I remember when I was eleven years old doing my very best to cut out my grandfather’s heart and eat it. He was trying to do the same to me, so it was all fair. Plus, it was on Christmas Day, so we deserved some kind of forgiveness, or dispensation, or something like that.

Here’s how it went. On Christmas morning my sister and I assaulted our toy-encircled tree like a troop of baboons, after which my family opened gifts. Then, before we could play with our new toys that made every other toy we’d ever owned look like cow flop, my parents made us get dressed and drove us to my aunt’s house. The entire extended clan ate the noon meal together, with us kids at the short tables. In this way my people broke the holiday bread, reaffirmed our family bonds, and in the afternoon, as the Good Lord intended, we played poker.

I don’t know why we played poker within spitting distance of the Nativity Scene, but that’s what my people did. I didn’t learn much about religion, but I learned that if you’re not playing poker to cut out someone’s heart and eat it, you might as well be playing with a wad of dirty newspaper and a stick. I also learned that faith is a wonderful thing, but don’t draw to an inside straight.

We played for cash. Nobody cared that I was eleven years old. If I was dumb enough to raise into a pair of aces, I must be too stupid to spend my allowance on anything good anyway.

My father didn’t play poker with us. I didn’t think about it then, since he pretty much minded his own business and nobody bugged him about it. But yesterday he explained to me why he didn’t play. When he was in Korea during the war, neither he nor any other marines got paid. The Corps held onto their money, since they sent men to places where there wasn’t a damn thing worth buying anyway. The Corps finally shipped them home on an actual ship, which stopped in Japan so the men could get their back pay in real, U.S. cash.

Poker games broke out in every unused cranny of that ship. Not every man played, but a lot of them did. After all, there weren’t many recreational activities on a ship crammed with marines. However, the main point is that by the time they reached San Diego about six guys owned all the money, and hundreds of fellows were broke.

My father did not play poker. When he got home, he bought a new car.

This is all fantastic evidence that poker is a game of skill, not a game of chance. Here’s a fun fact for you. If you look around the poker table and can’t tell who is the least skilled player at the table—you’re the one whose heart is about to be cut out and eaten. Now that I think about it, that’s true of a lot of things in life.

My grandfather died when I was 15. The family drifted, and after a few years the Christmas dinners stopped. We didn’t play poker anymore. But by that time I felt like I was a pretty good player. In my twenties I decided to see how good I was, and I started flying to Las Vegas to play poker. I won a little sometimes, and I never lost much, so I kept playing.

The crazy point came when I landed in Vegas, went straight from the airport to the casino, and played for 40 hours straight. At the end of that time I was $10 ahead. I thought, What the hell? I’d won a lot of hands, and I hadn’t lost too much money on any hands. Then for the first time I paid attention to something I’d seen thousands of times. Every time someone bet, the dealer pulled out ten percent and dropped it in a hole in the table, where it went to pay for electric lights, and Wayne Newton, and hookers for Japanese high-rollers.

It wasn’t enough to be good. You had to be supernatural. I never surrendered poker money to a casino again. I played other games like craps and blackjack, and I lost my ass because I hardly understood them at all.

To wrap this up, jump forward in time to my wedding. I’m not the wildest guy on my block, and my bachelor party was an event of less than thermonuclear festivity. Instead of strippers and tequila, my best and oldest friends came over to my place for the evening, and we bonded by drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing poker.

I took all their money. I cut out their hearts and ate them. Hey, we were playing poker. Screw ‘em. If my grandfather was fair game, what did they expect?

My dad in Not-a-Damn-Thing-Around-Here Korea, 1951

Now that Christmas over and everybody’s holiday cheer has been poisoned by bitter relatives and travel reminiscent of a bad peyote trip, I’d like to talk about all things Yule. I’ll hurry, since I ought to be editing right now.

I rate this Christmas as bizarre.  It was far stranger than the one at which every child in my extended family had the flu, and Christmas morning found them lying scattered around the couches and rugs like victims of a grenade attack. One of them would lift his head an inch and flop it sideways to look at a new toy before collapsing back onto a pillow, and another might barf on a poinsettia, but they whimpered at the suggestion they go back to bed.

This Christmas was more peculiar than that. It was the first one without my mom, and Christmas without my mom is like the circus without monkeys. She loved Christmas more than any person I’ve ever met, so without her the festivity index was low. Also, we gathered a couple of days before Christmas, which seemed odd, but as far as my father is concerned Christmas Day is now no more significant than August 7.

But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I spent much of Christmas Eve fixing my in-law’s wireless network, which was more festive than it might sound, once everyone went away and stopped talking to me. I love them all, but my brain does one thing at a time, and answering questions counts as one thing. It occasionally appeared that I might fail, and comments about the need for bigger brains were overheard, but at last, on Christmas morning, I drove a victorious stake through the son of a bitch’s heart in the spirit of the season.

But I don’t want to talk about that either.

I want to talk about coconuts.

When I was a boy, my father always bought a coconut and put it under our Christmas tree. He never explained it. I never asked. Why would I ask? You have tinsel, you have gifts, you have a coconut. It’s the way things were done. On Christmas morning, once the gifts had been opened in turn so we could all appreciate every revelation, my father smashed open the coconut with a 22-ounce framing hammer. Then he drank the milk and ate most of the meat, since the rest of us didn’t care much for coconut. I think my mom ate a little for the sake of politeness.

When I grew up and started talking to my friends about holidays, I realized that not a single one of them had a coconut burrowing under his Christmas tree. My family was unique. I asked my father, hey, what’s with the coconut? He said he had no idea. In his childhood, whenever his family could afford a coconut, they had a coconut. He guessed it was a family tradition, like cooking ham at Easter, or following young men who leave town after trifling with their daughters and then quietly murdering them.

This puzzles me a lot. Five generations ago my people were hanging around North Texas, felling timber and farming and making trouble. They’d have to ride a horse two weeks to find the closest coconut trees. Getting a coconut must have been a significant effort. Catching a bobcat and strapping it to the floor under the tree would have been a lot easier.

I turned to my friend and mentor, Google, who guided me through a lot of Christmas coconut cakes, Christmas coconut cookies, and Christmas coconut balls before I found I’m not the only child of the coconut tradition. At least two other people in the world grew up with coconuts in cozy nests under their trees—and neither of them has a shade of an idea where this behavior came from or what it means.

I could create a crackerjack story about the Christmas coconut tradition. No one seems to know a damn thing about it, so who could say I’m wrong?

The coconut represents the sacred heart of Huldah, the cow in the manger that stepped on the second wise man’s foot, causing him to spill some frankincense, and whose heart shrank in contrition, and who afterwards gave vodka instead of milk on the Sabbath. So we put a coconut under the tree to remember her. And then we smash it and hope there’s vodka in it.

It’s tradition. Don’t mess with it.

Don’t strap this little dude down under your cheery Christmas tree–adopt the coconut tradition instead.

Photo by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)

Released under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License

I’d like to make a few hundred Christmas cookies, but most of the people who might eat them are relocated, dead, or not speaking to me. Instead, yesterday I window shopped for cookie ingredients. Yes, it’s pathetic, but I could be strapping reindeer antlers onto my cats and sucking the rum out of fruitcakes. History shows that I’m not above such things.

I admit that in past years my desire to make cookies sometimes exceeded my will to make cookies. I devoted too much time to other holiday activities like writing Christmas cards and playing World of Warcraft. No choice remained other than slinking to Tom Thumb to score some pre-made cookie dough, as if the Pillsbury Doughboy were a street corner dealer of bootleg holiday cheer. Yesterday, out of nostalgia, I glanced at the cookie dough tubes as I sailed past towards the chocolate chips. I jerked my cart to a halt, and I said, out loud, in the middle of the aisle with toddlers around, “Holy sheep shit from hell.”

This is what I saw.

















Don’t eat the raw cookie dough. At least they said “please.” I’ve heard rumors that raw dough may not be good for you, but I figured that’s because it clogs your arteries and makes you die, which we all know is a small price for eating cookie dough. I didn’t realize that cookie dough’s perils warranted an actual warning label. Since childhood I’ve eaten a barrel of the stuff, and almost everybody I know has eaten it too. I’ve never heard of a person who, when provided access to raw dough, didn’t instantly stick some in his mouth.

I didn’t know what was going on, but I decided to go home and find out.

As a member of the ever-evolving species homo sapiens, I employed our latest strategy for responding to life-threatening situations. I went to Google. I “googled” the phrase “raw cookie dough kills you dead.” I got five brazillion hits. (That’s a real number—kind of. Look it up.) I only had time to read two brazillion of them. WebMD, the Centers for Disease Control, the New York Times, and many others agreed—raw cookie dough is horrible. Don’t eat it. While you’re at it, stay out of the cake, brownie, and biscuit mix too. If your mom offers it to you, spit it out.

Here’s the deal. Back in 2009 an e. coli outbreak made 77 people sick. Doctors looked into it and figured out that they all ate cookie dough that must have been contaminated somehow. They ruled out eggs (pasteurized). It couldn’t be the sugar, molasses, baking soda, or margarine (all treated for pathogens). If you’re about to suggest it was the chocolate, shut the hell up right now. It must have been the flour, which is horrible, nasty stuff never treated for deadly substances, even though humans have been eating it for thousands of years. The doctors didn’t uncover hard evidence. There was no smoking flour gun. But by process of elimination, flour must have been the deadly ingredient.

These doctors are called epidemiologists, and they study what makes bunches of people sick and/or die. They probably pegged it when they blamed the flour. I believe them.

With the smooth efficiency of a guided missile cruiser, our medical professionals, our government, and the news media terrified people across the nation by exposing the raw cookie dough threat. Bake the dough before you eat it, or you’re courting death. No exceptions. Well, the raw dough in ice cream is okay. It’s “likely” treated in a way that makes it safe. That’s what the doctor said. “Likely treated.” I’m sure they don’t want to make Ben and Jerry do away with a popular flavor.

I’m going to piss off every person reading this by saying, Let’s Do The Math. Hang in there with me.

How many people eat raw dough? About half of college students eat raw dough. Lots of them buy it just to eat—why cook it? That means about 11 million of them eat raw dough.

How many of them get sick from it? Well, the 2009 outbreak was 77 people, not too big, and that’s based on the whole population of the USA. Let’s be generous and say that lots more students get sick—maybe 1,000 per year. That makes their odds of getting sick about 1 in 11,000.

On the other hand, falling down also hurts a lot people.  Your chance of falling down and hurting yourself badly enough to go to the hospital is about 1 in 40 each year.

But let’s give these students a break—after all, they’re quicker on their feet that an old guy like me. Maybe their chance of getting hurt falling down is only 1 in 100.

That means that these students are about 100 times more likely to get hurt falling down than to get sick from eating raw dough.

So what I want to know is when I’ll see a big story on CNN about the dangers of standing upright, along with some stern warnings about dragging yourself along on your ass everywhere you go so you don’t fall down and die. If you happen to catch that news report, please tweet me.

I hear the objections. Walking around is necessary, while eating raw dough is optional. Well, if you’ve ever gone over to your girlfriend’s house and found your clothes and your laptop scattered across her front yard, you know that eating raw cookie dough is non-optional.

I won’t advocate that you eat raw dough. I can’t. If I do then some slope-browed yokel will eat four jumbo tubes of the stuff and sue me all the way to Armageddon. But I myself am a little tired of giving in to manufactured terror, and if eating sugary globs of dough counts as a blow against cowardice and stupidity, then I’m happy to strike that blow.

Besides, this sets my precedent for the day when doctors say orgasms are bad for you.

At Disney World, if you don’t glitter then you’re a drone. You can push strollers, pay for ice cream, block the paths with your chubby waddle, and fill up queues to make it hard for the real merry makers to get to the Haunted Mansion. But you don’t add to the corona of happiness enfolding the place, and you’re just no fun. Today I saw a man who would kill you just for blinking, but in Fantasyland he strutted around wearing a red sequined Dumbo hat, complete with tail and ears that light up. That guy was fun.

I’ve seen more little girls dressed as princesses than I’ve seen Jack Sparrow t-shirts and coffee mugs. They were cuter than these kittens:

The little Scottish princess from Brave was popular, as you can see:

My favorite tiny princess wore a shiny lavender fairy tale dress and sparkly shoes, and her hair was done up with glitter and other girly doo dads. She was in the Pirates of the Caribbean gift shop with a hook on her hand, wrecking everything on the shelves and threatening anyone less scurvy than herself. That princess was pretty, but she didn’t take any shit. My kind of girl.

What did I wear on my journey through the Magic Kingdom? A plain gray t-shirt, gray trousers, and sneakers that I think were black five years ago. I looked like a piece of lint. I was useful for buying hot dogs and saying, “Excuse me,” to people blocking our path to the Hall of Presidents. Apart from that, I was the black hole where merriment goes to die.

I did make a tiny effort to increase the overall tonnage of fun in the park. As we hustled through Frontierland, we heard joyful, terrified shrieks distorted by distance and the Doppler effect. My wife, who’s more afraid of roller coasters than a bottle of gin is afraid of Keith Richards, said, “You can go ride that if you want to. I’ll hold your glasses.”

“Come on. Am I not man enough to make you feel safe?” I said.

“I don’t think so, unless you can reach in and make my gut feel safe.”

“I can do it,” I said. “Maybe I can be the gut whisperer.”

That was not a popular response. Twenty minutes later I was watching robot Abraham Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address. There was very little screaming involved.

Oh, and by the way, I don’t think Disney knows that Christmas even exists. You can tell from this picture.






I’m not sure what to call this post-Christmas communication. “Debrief” sounds like we’ve just smuggled a defector out of Beijing. “Report” makes me want to write about reindeer with a No. 2 pencil in a Big Chief notebook. “Summary” is something that you deliver once you close the quarterly books, and “After Action Report” implies that we’ve just overrun a Nazi battalion in some unfortunate Belgian village.

How about “Reckoning”?

While this holiday launched a few more challenges at my people than we generally see, we managed fine. We all came out of it alive, with our health no worse than when we started, and loving each other as much as we did on December 24. That said, I feel obliged to settle the score regarding my wife’s Christmas gift. I of course refer to replacing the squatty wooden chair that I destroyed a few weeks ago, as if I were a Grimm’s fairy tale character with three teeth and a size 96 chest.

I received a lot of comments about trying to repair her old chair, since it was so charming, and any other chair I could find must suck in comparison. I admitted that might be true. My wife accepted it too, and she hinted that she expected a plain, utilitarian chair. In fact, those exact words might have come out of her mouth. But I judged the old chair to be as thoroughly obliterated as Lot’s wife and thus beyond repair, so I went chair shopping.

I stalked a new chair, killed it, brought it home, and wrapped it. I think I did a nice job of supporting the fiction that a wrapped chair should be unidentifiable as a chair. I also think that my wrapping job managed my wife’s expectations down to the lowest common denominator, as you can see here:

Which holiday package contains a squatty wooden chair?

Festive, right?

My wife unwrapped the thing after five minutes of work with a sharp knife and some other implements that might have included a spatula. She saw that the disinterred new chair differs from her crushed squatty wooden chair in several respects. The seat is an inch and a half higher. The whole chair is two shades darker. The new chair is not held together with strategic bungee cord structural supports, and the new chair has a blue shirt hanging over the back of it:

On the left, the old squatty wooden chair. On the right, its successor.

My wife smiled, kissed me, and made other positive overtures, which leads me to think I’ve done well and needn’t fear being eaten by wolves.

By the way, my wife gave me a stellar gift. She knitted me a scarf, patterned after one she screwed up in a neat and creative way a few years ago. But she made this one in manly colors, so I can wear it without fear of testosterone depletion. Here it is modeled by Lola, our articulated artist’s mannequin that sits behind our bar, a gift from my sister some years ago:

I'm only a little threatened that Lola looks more butch than me wearing this scarf.

And speaking of my lovely sister the artist, she painted a fantastic painting for us. You can see it here both with and without cat, just to give you a sense of proportion:

Painting with cat
Painting without cat
So the Reckoning is made, and the holiday season moves into the cherished past. It’s time for New Year’s resolutions, something I’ve never been good at. I can only think of one right now. I resolve to keep my huge ass off the new squatty wooden chair.

My wife could be getting a remodeled bathroom with heated tile floors for Christmas. Or she could be getting a cruise down the Danube with a personal chef and her own burly Teutonic masseur. Maybe a puppy that will grow into a huge, destructive dog, or maybe a freezer and a “Tasty Animal of the Month” membership. But my sweetie will not be getting any of those things because the universe is unfair, and it requires me to pay for everything I want to give someone. Therefore, my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair on Christmas morning.

Presents were a big deal in my family, and I guess they still are. We didn’t have much money when I was a kid, but we didn’t care about spending a lot on gifts. We wanted to give a gift that was so perfectly suited to the recipient that he would go into convulsions from pure joy. It was a modest goal. Occasionally we found the perfect gift at a reasonable cost. Usually we couldn’t afford it even if we sold all the grandparents for medical experiments. So we’d buy the most nearly perfect gift we could afford without actually weeping blood from the expense.

I’ve carried this pathology with me into adulthood. My preferred gift shopping strategy is to walk into an interesting store and stride up each aisle. My goal is to shop for some loved ones whose lives I want to make ideal for one shimmering, eternally-remembered moment. So of course I don’t think about any of those people at all. I just absorb the merchandise’s aura in a consumer-zen fashion, and when my intuition smacks me in the forehead about some item I buy it. When I get home I’ll figure out who it’s perfect for. Or as close to perfect as I can afford.

Over the years, that strategy did not drip insanity, no matter how it sounds. I always employed a critical safety measure. I only went into stores that I could afford that year. If my income made it a Woolworths Five and Dime year, I did not walk into Aberdeen’s Custom Jewelry and Furs Worth Going to Hell For. I could set limits. I indulged my neurotic gift giving compulsion and still remained fiscally responsible. The universe made sense, at least through the skewed lens of my childhood.

Then came the internet.

The internet blew away my safety interlocks faster than a reckless starship captain in a David Hasselhoff movie. Suddenly the world was one big store, with nose hair clippers on one aisle and matching Ferraris on the next aisle over. My strategy would lead only to wailing frustration, immediate bankruptcy, or catatonia induced by irreconcilable psychic and moral conflict. In other words, bad strategy.

I turned to my wife for guidance. She has always adopted a more reflective approach than I to gift giving. She follows the, “Give them something nice and move the hell on,” philosophy. She doesn’t give crappy gifts. She doesn’t shop at the gas station for presents. I’ve never received from her a 5 Hour Energy Drink and a Zagnut Bar in a used Arby’s sack for my birthday. She even dares to ask people what they’d like to get as a gift, which I kind of consider to be cheating. If they don’t tell her what they want, then she gives them something modest and charming, and if they don’t like it then it’s their own damned fault for not telling her what they wanted. It all seems like insanity to me, but I don’t see my wife obsessively scratching furrows into the back of her hand because her brother wanted the blue jacket instead of the brown one she gave him.

So under my wife’s tutelage I’ve developed a new strategy. First I ask people what they want. If they want something too lavish, I just ignore whatever they said. Then I count up the rest of the money I can spend and divide it by the remaining gift recipients. Hopefully it comes out to at least seven dollars per person. If not, I decide which family members and friends I want to offend and maybe never speak to again. Then I find something that I can give to everyone, making sure it’s the nicest thing I can buy for seven dollars. I buy the gifts, bestow them as appropriate, and drink some Christmas tequila to smother my sense of having violated some natural law. Simple.    

My wife's current squatty wooden chair, complete with bungee cord structural support

This is how I know that my wife will receive a squatty wooden chair for Christmas. She got me started on my new strategy by flat out telling me what she wants. She wants this chair so she can sit on it while she applies makeup. She had a nice chair for that purpose, but I crushed it when I sat down to talk to her about weather stripping the front door. She coaxed the chair back into cohesion using a bungee cord and some profanity, so she can sit on it for now if she doesn’t mind risking permanent spinal injury whenever she applies blush. So, she wants a chair, I understand why she wants it, and I even feel responsible for her needing it. I will buy her the best squatty wooden chair I can find.

I wonder if they come inlaid with sapphires and ivory from extinct animals?