When I was four years old Mrs. K, who cleaned our house and lived down the street, came over dressed as Santa Claus. Even though I knew it was her I locked myself in my sisters’ room and cried, terrified of the specter in the red suit.
“Jennifer,” she said from the other side of the door in her lilting brogue, “It’s me - Mrs. K.” Not only was I frightened to tears but I was so angry she would taunt me like that, knowing how much I hated “the man with the bag.”
Mrs. K was always amiable but I remember seeing her ever-so-gently put the tips of our cat Kitschy’s ears in her mouth. No one in my family believed me, but I had seen it — not long after she had told me I couldn’t play with the special occasion butter knives with the mother-of-pearl handles. Even then it struck me that my innocent appreciation of something beautiful was not to be tolerated yet she could tongue my cats ears. This deep sense of propriety plagues me to this day. My point is even though Mrs. K was sweet as fruitcake, when she showed up dressed as the most maligned figure of my youth to date I knew I was right about her and I was right about Santa, too. (Soon they would both be replaced with my second-grade teacher, but that’s another story).
My family used to go to the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular” every year. They always repeat the favorite numbers, such as the Rockettes’ “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” and the living nativity, and add some new scenes. One year while my niece was in her finding Santa petrifying phase they had a dance with a ton of Santas and a mirror in the back so it seemed an infinite scourge of Santas was descending. Panic set in amongst the adults, trying to keep my niece’s little face away from the stage. All because this supposed bringer of toys and cheer scares the living crap out of so many kids.
Are so many children inherently fearful of Santa like they are of clowns? Maybe kids realize, before they are indoctrinated into consumerism and the want-want-want beat on the American drum, that there is something underlying in Santa that is sinister. Perhaps Dana Carvey’s Church Lady character was right when she rearranged the letters in “Santa” to spell “Satan.” Is sitting on Santa’s lap a symbol of the kinds of unsavory things many people have to do for money and/or goods? If so, crying seems the right response.
Embarrassed, my father used call my family’s Christmas gift-giving the “unwrap-a-thon”: Children tear into gifts like starving wolves, barely acknowledging what they’ve just received. Aunts and uncles throw and catch balled-up ribbons in overflowing garbage bags. No one could accuse our family Christmases of being un-American. Maybe looking upon what he had created did not fill my father’s heart with the glee he envisioned when he scrounged to buy his business or left his family for work and made sure everyone tightened their belts.
Things have improved over the last decade as the kids are almost all adults and more thoughtful and we, the parents, aunts, and uncles are more judicious about the presents we choose. But a certain age range is tough, where kids believe they need what everybody else has and a lot of parents also think it’s a measure of their own self-worth to provide those items. Many never grow out of it. What must we do, short of banning television or moving to a desert island?
I’m happy to report (and am not surprised) my nieces and nephews have grown and are growing up to be fantastic individuals and strong but tender members of society. We have a registered dietician who is also a writer and taking care of a hospital’s nutritional demands, a licensed clinical social worker who work with special needs kids, an account manager, several musicians, artists, gourmands, and avid competing equestrians.
One friend told me an enlightening story about his two-year-old girl. For Christmas he and his wife had purchased her a bunch of presents but she was so taken with the art box that her daddy had made her, full of pencils and papers and stickers, that they decided to put the rest of the gifts away. She wasn’t interested in them and why, they wondered, should they push the culture of more stuff on her before she even understands? I think it’s brilliant. That was a few years ago and she’s not begging for Uggs and Juicy Couture yet. This past summer I saw a video of her smearing and flinging paint all over a giant canvas like Jackson Pollock.
But then even Jackson Pollock wrote to his father, “I’ll never be satisfied until I’m able to mould a mountain of stone with the aid of a jack hammer to fit my will.” Maybe there is a pull inside us that always yearns for more something. Maybe we’ve always known Santa can’t give it to us. And if we’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it we might see it around the edges of our loved ones’ smiles, or a dinner someone cooks for us, or a beautiful building we see everyday and take for granted that a fellow human built. And we might even appreciate it.
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me “The Sisterhood” in HD.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me “Breaking Amish” and “The Sisterhood” in HD.
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me “Sister Wives,” “Breaking Amish,” and “The Sisterhood” in HD.
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me “My Five Wives,” “Sister Wives,” “Breaking Amish,” and “The Sisterhood” in HD.
And so forth.
I love a show about religion. The latest installment comes from the creators of “Breaking Amish”: Lifetime’s “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns,” which I find moving at best and filled with drama at worst. But mostly it’s riveting. A group of young women in the discernment phase of entering the convent spend six weeks living with a group of Carmelite nuns in Germantown, New York, to see what it’s like to take care of the elderly and have their makeup and cellphones taken away. Hint: Devoting your life to Jesus is not the hardest part — it’s living with a bunch of other women. But then we’ve known “Hell is other people,” thanks to Jean-Paul Sartre, for some time, and television like this proves that even if one does not identify as a nihilist the very proximity to other humans picks at our inner innate nihilism.
“I’m surprised we’ve never had a murder,” Sister Maria Theresa says in her delicate lilt. Sister Maria Theresa, her seasoned peers, and their wisdom are the real stars of the show.
“Discernment” in the Christian sense is defined as “perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding.” Watching these young women feel out this potential life path is fascinating, if just another reality show. I’ve been going through a discernment of my own, not wanting to waste my life on reality television, and “The Sisterhood” has replaced the “Real Housewives,” “Mob Wives,” and all of the other “wives” programs in my DVR queue. Someone who chooses to be married to Jesus is truly captivating. While I’m not religious, I do find it a bit sad that the shimmering unicorn creature of fable these days — so rare as to arouse absolute curiosity — is one who devotes her life to service. And yet those so regular, humdrum, and everyday that they induce a yawn are the ones devoted to the god of money and plastic surgery. The fact that humility is refreshing might be scarier than the devil himself.
Regardless of your stance on religion, we need nuns now more than ever — especially those who take care of the infirm, like these women of the St. Teresa of Avila Motherhouse do. I recently read that because our lifespans are being medically extended but no more people are going into geriatric care we are, in short, completely screwed. There will not be enough care to go around eventually, when we really need it. These sisters and other selfless volunteers might be our only hope.
Jenn Sutkowski’s anaconda don’t want none unless you’ve got nuns, hon. Find her at jennsutkowski.com.
This Full Frontal column appears originally here, in the Newport Mercury.
Appears originally in the Newport Mercury
Film review: 'WILD’
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay by Nick Hornby
Rated R | 115 min. | 4 out of 5 stars
Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Young Victoria”) makes directorial choices as bold as the main character in “Wild,” adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “An Education,” “High Fidelity”). In 1995 Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) treks the Pacific Crest Trail, from Southern California to Oregon, naturally to find herself, but because of Witherspoon’s performance, the script, Vallée’s hand and the digging around in the human condition, it’s fresh.
Cheryl is literally falling apart at the beginning of the film — we get to watch her rip off her big toenail to our chagrin but now we’re bonded to our protagonist like a blood brother. She quotes Simon & Garfunkel’s “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”: a refrain to which we’ll periodically return like PCT signposts. She’s panting, has made it to the top of a peak (we realize later it’s in the middle of her hike), and unlike so many before her who have been wooed by adrenaline and dopamine she swears a huge F-U into the abyss after losing one hiking boot and throwing the other after it. Lucky she has a sense of humor behind the set jaw (and later the phone number to REI) or this journey could get old fast.
She is woefully over-prepared, carrying a pack that seems to weigh as much as her — baggage much? And baggage there is, which we discover as the film flashes back to time with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) and brother Leif (Keene McRae). She’s left a failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in her dusty wake as well and a true best friend, Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann). Paul and Aimee send her care packages along the way. There is some respite from the loneliness, though some of the people she meets are threatening.
The soundtrack is used in a clever way I haven’t seen before. Because she is walking alone in the quiet — though nature does get deafeningly loud — snippets of songs will come. Portishead’s “Give Me a Reason to Love You” figures prominently during one of the darkest parts of the film and it works even though it’s flashback upon flashback because it presents several catalysts for her decision to make this hike. We hear bits of “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Suzanne” and finally toward the end she meets a woman and her grandson (and their Alpaca sherpa) and the child (Evan O’Toole) sings her “Red River Valley.” Try not to cry.
There are a few clumsy moments such as the plot turning sporadically episodic — adaptation is, like Cheryl’s overstuffed backpack, a monster. Vallée can be almost forgiven the CGI fox that appears to Cheryl now and then, though a real fox would be preferable if Cheryl must have a spirit animal. Animal trainers Roland Sonnenburg and Lauren Henry managed to beautifully wrangle a real alpaca, after all. But after all “Wild” will give you that empathetic feeling in your chest and will probably choke you up unless you are made of CGI yourself.
My father has always been very generous. He worked hard to make things easier for our family than it was for his family growing up. He never talked of them being poor particularly or spoke negatively about his parents as he had deep respect for Nanny and Grandpa. Once when I was interviewing him for an anthropology class he divulged he had come home from school once to his parents’ apartment in Middletown, Connecticut, to find their possessions on the front lawn because they were being evicted. His eyes misted with a darkness I had not seen before. It was that particular fire, I knew immediately, that drove him to build a business when my siblings (and my mother) were young.
He is the last surviving of his three siblings — a brother and two sisters — and is doing all right but as I’ve written about before, has dementia. So naturally every holiday and event is filled with that thing you do with an ailing loved one: How many more of these are we really going to have together? How many more until he doesn’t know who I am anymore? It’s forced me into an appreciation for which I feel lucky to the point that I end up concerned about overstating it. I’m surely not the only one with these feelings. I’m surely not the only one expressing them. I feel fortunate to get to express them even if I wish instead he could just be whole and strong to the point that I felt like complaining about him like I used to. If that makes any sort of perverted sense.
My sister stood between the kitchen and dining room of her home on Thanksgiving so that all the people in both rooms could hear her say Catholic grace and my father said it with her, remembering.
She holds good space, my sister — an understatement, really. She’s academically and experientially trained but she has a knack for it. My sisters and brother live near to my father and put me to shame with their care for him. I am the a-hole who breezes in every couple of months and he’s overly happy to see because my visits are “special.” This is a gift, too — to me anyway. I’m sure a much greater gift to everyone would be if I was around more.
My Dad wants to get us all something we pick out for Christmas and I find a ring I like and he has trouble coming up with something to engrave on it. “To thine own self be true” pops into my head — a Shakespeare quote I always liked that he used to tell me growing up. My sister says that’s what it should say.
My Dad came from a generation that did not speak ill of their parents whereas I probably emoted far too much about my Daddy issues over the years — those perceived issues have since vanished (though I write that with some trepidation). I’m trying to ponder this precious time with the grace it deserves.
Jenn Sutkowski hopes you have some beautiful, complicated emotional gifts this season and beyond. No retail outlet, chain restaurant, or puissant promise of the military-industrial complex can come close to replicating the feeling of what you probably already have. Find her at jennsutkowski.com.
This piece appeared originally in the Newport Mercury.
I came across a bunch of old photos while looking for envelopes the other day. There were photos of when I was ten or so catching a catfish in Florida with my brother-in-law. There were a few from the summer after my freshman year of college in 1994, home for my mother’s birthday party. In several of them my father is holding a microphone up to my face as I sit at this guy’s electronic piano. I’m sure I’m playing and singing Tori Amos’ version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It must have been weird for me to be singing, “My libido” at eighteen years old with my Dad holding the mic and in general.
Oh I just wanted to emote so bad. And emote I did. But my intense naiveté I’m sure came off as a great big “fuck you” to the crowd. Who sings Nirvana for her mother’s birthday? At least I wasn’t playing Morrissey’s “There Is a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” on which I also liked to accompany myself on piano.
I remember at another family party I sang “Ave Maria” because my mother wanted me to. I told her I could only remember half the Latin words but she felt that she would rather hear me do some of it than not at all. So, against my better judgment, I got up and did half of it. I was about sixteen years old. I was berated so heartily by a jazz/easy listening composer friend of the family that it put me off Latin for awhile. But it also made me not want to share much of my inner self through creative expression even though I couldn’t help myself but to share. The age-old conflict of aching and resistance bites again.
“You are a cute girl and talented and you can get away with a lot but not that,” the composer said. He was in my face. “You must never get up and do a song without knowing it front to back. Being professional is the most important thing.”
He didn’t give me a chance to retort. His wife was also a vocalist and his reaction made me understand why — as I had heard — she might write all of her scatting before singing it. There was no winging it with these two. The tidbit about the vocalist’s prewritten scats was something I always thought was hilarious because scatting is supposed to be improvised: the human voice playing a solo, if you will, as one would another musical instrument. As an aside, I don’t scat because it, like yodeling, is impressive but borders on show-off and really only pleases the person doing it and a certain kind of academic listener more interested in a wad being blown than euphony. Also “scat” means shit. I guess I’m still bitter about a man yelling into the face of a well-meaning teenaged girl trying to do something nice for her mother.
The songwriter is dead now, as is my mother, which doesn’t really lend much to this story other than the fact that I don’t regret singing half that song, having that moment with my mother, and even having my face yelled into by a professional musician who cared about music and the importance of taking yourself seriously when you are an artist. When I remember him I think of his very strong work ethic as an artist and that he would show up late for parties if he had to because he was working on a song. Other people would complain that he was late but I always felt like saying “Good for him. Fight the good fight, man.” Whenever a friend is pissed because I don’t pick up the phone or meet for a drink because I’m writing or working on music I think of Billy passing up cocktail hour to follow his muse by showing up, doing the work, and not stopping until it was done. I can hold both memories as valuable truths. And he wasn’t wrong about being professional. Show up knowing your shit.
“Jesus, man,” he would say, eyes glinting remembering a great musical performance. “Jesus, man. It was beautiful.” His eyes would roll with the pleasure of song.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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