CHESTNUTS ROASTING, JACK FROST NIPPING, YULETIDE CAROLS KAZOOING

 

Most families have holiday traditions, enjoyed to a greater or lesser degree depending on the people and paraphernalia involved. These can develop unintentionally. For example one friend’s father-in-law-in-law (meaning he’s her son’s connection, not her own) has established a practice of spending the entire day bad-mouthing and swearing over national Democratic politics. Hardly conducive to pleasant conversations, let alone good will. My father’s was to give my mother a pair of flannel pajamas. Hardly romantic.

Whatever yours includes–midnight church service, caroling, roast beef for dinner instead of turkey, opening one gift on Christmas Eve, decorating with ugly candles passed along from grandmother–the list goes on endlessly. You can get sabotaged by rituals if you allow them to become dictates. One friend was so turned off by her partner’s insistence on perfect decorations that she gave up all holiday signs after she lost him.

For years my family’s tradition was tootling on kazoos. I can’t say enough good things about kazoos. Anyone could play one almost immediately. Even my tone-deaf husband joined in with no embarrassment. Laughter abounded, overflowed, and made our stomachs ache.

Seems to me the birth of the practice was the radio or record player booming after the holiday dinner, and guests began humming and singing along. Lacking a piano, organ, or guitars, I longed for some method to increase our volume and coordinate the melody. I can’t recall why I had a stock of several dozens of kazoos many Decembers ago, but I pulled them out and distributed to anyone who’d take one. The music from electrical equipment quickly became overpowered by the strength of the live performers in my living room.

Easy to play were the oldies “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” However, we quickly mastered playing parts and playing in rounds. I don’t know how we had the breath to keep the concert going. We seemed to break down in hysterical laughter as much as we made music. Each person tried to toot louder or more dramatically than his neighbor.

“If you can hum, you can play” is the advice of kazoo aficionados to novices. The mistake of most newcomers is to blow like you would a trumpet, but the player’s voice needs to vibrate in order to make the membrane inside the kazoo, which amplifies the notes, quiver. This membrane can tear or stretch, but if you’re as dedicated as I am, you’ll learn you can replace it with tissue paper or even plastic wrap cut to the correct size. YouTube has videos that offer instruction if you’re a rule klutz.

The highlight of our holiday performances? Nothing can match the musical thrill of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah played in parts on a dozen kazoos. It beats a production from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir because you and your family and friends are playing it. Those who prefer can sing the tune in parts of harmony.

Kazoos appeared on the American scene in the mid- to late-1800s. However, they’re related to a number of membranophones, instruments that modify the player’s voice through vibrations. They have waxed and waned in popularity and still sell in the millions. I personally prefer the timbre of the traditional metal variety, but plastic versions appear in most toy stores.

Prepare yourself for the holidays. But if you miss your opportunity, don’t wait until next year. National Kazoo Day is January 28. The perfect time for you to become active in politics as well as music. You can join the continuing campaign to have the kazoo declared the USA’s national instrument, a well deserved honor because it’s certainly the most democratic

 

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We Can’t Escape the Past, We Can Only Suppress It or Hide From It, but Should We?

familyWhen I look at one particular photo from my childhood, it captures my family perfectly: Disneyland, 1950s, planted on the edge of a circular planter. With one hand, my mother grips the stroller containing the current baby (there always was a new one), staring off to the right. The kids strewn to her side, also sitting, probably for fighting or misbehaving, each of us looking into the distance, not at one another.

Way over on the left, separated from the rest of us, my grandpa. The fedora hat he always wore, even in the California heat, alone, isolated, also staring off. My father, the one behind the camera, trying to capture visually what he always sought emotionally, and never succeeded in finding—the perfect happy American family. I can almost hear him saying, “Okay, everyone, smile,” as he stretched his lips in a grin, pointed his camera and shot.

Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families resemble one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I don’t know if I agree. Nothing in life is that simple, especially as I grow older. I started thinking about families when reading an author who’d entered some hyper-critical observations on his own father—his over-protectiveness, his predictions of failure. I imagine that dad wanted to protect his son. I now know after having children and grandchildren of my own that most of us simply try to do the best we can.

At times, if I imagine one of mine in danger, or hurting, or discouraged, the love I have swells inside me, like yeast doubling, tripling in size until it’s about to choke me. I have to think my parents had the same response, even if I didn’t know then.

There’s much more to the photo of my family than just an image of people together on outing. Separate, isolated, roiling with emotions that at least some of the time were resentful and angry. There’s much more to the stories those people lived: my mother, abandoned by her mother before adolescence; my father, whose first wife died in pregnancy, leaving him with two little girls to raise; several sisters still to face death, poverty, disappointments in their lives; brothers with their own challenges.

I’ve avoided writing about my family for years because it hurt too much. Was my family dysfunctional, or simply normal? Life can’t be happy and smooth all the time. What hurts the most is my inability to change myself in the past, compensate for my shortcomings. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop running away. Time to honor those people for being themselves, doing their best. Acknowledge the closeness we had, what we brought to one another, and, yes, the love we felt. But whether to use memoirs, essays, or fiction, I don’t know yet.

 

 

My family of heroes

hero

What makes a hero?  My daughter’s one.  Yesterday, driving through downtown Denver, she spotted a woman bent over, clutching her chest.  Since my family is made up of heroes, she leaped out of her car, and went into action.  While she asked the stranger if she needed help, my daughter called 911 and stayed on the line and with the victim (by that time turning blue) until the medics arrived.

   The thing strange to her was that although hundreds of people passed on the crowded sidewalk, not one stopped to offer assistance.  Not a surprise to me.  Years ago I learned of a concept called “diffusion of responsibility” or “bystander effect.”  This social psychology theory was developed after the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, during which many in the crowded neighborhood heard her cries for help but didn’t take action. 

   The idea—the more people around an emergency, the less likely anyone will help.  “Let someone else do it.” 

   When I learned of this concept, I vowed never to fall victim to it.  And my entire family subscribes to the approach.  My husband, two children, two grandchildren, and myself have all stepped in to offer emergency assistance.  By my count, we’ve saved about eight lives as well as rescuing numerous others from lesser crises.  That’s why we’re a family of heroes.

   We don’t have superpowers.  We’re not outstanding athletes or geniuses.  We’re ordinary, not extraordinary.  But extraordinary things happen to us, and they can happen to you.  

   The first and most essential quality of a hero is simply for a person to be willing to step forward and take charge and responsibility.  Sure, other things are important: ability to stay calm, rational thinking, empathy.  But none of those matter unless you realize you have to act. 

   Check it out.  Next time you hear about a person who was heroic, see if he just acted, rather than waiting for someone else to be a leader.