Saturday, December 27, 2008

Writing and Anxiety

no words...Image by carf via FlickrWell, as most know I've been away from writing on here for quite a bit now. Actually, I was kind of missing it. It is great to interact with people from all over the world and see what they have to say about the things that come out of my head.

I an not ashamed to say that I suffer from bipolar disease type II. This is not your typical manic depression because I don't have the traditional manic phases. Most of it presents as depression and anxiety. It was a pretty shocking diagnosis for me actually, but it does make a lot of sense. Embracing the diagnosis and following a treatment plan has helped my life in general tremendously. I see this as a disease like diabetes and cancer that requires treatment. There are ups and downs, but for the most part I am stable and functional.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, sometimes it gets in the way of my actually writing. When you are depressed, you figure what the use in writing when you will only get rejected anyway. That's a very sad place to be because there is so much more to writing than the acceptance and rejection side of things. That's profound. I need to remember it.

Anxiety is even more difficult to work with because you are constantly worried about will it get accepted or is it good enough or what will the neighbors think if they read this or does this plot work, is this character well written, is any of this going right! It's a challenge, as you can see.

The thing is, I think that many writers are faced with these same issues. I will say right now that writer's block does exist and its real name is anxiety. It is when you are blocked that you just stare at the keys and worry. Hemmingway is a perfect example of anxiety and writer's block. He worried that he had run out of stories, lost his talent/ muse/ whatever. I think most writers get this way -- if not all of the time, then some of the time.

Some of us are cursed with the anxiety most of the time and I am one of those. My troubles are compounded by the additional diagnosis that I have, so writing is so hard for me. It's hard starting, but once I am there, I am free. If I can get to the point where I don't have to think anymore, then I can ride that wave of creativity that characterizes my non depressed and anxious mood. Writing, for me, is a win, an act of overcoming a mountain of thoughts and feelings. It is breakthrough and release for me, but when I am feeling my worst, it is nearly impossible to achieve.

So, that is where I have been. I have been toiling in the trenches of anxiety and writer's block. It is getting better which is why I am here now and actually writing. It does feel freeing, getting the words onto the screen. Even if it is nothing of importance to anyone but me, it is helping me.

And maybe it will help others to let you know that you are not alone. For some reason, those of us who like to create and express ourselves do because our minds have so much excess to express. It is therapy and entertainment, agony and ecstasy, sound and fury -- sometimes meaning something but sometimes meaning nothing.

Outrun your anxiety today. I've outrun it for this whole post and am proud. Anyone else out there know what I'm talking about?
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Friday, December 12, 2008

Sentence structure

Written for Helium, I thought this may help someone here as well. It never hurts to take a look at your sentences to see if you are at least attempting to follow the rules of grammar.

Sentence structure is a dying art form. The only ones who understand parts of a sentence are grade school children, but since writing is so important in today’s world, it would benefit others to learn again the strengths of writing a decent sentence. Here is a brief and dirty overview of the basic parts of speech.

Sentences start off with a noun and a verb. These two words can make up an entire sentence, though it is not an easy feat. However, you will most likely need and article to make something comprehensible.

The boy ran.

The: This is an article and always precedes a noun or pronoun. Articles included “a” and “an”. Pronouns are words such as she, he, it, their, theirs, and so on.

Boy: This is the noun. Nouns can be a person, place, thing, or idea. It is the “actor” of the sentence. Nouns can also be listed separated by a comma and linked with “and” such as “the boy, girl, and dog”.

Ran: This is the verb. It is a word that describes any type of action.

The boy is young.

Is: This is a linking verb. It is a form of the verb “to be” and so indicates a state of being.

Young: This is an adjective. It describes the noun. It can describe the noun from the linking form or it can precede a noun such as “young boy”. Adjectives can also be strung together in the form “smart, young boy.”

The boy ran quickly.

Quickly: This is an adverb. It describes the verb and enhances the understanding of the action. It can both precede and follow a verb, such as “quickly ran.” Adverbs often end in “-ly”, but there are a few exceptions to that rule such as “very”.

The boy ran to the store.

To the store: This is a prepositional phase. These phrases start with various words such as “to”, “after”, “before”, “about”, “for”, “from”, and many others. They can be adjective or adverb phrases. “The boy under the table cowered in fright,” is an example of both types of prepositional phrases.

The boy ran home.

Home: Although a noun, this word is the object of the verb. Where did the boy run? Home. It usually answers the question of the verb. What did they want? Glasses. Indirect objects such as “The boy gave the glasses to her” are the receivers of the object – in this case “her”.

These are the basic part of a sentence, but this is by no means an exhaustive guide. There are many various places on the internet that offer advice on grammar, parts of speech, and sentence structure. There are also structures that a sentence can use in addition to the simple sentences described above. For instance, the compound sentence, linked by a linking verb such as “and”, “but”, and “or”.

The boy ran to the store, and he bought a gallon of milk.

This links two simple sentences and is used to vary the lengths of sentences in a piece. Too many simple sentences are choppy and hard to read. However, overly complex sentence can confuse a reader. This is a complex sentence:

Since he bought the gallon of milk, he ran home.

The first part of the sentence before the comma is known as a complementary phrase and is used to enhance and describe the simple sentence. Note that is it is a fragment and cannot stand on its own. Now to make things even more interesting, here is a complex-compound sentence:

Since he bought the milk, he ran home, and he gave it to his mother.

Two simple sentences are linked together by “and” and preceded by a complementary phrase. Complementary phrases can also come at the end of the sentence or in the middle.

The boy ran home, and he gave his mother the gallon of milk since he bought it at the store.

The boy ran home, since he bought the gallon of milk, and he gave it to his mother.

The structure of sentences is fascinating and provides for multiple permutations that make writing unique. This guide provides a quick overview for you to grasp the basic concepts, but all writers should delve into this field. As you can see, it helps to make a sentence more interesting and that makes your writing more interesting as well.

Suggested link: Diagramming Sentences

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ready, set, go -- again!

Alright Inky and all of you out there who want to be part of submission-palooza, I'm ready to roll.

I propose ten submissions of any length to be submitted to duotrope markets, helium, or associated content (I'd like to write some articles since I just made a few dollars). All pieces must be started, finished, and submitted between now and whenever anyone announces they are done with ten.

Award: bragging rights, general good natured ribbing, and a possible sale -- the best prize!

So, strap on your key boards, and let's get writing.

BTW, Inky, I was thinking that we could start counting words, too. For instance, I'm writing a novella right now for the harlequin thing. It would be inspiring to see who would be the first to 10,000 words. It would also give us the opportunity to submit longer pieces which may rake in a bit more or at least have a different chance of acceptance. Next time, maybe, if you're up to it. :)

Write on! *groan*
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Poetry Blog

Since I've been having such a good time writing poetry lately, I've decided to open up a smaller blog dedicated to just poems. It feels really good to write them -- especially the diamantes -- and I'm already enjoying it.

Check it out:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

I hate eating!

I hate eating. There, it bears repeating. Nothing tastes good to me anymore. I am about three and a half months out of gastric bypass, and I just don't like the taste of anything. If it wasn't for my stomach grumbling and aching, I probably wouldn't eat.

I used to like to get things from the pizza shop. Everything I have tried from there -- in small portions, of course -- and it all tastes like slime that sit in the stomach. Mind, I don't get sick. I only get that when I eat too fast or eat too much. That's what surgery does for you. I just don't like the taste of food. It isn't such a fun thing anymore. Nothing tastes good.

I do have some low calorie candies, but even them just make me feel bloated and icky. There is only so much tuna and salmon and chicken and tuna again that I can eat before I go completely bonkers.

The good news is that I've lost almost 100 pounds since last January and 50 pounds since surgery. My hair is falling out, though. That's not fun, but not that noticeable, either. I would do it again in a half of a heartbeat, but I just wish food tasted good again.

Pittsburgh Steelers helmetImage via WikipediaWell, maybe I don't. The more I am adverse to eating it the better able I am to maintain my loss.

I'm off to watch my beloved Steelers -- and the rest of football that is on today -- and cheer them to victory. Hope everyone is having a great Sunday out in blog land.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

How to get yourself a spiffy blogger template

Well, it isn't that hard, really. Here are a few simple steps. Now, bear in mind it is the customization that is tough. If there is something you really need -- adsense, a special sort of widget on the side -- that's a different thing. Post a comment and I'll see what I can do.

So, go to this website:

You'll see on this page a fantastic list of just about any sort of template you may be interested in. They are listed by different colors, different layouts, and so on. Here's some of my favorites:

Notepad Chaos, my current template

Blogger Notes, another writerly template

Outdoorsy, a pretty nice looking blog

Now, you can download one of these and install them. Here's how: first, download the .zip file to your computer and open it up. Next, go to you blogger layout tab (found next to the create post button). Click there and you will get the layout manager. At the top, there are links. Click on Edit HTML.

At the top of the page will be an upload dialogue box. Click upload and surf to where you unzipped your file. Hit okay and okay. Your template is now applied and you want to save it. Don't worry. This process will not change any of your posts. It will only change how they look.

And that's basically it. The customization is the hard part. If the template you chose has a readme file, take a look at that. A good source of help with templates is the page you downloaded it from. There are comments at the bottom of the page that address potential bugs.

Your lay out screen is very helpful, too. You can add gadgets from there to increase your functionality -- like the followers gadget. If this all makes you nervous, you can create a new blog and practice in there. That way your blog has no downtime until you are ready to change over.

I know this is not as indepth as if can be because it is actually a very complex system. If anyone needs help, let me know. I'd be willing to set up templates for some free traffic. :) I only have five very dedicated and lovely followers, but I'd like more. :) Hope this helps someone out there!
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Three more diamantes

Well, since there was such a response to my first diamante poem, I thought I'd try a few more. These ones were more difficult because I wasn't getting the parts of speech right. BTW, I never new how similar the words forgive and forget actually are.

Warm, intense
Burning, searing, melting
Sun, heat, clouds, wind
Chilling, shivering, chattering
Bitter, crystalline

Sexual, emotional
Giving, receiving, wanting
Kiss, heart, fist, brawl
Fighting, screaming, damning
Blind, unforgivable

Repentant, supplicant
Releasing, embracing, absolving
Sin, mistake, rememberance, recollection
Dismissing, clearing, escaping
Peaceful, dismissal

Anyone else want to give it a try. They can be fun. Maybe another tutorial. I've found, though, that these are used mainly in schools to teach parts of speech, lol. However, the can be quite beautiful and profound if you really work at it.
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Quotes that Inspire -- Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky Quotes:

"We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.
Fyodor Dostoevsky"

--- This is a romance novel waiting to happen. Hopefully, I good one. :)

“One can know a man from his laugh, and if you like a man's laugh before you know anything of him, you may confidently say that he is a good man.”

----I like this. Maybe it is because I laugh a lot.

"What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. "

----Depression exemplifies this -- unfortunately.

Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.
More story grist for the mill.

"I like them to talk nonsense. That's man's one privilege over all creation. Through error you come to the truth! I am a man because I err! You never reach any truth without making fourteen mistakes and very likely a hundred and fourteen."

And to this I come because I find it inspiring. You need to make mistakes manytimes to get to truth. I read in a writing book that if you do ten stories or ten titles or ten anything off the top of your head, the chances are that only one of them will be any good. Sort of freeing for me because I just call the other nine crap and wait for the tenth.

So, keep going, keep writing. Easy to say and so, so hard to do.

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Friday, December 5, 2008

A Diamante

Don't ask me about this one. It's rather weird, but I thought I'd share. :)


Righteous, strong

Fighting, jousting, feasting

Honorable, loyal, important, noble

Ruling, leading, deciding,

Just, royal


Jousting Sir Quint of Knights of Avalon on Nob...Image via WikipediaI don't really get it, but it does have balance and it worked out my inner thesaurus. Here's the explanation for my madness: Types of Poetry

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Thursday, December 4, 2008

Tutorial: A sonnet

Title page from the 1609 edition of SHAKE-SPEA...Image via Wikipedia"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day" is probably the most well know start to a sonnet in the who English language. Recently, though, I have been playing with this form in the vain attempt to win a certain contest. :) Here's a quick guide on how to put one together.

The general form is like this abab, cdcd, efef, gg with ten syllables per line. This is the classic English sonnet. There are other types with other syllable requirements.

So, to start . . .

When will I publish another book
How will I ever overcome this merciless block.
Writing as ever has me hooked,
It would be better than punching a clock.

Alright, there are already a few problems with this quatrain. The first line is only nine syllables. Since I'm doing English sonnet, I need ten. The tough part is finding a one syllable word that makes sense in the line. Revised:

Tell me, will I publish another book ?

Better, but this is an example and not a literary master piece. :) Next line has thirteen syllables. We need to cut some, maintain sense, and not take too many. Revised:

How will I overcome this horr'ble block?

Noticed the contracted horrible. This is because I needed the word and there were too many syllables. Some words you can contract. Contractions are your friend. This brings the count to ten. The next line needs to rhyme with book, but I accidentally used hook. I may have to change the whole line now. Revised:

The excitement of writing, my breath took.

I had to revise the whole thing, but I think I like it better. You have to be careful with big words. At first I tried "euphoria" but that has four syllables, leaving me only six to get the rest of the job done. Excitement is still long, but it frees up a syllable. If I'd needed and extra, you could have bet euphoria would have been in there.

The next line is right on meter wise and fits the theme. Here's the revised quatrain:

Tell me, will I publish another book ?
How will I overcome this horr'ble block
The excitement of writing, my breath took.
It would be better than punching a clock.

The next two quatrains are in the same form with the same meter. However, the do not rhyme with any of the rhymes in this quatrain or others. All of the rhymes are internal to their specific quatrain. Here's my next one, but I will spare you the editing process:

Day after day I type my precious words,
Wondering who will e'er want to read them.
Anxiety my flow of work disturbs.
A constant fight, an internal mayhem.

Two things about this quatrain. Notice the use of the contract e'er to fit my idea in. Every time I use that I feel like Shakepeare. :) I also rhymed words with disturbs. It is know as a sound alike rhyme and I found it in my handy rhyming dictionary. There is a link below for the free one I use. And the next quatrain:

Slowly I ease my tension on the keys,
Wanting only to write with heartfelt joy
From my writing I find my constant ease
All my soul to write these words I employ.

You may also notice that a lot of grammar is turned around to get the point across. Too many restrictions on the poety, and you are sunk. I like twisting the forms, though, because it makes the work more interesting to speak aloud. Now for the icing on the cake that defines the sonnet: the ending couplet that pulls it all together.

A writer is what I e'er long to be.
It never once fails to make me feel free.

And that, I think sums up the poem and my feeling. Now the entire sonnet. Read it out loud and feel it's rhythm:

Tell me, will I publish another book?
How will I overcome this horr'ble block?
The excitement of writing, my breath took.
And would be better than punching a clock.
Day after day I type my precious words,
Wondering who will e'er want to read them.
Anxiety my flow of work disturbs,
A constant fight, an internal mayhem.
Slowly I ease my tension on the keys,
Wanting only to write with heartfelt joy.
From my writing I find my constant ease,
All my soul to write these words I employ.
A writer is what I e'er long to be.
It never once fails to make me feel free.

So, that's sonnet writing in a nutshell. This is actually the easiest compared to a roundel and an ode. I haven't tried the others yet. :) I hope that this was helpful to some. This could certainly be slanted toward writing fantasy, horror, and sci-fi themes. I've already written Ode to the Undead Wizard, so it can be done!

Types of poetry

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News and Views

Well, I really ought to be sleeping, but I needed to tell everyone my great news. Golden Visions has picked up my flash story . . . can't remember the name now -- oh, I thinkChristine de PizanImage via Wikipedia it is the Goodbye. Publication to be in Feb with a bit of a token ($5) payment. Yay, me!

I did lose the writing contest, but just by a hair. I submitted three poems (two sonnets and a rondel) to Coyote Wild. Love those meter and rhyme poems. Why do free verse when you can mash around some words to make a story.

In other news, I wrote a short story of about 3000 words, but it has a plot problem so I'm letting it rest. If any like crits, I'm open to trading.

I also saw that Harlequin Historical is looking for 10,000-15,000 electronic submitted stories for their website. They need to be "hot" so that's what I'm going to be working on for the next few days. Already got a plot, like the hero, not so much the heroine. Hm, she'll need work.

I've always been sick lately, but it's a long story full of doctors, prescriptions, and probably a gigantic dose misunderstanding.

Well, that's all I have now. Maybe I'll post a rant or two when I wake up.

These are for me to check out later. ;)

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A Lovecraftian Sense of Humor

Sweet Ermengarde - Wikisource: "Ermengarde Stubbs was the beauteous blonde daughter of Hiram Stubbs, a poor but honest farmer-bootlegger of Hogton, Vt. Her name was originally Ethyl Ermengarde, but her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol, C2H5OH. His own products contained mostly methyl or wood alcohol, CH3OH. Ermengarde confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty. She had large black eyes, a prominent Roman nose, light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies, and a beautiful but inexpensive complexion. She was about 5ft tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father's copy scales - also off them - and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father's farm and liked his liquid crops."

I just had to post this story because it is the funniest thing I have read in a long time. To make it even more astonishing, it was publish in 1917!!!

More later, after sleep and food and other necessary necessities. Much to tell!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Pictures of sculpts

As requested -- thanks, Iseult! -- I am going to post some pictures of things I sculpted. My digital photography isn't the best, but you can get the idea. First up is Gandalf the Grey. Please excuse the missing hand and staff. I'm still working on getting that right.

Next is an original character Sir Philip the Standard Bearer. He's actually complete and shows a progression of how my sculpting is improving. He has no neck, but the pose, rock, and paint job are aspects I'm proud of.

All pics copyright me, of course. No photographer worth his salt would take credit for these pics. ;)

Inkpot's Challenge

Alright, Iseult, I'm ready for you. Five submissions, the winner gets to brag to her hearts content. New pieces only -- flash okay. Submit to Helium, Associated Content, or magazines as your heart desires.

You're gonna win because I don't write fiction that fast -- maybe I'll write a poem! Ready, set, go!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Remembering Christmas Past

I originally wrote this for my husband to get to know my family, but I decided to share it with family and the internet at large because I think we have an entertaining way of celebrating Christmas. It took a ton of reworking, but here it is. Hope all who read it like it.


Christmas Eve

Christmas in an Italian family is like no other. It is all about family, fighting, laughing, loving, and eating. Most of those I loved have passed away, but the memories of this time cannot leave me. They are burned into me like an imprint.

When I was younger, the festivities would always start a little bit before Christmas Eve. Mama would bake a fresh batch of bread for the dinner (only on a Friday, naturally), and then use the bread dough to make a delightful treat called “fritz”. Basically, it was fried bread dough with sugar sprinkled on top. She would also make a cookie from the dough with some sort of disgusting chocolate in the middle. It was a Christmas tradition, but I could not stand the things.

There was also the wait for the out of towners to come in. We’d all congregate at Grams’s house and wait for Aunt Margie and Aunt Janie to finally arrive from Detroit and Harrisburg, respectively. Sometimes the kids would act as look outs, because that meant there would be new people to play with, new things to do, new stuff to examine. When they got there, we’d swarm down to their van and hugs would be given all around. I’d marvel at the change in the faces of my cousins, their aging reflecting what I could not see in my own. We’d carry the boxes of presents upstairs and put them under the tree.

Mama’s house was not a very big place, but it did manage to hold all of us. She never used the upstairs kitchen, living room, or dining room, so all activities took place in the basement. Coming in out of the cold, you could smell the cooking sauce and feel the warmth of bodies and kitchen heat. You could hear them all talking, the words echoing off the linoleum. Down the rickety steps and to the right was the game room proper. There would be a long table in the middle of the room with all of the furniture pushed back to the sides. At the left hand end was a bar with exotic looking bottles behind it, but never in my life had I seen them used. At the right hand side was a small television, and the seat that was always Uncle Bill’s seat at the foot of the table. I don’t know why he always insisted on sitting there, but he did.

If you went left at the bottom of the stairs and left again, you’d end up in the small kitchen. Mama would be working away in the far left corner, wreathed in mist from boiling pots and barking at anyone who stepped too close to the cooking area. Behind her was a table that my aunts were allowed to use to make the unimportant stuff – salad, glasses of ice, carrot sticks, grated cheese. Everything else was Mama’s domain, and you only came near if she allowed you to.

An Italian dinner almost always consists of some form of pasta. Mama’s favorite was plain spaghetti, but sometimes she’d make ziti, elbows, gnocchi, or some triangular thing that I never got the name of. Always for special occasions, it would be spaghetti that she
would make fresh that day. I remember coming in and looking at these long bands of pale, thin dough lying on the table. Sometimes, she’d let me turn the crank on the little machine that parsed the band into long strains of noodle. It was wonderfully hard work, and if you weren’t doing it to her satisfaction, she’d yell at you and sometimes replace you. The meatballs were homemade (but if you didn’t roll them right, she’d yell at you) as was the sauce – all made from scratch.

However, there were no meatballs at the Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner was strictly a no meat zone in an Italian household. Mama never ate meat on Fridays even when she was old enough to be allowed to. It was a tradition she was very strict about. She’d make perch, shrimp, cooked cabbage, spaghet’d’olio (which is to say noodles with oil instead of sauce), and spaghetti with tuna and tomato sauce. Back in her more exotic days, when her husband was still alive, she would make eel, squid, and serve wine that they had pressed in the garage. I’ve heard so many stories about these things, but sadly they were before my time.

The game room was alive with people. The men would be sitting around the table, watching football and talking. Being a bit of a feminist and an idealist, it rankled me that they got to sit there and talk while I had to set the table. Mind, I did not object to setting the table, per se, but the inequality of it all. My brother did not have to do it. The only reason they made me was because of my sex. It still ticks me off, but they’re old fashioned people. So, I’d hang out in the kitchen and only do what I was specifically told to do – my own quiet act of defiance. They would not let me watch football, but damn if I was going to be compliant.

The seating at the long table was hierarchical. Mama would always sit at the head of the table with Grams to her right. Usually the youngest child at the time would sit to Mama’s left, then that child’s family following along that side of the table. For the most part, you always wanted to be with the fun aunts. You didn’t want to sit too close to Mama because then she’d alternate between telling you to eat more and that you were eating too much. I always enjoyed sitting closer to my cousins and the general hijinx that came with them. Mario would often sit across from me and tell me about the fantastical clubs he frequented in Michigan or all the cool songs that were on the radio there. I remember one time I watched MTV endlessly so that I would know the songs he talked about, and thereby look cool. Sadly, my research didn’t help out because he had already moved on to being interested in pursuing colleges.

It was fun to sit near Aunt Janie or Aunt Maria, too. Usually the end of the table where my Uncle Bill sat would be the best. He loves to swear, and so he’d usually make fun of Mama with a muttered string of curses that had all of us chortling into our dishes. Then he’d do a dead on impression of her to her face. She’d look at him sternly at first, but then smile and say, “Ima gonna git a you,” and pinch his cheek. That was Mama. If you confused her, she mildly threatened you and walked away. My aunts, too, were always good for a story or some comment that would have the rest of us laughing.

There would be rivalry between the opposite sides of the table, too. Mama had these shallow Corning wear baking dishes that she filled with food. Since the table was so long, she’d put equal portions in two separate dishes and set them at opposite ends. Well, if something was particularly good or particularly well liked by one end of the table, those dishes could be depleted rather quickly. It was never the spaghetti, mind you, because we always had enough of that. It was usually the breaded shrimp that tasted so good! One side of the table would ask for some, and the other side would call them pigs and not let
them have any. If they ate it all, that was there fault. Then there would be an accusation that one person had taken too many and that was why there was none left. The innocent person wanting more had not had their fair share. This would ensue for quite a while until Mama or Grams broke it up by forcing the better stocked side to share.

And so we’d pass the night away, laughing and eating, making fun of Mama, catching up on old times, and just being together. I used to love being with my cousins, because I have a lot of them. Usually I only had my brother to play with, and, quite frankly, I was bored with him. But, when we all got together, there were more possibilities. Tag could be played and actually be exciting. You could play baseball or spin around the support pole in the middle of the basement until you fell over or threw up. When Mario could drive, that was the height of pleasure for me, and sometimes we’d just go cruisin’ and leave all the babies behind.

After dinner was a comfortable and relaxed time. Most of the adults would sit around the table gossiping, chatting, or just telling stories. I remember that I started a philosophical debate over the movie Scent of a Woman and the implications of honor. I had to defend honor and honesty myself against these very strong personalities, God help me. As I grew older, I grew to like these chats far more than the playing. I liked listening to the stories they told, the exchange of ideas, the bold and musical laughter that would often erupt from them. There was always love in that room, even if there was sometimes fighting. I think there will always be a certain tension amongst siblings, but there is always love.

Of course, being good Catholics for the most part, midnight mass topped all. I used to love going to midnight mass because it was the one night a year that I was allowed to stay up to that gloriously sinful time of 1AM. I loved staying up late even then, and so I always begged and begged to be allowed to go. We would all bundle into cars and huddle together against the wind and the ice. It was nice to be wrapped up against these big and loving people. It was fun to be near them, fun to hear their laughter, and there are times now that I miss so much the camaraderie of what once was my family. All of that seemed to fade when Grams died and then my mom died and them Mama a few years after that. We try every year, yes, but we never quite get it right.

The church we went to was called St. Philomena. St. Phil’s really was a beautiful church and never more beautiful than on Christmas Eve. It was almost completely dark and lit entirely by candle light. Everyone’s skin glowed faintly and we all shivered there in that darkness, listening to the beautiful strains of Christmas hymns. I very rarely fell asleep on this most important of nights, so was usually awake for the very last song “Joy to the World”. I, however, changed the lyrics to: “Joy to the world/ the priest has shut up/ and now, we can finally, go home!”

And then it was off to home and to sleep, the dead, snow covered world passing by in a blur of expectation as I sat with my dozing brother in the backseat and ducked my nose inside my coat. I dreamed of Santa flying through the sky, of Rudolph and his red nose, of the mountain of toys and goodies I would have to play with on the next day. All those gifts, all that new, wonderful, tactile stuff and all at one time. It was enough to give the kid of middle class parents a bit of a heart attack.

But, you know, I did endure.

Christmas Day

Christmas morning at my house proper was really not much of a big deal. We all celebrated Christmas together, so all of the presents were delivered by Santa to my Grams’s house. My mom’s reasoning was that we didn’t have a chimney and since there were so many presents, it was impossible for them to be delivered to us directly. Well, I fell for it, but I’m glad I did.

That being said, Bill and I were always up when the first cracks of sunlight managed to get into our rooms. We’d sit up like a shot and usually meet in the hallway. Then it would be a mad tear down the hall to jump up and down on my mom’s bed, and with a roar, they’d shoo us out of the room. We’d sit in the living room then, contemplating the booty we’d collect later that day. The time could not come soon enough, and when we lived very far from Grams’s house, the drive was endless. Children all over the world were tearing into their gifts, scrounging around for batteries, and descending into the world of innocent play – and I had to wait until 10!

My family was a family of tradition. Every year, it was the same thing. My uncles would set up a 7 foot real tree in the middle of Grams’s small living room. It was always put on a massive green wooden platform to lift it about four inches off the ground and act as a stage for the rest of the stuff. Behind it was a large fireplace with a generous hearth, but usually that was covered over with a canvas that depicted Bethlehem with the Star soaring over the city. Sometimes when my uncles were feeling adventurous, they’d actually work a Christmas light into the painting so that the star would blink off and on.

The true majesty of the decorating, though, was in the manger scene. She had a very old manger that looked as if someone threw it together out of old twigs. It was rustic looking and real feeling. The entire Holy family would be inside, along with some livestock, but Baby Jesus would not be put in until Christmas Morning. My Aunt Margie told me that Santa brought him, and in my child mind, that made perfect sense. All along the platform were arranged probably eighty statues of villagers coming to see Jesus. These little marchers extended all the way back to the hearth and came up and wrapped around the tree. They were not exquisite statues, but they had a chipped plain character, a dear quality that said they had seen many Christmases. I loved the intricacy and the sheer number of them. I liked the old, musty smell of them and the pool canisters that held the relics most of the year. I liked that so much care and time went into celebrating the joy of family year after year.

There were outdoor decorations, too, usually put up by my Uncle Bill. He’d climb out on the roof and try to position a plastic Santa and reindeer. He’d always end up swearing about it when they would inevitably get blown off the roof, and he’d tell us all the obscene things he felt like doing to Santa right at that moment. Eventually, he refused to do it anymore, but he’d still have to string the lights along the porch and that would cause enough swearing in itself to be entertaining.

We usually arrived at Grams’s house well before time. It seemed to take forever to get up the stairs and into the living room. Already the cousins who had the privilege of sleeping there were squatting in front of the tree salivating. Bill and I joined along side of them.

You have to realize that in a family so large, the present pile can be quite extraordinary. Back when everyone used to buy presents for everyone, it was a sight that never failed to take my breath. There were mounds and mounds of brightly wrapped boxes, some red and green, some with cartoon characters, some even – gasp! – sporting my name on the handwritten tabs. I felt like Scrooge McDuck, ready to dive into my gold mine of presents, all arrayed around this blinking, sparkling tree, and the marching peasants of

Of course, the parents held us all back. Gift opening would not start until everyone was there, and they just did not care that it was five minutes after ten and I’d been up since six waiting for that fateful hour. My Uncle Pat was usually the one late coming in, so we’d alternate between looking out the window and carefully prowling the present mountain.

But once it started getting to near riot pitch with the kids, the parents would allow us to look through our stockings. Now, our stockings were not actually stockings. For one thing, there were too many of us to hang them, and for another, the things inside were
usually so large that no stocking could hold them. Instead, they were brown paper shopping bags with stockings drawn on them and our name across the top. They were arranged in a semicircle in the adjoining dining room, and there was one for everyone.

Sometimes the stockings were just as exciting as the presents. You could find all sorts of stuff in there, ranging from socks to candy to a tape or even, much later, a CD. I usually got writing notepads, deodorant, bath soap, maybe a package of socks, a scarf, a new set of gloves, some goofy little toy, one of those pads that you could write on and then lift the film and it would disappear. Fun stuff, you know. And that would keep us busy until the last stragglers arrived and the main attraction could finally begin. It was present time, and not a moment too soon.

Again, there was a bit of a hierarchy in how the thing was done. There was a tradition. Mama sat primly in a chair just opposite the tree. She nodded at those coming in and watched the proceedings through dispassionate eyes. One member of each family would hand her an envelope of money that was her Christmas present. Any time someone tried to buy her a present, she would look at it and say, “Whata do I needa this gar-a-bage for?” My Aunt Janie got her a Gucci handbag one year – the year that they were in vogue and very, very expensive. Mama made such a fuss over the “gar-a-bage” that my aunt had to take it back and just give her the money. It was a curious thing with Mama. She only wanted that which she specifically desired, and everything else was “gar-a-bage”.

My family and I sat in the dining room section of the connected rooms. Now, it was not that far from the tree, and there was plenty of room to spread out. Everyone lined the walls and then the kids would open the presents in the center so the parents could see the reactions their hard earned dollars bought. Most of the years, to my delight, I got to sit next to Mario. I’d kneel beside him and wait anxiously for the first present to come my way, but it was heavenly being with him. Sometimes I got to see the cool, expensive, grown up stuff that he got. Soft sweaters smelling of Polo cologne or a subscription to GQ magazine. So trendy, so chic.

Every year for as long as I can remember Grams handed out the presents. I don’t know how or why that tradition began, but it is the loss of her face on Christmas morning that is sometimes the hardest thing to bear. I wish I could capture just a moment of her laughter for you to hear now.

One by one, she would take the presents off of the pile and hand them out. It was protracted agony waiting for her to finally look my way and march over with a gift in hand. She would usually wear one of those long housedresses made out of simple cotton
with snaps all the way down the front. All of her presents would be kept in a pile to be opened later when the rest were done. The kids would sit around her and try to open the presents for her, not content with our mountain of mysteries already exposed. She’d chase us away with an exclamation and open her presents in relative peace as we went to play with our brand new toys.

Sometimes, there would be “special” gifts waiting in the pile. These were the large ones that were backed up against the platform and buried with everyone else’s smaller presents. You always wanted your name to be on one of those. Those were too big for Grams to carry, and so it would be pulled out into the center and you’d open it in front of everyone. This would be the time when cameras would come out and the other kids would wait in envious expectation. It was quite a thing to see a kid get a huge gift that they had been asking for all year. This was the time when the waiting came to fruition. This was the time when you stopped calling your mother all those bad names because she didn’t buy you every blessed thing you wanted.

I did not get many times in the spotlight. I’m not extravagant, and so even as a child, I never wanted anything huge. Still, I did get a Barbie Dream house one year and my beloved big wheel on another Christmas. I remember the year that Katie got her kitchen, and suddenly I understood that Christmas was for kids and I wasn’t quite a kid anymore. She’d wanted this toy kitchen for so long, and she begged and begged for it. When she tore into that box on Christmas day, she started jumping up and down, screaming when she finally realized what it was. Yes, it was expensive, but for that moment, I’m sure my mom would have said it was worth it.

On a side note, one year my Dad got one of these big presents, much to the hysteria of the rest of the adults. My mom had bought him a Shop-Vac and everyone got to watch him open it. That whole Christmas – and for many Christmases after – my Uncle Mario would say to him in a whiney voice, “Well, I didn’t get a shop-vac.” This did not endear them to my father.

When the present opening was said and done, we all headed for Grams’s basement and the commencement of breakfast. This was another long tabled affair with the same sort of dynamics I detailed for Christmas Eve. I remember that they would serve pineapple juice – which I love – in these little glasses. If you’ve ever had pineapple juice, you’ll know that it can be quite addicting. It does not quench a thirst so much as turn it into a raging desire. I would down a glass and look for the pitcher again, but by the time it came back, it was gone, gone, gone. Could we not have bigger glasses?

I think I liked the breakfast more than Christmas Eve dinner. There would be scrambled eggs by the pound, sausages, bacon, slices of buttered toast, and sometimes Grams would even make eggs over easy especially for me. She would not sit until the last, but this time she sat at the head of the table and presided over the craziness and bickering and good natured yelling that is my family. She started it all herself, so she’s the one to blame.

But things change, so quickly, they change. The things we love become lost to the paper that the story is written on. It loses its warmth and its touch, embraced now only by the gauzy film of memory.

Grams is dead, and her beautiful house sold. It is no longer in the family, and it kills me that such a large part of my childhood has passed out of my reach. Mama passed away eight years after her daughter and two years after her granddaughter. One night I happened to put my hand on Mama’s back and could not believe how bird-like she felt. One sudden move and I thought she may collapse into ash. She is like the times now, a relic of the past that disintegrates with the passing of time.

All the kids are grown, and no one exchanges gifts anymore. Most of the time, the younger kids only want money or gift cards anyway so that they can go out and buy what they want. Where is the grand spectacle in that? Once you hit 18, they don’t exchange gifts with you anyway – although my Aunt Lynn did get me a book one year, and I was so touched that she thought of me. There is no grandeur about it anymore and only the barest hints of tradition. All things pass, and I know that, but I still remember what it was like when Christmas meant something larger than the sum of its parts.

However, as we all sat around on a newer Christmas Eve, I could hear the faintness of it there. It was there in me and in those who still remember. When it comes down to it, I guess the traditions really don’t matter. What you do or where you go or what you eat doesn’t really figure into it at all. It is the love that counts. When all is said
and done, it’s all about family.