30
Dec

New Year’s Eve is upon us. Oy.

As my last few posts have hinted, I love everything about the holidays. I love the appreciation of food and friendship on Thanksgiving. I love the magic and memories made at Christmas. I love alliteration. But New Year’s? Well, it just sucks.

Not the actual new year. That part I’m all about. I relish wishing strangers, “Happy New Year!” Initially it throws them and there’s this half-second of awkward silence, but they all recover with an even more enthusiastic echo of my sentiment. It’s the little things. And cracking open my brand new planner come January 1 is Christmas morning all over again; I have 365 new gifts just waiting for me. Totally cheesy, to be sure, but also totally true.

New Year’s Eve is brutal, though. Everyone – everyone – wants to know what you’re doing that night. 200 Cigarettes hit the nail on the head. Everybody goes into panic attack mode on December 31. What are you going to wear? Where are you going to go? Who are you going to kiss?  I’ve explored the options over the years. I’ve done the house party thing. I’ve done the bar thing. I went ice-skating one year and clinked champagne glasses at one of LA’s trendier restaurants – they all try to be some kind of trendy – another year. I even did the Times Square ball drop as we entered the year 2000. And though I’ve enjoyed myself at each of these outings, I’m always fantasizing about being in bed as of 12:01am.

At least in Chicago you had an arsenal of excuses if you wanted to stay home: “It’s snowing outside,” or “It’s zero degrees outside.” Something along those lines. The one time Mother Nature is your friend during a Chicago winter. People buy those excuses. They understand. After all, who wants to combat single digit temps while keeping their eyes akimbo for ice puddles all night long? Lest you forget, I would also like to remind you that the ladies are encouraged to wear attire not at all appropriate in this type of climate. Like that’s fair. I can tell you from experience that the chances of catching hypothermia from open toe heels on New Year’s Eve in Chicago are very real. And good luck trying to catch a cab.

Alas, it never snows in LA, so the excuses are somewhat harder to come by. I may be exhausted and slightly larger from a month and a half of holiday parties, but time to suck it up. Literally. Take a deep breath and force that little black dress on one last time. You have to, right? Because there’s this air of superstition that hangs over New Year’s Eve; if you have a lame night it will surely translate into an even lamer year. If you don’t have a date, forget trying to find your soul mate anytime soon. If you stay home, kiss your social life goodbye for the next year. My last New Year’s Eve was spent taking care of a dear friend who had forgotten that she and alcohol don’t mix well. New Year’s Day? It started with saltines and ended with an urgent request for me to pull over on Sunset Boulevard so that my brand-new car would avoid being christened with the remnants of cheese ball and tequila. So was the rest of my 2010 pukey as well? Not at all. I may have had one or two dry heaving moments, but all in all, it was a very good year.

A beautiful wedding doesn’t always translate into a beautiful marriage. Likewise, what you do on New Year’s Eve doesn’t decide your fate for the coming year. If you want to spend the night with hundreds of strangers in a crowded club, I say go for it. If the person you most want to spend the evening with is yourself, that’s okay, too. Whatever it is that you decide to do, be safe and have fun. Most importantly, remember that once the clock hits midnight you have in front of you an entire year to mold and make into anything you want. That is reason to celebrate.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

23
Dec

Prepare yourself…

As a child, I never believed in Santa Claus. Ever. Or the Easter Bunny. Or the Tooth Fairy. It’s sad, but true. This is what happens when you have a sister seven years older than you.

I love my sister. She’s been a significant presence in my life. She helped me kick my thumb-sucking habit. That was huge. She also taught me how to be brave; many, many times she forced me to play mercy with her. Many, many times I lost. Eventually I learned to cry only on the inside – Mila fed off fear – yet I never harbored any ill will toward her. It was just my sister’s way of spending quality time with me.

However, she pretty much ruined my belief in the Big Three. As I was just beginning to walk, Mila was picking fights with the neighborhood kids… and winning them. My sister has always been a no-nonsense, street-smart kind of gal, so I really never stood a chance. No way was she going to humor my parents’ attempts to engage me with stories of old Saint Nick coming down the fireplace to leave presents under the tree. Nor would she remain silent as I was encouraged to lose that wiggly front tooth in order to magically find a dollar under my pillow.

Though some may mourn this supposed loss of childhood, I’m not too torn up about it. How can you grieve for something you never had? Plus, my sister found other ways to make me appreciate Christmas. Usually they revolved around me begging her not to steam open our gifts before we were allowed to open them. Knowing there wasn’t a Santa Claus was one thing. Knowing the contents of all the boxes under the tree was quite another. Mila had already killed the magic of Christmas for me, but it’d be nice if I could at least enjoy a little bit of its mystery. Throw a baby sister a bone.

Yet it was only until I almost ruined someone else’s Christmas that I fully understood the power of my sister’s diabolical mind. I was five years old. It was like any other December afternoon; I had gone over to my cousins’ house to play for a while. Our trio usually got along smashingly, but for some reason Jen and I came to the agreement that her little sister should be exiled to the closet. As she was just two years old, Heather didn’t have the wherewithal to fight our decision. So we led her inside, shut the door and went back to our game of Cootie. My aunt checked on us a bit later and immediately noticed we were short one kid. Realizing what we had done, she scolded us thoroughly and uttered the one phrase that strikes fear into the heart of (almost) every child: “I’m calling Santa Claus and telling him to bring neither of you any presents this year! You’ve both been very bad girls!”

I calmly watched my aunt storm into the kitchen to make her phony phone call. Meanwhile Jen immediately burst into tears and started to wail miserably. Obviously she knew nothing of this Santa sham. Thinking it would make her feel better, I tenderly whispered, “Jen, it’s okay. Your mom’s not calling Santa Claus. There is no Santa Claus.” Jen only wailed louder.

But all’s well that ends well. As far as we can tell, Heather has shown no symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from her time in solitary confinement. We all got Christmas gifts that year. Most importantly, Jen forgot within minutes my Deep Throat attempt to expose the Santagate scandal. Though it was never my intention to shatter the innocence of her childhood that day, I’m nonetheless grateful that she decided to repress all memory of it.

Since then, I’ve observed several times as a child catches a glimpse of Santa at the parade or in a mall. His face lights up with joy. His eyes go wide with excitement. He’ll point out the bearded old man while thinking about how this very same Santa will soon be flying with his eight tiny reindeer to bring presents to all the good boys and girls around the world. I’ll look at this little tyke and think to myself, “sucker.” But really I’m just jealous. As an adult, the capacity to believe in the magic and wonder of life, whether at the holidays or otherwise, is difficult to cultivate. You probably won’t ever find Santa on your rooftop or the Easter Bunny in your backyard, but whatever it is you do find – that chance sighting of a shooting star, four-leaf clover or double rainbow – take a second to revel in it. Those moments come far and few between.

Finally, to my dear big sister… I wish you a very merry Christmas filled with much laughter and happiness. And one last thing – Mom and Dad have always loved me more. Now we’re even.

Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

16
Dec

Hanging mistletoe. Being jolly. Boughs of holly. These are just a few of the many things people may enjoy during the holidays, but I have one more to add to that list: Rock Band.

It all began a couple of years ago at the Thanksgiving potluck my friends host every November. We ate. We weathered food coma. And then we pulled out Rock Band. I had yet to experience this musical phenomenon, but after bearing unfortunate witness to some friends playing Dance Dance Revolution, I had serious doubts about partaking in yet another interactive abomination. So instead I remained seated and observed.

I quickly realized that most band members are adamant about what they will or will not do; it’s only lead guitar or only vocals. I also learned to consider long and hard before volunteering for drums because then you will most likely be stuck on them all night. No one wants drums; too much hand-eye coordination involved. And then there’s song selection. A band can easily break up because of this most important of decisions. Some want Beastie Boys, and others, Blue Oyster Cult. Yet one name can unite all: Bon Jovi.

After about an hour of watching, I finally took a chance and got on bass. However, being one of those absolutely musically incompetent people, I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know much about guitar playing, but I did know one thing – the real ones have strings. How exactly would that translate with plastic buttons? I also noticed that everyone’s percentages were displayed after each song ended and felt an uneasy queasiness as if I was taking a test in front of my closest friends.

I did okay. In fact, I began to enjoy myself rather quickly. There was something so soothing about shutting out the rest of the world and focusing solely on that sparkling trail of colored notes. I barely paid any attention to my band mates. I just kept thinking, “green, green, yellow, red, green.” Getting forty notes in a row was a major milestone in my young Rock Band career.

That was my first experience with the game, and I didn’t pick up another guitar – plastic or otherwise – until the following Thanksgiving. Though a year had gone by, it was just like riding a bike. I even left my comfort zone to sing vocals on a few songs. “Eye of the Tiger?” Yes, please. A few weeks later, someone broke out Rock Band at our company’s holiday party. And since nothing was going to get accomplished at work the day before Christmas, we played a little Rock Band to pass the few hours we were forced to remain in the building.

But like all Rock Band musicians, I’ve gone through my moments of self-doubt and despondency. Given my soaring success last year, I felt pretty solid about my bass skills, yet suffered a rather serious setback this past Thanksgiving. The highest percentage I could manage was a sixty-six and that was on the “easy” setting. Very disappointing indeed. I guess I should have practiced more between January and October. And though I just recently scored a one hundred percent on vocals, it’s hard to be respected as an artist when your song of choice is “Sister Christian.”

Yet my favorite Rock Band moment to date occurred while I was a mere spectator. Just a face in the crowd. It happened while at a holiday party I attended over the weekend. The host and hostess went all out for this shindig: the front door wrapped as a ginormous present, the television transformed into a digital fireplace and the family dogs dressed in their finest Christmas sweaters. The man of the house was also dressed up – as Santa himself! – glasses and beard included.

We proceeded to gorge ourselves on a delicious dinner. We then engaged in an alarmingly competitive ornament exchange. And finally we broke out the microphone and keytar. Tributes were sung to both Amy Winehouse and Huey Lewis and the News. A group rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” brought everyone to tears. And then I received the bestest early Christmas gift ever. Santa took over the mic. His song of choice? Rammstein’s “Du Hast.” In case you didn’t know, Rammstein is a German industrial metal band. I Wikipediaed them. Aside from Nine Inch Nails and Rob Zombie, who also are included in this musical niche, here are a few other bands that fall into the same category: Freak XXI, Godkiller, Jesus on Extasy, Necromance, Painflow and Spineshank. Fun, right? Words cannot adequately express what I felt watching dear old Santa as he screamed the following lyrics: “Du… Du hast… Du hast mich… Du hast mich gefragt… Du hast mich gefragt und ich hab nichts gesagt!” Over and over and over again. Yet another holiday memory that I will cherish in my heart always.

Thank you, Rock Band.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

09
Dec

Malibu, California. No wonder Barbie decided to move here. Both are too perfect to be real. Driving up the PCH, the ocean sparkles to your left and multimillion-dollar homes likewise sparkle to your right. Charming little bait shops and fruit stands sprinkle the landscape every few stoplights. Though the marine layer can often obscure the scenery, it was nowhere to be found that morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Gorgeous.

I was heading to Pepperdine University to visit a friend that teaches film production there. Greeting me in the lobby, he proceeded with a tour of the department and casually mentioned that I would be speaking to his students for a few minutes. Come again? Why would I do that? According to him, I had real world experience to be passed down to the next generation. Interesting. Until that very morning, I thought I still was the next generation… We entered the classroom and all was swell until the students actually started to file in. I hate myself for admitting this, but I got nervous. Why? Who the hell cared? They were just college kids. Film students. I’d been around those types plenty. I looked around the room to size up my audience… and didn’t recognize one single person there. Granted, I had never met any of them before in my life, but my confusion stemmed from a deeper source. Who exactly were these creatures? I didn’t recognize anything about them: their appearance, their body language, their apparent joy-like state of being. It then occurred to me that I might have just discovered a new species of film student.

They were washed. Clean-shaven. Most if not all of them looked like they were wearing freshly laundered clothing. I didn’t understand. I also noticed that many of them were lacking traditional film student essentials: the ubiquitous coffee mug and pack of cigarettes. Intriguing. Obviously a lot had changed since my days at school. As a student, I had learned that discerning survival skills was the name of the game. Do I brush my teeth or wash my face? Do I change my clothes or pack a lunch? It was one or the other, but not both; the ‘L’ wasn’t going to wait for anyone. Daily sustenance could be hunted down and found at McDonalds or Subway. To blend in with the rest of the herd and hide from predators such as instructors asking for overdue scripts, most students adapted black on black camouflage. It worked. On any given day, you would be hard-pressed to tell us apart as we either milled around the halls or huddled in front of the film building. Our appearance exhibited common traits of the species: pasty skin, sleep-deprived eyes, unwashed hair and three-day stubble.

Yet the kids in front of me were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. White teeth gleamed under their ever-present smiles. Shiny locks of hair framed their peaches and cream complexions. Happy and healthy film students. Fascinating.

My enthrallment with this previously unknown species superseded my anxiety of talking to them. Instead I wondered: “Could I communicate with them at all? Do we speak the same language?” I recalled my time at Columbia and Chapman, what life has been like since graduating, how to survive in LA… and slowly began to detect signs of classic film student behavior. While a few sat upright and focused steadfastly on my every word, most were not. Slumped over in their chairs, they seemed to be looking past me, their faces clouded over with ambivalence. Now this is what I remembered. Alas, no new discovery had been made. These were the same students that I knew back in Chicago. Yet instead of mirroring the barren and sometimes inhospitable terrain of my hometown, they had merely adapted to their beautiful surroundings in order to better blend into the landscape. Survival of the Malibu fittest. We’re all the same underneath; some of us just have better teeth and year-round tans.

Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

02
Dec

We all know those people. The ones that are super comfortable with letting it all just hang out. You want to show me how real your fake boobs look by jumping up and down? Okay, fine. You’re only forty and already wearing adult diapers? My condolences. But it’s cool. I can handle random public nakedness and unexpected bodily functions. What I don’t understand is why some people will flash the girls or divulge their bathroom behavior without even knowing my first name. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, I didn’t know either of those individuals. First example? Happened in a restaurant bathroom. Second example? In a clothing store. Those folks were both perfect strangers to me. Or more importantly, I was a perfect stranger to them.

And that’s my point. When did it all of a sudden become acceptable to assault others with your most personal odds and ends?* Because I see and hear it all around me. Thing is, it’s happening so much nowadays that not only are strangers totally at ease with telling every little detail of their lives to random passersby, but also peeps are now asking completely invasive questions without realizing that it’s none of their damn business.

Allow me to elaborate.

The bank. I had just one quick transaction to make, but upon entering the lobby saw that at least ten people were already waiting in line. Defeated, I slowly walked over and added myself to their miserable company. But then an unexpected angel came to my aid – none other than second-generation actor Scott Caan! Or maybe it was just Scott’s doppelganger. Either way, he said that he could take care of my request at his desk.

Within sixty seconds I was all set. A satisfied customer, I flashed my biggest smile and thanked him for his speedy assistance. As I was about to get up, however, he asked if I had a safety deposit box. Why no, Scott Caan. I did not. He then informed me that I could be eligible for a free one at the bank. Believe it or not, this intrigued me. I have no valuable baubles at home. No deeds or bonds. Nothing that would make it onto “Antiques Roadshow,” but I’ve always had this weird fear of my apartment burning down. Mind you, I live across the street from a fire station and already have a fireproof safe in my home. Regardless, Scott drew me in with his lure of yet another means to protect my social security card and Star Wars PEZ figurines.

I was hooked, and he knew it. Scott then segued into, “So how do you pay your bills?” Umm… All right, I guess it was okay to tell him. He did work at a bank after all. The next words out of his mouth: “Why don’t we take a look at your accounts?” That’s when I began to get nervous. It was like I was getting an impromptu physical and didn’t put on the good underwear that morning.

All of a sudden we were looking at my checking account activity. “So what do you do for a living?” And my savings account. “Do you have any plans for buying a home?” And my car loan. “You had your car for fifteen years? Why?” It was a nightmare. No offense, Scott Caan, but the shiny little placard on your desk that reads “Personal Banker” does not entitle you to ask anything you want about my life. The worst part was that we were within plain sight – and earshot – of everyone in the bank. Scott hadn’t yet received that sweet promotion with the corner office and personal parking space. He didn’t even have cubicle walls. We were sitting exactly two feet from a dozen strangers who now knew how I had financed my car and that my greatest wish in life is to touch others through my writing.

But Scott Caan was on a roll. He wanted to show me how to set up automatic payments through the bank’s online system and asked to whom I owed money every month. He might as well have asked if I’ve ever peed my pants in public. I was in hell. The situation was totally spiraling out of control. And now the sweating began. I wanted to just get out of there, but knew that would entail having to shake Scott’s hand. Not only was I folding under the pressure of his humiliating inquisition, but also was stressing over having to offer up my dripping palm to thank him for it.

Then suddenly I was rescued from my rescuer: Scott’s cell phone started to ring. He glanced first at the phone and then back to me, uncertain of whether he would take the call. I gladly made that decision for him. “Oh, don’t want you to miss that! Thanks for your help!” Leaping up, I quickly slapped his outstretched hand and promptly booked it towards the door. I was eager to make my escape, but nevertheless slowed down and turned around. I headed back towards his desk. Sigh… I knew it. “Will you please log out of my account?” All my financial bits and pieces were still on the screen for everyone to see. Scott Caan, stick to acting.

* I am well aware of my hypocrisy, dear readers. No one’s perfect.

Image: Chris Sharp / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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