Fashionably (and Seasonably) Ugly

One day during the week, I took a break from work to make some tea. I mindlessly turned on the TV.

I saw Kelly and Ryan or some other pair of daytime talk show hosts depart from their attractive and well-put together looks to greet studio and TV land audiences wearing bulky, sparkly and tassel adorned sweaters featuring Santas and reindeer and decked out conifers.

Ahhhh. Ugly Christmas Sweaters.

When did this fashion become so chic?

I remember Colin Firth, in the first Bridget Jones movie, adorably awkward, wearing a ridiculous hand-knit pullover gifted to him by his mum. I don’t know if this was the start of the trend, but the situation really spoke to so many people.

What do you do with a gift of clothing that is ugly in the extreme yet given with so much love?

Do you wear it publicly and risk humiliation, or do you say thank you and hide the garment in a rarely opened drawer, taking it out only when needing to show the person who gave it to you your affection or when you want to re-gift the item?

The possibility that friends and neighbors would mistake you for having such bad taste is horrifying, right?

But, it’s natural to want to please someone you love, the person who chose the woven collection of yarn, sewn-on sequins and sewn-in sentiment.

And then, everyone started laughing about the phenomena. Misery loves company. It was a shared experience. Most of us received presents of clothes we couldn’t bear wearing, or would not wear anywhere we would see people we knew….and then, because it was a shared experience, it became fashionable.

The uglier the better.

We got a collective chuckle when we saw Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Roseanne Barr wore some doozies of Seasonal Ugly cardigans during the nine seasons of her sitcom.

When Ugly Christmas Sweater parties became the rage, those of us who suffered through years of receiving more tasteful gifts, had to excavate bins or shuffle through hangers at Good Will in order to find something suitably ugly — that fit.

As Ron Popeil, the pitch meister of gadgets would tease…..But wait. There’s more….

Now, ugly Christmas sweaters seem to be high fashion.

Nordstom’s offers a whole category of them. (Hopefully, they don’t waste good cashmere.) Amazon and specialty online merchants, like Tipsy Elves, offer extensive collections.

They might feature simple two-tone graphics depicting anything but subtle images, like reindeer fornicating, or they might picture St. Nick sharing a brew with Jesus, or they’ll announce something suitable for a soon to be banned sexist office party like Jingle My Bells

I think about the supposed origin of Christmas gifts. When the three wise men followed a star to a manger, to welcome and worship a prophesied infant king, bringing gold and incense and myrrh, their mission was very serious.

But LAUGHTER is holy, too.

Giving and receiving, wearing UGLY CHRISTMAS SWEATERS remind us of our shared humanity, of our imperfections, of our self-consciousness, of our playfulness, of our love.

Wearable, washable laughter is no small thing.








Funny AND Poignant

make-tacosPretty much every year, I visit the Day of the Dead exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art in the Pilsen neighborhood.

This year marked the 30th anniversary of a public exhibition being held in Chicago. The theme for this year’s exhibition was Dia de los Muertos: Journey of the Soul.

There’s a longstanding Mexican tradition of honoring deceased loved ones by building and decorating altars that reflect their individual lives. That each altar finds a way to penetrate the hearts of total strangers is a testament to shared experience.

Like art, in general, the more personal a display is, the more universal it feels to someone taking it in.

Far from morbid, in showcasing the deceased’s guitars or family photos, favorite foods, things they made, or pictures of celebrity crushes, it feels like a very authentic way to cherish a life.

Unlike Halloween, which is mostly about candy and originality in costumes, the November 1st holiday is for giving each soul a time for remembrance and respect befitting the human life they lived.

In altars and collections of objects curated very thoughtfully and assembled with great care, I’m always struck by the LOVE that’s present.

It’s easy to think that an individual life does not matter much – not in the grand scheme of things –- then walking through an exhibit such as this reminds me that so much love is created around each person’s life and the connections he makes.

Oh, there were some wonderful displays. There was a great textile of an androgynous looking male Tejano singer who crossed the border illegally and managed to create quite a following in his short life.

I lingered on the offendres (offerings) on display for a Chicago cop who gave his life in the line of duty. Accompanying the memorabilia showing him as a family man were accessories for his uniform, which, he was most certainly proud to wear.

I love the museum itself, comparatively small in a city of museums, but somehow always managing to be fresh and familiar at the same time.

I love the Lady of Guadalupe renderings, the divine feminine having such an important place in the culture, and I’m usually affected by the political or social angle of current murals and installations.

After I finished walking through The Day of the Dead: Journey of the Soul exhibit, I walked around other collections at the museum. I did a double take when I saw a simple neon lighted sign above an archway.


At first I laughed at the twist on the “Make love not war” theme. Then I thought about the sadness that settled over me after the presidential election results were announced.

Since November 9th, I have been in such a high level of disbelief and anxiety about the Bully in Chief assuming the position of such a great influence in the world — over my life.

I thought about Herr Trump’s vow to build a wall between the US and Mexico. What an absurd idea! We need to be more connected to our hearts, not cut off from a culture that reminds us to feel, to remember our humanity.

Was it possible that such a simple message could be funny and so poignant at the same time?

Perhaps that’s a special power of art, too, that apparent opposites can occupy the same space in your thoughts.

Laughing and crying with the same breath is no small thing.

Gray is the New Black

gray hairWhen not utterly scared by the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, it’s been pretty common to exchange quips or jokes about the Republican nominee overheard during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Recently, over breakfast, a friend asked me if I had seen Obama on a late night talk show. He was poking fun at The Donald and his famous not quite rust colored DO (as in hairdo) while referencing a TV show that’s been especially popular with millennials.

In a very serious tone, the 44th President of the United States said, as if to the candidate himself:


My friend and I smiled as we both recalled this TV moment. We were oddly happy about how the standing president can flash his own sense of humor, how the office itself has not taken him out of his humanity.

Almost automatically, I followed this replay of a scripted joke with an unplanned one, also referring to the same TV favorite.

Gray is the new black!

Our laughter became louder.

We both found ourselves caught up in the moment. We both appreciated the internal process of constructing a funny remark based on what was being presented in real time.

…And we both IDENTIFIED with the comment. We found ourselves laughing at ourselves. Maybe a clever critique or slice from the sarcasm pie can elicit a chuckle, but the deepest laughter seems to come from personally recognizing being both the subject and the audience for the joke.

Both of us are around sixty. Both of us are into new art and music and consider ourselves pretty WITH IT.

We both want to be seen as youthful without appearing that we’re trying too hard to cop this look.

I don’t dye my hair, but, as I see more gray hairs take up real estate in my scalp, the thought is often in my mind. Should I (color it)? I don’t want to look old.

I have to laugh at myself. My vanity. My insecurity. Why should I care about whether people think I look young or old?

I don’t want anyone to make assumptions about me. I never liked the idea that people projected how I should act based on gender or ethnic group or career.

I certainly don’t want to think anyone expects me to behave a certain way based on how old they think I am.

Sounds like a valid concern, but I tell myself this shouldn’t occupy too much space in my mind. If someone makes any assumptions based on my having gray hair, it reveals more of a limitation of theirs than a flaw of mine.

But a residue of insecurity remains, I guess. I want others to see me in a positive light.

Then I think about being in good company. There are plenty of people that do battle with their psyches over how they see themselves and what their birth certificates tell them.

I think about baby boomers being courted by television advertisers. Generally tested as having high disposable income and a track record of brand loyalty, I’ll see stylish women and men in commercials promoting anything from ED remedies to credit cards to informal dinners at Outback Steakhouse.

We’re a formidable group. Even in a youth-oriented culture, we wield too much purchasing power to be ignored.

This thought makes me laugh a little longer; that I’m in such good company, that other people my age are simultaneously optimistic about their stage in life and worried about how others see them.

Being able to laugh at yourself, along with others who have the same indomitable qualities and the same insecurities, is no small thing.

Wink, Wink

walkens welcomeI’ve seen the poster before –- in the window of a salon in a younger, hipper neighborhood. I wouldn’t have imagined coming across the poster in the glass doorway of The Supreme Beauty Parlor, only feet away from Mary Barrett’s law office and the Manor Dry Cleaners.

The shop was closed when I walked by. The image was unmistakable.

If I peered into the shop, I could see a few shelves featuring hair products the operators of the Supreme must like and empty chairs in front of two sinks. On the entrance was an image of actor Christopher Walken.

The oddball, indie actor is probably most famous for his long-running lothario character featured on Saturday Night Live and for his speech delivered to a young boy about how he carried his killed in combat father’s gold watch up his ass for years during the Viet Nam War so he could gift it to him (from Pulp Fiction).

The allusion of his name on the poster, WALKENS WELCOME, to the common beauty biz slogan, WALK–INS WELCOME, struck me as stupendously funny.

I like the pun itself because I like words and wordplay. I have great associations with the actor. I found it especially funny considering the incongruity of seeing his face at a neighborhood beauty parlor. I certainly don’t associate him with primping and preening.

And I also found myself extra tickled because I don’t know that everyone would have recognized his face.

It’s not like he is Tom Cruise or John Travolta.

You have to be a fan of film, especially a fan of offbeat films, to know him and appreciate the Walken Way.

Oh, I get it…When I first saw the poster, a moment of recognition passed over me.

There’s a perverse pleasure in being able to say that; a singular joy in feeling IN on the joke.

I’d often watch the long-running game show Jeopardy.

I remember once, as the answer was displayed on very low-tech cards; Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, I formulated the question in my head…

What are the moons of Jupiter?

I don’t know why I know this, but this factoid is programmed into me. Knowing this answer is probably worth $800 (in Jeopardy bucks), and I beamed with pride when Alex Trebek confirmed my knowing.

It’s sort of like this, being IN on the joke, or being confident in some knowledge not everyone would have.

Of course, there are things that some people think are way funny that I don’t get. It’s not that I don’t get the joke. I understand what is supposed to be funny. It just doesn’t strike me as funny (like the TV show The Big Bang Theory or movie, Dumb and Dumber).

Sometimes, I’ll say or think something that I think is tremendously funny and not get the reaction I’d anticipate. (I’d remember telling people about the challenging childhood I survived, where even my imaginary friends wouldn’t play with me…This comment was often greeted with blank expressions.)

There’s such a simple pleasure in a funny poster. You might pass it all the time and not really tune into how the image and caption go together. Then — one day, you see it as if for the first time. Everything comes together. It needs no elaboration or build-up.

You either get it, or you don’t…and sometimes, you find yourself smiling and you want your amusement to spread.

When your see a funny poster, your first reaction is to smile. Then, you think of friends to tell, people who you think would share your reaction.

Feeling in on the joke is no small thing.