Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas--It's All About the Music

It’s still a couple of days before Christmas and like many others, I am by now extremely weary of the incessant clang of that which passes for “Christmas music” assaulting my ears. Each year a local radio station goes to 24/7 Christmas music just after Thanksgiving.

Sometimes I think if I have to hear Andy Williams or Burl Ives one more time that I’ll go ballistic. I can take about 2 hours of it at work—unfortunately a lot of days at work are 12 hours long.

But, to me, Christmas has always been, more than anything else, about music. Over the years I have performed Christmas music in school choirs, church choirs, in informal groups, in quartets, solo in my car along to favorite recordings and sometimes out of either loneliness or a desire to express what’s hiding deep inside yearning to come out.

I’ve sung fun, silly Christmas songs to my children. I’ve listened as a child to my Dad singing snatches of his favorite Gene Autry Christmas music. I’ve sung solos before church congregations as part of a Cantata. I’ve sung as a member of a congregation in a boisterous basso or a haunting tenor depending on the carol being sung.

It’s hard to describe in writing how the music has moved me and been part of me over the decades of my life. Twenty years ago, I was working in the Detroit area as a business executive. My family had yet to join me and still lived in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Our office closed as usual on Christmas Eve and I was driving the 500 miles back to Wisconsin to spend Christmas and New Years with my family. I had done the drive previously and knew to go to my apartment after work, take a nap and start the drive about 9 or 10 p.m. and drive through the night. That way I would miss the traffic of both Detroit and Chicago.

It was about 1 a.m. and I was driving across the short stretch of Indiana that leads into the southern portion of Chicago. It seemed as though mine was the only vehicle on the interstate highway—there weren’t even any semis rolling along.

The radio was on and playing Christmas music. The next selection came up. “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from Handel’s “Messiah”. This is my absolute favorite piece of music from the “Messiah”—especially at Christmas. The purity of the opening phrase from the Sopranos always moves me. Done well, it’s a sound like crystal.

I slowed my car. Then I pulled over onto the shoulder. I cranked up the stereo as loud as it would go. The night was pitch dark out in the Indiana countryside—glowing with stars. I got out of the car and stood on the shoulder, the radio blaring and I sang. I sang from my heart and soul. Better than the many times that I had performed this piece of music from a church choir loft. I was amazed that I remembered the bass part without the benefit of the sheet music and I let my voice soar tears streaming down my face.

When it was over, I got back in my car and finished my drive arriving home at about 7 a.m. to a house filled with Christmas and children and love.

I miss singing at Christmas. Interesting but a couple of years ago, I happened across a CD that refreshed and made Christmas music new again. It’s the Bare Naked Ladies Christmas album. Here’s a song from it.

I guess as long as we have the music in our hearts, we'll have Christmas.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cheap Bastids Ultimate Triumph

I can’t take all the credit for this. I had lots of help from Mrs. CB (interesting that just happens to be her real initials too). But, I have out done myself. I have set the bar to new heights of “cheap bastidliness”. And it was glorious.

We just managed to “score” 4 London Broils, 6 chicken breasts, 3 pounds of bacon and 2 pounds of sausage. For a total of $1.80 at Albertsons. That’s about $87 worth of meat at “full retail”.

So how’d we do it? Well, first and foremost, Mrs. CB is at least as frugal as I am. OK, she makes me look like a “big spender” especially when it comes to Christmas. So, not too long ago she came across a “special” at Albertson’s. “Spend $100 on Gift Cards and get a $20 discount coupon.” (With exclusions for booze and cigs and deli, of course). That’s 20% “off” the price of the Gift Cards for those of you doing the math. Well, we went to Albertson’s for the Gift Cards on our list—and spent $200 which was a big, big chunk of our Christmas giving because kids and kids-in-law and grandkids, mothers, mothers-in-law and brothers would rather have a Gift Card.

And that's pretty good because I hate Gift Cards. Know why? Because you have to pay the full price. I like giving $50 gifts that I buy for $30 or even less. But a $50 Gift Card costs $50. The damn stores want you to do that! But, this was essentially 20% off the cost of the Gift Card (OK, so it was a bonus, but we go

t $20 worth of stuff for free and we managed to leverage it even better than that!).

So now we’ve got 2 coupons from Albertson’s for $20 each. Mrs. CB went out shopping with her Mom today and scored 2 London Broils (bottom round) and a couple of packages of chicken breasts which she had Mama Stella take home with her. Total “out-of-pocket” was 60 cents.

So we just made a “run” to Albertson’s for stuff for ourselves. Now normally we don’t shop at Albertsons. Why? It’s just too damned expensive. And some of their specials are a rip-off. Here’s a “case in point”. They had a 2 for 1 special on Tri-Tip. Hey that’s pretty good. Except for one thing. It was marked at $5 a pound for the “select”. The “choice” was $6 a pound. I only buy it when it’s on special at my usual grocery store (Stater Bros.) for $1.99 a pound. So, the per pound price was marked up but it was buy-one/get-one free. Naw, you’re paying for both of them—which means you’re getting hosed.

So we did just a bit of planning. Their thick sliced, smoked bacon was $2.99 a pound which is about half a buck off. And their London Broil was $1.99. Cool. I want a couple of chunks—one for Swiss Steak and one for Chinese Steak and bottom round will work just fine, especially for the braising in Swiss Steak and as for Chinese Steak, I’m going to pound the crap out of it anyway.

And then I picked up a couple of pounds of bulk “country sausage” which was $1.99 a pound—a buck less than at Staters. This I’ll use to make sausage patties to go with homemade biscuits or to augment with a bit of fennel and red chili flakes and make pork “burgers”.

So that’s it. The second trip cost of $1.20 out of pocket. And we’ll get a minimum of 7 meals out of it.

Why am I writing about this. First to brag. Second to say, if you put just a bit of planning into meals and the food you buy you can save money. This was a case in the extreme. But, it was sure a lot of fun going through the checkout line and seeing the look on the cashier’s face.

Well, maybe that’s because, when she said $1.20 I said something like, “What? That’s not right, it should be less than that.” Leave it to a Cheap Bastid to not be satisfied with 98% off! But I apologized for not seeing the “computer” take the discounts. Hey, I’m not Scrooge, I’m Cheap Bastid!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wilford the Christmas Guardian Bear

Carolyn went out and bought a bear yesterday. Not just any old bear. This is a special bear. Wilford the Bear. She thinks he looks and is built like Wilford Brimley. And he’s about the same size as Wilford Brimley too.

We’ve been talking about what to get everybody for Christmas and that includes my granddaughters Raegan and Emma—except we call them MissChiff and Spike. (It’s a long story). Raegan’s going to be 3 in January and Spike’s going to be one in March.

My son Mike and grandaughters Raegan and Emma on Halloween

Anyway, we had talked about a big, cuddly, stuffed bear for Spike (Emma). She’s still crawling and isn’t quite ready for a lot of toys yet. (Besides we have a rule that toys should be fun, not “educational” or battery operated). So Carolyn was out and about yesterday and her shopping took her into Walgreen’s.

While she was looking around, she happened to look up on top of a shelf and spotted some really cool stuffed bears. These were about 2 feet tall, plush and cuddly. But she wasn’t too fond of the colors—mostly white, beige and tan; not the best colors for a toddler who’s going to drag it around, drool on it and maybe even worse.

Carolyn swears she felt something looking at her. It was from above and behind her. She turned around and looked up. There was another bear. Bigger. Lots bigger. Looking down at her. Big, furry and chocolate brown. It was luxurious.

She looked up at him and stretched up on her tip-toes to squeeze his foot and check out the price tag. She got a sense that he was talking to her in that sage, silent way of stuffed bears. “I can take care of your granddaughters,” he seemed to be saying.

Carolyn turned around to check out the other bears again and when she did, Wilfred fell off the top shelf and landed right behind her. She jumped a bit and turned around, saw him on the floor and picked him up. “Hmmmm, I guess you want to come home with me then,” she said to him.

She lugged the 4 foot tall bear to the front of the store and paid for him. There wasn't a bag big enough for him but she didn't want to put him in a bag anyway--he was about to become "family". She paid for the bear and brought him home and set him in the middle of our bed and then kneeled down in front of him.

“You know, you have a job—to watch over two very special girls,” Carolyn said.
"You might get barfed on or drooled on, but just that means you’re loved."
"Even if you end up in the closet you still have a job to do."

Carolyn Looked at his face. It seemed as though he was not just ready, but eager. She saw patience and wisdom, almost like a Grandpa Bear. And then she noticed. He looks like Wilford Brimley. And that's how he got his name. Wilford.

"That’s your name, she said. "Wilford. And their names are Raegan and Emma but we call them MissChiff and Sidekick Spike. OK?"

And you know, Carolyn swears that Wilford somehow managed to tell her that he was looking forward to it. "I got shivers on my arms," she told me, "It was uncanny and eerie."

"Well, I think you’ve got a job," Carolyn announced. " You just have to get Walt’s OK when he gets home."

"They got a good momma & a good daddy who take care of them and provide for them.
Little girls still need a friend looking out after them—OK?"

Wilford seemed to be totally all right with that.

Anyway, Carolyn plopped him sitting up on our bed. And when I got home from work she forgot to tell me about it. I went into our bedroom to change and spotted this huge, brown object sitting upright on the bed and got the crap scared out of me.

Then Carolyn came in and told me the story of how Wilford the Guardian Bear came to be in our home. That's the story I just told.

Oh, and yeah, I'm totally all right with Wilford. He's got my official Okey Dokey!

I hope he enjoys his trip to his new home in Lincoln, Nebraska. A big brown bear in a big brown UPS truck heading to his new home with MissChiff and Sidekick Spike.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Real "Glee"--NBC's "The Sing Off"

I was really glad to see NBC doing a second season of “The Sing Off”—a 3 week competition of some of the top a capella singing groups in the nation. This is the “real” Glee!

Last year’s winner was a group of 5 young men from Puerto Rico who could really bring it. And last night’s “premiere” featured 10 groups from across the nation ranging from a high school group from Ohio to a jazz group from Seattle to a gospel group from Alabama.

What I like about this show is that it’s all about the music. It’s all about the harmony. And yes, there are soloists who may or may not be narcissistic divas but what we see and hear is the music not the melodrama of a Rachel or Puck or Shue.

I sat for 2 hours enthralled. I have always loved vocal ensemble music, especially performed a capella. I spent many years singing in groups in high school, college and as an adult in church choirs, barbershop choirs and quartets and even a Victorian type Christmas ensemble doing a capella tight harmonies.

Doing this right takes something that is rarely, if ever, shown on Glee. It takes a lot of work. It takes practice and conditioning the diaphragm, vocal chords and ear. It’s all about achieving synergy and ultimately performing the music, not just singing it. I've sung in enough groups in my life to appreciate the constant tiny adjustments each singer makes to key off their fellow singers, stay in pitch and create something memorable.

That’s what I love about this show. It shows the results of all that.

Now given that it’s a competition, it has to have judges. And a la American Idol it has three. But their musical expertise goes beyond Randy and Paula and Simon. Ben Folds is a composer, arranger and leader of the Ben Folds Five—he knows the music. Nicole Scherzinger was lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls and serves as the fluffy female Paula-esque warm and fuzzy judge. And Shawn Stockman is in Boyz II Men.

The musical acumen of especially Folds and Stockman is incredible. They hear the harmonies beautifully and know the dynamics of music which make for a memorable group a capella performance. Their insights are tremendous. And Nick Lachey who was in 98 Degrees serves as the “host”. He knows something that Ryan Seacrest doesn’t—it’s about the performers, not him.

Yeah, as far as I’m concerned, this is the “real” Glee. This year’s groups includes arguably the “granddaddy” of a capella music, Yale University’s “Whiffenpoofs” (apparently they want to see if they can do better than the 2nd place finish last year of “Beelzebub” from Tufts University). There’s also “Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town” from Oakland, CA. Lawson was a member of “The Persuasions” for 40 years. (Think the kind of group that is on all the public TV fundraising marathons).

There’s a jazz group from Seattle called “Groove for Thought” which has a decided “Manhattan Transfer” sound; “Street Corner Symphony” from Nashville with a country/rock-a-billy sound and “Committed” from Huntsville, Alabama which is a gospel group performing pop “a capella” for the first time.

So, I’m like the group from Huntsville—committed. This is a great way to spend the evening. Great harmonies and vocal music without the drama. The finals will be Christmas week rather than dragging out the competition for 4 months

Give it a try. The next installment is Wednesday night. There are 8 groups left. If you like this kind of music, you’ll love “The Sing Off”.