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For my 35th birthday, my sister gave me a CD of Muppet Silly Songs, a favorite of ours when we were kids. It’s been out of print for years and last time I checked wasn’t even available on the web, legally or not. We unearthed the vinyl at our mom and stepfather’s place when we were there over Mother’s Day, and Molly converted it to digital with the help of our friend Leo.
The best tool for understanding where music comes from is evolutionary biology. Songs don’t spontaneously spring into being any more than animals or plants do. They evolve, descending from reshuffled pieces of existing songs, the way our genes are shuffled together from our parents’ genes. The same way that all life has a single common ancestor, all human music has a shared origin in the calls of our primate forebears.
Christmas makes me depressed. I would like it not to make me depressed. I want to have kids, and I want them to at least have the option to enjoy this time of year. In order for that to happen, I need to learn to enjoy it. I remember enjoying it when I was little. I can’t exactly pinpoint when I soured on it, but by late adolescence, it was mostly an occasion for dread, and in my adult life it’s mostly been an occasion for sadness. I’m hoping that some autobiographical writing will help me get a grip on the whole thing.
A big part of my sadness is due to the early death of my dad, who loved Christmas and celebrated it with a total and unironic enthusiasm. Among his fellow investment bankers he presented a Frasier-like highbrow persona, opera-going and cosmopolitan. But he showed his midwestern roots in his lifelong devotion to Garrison Keillor, his love of fireworks and especially his fondness for Christmas kitsch. We stopped going to church after Grandma died. Dad didn’t inherit any of her religious fervor. Or did he? He took Santa Claus and the tree seriously. He loved to play Santa at office Christmas parties and signed half the cards on gifts to us “from Santa” into my college years and the one December past them that he lived. As a little kid I thought it was terrific, but the older I got, the more difficult it got. The holiday ritual I liked the best was the Elvis Christmas Album.
Spoiler alert: don’t read until you’ve watched to the end of season three.
Mad Men is well-made television, but so is plenty of other television. Why is this particular show so compelling to me and so many of my buddies? I think it’s that watching Mad Men is like watching a documentary about our parents and grandparents. In particular, Don Draper is a window into our emotionally inaccessible fathers. For me, the generations don’t line up exactly right – in 1963 my dad was only 21 – but it’s close enough for some intense emotional resonances. I feel like I’m looking through a magic window into events that the old photo albums only hint at.
My dad and Don. There’s so much overlap. Both were authority-resistant guys disguised by suits and corporate jobs. Both underwent name changes and had complex parentage. Both earned a lot more money in New York City as adults than they grew up with in middle America. Both were divorced parents of young kids. Here’s a more detailed rundown of the similarities and differences.
Kramer is the name my mom’s father’s parents gave at Ellis Island because they thought it they might have an easier time with it assimilation-wise than Garfinkel. In Eastern Europe, if you want a WASP-y sounding name, you usually choose something German rather than British. My mom’s wing of her extended family calls itself the Kramer clan.
For most of you reading, the name Kramer will have a different association.
I have a similar build to Michael Richards and some of his birdlike awkwardness. I’ve been here:
In my early twenties I felt like I wanted to start dressing cool but wasn’t sure how to get started. Kramer is a goofy dude but he always looks sharp. He has some of the same fashion sensibilities as my grandfathers. Papa Kramer was tall like me, not a flamboyant dresser but he liked bright colors and patterns. Grandpa Hein had even more adventurous ideas about colors and patterns. Once I started intentionally modeling my wardrobe on Kramer, my personal look completely came together.
My family does not, as a general rule, dance. Maybe individually. Very rarely together. It takes a wedding or bar mitzvah or other major state occasion to get even some of us on the dance floor. When left to our own devices, it doesn’t happen spontaneously. At least not until last Thanksgiving, when we tried out Dance Dance Revolution.
Every Thanksgiving, or every other, the whole mishpokeh gathers at my mom and stepdad’s place in Vermont. We have a good time eating and hanging out, watching football on TV and taking walks on the dirt roads. In the past couple of years we’ve started reintroduced video games into the mix. Katamari Damachy was a hit with some of my younger cousins. But Dance Dance Revolution turned out to be the really big smash. It was my sister’s then-boyfriend, now-fiance who had the idea, and he deserves mad props for thinking of it. The whole clan got involved, from the toddlers up to the seniors.
My parents and stepparents loved music when I was growing up, more as spectators than participants.