New Year’s Eve 2011: looking backward


Here we are, standing in the ashes of another year.  How the hell did 2011 pass so quickly?



The years all begin to look alike, after you’ve seen fifty or so of them.  It took me a minute to recollect the notable / memorable things that happened this year:



        Partner and I took some nice trips, twice to Cape Cod and once to Orlando (Disney / Universal, naturally).

        We got through the year without serious illness or injury (not counting some violent viral episodes, and Partner’s little muscle sprain in November).

        People passed away.  My uncle Sonny passed away in the Northwest.  A friend’s husband passed away after a long illness.  The husband of another friend passed away, after a similarly long illness.  My old boss Sharon, for whom I worked in the late 1980s and who was my colleague, neighbor and friend after that time, passed away suddenly in November.

        I managed to keep track of the people who matter: my old college friend George, my old work friend Patricia who now lives in the wild country of northwestern Massachusetts, my old work friend Sylvia who works in the wild country down around the Rhode Island School of Design.




Partner and I have a little tradition: just before midnight on New Year’s Eve, we get together and hold hands so that we’re together when the new year begins.  And we both make a sincere wish that, a year from now, we will still be together, doing exactly the same thing.



It’s worked pretty well so far. 



I’m sure we’ll be doing it again this evening.



And, I hope, a year from now too.



Happy New Year’s Eve, kids.


Burning down the school


I do not make efficient use of Facebook, I think; I just sort of mooch around and look at this and that.  I only have about thirty friends, which (my student employees tell me) is completely pathetic.



The other day I was looking through my various Facebook affiliations, and I noticed that, a long time ago, I’d joined a group called “Battle Ground High School Alumni.”  I looked in, and learned that –



That they just burned down my old elementary school.



It was on purpose.  The school was an old building, very dilapidated, and completely unused for a number of years.  All the local fire departments got together and used it, this past December 10, for a training exercise.  



Why am I so strangely saddened by this?



I remember the building vividly.  I remember how enormous the front steps seemed to me, and how vast the playground; I remember lining up two by two to go to recess and to come back inside, and I remember buying little red tickets for two cents each, to redeem for half-pint cartons of milk.  I remember Miss Plowman, and Miss Marvin, and Mister Ellertson.  (All of these memories are drenched in bright sunlight, for some reason, which seems odd, considering that it rains a lot in Battle Ground.  Could it be that my memory isn’t perfectly accurate?  Hmm.)



Back in 2008, Partner and I walked through Battle Ground one quiet afternoon and explored the school grounds.  The building was there – see above picture (drenched in bright sunlight) – but it was so small!  It was much bigger when I was a kid.  We played on the swings for a while (I will spare you those photos), and I took pictures and felt somehow comforted that this small piece of my childhood still remained.



And now it’s gone. 



The first house I lived in as a child was torn down years ago.  The other house I lived in was sold in 2000, and has been so completely renovated that, even on Google Earth, it’s almost unrecognizable.  Partner’s childhood home was sold a few years ago.  The restaurant in which Partner and I shared our first dinner burned down in 2006.



From the Buddha’s Fire Sermon:



“Monks, everything is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Burning, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.


“Seeing this, the disciple grows disenchanted with the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, disenchanted with tactile sensations, disenchanted with consciousness at the body, disenchanted with contact at the body. He grows disenchanted with the intellect, disenchanted with ideas, disenchanted with consciousness at the intellect, disenchanted with contact at the intellect.


“Disenchanted, he becomes dispassionate. Through dispassion, he discerns that ‘Birth is depleted, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’ “ 



So there is a lesson here.



But it is a painful one.



Goodbye, school.




All my (useless) gadgets


I have a box – no, two boxes – of cords and connections belonging to various computing devices. 



The devices themselves are long gone.



How does this happen?



Last year I bought a cheap ($40) Kobo Literati e-reader at Bed Bath & Beyond.  I liked it, but it was slow and balky.  Barnes & Noble had an online sale for reconditioned Nooks, so I bought one ($80), and loved it, until it started acting wonky.  Then, a few months ago, my office granted me an iPad, and the Nook joined the Literati on the unused-gadget shelf.



Goodbye and good luck, my one hundred and twenty dollars.



I’ve always been very conscientious about backing up my computer. Some years ago I heard of this great new backup system: the Jazz drive.  I bought one on eBay, for maybe $40, and a bunch of Jazz disks (which are like cassettes on steroids) for maybe $25.  I used it probably four times.  It was clunky and noisy and difficult to set up.  I now own a smooth little candy-bar sized storage device that plugs into my laptop with a USB connection, and which slurps up all my data effortlessly.



Another sixty-five bucks down the tube.



I could go on forever.  I am too cheap to buy a proper iPod, so I have purchased at least three cheap imitations, none of which works right, total cost (estimated) sixty bucks.  Then there was the reconditioned laptop, which was wonderful and lasted for about a year, until it actually had a nervous breakdown, complete with beeping and booping sound effects.  Two hundred dollars down the drain.  (Moral, if you haven’t been keeping track: don’t buy reconditioned items.)  The next laptop lasted quite a while – four years, maybe – but it became painfully slow and difficult to use during its last year of active service.  It was around four hundred bucks, I think.



(My current Dell Inspiron laptop also cost around four hundred bucks; I think I bought it in early 2009, and it is going strong almost three years later.  It has some quirks – it often refuses to recharge its battery – but it is light and easy to use, and I am partial to it.  I had a whirlwind love affair with the iPad when I first got it a few months ago, but – as someone online wisely stated not long ago – the iPad is not a laptop.  Laptops are far more powerful and speedier, and much easier to use for word processing (it is not pleasant to type on a smooth glass surface).  I just bought one of those fancy iPad cases with a built-in Bluetooth keyboard, which makes it a bit nicer to use, but iPads are mostly for travel, I think: it was a godsend on our last two trips, to Orlando and to Cape Cod.  At home, my laptop is (as Eloise said of Nanny) my mostly companion.



But I still visualize all that money flown out the window, for all those lovely glittering gadgets I bought, thinking they would change my life. 



A few of them did. 



But I should have chosen more carefully. 



Let’s face it.  I’m an idiot.


Christmas: the light and the dark


Simon Schama, the British historian, wrote a nice piece in last weekend’s Financial Times about Christmas and Hanukkah.  Some years back, he took heat for daring to comment that the emphasis on lights in Christmas (all those twinkly bulbs on the tree!) and Hanukkah (all those candles!) was just a holdover from the very traditional celebration of light at the Solstice. 



Hm.  Is there really any doubt about this?



Anyway: he repeated a very nice Mishnah story I’d never heard.   In it, Adam was very grieved by the onset of the first winter, realizing that he’d caused it himself, and fasted for eight days, right before the Solstice.  When he realized that the days were getting longer again, he rejoiced for eight days.



Partner asked me about the timings of sunset and sunrise around the Solstice the other day, so I resorted to Wikipedia.  Do you know how many cultures observe the Solstice?  Pretty much all of them.  And it’s always about light, one way or another



Okay. Now let’s talk about Christmas tragedies.



This year alone:



        A house burned down in Stamford, Connecticut, killing five people.

        A man – dressed as Santa, yet – came into an Grapevine, Texas house and shot six family members, and then shot himself.



Remember the Banda Aceh tidal wave in 2004?



Remember the 2003 earthquake in Iran?



Well – what of it?  Bad things happen all the time.  There’s no reason that they shouldn’t happen now.



Except that they seem especially painful now, this time of year.



It’s the darkest time of year.  The darkness is winning, and we desperately want to see the light triumphant. When we see bad things happen, it’s as if we can actually feel the struggle between light and darkness.  And we do not want the darkness to win.



The only exceptional event that I’ve listed above is the man in the Santa suit who killed his family members on Xmas.  It makes you think about the expectations of families on Christmas – the desperate effort to believe that everything will be all right – and that these unrealistic expectations might be enough for make someone snap and kill his family.



That’s a special kind of madness, especially horrible.  I tried to think about what it would be like to see a family member in a Santa suit come into the room toting a shotgun, and –






Let the darkness go.  The days are getting longer again.



As I’ve said once before in this space: hail the Unconquered Sun!



A fine secular Christmas


Neither Partner nor I practices any particular religion.  I spent a couple of years in the mid-2000s trying to recapture my Catholicism, but found it ultimately futile.  Partner and I talk about Buddhism a lot, but I am uneasily aware that Buddhism is easier to talk about than practice.  (For those of you who use “Zen” as an adjective, I recommend a wonderful and very acerbic book called “What Makes You Not A Buddhist,” by a wonderful Bhutanese lama / film director / author (!) named Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.)



So how did Partner and I, both filthy heathens, spend this Christmas season?



Let’s see:



        We saw “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” on Christmas Eve.

        We exchanged gifts.  Partner gave me a lovely sweater and two lovely shirts.  I like pretty colors, but am often confused by the bright lights in the department stores; Partner corrects my fashion sense, and I invariably get compliments when I wear the things he’s bought for me (so long as I wear them in the combinations he very carefully specifies).  I gave him, among other things, a mounted 1957 one-dollar Silver Certificate.  (I was born in 1957, before the Space Age, so it was a little symbolic.)

        Next morning, we sleepily wished each other a Merry Christmas.

        After some discussion, we went to the closest casino, Twin River, in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

        We left at 1:00 pm with considerably more money than we arrived with.  Merry Christmas!

        We went to a Chinese restaurant and ordered everything on the menu. 

        We ate until we were sick.

        We took our leftovers and went home and napped a bit.

        In the evening, I baked cookies.



This is the perfect secular Xmas, as far as I’m concerned.  And here’s why:




        We both spent it with someone we loved.




And that’s all it takes.



Happy holidays, kids.



For Hanukkah: Jewish superheroes


Speaking as a Gentile, of all the Jewish holidays, I like Hanukkah best.



Fine, it’s not a High Holiday, it’s an observance.  The gifts are bush-league: chocolate coins, colorful pencils.  Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a shirt and pants.  But the candles are pretty.  And it’s eight days long.  And who doesn’t like potato pancakes?  Or playing dreidel?



But I was especially amused to find the above image on Tumblr recently.



Evidently Ben Grimm – the everlovin’ blue-eyed Thing from Marvel Comics – is Jewish!  



I love the yarmulke, and the prayer shawl, and most especially the big smile, and most most most especially the fact that this was drawn by classic Marvel artist Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg).


I like the idea of Jewish superheroes.  They’re fictional characters right alongside Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Artur Sammler and Genji, so why not?  I looked online, and found that Doc Samson (who’s a sort of semi-Hulk in the Marvel universe) and Volcana (a heroine/villainess in the Marvel world) are both Jewish, as are a few others.  (Evidently the DC universe is non-denominational.  Although I would not be surprised to discover that the Kents brought up Clark as a Methodist.)



A Kuwaiti Muslim writer named Naif al-Mutawa has, for the past few years, been developing a line of Muslim comics called “The 99.”  The backstory is that a group of Medieval Muslim thinkers / philosophers / clerics harnessed the energy of the 99 names of Allah, but a villain tried to absorb all the power himself; he mostly failed, but the energy of the 99 names went out into the world, and has been absorbed by 99 other people.  One by one they come forward: The Light, The Powerful, The Listener, the Healer, the Destroyer.



I like this too.



We still love mythology, don’t we?  And superheroes are the playactors in our modern versions of those miracle stories and myths.  Did you notice, in last summer’s “Thor,” that the title character died to save his friends, and came back to life?   And I seem to recall the very same thing happening in 2006’s “Superman Returns.”  And think of all the angst and cosmic love triangles in the various X-Men stories –






Cosmic drama and resurrection are terrific things, but sometimes it’s nicer to have candles and potato pancakes and chocolate money.



Gut yontif, Ben Grimm, wherever you are.



For Christmas: Sus, pastoureu di mountagno


Even as a nonbeliever, I like Christmas carols.  (As Lisa Simpson, the vegetarian, said once about meat: “Hey, I still like the smell.”)  I like unusual carols, and especially folk carols that have a whiff of pagandom about them.

This tune is from the early 17th century, from Avignon in southern France.  It’s in Provencal, so don’t worry if you can’t make out the lyrics.  It’s the story of the shepherds hurrying off to the stable to see Mary and the baby Jesus.  (The title means “Get up, shepherd of the mountains!”)

I especially like this one because it has a tongue-twister refrain.  It took me years to get it right.

All together now:

Aro lo bon Jesu, lo bon Jesu, lo bon Jesu,
Aro lo bon Jesu d’una vierge nous es na.

(Now the good Jesus, etc.,
 now the good Jesus to a virgin is born unto us.)

Merry Christmas, and may we all meet in heaven, if there’s such a place.  

I don’t really believe it, but it would be lovely.

Sus_pastores.mp3 Listen on Posterous


Christmas Eve


You know I usually present something unusual and/or different for holidays.  Well, this is Christmas Eve, and for weeks I tried to think of something, but I kept coming up blank.



And then I think I finally realized why.



Christmas Eve was pretty much the only holiday my whole family celebrated consistently.  We were semi-dysfunctional: not really Dr. Phil material, but with lots of secrets and dislikes and disagreements boiling under the surface.  As a kid, I didn’t realize this.  I was much younger than my siblings, and I thought Christmas Eve was terrific: it was all about gifts, right?   I couldn’t understand why my mother seemed to dread it so much, and why so many arguments broke out among my siblings, and why my father seemed even quieter than usual.



When I got older and began to get involved in the arguments myself, I understood.



Time passed.  I moved out on my own, and I still had this yearning feeling that Christmas Eve was special – magical, somehow – and that I had to observe it.  I decorated the house (as my mother always did).  I went to Mass sometimes.  I listened to music and tried to feel spiritual, or at least uplifted.



Most of the time it didn’t work.



When Partner and I moved in together, I was still decorating, a bit.  I like mixing it up: I love, for example, lighting a menorah for the eight nights of Hanukkah.  No, I’m not Jewish, but it’s very pretty, especially on the last few nights when lots of candles are burning at the same time and it looks like a forest fire on the mantel.  But I used to put up a (small) (artificial) tree,  and a crèche, and a little plastic Joseph-and-Mary tableau on top of the TV set. 



Year by year, I’ve done less and less.



Now, at last, I understand my mother’s diffidence and reluctance. 



And this is why, I think, I have a kind of mental block about Christmas Eve.



It’s Christmas Eve again.  I wish I felt magical again; I wish I felt as if things were somehow going to be okay.



But I don’t.



Tomorrow, for Christmas, I promise: something nicer.



But you just wait.  If this retreat from Christmas hasn’t happened to you yet, just wait.  It’ll happen to you too.




Showing disrespect at Christmas


It is the Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa season, which means giving stuff to people.  I like this, actually.  I like getting stuff (although it makes me feel all blushy and humble), and (when I’m flush) I like giving things away.



When money’s tight, however – as in the present economy – I try to be frugal.



I am cheap in any case.  Apollonia asked how much I give my newspaper guy for Xmas, and guffawed in amusement when I told her.  “That’s not enough,” she said.  “Think of what a miserable job it is.  He’s up hours before you are.  He deserves a little more than that.”



“He’s a newspaper-delivery guy,” I said.  “He’s back in bed by ten a.m.  I only wish I were.”



Naturally there are people who deserve nice gifts.  Candy is a nice gift, as is liquor.  Besides, when it’s someone you know well, you pretty much know what they’d like: you know what they wear and where they shop.  It’s easy.



Now, for those of you who work in offices: how about the people you don’t like?



You know who I mean.



You can’t afford to piss them off – not too much, anyway.  You’d like to give them nothing at all, but you’ve got to give them something



Regifting is always an interesting option.  I often end up with several bottles of wine at Christmastime, and I don’t drink wine, so it gets passed along.  But I generally give this to people I like, whom I know to be drinkers of wine.



So what else is there?



How about a nice box of candy from Ocean State Job Lot, the local odds-and-ends discount store?  It’s imported (possibly from the Ukraine!).  It’s nicely wrapped.  It’s – well, who knows? – a little old.  You pick it up for two bucks, and give it to the person in the office you don’t like.



Outwardly it’s nice.  In reality, it’s a snub.  You know it, and the other person knows it.



Point taken.



From Gertrude Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas”:



Hélène [the Stein/Toklas cook] had her opinions, she did not for instance like Matisse. She said a frenchman should not stay unexpectedly to a meal particularly if he asked the servant beforehand what there was for dinner. She said foreigners had a perfect right to do these things but not a frenchman and Matisse had once done it. So when Miss Stein said to her, Monsieur Matisse is staying for dinner this evening, she would say, in that case I will not make an omelette but fry the eggs. It takes the same number of eggs and the same amount of butter but it shows less respect, and he will understand.




Get it, Monsieur Matisse?



For the winter solstice: Lincoln Chafee’s holiday tree, and why I am no longer a practicing Catholic


Do we need a special acknowledgement of the solstice?  I suppose so. There was an irruption of the whole stupid “War on Christmas” thing here in Rhode Island this year: the governor, an innocent (and rather dense) Independent named Lincoln Chafee (who’s a very nice guy, and for whom I voted), called the state tree a “holiday tree.”



(Now, to be fair, this was thick-headed of him.  As my wise co-worker Eileen pointed out today: the city of Providence puts up a big menorah right alongside their Christmas tree, and they don’t call it a “holiday candle holder.”)



The Providence Catholic Diocese came down on Chafee like a ton of bricks.  How dare he demean Christians in such a way!  Wasn’t he aware that the Christmas tree was a symbol of the birth of Christ?



(Frankly, I wasn’t aware of that myself.)



The local Catholic parish priests who have been talking to Fox News, and the local idiot bishop, Thomas Tobin, have been mixing up the whole “Christmas” thing with custom, and belief, and observance, and lots of silliness.  And naturally Fox has been lapping it up.  Apparently having a tree called a “Christmas tree” is vital to the life and health of the Christian /Catholic community, and calling the state tree a “holiday tree” is a slap to all right-thinking and right-believing Christians.



(I did note that the head of one of the local ecumenical councils asked, futilely, that the whole dispute be forgotten.   Did we, he asked plaintively, think that Jesus would care about this?)



(Evidently the Catholics – or their squad leaders – think so.)



Mind you, I used to be a practicing Catholic, up until a couple of years ago.  I struggled mightily to fit their theology into my life.  Around 2006, a year or so after the reactionary new German pope took over the reins of the church, I just gave up.  To my surprise, several people I know did the same thing. 



We all reached the same conclusion at the same time: the Church was not for us, not anymore.



This serves as an excellent explanation for Why I Am No Longer A Practicing Catholic.



Bring on the solstice observances!  Hail the Unconquered Sun!



And to hell with both Thomas Tobin and Lincoln Chaffee!


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