Christmas 1975

A little scaled-down from previous Christmases, not like I cared then. Stockings and associated piles go from L-R Tommy, Bobby and me. Took a look at a few of the things I dawdled over in the last responsibility-free months of my life, just prior to kindergarten:’

The Sesame Street Monsters! LP — A confusing cover: monsters, some nice, others with arched eyebrows and scary fangs, hovering over a terrified Muppet-waif. I remember wondering (not in so many words): this is scary-looking — why is this supposed to be “good”? Probably the source of this anecdote about me and my brother. Bobby and I listen to a lot of records at this time, basically cheapo kidsploitation from the Peter Pan and Disneyland record labels, things he raided from my parents’ collection, and sometimes things he hears from the radio (like Dickie Goodman’s “Mr. Jaws”). Bobby had a mechanical aptitude, liked poking into the inner workings of things, rejiggering them to make them do things they weren’t supposed to do (The floor of his room was uncrossable with bare feet as it would be covered in broken things.) and records would be progressively destroyed inna Christian Marclay-stylee. One record you can almost see on his pile, The Little Drummer Boy, had a passage that when sped up sounded exactly like this but very fast: Apple Cider! PPHT! Apple Cider! PPHT! Apple Cider! PPHT! In my mind I imagined a long line of people moved by conveyor belt to a pipe that squirted out the drink into each person’s mug. I don’t even remember the ultimate fate of my records. The next record I definitely remember playing is Anne Murray’s Let’s Keep It That Way, right when “You Needed Me” came out in 1978. I play that exactly once. When I finally get records of my own again in early 1984, I have to completely relearn how to operate a turntable.

The Mouse Factory LP — A soundtrack to a Disney-related television series that ended several years before, described by one site as a “series showing clips of Walt Disney movies linked by visitors to the Disney Studio” and “live action comedy segments with guest comedians surrounding clips and full cartoons” on another. I don’t remember that show but I was totally flipping mad for the Disney thing at the time, as that year twenty-year-old b&w The Mickey Mouse Club shows get re-syndicated, running on the local independent TV channel WNEW (now part of the Fox juggernaut, argh). I harbor a not-so-secret desire to be a star on the show, to sing and dance and be one of the gang yet be my own self, only I know it’d never happen because I still had problems “holding it in.” Strange, foreign even to think that back then color and black & white mingled so effortlessly on television, but then 100% color programming on network television is less than a decade old by ’75. Anyway, much as I loved the show I got insulted being equated with a not-quite-human mouse. This is why I don’t care whether you call me Mike or Michael as long you don’t call me Mickey.

Casper the Friendly Ghost: Haunted House Tales LP — An odd thing to get for Christmas but I liked the Casper cartoons a lot, as it was another positively ancient bit of cultural offal that the independent networks were showing at the time to fill time. I’m having difficulties detailing what was so appealing to my mind about Haunted Houses: maybe “the transformation of the familiar” or as I might put it at the time “everything…everything is. different. there.” If I could be sure I knew then what “everything” could mean. I had a goggle-eyed fascination for ruin and destruction, which was part of an even more primal fascination with before and after, or the slow fade or one state to another — you’d get a lot of that on TV, what with the transformed-realities of stop-motion and time-lapse photography figuring large in educational programming. I would play “earthquake” with my Fisher-Price playsets after watching the 1974 movie on cable TV, this year or the next.

The Berenstain Bears in the Bears’ Nature Guide — You can’t even see this at all, it’s propped on the couch. Only three things I can still recall about it: the yellow cover, which I once tried reproducing with tracing paper; a page spread I couldn’t bear to look at, as it showed what an ocean pier looked like once the water receded, filled with squirmy, shelled, foot-repelling life; and a page spread with a composite drawing showing all the varieties of landscape (marsh, isthmus, mountain, bay, plain — I admit some of these are guesses) that I could trace possible paths through — Caspar David Friedrich’s Rainy Day Fun-time Book. I like the faint crispy-crunchy concern this gift shows, and it makes me think of other things I had at the time with a faint ecological flavor to them, like the at-once awesome and thoroughly sick Kenner Family Tree House, a toy modeling a family “living with nature” made of a plastic that won’t biodegrade for hundreds of years, oh joy. Also, Charlie Brown’s Super Book Of Things To Do And Collect, on Bobby’s pile of stuff and hence not my own, which highlighted the joys of cataloging of natural things like shells and leaves. I’m sensing that even back then I had a definite preference towards books with galaxies of facts over those with narratives, a preference that reverberates through other book choices of mine throughout my life: Richard Scarry, The Book of Lists, record guide books, Joyce and Pynchon. You can blame TV, if you like. TV don’t care.

The Scribbler’s First Word Book — Practically invisible’even in the higher-res scan I’ve supplied, but I know it’s there, the orange triangle above and to the left of my pile of record albums, with a little corner of the cartoon owl on the cover. Almost singlehandedly taught me how to print upper- and lowercase letters months before kindergarten, though by the time my everyday print handwriting started looking a little like the impossibly perfect letters in the book it was time to fuck up script, ain’t that a bitch, eh? The big wonderful point of pride here was that I was doing this on my own, propping myself in front of the television with a magic marker copying letters. Likewise, thanks to a nameless book on Tommy’s pile (he seems to have received it two Christmases in a row), I knew all the fifty states before I hit kindergarten (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California…), and started watching the evening news religiously because there would always be maps; then there was a cookbook that I used to read the chapter titles (Artichokes, Asp-ah-RAH-gus, Beans, Broccoli, Brussell Sprouts…), then came learning the days of the week, the months of the year, the twelve signs of the Zodiac…Is this my intellectual axial age? An arrival into The World? I got along pretty well, me in hyperactive state of hunt-and-peck discovering and manic listing, nursing my obsessions of my own and, later, in Kindergarten. In contrast, I can’t even remember who taught my 1st Grade class, neither name nor face. (Actually, I might remember more had my grandfather not thrown out the box that held nearly every single assignment me and my brothers completed in elementary school, among other mementos, at some point in the eighties. As he grew older, he started doing things, destructive and odd things: ripping my paper models of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings in half to make them fit in moving boxes, fatally cutting down plants in the garden after they flowered, handling his money in foolhardy ways. He was still in reasonable possession of his faculties, could drive a car and pay his bills, yet his behavior sometimes seemed ruled by a netherworld of intentions — it was hard to tell whether he did these things to hurt, or because he was at the stage in his life where he didn’t know what he was doing anymore, or something both, or neither. Of the box, the only things left are the few things I unthinkingly set aside for my own purposes: two accounts of anti-social [i.e., anti-sports] behavior at day camp, an essay about a nauseating amusement park ride from 1978, and a second-grade handwriting assignment I d’tourned with a picture of S’ren Kierkegaard that I fear I haven’t seen in a while — it may have gone down with the World Trade Center.)

That’s a fake fireplace, by the way. (My apologies to all you fireplace rockists.) You can see one exactly like it on page 24 of Bill Owens’ Suburbia. A rotating piece of wood, covered in tinsel and illuminated with light bulbs, then covered with a large black and white piece of plastic whose overall shape and texture suggested a rotting carcass just as much as it did burning logs. It gave off little light, a faint grinding sound and no heat. Those are fake plants, too. My brothers and I had a tendency to “water” them by peeing in the pots.