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The Christmas Shoes

On the way to work this morning, the people on the talk show I listen to were lamenting the awfulness of “The Christmas Shoes” (the song, in this case). This always happens: The radio people take my side on an issue, but then they defend it with such dreadful reasoning that I panic that someone will think, “Huh, none of these arguments make any sense. Therefore, it must be an excellent song.” Because it’s not: the song blows. They just couldn’t articulate why it blows.

Case in point: A caller who, agreeing with the team, argued that she hates it “because every time I hear it, it makes me cry.”

INCORRECT. Only acceptable if you are crying tears of laughter.

They were onto it, a little bit, sometimes: They wrestled with “it was written to make you sad” as a reason it sucks. Yes, the word you are looking for is “cloying.” I might also venture “manipulative” and “cynical,” but I’m pretty grumpy sometimes.

(And even though their argument that “It’s not even a real story” misses the point entirely, bonus points to the contributing texter who offered them, “Why are you standing in line when your mother is dying? GO BE WITH HER.”)

But my complicated relationship with The Christmas Shoes actually centers on the movie. Which was based on the book. Which was based on the song. Which sucks.

The only reason I bothered watching at all was shadenfreude directed at Rob Lowe. Lowe had just quit  The West Wing, reportedly over dissatisfaction with his screen time and general issues with writer Aaron Sorkin. (Years later, I’m not even sure how much of that is true, but it worked well for these purposes.) I was, of course, annoyed that he would deign to be so petty toward my beloved show, so when Lowe’s very next project turned out to be this Hallmark H.O.F. P.O.S., I was delighted.

This recap goes into it, really, better than I can. (And, amusingly, also references “the smugness” of Aaron Sorkin’s writing, so…what’re ya gonna do?) (Edited 12/22 to add: This Patton Oswalt routine is even better. Just listen; don’t watch the cartoon.)

The Christmas Shoes is a story scrubbed and bleached and stripped of all nuance and launched off of a cliff of maudlin extremes—whose mangled corpse is then paraded in front of you like the filmmakers found a unicorn. It’s a smug parable espousing things we already know:  “It’s not about presents, people! Look! Christmas is about love!” Even an ounce of nuance would be redeeming, but no: Everything Rob Lowe does is obnoxious and heartless; everything the family does is good and pure. Because if they’re not perfect and martyrs, how will people be able to love them?

Anyone who didn’t have at least this much empathy at birth has already seen How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Stoppard’s The Real Thing, when the main character is describing a wannabe playwright who believes he’s made profound philosophical discoveries (which are actually instead widely known concepts): “…announcing every stale revelation of the newly enlightened, like stout Cortez coming upon the Pacific—war is profits, politicians are puppets, Parliament is a farce, justice is a fraud, property is theft…It’s all here: the Stock Exchange, the arms dealers, the press barons…you can’t fool Brodie—patriotism is propaganda, religion is a con trick, royalty is an anachronism…pages and pages of it. It’s like being run over very slowly by a traveling freak show of favourite simpletons.”

 the-christmas-shoes-2002b
Don’t forget to love us! And floss!

The Christmas Shoes feels like it was made by people who are publicly patting themselves on the back for their pure and generous spirit—as though having sympathy for a dying woman’s family at Christmastime is a triumph of humanitarianism. As though giving $20 to a kid is an act of sainthood. It’s a tee-ball homerun on a shortened field; it’s not the kind of thing that should get soaring, self-satisfied music and a background chorus of cherubic children. (Or, as I like to shout in that part of the song, “SING IT, CANCER KIDS!”)

I’m sorry. Not to stomp (…repeatedly) on what was probably, at some point, a well-intentioned story of love. And I’m sure it’s valuable for the kiddos developing a sense of grown-up consideration for other people. But for most of us, there’s really nowhere to go with this but sarcasm; this movie eats up every ounce of earnestness available.

Which, if you’re a drunk, sharp-tongued, bitter old lady like me, makes it pretty fun to watch.

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Council’s

My love of dive bars is well e-documented. As is my love of burgers. So since our nasty-ass clogged kitchen sink forced us out into the world for dinner, I was happy to cross Council’s off my list of must-visit burger joints.

I first heard about Council’s from a Facebook-generated article we put in our December visitor’s guide a year or so ago. Since then it’s come up in conversation a few times, mostly with Beaucha (who, though he’s quite a few years younger, is basically my Bradenton mentor for all the northerly things I missed in my Sarasota-oriented upbringing).

First impression: Yep, dive.

In fact, it’s so much not about appearances that it almost seems like they’re trying too hard to maintain their dive-bar status–from the oddly blocked off front “window” that half-displays/half-masks the old sign, to the unmaintained black bar and its cluttered backdrop of signs and snapshots and decrepit cash registers, to the double-row of pool tables stretching into the back, lit up like an interrogation room by florescent lights.

Second impression: Awesome. I like it.

Well, except for the collective side-eye we got from the crowd when we walked in, led by the portly, ponytailed bartender. (That guy looks like he might be related to the second-generation Bahi Hut bartender who, last I checked, was slinging drinks at Broadway.) Reminded me of the reception we got when we walked into a considerably more frightening bar in BFE East Jesus, Tennessee, where we met a very nice man whose name I can’t quite remember–Trigger? Buckshot? Jackhammer?

Anyway, no menus–the chalkboard above the fridge lists hamburgers, cheeseburgers, chili, chips and beer prices. I ordered a Bud Light and immediately got a half eye-roll from the bartender. “Bottle?” he jabbed, grinding his teeth in the direction of the taps, which were Budweiser and Budweiser. “Um, yeah, please,” I responded, wanting to add, “I don’t give a shit, I ain’t gonna drink that that hangover gravy draught, even if it is cheaper.”

The bar, the beer, the limited food–it’s all very Hi-Way-esque, which certainly works for us so long as we’re not being viewed as interlopers. We ordered a couple of burgers, and the bartender grabbed some patties out of the fridge directly in front of us and took just one step over. This is when I realized that there was no kitchen “in the back”–just a griddle that looked to be about one-foot-by-two-foot.

Ok, that’s one of those tiny details that just encapsulates the awesome character of a place. That, and the sign over the fridge that says, “We’ve been cooking burgers since McDonald’s was just a farm.”

And I’d believe it. A few minutes later, the bartender plopped our burgers in front of us on the bar, half-wrapped in a napkin–no plates or nuthin’–and in one bite I was reminded of Duffy’s. Prooooobably not quite that good, but I’ll give it “Duffy’s East.” Next time I’ll order two, since I could eat the first one in about three bites out of sheer enthusiasm–juicy, meaty, crispy iceberg, chopped onions and tasty bun. (I asked for no tomatoes, but if you want ’em, they sit fresh in a little row on tiny shelves in the tiny window next to the griddle.)

Yep, we’ll be going there again. I’m sure they’ll love us–once they get to know us.

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So Save Me, Maybe?

This damn song has been in my head ALL DAY. So, naturally, I caved and changed the lyrics to reflect the whole “zombie apocalypse” thing.

[Keep in mind that the parts of this song that are vague, nonsensical or just plain suck have been written that way totally on purpose, as an homage to the original.]

I threw a fit in my car,
A normal morning so far,
But then you came from afar
And asked me for my head.

I read the news and it’s weird,
It’s just as we had all feared:
The zombie outbreak is here
To eat what’s in my head.

The lights are flashin’
Ripped flesh, teeth are gnashin’,
Down the street we’re dashin’.
Where’s the goods we’re stashing, baby?

Hey, I just met you,
And now you’re raving,
So I’m-a leave now,
And someone save me.

You’re eating people
And that shit’s crazy,
So go eat that guy,
And spare me, maybe?

And all the other freaks
Never fazed me,
But you’re a zombie,
So someone save me.

(Before I fixed my rifle sight
I missed you so bad,
I missed you so bad,
I missed you so, so bad.)

I took my time with the gun,
I spent some time on the run.
Now shooting zombies is fun,
(Just aim it for the head.)

I pile them up on the lawn,
Now all the zombies are gone.
That didn’t really take long,
And I still have my head.

The rain is fallin’,
Drip, drop, drink is callin’,
Blood bath, so appallin’,
Why’re you always stallin’, baby?

Hey, I just shot you,
And you’re still flailing,
So here’s my number,
So call me maybe?

It’s hard to look right
At you, baby,
So here’s your arm back,
And bite me, maybe?

Now all the other brains
Look so tasty.
So here’s my dinner,
I’ll eat it, maybe.

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The Dolphin Lounge

I like me some dive bars. Like strip clubs and hockey locker rooms, they satisfy my craving for social adventure. I like summoning up the courage to go into a new place with seemingly rough people, and then trying to kick back like I belong.

But, being not actually very bold, I treat dive bars like when, as a kid, you’d try to get close enough to a grand adventure to be excited—without actually being so close as to be in real danger.

Most of the time, this works out pretty well. Locker rooms are my home away from home; the Hi-Way’s pretty well old hat for us now; all the local strip joints have served their purpose insofar as letting me feel brave, rebellious and seasoned—well, “seasoned” is probably not a word I want to be using there…ew—without involving any of the things you’d see in an anti-strip-club PSA: muggings, drug addiction, human trafficking, etc.

(Hah, I was just reminded of this after-school special from, like, second grade, where this old witch in the park scared all the children, until one brave family took her in and gave her a bath, and then she was a nice, pretty lady. Like, “See, she’s not a witch! She just needs better grooming habits!”)

(I don’t know why it never occurred to me how weird it is to just up and decide to bathe a stranger.)

In fact, we’ve had such luck exploring disreputable haunts that we sometimes forget that, well, witches do exist. And we probably ought not fuck with them.

Which brings us to the Dolphin Lounge.

The Dolphin Lounge is a windowless, flesh-colored, standalone bomb shelter of a building on Bradenton’s Ninth Street, a busy, pedestrian-heavy two-lane road banked by a tangle of power lines, tiendas, used car lots and abandoned buildings. We’d long had it on our list as a potential neighborhood watering hole, since it’s only 10 blocks or so from the baseball field. So one night after a game, we had the gumption to stroll on over and give it a whirl.

I had pretty well crossed over the “adventure” line and was easing my way into terror-tinged social anxiety, but CCB is an intimidating enough figure to ward off most troubles. I figured.

The one big room is about the size of a small house, with dim lighting, a couple of pool tables, a shuffleboard table, some random columns joined by “bars” with stools on either side. The actual bar is a massive double-horseshoe that takes up most of the long wall.

When we came in, the bar—big though it is—was mostly full, and there was a big, happy, rowdy group of middle-age people next to it playing pool. They immediately involved us in their loud conversation—saying hi, making bawdy jokes, demonstrating how someone had just poured a beer on someone else—as we waited to get the bartender’s attention. Friendly people, didn’t seem to give a damn about a couple of young punks like us in there—seemed like a good deal. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said to CCB as I sipped my JACK and coke.

CCB relayed to me the bartender’s message, that they do tend to get bikers in there, but “You show them respect and they’ll respect you.” Uh…huh. Well, that’s a step beyond the Hi-Way and its no-gang-colors policy. Exciting.

One drink and we’d settled in on one of the supplemental “bars,” watching SportsCenter on an old 12-inch TV. Then I decided to go get the next round.

The part of the bar nearest to us was still a few people deep with the pool crowd, but I spot an opening in one of the “armpits” of the bar, in between the two horseshoes.

As I wait, of course, of course the guy sitting nearest to me—by himself, of course—strikes up a slurry conversation. “Hey, is that big guy you come in with your man?” OK, scary question, but this guy was probably about my size, mid-40s, beady eyes and a boyish face that, sometime in the last decade or so, had turned into a droopy mean mug. In the Lifetime movie “Hannah Wallace: A Dangerous Dive,” this guy will be played by Chris Cooper.

“Uh, big guy?” I ask.

“Yeah, the really big tall guy you come in with.”

“Um, well, the guy I came in with is right over there.” I wave at CCB (make sure he’s made eye contact).

“Naw, that ain’t him,” Scary Guy says. Pause. “You wanna go home and have sex?”

Shudder. Barf. Shudder.

“Uh, no, see, ‘cause that guy over there? He’s my man.”

“Oh, OK,” he says, like I’d reported on the weather. “You a cop?”

Oh dear god, I think, these are not good things he’s assuming about me.

“Nope,” I say, in panic, trying to be a sunshiny princess.

“Oh. You look like a cop.”

“Oh, no, sir,” I say all cheerful, “Nope, just…gettin’ a drink. For me. And my man.”

“Don’t call me sir,” he growls.

“Sorry!” I’m talking an octave higher than normal and smiling like a beauty pageant toddler. It’s that stupid “girls need to be super-nice to scary mean men” social construct. I make a mental note to go straight home and read The Gift of Fear.

“You sure you’re not a cop?” he presses on.

“No, sir, not a cop.” I now realize it’s better he’s alone than convincing a group of people that I’m a cop.

Don’t. Call me sir.”

He’s quiet for a few moments, then starts in on a story, his eyes fixed forward on nothing in particular. “I used to live in Fayetteville…”

“Oh! Yeah! In North Carolina! I know Fayetteville. Were you in the military?”

“Yeah.” He is totally uninterested in my recognition. “I had this buddy up there. This buddy of mine, he used to call all black people n*****s.”

Um…OK? At this point, I’ve got my drinks, but I can’t figure out how to dip out on the story.

“This buddy, his dad was real sick. And I was the only one who would go see him.” He looks at me. He’s getting intense here—louder, and his voice wavering like he’s near tears. “I was the ONLY ONE who would go see him. He was stuck in bed. He couldn’t walk. His face was all swollen up, his eyes were swollen, and they oozed and he couldn’t see. He was all swollen.”

“My god,” I say. “What happened to him?”

Flipped switch: pissed. “He was in fucking Vietnam. So you leave me the fuck alone!

“OK, sir!” I chirp, turn on my heel and sprint-walk away.

And that is why I never again want to go into any place scarier than Chili’s.

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My Ragingest Things

A song. (Alternately titled LOOK AT ALL THE FUCKS I GIVE!)

God-awful drivers and steaks that have gristle,
Empty beer bottles and people who whistle,
All of the bitching that one mistake brings,
These are a few of my ragingest things.

Short-pour bartenders and chewing-gum smacking,
“Girl, you should smile more” and other crap macking,
Asking for drumsticks and just getting wings,
These are a few of my ragingest things.

When the boss calls,
When the glass breaks,
When I’m seeing red,
I simply remember I can’t go to jail
And go to the bar instead.

Whiffing a slap shot and mold in my shower,
Racists on Facebook and morons in power,
Deafening cell phones with stupid-ass rings,
These are a few of my ragingest things.

Stains on my trousers and gay-marriage bannings,
Tebow and Crosby and most of the Mannings,
Emotional crises with unending stings,
These are a few of my ragingest things.

When the jerk brags,
When the child screams,
When I want to kill,
I simply remember it’s 15 to life,
…and sometimes I’m raging still.

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…to whom?

As good a story as any to start with, I guess?

So I’m searching for regular-salt, all-fat, NORMAL cream of mushroom soup in Sweetbay’s massive Campbell’s display. Sixty-something guy behind me turns and asks, in not the friendliest manner, “What kind of sauce would you serve with roast beef?” indicating a bag of sandwich meat in his basket.

My thought bubble is nothing but an asterisk and a puff of smoke from the short circuit.

“I…uh…like a horseradish…something?” I sputter.

“Something here?” he asks, indicating the wall of condiments, the steak sauces right in front of him.

I grab a jar of creamy horseradish and hand it to him. “Maybe like this?”

He is annoyed/incredulous. “You’d serve this? With roast beef?”

“Well, yeah, I guess”–I’m annoyed that I feel apologetic–“like maybe on a sandwich or something.”

“This isn’t for a sandwich,” he huffs. I shrug, at a loss, and he turns back to glare at the A1.

We should also note that I was wearing basketball shorts, a dirty white t-shirt and flip-flops. My greasy hair did not scream “foodie.”

I dunno what the hell he’s looking for, but I’m staying the fuck away from that guy’s house for dinner.

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