Dad vs curation nation

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, December 7, 2018


They come roaring in, these lists upon lists of gifts upon gifts, 10 best or dozen most useful or most quirky or most coveted. Gifts for the cook, the couple, the bookworm, the humbug, the athlete, the gentleman, the millennial, the techie, the bacon lover, the beef lover, the vegan, the gardener, gifts for every kind of kid and connoisseur and aficionado you can think of, as well as, of course, the zen koan-iest gift curations of all — gifts for persons who have everything.

At some point, usually around the time I’m actually starting to believe that life might be measurably better with a certain thing I don’t yet have, I flash on my father, a bigger than life military man I’ve written about many times before. For whatever reason, and against all odds, Jim Curry, liked Christmas.

He passed away over 30 years ago, so I’m not completely sure he wouldn’t have eventually gone the way of the Grinch, especially given today’s subscriptions boxes and animal adoptions and thematic gifting and blogger posts and celebrity curators like Oprah and Ellen and corporate ones like Amazon and BuzzFeed. He certainly would have put his foot down at the pressure imposed to spend, to splurge, to agonize over what others have pitched as the perfect gifts.

Not to mention the religious aspects of the holiday he was never quite on board with. At the dinner table one night, after a heated argument about religion (me from my perch as a Catholic high school sophomore at a school he’d enrolled me in), he declared he would never set foot in a church again. As a self-proclaimed nonbeliever, he rarely went anyway, but with my mother’s French Catholicism backdropping the raising of the kids, he had always managed to put the suit on for the occasional church wedding and for midnight mass. No more midnight masses. Maybe no more weddings.

So, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why he liked Christmas. He’d grown up relatively poor in the Depression years, a father gone, his mother and grandmother raising him. And yet, he wasn’t a man who wanted much, except for the very best of anything! (This became ever so clear in a pile of letters he wrote to my mother in the 1950s during 10 years’ worth of tours of duty. He was buying suits in Hong Kong he could not afford while she was literally buying bolts of material to make clothes for three kids. )

But at Christmas, all personality rules seemed to be off, and in a beautiful you-never-know-about-people (especially your dad) sort of way, he settled into the season. He might have been done with midnight mass, but he created a memorable tradition of Dad’s Christmas on Cascadia Avenue. Old school, spare and oddly curated — part Charlie Brown, part king-of-the-castle, and all of it commencing with the clearance tree we’d go buy for $1.99 at the local variety store in Seattle and then drill holes into in order to fill it out more (seriously).

Sacred rituals? Excessive tinselizing of said tree (tinsel was made of lead back then). Ornaments that never changed at all, not in 30 years. And, at some point mysteriously slotted into the delicious days before Christmas, he would disappear into his office, a cozy little smile on his face, with the ribbons and scotch tape and the limited assortment of wrapping paper we had back then, and carefully wrap all the presents he’d purchased for the family. It was the bows I remember best, a simple type of little flower bow he would make by wrapping curling ribbon around and around his hand, tying it in the middle and then fanning out all the loops into petals. Every single gift got one. Every year.

Curation for the girls (there were two of us, and two boys) was very simple and did not waver much: dried fruit assortments from Harry & David (platters that came with a two-pronged plastic fork that included dates and maraschino cherries, apricots and pears and such). A silk scarf in a small box, with tissue. And some kind of bath item like powder with a puff — usually a respectable, well-known scent.

These gifts were old fashioned even back then! But thinking back on it, I loved what he brought, for his daughters especially, at Christmas: delightfully simple things that were, in their own way, quintessential and right. Care spent in making them ready. And the simple tag accompanying each one of them that said our names and “Love, Dad” in his own loopy, big-boss-man handwriting. In fact, it was probably those two words in juxtaposition — “Love” and “Dad” — that, along with his little gift, reminded us that he had a beating heart, after all, and that it was a soft and tender one.

Aspenglow Wormhole

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 5, 2018


I arrived in Telluride in late August 1984 during a summer that saw more than 45 days straight of afternoon thunderstorms. Looking out the eastern bunkroom window at the Oak Street Inn (a youth hostel at the time, and the reason I drove into town in the first place), it was all in-your-face Ajax Mountain and the big, fat silver ribbon of water running down Ingram Falls. Puffy clouds, pierced by late afternoon rays of light, signaled the end of every day before the moon’s rise in the valley; and then the morning would arrive, sparkly and sunny, at least for a little while.

In those first days (right before I actually took a job at that inn), assorted fungophiles were showing up in the early evening to cook their foraged specimens in the living room fireplace, a stand alone thing with a pull screen and rock rim. The brandy, butter and mushrooms mixed in with the smell of rain was more than good; it was intoxicating. And as I considered these cozy looking hobbits in raincoats, emitting their pheromones of mycological contentment, I wondered: What other world is this I’ve entered, with its rainbows, its deep shadows, its deer and bear padding around in the dark, forest-y background?

When fall came, I think it was probably spectacular enough, but then I hadn’t started comparing them yet. I’d never seen aspens before or big swaths of color doing their slow-mo stadium waves. I’d been back East, where the fall was much more about nine-inch maples leaves crunching underfoot at Central Park, and the eventual freezing of the duck and sailboat ponds.

The San Juans were something else. The vast mountains were alive and speaking. Entire geographies of scrub oak and aspens were transmutating. One of the first people I met in Telluride used the term “tunnels of fire” to describe the 22K gold envelope of aspens lining a trail as we walked up and through it.

In a sense, yes, on first glance, tunnels of fire, with visuals of orange and red and yellow licking flames. But the feeling was different. It was warm and interior and soft, a yellow that actually felt like it was being understood and absorbed by my body in a way I imagined the sun was understood and absorbed by plants. The gold light coming through the leaf? I could taste it, identify it landing on the back of my skull. Swallow it, sense it deep within and also right under my skin, as if my body, heart and soul needed a visible-spectrum vitamin to survive the coming cold.

When my mom passed away, almost 15 years ago now, I felt I needed to speak in part about aspens. It was that time of year in Colorado, they were on my mind, and we’d had a fall of extraordinary scope that just went on and on and on. But also, my mom, a fine and knowledgeable gardener, had been fascinated with this particular tree that she considered exotic simply because it didn’t thrive in the Northwest. I think I compared her passing to a tree having lost the last of its sun-drenched, living, breathing leaves.

Looking back, I think I was actually reaching at aspens to indicate, imperfectly and imprecisely, what fall does to the senses, to memory, to the heart, to our eroding notions of cycles, and time passing or standing still. To help me grasp big important things better, to help me grasp them at all. Every year since, I have tried to figure out my response to the slow-rising color in the turning aspens.

This year, with the drought and high heat, it’s the individual trees I’ve been observing and reacting to — the way it feels standing under one as the leaves quake and glint in the wind and sun. The quality of the micro-pockets of shade, the dark and the light all around, the dappling of the ground, that radiant yellow light streaming through the leaf portals to reach you, to infuse you with warmth before the yearly invasion of ice crystals, to call your attention to an aspen tree’s magnificence in the scheme of things.

When I try to recall the details of years of aspens turning, it really feels more like trying to slip back into a dream to gather it up, to secure the location, stand in it and attempt to feel it while looking around at whatever details I can glean. Like a traveler in time — and a tiny one, for sure — shooting through a wormhole of gold to get to a spot where the present moment can ring, briefly, but clarion-like and golden yellow.