Festive Nostalgia

If you’d ever had Thanksgiving dinner with my grandpa, you would have been treated the following story he learned when he was in Egypt during WWII:

Once upon a time, a rich man’s cook was preparing a fine turkey feast for his master and his friends. Just as the turkey was ready, the cook’s long lost brother showed up at the kitchen door, starving and begging for food. Unable to turn his brother away hungry, the cook tore a leg off one of the cooked turkeys and gave it to his brother.

When the cook brought the turkey to his master, the master asked angrily why the turkey only had one leg. The cook  looked confused and asked his master how such a wise man could be unaware that all the turkeys in this country had only one leg.

The master thought this quite the novelty and was excited to present the one legged foul to his friends. But when the master told his friends how all the country’s turkeys had only one leg, they laughed him to scorn.

At that, he got all up in a tizzy, that is to say, a murderous rage, and stormed the kitchen to demand an explanation from the cook. The cook acted puzzled and promised to prove to the master that all the turkeys in his flock had only one leg.

A wild turkey standing around on one leg like a flamingo. Graceful, right?

So, the next day, the cook took the master to his flock of turkeys and pointed at them all in the field, standing on one leg. The master had had enough of the cook’s antics. He waved his arms at the birds and shouted, “Shoo! Shoo!” and the birds were all startled and put down their other leg.

“See!” The master cried. “You can’t trick me so easily! As soon as they’re startled, they put down their other leg!”

The cook still seemed confused and asked his master, “Or course they do! But why didn’t you do that with the bird on the table?”

And, to close, a photo of my grandpa and me with his fiber optic Christmas tree. I set it up one day when we were about to head out some place. I said we may want to turn it off before leaving, but he wanted to keep the “Spirit of Christmas” going in his house. So we left it on.


Rosh Hashanah – September 28-30

A very belated Shana Tova, everyone! So, for Jews, there are four new years. One is for the trees, one is for the harvest, one is for the planet, and one is for cattle.

I celebrated Rosh Hashanah – the birthday of creation of the planet – with my first expedition into Jewish Orthodoxy. My roommate Lauren and I spent Erev Rosh Hashanah at the UMN Chabad house, which is probably the most welcoming place around.

And, for my comfort zone’s sake, I was grateful everyone was so welcoming because I became instantly aware that was a very different group from who I’d been brushing shoulders with in Reformed and Conservative circles. Beards, for instance. Lots of them. And side burns. Several people had the tzitzit going on all the time, and, hey, mysticism is very In.

Once the service got going, though, I got pushed even more out of both my comfort zone and the main service by way of a gender segregating partition down the middle of the room. I’d imagine this partition’s presence might be part of why the fella’s side was better attended than the girls’ side, and unfortunately it impacted the quality of girls’ side services. For one, the rabbi hangs out mainly on the dude side, and that’s where the singing gets most raucous. I wasn’t even sure, at first, if I was allowed to sing along or read aloud at first because the girl’s side was so much more reserved. But, hey, to start the evening, the girls’ side got to light candles, led by the Rabbi’s wife Chavi. I’ll need to ask what exactly that meant, but it was lovely. I don’t know why, but I really love candles.

Honey, apples, and challah

Fast forward to dinner. Judaism is all about symbolism, and my favorite bit of symbolism is that sugar signifies sweetness in new ventures. At Bar Mitavahs and before couples get married, you toss candy at them. In Church! At Rosh Hashanah, you dip apples in honey! Try it guys! Cheaper AND, I’d posit,  more delicious than caramel. Also, you get to dip the challah bread in honey, which I was told isn’t a year round thing.

Gefilte fish, which is basically fish meat loaf

Also: gefilte fish. It’s poached and minced fish all crammed back together, and I’d recommend all you carnivores get on board.

Oh, and then there was the moment when I came out as a Mormon. One of the girls asked where I’m from (Utah, dude), and she responded with, “Oh wow. Is that kind of awkward since aren’t there a lot of Mormons there?” My cover was blown, so I reveled in it by responding, “Well, actually it’s not awkward at all because” dramatic whisper, “I am a Mormon.” She got a really horrified look that I assume was because  she thought she’d offended me. Later we got in a talk about Christian versus Jewish holidays (Jews have it way better, I think; except for the whole not-getting-them-off-work thing, which has to blow), and she said she’d always been jealous of Christian holidays, like making ginger bread houses at Christmas. I wanted to let her know that gingerbread houses are pretty secular, since Jesus didn’t live in one, but I thought better of it.

Okay, so day two of Rosh Hashanah, I was accompanied by Joe. I hadn’t been able to observe, yet, if it was appropriate for males and females to make physical contact here. So, we began the evening with a science experiment: he was to warmly extend his hand to the rabbi, and then I’d see if the rabbi moved on to shake my hand. We discovered that, no, the rabbi wouldn’t touch females. Right after that I heard a girl ask a male if he shook hands, and I decided that would be my appropriate question upon introduction, and so far it has gone well.

Okay, so the service was quite similar to the previous night, but quicker. Also, as a plus, there were more girls, and so our side was more vocal, which made it fun. This time, at dinner, I came out as a Mormon more quickly. There were tons more people in attendance, and so answering questions about being a Mormon felt less like I was talking to the whole room.

Some kids had met Mormons before, though, so we bounced back and forth about having our own planets and not using technology on Holy Days and visiting the Garden of Eden in Missouri and Woody Allen and South Park Musicals and pogroms and Jell-O and gefilte fish and Pioneers and how, hey, both orthodox kids and recently returned missionaries don’t know how to deal with the opposite sex! What I learned from this conversation is that every religion is weird and externally irrational. But, having a personal relationship with my Creator is something I wouldn’t trade for anything. Even being sorta normal. This is how I imagine Trekkies feel.

Also, Jews sing at and pound their fists on the table! Where’d we Christians go wrong with misplaced reverence?

A shofar

Okay, okay, okay, so I was really excited about day services. I worked through them on Day 1, but Day 2, I got in super early so I’d be able to take off for the Shofar. Man, Rosh Hashanah day services are nearly Mormon-length (3 hours), but minus any breaks. Basically, the chazzan (cantor) is singing prayers the whole time, sometimes aloud with us joining him, and sometimes to quietly. When the chazzan is praying silently, Rabbi Yitzi would squeeze in stories. But with all the necessary prayers, it took like an hour and a half for him to get out a story that’d take about 5 minutes without interruption. But in the end it was a great story! Also, occasionally, he’d sound the shofar (ram’s horn). Also interesting: the mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah isn’t to blow it but to hear it. One HUNDRED TIMES! That takes a while.

Also, my favorite things about Rosh Hashanah is the bowing. So, apparently back in temple days, Jews would go bowing in the temple, all the way to the ground, every day. But, since early Judaism was so temple-centric, Judaism since the destruction of the second temple of Solomon has had to adapt a lot. Anyway, the bowing is pretty much gone nowadays. EXCEPT on Rosh Hashanah, which is such a holy day that it’s almost like being in the temple. So we got down on all fours and bowed our heads to the ground to God. Bowing jives with me because of its implication of absolute vulnerability and obeisance. And, since Rosh Hashanah is when you’re supposed to be thinking all about what you’ve done this year, and God is writing in his book everything that he plans to do with us over the next year, it seemed fitting. He’s making the plan, and we’re sort of responding, Hey, I’ll take it. Gladly. Thanks for creating me!

Stay Tuned for: Yom Kippur!

The Mountain Goats – September 24

John Darnielle, i.e. The Mountain Goats

Lauren and I shot out of The Fitzgerald Theater and headed straightway to Ames, Iowa (with just a slight detour to pick up her car at our house) for a Mountain Goats Concert. We’d had the trip timed to the minute, but, unfortunately, we underestimated A Prairie Home Companion’s running time by an hour…. So we needed to make up some time, which we were doing splendidly until we were pulled over mid-Iowa. As it turned out, our highway patrol officer, Mindy, knew and loved the Mountain Goats, but she was not superfan enough to give us a police escort. She did knock a few MPHs (which is short for “miles per hour,” not “masters of public health”, in case any of you failed to catch the context) off the citation, though. We continued to Ames and arrived at DG’s Tap House while the opening band was still playing.

Before The Mountain Goats went on, we were standing around by the bar, and we saw a guy at a table I was 95% sure was John Darnielle. I pointed him out to Lauren, and she was like, “He looks so much like a normal guy. Plus, why would no one else recognize him?” I agreed, and we did not talk to him. Next time, we will not be so foolish.

As with many of their performances, the band consisted solely of John Darnielle, and we managed to get spots right up front (literally like 2 yards from him). And rather than a set list he was taking nothing but requests. This worked out okay because the people there were mainly die-hard fans who’d driven from all over the Midwest to be there. Awesomely, the devoted audience requested all kinds of recondite songs, which they were happy to help him remember the exact lyrics and keys for, so it was more than just a barrage of best hits. Also awesomely, John had lived in Ames for several years, and he had all kinds of anecdotes about the place.

One of the high points of this concert, as, I should think, with many of his concerts, was the song No Children, which he told us was inspired by the song I Hope You Dance which he hated enough to write the exact antithesis of. Another high point was when John came out for the encore and said he’d always wanted to return to the stage, take a bow, and walk back off like concert pianists and such do, but then he didn’t! Instead, he treated us to about an hour more of music. Wonderful.

So, we didn’t get home until like 5 AM, and it was so incredibly worth it. See, John Darnielle started out making cassette tapes of himself back in the early 90s. The band has gone through several iterations, many of which consist of solo-John opening his one man show with, “Hi. We’re the Mountain Goats.” Still, with all that change and him just being one guy and not always having a record deal or anything, this man releases like an album per year, and they’re all good.

And by good, I mean pieces of lyric genius. Mountain Goats songs deal with untraditional and unpredictable topics, from vampire-cowboy-run-ins to insurance fraud to arson  to delicious jams and jellies (In case you didn’t pick up on it, each of those topics was a hyperlink. You’re welcome.) And in all these circumstances, he somehow treats all his characters with love, even as he points out the extreme and ridiculous in his characters.

What I love most about John Darnielle’s characters is that we so often meet them in moments of intense emotion. Enough of his characters are on the verge of having cataclysmic. When I listen to his songs, I get the idea that they’re having an Ivan Karamazov-style breakdown [Bro’s Karamazov spoiler alert! Also, awesomely, this song references Crime and Punishment.], wherein they see the light of salvation and realize the sacrifice necessary is far more hellish than anticipated. We find these characters in their moments of desperation, speaking with the kind of honesty you would think but not share with even your closest friend and only maybe with a paid professional.

He depicts characters most of us haven’t thought to identify with, but upon doing so, we find inexpressibly loveable. For example, in the song Grendel’s Mother, we meet (surprise!) Grendel’s mother storming Heorot to revenge her son’s murder. Contrary to the tale’s usual mood, Grendel’s inconsolable mother shows love for her son as intense as her loathing for his killer.

I find that Darnielle’s rush of contradicting emotions make his songs particularly accessible for we irrational and inconsistent humans. Rather than giving us pat answers or monolithic voices, his characters are often confused and troubled by contradicting motives. For example, in the song Old College Try, Darnielle’s character refers the love he has for his wife’s eyes, which, “like a trashcan fire in a prison cell; like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell” brighten up even the worst of places.

I think I’ve said enough. But there are about a zillion really great interviews with the guy online, which you can find using Google. In case you’re interested, his Twitter feed is insanely awesome. He’s currently giving away Thusydides II-58 for free to mark reaching 25,000 Twitter followers.

And, finally, in case you didn’t click on any of the wonderful hyperlinks I provided above, here are a few videos I trust you’ll find enjoyable.

He has a slew of songs that begin with the word “alpha” and chronicle the misadventures of the “alpha couple” who are constantly on the verge of divorce. Their story concludes in the album Tallahassee.

The album The Sunset Tree is about his physically abusive step-dad. Somehow he manages to still be remarkably peppy.

This is also from The Sunset Tree , and I think it’s fabulously intense:

He has a series of songs whose titles begin with the words “going to” and are all about running away from problems to some place that you hope promises you peace or answers or, anything but your current troubles. In this one, he threatens to do himself physical harm as a means of showing a girl how much he loves her.

In this one, he actually seems insane. It’s amazing.

A Prairie Home Companion – September 24

Sound guy Tom Keith, and voice actors Tim Russell, Sue Scott, and Garrison Keillor on set of A Prairie Home Companion

Seeing A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor live was the fulfillment of my childhood dreams. Growing up, we did a lot of driving between my mom’s house (Centerville) and my dad’s house (Salina). My dad wasn’t a big fan of our favorite roadtrip pastimes (Such as this game where you replace one of the words on a billboard with the wordbooger. For example, the McDonald’s slogan would be transformed from “I’m lovin’ it” to “I’m lovin’ boogers.” Endless fun.), so he would turn on NPR to shut us up. Hence, Garrison Keillor became something of a non-interactive, third parent who was present on all road trips.

We even had tales from Lake Wobegon cassettes. I remember countless afternoons in the hammock on the back patio, eating fudge sickles and listening to stories about the rhubarb pie, the Sidetrack Tap, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, et al. I’ll admit that Garrison Keillor was a factor that made my move to Minnesotan tundra far more palatable. A state inhabited by good natured people like the hot-dish-giving Krebsbachs couldn’t be too bad.

The Guy's All-Star Shoe Band with Nick Lowe

With all this anticipation, hearing Garrison start a story with, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…” and interrupting his story every so often with his soft nasal wheezing, well, it was probably like it would be for some other member of my generation to finally see The Spice Girls live or something. Basically, it was incredible. The set is designed to look like a Midwestern porch front. The sound effects are all one guy. The voices are all done by three people, plus a few guest stars. The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band really are all stars! I couldn’t stop being impressed by how few people were involved in making this thing happen. Talent!

I’m not going to go into detail about the particulars of the actual show because I won’t do it justice, and the whole thing will be far more enjoyable if you simply give it a listen here or on iTunes. Suffice it to say, the evening was every bit as delightful as is this three minute clip:

Here’s to you, Grandpa.

Grandpa (71) and Me (6)

My grandpa, Donald William Hemingway, died this past June. He was a great friend, and I miss him a lot. I talk about him whenever I get a chance, even if I’ve already told the story a hundred times. Telling it again makes me feel like he’s still around. Like he’s just been too busy picking up on younger women at his assisted living cafeteria to be at home for my phone calls, but one of these days he’ll answer.

I’ll catch him up on my dating life, my classes, concerts and movies, music I’ve been playing. He’ll praise everything I’ve done, even the things I regret; he’ll believe I was always in the right. He’ll tell me how he wants to buy a motorcycle because his jazzy doesn’t have enough power, and it tips over sometimes going up hills. When he says he’s missed my cooking, I’ll pretend I misheard and say, “What was that? It sounded like you said you’ve missed my company.” When he catches on to my tease, we’ll have a good laugh.

My grandpa ate ice cream every day, twice a day. When you’re 92, it doesn’t matter if you’re diabetic and have high blood pressure. You get to do what you want, even if that means going out in a diabetic coma (he didn’t). When I took him grocery shopping, he’d always buy me a treat and fill my car with gas. Then, when we got home, the carton of ice cream we bought would have melted to just the perfect softness. Before putting it away, we’d open it and skim a spoonful off the top.

My grandpa thought everything about me was fabulous. Once I was practicing a song on his piano for voice lessons, and I knew it needed a lot of work, so I asked him not to listen. I didn’t think it would be too hard, considering he sometimes couldn’t hear me from a few feet away. But as I began singing Boston by Augustana, he kept calling in from the kitchen, “Beautiful! Beautiful! It sounds wonderful!” I called back, “Grandpa, you’re not supposed to be listening; how can you even hear this, anyway?” And he called in, “I can’t shut my ears to beautiful music!”

He was like that. Blindly praising everything his grandkids did. My cousin Don was in a play just before starting medical school, and my grandpa couldn’t understand why Don would waste his life in medicine when he clearly belonged on the stage.

I’ll be writing more about my grandpa. He was wonderful, and I’m sorry for all of you who will never get to hear him call boogie woogie the devil’s music or ask you to make sure you put up the cripple sticker so you can park close to the grocery store. Telling his stories, though, makes me feel a bit better for all of us who are missing out on his company.