Saturday, December 24, 2011

One last-minute present

It's Christmas Eve, and I wanted to wait until today to present Part 2 of the Mabel and Les Beaton Marionettes holiday classic, "The Spirit of Christmas."

In Part 1, which I  offered to you a few weeks ago (see here), we were shown a unique version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" which many lucky children (including myself) got to see every Christmas Eve on television in the Philadelphia area in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Just in case we sometimes forget what Christmas is supposed to be all about, Part 2 is the Nativity story. It was aired immediately after the Santa Claus story. Today, this presentation probably would be politically incorrect to show on broadcast television, but 50 years ago, it was a gentle reminder to perhaps a less jaded society of why there is a Christmas in the first place.

Maybe it's still a gentle reminder.

There is some dispute about the authorship of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," but I suspect we all know the author of the Nativity.

In any case, a most joyous holiday season to you all, my friends.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The holiday baker

I don't remember Grace Kessler ever being out of her house.

Grace Kessler in 1946
Even when I was a child, Nana Kessler seemed like an old lady. And I mean that in the literal sense of the definition of both those words. She was grey-haired and wrinkled. She always wore her hair short and she wore wired-rimmed glasses. Good German stock. Even in person, she looked a whole lot like a black-and-white portrait photograph from the 1890s.

So to a 9-year-old, she really was old.

Her husband, Harry, looked downright ancient, like a human artifact. He was actually older than her, by about five years, I think. He kind of scared me, although he gave me no reason to be afraid. He was bald and mostly silent. I think that's because he fathered five children with his wife and he probably had already spoken his piece decades earlier. Talked out. Plus, he seemed like he was perpetually 90 years old (and, in fact, he lived to be something like 96). So he mostly sat in his chair by the window and read Mark Twain. I can't ever remember him being out of his chair, except to struggle to get up and see us off when we left his house. He was the consummate gentleman.

Harry and Grace. Even their names sounded old.

But this piece is mostly about Grace, because, man, how that woman could bake.

Harry Kessler in 1950
And that's probably why I never saw her out of her impossibly tiny house. She was forever in the kitchen. Anytime you dropped by, she would be caught somewhere between her stove and her countertop, always wearing an apron that sporadically puffed gentle airballs of flour whenever she slapped her hands against her sides (I think she marked her territory with flour), baking breads and pies. She even made her own doughnuts, for crying out loud. Who does that on purpose?

But Christmastime was clearly her time. And the week before Christmas sent her into overdrive. I mean, she was baking not only for herself, but for the families of her five children. And probably for the neighbors as well. And maybe the church.

At any rate, there were cookie tins all over the place. She made those famous paper-thin Moravian sugar cookies and even thinner gingerbread cookies. She was Mrs. Hanes before there was a Mrs. Hanes. She also made Moravian sugar cakes, which is a tedious, time-consuming process as the yeast in the potato dough rises. But I think she enjoyed every minute of it. I'm sure she probably made something else while waiting for the dough to rise. Dinner, perhaps.

She made tollhouse cookies from her own recipe and not from the Nestlé chocolate morsel package. Those were my favorite, and thankfully, my mom — a decent baker in her own right — got the recipe. To this day, tollhouse cookies evoke images of Christmas, my grandmother and my mom.

There were other types of cookies, of course. Some had nuts in them, others were topped with cherries from her cherry trees. Some had colored icing on them while others had sprinkles or green- and red-colored sugar granules that actually glittered.

The Wehrles and Kesslers at Christmas dinner, circa 1960
She did all of this in an abbreviated kitchen in a barely elbow-room-sized house. I think she had a gas oven, but it certainly wasn't meant for major productions. I don't know how she did it. The house wasn't even big enough for a Christmas tree.

But we did have Christmas candles as the table centerpiece.

I wish I could describe how the place smelled. It would be easy to say the house smelled delightfully like a bakery (well, it did), but that seems somehow inadequate. That description doesn't take in the other ingredients that go with baking — the investment of time, the stress, the fun, and mostly, the love. You know there was love there. And maybe that's it. Maybe the house smelled like love.

The Kesslers are long gone now. Gone for decades, in fact. I wish I had them back, so I could have adult conversations with them, sitting around the table with another batch of tollhouse cookies at my fingertips.


Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Christmas present from the past

Back in the late 1950s there was a Christmas television special that my brother, David, and I could hardly wait to see.

Folks in North Carolina probably never saw it. It was sponsored by Bell Telephone and was aired primarily in the Philadelphia area of southeastern Pennsylvania, and always on Christmas Eve. It was Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and what made it special was that the story was performed by the Beaton Marionettes.

And I was mesmerized.

First of all, I loved the story. I mean, how can you not be endeared by the Santa Claus image? A right jolly old elf, after all. 

Secondly, the use of marionettes gave the visual narrative some mystery. Who was pulling those strings anyway? And how did they get those reindeer to fly? It was cool stuff.

Watch for yourself:

As you can see, this presentation is in color, but I remember seeing it only in black and white. Probably because we had a black and white television set. That was endearing, too. Having said that, I don't think this video has ever been colorized. I'm willing to bet it was originally filmed in color, which actually might have put it ahead of its time. Special effects without CGI. Wow.

Occasionally I have used this blog as a platform to bemoan modern technology, but not now. Not for this. By 1959, our family had moved to New Hampshire, and the annual televised marionette tradition was no longer offered to us.

We did move back to Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, and we might have seen one or two more presentations, if I recall. But after that, I think they stopped airing the program. Forever, I thought. I didn't see this presentation again until I found it a year or so ago on YouTube. Holy smokes. So once again, I was instantly transported to a simpler time. I like that kind of time traveling.

While doing just a little research for this blog, I also found out there is some controversy about whether or not Moore actually wrote "T'was the Night Before Christmas," which is also known as "A Visit from St. Nicholas." There is some evidence that it might actually have been written years earlier by Henry Livingston, a man of letters. You can read about it here.

At any rate, gentle reader, it's almost Christmas, and this video is my gift to you.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Job search continues

Back in September, my wife's job was eliminated after 31 years.

Not terminated. That implies that she was let go and the job still exists. But eliminated. Gone. Vanished. Poof.

So she began her job search. That's not an easy thing for a 51-year-old female who is the family breadwinner. It's an exceptional burden and she feels every bit of the pressure.

OK, OK, I know what you're thinking. Why don't YOU go get a job, big boy? Well, that might be even more difficult for me. I'm 60 years old and have done exactly one thing my entire career — write sports. As it is, I've already got two part-time jobs cooking in the hearth following my own retirement.

The point here is that Kim wants to work. So, in the midst of grieving over the loss of her father early last month to congestive heart failure, in the midst of the headache of executing the estate, in the midst of the holiday season, she is looking for a job. It's an overwhelming prospect.

What we've discovered is that she and I have become dinosaurs in the job search.  Back in the day, you'd find a job posting you liked in the newspaper or in a trade journal, send in a résumé, hope for a face-to-face interview and move on.

Now, everything is online — the job postings are online, the applications are online, the turndowns are online. It's perfectly impersonal, which is how I think Corporate America wants it to be. She's filled out dozens of online applications as an administrative assistant (for which she's been trained and has a degree), and has been asked for exactly two interviews.

The résumé itself had changed. I remember when it used to be the longer the better, especially complete with a long list of eye-popping references. Well, forget that. Now résumés have to be one page (scannable, I guess) with references upon request. So much for that list of corporate presidents, chairmen of the board and city movers and shakers who appreciated your skills when you were employed. They surely are never contacted anymore.

Kim even filled out one online application for a relatively menial position that required she take a timed test. If she didn't respond to all the questions quickly enough, the page would time out. You've got to be kidding me.

I'm pretty sure when she hits the "send" button on her application, it immediately shoots into cyberspace, never to be seen again. She might as well be firing photon torpedoes at Klingons, it seems.

What's really aggravating is that once you've sent off an application, you almost never hear back from the prospective employer. You never know if the job has been filled or not. What happened to professional courtesy? What's with that?

We've been told that the real secret to getting a job these days is in who you know (a "secret" that's probably been around for centuries), but that strategy doesn't seem to be working either. We know a lot of people. I mean, we've been in the area work force for more than 30 years and have bumped shoulders with the best of them. She has applied for jobs that now employ people she used to work with at her former job, yet she is still unemployed.

I think what is happening is that companies might see Kim's years of experience and opt for an entry level applicant instead, their reasoning based on the bottom line.

My reasoning is why not take a chance and hire her for her experience, personality and intelligence. What a bonanza that would be. It's not that hard.