Friday, December 23, 2011

Cantique de Noel

Cantique de Noel - O Holy Night.  Every year but one, since I can remember I have performed this song, in some form or another.  Without this song Christmas is incomplete.   I've played it in all sorts of settings, solo piano, solo accordion, on church organs, with tenors, with choirs, and back in grade school Christmas programs as a part of the Heavenly Host.  It's a resonant infusion of peace and exuberant joy that can barely be contained in the human spirit - "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices".

But, last year, Christmas came and went without Cantique de Noel.  This one sad year, we had toiled away the entire week before Christmas, and only stopped working because other businesses had gone home for the holiday. We were setting up a new business, and there were not enough hours in the day. In the evening, my wife was making us some tuna casserole, (a Polish Christmas tradition) and she sent me out to read the marquee in front of the church, because they wouldn't answer their phone, so we'd know when their Christmas morning service started.

On the way, I turned off the music in my mini-van, unusual for me.  Big flakes of snow were falling, making Milwaukee's south side look like a Christmas card.  The various Christmas decorations lit the silent night, and the warm light coming from the house windows brought back memories of all the Christmases passed.  I felt an overpowering longing for the notes of  Cantique de Noel.  I realized, at that moment that Christmas pass you entirely by. At Christmas the slightest bit of giving, sharing, joy, can be returned to you a thousandfold.  But only if you give a little, else there will be nothing in it or you.  It's up to you. You have to put the tiniest light in your window, so the Christ Child can enter in.

This year, Cantique de Noel is back in my life. Bette hurt herself in a fall, and I was substituted for her piano accompaniment in Julie's show while Bette is recovering.   And, Julie and I  "did it up proper"!   Julie sang it in Db - perfectly suited to her vocal range, and, in my opinion, perfectly suited to the soul of a piano.  I even remembered the extra chords that Mr. Richter always threw in on the organ pedals back in the grade school days, a strange augmentation having something to do with fifths that propels the melody to the heavens.  Did I mention that I love this song?

So, here's my favorite rendition of Cantique de Noel - captured on December 17, 2011 by Julie's husband Bill on video:

Thanks for listening and contributing. I'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Simulated Alligator Wallet.....

The night before the show, Julie called me to ask if I could substitute for an injured piano player - Bette had fallen and could not perform.   A Christmas show - no prob.  I had "done my time" in the Great American Christmas Songbook - if you ever need a piano player or accordioniste for a Christmas show, give me a call - Salvation Army tested and ready to go.  And Bette was not seriously hurt in her fall, she's on the mend, and I hope to see her at our New Year's Day gathering.

It was my privilege to work with Julie Alonzo-Calteaux, one of my favorite Milwaukee singers. With a hurried Saturday morning rehearsal, we made a few adjustments (She didn't think it was appropriate that I sing "Sisters" with her - what a relief!) and by noon we had the show ready to go.

Here's one of the songs from the Saturday show - Thanks to Julie's husband Bill for the excellent camera work.  That's me on piano.  A hilarious rendition of an Alan Sherman parody on the standard "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  

Merry Christmas to you all!. I'd love to hear from you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winston's Christmas - A Christmas Story - Part Two of Two Parts

Follow this link to Part One, if you're tuning in late.

Back to The Plan 
As he watched the truck recede into the distance, with his Christmas list on the old leather front seat, Winston stood stunned for a moment. "Maybe I don't have the list, but I've got most of it memorized!” There was no time to waste, now. Winston ran back up the hill to his bike. His feet mercilessly pounded the pedals of his trail bike slamming it into Turbo Warp Velocity. His head was swirling with the items of his list, trying to remember all of them, letting none slip away. As he reached the Brookridge Mall, Winston hit the ground running, leaving his bicycle on its side right next to the main entrance. He ran to the center court of the mall.

 But, something was wrong. It was too quiet in there, hardly any people. Santa was not in his customary place. “Maybe he's on his break” Winston hoped frantically to himself. 'Here Comes Santa Claus’ was blaring frantically from the ceiling, a jabbering chorus of of annoying adults trying to sound like annoying children.

A voice interrupted the music. “It is now 3:55 p.m. The Brookridge Mall will be closing in five minutes. Happy Holidays” The music cut back in, a frantic cacophany of Deck the Halls with blaring guitars and artificial snare drums.

Eyes wide with panic, Winston cut through Santa's village over to the registration desk. A teenager in an elf costume was talking on her cell phone. He tugged at her sleeve, to get her attention. She snapped her head around and glowered at Winston.

“Where's Santa?” Winston nearly shouted.

The elf-girl, annoyed, said “I'm sorry, we're closed.”

“I’ve got to see Santa!” Winston tried to keep the panic out of his voice.

“I SAID, I’m sorry, we’re closed. I need you to leave, now. Have a nice day.”

As he left, Winston said under his breath, “I need you to fall off a cliff”

And the cold, gray reality came rushing around him like an icy fog. Winston was too late. Jagged fragments of his utterly failed plan fell about him as he slouched out of the mall, and back into the cold late-afternoon sunlight. Santa would never know, now, what he wanted for Christmas. Even the reconstructed list (which could possibly be missing a few items) was worthless now. Just as his brother had been telling him -- Santa would make the assumption, since he hadn’t heard from Winston, that Winston didn't want anything at all this year for Christmas. Or, worse yet, Santa would think that Winston didn't believe in him.

As he headed back up the hill, he came to the spot where he had met the truck. He could see the skid marks his bicycle had made earlier, back in a happier time when he had been a Robot Ranger traveling full of hope at Turbo Warp Velocity. He had been on a mission - a Robot Rangers Expedition. Winston stopped his bicycle, no need to hurry now, and looked back down the hill. Under the last reddish glow of sunset, the lights of the town below were coming on. In the wind-less, chill silence, Winston realized how seriously his mission had failed. “Operation Giftwrap”— indeed. His words came back to mock him.

“Well, at least I got that old man’s damn truck started!” he said to himself, fighting back the tears. “I hope that old fool has a nice Christmas, in his stupid old truck!” In the early evening sky, a falling star winked brightly and briefly, or maybe it was just one of the town lights distorted in a tear.

Back home, Winston passed unnoticed through the front hallway, where his sister was on the phone with one of her girlfriends. “Yes, a pen and pencil set. A Stupid Pen and a Stupid Pencil in a little velvet box. Yes, I showed him the necklace in the catalog. But my father said 'it wouldn't be appropriate'. Too young, my eye! I'm 16.

A Valuable Lesson
In the living room, his older brother Joshua had already opened his present from Mom and Dad — a Remington manual typewriter. "Back to basics" his father had reasoned. “Computers make things too easy, and the Internet takes all the challenge out of doing research.” Joshua poked listlessly at the keys, pressing them randomly, just for the old-time sound they made as they hit the paper.

Winston, sat down, talking to nobody. From the kitchen, he could hear his father's voice talking to his mother “This should teach him a valuable lesson in cooperation”. Great. His own parents turned against him, too! A valuable lesson! That’s what he’d be getting for Christmas. A valuable, bleak, hopeless and empty lesson. He pretended not to hear, just staring straight ahead without seeing. .

A sound penetrated Winston’s thoughtful wall of despair. A regular thumping noise seemed to come from inside the wall of the living room next to the front door, repeating at one-second intervals. From the kitchen, Winston's mother said, “Winston, what's that noise? What's going on out there? ”

Joshua could see that Winston was just sitting limply in his chair. He taunted — “Maybe it's Santa's reindeer on the roof with your stuff. Maybe we should all go out and help you bring in the big haul! HAHAHAH!” Winston jumped up, ready to punch his brother, but paused when the thumping noise stopped.

The sound of a truck door slamming. Winston froze as, one second later, an explosive POW! was followed by a deep roaring engine-sound that resonated with something recent in his memory. Winston bounded for the front door, and ran out onto the lawn looking down the road. But all he could see was a cloud of dense dark-gray smoke covering the road, tinged blue in the cold Christmas Eve moonlight. The engine sound was fading, and Winston thought he heard someone shouting “Merry Christmas” over the engine's roar.

Winston turned back to the house. It was unbelievable. The thumping sound they had all heard was explained. Packages were stacked on the front porch, on both sides of the front door. The veranda was FULL of gift-wrapped presents, and all of them had Winston's name on them!

Joshua put the typewriter in the attic, only to discover it a few years later. The attic became his “garret” from which he still writes all of his best-selling novels.

Megan began doodling with her pen and pencil set, and, as anyone who frequents art galleries will tell you, the rest is history.

And Winston? — Well, let's just say, he's in the Package Delivery business. And, yes, he works on holidays...

Merry Christmas!  "God Bless Us, Every One!"

The preceding is a work of fiction. If you notice any resemblance to real persons living or dead, then I did it right.  It was originally written for a Christmas variety show about 10 years ago, and has been re-written many times since.  Maybe this is it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winston's Christmas - a Christmas Story - Part One of Two

 One week before Christmas .
“Hey, kid, I don't care if you don't get any presents or not, but no matter what you say to Santa Claus, if Mom and Dad don't find out what you want for Christmas, you won't get anything!”   With Christmas less than two days away, Joshua was trying to reason with Winston, his younger brother.  

But Winston held his hands up, covering his ears. “Nope. Santa Claus is the only one who can handle a list this big. ”

“Hey, Nitwit! . Do you really think you're going to get everything on that list anyway? It must be eight pages long”

Nine,” Winston snapped.

"What Ever!” Joshua shouted, pulling out his I-phone. After a few flicks and clicks he quoted stridently: “Do you realize that if each child in the world gets nothing more than a medium-sized Lego set at 2 pounds net weight, Santa’s sleigh would be carrying 321,300 tons, and that’s not counting Santa himself. Conventional reindeer in the Ukraine can pull no more than 300 pounds. So we'd need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload - not even counting the weight of the sleigh - to 353,430 tons. Just for comparison, this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.”

Oh why don't you just take your facts and go text them to somebody!” Winston snarled.

“.... Just sayin’ “  Joshua taunted back.

Christmas Eve
It was THE DAY OF. . . Winston had eluded his family's repeated entreaties to please let them know what was on his Christmas list.  These now-wrinkled pages were Winston’s most carefully guarded possession.  “For Santa's Eyes Only”.

His parents were frustrated to the point of anger. It would probably teach them all a good lesson if nobody got anything this Christmas.” Winston's father said loudly his mother, in hopes of being overheard by the children.

The Plan

But now, it was three o'clock, and deployment of The Plan commenced right on schedule. In scripted moves that he had been rehearsing for weeks, Winston jumped into his parka, grabbed the neatly-folded list, threw on his gloves, jammed on his helmet, and stormed out through the kitchen into the garage. Through his head was racing the theme song from “Robot Rangers”, his favorite Saturday morning show.  Winston was a card-carrying Robot Ranger. He was well-versed in the techniques and strict training the Rangers used to "Keep the World Rolling by being Ready".

He punched the garage door opener button - he adjusted his helmet as the door rumbled up. Then he pushed the “down” button, meanwhile jumping on his all-terrain bicycle and streaking out of the garage before the door closed, missing his rear fender by fractions of an inch.. His bicycle was a specially modified Robot Rangers Turbo Cycle. It gave him a feeling of independence to be able to ride the half-mile down to the mall whenever he wanted to, without asking his parents or his brother or sister for a ride.

Winston spoke through his imaginary helmet microphone to an imaginary control tower as he shot out the driveway. “Robot Ranger Winston leaving exit hatch for completion of Operation ‘Giftwrap’ Fifteen Hundred Hours - over!”. His first burst of energy propelled him to the top of the hill. Once he had crested the hill, it was time to deploy “Turbo Warp Velocity”. Head down, Winston pedaled as hard as he could downhill to achieve as much speed as his trail bike could safely handle, the bike frame nearly disintegrating from the demands of Turbo-Warp Velocity.

Winston glanced up - INFORMATION OVERLOAD!  The first thing he saw was that he was fast approaching a completely blocked road. A stopped truck entirely blocked Winston's downhill lane. A car approaching uphill completely cut off hope to escape to the left. At his present “Turbo-Warp Velocity”, the brakes on his Robot Rangers Trail Bike were incapable of stopping him before he either hit the stalled truck or put himself head-on with the oncoming car.

Snap decision - his adrenaline-pumped system gave him a lucid picture of what must be done. Winston jumped the bike over the shoulder and up the curb - a Robot Ranger was capable of making lightning-fast life-and-death decisions!  As Winston began to congratulate himself on his quick thinking, he tried to bring the two-wheeler to a halt. Although the bicycle had hit the ground on both wheels, still Winston lost his balance. Bike and rider slid on their sides to a skidding halt in the muddy brown grass, stopping halfway past the truck’s right side, muddy but intact.

"You OK?"
From the uphill vehicle, Winston heard the voice of his next-door neighbor shouting at the truck’s driver “Get that heap off of the road if it doesn't run!” and tromped the accelerator to drive away tires squealing and engine revving.  He lay for an instant in the grass. Winston’s jangled eyes focused on the “heap”  At first he saw it sideways, then upright, but some of the details were hard to comprehend at first.  Winston rose to his feet. The truck was black, and old, very old -- an antiquity.  Although it resembled a pickup truck it was like no pickup Winston had ever seen. The headlights stood up on mounts by the front fenders, like an old Model T, and the wheels had spokes. There were running boards under the doors, and the cargo box was made of wood. And the truck was undeniably very heavily loaded; it sat very low on the chassis springs.  An old yellowish-brown canvas tarp was carefully tied over the entire load, so Winston could not see what the truck was carrying. As he watched, from the front of the truck, the engine groaned like a tired, very old horse, and then was silent.  Under the truck, Winston could see the driver's feet as he got out of the truck.

As the driver walked around the truck, Winston got up, and began brushing himself off. The truck's driver was a large, old man with long, curly, gray, almost white hair. He looked at Winston with eyes almost as gray as his hair.  “You OK, kiddo?” the driver asked.

I’m OK, I didn't hit anything. But, Mister -  why did you stop right in the middle of the hill?  Nobody ever parks there.” Winston said indignantly.

"So Far to Go...."
She just quit, and now it sounds like the battery's dead, too.” the old man said. There was a weariness in his voice as he said, almost to himself. “And I've got so far to go...”

Winston knew he had to help this man, however he could. You don’t sit through all those Saturday morning shows without learning the Code of the Robot Rangers.  It’s one of the precepts by which a Robot Ranger lives:  A man's ride is more important than anything else.

That makes two of us, Old Timer”, said Winston in his best Robot Ranger's no-nonsense voice. “Let's see if we can get this thing started... Allow me.” Winston swaggered over to the driver's door, and, although he was not old enough to drive, opened the door and climbed up to sit behind the wheel. Each episode of Robot Rangers contained a semi-educational theme, and Winston always used this as a justification for the vast amounts of time he spent watching the show. Each week, Ranger Bob would explain some scientific principles that made things work, usually transportation-related.  “Don't smell gas, so she ain't flooded” Winston said, sniffing the air. He turned the ignition key. The engine gave a single shudder.  WUH -- and nothing more.

Winston paused, as he remembered Ranger Bob’s imperturbable, calm "airline-pilot voice".  Panic is your worst enemy in an emergency.  Winston thought back to a segment he had seen about Ranger Bob starting an old farm tractor, trying to remember the steps.

Winston said to the old man. “Maybe we can pop the clutch. It's a perfect setup, an old-timer truck, pointed downhill, and all.” Not certain the plan would work, but with nothing really to lose by trying, Winston clicked the ignition key to the right, then got out of the truck. “Now, hold down the clutch” he told the old man, “and I’ll push from behind. When I say NOW!,  you let the clutch go. We’re only going to get one chance at this, so everything’s got to go perfect the first time”  

The old man nodded, and his sad gray eyes looked trustingly at Winston.  The plan was to force the engine to turn, using the truck’s forward momentum to turn the engine, perhaps to start it running. It had worked on that old tractor for Ranger Bob.

The old man climbed into the truck and pushed the clutch pedal down.  Winston got behind the truck, and pushed. Nothing happened.  Even pointed downhill, he had to rock the heavily loaded truck back and forth a few times until it finally started to roll forward. The truck gradually picked up speed. Soon, the truck reached a speed faster than Winston could run. That’s when Winston yelled “NOW!”

The truck lurched, a low groan of overworked metal, and an explosive backfire.  With a low throaty rumble, the engine roared to life. A cloud of blue smoke formed behind the truck, as it roared down the hill. “WOO HOO!” Winston danced a little high-five dance in the road, then suddenly, his face turning to panic, he slapped the pocket of his jacket, and then began running after the truck, shouting, arms waving. “Hey, wait! My list!  It’s on your front seat! Stop!” The truck was already at the bottom of the hill. Winston just stood in the middle of the road. His shoulders sagged as he realized that the black truck was not going to stop. The dull red tail lights receded in the light of the fading Christmas Eve afternoon.


Continued Tomorrow!

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I wrote this story about 10 years ago for a Christmas variety show. I've been re-writing it ever since.  Hope you can tune in tomorrow for the second part.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


It occurred to me as I started writing this, that, at the time this takes place, 1959, my grandfather was the same age that I am now.  He always seemed so old, even then...When he was at home, my grandfather, Lionel Kuhn, would wear a white t-shirt and blue-and-white pinstripe bib overalls.  He'd be constantly puffing on a cheap cigar - White Owls were his favorite. 

Grandpa worked for a commercial painting contractor.  When he was not on an out-of-town contract,  Grandpa's world was a finished basement in the house he had built himself on Center Street in Watertown in the 1930s.  Every corner of the basement was finished - ceilings tiled, walls papered, and floors painted, kitchen, refrigerator stocked with frosty bottles of Hamm's beer.  

One of Grandpa's favorite pastimes on weekends was cleaning paint brushes.  Raue and Sons would supply their workers with the finest paintbrushes available, but at the end of the week, the brushes would be tossed away, for a new start the following week.  Properly cleaning a brush is a time-consuming process, and the contractor found it more cost-effective to discard the brushes.   Grandpa would save the old brushes in sealed paint cans, and would take them home and clean them.  Sometimes there would even be remnants of paint, which Grandpa would meticulously strain, and bring to proper consistency.  Grandpa knew and loved paint.  From his arsenal of thinners, linseed oil, turpentine and white lead, he could practically build his own paint. 

We'd use wire brushes, and a crank-operated brush spinner, and plenty of hard work to get the brushes back to like-new cleanliness.  Grandpa had hundreds of paintbrushes that he had rescued, and kept them in a metal steamer trunk. While we worked, there was plenty of entertainment.  An old phonograph worked away at a stack of 78s.  The Missouri Waltz, polkas and waltzes by Bernie Roberts, Lawrence Duchow, and Frankie Yankovic, Oh Them Golden Slippers, organ music by Ken Griffin, and tunes by the Andrews Sisters.  We'd sing along, beat on the table with paint sticks

And ... we'd cuss.  Why, where the hell else is a kid going to learn to say "Goddammit!" when he hits his thumb with a hammer?  Hey, what happens in Grandpa's goddam basement stays in Grandpa's basement!

Grandma seldom came down into the basement - only to do the washing.  But she had Grandpa trained to come whenever he was called.  So, no matter how inconvenient, when the call came floating down the stairs, he was there for her ....

"Lionel, I can't find the Windex!  Were you using it to wash the car?"

under his breath, "Goddammit!", then, yelling back up the stairs


Even though he heard her the first time, he'd make her repeat the question a few times just to be cantankerous.  Grandpa looked quickly through the shelves of the paint room, and found a bottle of Sparkle Window Cleaner, but no Windex.  He went to the bottom of the step:  

"I've got Sparkle!"

Grandma's smoldering reply to this helpful hint came booming back down the steps:  

"I'LL SPARKLE YOUR ASS! Go downtown and get me some Windex!"

We were stunned, at first. She was really in a mood, today.  Then Grandpa, aside to me mimicked softly  "I'll Sparkle your ass!"
Have you ever been laughing so hard that you couldn't even breathe?  Neither of us could speak for about 10 minutes, we were laughing so hard, and then, Grandpa would gasp out in a whisper "I'll Sparkle your ass!"  and we'd start laughing all over again.

We resigned ourselves to having to go downtown.  But, it wasn't all that inconvenient - there were plenty of other necessary side-trips on the way to National Tea - Albrecht's Badger Paint, Kusel's Hardware, coffee and donuts at Zweig's Grill, Charlie Howard's Tavern if Ed Raue's truck was there, Drost's Smoke Shop for some more cigars -- another story another time.  But, we almost drove Grandpa's '39 Chevy into a light post when Grandpa once again whispered "I'll Sparkle your ass!"

To this day, with a little turpentine and a cigar, I can travel in time back to my Grandpa's basement.