Christmas Eve 2010

Christmas Eve is the second day of my four-day hiatus from work.  (I took yesterday off, a “cost-savings day” decreed from on high, one of the 10 unpaid days dictated by our latest contract.  Having to take yesterday off so angered me that I could only sleep until 10:45 a.m.!)

Susie has already opened one of her gifts–the Super Mario Galaxy game for the Wii.  She’s christened it already, and plans to play it while waiting for Steph and me to wake up tomorrow morning.  (It wasn’t even my intention for her to open this gift.  When I handed her the package, I thought it was another gift, which she will open in the morning.  I ordered online from Amazon.com, and the gifts have been coming from Amazon, as well as distributors all over the country.  There is one present still at large, but we’ll be okay if it arrives before January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas.)

She and I went to the 5 p.m. Christmas Eve service at First UU this evening.  (There’s a later service, but we wanted to be home for a delicious ham, sweet potato, and green bean dinner.  Midnight Christmas services are definitely the creation of celibate clergy!)  Susie gave her friend a poster of Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd and gave a younger friend a journal and a set of pens.

I remember one Christmas Eve during my bachelorhood where I saw something that was rather poignant.  I was living in Cincinnati, and Christmas Eve was my one night off from the post office.  (I didn’t make any effort to make the trip to Marietta, because I had no desire to see my stepmother or -sisters, plus I had to be back on the West End toting barge and lifting mail on Christmas Night around 9 p.m.  Why didn’t I head to Athens to see my mother?  For the same reason John McCain doesn’t send Christmas cards to his captors at the Hanoi Hilton.)  I decided to explore the bars in Clifton, my neighborhood and still favorite Cincinnati neighborhood.

One of the bars I habituated was the Submarine Galley, located on the south end of Short Vine.  The beer was cheap and the jukebox had a very good selection.  (Also, I had been around a few galleys in my typesetting days.)  I went inside and the atmosphere was more somber than a Good Friday vigil.  The lights were turned down low, and the jukebox was dark.  The bartender had a boom box sitting on the shelf with all the liquor bottles, and it was playing Christmas carols.  There were only a dozen or so people in the bar, and they all looked like they were in there alone.  There was very little eye contact, and everybody seemed to be intently studying the drinks in front of them.  My mood was already low enough, and I didn’t want it dragged down any further.  (Irish wakes are much more cheerful, and those usually occur with an open casket in the room!)

I didn’t even stay for one drink, but went instead to Cory’s, a jazz bar a few blocks south (George Thorogood filmed the “I Drink Alone” video there), and enjoyed a wonderful performance by nonagenarian James “Pigmeat” Jarrett, a jazz pianist who had performed with Duke Ellington.  Some other friends of mine, who were far from, or estranged from, their families, were there, and we ended up closing the place up and having an after-hours party at their apartment in that warren of streets south of West McMillan.

I spent part of yesterday indulging myself.  My supervisor gave me a $25 Wal-Mart gift card.  Wal-Mart is not one of my favorite places, even less so during the Christmas holidays, but I went south to Great Southern and braved the hoards of shoppers.  My purchases were pretty utilitarian–blank DVDs and CDs, mostly.  I was proud to get a two-disk copy of Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal for $5 (I’ve never seen the second movie).  I considered buying a diver’s watch, but decided not to because the dial was as big around as a silver dollar and the case weighed about a ton.  I can’t swim a stroke, so don’t ask me the appeal of a diver’s watch!

Yesterday, I also ran a more essential errand.  I must truly be drifting into insanity, because I will be taking a temporary evenings-and-weekends job at the Discovery Exchange, which is the bookstore at Columbus State Community College.  I will be helping with the rush period, before the winter quarter begins on January 3.  I applied online early in November, and had almost forgotten about it before the bookstore manager called me and asked me to come in after work last week for an interview.  After she recommended me for hire, I filled out information online about my last few addresses (I had to plow through the last few volumes of diaries to get the dates I lived at certain places), my criminal background if any, etc.  Yesterday, I stopped by the Human Resources office and filled out a W-2, signed up for SERS (School Employees Retirement System), and completed an online I-9 (an Employment Eligibility Form).  The Department of Xenophobia Homeland Security, via the Ohio Department of Public Safety, provided an amusing two-page Terrorist Exclusion List, and I had to indicate whether I was a member of any of them.  (If I was, would I admit it on a form when applying for a job?  If I did, I doubt that the Keystone Kops in Homeland Security would bother to follow it up.)  It was gratifying to see Kahane Chai, the Kach Party, and the Real IRA on the list, since the conventional wisdom seems to be that terrorism is the sole province of the Islamic world.

Discovery Exchange, Columbus State Community
College (283 Cleveland Ave.)

I’ll be starting at the Discovery Exchange Monday night after work, I believe.  After I gave the H.R. office all my information, they submitted it online, and there was a notice in my email when I got back from Wal-Mart saying my new employee Novell account is open.  I sent an email to my supervisor-to-be asking where and when to report to work.  She apparently didn’t get the message, and the bookstore was closed today, so I anticipate a phone call from her Monday morning.  I’m going to work at the Industrial Commission Monday morning planning to race-walk the eight-tenths of a mile to the bookstore.

One of my few completed writing projects is a novella called The Textbook Diaries, which I based on my experiences working at Du Bois Book Store in Cincinnati.  I worked there at the beginning and conclusion of almost every academic quarter at the University of Cincinnati for most of the time I lived in the Queen City, sometimes when I was otherwise unemployed, sometimes when I was also working at the Cincinnati post office.  I met quite a few characters, made a few friends, and had a variety of bizarre experiences during these stints, and had enough to create a manuscript.  (Charles Bukowski had already skewered one of my other employers, the U.S. Postal Service, so I figured I had textbook stores to myself.)  I took some dramatic liberties with my life and situation, rearranged some incidents, and embellished others.  I flatter myself by saying the finished product is what George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying would look like written by Bukowski.

Here is part of the first page of the manuscript, resurrected from the still-unsorted boxes of my writings and notebooks.  (This will be your chance to see it before you have to pay admission to see it under glass.☺)

When I learned I was getting the job at the Discovery Exchange, I emailed my friend Robert in Silver Spring, and the title of the email was “Son of Textbook Diaries,” since I may have more material by the time my job ends.  (I remember a New Yorker cartoon I hung over my desk when I was a teenager.  It showed a woman and her friend looking through a doorway, where one of the women’s husband is sitting at a desk, industriously at work on a typewriter.  The wife says, “Harvey fictionalizes my every word and deed.”  Maybe that’s what I should do at this job!)

It’s after 11 p.m., and it will be Christmas in about 45 minutes.  I’ve been to two Christmas services this season, one more than usual.  Both of them, the Qabalah celebration and the one tonight, made me think of a quotation from a Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, whom I’ve had the pleasure of hearing in person here in Columbus.  Long before I met him, I was familiar with his words.  A friend from several UU youth conferences would always sign off her letters with his words, words with which I will conclude this entry tonight.

May we dedicate ourselves to the proposition that beneath all our diversity and behind all our differences there is a unity which makes us one and binds us forever together in spite of time, and death, and the space between the stars.  Let us pause in silent witness to that Unity.

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One of Those Times When the Anticipation Far Exceeded the Actual Event

I should probably save that title for when I write about my 30th high school reunion next year (that’s assuming I go–which is a very big “if”), but it seemed to be a very appropriate heading for the padded book envelope which was in the mail when I came home from work this afternoon.

A trade paperback of A Place in the Sun: The Truth Behind Jay’s Journal, by Scott Barrett, was sitting on the table just inside the front door.  I had been searching– rather aggressively–for this book since before Steph and I were married, and it had been on my “want list” with AbeBooks for at least seven years.  I almost needed CPR when I opened my email late last week and saw that a copy had been located.  (I had just about forgotten about it.)  So, the next day, I mailed a money order to Frontier Book in American Fork, Utah.  And the product came today, wrapped neatly in the Sports section of the Daily Herald, the newspaper that covers Utah County, Utah.

From whence cometh the disappointment?  I haven’t begun to read it yet, so I probably should rein in all my initial deflation, but I am very displeased by the finished product.  In the first two pages alone typographical errors were jumping out at me like flares (one of the epigraphs was–I kid you not–“…turn… turn… turn…” by “The Birds”).  This was without even consciously looking for them!  I tried to remind myself that maybe my work as a typesetter and proofreader had made me hard-wired to look for mistakes like that on a subconscious level, but I don’t think so.

The front cover of A Place in the Sun, © 1996
by Where We Sat Publishing of Lehi, Utah

And the back cover.

And should I let that cloud the purpose of the book?  The author, Scott Barrett is the brother of the late Alden Barrett, who committed suicide in Pleasant Grove, Utah in 1971.  Alden’s family wanted to make some sense out of such a tragedy, and maybe in so doing save another family from such grief and horror by educating them about how to ward off suicide before it happened.

They turned to Beatrice Sparks, a teacher and therapist who had helped to bring out Go Ask Alice that year.  If you were in middle school from 1971 or 1972 onwards, you have encountered Go Ask Alice, which was by “Anonymous”.  “A Real Diary,” said the cover, and the book was supposed to be the actual journal of an unnamed 15-year-old never-named drug user.  (The titular Alice is based on the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and its line “Go ask Alice when she’s 10 feet tall.”)  My dad brought home a copy, which I read in one evening, and there was a very long waiting list for it at the Washington County Public Library, mostly requested  by girls.  (TANGENT ALERT: I just about fell through the floor when I went to AbeBook’s Website and saw that a first-edition Prentice-Hall hardcover with dust jacket is on sale for $1250!!)  The heroine is your typical adolescent girl–worried about popularity and her weight, feeling she can’t communicate with her family, etc., at battle with the queen bees at her new school, yadda, yadda, yadda.  She unknowingly drinks a Coca-Cola spiked with LSD at a party, and it’s downhill from there–more and more drugs, falling in love with drug peddlers, selling drugs on grade school playgrounds, running away, prostitution, etc.  She tries to kick the drug habit, is doped against her will, has a mental breakdown, and is confined to a psychiatric facility for a short period of time.  After her release, all seems bright for her future, except for the epilogue on the back page that she died of an overdose three weeks after discontinuing her diary, one of “thousands of drug deaths that year.”

So what did Beatrice Sparks do for Alden Barrett?  She eventually published his diary as Jay’s Journal.  Alden’s own story was tragic enough, but she rewrote it entirely as the writings of a slightly rebellious and acting-out teen who becomes immersed in the occult and Satanism, letting his body be taken over by a demon named Raul.  Alden seems to have been a faithful diarist, filling most of a spiral notebook (reproduced in A Place in the Sun), and Sparks used maybe 25 entries and completely rewrote them.  The closest thing to Satanism is Alden’s moving away from his family’s Mormon faith–he was nothing close to the sociopath who is the protagonist of Jay’s Journal.  (I did get a kick out of “Jay” making a New Year’s resolution to use the occult powers he’s learned to get better grades and do better in sports–kind of Aleister Crowley meets Lifespring.)  Sparks came away with a lot of money, and continues to crank out “real diary” books about teens, usually girls, who stray from the path of truth, justice, and the Mormon American way and come to an ugly end because of it (running away, AIDS, teen pregnancy, eating disorders).

I hope that the book, as sloppily produced and carelessly typeset as it is, puts to rest any belief that Jay’s Journal is authentic.  I first learned of the book at Ohio University, which has a reputation of being the most haunted campus in North America.  I knew some people there (I was dating one of them) who fancied themselves as witches, and insisted on secrecy about it.  (Their secrecy reminded me of Dennis the Menace’s clubhouses, where “SECRET ENTRANCE” was painted in giant letters above a big red arrow pointing to the door.)  Many of them handed Jay’s Journal and The Necronomicon around “clandestinely,” like 12-year-old boys with stolen Penthouses.  (I made one futile attempt to explain to them that The Necronomicon by “Simon” was based on–plagiarized from–the Cthulhu Mythos created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.)

TANGENT ALERT: I have never been involved in “the occult” (a too-broad-based term, since occult simply means “unknown”) as a practitioner of any particular system of beliefs, rituals, and rites, although I have attended drum circles and Wiccan rites that welcomed the turning of the seasons.  As a Universalist, a tenet of my belief is that of universal salvation, eloquently described by the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed here as a faith in a God Who “created both Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein, loves both Bush and bin Laden, and drags Hitler into Heaven as well,” so this means I have no belief in Satan or everlasting torment.

THE TANGENT CONTINUES: Shortly after I moved into my spacious bachelor apartment above Duttenhofer’s Map Store on W. McMillan St. in Cincinnati, I was cleaning out closets and hidey-holes, looking through what the previous tenant(s) had abandoned.  In the closet of the bedroom I would not occupy, I found a ouija board and planchette.  It was the commercially produced Parker Brothers edition, and it was hidden away behind some clothes and smut magazines the previous tenant didn’t take.  I left the ouija board there, but knowing it was in the apartment gave me the creeps, an uneasiness that I could not identify or put into words.  After about four days, I threw it in the trash can on the street.

TANGENT – 30 –

Likewise, Go Ask Alice is fiction, and all but true believers have accepted this.  Sparks still insists that it is based on an actual person, but she says she destroyed part of the original diary she used as a basis, and the undestroyed part is in her publisher’s safe.  Not one of the millions who have read this book has had an Aha! moment and said, “Wait!  I knew her!”  The Library of Congress seems to have the most respect for the truth, as their classification for Go Ask Alice is under PZ, which is “Fiction and juvenile belles lettres.”

“But look how many kids it’s kept off drugs!” I hear someone cry.  “Even if the story is fake…”  That reminds me of a Richard Pryor line, when his wife catches him in bed with another woman: “Who are you going to believe?  Me, or your lyin’ eyes?”  This is the same argument put forth by the fans of Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian whose first career was as a self-styled expert on Satanism and the occult.  His expertise rested on his bona fides as an ex-Satanic high priest who found Jesus while he was serving in the Navy after his coven tried to kill him with an overdose of heroin. This story was accepted without question, beginning with the publication of his “autobiography” The Satan Seller.  Finally, two writers for Cornerstone, a now-defunct Christian magazine published in Chicago, did enough checking and research to convincingly demonstrate that Warnke’s story was complete fiction from top to bottom.  Warnke’s “data” led to many police departments, journalists, and scholars spending most of the 1980s chasing their tails searching for nonexistent networks of Satanic covens that were abducting and murdering children, breeding babies for ritual cannibalism, and seducing teenagers with promises of unlimited drugs and sex.  The teenaged killers who made headlines as “Satanic killers,” such as Sean Sellers and Ricky Kasso, were too antisocial and sure of their own supremacy to cooperate with anyone in authority, whether it was a principal or a high priest.  (Warnke was even brushed off by Anton LaVey, the creator of the Church of Satan.  LaVey, I believe, is the love child of Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand.)

One question that has plagued me ever since I learned that A Place in the Sun existed is the choice of the title.  It is the title of one of my favorite movies, a 1951 Paramount Pictures feature that starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.  I had first seen it on Nite Owl Theater during my 13th summer, when I was “home alone” while Dad spent all his time (literally) at his wife’s apartment.  I had tuned in just in time to see Raymond Burr (as a D.A.) sitting in a rowboat in the middle of the courtroom, and stayed with it until the tragic conclusion.  It would be a year or more before I saw the movie in its entirety.

The movie is based on Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, one of those long books I know I should read, but which I will put off for a future long bus trip I take (it’s a save-for-long-bus-trip-or-prison-sentence book).  It figured humorously in my life when I went to my first Unitarian Universalist youth conference, at Camp Tippecanoe in Harrison County.  A young woman, the same age as I was then (16), were clicking well after sitting together at lunch, and I began to see… possibilities.  But she turned white as a sheet when I suggested that we get in one of the canoes and row out on Clendening Lake.  I was a little hurt, but relieved, since it took a lot of nerve for me to overcome my fear of water enough to make this suggestion.  At dinner, I saw a paperback copy of An American Tragedy protruding from the pocket of her knapsack when she came up to the lodge.

So I knew that it wasn’t me who had rattled her, and I felt better.  It’s one of those “we’ll look back on this and laugh” moments.