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Sunday, November 5, 2000

Oh, Lonesome Me

    If You're Home Alone, You'd Better Not Pout. Call Up Some Friends and Create Your Own Holiday Tradition.


         Most folks greet the holidays as a time of celebration, or at least they pretend to. In my family, we didn't even bother pretending. My dad was in the candy business, and during the holidays work went into overdrive. Everyone was pressed into service (I spent a lot of time after school packing orders in the walk-in freezer). I still kind of miss the hustle and bustle of it all, but the truth is that by the time Christmas Eve arrived, we were cranky and exhausted from the long days of work. For this reason, Christmas has never been the best time to visit home, and so for a number of years, I've waited out the holidays here.
         Oh, lonesome me, a single guy alone in the big city for, as the song goes, "the most wonderful time of the year." It's enough to bring tears to your eyes. But I've probably had more fun winging it with other orphans than slogging through the traditional family festivities. And if you find yourself in a similar position, exiled to the strange winter warmth of Southern California while your loved ones revel in some frostier clime--well, there are coping mechanisms. And believe me, you will not only survive, you will prevail.
         I have learned to be dodgy about accepting invitations from happy couples, especially the recently wed, and the newly in love. They have a way of getting tearful over their own good-heartedness--after all, they've brought a lonely single person into their home. They also have a habit of rubbing your nose in their own connubial superiority--"smug marrieds," as author Helen Fielding calls them.
         I made that mistake for the last time in 1989, when I spent Christmas Eve with a couple I will call Sarah and Bill. They had been married about six months. Sarah was either a throwback to her grandmother's generation or a prototype of the kind of brownshirt homemaker soon to be unleashed by Martha Stewart. Their apartment was a museum of country kitsch (scented candles and handmade wreaths). But, like a John Carpenter movie, there had to be a monster lurking around there somewhere. There was: Sarah. In her family, people held hands and sang songs while her mom played the piano, a tradition she was dead-set on re-creating. Since Sarah was the one playing the piano, that meant Bill and I had to hold hands. I really, really didn't want to hold Bill's hand, but Sarah made me. At intervals, with misty eyes, she would look over at us and they would smile at each other. I wanted to kill them both, an impulse I was trying my best not to show. On the other hand, borderline unhappy couples can be quite good company; they're more likely to drink heavily and genuinely rejoice in your presence because you're both a tension breaker and a welcome distraction from their marital bugaboos.
         Like Sarah, a lot of people expect the day of celebration to conform to their own script. If you deviate from your assigned role, they turn into frantic drama teachers whispering lines from the wings to the amnesiac star of the high school play. ("God bless us, every one, dammit!") According to marketing mythology, the proper Holiday Spirit is a sustained state of euphoria that would require more of the party drug Ecstasy than could be consumed by several hundred frat boys at an all-night rave.
         Over time, I have learned that attitude is everything when it comes to facing the holidays solo. It is essential to embrace a pessimistic frame of mind. That way you won't be disappointed. I just learned to throw away the script, although I have to admit my first couple of single-guy holidays were pretty miserable. I once had Christmas dinner alone at Popeye's Chicken. Another repast consisted of canned spaghetti and baked beans. I and a guy named Walter Dumani, now an old friend, were living Kato Kaelin style in the house of a well-to-do doctor in Pasadena. The setting was regal, even if we had no money for food.
         But I've lived here for 15 years, and I have organized a revolving confederacy of Holiday Orphans who, at the very least, won't mope just because they're not up in the Holiday Spirit stratosphere. "What are you doing for Christmas?" we ask each other. Implied is recognition that the word "Christmas" has been retrofitted to reflect a group that includes an East German atheist, two Persian Bahais, three nonobservant Jews, a couple of devoutly lapsed Catholics, a shamanist and at least one narcissist. So in terms of tradition, there is a complete lack of conformity. This can be delightfully liberating.
         I hesitate to paint too rosy picture of these gatherings as multicultural lovefests because as the years wear on, there is an increasing amount of family-style bickering. But there's a good deal of good food. The Persians bring their sour cherry rice, the East German's mother, who often visits from Berlin, will sometimes roast a goose, and the American and the Europeans argue about how to grill. (The Europeans aren't happy unless everything is charred to a cinder.) I have intermittently inflicted upon the group a few of my own family's Southern specialties, such as oyster casserole and winter green beans in bacon fat, which received a mixed reception. All in all, it's a culinary Tower of Babel.
         Weather permitting, we start in the backyard, usually about 2 p.m. Holiday music, having long since worn out its welcome in supermarkets and malls, is strictly forbidden. Our friend Mike Dressel, the East German, plays deejay, shuffling through CDs like a crazed croupier, lurching from Django Rheinhart to Blind Lemon Jefferson to Hawaiian slack- key guitar music. Since Dressel did time in prison for trying to jump over the Berlin Wall, he eventually spins 1960s East Bloc dissident folk music, at which time somebody threatens Dressel with a hammer and forces him to settle into Bob Marley. As for cocktails, forget the eggnog--anybody for a mai tai?
         A few years ago, my friend Larry Kurnarsky was noodling away on the piano keys when we spontaneously concocted a shtick that came to be dubbed "The Non-Specific Ethnic Hour." This routine, performed in the vein of a foreign-language radio show, involves speaking and singing in complete gibberish, with intermittent breaks into English to announce the address--7896 Sepulveda Boulevard--of a fictitious business.
         I suppose that, subconsciously, this may have grown out of the polyglot nature of our get-togethers. Whatever the case, I noticed that a couple of years ago, the gibberish had become codified. I wasn't quite sure whether to be alarmed or amused when one friend, tears streaming down his face, began interpreting the sounds with a fair amount of conviction. But then Larry gave a signal and everyone broke into the "Non-Specific Ethnic Dance," which resembled an ungainly twist on Cossack dancing.
         It's funny how the holiday spirit sneaks up on you when you least expect it. Somehow, we had accidentally started a tradition.

    ©Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times

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