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December 29, 2012

Bronwen Hruska: Holiday Omens

Posted by tom

Before becoming publisher of Soho Press, Bronwen Hruska worked as a journalist and screenwriter for 20 years. Her debut novel, ACCELERATED, released in October and looks at the overdiagnosis and overmedication of school-aged kids for ADHD. Each December, Bronwen looks forward to attending singer-songwriter Mike Errico’s annual holiday show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. While his contagious personality, amazing comic timing and incredible musical talent cannot be denied, Bronwen and her fellow fans flock to the Public Theater mainly because of Mike’s now famous Holiday Omens.

While some people spend all year looking forward to the wonder of Santa’s arrival or candles that burn for eight days, my personal holiday miracle is singer-songwriter Mike Errico’s annual holiday show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. I’ve known Mike since college, where he had a rabid following, and now, over 20 years later, he has a devoted fan base that fills the 190-seat theater every December.

His fans flock to the event, not only because of his contagious personality and amazing comic timing, not just because of his incredible talent or the songs that stick in your head for days. We flock to the Public Theater for this secular communion largely because of Mike’s now famous Holiday Omens.

Every year, Mike gathers random things --- some are donated, some he picks --- and fills large shopping bags. The number of bags grows every year, and during his last song of the night, the bags are passed from the stage to the audience and he instructs everyone to reach in and pull out one item. This item is your Omen. You don’t choose it, Mike likes to say, it chooses you. That item (over the years my Omens have included a gift certificate for a massage, an exit sign, a play set of plastic earrings and matching purse, and a pro and con list) is an omen for the coming year. You can’t possibly know what it means ahead of time (except for the year I received the exit sign; I knew that my mother was dying and my divorce would soon become final). The idea is that NEXT year at the holiday show, you look back and go, “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense now.” However, we never did figure it out the year my friend got the bottle of Robust Italian salad dressing.

Ever since I got that amazing massage that an ex-girlfriend of Mike’s donated, I started donating Omens in the form of books. Sometimes they’re galleys, sometimes finished books. They are always Soho Press books and always books I love. And there has to be an Omen-ish quality to them. Over the years I’ve donated the never-quite-coming-of-age literary novel A STRANGER ON THE PLANET by Adam Schwartz and John Warner’s dark and hilarious novel about the unraveling of a comedian who finally makes it big, called THE FUNNY MAN.

This year I donated NINE MONTHS by Paula Bomer,  a candid and amazing novel about a young Brooklyn mother who loses it at the news of a third, and unwanted, pregnancy. I brought ZOMBIE by J.R. Angelella, about a 14-year-old boy in Baltimore whose infatuation with zombie movies has far more to do with his crappy ninth grade year than he could have imagined. And I brought a copy of ACCELERATED, my own novel that came out in October. It’s set in Manhattan and looks at the overdiagnosis and overmedication of school-aged kids for ADHD. I figured those three books had some serious Omen potential.

Last week, as the end of the show neared at Joe’s Pub, I eyed the Omen bags at the edge of the stage and watched them start to circulate. I realized, with a jolt of joy, that I was excited. And as I looked around the room, I saw that all the holiday show goers were excited, too. It’s not something you see every day. That kind of delight is reserved for our kids, or for giving gifts to our kids

I wondered what I’d grab, but was honestly more interested in who would get my Omens and what they would mean to the Omen-ee. Would NINE MONTHS be a sign for a woman who wanted (or didn’t want) to be pregnant? Would the parent of a 14-year-old boy grab ZOMBIE and see it as a cautionary tale? Would my book end up with a concert-goer who had a child in private school, and had they, like me and so many parents around the country, been pressured to put their child on medication? Or would they just enjoy the stories, the writing, the experience of being transported into the worlds of these very different characters? But Joe’s is big and dark, and I never saw who my books chose.

As the bag came to me, I vowed not to overthink it, to just take the first thing my hand landed on. It was round, three dimensional, strange-feeling. I lifted it out of the bag and it took me a minute. “Tartan packaging tape,” the label read. “Shipping/Envios.” I have a theory as to why the shipping tape picked me. Or rather, a hope. But in true Omen form, that answer won’t reveal itself for a while.

I’ll let you know next year.