush.

When I play for Claryssa and hit the wrong notes, I think she worries about my mental health. She gently and soothingly reminds me we all make mistakes and that we have to be patient with ourselves. I don’t do the rap version of “Ode to Joy” in front of her, but instead sing like a pirate, ARRRRGGGGHHHHH, accompanied by hand flapping. I’m working on my stage presence.

I’ve watched great pianists like Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk play. Even with the sound off you can see how great they are. They’re fingers look like they’re part of the instrument.

My fingers look awkward. It’s like I just got them from Amazon and I ordered the wrong size. So, when I play, the saints don’t march in so much as stumble over their robes.

Nailed it!

I think it may be time to shelve the dream of a musical career. I don’t think I’ll be getting a Grammy or a Juno or even a Golden Raspberry. But when I play a song right, the whole way through, once or twice, I get a sticker from Claryssa. Right now that’s just as good.

And if I go into a town with one of those “play me I’m yours” pianos set up on the street or in a park I’m pretty sure I could pound out “Oh Susanna.”

So I guess that’s middle-aged reality, which is still better than never playing the blues.

Let the music play

Being raised by grandparents has its disadvantages, not least of which is living in a cultural time capsule. When I was a kid I would sit with my bowl of Sunday Jello next to the stereo in the living room listening to Second-World-War songstress Vera Lynn and Boxcar Willie. It was 1980.

I started to realize I was out of the loop when a couple of boys in my Grade 5 class sang—in tune and with conviction— “Everybody’s got a hungry fart.” I was 10 years old and this song really spoke to me. I had never seen The White Cliffs of Dover and wasn’t sure where they were—though I could sing lovingly about them. But flatulence, that I knew, that was real life.

I had to find the genius who recorded that song and get with the times. I was already attempting to break free from the endless loop of old-timey eight-tracks and find my generation’s jukebox heroes. I just wasn’t sure where to look.

Let me know if you want to borrow any of these.

I got my first clue from a super-cool girl who had a CHUM t-shirt and used to ride her 10-speed bike down our street with her back straight and her hands on her knees. It took a while to find out that CHUM was a radio station but when I did, I knew my life was about to change. I could be just like the super-cool girl and get a t-shirt of my own and ride my bike down someone else’s street. But with my hands on the handlebars. I was pretty sure riding with no hands was illegal.

I had just been given a radio that looked like a mini record player with detachable speakers. The plan was to start cutting the CHUM 1050 charts out of the Toronto Star, and then listen to the hits as they were counted down on Saturday morning after my swimming lessons. I was going to find that song and learn all the words.

Our paper still hadn’t been delivered when I sat up in my room, hair still damp, with my radio on and my best multi-colour click pen ready to document the songs I liked best. I don’t know where the song fell in the countdown, but I recognized it right away. Except it was all wrong.

The song was “Hungry Heart” not “Hungry Fart.”

To this day I am not a Bruce Springsteen fan. And I still don’t know the words to that song.

Though my car may be a Springsteen-free zone, I’ve noticed recently that my ride has become a cultural time capsule all its own. I have a crap ton of 80s music on a USB stick my husband Tony made for a road trip. It starts with 1980 and ends with 1990. It’s got everything from Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

It’s not like I’ve been listening to 80s tunes since the 80s. I mean, I was still in touch with musical trends during the 1990s but somewhere down the road I seemed to do a U-turn and head back to where my musical tastes came from.

It doesn’t happen to everyone. I was at my mother-in-law’s for lunch a few years ago and she asked me if I’d seen Nicki Minaj on American Idol. I’ve never seen anyone on American Idol and I had no clue who Nicki Minaj is—but I did get a giggle out of my mother-in-law saying “ménage.” I’m middle age but I may have some growing up to do.

Veronica, my mother-in-law, is in her early 70s. She always had a sense of what was groundbreaking or popular and still does. She used to watch the Beatles play at the Cavern Club during her lunch break when she was a teenager in Liverpool. I think it’s a huge big deal. She thinks it’s no big deal.

I don’t know where my stepdaughters, Meghan, 19, and Sophie, 16, hear about new bands. They don’t listen to the radio. I don’t know what they listen to, they always have headphones in their ears.

They like 21 Pilots, or did the last time I checked. I don’t know anything about them except there are not 21 members and they probably aren’t pilots.

Veronica likes them too. It’s not like she’s just copying the kids—whose faces sank when they found out their Nana listens to the same music as they do—she discovered them, somehow, on her own.

I suppose I could blame my husband for turning my car into a back-to-the-future mobile. He made the mixed USB stick after all. He studies ancient history so I suppose he’s just following his interests. It’s not as though he listens to lute recordings by that second-century chart-topper Mesomedes or anything, but he does still listen to Rush regularly.

He continues to support geriatric and pre-geriatric musicians by going to see them with his high school friends. They’re not picky, they’ll go see the remainders in a band—Katrina without the Waves, or a lone Thompson Twin. It’s sad really. But it’s a night out and I guess that’s something.

I stick my nose up and rarely go. I don’t want to see individual has-beens—it’s the whole group of has-beens or nothing. If I’m going to listen to Hall there had better be some Oates, thank you, and it will be while I’m in the car and well before my 10 p.m. bedtime.

Now, can someone help me figure out how to download some Anne Murray from iTunes?