Saturday, February 7, 2015

December 25, 2014 The Infamous Christmas Letter...Once Again Late and Guaranteed Not To Be Better

Since 1994 I have tried to write an Annual Christmas Letter that told the truth about our last 365 days. Once again I have failed to meet that holiday deadline. So without any's the 2014 version of our lives...such as it is.

“Going through something but I don’t know what it is. I don’t feel like an adult, I don’t look like a kid” – Going Through Something by Elliott Murphy

This was a strange year for one reason. I turned 50 years OLD. That one day affected by entire year in many ways. Let me explain. Over the years my actual age never really bothered me. I felt that even though I continued to get older, I still felt like a kid in my mind. You know, “people that are fifty are old…I’m not old.” But turning 50 had me reflecting back on all the decisions I have made in my life and how they created this 50 year old me. After all this reflecting on the past, I had some decisions to make about my future…maybe I should finally become a mature adult, no more poop jokes, no more half true sex stories…maybe I should act my age, (What’s My Age Again?...a Blink -182 reference…sorry I love that song). I considered all my options and surprisingly none of them involved growing up. I want to enjoy growing older. So I decided to chase after dreams, to live in the joyous moments and quickly move on from the moments that disappoint me. I want to spend more time with my friends and family. I want to make mundane daily tasks seem like fun so I can finish them with a smile and move onto to something that I can enjoy. Now you may be wondering what caused me to make all these decisions, so I will tell you. These life changing decisions came to me from someone who is always happy to see me, always willing to play, loves to go outside regardless of the weather, enjoys relaxing on the hammock with me and loves hiking with me wherever I decide to go…No it wasn't my much older wife…it was my dog Oslo. I am not joking. That big goofy dog lives with a happiness that is contagious. So I decided that is how I want to live my remaining years…so don’t freak out if I try to sniff your butt next time I see you. I doubt that would bother those of you  that sent me birthday cards with serious messages like…“With sympathy on the loss of your 40’s” or “Rock’n’Roll Bands for folks your age…The Grateful we’re not Dead…Earth, Wind & Fiber…Crosby, Stills, Nash & not so Young” or “Know Why Old Guys Wear Their Pants Up So High?” and on the inside it read “You Will Soon” or “As You Get Older, you don’t worry about where you’re going in life…you just hope you can Hold It till you get there”…another card shows a dachshund standing upright on his hind legs and reads “Party Dachshund Loves To Get Up & Party All Night Long…Can Your Wiener Do That?” and my favorite one shows Mr. Potato Head standing at a urinal saying “Oh Great, I Left It At Home!” and the card reads “Getting older can make you a little forgetful…At Least You Don’t Have Detachable Parts”. It was these cards that made me realize that most of my friends and family are just as sick & twisted as me so read on if you agree getting old shouldn’t prevent you from laughing at funny poop stories.

“And when my mind is free, You know a melody can move me, And when I'm feelin' blue, The guitar's comin' through to soothe me, Thanks for the joy that you've given me, I want you to know I believe in your song, Rhythm and rhyme and harmony, You help me along makin' me strong, Oh, give me the beat boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock and roll and drift away” – Drift Away by Doby Gray

Since I decided to celebrate turning fifty by going to 50 concerts this year, music played an even bigger part of my life than usual. On Jan 11th I saw my first show at the Tonic Room with The Howling Brothers opening up the Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival. On Dec 9th I saw my 50th concert at The Riviera Theater with one of my all-time favorite bands, Wilco. In between I saw bands for the first time and a few for the fifth time or more. I attended shows by myself and with friends. I had interesting conversations about music with other fans and several musicians. I saw shows in small bars, old theaters, on city streets, in a bowling alley, in several Chicago parks and a 100 year old former hardware store that is now an art gallery. I can honestly say I enjoyed every show from open mic nights to huge multi stage festivals. My vague memories of attending 50 shows and seeing 223 bands are…Chrissy after partying hard the night before sleeping against the wall at the Logan Auditorium during the Murder By Death show…Patty blowing out her knee at Lollapalooza which required surgery to repair…Debbie & I singing along to songs from our childhood by Styx and Foreigner on a beautiful summer night…joining the mosh pit in the cold rain and mud of Humboldt Park during Gogol Bordello’s set at Riotfest…the Dropkick Murphys ripping through every song on their first album to open their show…Jon Batiste & the Stay Human Band marching off the stage and into the crowd for their last song at Lollapalooza…four days of New Orleans music on the stages and streets during the French Quarter Festival…Cindy getting Art Alexakis from Everclear to sing Happy Birthday to me at his City Winery show. Here are my Top 5 Shows…#5 seeing the Avett Brothers for the first time at Lolla. It was raining and no one cared as the band played their version of Americana music with punk rock ferocity. #4 The Cure at Riot Fest. They played over 2 hours and were fantastic. Even the always gloomy Robert Smith was smiling and dancing during the show. #3 The Flaming Lips at Life is Beautiful Festival. I finally got to see a band that I've enjoyed for 20 years. I loved how all the psychedelic props meshed so well with the music and my state of mind after a long day. #2 Flow Tribe at FQF…this young New Orleans band mixes all their musical influences into an amazing set of music that is so full of funk, soul and showmanship it is impossible to not have a great time watching them. Their version of Proud Mary was my favorite song that I saw performed all year.  #1 The Roots at Life is Beautiful for one simple reason…from the moment they hit the stage I was blown away. I did not grow up listening to hip hop music. I was tired and my feet hurt. I forgot all that after one song. I was completely energized while one of the most talented groups of musicians I have ever seen performed their songs. It was a master class in how to put on a show. After their blistering set as I floated away from the stage full of the energy that flowed over the crowd, I found George and Marcy and just started screaming "That was fucking amazing!" Yes even a fifty year old me can revert back to my teenage years when the situation calls for it.

“The road is long, With many a winding turns, That leads us to who knows where, Who knows where, But I'm strong, Strong enough to carry him, He ain't heavy, he's my brother” – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother by The Hollies

Chrissy’s brother Jeff passed away in January. The end came suddenly but the causes occurred over many years. There were tears and anger from those that loved him the most. The fond memories of the caring, fun loving Jeffrey that would greet you with a big bear hug brought on the tears. The anger was directed at the Jeffrey who let his demons cause his early demise. His funeral brought a lot of people together who realized that they should get together more often without somebody dying. So for his birthday in May, there was a party at the Mazrimas house to celebrate. All the neighborhood kids who grew up together at parties in the Mazrimas basement were there once again. When Chrissy & Kimmy finally got the old jukebox working, “My Ding-A-Ling” by Chuck Berry started playing. Someone yelled that’s Jeffrey’s song and we all laughed & sang along. The old photos brought on many stories that filled the house with smiles & laughter late into the night. It made me realize that bonds created during those few years growing up together cannot be broken by decades of being apart. In August, another idea that was formed at Jeff’s funeral became the Celebration of Life party at the Mazrimas house. This party included friends and family that came from all over the country. It was a beautiful summer day. There was plenty of good food and great stories and there wasn't a casket in sight. A few weeks later Chrissy was on the banks of the Kenai River in Alaska holding a Ziploc baggie (that the very friendly TSA agents had to bomb test before letting us on the plane) with her brother’s ashes in it. Chrissy usually doesn’t show her emotions, so her tears caused my tears as we watched her brothers ashes float downstream. It was a beautiful place to say a final goodbye to Jeff. Chrissy left her brother’s prayer card on the river bank. I am sure the fishermen that see it will understand and bow their heads for one of their own. 
“Bow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah, Bow-wow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah, Bow-wow-yippie-yo-yippie-yeah, Just walkin' the dog, Oh, atomic dog” – Atomic Dog by George Clinton

Chicago had one of the coldest winters in history last year. The weathermen even created a new term to explain why the temperatures were barely above 10 degrees from December until March…it was due to the POLAR VORTEX. I lived through 50 winters some just as brutal as this one and no one ever mentioned the words POLAR VORTEX. Since it never warmed up, the snow never melted and began piling up everywhere. Both of my dogs, Roxie and Oslo, enjoyed the snow. But Oslo loved the cold and all that snow. He thought this was the greatest winter of his life. Some days we had to drag him inside. So while most of the country huddled on their couches to stay warm, we were outside…taking the dogs to the beaches at the Indiana Dunes, hiking in the forest preserves and frolicking in the snow at Calumet Park & Marquette Park. On a cold rainy day, I took the dogs for a hike at Tolleston Dunes. It was a typical hike with the dogs where Oslo poops solid at first, after that it becomes less solid or just diarrhea. Since he is getting older, he sometimes doesn't squat enough and today he managed to shit into his fur on his backside. Since it was raining, I figured it would wash away. A few minutes later a man with two dogs stopped to talk to me. The dogs were checking each other out and I thought I saw a couple of dogs shake off the rain. Then I felt something moist hit the side of my face but figured it was rain dripping down my forehead so I ignored it until I saw the look on this guy’s face. Yes, my dog Oslo had flung his shit onto my face. Man’s best friend my ass. All I do for these dogs and this is how they show appreciation.

“Old days, Good times I remember….Take me back to the world gone away, Our good memories, Seem like yesterday” – Old Days by Chicago

Some moments just stay with you…here’s one I won’t forget. A beautiful fall day and I’m on my way to Calumet Park with my dogs. I decide to grab lunch at Calumet Fisheries. While in line, I heard a father telling his son that his dad used to take him here as a child. He says that places like this are very rare today. Then he explains how they smoke the fish out back the same way they have for the past 60 years. When it was my turn to order, Hector the counter guy that has served me for years says he is leaving for another job. I wish him well and shake his hand. I hear the father explain to his son “see that guy is a regular, in a place like this the workers and the customers are like family. That is why this place is so special.” Then I hear Hector ask the father if his son would like to see the smoke shack and he lifts the counter to take them out back. This is why I love and support small local businesses like this one.

“The ocean breathes salty, won't you carry it in? In your head, in your mouth, in your soul. The more we move ahead the more we're stuck in rewind. Well I don't mind. I don't mind. How the hell could I mind?” – Ocean Breathes Salty by Modest Mouse

So I get a phone call from my cousin’s daughter Michelle asking if she can stay with us for the summer because she has landed a job as a stage manager at the Oil Lamp Theater. I told her yes because my first thought was how much fun it would be to have a kid living with us. Once she got here, I hardly ever saw her because she worked nights and weekends. So she was out late in the big bad city and if something happens to her it will be my fault. I soon realized that I was now responsible for making sure nothing bad happened to this kid. This kind of pressure did not occur to me when I said “Of course you can stay with us. It will be fun to have you here.” Luckily for me, she made it through the summer alive with no permanent damage and we did enjoy having her here. One day she posted on Facebook that she missed her ocean, the Pacific. I have repeatedly said that the one thing I miss the most living in Chicago is the ocean. So I took her to the Indiana Dunes because there were rare 10’ waves on Lake Michigan. We enjoyed walking the dogs along the beach and into the rolling waves on a beautiful afternoon. It turns out loving the ocean isn’t the only thing we have in common. I had wanted to take her out for dinner in the city but never had a chance until her last weekend with us. So after a very tasty dinner at Bottlefork, we walked and talked our way up Michigan Avenue to the Old Water Tower then down to Grant Park on a gorgeous summer night. We spent the entire night talking about this and that, life, college, future plans, the condition of our country right now both socially and politically but the one thing I will always remember is when Michelle told me that she likes Chicago but couldn't live here. I asked, “Where would you like to live?” New York City was her reply. I asked why NYC. She said "This is going to sound strange but when I'm in New York City I feel something special, something different from anywhere I belong there." With a huge smile on my face I told her I know exactly what she means because I know that feeling...I get it every time I go back home to NYC.

“Come check out the scene see what I mean, ‘bout this stew called New Orleans, it’s a gumbo pot for sure, it is and it ain’t and it’s so much more, now don’t take a pass it could be a gas, this stew called New Orleans, from the very young to the very old, it’s the town where the good times roll” – This Stew Called New Orleans by Paul Sanchez

Since my brother Jeff wouldn't let us stay at his house during the French Quarter Festival, Chrissy & I rented a house in Faubourg Marigny. This was perfect for us. The neighborhood and nearby Bywater was an incredible mix of artists, musicians, chefs and eclectic locals. Every day we had amazing meals in these neighborhoods at places like Booty’s Street Food, Feelings Café, Elizabeth’s, and Mariza. We spent nights watching live music at The Blue Nile, d.b.a., and The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen St. We felt like locals as we walked to the FQF and enjoyed the music, food and 20 ounce daiquiris in refillable sports bottles. This city is amazing and the people are very friendly. One night upstairs at Mimi’s in the Marigny while waiting to place our food order with the bartender, I asked a local kid eating at the bar what he liked on the diverse menu. He gave me a few suggestions and we talked about music. I placed my order and told the bartender to add a beer for the kid. It turns out he works at a bike rental on Frenchmen Street and told me to stop by that he’d take care of us. The next day we spent hours riding the streets of “our” neighborhood. We bought Christmas gifts at Dr. Bob’s art gallery, had New York style pizza at Pizza Delicious, shopped for local music with the enthusiastic staff at Euclid Records and due to huge crowds at the incredible BBQ place, The Joint, shared a table and a fantastic conversation about food and music with a young local couple. After lunch, it seemed like we were saying goodbye to longtime friends. Other highlights of our week in NOLA were…sitting in the front row to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band with my cousin Laura…Chrissy catching beads at a parade down Bourbon Street, you’ll have to ask her what she did to get them…eating breakfast on our front porch and talking with the neighborhood people as they walked by…partying with the fun loving crowds at FQF along the Mississippi River on beautiful sunny days…looking like amateurs while eating crawfish for breakfast at the FQF, remember Chrissy “Suck the head, pinch the tail”. We spent Friday night & Saturday at the FQF with my brother Jeff. We started early on Saturday eating and drinking our way across the French Quarter Fest. It was perfect sunny day and we mixed lots of great food with Abita beers and daiquiris. We were starting to wind down as we headed to the Voodoo Lounge Stage to catch a local ska/punk band that I had read about called The Scorceses. They were great and the small space was jam packed. We enjoyed their  ska versions of 70’s rock songs and the bands original music. The energy of their show brought us back to life and Jeff and I kept buying beers and dancing. During their 90 minute set we probably had 5 beers each. We were feeling no pain as we ended the festival with Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. & the Wild Magnolias. While walking back to our place we decided beignets from Café Du Monde were just what we needed. Unfortunately so did everyone else. The line for seats was 50 people deep and so was the carryout line. A few minutes later, I was holding a smoking hot bag full of powdered sugar and nine fresh beignets. How? I had to sweet talk a young waitress who was smiling at our drunken begging for beignets and give her a $20 tip. When I opened the bag it looked like I was carrying a kilo of cocaine, I had to dig through the powdered sugar to pull out a couple of beignets. Since Jeff & I were as Christy put it "shit faced", we ate them with no concern for the amount of white powder coating our faces as we walked through the crowded streets. Chrissy started walking away from us because she says people were either laughing at or getting offended by our inane alcohol fueled banter or maybe it was our powdered sugar covered faces. I don’t care. I had a great time with my brother and that hasn't happened nearly enough in the 31 years since I moved out.

“Nobody living can ever stop me,  As I go walking that freedom highway; Nobody living can ever make me turn back, This land was made for you and me.” – This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie

Chrissy has been hounding me to go back to Alaska for the past three years. I have a long list of places to visit and did not want to revisit Alaska but agreed to go one last time. We visited Denali NP, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island and Afognak Island.  Here are the highlights from two weeks in The Last Frontier…hanging out with my cousins Karen & Ken for the first week…seeing a female moose with two young calves on the side of road on our way to Denali…spending two days in Denali NP where we saw bears eating berries in the valleys, Dall sheep up on the mountain cliffs, moose in the colorful willow and caribou everywhere… getting off the bus to hike and being grateful for the sun that broke through the clouds as we ate lunch enjoying amazing views of Polychrome Pass. While hiking between Sable Pass and Igloo Mountain, Ken & I decided to hike along Igloo Creek. As we walked through waist high brush, Chrissy started noticing evidence of recent bear activity…torn up bushes, bear poop and bear prints in the mud. Ken and I joked that Chrissy was CSI Denali but she eventually produced enough evidence to convince us to abandon our hike along the creek. After letting several buses pass by us while the sun was shining, we started flagging down every bus when it began raining…all the buses were full and couldn't pick us up…after a couple of hours, we began to wonder if we could survive overnight in Denali with no food or shelter... many thanks to the driver that broke the rules and lets us stand in the back of the bus…We spent an afternoon at the Alaska State Fair and saw the Kenai Racing Pigs. I bet on Notorious PIG but he lost. We also saw the grand prize winning 1285.5 lb pumpkin. We enjoyed a few beers at the Salty Dawg Saloon in Homer and Denali Brewing Company in Talkeetna. We had a beautiful sunny day for our amazing boat ride to Kenia Fjords NP… besides getting up close to the huge Aialik Glacier, we saw puffins, otters, sea lions and whales breaching…after the cruise we hiked up to the Exit Glacier to cap off a wonderful day…we spent our last day with my cousins hiking in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge…then we saw a spectacular sunset over Turnagain Arm that included Dall Sheep on the cliffs above us before we dropped K&K off at Anchorage Airport. Chrissy & I flew to Kodiak Island and spent the day wandering around the island…we didn't find any bears but we did find the incredible Surfer Beach where crazy people were surfing in the North Pacific Ocean…the waves were perfect for body surfing and I tried to adjust to the unbelievably cold water…but after 5 minutes my feet went numb and I almost fell over because I couldn't feel anything below my knees…the only reason I was ashamed was the fact that two little girls were running in and out of the water right next to me, completely unfazed by the 45 degree water. The next day a float plane brought us to the Afognak Wilderness Lodge… a family run lodge surrounded by water and wilderness…for the next five days we hiked in moss covered forests that seemed like hiking in a dream…we saw two young eagles in a nest while the parents circled above us…we watched mom bears fishing in salmon streams with their cubs who were more interested in goofing around with each other than in us…While cruising around the island we saw otters, seals, sea lions, humpback whales and one killer whale…I also caught a fish for the first time in my life. When I told our guide Jordan that I never caught a fish, he stopped the boat handed me a fishing rod and said you won’t be able to say that anymore. Five minutes later I caught a black cod. The next day we went deep sea fishing and brought home 50 pounds of fish…we hiked, kayaked and ate amazing meals of fresh caught fish, venison & homemade ice cream with wild berries picked locally…one night after dinner we went for a hike on the backside of the lodge. We couldn't find the trail until Sadie, the lodge dog, showed up and led us right to it. As it got too dark to find our way, Sadie led us right back to the lodge and slept right outside our door on the porch…It is hard to describe exactly how I felt while spending two weeks in is so peaceful and amazingly beautiful everywhere we visited. On our last day at the lodge, I spent a few minutes on the dock…just soaking in the quiet beauty surrounding me…one of my favorite moments of the year…I loved the complete isolation and wilderness of  Afognak Island…on our flight home I turned to Chrissy and said,  “I will come back to Alaska whenever you want.”

“Now there was Great Uncle Julius, And Aunt Annie Mueller, And Mary and Granddaddy Paul, And there was Hannah and Ella, And Alvin  and Alec, He owned his own funeral hall, And there are more I remember, And more I could mention, Than words I could write in a song, But I feel them watching, And I see them laughing, And I hear them singing along, We're all gonna be here forever, So mama, don't you make such a stir, Just put down that camera, And come on and join up , The last of the family reserve” Family Reserve by Lyle Lovett

We spent Christmas in NYC. In just four days we managed to spend a day shopping across Manhattan and Brooklyn…spent an evening with our friend Fran in a Greenwich Village bar exchanging stories about our travels in the past year…spent an afternoon walking and talking through Chelsea and along the High Line with our friend Marie…spent Christmas Eve at my Godfather’s house where Paul spent the whole night putting a wide variety of amazing food on the table…spent Christmas Day at my Aunt & Uncle’s house and enjoyed my Aunt Maryann’s incredible Italian feast. We spent both days drinking, eating and catching up with family members we haven’t seen in quite a while. I love these moments. Inevitably I will think back to past Christmas parties when there were so many people that it filled the whole apartment not just one room. Then someone will mention a name that brings on a smile or tells a story about a family member that causes laughter and more stories. It was while listening to these cherished memories that I realized that everyone in your family is always celebrating Christmas with you. This is what makes the holidays truly special to me. I hope you have the chance to spend the new year with all of your family, either in person or with stories and fond memories of those no longer with us.

“There are places I'll remember, All my life, though some have changed, Some forever, not for better, Some have gone and some remain, All these places have their moments, With lovers and friends I still can recall, Some are dead and some are living, In my life, I've loved them all” – In My Life by The Beatles

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year
Love, Christy & Gregg