Thinking of Henry Miller


Henry Miller wrote pornography for a dollar a page, because he had to pay rent and buy food.  All the while, he was working on Tropic of Cancer, which was one of the 20th century’s great novels.  He was in his forties when it was published, and much older when the US censors finally allowed its publication in his home country.

I think about this often, not because I think I’m Henry Miller or that the writing I do will be culturally significant, but because it’s a reminder that even the most talented people struggle.  For those of us who are significantly less brilliant, it’s probably going to be harder.

People ask me what I want from my writing, and I honestly don’t know.  I enjoy the challenge, putting the words together in surpring ways, and I like the feedback from people who read what I’ve done.  I just wish I had some story idea burning to get out, some driving force compelling me forward.  Instead, I dabble here and tinker there, writing a poem and then a story and then a movie review.  Unlike Henry Miller, I am fairly comfortable, so there’s nothing holding my feet to the fire.

Is the romanticized struggling artist a myth?  Probably.  Struggling isn’t as beautiful without the success story at the end.  What if Miller died in a gutter outside a Parisian whorehouse without finishing his masterpiece?  No one would say, He really devoted himself to art.  They’d say, What a waste.  Creating art isn’t easy, sure, but it’s not the pain that makes something art.

Miller wrote with the same passion he brought to everything he did, from ping-pong to warercolors to fucking.  It’s that passion, more than the pain, that elevates a work above its contemporaries.  I hope I can find the perfect subject to throw myself into, to shoot for art rather than hobby.  And then, when I finally find that subject and write with that passion, I can retire to ping-pong, watercolors,  and fucking.  Or whichever of those activities requires the least eyesight.

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I brought home a kitten

I brought home 
a kitten
for my wife
to cuddle
on the couch
in front of the TV
but it scratched her
on the cheek
and shat in her slipper
which no one noticed
until

yuck
and now
the cat and I 
both need a home

dear god help us
I am so cold
and the asshole cat
ate all of our canned
turkey and gravy 
and hissed at me
for thinking 
he’d share
and
jesus 
I am so stupid

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Game Over 

What follows is a chapter from my unfinished novel Only Begotten Sons.  The story concerns Marty Merlo, whose elderly father, Martin, may actually be the Second Coming of Christ.

The novel has problems, but I’ve always liked this bit.  It works as a stand-alone story, I think.

      Sam was only eleven, and he played for a Peewee football league that was not especially competitive. Unlike his father, he had never mastered sports. He was fortunate that every kid who signed up for the league ended up on a team somewhere and got some playing time. usually, he was brought in on special teams to prevent the opposing team from scoring on kickoff returns. This was not because Sam possessed some sort of athletic prowess that made him indispensable in such efforts, but rather because it was the safest place to dump him. His recently assumed role of Starting Kicker had not been earned so much as settled on by default. in truth, very few teams in the Peewee League ever attempted field goals or extra points, preferring instead to go for touchdowns or two-point conversions.

      His team, the Tigers, was coached by an affable man named Petersen who prepared for each game like Vince Lombardi cramming for a Super Bowl. He drew up plays, studied film, revised the previous plays, and then cursed like a sailor when his masterwork could not be properly implemented by ten through twelve year olds. Despite this, he never blamed his players, believing that his coaching was to blame. He’d try harder next week. The kids loved him.

      On this particular afternoon, Coach Petersen’s plays worked better than usual, and the Tigers managed to hang close to the Broncos throughout the contest. Marty paced the top row of the bleachers, waiting to see his son do something, anything. His parents sat with his wifeJessica and talked casually, as if a game were not happening fifteen feet away from them.

      Sam stood on the sidelines, consciously standing on his left leg and seining his right back and forth in a slight kicking motion, hoping to stay loose for that moment when he would be called upon. It had not occurred to him that his position was entirely ceremonial; he was too caught up in the idea that he was a starter to notice that he would never play.

      Coach Petersen paced, too, muttering about the shitty officiating that was robbing his boys of the blowout victory they so surely deserved. The clock was winding down now, and his team was down by two, courtesy of a safety that had occurred in the third quarter when a trick play he called resulted in a fumble recovered by the Tigers quarterback in his own end zone, where he was promptly tackled. Petersen was sure there had been a defensive offsides that had blown the play up and went uncalled, although, he had to admit, it was the wrong thing to call that close to your own goal line. The question was whether his boys could get up the field in enough time to score a touchdown and claim victory. He had only one timeout remaining, and he had to be judicious with it. (Unfortunately, the hurry-up offense remained elusive, despite his insistence on doing two-minute drills in practice.)

      As the Tiger drive began to stall out near the Broncos’ twenty yard line, a terrifying thought crossed the coach’s mind. They were going to have to send in Merlo to attempt a field goal.    

      “Shit. God damn it. Fuck,” he muttered, to the amusement of the players who heard him. (The swearing was, of course, one of the reasons why he was so beloved by the Tigers players.)

      Finally, he signaled for a timeout, lest time should expire, and he motioned for Sam to come over to him.

      “Just like in practice, Sammy. Put that son of a bitch right through the uprights.”

      “We haven’t really practiced it, though, Coach.” It was true. Field goal practice was always the last thing scheduled for any practice session, and generally extra time was expended trying to master the Wildcat formation or the 3-4 Zone-Blitz defensive scheme, and kicking was ignored. Who the hell kicked field goals in the Peewee leagues?

      “Well, then, son, do it just like you see on television. Just like the pros do it. If we win or lose it’s because of what you do right now.” He smacked Sam hard on the side of the helmet. “Now get out there and kick some ass, son!”

      Sam’s ears were ringing, and he began to think about what Coach had said, about the fate of the contest on his shoulders. He looked to the stands to see his father staring at him, yelling something, then he turned to see the opposing team standing opposite him, looking downright fucking huge, as if they could vault Sam’s teammates and crush him without expending effort. The holder was a kid everyone called Goose (although no one knew why). Sam began to wonder what would happen if Goose bobbled the snap and the ball was unkickable.

      “Yo, Sam,” said Goose, as the refs placed the ball on the hash mark in front of the long snapper. “You kick me in the hand and I’m going to fuck you up. For real.”

      Sam didn’t have time to think about this, because in moments the football shot out from beneath the center, like some sort of ass-projectile, and he saw Goose catch it and plant it on the ground, laces facing the uprights. He ran forward…

      In the stands, Jessica had both her hands over her moth. She felt dangerously close to peeing herself.  

      Peggy clutched her hot chocolate so tightly that the Styrofoam began to crack, releasing a trickle of near-boiling liquid onto her index finger and making her drop the cup. It bounced off the foot-board and rolled under the bleachers, where it splattered onto garbage left there during the last game.

      Marty yelled encouragement at his son, in a voice loud enough that the sounds were indistinct and lost in the general roar of the crowd, unable to be understood by even those close to him.

      Martin was calm and focused. He kept his eyes on the ball, willing its perfect arc toward the holder and then its perfect positioning. As Sam ran toward the ball, Martin visualized the smooth motion of an extended leg booting a football forty yards through the air, right through the center of the goal posts. A split second after this visualization, it was a reality.

      “I’ll be god damned!,” exclaimed Coach Petersen, as he dropped his clipboard and stared at Sam. “Who the fuck taught the kid to do that?”

      “You did, didn’t you Coach?,” asked the waterboy, who made it his personal policy to stand as close to the coach as possible at all times.

      “Yeah,” said Petersen. “I guess I did. Hot damn!”

      Sam could not believe what he’d just done. He stood, staring at the empty uprights through which the ball had so recently traveled, marveling that somehow he had been able–on his first ever attempt–to not only kick something so far, but also so accurately.

      “Good job not fucking up,” said Goose, who was still crouched on the ground.

      “Thanks. You too.”  

      And then the rest of the team was around him, cheering and smacking him in the helmet and saying that they knew all along he was The Man. Coach Petersen had everyone huddle up, and he presented Sam with the game ball (which he promptly took back because the League was short on equipment funds this year and the whole Game Ball thing was all ceremonial anyway). Sam could not imagine anything more exhilarating than this. He felt his mother’s arms around him and heard his grandmother giggling and he could tell by the way his father was gesticulating up there in the stands that the man was bragging about him. His grandfather smiled serenely and nodded at him but said nothing.

 ***

      Under the bleachers, Chris Augustine was trying to get laid. Had he been anywhere else–his own bedroom, the forest, a Wal-Mart parking lot–it might have worked out for him, but Lindsay had to give her brother a ride home when his football game was done, and she couldn’t just run off. The trash-littered area beneath the cheering fans was the closest she and her boyfriend could come to privacy. Yes, as Chris had pointed out four different times, there was no one around, no one to see what they were doing. Still, the wadded up paper towels covered in crusted-over pizza sauce didn’t set a tone that she could equate with eroticism.

      Chris, being seventeen, was turned on by absolutely everything. He would have tussled with her in a trough full of pig slop if it meant genital-to-genital contact was involved. The minute he got her out of public view, he’d kissed her, his mouth dropping open so his tongue could attack hers. No sooner had their lips touched than he had put his hand on her breast, squeezing it like a wad of silly putty. This was how he assumed sexual encounters occurred–a semi-public place, intense and animalistic passion, saliva flying. He was incredibly aroused.

      “Slow it down, Chris. You hurt my boob a little bit when you twisted it there.”

      “Oh shit oh shit oh shit… Baby, I’m so sorry…” Then, an inspiration: “Do you want me to kiss it and make it better?”

      “Jesus! No. Seriously. Don’t force yourself on me.”

      “We won’t do anything you don’t want to do, I promise.”

      “Thank you. I appreciate that.”

      At that moment, a cop of hot chocolate fell from the stands not five feet from them and splattered everywhere. Lindsay looked even more uncomfortable, but Chris seemed not to have noticed.

      “What about a handjob?”

      “Oh god…”

      “I mean, I can understand not having sex. We don’t have a blanket–”

      “Yeah, that’s the barrier here…”

      “–and blowjobs are out because if you kneel down here, you’re going to cut your knees on the broken glass–”

      “I think the game is over…”

      “–but you could jerk me off standing up, and I am so ready, I could blow almost right away.”

      “That’s gross. Can we not talk about this?”

      “Okay okay okay. How about I do it and you just touch it. Just for a few seconds, like a little squeeze and then BAM all the toothpaste is out of the tube, you know?”

      She backed away from him. “No. No. Don’t be so eager… I’ll call you, okay?” She turned and walked quickly away.

      “Please, Lindsay, please. PLEASE!” But she was climbing out from under the bleachers and not looking back.  

      He considered his options. He could stay here, amidst the trash and rub one out, but with his girlfriend gone, the sheer unpleasantness of his surroundings was overwhelming. He decided to let the matter rest for now, though he could feel his erection straining against the inside of his skinny jeans. It was a fifteen minute drive to his house, and most likely his tumescence would not survive that distance. He could settle the issue that night in the comfort of his own bed.

      He made his way back to the parking lot, noting that the game did indeed appear to be over. He couldn’t remember which team Lindsay’s brother played for. Was it the orange team or the brown one?  Whatever. His 1994 Crown Victoria was parked crookedly at the edge of the lot, taking up the last two parking spots. He was already feeling better. The throbbing need he’d felt just minutes before had subsided. He slid into the car, put the keys in the ignition and buckled up.  

      When he reached up to start the car, he caught a glimpse of a cheerleader–the orange team, maybe the Tigers?–sitting on a bench in front of him, maybe ten feet away. She was talking on her cell phone and apparently pouting. She was slouched down, her long legs extended out in front of her, her skirt riding up dangerously high. Suddenly, any thought of holding off all the way home was forgotten. He reached down and unbuttoned his fly, and then he went to work.

 ***

      “I’m really proud of you, Sammy,” Marty said, for perhaps the seventh time in the last half hour. “Really damn proud.”

      “I know, Dad. Jeez. It’s just a game.”

      “Yeah, man. A game that you won. You’re the hero! You got the Game Ball!”

      Jessica nodded. “Your dad’s right this time, Sam. It’s okay to be happy. I kind of feel like celebrating. Do you want to go get some Coldstone or something?”

      “Yeah. Sure.”  

      “I’ve always said that kickers were the key to a successful team,” Marty noted for the first time, ever. “You win or lose based on the guy who kicks for you.” On and on he went as they made their way through the parking lot, to the far end.

      “I didn’t realize how far away we parked,” said Jessica.

      “That’s what happens when you run late to one of these games, hon.”

      “Did Grandma and Poppy get you here on time, Sam?,” Jess asked the boy.

      “Poppy’s never late for anything.”

      “Christ,” scoffed Marty, “he won’t let you forget that shit either, will he?”

 ***

      Chris tried to be subtle, really. He kept the motion almost entirely to his wrist so that people glancing his way would be less likely to guess what he was doing. He also occasionally turned his head to look into the back seat or on the passenger side floor, as if he was looking for something. He tried really hard not to stare at the cheerleader, but his eyes kept coming back to her legs, and he watched with interest as she moved her feet, causing the muscles in her legs to tense and un-tense. He imagined what it would be like to feel those same muscles tensing on the small of his back as he pounded ever faster, ever harder–

       A shriek startled him.

       “What are you looking at?” It was the cheerleader. “Oh, my gosh… Are you playing with yourself?” She screamed.

       Chris let go of himself and turned the key in the ignition. The car rumbled to life, and he jammed the gas pedal hard into reverse, spinning the wheel wildly. When he was out of his double-wide parking space, he glanced over at the cheerleader one last time. She was still screaming, and now she was pointing directly at him. A rather large man–her father? her boyfriend?–was listening to her and headed for his car. He slammed on the gas and shot forward, turning his head just in time to see Sam Merlo’s face hit the windshield in front of him. Now it was his turn to scream.

 

      Sam had been about five feet in front of the car when Chris jammed the pedal to the floor. His mother and father, who had begun to walk a little bit ahead of him (and still going on about his field goal), had already moved off to the left, toward their metallic blue Toyota Camry. He had been startled by the yelling, not sure what the girl was shouting about, or why it made the man in the car accelerate so quickly out of his space. Sam stood, stunned, trying to comprehend this scene, and then he found that he was no longer standing.

      The car’s bumper took his legs out from under him, and he slid forward across the white hood, looking into the eyes of a scared teenager and moving rapidly toward him. Then everything went black

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On LA LA LAND


How hard should a movie try to please its audience?  If movies are a diversion from the strains of real life–as so many people insist they are–is there such a thing as trying to hard?

La La Land can serve as the primary evidence to support your answer to that question, regardless of how you feel.  There’s no doubt that the people involved are pulling out all the stops, sweating blood to give you a good time at the movies.  Every shot is meticuously composed, and the camera moves and swirls with the wild abandon the film is designed to make you feel.  The performers (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) are charming and beautiful.  There are vibrant colors and touching songs and background dancers and hyper-real lighting cues, all of it pushing the emotion to 11.

That’s all well and good, but I was reminded of that particular sort of party host who expends so much effort to make everything perfect that he sucks the life out of the room.  La La Land is so concerned with being loved that sometimes it’s hard to like.  The first half of the film–when our two young dreamers meet and flirt and fall in love–feels like an upscale sitcom onto which someone has inexplicably grafted songs.  The film wants to be a throwback to the musicals of the ’30s and ’40s, but it feels too inorganic to pull it off.  (Hail, Caesar! better serves that purpose, if you’re jonesing for a modern take on classic Hollywood.)

The second half of the film slows down and relaxes, which improves things considerably.  Here, the actors are allowed to strike more realistic notes and bittersweet moments provoke actual feeling.  The film references Casablanca early, and it pushes toward a similar emotional climax.  There are fewer songs, which increases the impact of those that remain.  Particularly moving is Emma Stone’s final audition, which shows what the film could have been if it had found the right tone earlier.

I was reminded of The Artist and Slumdog Millionaire, both of which won Best Picture Oscars by being serviceable, good-not-great crowd-pleasers.  Trying hard can pay off in box office and awards season toasts.  But five or ten years later, will anyone still care?

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July 15, 1967, 9:34 AM

When Frank Hayes turned six, his mother gave him a pair of work boots, just like his father’s. They were a deep brown leather with rubber soles and a small steel plate in the toe, and the laces wrapped around metal hooks as they wound their way up the front of the boot, as Frank had seen Dwayne do each morning before heading off to the mine.

He wore those boots everywhere, only taking them off when his mother commanded it.  He pretended to be an explorer, climbing trees for the view and kicking over rocks to watch the bugs scurry.  He jumped in muddy puddles and dug divots into the yard with the boots’ heels.

During that summer of 1967, as his older cousins began to disappear to far-off places like Vietnam or San Francisco, Frank roamed the woods behind his house on Flatstone Lane, happy to get away from everyone. His parents, after all, had so many rules.  Drink water with dinner. Sit still in the car.  Never chase the cat.  Out in the woods, by himself, he could be just how he wanted.  Sometimes, he even practiced cursing–damn shit hell–like his father, Dwayne.

Dwayne worked long hours in the mine, leaving before 8 and coming home at 6.  Donna would have dinner waiting, and then Dwayne would head next door to his friend RJ’s house, where he and RJ would mess around fixing up an old ’38 Ford they were slowly turning into a street rod.  Donna ran a beauty salon out of her laundry room during the day and spent most evenings doing chores.  Frank played outside, with the instructions that he be back by dark and stay off the road.

The woods behind the house were not deep. After twenty or thirty yards, they thinned and opened onto the property of Dennis Ford and his wife Shirley.  The Fords were family friends, and Shirley often gave Frank a roll of Life-Savers when he dropped by.  She would sit with him on her back porch, and they would watch hummingbirds suck nectar from a feeder she had installed in her yard.  Sometimes, she even gave him an IBC root beer.

That Saturday, the 15th of July, Donna was cutting hair and Dwayne had gone to the racetrack in Jennerstown.  Frank put on his adventure outfit, which consisted of a brown flannel shirt, corduroy pants, and his boots.  He was over-dressed for the weather, but he had to look like an explorer.  Everyone knew that your clothing broadcast who you were.  Soldiers and police wore uniforms.  Hippies wore jeans and beads and ill-fitting shirts.  Explorers wore khaki, but this get-up was the best he could do.  Heat or no, he was dressed to explore.

Shirley wasn’t in her backyard when he pushed through the bushes and walked out of the woods. Her clothing was hanging on the line, drying in the morning sun.  On the other side of the yard, a pile of garbage was burning in a small barren area away from the house.  This was not an unusual way to dispose of trash in Southwestern Pennsylvania in 1967.  Frank had seen it many times before, but he had never investigated a fire while exploring.  He approached cautiously, as he thought a scientist might.

“The natives of this jungle have many ceremonies involving fire,” he narrated.  “This is their god, and they must sacrifice to it.”

He moved closer, watching the flames lick at the broken wood of a packing crate, blackening its edges.  He circled the fire from a yard away, looking at the refuse as it burned.  The trash was piled in a heap about three feet high.  As he watched, the flames consumed some of the heap’s foundation, causing the top-heavy pile to tip and fall. It landed near him, and an empty can of green beans rolled towards his foot.  He kicked it back to the center of the rubbish, and then he had an idea.

“One of the villagers’ fires is out of control!  It is threatening the village!  Only your brave hero, Frank Hayes, can save the day!”

He leapt toward the flames, which were low to the ground, and he began to stomp on them with his boots.  He could see some bits of paper and cardboard stop burning from his efforts, leaving charred remnants when he lifted his foot.  He was extinguishing the flames down to the coals!  He was a hero!

His corduroy pants were burning for about twenty seconds before he noticed.  A yellow-orange tongue of flame licked its way up his leg, singing his skin and causing him to look down.  When he saw that he was on fire, all bravery and heroism failed him.  He wanted his mommy, and he darted off towards the woods, towards home.

No one had ever explained fire safety to Frank.  He did not know–as he always reminded his kids decades later–to Stop, Drop, and Roll.  He ran as fast as he could, which in this case was very fast indeed, and the movement of his legs through the air fed oxygen to the fire.

Donna had just washed Esther Hook’s hair and was preparing to style it when she heard her son’s scream approaching like a train preparing to derail.  She looked out the window to see him engulfed in flames from the waist down.  She bolted through the door and met him in the yard.  He was screaming so hard that his jaw appeared ready to detach. Without thinking, she grabbed the waistband of his burning pants and tore them off of him in an adrenaline surge.  

By this point, Esther was behind her with a pot of water she had grabbed from the kitchen, and she poured it on the boy’s legs, then ran back inside to fetch more, which she used to extinguish the almost-gone pants.  Donna sensed the movement around her, but she was so busy trying to calm Frank that she couldn’t think of anything else.  It was Esther who got them into her station wagon and took them down the mountain to Union City Hospital.  Only when they put Frank on the stretcher in the emergency room did Donna realize her son was still wearing his boots.

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Caton (A Sketch)

In middle school, she took a new name, having grown tired of the one given by her parents.  She was no longer Elizabeth.  Henceforth, she would call herself Caton, borrowing that name from the dust jacket of an obscure Romanian play her father kept on the bookshelf by his writing desk.  The play was called God’s Mistakes, and she was certain her time as Elizabeth had been one of them.

It was a statement of imagination, not ideology.  She was not rebelling against her parents so much as eliminating the constraints of such a traditional moniker. Her gender identity–not that she would have conceptualized it in the abstract at that time–had not prompted the change.  She was a girl on the verge of womanhood who just so happened to prefer having a man’s name.

There was something free about becoming Caton.  It allowed her to consider possibilities that felt out of reach to Elizabeth.  She had always enjoyed painting, had loved the way minuscule swirls of color, when you stepped back far enough, added up to something larger, something purposeful.  A name was like that, she thought.  It was a small gesture that appeared meaningless until you saw the whole of a person’s life, at which point it either fit or it didn’t.

Her friends took up her chosen name, using it out of bemused acquiescence until it became so entrenched that Elizabeth felt jarring to their ears.  Her teachers, used to seeing Caton written on the top of worksheets and essays, went along with the girl’s wishes and ignored the class roster.  Only her parents clung to the old name, which had previously belonged to a much-beloved maternal aunt.  In time, even they would occasionally slip and refer to their daughter as Caton.

She never bothered with official paperwork.  It seemed unnecessary to spend good money–which she preferred to keep for art supplies–to modify her identity for people to whom she was nothing more than a faceless data point.  When she applied for college scholarships or when she opened her first bank account, she was careful to use her given name.  It was an irritation, but one too minor to correct.

During her junior year of college, she met a shy computer programmer who fell in love with her when she told him what she called herself.  His work was full of ones and zeros, rigid structures designed to propel corporate profits.  That she had chosen otherwise at twelve and stayed true to her youthful independence through force of will both charmed and frightened him.  They married two years later.

By the time they had reached their forties, her husband had been promoted to Systems Vice President at a regionally successful pharmacy chain, and she was able to quit her job as an art teacher and pursue painting full time. Her husband began to talk about buying a summer home at the beach, but she, ever mindful to avoid tradition when possible, suggested they buy a small home in the mountains of western Pennsylvania instead.  

She remembered a lovely, man-made lake her parents had once taken her to, and after questioning her mother and consulting the internet, she found it–Hawk Lake, just outside of a town called Bradleysburg.  She and her husband found a ranch-style home with a screened-in porch overlooking the water, and she set about converting it into an artist’s retreat.  She loved the crisp mountain air and the relative isolation of her rural getaway.

Then, the fires started.

(To be continued…)

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Too Old for This (Good) Shit

Staying up until midnight used to seem like so much fun.  Remember being young, when even the idea of midnight filled you with the excitement of the forbidden?  Your parents didn’t let you stay up that late, so when they made an exception for New Year’s Eve you got a rush of adrenaline, like you were about to climb Everest.

It’s not like that now, is it?

I had a lot of fun last night.  I went to a party at my friend Julie’s house.  The food was delicious.  The bar was fully stocked.  Musicians jammed in the basement.  It was by far the best New Year’s Eve party I have ever attended.  I left feeling really happy, and I hope we can go again next year.

But this afternoon, I feel like I need a good three hours of sleep that I’m not going to get.  Mia and Ian are running around happy, like nothing’s happened, and I can barely keep my eyes open.

I am 35 years old.  That’s not old in any conventional sense.  In any career except for professional sports, a person of my age would be entering their prime, at the junction between youthful innovation and the wisdom of experience.  I am half the age of the president-elect, twenty years younger than the outgoing president, and four years the junior of Kanye West.  Where is my energy?

Is it just the idea that, when you’re an adult, staying up is less a privilege than a cultural responsibility?  Holidays become about what one must accomplish rather than what magic might happen.  If you’re lucky, as I was this year, you can fufill your obligation to tradition and, in the process, luxuriate in joy and warmth for a few hours.

But you’ll still need a nap the next day.

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