I was a pretty fussy eater as a kid. And it wasn't by choice.
For instance, I have very clear memories of sitting at the kitchen table in my family's house in San Mateo, California, when I was three years old. My mother was making me one of my favorite meals, which was a mashed-up hard-boiled egg. Not a deviled egg, mind you. No mayonnaise was added. Just a little butter when the egg was still hot enough to melt it. Some salt. Done, perfect.
Except that on this particular day, the egg wasn't quite hard-boiled. Not soft-boiled, either -- the egg white was all perfectly cooked and solid. But the yolk wasn't that powdery bright yellow of a hard-boiled egg. There were dark patches that were still moist and ... it was wrong.
With the perfectionism of a child I found that not only was it "not to my taste," it was completely inedible. It wasn't a real egg. My mother already knew it, too, because she kind of apologized as she served it to me. "But it'll taste just the same."
And it did. The trouble was, it didn't feel the same in my mouth, and I was just coming to know that mouth-feel was probably more important to me than taste, when it came to deciding which foods would make it into my central and nether alimentary system.
So when my mom left the kitchen for a minute, I brushed all the egg off my plate into the garbage, set the plate back on the table, and charged for the front door. There were children playing outside on our street (yeah, that was in the days when you actually played with neighbor kids without having to make a playdate first) and the fact that I wasn't already one of them was deeply wrong.
"Did you finish your egg?" my mother called.
And in my first-ever lie to my mother, I called out, "Yes!" and ran outside.
When I came back in later, I learned a very important lesson about the real world: Things don't disappear just because you put them in the garbage. Who knew?
I also learned an early lesson about parental trust. The cost of lying isn't punishment -- it's loss of trust, and the loss of freedom that depends on your parents knowing that when you tell them something, it's true.
Of course, I wasn't a particularly bright three-year-old, so I had to learn that same lesson a few more times in my childhood. But that business with the egg when I was three -- it taught me about lying, and it taught me about how I really hated eggs after all.
Just like that, one of my favorite foods became one of the most repulsive things ever eaten by humans. I went about six more years without ever eating another egg in any form.
And then, about the age of nine, egg suddenly started sounding really good to me. Now I'm an over-medium kind of guy -- I want a hot runny yolk with completely cooked albumen. And if it can be sandwiched between two pancakes so the egg yolk becomes my syrup, I'm far, far happier than clams, which are some of the saddest creatures on Earth, since all they really care about is seeing the world and having adventures, and there they are, permanently cemented to a rock until somebody gets to thinking about making chowder.
There were foods I never tried as a child. Strawberries, for instance, because the fruits are bumpy and weird looking; I ate my first fresh strawberry at age 22 -- in Brazil, where the strawberries had to be imported at great cost from farms in the U.S.
Then there's avocado which, if it's ripe, has an absolutely repulsive texture -- so squishy that it qualifies as "moid," any substance that squinches up between your bare toes after you step on it (coined by Scott Allen). I never allowed avocado into my mouth until I tried the baja rolls at the now-defunct American Cafe in DC, after which I became mad for avocados, because now I knew that they were the flavor of freshness.
See how this works? Foods I hate most are almost invariably foods that I have never actually tasted. With a few exceptions -- any kind of mush or porridge; Jell-O because you never know when you'll get a mouthful of an extra-hardened swath of gelatin, at which point there's really nothing to do but chuck it out no matter how far along it is in the digestive process; an unchewable bit in a McNugget or an unswallowable chunk of beef in a stew.
But sometimes there are foods that make the passage from inedible garbage to favorites. For instance, cauliflower and broccoli. In my defense I must plead that my first introduction to both was in the form of frozen vegetables. They were a kind of novelty, and veggies that we never bought in canned form -- broccoli, cauliflower, and several others -- suddenly appeared on our table.
But both the frozen broccoli and the frozen cauliflower were chopped, which meant, in practical terms, that they were 95 percent stem. Broccoli stems are not food. They aren't even compost. They should instead be used to pave back roads that don't get a lot of traffic.
Not until I went to somebody's party, where they served a raw vegetable platter with dip, did I discover that in civilized society, the stem of a broccoli or cauliflower floret is a handle. You don't eat the chicken thigh bone or the shrimp tail carapace, you just hold the food by it. And so when I bit into the crunchy florets of fresh raw broccoli and cauliflower, and set the empty stems back on the plate, I discovered that I loved those vegetables.
See? I can learn things, right?
So we come to peas. Peas can be disgusting, of course. They're round and they roll, like potato bugs and bbs.
Most disgusting peas ever: When I rode the train from LA to Salt Lake City during the Unibomber scare, in the dining car they made me sit next to an extroverted blind guy.
I already disliked him because his extroversion led him to force his conversation on, not just me, but anyone within a half mile as we were entering the station. (It's OK to dislike handicapped people when they're obnoxious jerks. That's part of treating them "as normal.")
As you can guess, the dinner included a pile of peas on the plate. Now, if you're blind and civilized and sitting next to a stranger, you would know to mash the peas a little so they aren't round anymore. That way you can scoop them up onto a fork or spoon and get them to your mouth.
Stabbing peas with a fork was really not in the average blind person's skill set, I learned.
Being a jerk, this blind guy scooped up round, loose peas and, having lifted ten peas, maybe three of them made it into his mouth. The other seven all bounced onto my plate and pranced and rolled for a while.
I have a thing about other people spilling their food onto my plate. That thing is called "complete loss of appetite."
So I got up from the table and did not eat the fine cuisine offered by Amtrak that night.
By the way, because I knew I already hated the thought of spending a moment in the blind guy's shouting self-centered extroverted company, I had tried to refuse to sit with him, but the dining car staff gave me the Liberal Evil Eye because, of course, they assumed that I was bigoted against blind people.
What I'm bigoted against is incessant talkers who won't let me think a thought of my own for an extended period of time. But instead of explaining, I let them bully me into sitting where I knew I should not sit.
However, after the pea attack on my thitherto clean plate, they nodded sympathetically when I got up to leave. But they did not offer to seat me somewhere else, or let me take my dinner to go. It was a lean and hungry night.
That's the ugly side of peas, those conniving, frolicsome, adventurous little fork leapers and plate prancers.
The good side, I learned early in life, is pea soup. I've already extolled the virtues of a good pea soup in an earlier column; let me simply add this: Because peas taste just like a good pea soup, they have become a special culinary friend of mine.
Especially after Green Giant started marketing "baby early peas." Normally I'm not a cradle robber, but with round green legumes I learned to make an exception. Amazing flavor and texture.
So I became that anomalous thing: A child who hated any strange food, who rejected most vegetables (because they looked and tasted as if they were scraped off the housing of a power lawn mower), yet who thought of peas as the only green vegetable worthy to pass from the outside world into my body through my mouth, with chewing.
One other thing must be understood here: To me, adulthood meant that I was in complete control of my own diet. Nobody could make me or guilt me or shame me or tease me into eating anything I didn't want to. Nor did I have to defend my decisions. My parents were food arguers, as if logic played some role in culinary decision-making. But when it came to food, I instinctively knew Judith Martin's (Miss Manners's) rule about saying no, politely.
Here is her rule. "No, thank you." And if they offer an argument, you respond, "No, thank you." And if they offer further arguments, you replay, "No, thank you." Not a shred of explanation or regret, ever.
You have no idea how well this works. Because if you enter into the argument, if you try to defend your decision not to do a thing or try a thing or eat a thing, then you have as much as admitted that they have a vote or at least an advisory role in your decision, and they don't.
Repeating "No, thank you," without the slightest elaboration ever, will eventually get across the idea to all but the stupidest people that not only are you declining their insistent, coercive invitation, but also you are passing up the opportunity to enter into an argument about it.
In later years, I've seen lots of different ways to sneak vegetables onto an adult's plate. And I've seen various fads where some moron of a chemist discovered that there was a lot of something praiseworthy in some kind of lawnmower scraping, like, for instance, kale. The kale fad proved that there is nothing so repulsive in texture and flavor that people won't spend a lot of money on it if they're told it's the cool new thing.
Greek-style yogurt is another example of this, but I've already written about that.
Anyway, there are all kinds of dried vegetables, or vegetable chips, or vegetable puffs. I've enjoyed a few dried vegetables, but never a dried vegetable that I didn't already enjoy in its fully hydrated "fresh" form, so ... what's the point?
And then I came across "World Peas," dried green pea snacks that come in three flavors: Texas BBQ, Santa Barbara Ranch, and Nagano Wasabi.
I've gotten weary of "BBQ" flavoring on things, precisely because I used to like it; as for "ranch" anything, I've learned that "ranch" means "We've found a way to make this blander without actually turning it into Cream of Wheat."
Maybe "Santa Barbara ranch" is something special, but specifying the city nearest to the ranch in question does not make it sound more appetizing. Instead, it makes me think of things you find a lot of on an actual ranch, like smelly living lowing cattle.
And poo. Miles and piles of poo. So the less specific you can be about "ranch" flavoring, the better, in my opinion.
Wasabi, though. After learning that only the Chinese have ever understood mustard -- if it doesn't blow the top off your head and make your ears steam, it isn't ready to serve -- I decided to give wasabi, a form of horseradish, a try.
Now, I've done the research, and I know that it is extremely rare to get genuine wasabi. That's because when you grate wasabi root to make a paste, you have to eat it within fifteen minutes or it loses both its flavor and its pungency.
So what we're told is wasabi, and what we're sold as wasabi, is really a blend of horseradish and mustard, dyed green. If it contains any actual wasabi, it'd old dried flakes of it, with all flavor gone; it's there only to give a dab of truth to the menu.
I don't care about authenticity. All I care about is power. Because it's wasabi's job to do everything Chinese mustard and ordinary horseradish do, only better.
The World Peas wasabi-coated dried-pea snack food is an excellent example. Ordinarily, I would eat a dried pea snack the way I'd eat a popcorn snack -- putting a handful into my mouth at once.
The word "wasabi," however, made me cautious, and I'm very glad. Because eating the World Peas wasabi pea snack just one or two peas at a time sometimes made me cry out in pain and panic, because merely inhaling while it's in your mouth clears out your sinuses, makes your lungs try to escape from your body through your ears, and triggers a help-me squeal that sounds like a suddenly-happy middle school girl.
So I've warned you, right? This stuff is pungent. Nose-clearing, sinus-clearing, brain-wiping levels of horseradish and mustard.
One pea at a time, I have eaten as much as I can handle in a session -- so I'm only halfway through my first pack of it after several days. You do understand that this means it's very, very good. Sometimes you can even taste the peasiness of it. But mostly it's a wasabi delivery system.
When it comes to the wasabi in World Peas wasabi snacks, I highly recommend that you follow habanero rules. That is, if you have handled the wasabi peas with either hand, do not touch any finger of either hand to the skin within an inch of your eyes.
I made the mistake of eating these peas during a Hallmark Christmas movie. Since Hallmark movies that do not make you cry at least a little have failed, there will come a moment in all these movies when your finger will rise to your lower eyelid in order to wipe away tears.
Yes, the tear will be wiped away -- just in time for the new tears triggered by having wasabi paste rubbed in your eye.
Your only defenses are (1) have one designated wasabi-dipping hand, making sure the other never touches it, and/or (2) never touch your actual finger to the skin near your eye, but always have a kleenex between hand and skin.
I don't really remember which store I bought the wasabi World Peas at, but I assume it was Earth Fare. If you can't find it locally, you can always buy it from Thrive Market (https://thrivemarket.com/brant/world-peas-nagano-wasabi-green-pea-snack ).
If you are sane and care about your safety and comfort, you will never even try these peas. But if you like wasabi, even when it leaves you gasping and crying, and if you like peas -- because if you let them linger in your mouth and even chew them, you'll get a good pea flavor, too -- then what are you waiting for?
Oh, and here's a barely amusing fact. The word "pea" is a back formation. The original word is "pease," and the singular was "one pease" and the plural was "many pease" or "a pound of pease." However, people began to experience the z sound at the end of pease as a plural s, and so a new singular form was created: pea.
By analogy, my dad told me fifty-odd years ago that many of his photography students insisted on treating the word "lens" as if it were a plural. Thus, instead of saying, "take off the wide-angle lens," these students would write, "take off the wide-angle len." We chortled a bit at the ignorance of college students -- this while I was in junior high school -- but I realize now that it's a perfectly natural way for language to form new words.
And now I remember that I didn't buy World Peas Nagano Wasabi snacks from any local store. I got an online subscription to Thrive Market a year ago, and then proceeded to never order anything. When I got notice of an upcoming renewal of my subscription, I tried to go to the website and cancel it before it renewed. After all, any service that I haven't used in a full year is obviously not going to play a huge role in my life.
But there is no way to cancel your subscription online. Instead, you have to use their handy phone number and call them during working hours.
This is a clever marketing strategy -- infuriating, but clever -- because, by the time I finally sat down at the computer in daylight hours and prepared to dial the phone number on the screen, I had seen enough of their site -- including World Peas snacks -- that instead of cancelling, I placed my first order.
In other words, I rewarded them for making it infernally difficult to cancel my subscription.
The only place worse than Thrive Market that I've had dealings with is the reincarnated Book of the Month Club.
When I was a kid, the Book of the Month Club was the prestige book-buying service. I found many books I coveted, including their perpetual come-on, the "compact" edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
So when I saw a recent ad for it as an online book-buying service, I signed up.
It is not the same book club. The terms are normal -- you commit to buying a certain number of books in a year, and if you skip a month, your membership is extended by a month until you've bought enough to buy out your contract.
That's exactly what I expected. So my only problem was the selection of books. Too late I realized that it was no longer a general-interest book club. It's a chick-lit book club, with occasional dabs from other genres. I have yet to finish any book I bought from them.
I would happily have bought my way out of that contract just to keep books from arriving at my house. But I couldn't find any spot on the website where a definitive Close Down My Subscription option was offered. I'm afraid that this, too, is going to require a phone call.
But if you love chick lit fairly indiscriminatingly, then Book of the Month Club might be just the thing. Google it to get the address, sign up and go at it.
I knew nothing about The Man Who Invented Christmas except that it was a period piece with English actors. But it was at one of the luxury-seating theaters at Red Cinema on the Friday after Thanksgiving, so there we were, watching a movie about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol.
I love Dickens. I love even second-rate Dickens. I don't admire Dickens as a human being (he treated his wife quite shabbily in the long run), but I was prepared to enjoy a fantasy version of how the book came to be written.
Since I was seeing The Man Who Invented Christmas only a few days after seeing Goodbye Christopher Robin, I was unsurprised to find yet another depiction of a "blocked" writer getting inspiration for his story from the people around him.
Most charming was Dickens's custom of taking note of odd names he ran across. In the movie there are several instances of his mentioning last names that Dickens aficionados will instantly recognize, sometimes earning a laugh from the very literate audience.
Here's the thing: I don't know of any real writers -- even "blocked" writers -- who behave as Dickens does.
We don't, for instance, enter into conversations with our characters or hallucinate that they are talking to us.
But who cares? It makes for a highly entertaining and theatrical movie, and I thought of it as one of the best aspects of the film.
I must have seen Dan Stevens before, because he had minor roles in big movies. But playing Dickens is his first starring role in a major film, and he does a wonderful job with the pretty-good script he is given.
He does such fine work that neither Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge nor Jonathan Pryce as Dickens's ne'erdowell father is able to steal the movie away from him -- not completely, anyway.
There are also some amazing actresses -- Morfydd Clark as Dickens's wife, Kate, and Anna Murphy as an Irish housemaid named Tara -- engage us fully and help round out the story.
What this movie amounts to is a fairly complete retelling of A Christmas Carol, in which the real suspense comes from seeing whether and how Dickens comes up with an ending in which Tiny Tim does not die.
So the film pretends that with the early chapters already typeset and printed, in a venture that Dickens is financing through personal debt at a time when his past three projects have been flops and he's already in debt, Dickens still doesn't know that Scrooge is going to discover his humanity and repent at the end.
Humbug! If you know A Christmas Carol -- and I do know it, having adapted it for the stage myself -- you know that the early chapters absolutely lay the groundwork for Scrooge's redemption at the end. It is impossible to read those early chapters and imagine that Dickens did not know that he was going to redeem Scrooge at the end. Nor, according to the movie, could he have come up with the ending and then revised the early chapters to fit -- they were already printed.
So please do not imagine you are getting anything close to Dickens's real process. There were quite possibly aspects of the story that he was making up as he went along. One is obvious to everyone who reads the story. The first ghost appears on Christmas Eve. Then the next two ghosts seem to appear on successive nights, which means we're seeing the ending on December 26th or 27th.
Yet any self-respecting author would realize that there was no acceptable ending that did not bring Scrooge's redemption on Christmas Day. That's why we have that dreadfully lame, "The spirits have done it in one night!" exclamation from Scrooge after he calls out to passersby asking what day it is and they tell him that it's Christmas Day.
So even though the redemption of Scrooge was planned from the start, the actual mechanics of it may very well have caused Dickens fits as he was up against an absolute deadline. That means that in its overall shape, the story of The Man Who Invented Christmas isn't a complete flummation.
Here's the only full-fledged lie in the movie: the title.
The words on the screen before and after the movie, as well as some comments within the film, make the absolutely false assertion that Christmas was merely a middling holiday of no particular importance until Dickens taught the English (and, oh yes, the Americans) what Christmas ought to mean.
The truth is quite the opposite. The English were absolutely the most Christmasy nation in all of christendom. When the Puritans ruled England (under Oliver Cromwell) a couple of centuries before Dickens, they tried to legislate Christmas out of existence. After all, it was the premier holiday of the English calendar with all sorts of indecorous and frivolous aspects to its celebration -- unseemly and anti-Christian, the Puritans believed.
But that suppression of Christmas was one of the reasons why the English were thrilled to get rid of the Puritans and bring back the monarchy after Cromwell died.
You don't need history, though, to tell you that the English already loved Christmas more than any other holiday before Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. There is ample evidence for this in the book.
Remember that Dickens could not have written a version of Christmas that his readers would not recognize. His story begins with Scrooge encountering a couple of men trying to raise funds to help the poor at Christmastime, provoking Scrooge's rant about how Christmas is an excuse to pick a man's pocket.
When Bob Cratchit asks to be let off work a little early on Christmas Eve, and expects to take Christmas Day off, Scrooge knows perfectly well that this is something that everyone expects at Christmas -- he just doesn't like it. And it's obvious in the context that Christmas is the only such holiday -- the one that a miser like Scrooge must accede to no matter how he hates it.
In short, Dickens shows us that A Christmas Carol is set in a version of England that is already crazy for Christmas. His memory of Fezziwig's Christmas celebration, his memory of the bitter loneliness of being left at school during the Christmas holiday -- the whole story depends on Christmas already being the most important day in the English calendar.
So Dickens did not, in any sense, "invent" Christmas.
But he did ramp up the emotional attachment to Christmas and he turned it from a day of frolicking and revelry into the absolute family holiday that it is now. Those scenes in the Cratchit household during Christmas Present and Christmas Future lit a fire under the family holiday, and the scene when Scrooge decides to accept his nephew's Christmas invitation after all nails it down. Christmas is family time.
The title overclaims -- but not more than most political headlines for the past couple of years. As a writer, I'd love to support the claim that a writer -- if not Dickens, then Clement Moore -- invented the holiday that drives the American retail economy. Such power! But no. Dickens built upon a longstanding tradition. And Clement Moore borrowed thickly from Dutch Sinterklaas tradition in his A Visit from St. Nicholas.
Forget all this quibbling about historical facts. Dickens was like no other writer -- J.K. Rowling will be dang lucky if her world-shaking fantasies have even half the staying power of Dickens's finest work -- and we can certainly enjoy the fantasy that he engaged in extended hallucinations of his characters.
As to another constant motif in the story, I can absolutely vouch for how it can drive a writer insane when people constantly barge in on his writing time as if the fact that he's right upstairs somehow meant he wasn't actually at work. Concentration is an essential ingredient of fiction writing, and we do know that Dickens had a hard time carving out time to do it.
The more successful he became as a fiction writer, the more the demands on his time, making it harder and harder to continue writing. The very fans who demanded more, more, more were the ones whose demands for interaction with the author made it harder and harder for him to produce anything.
We saw that also in Goodbye Christopher Robin, and since both films were written by -- get this -- writers, it's clear that on this matter, at least, they knew what they were talking about.
The Man Who Invented Christmas may be the best retelling of A Christmas Carol ever made -- provided that the audience is already familiar with the story. Because the time spent on the writer's relationship with his wife, his household, and his father definitely reduce the time for telling the story of Scrooge to a bare minimum.
Whatever its flaws, overclaims, and inaccuracies, The Man Who Invented Christmas is likely to be the best big-budget Christmas film this year -- and in many other years as well. I predict it will be a perennial favorite. And Jonathan Pryce and Christopher Plummer could do a whole lot worse than to be remembered best for their outstanding performances in this film.
The Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies and Mysteries are really outdoing themselves as they introduce better and better Christmas movies from Thanksgiving onward.
Two Hallmark movies deserve special mention this week: A Bramble House Christmas and Finding Santa.
Bramble House, written by Jamie Pachino, who has years of experience on emotionally intense tv series, is my favorite thing: an intense story about good people doing good.
Finn and Molly are an adult brother and sister who learn that their long-estranged father has died. They find out because they are served with papers informing them that he has left his whole estate -- a hundred thousand dollars or so -- to the caretaker who watched over him during his last year or so of life.
Finn immediately leaps to the conclusion that the caretaker, a woman named Willa Fairchild, deliberately manipulated their father in order to get her hands on his fortune. So, even though neither he nor Molly needs the money, he sets off to meet Willa, confront her, and present her with a court injunction that blocks any payments to her until the estate can be adjudicated.
He knows she'll be at a country inn called Bramble House because part of the will left money to pay for Willa to spend a two-week vacation there over the Christmas holidays. That's where Finn finds Willa -- and learns that she isn't some conniving old biddy. Instead, she's a lovely young woman with a child, a boy named Scout -- played by Liam Hughes, who gives an outstanding and natural performance.
Any alert viewer will instantly know that Finn will not tell Willa what he came for, because he falls in love with her; and that she will find out fifteen minutes before the end of the movie, so that she leaves Bramble House believing that the love she thought was growing between them was built on a lie.
The reason why this movie is worth watching is because of the beautiful performances by David Haydn-Jones as Finn and Autumn Reeser as Willa -- and because they are given a script that allows them to create believable scenes in which they fall in love with each other, and Finn comes to love young Scout in a genuinely fatherly way.
Since most scriptwriters have no idea what fatherhood is for, it's all the more remarkable that Pachino creates in Finn a character who, deprived of any relationship with his own father, channels his loneliness and anger into a generous relationship with Scout, treating this fatherless boy as Finn wishes he had been treated.
Meanwhile, because of her closeness with Finn's and Molly's father during his last months of life, Willa is a repository of all of the old man's longing for his children and his regrets at how he failed them during their childhood. She is able to tell them exactly what they most hungered to hear, so that even as Willa is devastated by their plan to cut her off from funds that she very much needed, they have every reason to be grateful to her for her kindness to a father who was not as horrible as they imagined him to be.
I devoted a lot of effort during the last years of my mother's life to help her reconcile with her own long-dead father (1952), a charismatic movie producer who, in effect, abandoned his family for many years during the Depression. I know what it meant to her -- and how much more peaceful her last years were because that burden had been lifted from her.
So I saw this story, as written by Pachino, as deeply truthful and important. Estrangements can happen between parents and children, and they don't go away just because one old parent has died. It takes a fully believable story to reshape perceptions, and that's how Bramble House Christmas works.
Finding Santa has a weak Christmas-centered plot that I was quite skeptical of. I was underestimating Julie Sherman Wolfe's ability to write past the cliches and make the story plausible enough to be moving -- and moving enough to be plausible.
Wolfe is a graduate of the writing staff of Third Rock from the Sun and Everybody Loves Raymond -- a couple of the best-written shows in tv history. Her skill -- and her heart -- show up clearly in Finding Santa.
Here's the unpromising premise: Grace Long (Jodie Sweetin, who as a child actress played Stephanie on Full House) was about to go to art school when her parents died, leaving her to run the family's year-round Christmas store that, for reasons passing understanding, pretty much drives the economy of their Connecticut town.
Now, Christmas sales drive the retail economies of every town and city in America. But year-round Christmas stores are about as fragile a retail enterprise as you can imagine. I don't think the store Christmas Mouse drives the economy of Nag's Head, North Carolina -- it's the beach that does that. But we barely see Grace's family's store, because we concentrate on her dilemma when the longtime Santa in the store's annual tourist-pleasing Christmas Eve parade breaks his arm.
That Santa, Tom White (Jay Brazeau) has developed a "school for Santas," in which he trains many Santa portrayers in the skills and responsibilities of being Santa Claus in the eyes of believing children.
Now, this works in the story because they are so sincere about it and their ideas seem workable. However, I'm usually left rather cold by believe-in-Santa stories because in my memory, at least, I never actually believed. Oh, as a child I had no reason to doubt; but by the time I was six, I was easily inventing explanations to satisfy my younger brother's skeptical questions about Santa.
Which is how, today, I realize that my "belief" in Santa Claus was of a different order from my belief in, say, my parents' marriage, or in Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the church of my upbringing. I would not have dreamed of making up explanations about things that were real, so I must have understood that Santa was just for fun.
And, to their credit, my parents never tried to pass off any Santa portrayer as the real Santa Claus. We always knew they were guys dressed up in order to please children more ignorant than we were.
So when in a movie I see a kid who is way too old, yet who believes unskeptically in Santa (my little brother was skeptical at three!), it strains my credulity.
OK, back to the plot. To make the parade work, Grace has to find a replacement Santa, pronto. All the candidates who aren't already booked leave a lot to be desired. But there's one perfect candidate -- Tom White's son, Ben, a handsome (of course) young man (played by Eric Winter, a veteran of a decade of good television shows) who grew up steeped in the lore and practice of Santafication.
The trouble is, he is powerfully resistant to any notion of stepping into the family Santa Claus business. He's had Christmas up to here, thanks. So Grace starts to do whatever it takes to get him to do the job -- because the only remaining option is the mayor's son, Clint, who pays no attention to Tom's instructions and only cares about finishing the parade in time to watch a football game.
Will Ben end up playing Santa? When he does, will he be wonderfully generous in that role? Will Grace fall in love with him really, while he comes to believe that all her seeming love-falling-into was really a cynical manipulation of him to get him on that parade float?
Well, a search for a Santa for a parade was also the premise that launched Miracle on 34th Street, one of the great Christmas movie, especially in the Edmund Gwenn/Maureen O'Hara/Natalie Wood original from 1947.
At least in this one, there's no hint of Ben being anything other than a reluctant performer in the Santa role. No magic Santa at all, thank you.
It's hard to write extended scenes in which antagonists irritate each other while simultaneously falling in love. That's why successful romantic comedies are so rare. So when, despite the lameness of the premise, Julie Sherman Wolfe writes those scenes splendidly (some of them focusing on control of the car radio in an Uber), the result is, for me, a complete surprise: a good romantic comedy that succeeds despite its Christmas-centered premise.
How do you know if a rom-com is working? You actually care whether the couple gets together, and are fascinated by how it comes about. (You know a rom-com is failing when you hope one of the would-be lovers ends up with the other one's sidekick, or when you wish one of them would get run over by a bus or fall off a tall building.)
Finding Santa is, for me at least, a successful rom-com. I hope I get to see what Julie Sherman Wolfe does when she tries to bring off a romantic comedy without such a Christmasy theme controlling it. You know, Nora Ephron and Richard Curtis territory.
We all know that even the greatest romantic comedies are vastly improved by a Christmas setting. But in You've Got Mail, The Shop Around the Corner, and Love Actually, the love stories are not centered around "saving Christmas." They're centered around the hunger of lonely people for trustworthy and affectionate companionship by a creature capable of speech.
Which is what the audience for the Hallmark Christmas movies is looking for. Those who are not in a happy, fulfilling relationship watch in order to have the pleasure of seeing, from the outside, what such a thing looks like. And those of us who are in a happy, fulfilling relationship watch because we know how hard it is to find and maintain such companionship. It's the story of our own life, and a reminder not to slacken our efforts.
I feel sorry for those who don't understand that there is nothing more important in life, unless it's raising civilized children -- and often the two go hand-in-hand. Most movies miss this entirely. Art for art's sake is empty compared to art that's about love -- what it is and how to discover it and create it and hold it together.
How lucky I am to be married to a woman who shares my fondness for romantic comedies! Because I can't think of anything sadder than a married man having to sneak off to watch rom-coms alone.
Then again, it's also kind of sad when a woman is married to a man who cries over rom-coms way more than she does. Sometimes I tune in to college and NFL football games just to perform a testosterone check. I still enjoy football, though it never makes me cry ... Except for the way Lawrence Taylor reacted when during a sack he shattered Joe Theismann's leg back in 1985.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com