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Yaksmas

Yaksmas

 
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“Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce,” parents tell their assembled litter in the movies.

The children’s faces all fall into familiar faces of youthful despair and anguish — pouted bottom lips, big eyes and raised eyebrows, flush red cheeks.

The movie parents scramble.

“Now, it doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other. And it doesn’t mean we don’t still love you. And it definitely doesn’t mean we won’t still be a family.”

Those bottom lips tremble. The eyes water. The cheeks grow hot and quaver.

What do our movie parents do to triage this deep but inevitable wound? How do they stop the bleeding? Can they comfort the disturbed before all mania and hell breaks loose and worsens the conditions?

“TWO CHRISTMASES!!!!!” they shout in gleeful, desperate chorus.

The little faces freeze. They do not comprehend — they have never heard that magic word pluralized before.

Movie Mom and Movie Dad see their opening and pounce.

“TWO CHRISTMASES, TWO CHRISTMASES, kids!! See, Mom and Dad are… going to live in different places now… and because of that, there’s going to be Christmas — for YOU — at both places! You get to have TWO CHRISTMASES!!!!”

Wide naive eyes glaze over with thoughts of stockings and wrapped presents multiplied. Jackpot!

The score picks up, all plucky and happy-go-lucky.

Movie Mom and Movie Dad share a brief look of conspiracy — perhaps it is the first thing they’ve shared in years. They smirk. The kids cheer over a wide shot of the family house, still intact.

Everything is going to be okay.

Divorce may have shaken things up for our Relatable Film Family, but as a quiet, gentle snow falls on the family home and its well manicured and brightly decorated lawn, we realize that things in their snowglobe will ultimately be A-OK and these kids whose homes have been torn apart by divorce are ultimately going to make out like bandits every December. Fun!

Fun!!

My parents separated shortly after my first birthday, so I don’t know that I got the quintessential “Two Christmases” talk. But I did indeed have two Christmasses.

I celebrated the holiday itself with my mom and our big, fat, Greek family. They knew me best (or at least received my widely-circulated annual Christmas list, complete with pricing guides and gift ratings) and spoiled me rotten accordingly.

Then, a few days later, I would go to my dad’s and celebrate with him and my other family — my stepmother and stepbrother and, later, half brothers.

Except my dad didn’t call it Christmas. I don’t know if he shied away from calling it so because it wasn’t honest to the date or because he wanted to make it special and separate or what, but every year, he would pick me up in his black Jeep and as I climbed into the front passenger seat, he would bellow his seasonal wishes.

“MEEEEEEERY YASKSMAS, MIKE!!!!!”

“Merry Yaskmas, Dad.”

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I learned young that Yaksmas was what a yuletide holiday in the Ren & Stimpy universe. My father was a huge fan for a long while and would quote the show regularly. I can’t say I absorbed much of it beyond what was necessary for me to engage with him, but I never forgot Yaksmas.

There was something crude, obscene, and foreign about the name that suited my dad and my life with him as I knew it. Every Yaksmas, he fried a turkey for dinner instead of baking a ham. For holiday entertainment, we’d watch Ren and Stimpy and football — the notoriously victory-challenged Cleveland Browns were his team — and old cult classics like The Blues Brothers instead of Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or It’s A Wonderful Life. Maybe he watched those with his family when they celebrated actual Christmas and I wasn’t there… I didn’t know.

Perhaps much to my dad’s credit, Yaksmas felt like the holiday in his house and not some custody-agreement-creation invented simply for my sake.

When I would open my presents, the other boys would also have gifts left over to open alongside me. It didn’t strike me at the time, but looking back now, it was as complete a second Christmas as one could ask for when it was celebrated a day or two after the actual thing happened.

My dad was a proud man; he always wanted to spoil his sons rotten and get them the toys and games, tools and clothes that he felt would make them into the young men he wanted to bear his name out there in the world.

One Yaksmas, my dad bought me a bunch of amazing PlayStation 2 games — Spider-Man, Pac Man World, The Simpsons: Road Rage, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, and 007: Agent Under Fire. The only problem was I didn’t have a PlayStation. Well, my stepbrother did, so I guess I did when I was there. But that was once a week at our most regular visits. Well played, Dad? My mother wound up getting me a PS2 to play at home.

“TWO CHRISTMASES!!!”

One other Yaksmas, my dad bought me a few assorted items of sports equipment — a baseball helmet and my own classic wood Louisville Slugger, a Wilson NFL football, and, finally, a Spalding Hi-Bounce Ball, or Spaldeen, as it’s known colloquially in the tri-state area.

The only problem this time was that I didn’t care. It was in this moment that playing the role of my father’s son presented to me its greatest challenge thus far. My gift matched that of my stepbrother, who received it with great enthusiasm. Those heterosexuals don’t know how good they have it — how easy it was for him to beam and fawn and gloat over his haul.

Meanwhile, I didn’t know the significance of the Louisville Slugger, and the only interest I had in swinging it was to avoid, at all costs, a baseball hitting me square in the face. So, when we went to a baseball diamond early that Spring, I gamely swung for self-preservation. I was literally and figuratively trying my hardest to simply save face. And swung was all I really did — I bunted a ball once or twice, but my dad, pitching to us, would always catch my hit and laugh as warmly as a dad can at his son’s haplessness at the Great American Sport. Meanwhile, my stepbrother was in little league and had no intention of hiding how much better he was at this than me. For however hurt or annoyed I was at the time, I now think it only fair of him to have relished showing off in front of his stepfather and stepbrother.

Next, I recognized the classic Wilson logo and stitching on the football from Sundays sat on the couch with Dad watching the Browns lose (again), but I didn’t know how to hold the thing, nevertheless throw it. I also had a visceral reaction of hatred towards the term my dad and stepbrother insisted on using to describe it: “pigskin.”

“Eugh. Why!? WHY create an entirely nonessential connection between the leather product itself and the animal from which it came? Never mind the unfortunately crudeness of the compound word itself!” I thought, a young burgeoning aesthete, i.e. sensitive homosexual.

I will say, though, I got the knack of throwing a spiral back and forth and even enjoyed an innocuous game of catch between my father, me, and my stepbrother. We didn’t bother trying to play any game more complicated, and I so appreciated that. We simply hung out in the backyard, tossing the… “pigskin…” back and forth, passing time talking about school or… girls?… or my dad’s childhood.

That brings me, finally, to the Spaldeen. It’s a pink rubber ball the size of a tennis ball that won its “Spaldeen” nickname for the mispronunciation of the brand name popularized by kids playing with it in and around New York City. My dad grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, a city that faced Staten Island, across a narrow strait, and Brooklyn, across the New York Bay. As my dad did growing up, we carried our Spaldeens around with us wherever we went for a while. They were meant for play wherever, whenever, hence their popularity among young city-dwellers who were looking to invent and enjoy a game whether it took place on city streets, in back alleys, or against the walls of their school. Any time we would play wall-ball, or monkey in the middle, or a simple game of catch — indoors or out — my dad would tell us stories of growing up in Bayonne. Like most kids, I was enchanted to hear of my dad at my age, and I listened with reverence for clues as to how he made it through his childhood to become the adult before me, my dad.

For that, I really, really enjoyed the Spaldeen my dad gave me for Yaksmas that year, but despite all his tales of getting into — and out of — trouble with his neighborhood friends and foes, I could never quite piece together my dad’s story. For all his charm, generosity of spirit, and time spent with me, he was — and remains to be — larger than life, a figure from a tall tale, a mystery to me.

Another Yaksmas, my dad bought me my first mp3 music player.

He was an early adopter. I remember one Saturday he picked me up in his black Jeep, and as I clambered into the front passenger seat for our forty minute ride ‘down the shore’ to his home, I noticed a bright blue electronic toy resting astride the cupholder.

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“What’s this, dad?”

“Oh, that’s my lil’ jukebox, Mike!”

He explained it to me — his NOMAD brand Jukebox mp3 player. It fit up to 150 CDs worth of music, ran on four AA batteries, and he could take it wherever he wanted with him! He could plug it into his home stereo, listen with headphones, or use a cassette deck adapter to play it in the car. And that’s what we did every Saturday or Sunday drive we’d make from North Jersey, home for me and my mom, to South, where he lived. He let me DJ, too, queueing up the little I could recognize and most of what I couldn’t in his labyrinthian music library.

There was a lot of Aretha Franklin, the only artist my dad revered like royalty and called “Queen ‘Retha.” He implored me to listen close to the way that she used her voice, like no one else could, to convey emotion. We were so lucky to have her voice on record, he said, because that meant Aretha’s sweet soul would live forever and ever. There was plenty of rock guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose tragic death my father despaired over in breathlessly told what-could’ve-been’s. No one, he said, came close, before or since, to playing the guitar with soul the way Stevie did. But my dad had high hopes for the music being made by 2004 breakouts Los Lonely Boys, and “Heaven” was one song on his mp3 player that I had actually heard before. We sang along to it’s refrain, “tell me, how far is heaven?” — him in a husky, cigarette-rasped baritone and me in pre-pubescent tenor, ecstatic to share some connection through culture with my dad.

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But perhaps my favorite song on my dad’s Jukebox was Talking Heads legend David Byrne’s 2001 solo single, “Like Humans Do.” I was obsessed with the jangly, spangly breakbeat percussion, minting a lifelong fondness for the cowbell; the dramatic, theatric strings that lent an cinematic exoticism to Byrne’s proceedings; and, best of all, his performance. My dad had the parent album, Look into the Eyeball, a title I could hear my father repeat in humorous command when I was misbehaving — on CD at his house. Its cover featured Byrne in front of a dandelion-colored background, looking up at something with idiosyncratic possession. Through an optical illusion trick, the CD’s plastic slip cover would make his eyes dart open or close when you slid it on or off. It was this man who narrated the song — a whimsical, sardonic, ultimately romantic take on the meaning of life — whose words and performance fascinated me. His sweet, elastic, robust voice told us time and time again of all the simple ways in which we live our lives. It was joyous.

There was only one thing about the song I didn’t understand and hesitated to ask about. Smack in the middle of the song, right before the chorus, Byrne sweetly intones, “I never watch TV except when I’m stoned… like humans do.” I had no clue what he meant by that. And although I had yet to read The Crucible and hear tale of Giles Corey, the only conclusion I could draw was Byrne only watched TV when he was pressed with heavy rocks as means of punishment. Why would he watch TV while being tortured!? Whatever, the song still knocked! I was too young to have much of a conversation about substances with my dad, but I still associated the matter-of-fact way Byrne anthropologically relished the sweet banality of everyday life for humans on Planet Earth with my dad and his wry, big-hearted perspective on things. “Like Humans Do” was one of two theme songs I had for him.

The other was “Pata Pata,” a 1967 Afropop song sung mostly in the Xhosa language that became a signature hit for South African singer Miriam Makemba. If you have never heard it, enjoy. It is pure joy, distilled in exactly three minutes. Makemba’s sweet vocals exalted times had around enjoying the dance the song is named for. She sounds like sunshine, and to this day, when I listen to it, I can feel the brightness and warmth that tickled me through my dad’s Jeep’s windows as we sped down the New Jersey Parkway towards his shoreside house.

My dad’s theme song for me? Jean Knight’s 1971 signature crossover hit, “Mr. Big Stuff.” It bugged me to no end. It preyed on my fear he thought me spoiled and highfalutin for the femininity of my life growing up with my mother. The song is effectively the soul-drenched, O.G. “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” in which Knight deflates her subject’s ego by exposing how beneath his fancy clothes and slick lifestyle, he was just a cruel, small man who didn’t deserve and wouldn’t win Knight’s love. Sometimes, when I would complain or whine about something, my dad would call me “Mr. Big Stuff,” and I would double down on my performing what I thought he wanted his first-born son to be, sound like, and look like. I laughed it off and tapped my foot until the next song came on.

I was obsessed with the possibilities of the Jukebox — I could have so many songs in my pocket. No more carrying a limited selection of my CDs in a bag alongside my Discman. I could devour all my favorite music time and time again, the same way me and my dad did with his collection every weekend drive we took together.

I made my wish clear, and when that Yaksmas finally came, there was an even fancier Jukebox under the tree for me. It was a Nomad Jukebox Zen Xtra — a small silver box the size of the first iPod that boasted 30GB of storage. I was ecstatic and so excited about all the music I could enjoy and make part of my life from hereon out.

I brought my Jukebox with me wherever I went for years to come. I put my dad’s whole collection on there, and when I went home, I ripped my mom’s CD collection, too. Her Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Blondie shuffled alongside my dad’s Aretha, Stevie, and David Byrne. I added my collection of Hilary Duff, Franz Ferdinand, and soundtracks from my favorite movies and shows. And I scavenged the internet for low-quality mp3s of all the songs I once heard but couldn’t quite track down in a record store. I discovered some of my all-time favorite artists this way — Beck and Weezer, The Beach Boys, Blur and the best of the Britpop era. All this music and all its history and all the online communities I found trying to fill all 30GB of the Jukebox my dad gave me shaped my taste, my interests, and my identity for good.

I celebrated my last Yaksmas with my dad in 2003, before I stopped seeing him regularly the summer after.

Though he may not have needed the annual bonus holiday when I was out of the picture, I choose to believe my dad felt the Yaksmas spirit in his big, strange, funny heart every year that followed.

I never did quite fill the impressive storage on my first mp3 player before I moved onto my first iPod, but the ambition to do so has stayed with me since. I keep discovering and delighting, making memories to the magic of my favorite music. Though technology has changed, I don’t think I’ll ever stop trying to fill my Jukebox.


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