Be careful what you wish for (and have yourself a merry little Christmas)

(Sensitive readers beware: fear factor ahead!)

Christmas time is here…and I love the holidays. The carols, the decorations, the over-the-top store displays, the Hallmark Channel movies–I love all of it. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t do as much myself. Our Christmas tree is still outside in a bucket waiting for us to have time to bring it inside. I haven’t done any shopping. But I still love to soak it all in wherever I go. I have Pandora on the James Taylor Holiday Channel, from which I’ve realized I actually like singers Josh Groban and Michael Buble (yes, Cathy and Ellen, you told me so).

 

Like so much of what happens around me anymore, the atmosphere has launched a bit of nostalgia and longing for the Christmas of my childhood. So much excitement! Such specific rituals we followed, and the slow pace that kept an anxious kid like me all pent up, but in a good way. My mother always made us each a special outfit for Christmas day. I specifically remember a red velvet top with a lace collar and pants to match that I wish I still had (in my current size) and a pink velvet midi-dress festooned with pink satin ribbons. I did go through a serious pink phase. And apparently a velvet one, too.

with Santa
Little me with a not very merry or healthy looking Santa.

Oh, the wishes for such treasures as a Lite-Bright and an Easy-Bake Oven, which were never met.

1967 LITE BRITE Vintage 1960s Toy A
Vintage 1967 Lite-Brite.
Easy Bake
Vintage 1960 Easy-Bake Oven.

Or the ones I did get that I wanted so badly. Like the Beautiful Crissy Growing Hair Doll. I loved Crissy so. She had a push-button on her tummy that you could use to wind up her hair to be short or pull it out to be long. As my own hair is always transitioning from long to short or short to long, I was fascinated by this insto-chango approach to hair.

 

This is where things are going to take a weird turn. Around about 1970 or so, I really wanted a ventriloquist dummy for Christmas. I found one in the toy section of some department store catalog and made sure everyone knew that was what I wanted.

with box
The Danny O’Day model. I had to have it. Him. Whatever.

You know the 1966 book A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd, made into the popular 1983 film of the same name?

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All Ralphie Parker wants is a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. Set in 1940 in Indiana, the story of Ralphie and his friends Flick and Schwartz and his attempts to evade the bullies Scut Farkus and Grover Dill and Ralphie’s efforts to convince all of the adults in his life that an air rifle is a great idea and that he won’t shoot his eye out. At the end, Ralphie gets his Red Ryder, and remarks that it was the best Christmas ever.

Ralphie and his gun
Best Christmas ever.

Enter me as Ralphie and Danny O’Day as my Red Ryder. The fact that I even wanted a ventriloquist dummy is very strange. I am afraid of clowns and killer Chucky-style dolls. I watched way too much of The Twilight Zone when I was up past my bedtime. There are 2 episodes that feature evil ventriloquist dummies: The Dummy and Caesar and Me. Then there’s a movie I vaguely remember with a mentally disturbed girl and the dolls and stuffed animals in her room that talk to her. They don’t say happy things. Or maybe that was The Twilight Zone, too. No, wait, the Twilight Zone with the murderous doll is the called Living Doll, featuring Talky Tina. This is the stuff of my nightmares.

 

 

Again, what made me think I wanted Danny O’Day? Did I think I might have talent as a ventriloquist? Well, I got Danny O’Day, and it was NOT the best Christmas ever. I unwrapped the package, I opened the box, and I screamed. At least I think I did. I know I wanted to. But I dutifully spent the day pretending I loved Danny (who I renamed Charlie) and trying my best to follow the instructions on ventriloquism that came with him. I had no apparent talent for it. And then it was bedtime. I left Charlie in the living room, under the Christmas tree. And stayed awake all night positive that he was going to creep down the hall to my bedroom and kill me if I went to sleep.

He didn’t look that evil. If you start online searching for images of ventriloquist dummies, there are many much creepier examples.

Maybe it was his evil influence over me, but I surprisingly kept Charlie for years. We moved cross-country. We moved several more times. I went to college. I got married. And I still had Charlie. I kept him packed in a trunk (yes, that’s what the idiot humans in all the scary shows do, too, and it doesn’t work), sure he was going to get out eventually.

I had other scares, like the time I was home alone watching television and the trailer for the movie Magic (1978) came on. I turned my head and closed my eyes and tried to block it out. The mute button hadn’t been invented yet, and somehow it didn’t occur to me to immediately change the channel. Charlie-fear reared its evil, ugly head. The film is based on a book written by William Golding (author of Lord of the Flies; that doesn’t go too well for the characters either). Golding also wrote the screenplay. It starred Anthony Hopkins “as a ventriloquist at the mercy of his vicious dummy”.

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Yes, I was 17 and home alone for the night, except for Charlie in the trunk, watching television when this came on. Yippee. Needless to say, it was another long, sleepless night.

I did eventually manage to give Charlie away. I am not sure the child who was visiting us  and who thought Charlie was cool really wanted him, but I pretty much gave him no choice but to take Charlie with him. I’ve worried about that child, now a grown man, ever since. Charlie was moved to Turkey with his new person. You might imagine I felt safe. You would be discounting my overactive imagination. The film reel plays out in my mind of Charlie crawling out of his hole, finding his way onto an ocean liner, making his way eventually back to California, and appearing in my doorway, ready for revenge.

Of course I know this won’t happen. It would be silly for a 56-year old woman to hold a lingering childhood fear for a doll who, let’s face it, is a silly looking piece of plastic wearing bad clothes. Honestly, Beautiful Crissy could be said to be just as creepy as Danny O’Day. But still…

Summer before last I went to Maine to attend a week-long residency at the Institute for Humane Education. I was also taking a couple of humane education courses that summer, so I took one of the assigned readings with me to Maine. There I am in a cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere, and I take out this book, Consuming Kids: Protecting Our Children from the Onslaught of Marketing and Advertising, by Susan Linn. Sounds innocent enough, and about a noteworthy topic. As I tend to do when I start a book, instead of jumping right in, I decided to read about the author. OMG, Susan Linn is a VENTRILOQUIST (an award-winning ventriloquist, no less) who uses puppets as therapeutic tools with childen. At first I laughed at the idea, then I got the creeps. I’m sorry, if I went to a therapist who turned out to be a ventriloquist, I would end up needing a lot (A LOT) more therapy! I couldn’t read the book. Again, I was in a cabin in the woods in Maine, scene of lots of teen slasher movies. I didn’t sleep all week. That might have been the massive amounts of caffeine and taking showers at 3 a.m. because there 14 of us sharing 1 bathroom, but Susan Linn, Ed.D., ventriloquist/child psychologist didn’t help me any. (Note: I don’t mean to belittle her work in children’s therapy, really.)

Linn
Dr. Susan Linn

 

 

Now that I’ve turned Christmas into something totally macabre, let’s go back to happy thoughts. I did finally get that Easy-Bake Oven as a 50th birthday gift from Bob. Thank you!

my oven

Maybe some day I’ll get that Lite-Brite.

My wishes this year are simple yet complicated: happiness, joy, kindness, peace…beautiful words, easier said than done. Going back to another childhood Christmas memory, I like to remind myself of the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas, about the spirit of the holiday not being in all of the things and wrappings and show, but in the love, peace, and care we take in ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us.

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I also reread the Dickens classic A Christmas Carol (1843) every year, following Ebenezer Scrooge as he opens his formerly greedy and cold heart to the world around him. If you don’t want to delve into Dickens, there’s always How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Same idea.

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Albert Finney as Scrooge, reformed, playing Father Christmas for Tiny Tim, in the 1970 film version.

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I’ve posted this video clip before, but it’s become a classic since it was first televised in 1977 and merits reposting. I remember watching it at the time (1977) on the yearly Bing Crosby Christmas special and finding it so beautiful. It still is. It’s not just in the voices, or the melding of two seemingly very different men, from different countries and different generations. It’s in the love and longing for peace.

 

You can’t go to the store and buy these things. You can’t wrap them up and put them under a tree. But we can give them to each other easily and freely, and we will all sleep better.

Peace, hugs, and have the happiest of holidays.

peace on earth

 

 

If I could talk to the animals (oh wait, I do that)

Yes, I talk to animals. I can’t say that they listen to or understand me, and they don’t talk back to me in a language that is clear, like with Doctor John Dolittle in the children’s books from the 1920s by civil engineer Hugh Lofting (born in 1886 in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England).

hugh lofting
Hugh Lofting

Lofting died in 1947, so any Doctor Dolittle shenanigans after that point are not his fault. The original stories are set in Victorian England in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, a place I wanted desperately to live when I read my mother’s old copies of the books in the 1960s. To tell the truth, I still want to live there.

I’ve written about perfect moments.  In  my memories, reading Doctor Dolittle as a child, curled up in my pajamas in the comfy chair with the nubby green upholstery, the sun shining through a window of the den on a cold day and dust just visible floating in the stream of sunlight, smelling the old-paper smell of the books my mother had also read as a child–that’s a perfect moment.

books

 

The movie version I am familiar with is the 1967 musical with Rex Harrison as the doctor, and also starring Samantha Eggar, Anthony Newley, and Richard Attenborough.

 

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It was, surprisingly in retrospect, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, and won the Oscars for Best Original Song (for Talk to the Animals) and Best Original Effects. Of course, I at age 6, loved the movie, but I don’t think it was actually very good. I mostly remember Anthony Newley singing (not necessarily in a good way) and the voyage in the Giant Pink Sea Snail.

 

 

It never occured to me as a child to ask why, if the Giant Pink Sea Snail is a living creature, it has no insides and the humans can live in its (his? her?) hollow shell without problems. When you are 6 you go with your imagination and don’t question these things.

 

I have never seen the Eddie Murphy version of Doctor Dolittle (1998) and have no intention of ever seeing it. Sorry, Mr. Murphy, but in my mind Doctor Dolittle will always be English, Victorian, and Rex Harrison-ish, although I applaud the concept of introducing said doctor to a new generation and a diverse audience. Plus, I don’t think fart jokes are all that funny and just have no place in my world of Doctor Dolittle and Puddleby-on-the Marsh. And neither does a PG rating.

drdolittle

 

But as usual I digress. I talk to the animals. Frequently. And I talk for them. I have voices I use for the animals who live with me, and they often are very sassy when speaking through me. We sing, too. Each animal has a story and a song, and there are songs that go with different ocassions, like meals and bedtime.

This version of Talk to the Animals by Sammy Davis Jr. makes me happy in some way I can’t explain. Sammy always reminds me of my mother’s second husband, Van, who was extremely thin and liked to dance and had a style a lot like Sammy’s when he was in happy drunk mode. That was less frequent than mean drunk mode, but we don’t need to go into that here.

 

And before you think you need to have me committed, let me tell you that I know I am not alone in the world. I know very rational people who sing and talk to animals, and have voices and special songs assigned to particular animals. Maybe it’s a little quirky, but it’s fun and harmless. I have no illusions that the animals are actually listening to, understanding, or responding to me. I think my marbles are all still with me.

 

 

Each of my resident companion animals has a special song. For Sara, it’s obviously Sara Smile (1976) by Hall and Oates. I’ve had Sara (brown tabby) since she was a newborn kitten, and I sang that to her when I bottle-fed her. She’s 19 years old now, and it’s still her song. Her brother Ben (orange tabby), who passed away at 15, was subjected to me singing the Michael Jackson song Ben from the horror movie Ben (1971), sequel to Willard. Yes, it’s about a rat, but it’s still a good song. I’ll spare you my singing and go right to the sources.

 

 

Misty, who I sometimes call Mystical, gets to hear me warble on with The Beatle’s song Magical Mystery Tour (1967) with the lyrics changed to “She’s the magical mystical cat, she’s going to eat your face…” She won’t really eat your face, but she on the moody side, shall we say.

Misty

Here is the song performed by Sir Paul McCartney:

 

Alternatively, Misty also gets Windy, the 1967 hit by The Association, alltered to “Everyone knows it’s Misty…And Misty has stormy eyes…”

 

Marble, lively young lad, I decided gets the the old Ballad of Davy Crockett (1955), with the line changed to “Marby, Marby Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”. It suits him, can’t explain why. I won’t make you listen to it. You’re welcome.

 

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Davy_Crockett,_King_of_the_Wild_Frontier_FilmPoster

 

Einstein is the odd one out, the only dog. He feels misunderstood and put upon by all of the cat activity in the house. Middle child syndrome, in a way. I don’t know why I started singing Petula Clark’s Downtown (1964) to him. Maybe because it’s fun to say Einstein to the “downtown” spots, and I make the main line “Einstein, everyone’s waiting for Einstein…” And he does look a little like Petula Clark, now that I think about it.

Einstein

 

And then we have songs to mark times of day. From A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) comes Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here, changed to “Breakfast time is here” or “Dinner time is here”, depending. Breakfast can also be signified by changing It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (1951) to “It’s beginning to look a lot like breakfast”.

 

I won’t go into all of the songs I’ve sung to different foster kittens. But I could use suggestions for foster #56, Dapper. He’s a very affectionate 1-year old boy. I’ve been calling him Dapper Dan in honor of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) and George Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill’s obssession with Dapper Dan hair pomade.

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I’ll have to listen to the movie soundtrack and pick out a song. They do sing You Are My Sunshine in the movie. Sounds like I’ve found a winner!

 

Peace and hugs, and keep singing! I’ll be out there looking for that magical place, Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Maybe I’ll see you there.

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