A Lump of Coal for Christmas?: A Possible Explanation

In honor of the fast-approaching holiday, I’d like to explore a bit of yule-tide trivia. It isn’t smarmy, but it could become so, I suppose, should I lose my nerve and wax sentimental. I’ll try not to do that.

The aforementioned holiday is Christmas and the trivia is coal in the stocking. I’ve done no research on this whatsoever, so we’re bobbing on the crests of waves of conjecture and hear-say here. My ideas might be completely historically inaccurate. Don’t expect to learn anything from this.

Coal in the stocking is not a new idea. I’ve heard it proclaimed since I was young that a bad boy gets a stocking full of coal. And I didn’t only hear this from my parents or others in their age range. I heard it from my grandparents and even from older folks at stores and restaurants when it’s cold outside and garland hangs from every indoor precipice and some youngster isn’t being quite obedient. “Better straighten up there, young person. Wouldn’t want Santa to stuff sooty rocks into you goodie sock, would you?” The preceding is not an exact quote and should in no way be construed as something I’ve actually heard someone say. But I’ve heard a lot of things said along those lines.

I’m assuming that, for the older folks, it isn’t (or wasn’t) a new idea either. I don’t think the idea came into being around the time I was born. I believe it to be older than 34 years. Here’s why I say that. My grandpa was a coal miner for some time. He had issues with black lung. He never talked about it but, through the family grape vine, I heard he didn’t much care for coal mining. Understandable. But, for someone who sacrifices his health and happiness to dig the stuff out from under mountains, is it really something to joke about? Now, if grandpa said “Be good or Santa will chain you up to a bunch of other naughty kids and drive you down into the dark to mine coal.”, that would’ve shown some sort of fearful respect for the idea. Instead he’d say what everyone else says. Be good or get a stocking full of coal. This makes me think that it’s also something he heard as a child, before he knew the horrors of coal mining,  and it meant no more to him than saying an apple a day keeps the doctor away or some other such folk wisdom. He’s heard it, he says it, it’s a habit, he doesn’t consider what it means. To him, it was just what you say to a cranky or disobedient grand kid. The idea is older than Grandpa.

The preceding paragraph is hear-say and conjecture. No solid evidence exists, that I know of, to support my thesis.

I’m just guessing here, but I think that coal used to be a highly sought after gift. In the Dickensian era, and other such similar eras, when coal was perhaps harder to come by and even harder to procure unless you were affluent, a lump of coal in a stocking could’ve meant a great deal to a child. “Coal! Coal! Mother, Father, observe it! We shan’t this cold Christmas day die of exposure within our own dear domicile! Oh, Mother, Father, what a good boy I must’ve been! Come now, let us set it ablaze that this blue hue might fade from our extremities and our cheeks might lose this waxy quality and assume again a rosy glow! Merry Christmas!” Once again, not a direct quote.

Another guess, here: when coal based heating was phased out and replaced with gas or oil or whatever it was that came after coal, people, excepting perhaps the blacksmiths and goldsmiths and various other smiths who forge metals, didn’t want coal anymore. And no one wants a stocking full of gas or oil. That idea seems cruel, even for the naughty children. “Here, son! You’ve been less than exemplary this year. Have a sock full of dangerous combustibles! ‘Tis no less than you deserve. Just don’t go near the fire with that, or we’ll all come to know the Christ whose mass we now celebrate much sooner than we’d hoped.”

So I guess, once coal was no longer sought after, folks could get it easier and more cheaply so they continued to put it into stockings, now as a punishment rather than a reward. I think the logic went something like this: Coal is cheap now. I’ve been getting coal for my kids every year from Soot-eye Steven. I’m not so creative as to be able to deduce a better gift and Steven’s business isn’t doing so hot (Saints forgive me the pun) right now. I’ll keep getting them coal, but tell them it’s because they didn’t finish their figgy pudding. We all must keep up with appearances and eat that stuff. Elsewise how will future generations know that we were true Dickensian Londoners? Perhaps when they receive a filthy rock we’ve no longer a purpose for they’ll get the idea.

Then somehow the idea stuck.

Maybe.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…enjoy Christmas for what it is. A hodge-podge of strange traditions that, while making little sense, brings loved ones together.

A don’t…fill stockings with electricity. It is a prevalent source of heating these days, but now they have programs to help those who can’t afford a warm home.

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Tome Travel

I’ve heard on multiple occasions from multiple sources that reading can be like time travel. I never thought that it was. I suppose it’s the closest we can get, but our own timeline advances as we read about previous times or exotic and maybe even fantastical locales. I suppose, even if we did actually travel in time, our own timeline would continue to advance even thought we could, in theory, return to the exact moment we left, I assume we’d return older than when we left.

Never mind.

This post isn’t about time travel.

I like to read. This likely isn’t a shocking revelation. I assume that most others who maintain blogs or read blogs also enjoy reading. I like every aspect of the act of reading. My tome travel begins with the discovery of the book on its shelf. When I pull it down, I commit the grievous sin of judging it by its cover. I think I do this in a very positive way, though. I’ve read many a book with a dull cover. I’ve read books with blank covers. I’ve even read books with no covers. The cover has no bearing on my deciding not to read it. Some covers have, on occasion, caused me to purchase books I have no intention of reading.  After I pass judgment on the cover I hold the book close to my face and flip the pages. As the scent of the ink and paper and perhaps the elements of the binding process become noticeable, I plunge my face into the volume, usually fairly close to the midway point, and breathe deeply. When this is done, I enjoy the weight of it in my hand as I look for other books. When I’m looking at a book in terms of its bookness only, size really matters. I especially enjoy paperbacks that are close to a thousand pages. If I’m picking a book to have for no reason other than that it’s a book and I want to have it (which I do often to the dismay of my wife, whose books are ever on the verge of being crowded out; my wallet, that could well have a perpetually lit neon “vacancy” sign sticking up out of it; and my overburdened bookshelves and the walls they’re attached to), it’ll be a monster. Then I drive home with the book on my lap or, if I’m not driving, I clasp it in both hands and stare at it.

With all that said, you may be wondering what on Earth I’m getting at. What does any of that have to do with tome travel?

Well, new books are strangers. Before I’ll surrender my mind to it and let it take me somewhere, I have to get to know it. Would you time travel with someone you barely knew? Likely not. You’d want to get acquainted a little first. Gathering all this information is necessary to insure an enjoyable excursion with an acquaintance, if not yet friend, rather than a blind foray with a stranger.

Once the book and I have shaken hands and I’ve had a chance to look over its opening pages (and run my fingers over the contours of any embossments that happen to be present on the cover) I can crack it open and go wherever its going to take me. I don’t think of it as time travel, though. It simply isn’t. No matter how involved I become with the story, I’m still in my house. I can hear the tv in the background and the kids playing. I can smell my dog as she walks by. I haven’t gone anywhere and I know it.

But last night I had a slight epiphany. As I was reading I suddenly became aware of my eyes reading the page and my brain interpreting the words and providing vague visuals as two distinct and separate phenomena. I have never been aware of the distinction before, but as I continued to read this way, I began to notice that what my brain produced for me to “view” and what was actually read by my eyes could be completely different things.  Specifically, the author described a character as an overweight male mowing the lawn in bathing trunks. I pictured him in a speedo. I didn’t even realize I’d done it until I went back and re-read the description wondering why this guy in my head had a speedo on. The author specifically said trunks. My brain showed me speedo.

Why?

No idea. I have no desire to see any man in a speedo, subconscious or otherwise.

I realize now that, yes books can be considered comparable to time travel. They can distract our minds with visions of other times and places and events. They can evoke emotions and cause distress to a degree. But no matter what the author has written or what he envisioned as he was writing, the reader’s interpretation will never be exactly in line with the author’s.

Books take us on journeys, but not necessarily the ones we are expected to take.

But reading isn’t time travel in any sense.

It’s tome travel.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…tome travel as much as you can. The author will have quite a say in where you go, but your own tome travels are unique to you. Open your eyes and enjoy the ride.

A don’t…forget to respect the fact that others want books too. Make sure to leave them at least a little space on the shelves.

Some Restaurant Whose Name I Dare Not Remember; A Disaster in Mexican-American Fusion

Greetings!,

I wish to regale you with a tale. It isn’t a tale of hope. It isn’t even a pleasurable tale. It is instead a tale of a horrible mistake. A mistake made by a young man and his father. It may be pleasurable to you. Being detached from the actual experience, you may find it quite humorous. Read on that you may be enlightened as to your reaction.

Before I begin, I firstly disclaim that, although I tell a tale of woe, I do not seek to discredit anyone whatsoever. It is perhaps a benefit that I do not remember the name of the terrible Mexican restaurant my father and I visited. Nor do I remember the town that it was in, although the state was Oklahoma. Go figure. Ridiculous Turnpike tolls and horrible Mexican restaurants. The only good thing to come out of Oklahoma for me is my beautiful and amazing wife. Well, her and that one Toby Keith song.

My father and I once traveled to a town fairly foreign to us to tow home one of our family’s cars that had broken down on the cursed Turnpike. After hooking up the car to my pickup truck, we decided that we were hungry. We pulled, connected and carefully, into a small town gas station and inquired as to the availability of “good food” in the area. The attendant for some reason suggested the Mexican place. Perhaps it was the only restaurant in the tiny town. If so, I’m sure the inhabitants rue their future for it is one bereft of culinary class and diversity.

We traversed the tiny roads, happy for the low population and empty streets, until the route we had been given terminated in the Mexican “restaurant” whose praises had been sung (sang? No, it’s sung.) at the gas station. In retrospect we should’ve considered the source. I’m not saying that gas station attendants have no taste. All I’m saying is that the edibles offered by gas station attendants generally inspire diarrhea.

We entered the place and were shown to a table by some people who were by no means Mexican. This should have been our first clue. My father and I are, however, quite dumb. We sat down and perused the menu. After ordering drinks my father proclaimed a need to evacuate either his liquid or solid waste repositories. I can’t remember which, and it probably is irrelevant and disgusting to try and remember anyway. He requested that, should the waitress approach before his return, I order him the buffet.

As it turned out, I placed our order, two buffets, as he was still preoccupied with his evacuations. I approached the wanting self-serve bar and filled a plate. There wasn’t much to choose from. The buffet was perhaps three feet long. There was some ground beef that had dried out on the top, a pan with taco shells that had cracked down the middle and some wilted lettuce.

Attempting to avoid diarrhea, I loaded my plate with the only other thing on offer that day, jalapeno poppers. Or so I thought. I returned to the table and, before my father returned, I had time to bite into a popper and be disappointed and confused.

When dad got back to the table, the waitress was there refilling my drink. Dad requested the house made salsa and went to fill a plate. When he returned, he found on the table a bowl of ketchup with jalapenos sliced into it and cilantro sprinkled on top.

As he sat he said with a grin, “You must experience the bathroom!”. After having eaten a few “jalapeno poppers” I was only to quick to agree. Before making my exit, however, I lifted a “popper” in salute and watched as he also bit into one. His face creased, as mine had, in disappointment and confusion.

They were not, in fact, jalapeno poppers. They weren’t, in any respect, Mexican food at all. They were pigs in a blanket.

As dad sat regretting our choice, I visited the men’s room, another choice to be regretted. The toilet sat upon a raised rostrum not even large enough to support the entire base of the toilet. Sitting upon this was an experience I’ll not explain in detail. Who needs to read about that? Suffice it to say, it was scary. The sink, if sink it could be called, was so shallow that I couldn’t fit both hands under the stream of water at once.

After washing each hand individually, I returned to our table for the most horribly non-mundane culinary experience I’ve ever had.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…take risks when you eat out. Many times you’ll find a “diamond in the rough”.

A don’t…eat at a Mexican restaurant staffed by white people. Or, if you must, tread very carefully. They may take too many liberties and present you with unexpected and horrible Mexican-American fusion disasters.

Re-purposed Costumes and Child Prodigies: A Proud Father Horrified

A couple of quick insights before we get into the meat of this post:

  1. Halloween costumes are cheaply made (the ones we buy are, anyway) and might as well be re-purposed.
  2. I am aware of the dangers of trampoline ownership and usage. We monitor the kids closely when they use it and have had no trampoline related injuries in the 2 years we’ve had it. Well, no injuries to the kids, anyway. I’ve pulled several muscles moving that ridiculous thing out of the way so I can mow under it. Oh, and also the blood blister from trying to stretch those extremely stiff springs during setup.
  3. Bicycles the size of the ones my 7 year old daughter and 5 year old son use are not equipped with kick stands. I take this to mean that the manufacturers do not expect that children that young will need the training wheels removed. What it likely means is that they’ve already spent money installing training wheels and don’t want to spend more on manufacturing and installing a kick stand.
  4. I choose to believe that my son, despite the bicycle manufacturers implied assumption, is a bike riding prodigy. I choose to believe he will be the bike riding equivalent of Beethoven and/or Mozart.

With all that said, let me explain the intent of this post. My son can ride a bike. He enjoys riding his bike to an extent that horrifies me because, the more confident he gets, the more risks he takes.

Before he learned how to turn, his risk was to get as close as possible to the trampoline before stopping. As his turning skills improved he decided he simply MUST try to ride around the lotus pond.

This caused me much consternation. I didn’t want to discourage him, however, I especially didn’t want him to fall into the stagnant, odiferous muck that inhabits the pond now that all the blossoms and leaves have fallen into the water. This stuff is very nearly alive and I rue the windy and overcast day that it finally burps up some strange, dripping, glob-like life form.

Side-note: I refuse to clean out the lotus pond in the fall because not only will the lotus grow up and hide it in the spring, but he muck makes a wonderful addition to mulch and I want it to get as mucky as possible before I scoop some out in the early spring to schlop onto the garden.

As soon as I saw him headed toward the pond, I took off running. He rides with his knees out to the side and I don’t know how to describe the sight, but he pumps his legs so fast that the sight of those knees bobbing out on the sides of his bike is very comical. So I laughed as I ran. Just as I caught up to him he executed a perfect turn mere inches from the edge of the pond.

When he stopped his bike by intentionally running into my theoretically evergreen tree I lectured him on the dangers of what he had just done, implied there would be consequences if he did it again and sent him off to ride a different route.

He was proud of his turn, though, and kept bringing it up. “Hey Daddy, did you see, I, I, did you see me I turned and didn’t splash?!”

Apparently this gave him confidence and, feeling that he had mastered the challenges of turning before riding into a pond, he decided it was time to tempt fate another way.

When he disappeared into the house, I figured he had to go to the bathroom. Instead he came back out in his Halloween costume and decided it would be fun to horrify the dogs and his sisters as he rode after them helter-skelter, cackling and crashing into obstacles he couldn’t see through the inadequate eye holes of the Halloween mask.

Here’s the moral of all this: There may be many ways to repurpose a Halloween mask. Bike helmet is not an acceptable option, even though it has the potential to be hilarious.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…allow you children a few eccentricities. They are good learning opportunities for you as well as them. While sometimes scary, they can also be hilarious.

A don’t…feel guilty if you monitor them closely when they have their “good ideas”. In most cases, they are envisioning positive outcomes that only exist in the realm of the miraculous.

 

A Day in the Yard or When Work Isn’t Work; Cherish it While You Can

I have three children. Of the three I have two accomplished bike riders and one aspiring. Strangely, my oldest at 9 and my youngest at 5 are the accomplished. My 7 year old is still aspiring. She’s a bit of a free spirit, though, and nothing holds her attention for very long. She’s getting very close to taking the training wheels off for good.

There’s no rush, I suppose. I know adults who never learned to ride a bike.

Anyway, the other day there was no school and the weather was perfect and after breakfast we went outside and I watched them ride bikes for about two hours. When their legs finally began to get tired and they drifted to other activities I got the wheel-barrow and rake and started loading up needles and leaves.

We moved into this house two summers ago and I thought I had an evergreen in the back yard. Apparently either I don’t or it’s very sick because last fall and again this fall, the needles have browned and fallen just like the leaves on our sometimes-greens. This tree drops so many needles that it covers the ground beneath it so thickly that it feels like walking on a shag carpet. Maybe the tree is an evergreen, and it’s simply a nostalgic sort of tree, pining away for the ’70’s.  A ha ha ha.

Ahem.

As I was raking and loading and trudging and dumping the loads of leaves and needles on my garden spot the kids began to follow me. They took my rake and began raking their own piles. They took my wheel-barrow and began carting loads themselves. They asked for rides and I gave them, at first in the empty barrow back to the trees and later (after my son was hit by a bolt of inspiration) in the leaf laden barrow en route to the garden spot.

Needless to say, by about 11:00 we were a bit hungry. I had worked up a sweat and I couldn’t think of anything better than sitting down in the cool kitchen for lunch. My oldest daughter insisted on a picnic. The electric company recently cut down a tree in our yard that threatened their lines. I asked them to leave the wood and they left slabs perfect for stools and a nice short, wide one that makes a fine table. As I performed one last task and maneuvered these into place, the kids ran inside to find their old Easter baskets.

We loaded the baskets with sandwiches, chips, “juice” pouches and dog biscuits.

I sat on a rough chunk of tree surrounded by kids and dogs and had the best grilled cheese sandwich and cup of coffee it has ever been my privilege to consume.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…let your kids help you work. I hear it won’t be long before they realize it isn’t fun. It is, actually, but only when you’re very young or getting old.

A don’t…blame your trees for pining for the ’70’s. The air was much cleaner back then. No wonder my evergreen wants to hold its breath for the winter.

 

Identical Breakfasts and Misplaced Plates; A Parable About Eating Good Food and Trusting Intuitions

A few weeks ago my wife and I took a trip to her hometown for a chili cook-off. We left early and met up with her friend for breakfast at the Boom-a-rang diner.

The Boom-a-rang is a hole-in-the-wall home-town home-owned kind of place and, being such a place, there seems to be much care put into the food, service and atmosphere. Like many diners, it is decorated in ’50’s nostalgia-esque style. This is a real style of style. I’ve seen ads about style. I know what I’m talking about. Once I saw a commercial that had a Kardashian in it. Trust me. It’s a style.

They had an Elvis statue and pictures of Marilyn Monroe and other such icons, but my favorite bit of décor was (were? I’m not sure on this one) the white coffee mugs with their logo on them. They don’t have a gift shop and if it wouldn’t have constituted theft, I’d have taken one.

Anyway, it was charming is what I’m getting at. My kind of place.

I and my wife and her friend all ordered the exact same thing. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, biscuits and sausage gravy. We even asked for our eggs to be cooked the same way. The waitress took off and soon returned with three identical plates of food. I being who I am stated to my wife in a monotonous voice “Look at that, she’s given me yours.” I then nonchalantly switched the plates.

My wife knows me too well to have been surprised at this. She, saying nothing, simply fixed a withering gaze upon me with pursed (read with the emphasis on the -ed) lips and narrowed eyes until I broke and switched the plates back.

We then proceeded to enjoy a rather tasty breakfast. The sausage gravy at the Boom-a-rang is some of the best I’ve ever tasted and it didn’t cramp up my stomach they way most sausage gravies do. The hash browns were nice and crispy as was the bacon.

When I got around to the eggs, I found a bit of shell hiding amongst the whites.

I knew it all along.

That waitress had given me my wife’s plate…

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…enjoy the lesser known local spots sometimes. You might strike out, but you might also strike pay dirt as we did with Boom-a-rang.

A don’t…let someone give you a plate meant for someone else, no matter the opposition you may encounter. You could end up eating eggshells.

Disclaimer: The bit of shell was very small and if I hadn’t seen it I’d probably have eaten it without even knowing it. It was a simple mistake, easy to make, and it shouldn’t dim your view of the Boom-a-rang should you ever consider eating there.

Europe and the Sights You May Not Want to See or A Confused and Innocent American Abroad

It seems I look like a drug user. Now, before you get up in arms and accuse me of stereo-typing or profiling, consider the following facts:

  1. Substance abusers often tend to develop certain physical traits. These traits are generally the result of the havoc their substance of choice wreaks upon their bodies. These traits have nothing to do with the individual on a personal level and are therefore not stereo-typical of anyone of a certain race or background, rather of people with a proclivity toward certain substances.
  2. If you want to accuse anyone of profiling, accuse those who deal drugs on the dark street corners of Berlin and Amsterdam. They apparently assumed that I use drugs based only, I assume, on the facts that I am a white male and that I was passing through the dark street corners of Berlin and Amsterdam.

I can say this because I did not travel to Europe alone. I went with a Vietnamese friend and not once did anyone offer him drugs of any sort. I would say that perhaps these dealers assumed my friend spoke no language they would understand. This cannot be the case, however, because when a small man stepped out from behind a statue in Berlin he walked directly to me and said, in English and with no hint of question, “You want hashish.”

I asserted quite strongly that I certainly did not. He then, without ever addressing my friend, melted back into the shadows of Germany.

In Amsterdam a similar occurrence occurred. We passed a dark corner and from the shadows leapt, actually leapt, a small man. He, also without inflecting his voice to indicate a query, offered me illicit substances. This time it was cocaine. This time, he also used default English, though it sounded as if he barely spoke my language himself. Upon my decline he also faded back into the night, never addressing my friend.

It seems as if these discriminations are poor business practices for these guys because, based on a later incident at an Amsterdam coffee shop, my friend showed that he was in no way opposed to obtaining at least certain types of drugs. Perhaps he only wished to procure legal intoxicants and perhaps somehow these street dealers sensed that.

But how? And why didn’t they sense that I wanted no substances, legal or otherwise?And why did they always start with English? Unless they’d been following us and heard me speak, they’d have had no clue that I’m aware of that I speak English. What is it about me that identified me as an English speaking potential purchaser of illegal drugs? I wasn’t overweight at the time, although the Army with their nearly anorexic guidelines said differently, but I was by no means emaciated. I wasn’t covered in sores. I don’t have any involuntary twitches or any of the other tell tale signs of drug use I’ve come to recognize in the time I’ve worked at my current job.

So what was it?

No idea.

And apparently, whatever it was, it was pronounced enough that it wasn’t only drug dealers that recognized it. My friend and I, after landing in Frankfort, visited Berlin, London, Edinburgh, Wexford (a coastal town in Ireland with a very cozy B and B that had three or four beds to a room and a husband and wife that showed up at the door early every morning with a very satisfying breakfast and a newspaper), Paris and Barcelona. After Barcelona we sailed to some port in Italy and made our way to Rome where we were robbed by Gladiator impersonators who take your picture with your camera in various “I’m being killed by Gladiators” poses in front of the Coliseum, then demand an egregious amount of money for the honor of being photographed, on your own device, as they “kill” you.  After all this we took a train back to Munich to catch our flight home.

As we attempted to depart the train station three German police officers, one male, one female, one canine (a German Shepherd, of course), approached me. Me. Not my friend. The male officer asked, immediately in English although this time that was understandable because I had my touristy backpack on, “Where are you coming from?”

“Rome.”

“What is in your bag?”

“Clothes”, and reluctantly because I didn’t know the import/export/customs laws and had no desire to go to German jail, “A bottle of wine for a friend.”

“You have drugs in your bag.” Again, no hint of a question.

“No.”

“I will look in your bag.”

“Ok.” I said. I removed the pack from my back and held it out to him.

He sneered at me and then said, in what sounded like a Schwarzeneggeresque attempt to be intimidating (he was successful) “Get out of here.”

I gladly went. But so did they. They never once addressed my friend who had only barely remembered to rid himself of his remaining “legal” substance before we left Amsterdam.

I know you likely don’t know me, but there is nothing about me that I can see that indicates I have a desire to buy drugs or do drugs. Perhaps it’s simply a European thing. I’ve never been offered drugs on the dark streets of California or Seattle or even Las Vegas.

Who knows.

I bid you adieu…and a don’t.

Adieu…visit Europe if you have the chance. There are many beautiful sights and sites to see. Stonehenge is especially impressive, as are Windsor castle and Notre Dame. Try the Donor Kebab. They are prolific and quite tasty.

A don’t…go unprepared. If you share whatever characteristic it is that identifies me, somehow, as an aspiring drug addled fiend, expect to be fending off small men at every shadow you pass. You could simply stay in at night, but where’s the fun in that?