Crooked Cupcakes

Capra’s Christmas-noir classic got it right. As we fall apart, we come together.

Neighborly Nick brings over a box of persimmons (Cut them in half, he says. Sprinkle with blue cheese). My neighbor Partha treats me to breakfast and stories of India.

Nice quality, being neighborly. It escalates in satisfying ways. With that in mind, I’m taking a tray of crooked cupcakes to the young family that just moved in down the block.

It’s the thought, right? Because if you saw these crooked cupcakes….

Young families make me smile the way you would if you saw angels doing cartwheels on your front lawn. I love the energy and the noise and the tangle of their lives. Forget all the accoutrements. The real American Dream is soccer shoes on the doorstep, a pumpkin on the porch, a football in the yard.

Why does “It’s a Wonderful Life” still resonate so much? Because Jimmy Stewart’s family is young, and chaotic, stressed and noisy – even the staircase is rotting. That movie is Frank Capra’s Christmas noir. Dark and cynical. Simple yet sophisticated. George Bailey is coming apart and coming together all at the same time.

A masterpiece.

Similarly, I hope these new neighbors can meld the simple and the sophisticated. I hope for them a rich balance, these young neighbors I hardly know.

When she turns her face toward the sun, the sun turns toward her. It’s as if they’re admiring each other.

At this time of year, young families are usually inventing their lives, taking some traditions from the mother’s side and blending them with traditions from the dad’s. They will do things to the tree, to the holiday table, that connect them to their childhoods.

As young parents, they will no doubt try to do too much, a holiday tradition all by itself.

My late wife’s birthday was Dec. 12 – same as Sinatra, same as my quadruplet nieces and nephew. Apparently, lots of wonderful stuff happens on Dec. 12.

It also happens to be the day the nation’s first motel opened in 1925, in San Luis Obispo, halfway between LA and San Francisco. I thought you’d like to know.

Anyway, when the kids were small, we would put up the tree on Posh’s birthday, and I would make chili, always chili, I’d been a self-taught chili chef since college.

I would race out to rent a video camera; they were $2,000 back then and we couldn’t afford that. For $35, you could rent one from the video store.

So there I was, making chili, setting up the Christmas tree, hauling in the decorations, buying a cake, figuring out the rental video camera, hoping it came with all the cords. I was 25 and it was still exhausting. Posh’s birthdays were wonderous and exhausting.

We wanted to keep them though, to preserve them on videotape, these exhausting milestones that broke our backs and filled our hearts.

I don’t think in a million years I could bring myself to watch those tapes. Posh was so happy back then, and got less happy over time, and I was the root cause, no doubt. I’m kind of a crooked cupcake.

Then the long illness turned her into another person, in some ways better, some ways worse. The time travel of those old videotapes would be just too much for me to bear right now.

I see that young family down the road and can’t help but think: How will life bruise them? In what ways will things go wrong? Can I bubble wrap them against bad luck and consequence, fate and misbehavior?

Where would you even buy that much bubble wrap?

True, our life went more wrong than most, a double-whammy of untimely loss that we’re still working through.

Also true: We’re not so different from everyone else. Loss and lousy luck are our common denominator.

Met a girl. Name is Reesa. She’s just a hiking pal, nothing more (it’s not that at all).

Reesa is a vision:  super fit, kind of golden. When she turns her face toward the sun, the sun turns toward her. It’s as if they’re admiring each other…two California blonds sharing a moment.

Reesa is a neighbor too. She teaches high school dance. Runs trails, 30 miles at a time. Reesa loves to move more than anything in the world. She also has rheumatoid arthritis, which clamps the joints in ways that make it hard to move.

The irony is profound, in that the things we love the most are often stolen from us. Like Beethoven growing deaf, or Monet losing his eyesight.

Yet Reesa, with the help of meds, runs and runs, and dances and dances. If you saw her, you would say, “That’s the healthiest, most-vigorous woman I have ever seen.”

Reesa is an inspiration. And a reminder that we’re born unscathed, then life hammers and chisels at us a bit till we become someone more artful and interesting. 

Bruised, but better. Damaged, yet still fleet.

Here’s to Reesa. Here’s to Posh.

Here’s to all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This weekend’s Rose Bowl hike is on hold, till COVID concerns ease. As of today, Saturday’s book signing at Flintridge Bookstore is still on, from 2:30-4:15 pm., 858 Foothill Blvd., in La Canada. Hope to see you there.

31 thoughts on “Crooked Cupcakes

  1. So honest, raw and moving. “Bruised, but better. Damaged, yet still fleet.” Writing that one down. Wishing you and your wonderful family a lovely Thanksgiving.

  2. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family, Chris. Let’s all make it through this trying season, which still offers infinite hope to the kids.

  3. Oh what memories you have stirred with this beautiful post. We may be bruised but still grateful for young eyes that draw turkeys shaped like little hands to decorate our very limited Thanksgiving table this year.

  4. You are a kindred spirit. I, too, have a video I can’t bear to watch. My dad’s final birthday celebration. He was in the last stage of Alzheimer’s, but it was a joyful day I remember clearly. Holidays spark joyful and sad memories, like your post today. Thank you.

  5. Warmest wishes for whatever kind of Thanksgiving you will celebrate this year! Your post made me weepy and smiley at the same time. So looking forward to your talk on December 14th with the Friends of the Sherman Oaks Library.

  6. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your lovely family. Yes, life throws curves to some more than others, but we must be grateful for the positives….family, friends and life.

  7. Loss and lousy luck are our common denominator. Amen! What a beautiful tribute to life and loss and love. You have the great talent to articulate and plumb emotional depths. Thank you for this, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  8. Oh, Chris! There you go again, making me cry with your moving words and emotions. Thank you for articulating so well many of my own thoughts on aging, life and young families. My mother who passed away several years ago, when moving to an “adult” community, said, “I miss the sound of children’s voices”. I am thankful for so much and one of them is living in my home and still hearing children’s voices. Have a safe and peaceful Thanksgiving.

  9. Well there you go again, making me cry and remembering how much I miss my family. I was always the youngest and now I’m the oldest at 84. We always had such huge family get togethers. Now there is only three. My son is going to fix dinner tomorrow, bless his heart. I am thankful for all the wonderful times and my loving family. A blessed Thanksgiving Chris to you and your family.

  10. Another great written word visual that simultaneously makes me laugh and cry….and remember….and be grateful. I too have a drawer full of video tapes that are in about 5 different formats, making it nearly impossible to watch. I bought a machine that will convert them all to video discs except that I don’t have a computer that has a disc reader anymore. October 1st was the fourth anniversary of my 25 year old son passing away. On his cell phone he had recorded a message for missed calls that I desperately want to hear again, but can’t seem to get up enough nerve to play it. I have plans to record it so that his voice won’t be lost to time but, same, not enough courage. So I’ve been paying $50 a month to continue the cell service for over 4 years….maybe this year? May 2021 make us all healthy, happy and whole.

    1. Hi Mike. I can relate to the phone message. My son’s went away when his phone was crushed in the crash. Seems like it should exist somewhere. Meanwhile, still have my wife’s phone and message. I listen once in a while, but brings me more sadness than joy. It takes a while. Best, from my family to yours.

  11. Sensational Chris…just plain great!! As a fair to middling still photographer I have little use for video. The best camera of all is in your head; video is usually disappointing. I actually sang a song as part of my speech at my daughter’s wedding. Everyone loved it and it was a highlight of my life. I had the courage because it was after the cocktail hour and there was no video. That’s a twofer. Think about how cool and smooth you looked, after a couple of those G&Ts you love, gliding around the dance floor with Aunt Mabel at the last wedding or Bar Mitzvah you attended. Handsome, dashing – a genuine Fred Astaire. Now play that tape at 3:00 some Wednesday afternoon and tell me what a great dancer you are. My advice, not that you need it, is to forget those tapes. The descriptions of your life with Posh and Christian that you share with us are more vivid and alive than any video could possibly be. Happy Thanksgiving to you, the kids and the wolf.

  12. Dear Chris,
    You are one wonderful writer, & a great dad,
    You make me laugh & cry.
    Have a wonderful thanksgiving with your beautiful family.
    Stay safe & healthy

  13. oh my, you took me on a roller coaster ride of warmth, sadness, hopefulness and gratitude. Best wishes to your young neighbors and kudos to you for baking the crooked cupcakes, they will be thrilled! The holidays are always a time of memories, good and challenging. May your family find the joy of those memories and the many reasons to still be thankful at this time. I am grateful you continue to write and innovate with your career and opportunities. Happy Thanksgiving!

  14. Ah, Erskine, what would I do without you? Thanks for the words, the sentiments and the inimitable style. Thanks for Thanksgiving.

  15. I can barely see the keyboard because of the tears. After your words, and those of the other readers, there is not much more to add. I want to wish you and your family a Thanksgiving filled with delicious food, the drinks of choice for all of you, love, laughter, and courage as this year draws to a close.

  16. Lovely, bitter sweet post. Cherish those memories. Sending you and Jack much love this Thanksgiving.

  17. Ah, Chris, what a beautiful post. I feel your sadness. The anniversary of my husband’s death is coming up next Tuesday. It’ll be ten years since he left us. So hard to believe. The heartache never goes away. It just dulls. But the love we had always shines through that pain because as Garth Brooks says in “The Dance”—-I had to stop to cry a little. Hadn’t done that in awhile. — “I could have missed the pain but I’d of had to miss the dance.” God bless and Happy Thanksgiving, Nancy 🍁🦃🧡🙏

  18. Thanks, Chris, and may your Thanksgiving be blessed with sweet memories of joys passed and present, and to the realization of happiness in the days, months, and years to come. Peace.

  19. You have distilled, like a fine spirit,all the joys and heartaches of our collective human experience called ‘Life’.You draw us in with a little humor,golden memories,a dash of regret,then hope! It does spring eternal. So many of us have suffered losses that will never go away. Butt Wordsworth left us some comforting lines,”Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass,glory in the flower, We will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind. “ Happy Thanksgiving to all, as we cherish the memories and find joy in what remains behind.

    1. Just read your text. Thank you! I always feel honored to receive a response. Love reading you, it’s my highlight on Wednesdays and Saturdays!

  20. Lyrical and lovely and close to the bone in that intensely human way you have of opening up a shared feeling to re-experience. So autumnal, lit with that gradual rouge smudge of declining light; so irish, rich in the seasoning of sadness and regret, yet loving of the remembered light in people and things.
    So redolent of Thanksgiving, it’s appreciations of the life fully lived, marveling at it; grateful for it all.
    I now low. Thanks Chris. You are our master evocateur. Warmth and pleasure to you and yours, and some
    Screened leftovers to the wolf, in this, the Covid year of our measure.

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