The Christmas Newsletter
It became a part of the American culture decades ago, back when the U.S. Postal Service was still the primary means of communication. Back then, you might not have seen relatives or acquaintences for years, and shipping out a letter recapping what happened in your world would be the only way to keep up. Decades later, an occasional phone call or quick plane trip remedied that. But you couldn’t call or visit everybody you knew.
And so, the tradition of adding the annual family Christmas letter to a customary greeting card started to emerge. Receiving a fat card from your cousin Ruthie or an old college roommate meant that a glossy posed family photo or a candy cane-themed folded letter was enclosed. Even with the dawning of the Internet age, it stills seems to be an obligation to put down with ink what’s been going on in your world.
Something I noted in the spate of Christmas letters I received is how much I could read between the lines. The recession has produced a tough year for many, and some of the writers are of the age when illness and tragedy color the passage. Still, they keep a brave face and make it a cheery digest.
For my part, I didn’t send one out this year. Why? I would like to blame Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and blogs, if I could. The past year has subverted people into thinking that no one needs to know what’s going on because their loved one already typed it daily into a computer. In truth, it would look as if I had an empty year if I wrote the Christmas letter as normal. It was a null year.
In January, just a few days after my birthday, I was downsized from my newspaper job. Despite applying for dozens of jobs every month, I am still not employed. In March, I was given the opportunity to fill my hours with the great experience of being the performing arts editor at ThirdCoast Digest. The experience and stipend to do feature work is great, but it’s not a full-time gig. I would endure many humiliations during my work search in the following months, including being told that I didn’t get a job because my shirt was wrinkled. Since then, I obsessively iron everything.
During the year, I would lose a grandmother and gain a nephew. I dallied with romance, but was burned. The farthest I traveled was Chicago, Spring Green and Appleton. I hit an upturned manhole covered by snow; I got rear-ended and just two days ago someone broke into my car as I wrote the first draft of this column. I had a solo gallery show in June. I ate two amazing meals at restaurants.
Is this really the sum of my year?
Then last week, it struck me. My photographs and Internet entries basically tracked the wonder that was 2009 for me. It was really a series of moments, the kind where you consciously realize, “I’m having a moment right now.” The skin tingles, the head becomes light and the petty problems of the world float away for ten seconds. If I were to offer up a summation of the past 12 months, it would be in moments of joy and reflection. And, I often took photos of it happening.
• I went to The Domes and sat on a wooden bench in the tropical area and watched the koi wander aimlessly.
• I went to my childhood roller skating rink and witnessed my little niece win the limbo contest.
• I got hired for a day to be the still photographer at a movie shoot and got a glimpse at what could have been.
• I went to a goodbye party for Atomic Records and watched an amazing reunion show containing three decades of Milwaukee rock.
• I found out that my toddler niece is in love with me or at least that she is fascinated by my face.
• I went to the Milwaukee Public Museum and hid out in the silent movie cinema.
• I attended a roller derby match that I was not involved with and got involved anyway. Also, I started something with someone that went nowhere at the same time.
• Started working from a desk that was not at my home. It’s the little things even that can cause a moment.
• Ate a lot of chili at the Rockabilly Chili Contest, in the name of journalism.
• Sat by the side of the road in a rainstorm, watching car windows fog up.
• Started to play the ukulele, which I should be a master at right now if I had a bone of commitment.
• Ate a cheesy tomato sandwich at the Fuel Cafe, the way God intended it to be assembled and toasted. The next day, I committed myself to photographing great sandwiches for the world to see.
• On my new converter box, I watched Channel 36-8 for a long time during the late hours when the computer voice goes away and traffic just sails by.
• Attended a Tweetup in the Polaris Room, before they shut down and stopped rotating.
• Watched Ashes of American Flags at Turner Hall and definitely had a moment.
• Blew off plans for an hour after the open fields exploded with yellow.
• Hung around the statue of Hank Aaron before a Brewers game, watching people pose for pictures in front of it. Sat in the top rows like Uecker.
• Met an exotic frog grasping my lapel that I named Kerouac.
• Out of all the live stage performances I’d see this year, nothing was bouncier and in-your-face than Cabaret at the Carte Blanche Studios.
• Potted plants, enjoyed the sun, listened to birds. Seriously.
• Traveled to New Glarus on a fact-finding mission during Swiss Days. Had many, many moments. This includes tasting a crafted beer, nearly straight from the tank atop a hillside brewery.
• Saw naked men singing, in the name of journalism. Was given VIP, front-row seating.
• Talked to Chuck Klosterman on the day Michael Jackson died.
• Visited six diners in three days, in the name of journalism.
• Watched three great rock shows in the rain, thanks to Summerfest.
• Chilled, on a hill.
• Watched a movie at a drive-in, with a girl. Was happy to get bit up by mosquitoes.
• Went to the lakefront and saw a small circus. The carousel at dusk with the city in the background was definitely a moment.
• Watched a bullfrog jumping contest.
• Sipped mojitos at Trocadero and ate a steak sandwich.
• Saw a stage play in a bowling alley bar.
• Stood next to a wild crane in the cool grass and played staredown.
• Went to Rockerbox and felt the brotherhood of the cycle.
• Went on a photowalk a la Henri Cartier-Bresson and trekked the city from south to north.
• Sat at the counter of Honeypie all day photographing sandwiches.
• Before the Labor Day Parade, stood in the empty centralpoint of Milwaukee (Water St. and Wisconsin Ave.).
• Mucca Pazza. Had a moment that those Bacardi Rum ads wished they could film.
• Stood in the balcony of the Oriental Theatre and later the top of Discovery World during the Milwaukee Film Fest party. Those are two views every Milwaukeean should get to experience.
• Watched the intense faces of children performing the tango for the chance to be on stage for one night.
• Witnessed Spring Awakening and hip-hop dancing in Sheboygan.
• Climbed to the top of Reservoir Park.
• Held a newborn.
• Saw the city from the panoramic view of the 40th floor of a skyscraper and couldn’t photograph it.
• Found out there was a Frank the Rabbit Halloween costume.
• Took a drive until I didn’t know where I was. Found reasons not to give up.
• Cooked two turkeys in one day.
• Basked in the glow of Christmas without having to rush off to work.
• Ate the best bowl of soup ever (the Carrot Soup at Soup Bros.)
• Played video games with my five-year-old nephew.
• Stood in my very own pine forest and listened to nothingness.
It was a good year.