Friday, December 30, 2005

Hallelujah everybody say cheese

Merry Christmas from the family.

Had a wonderful visit back east. The weather cooperated with all the driving, although I'll admit that there's something anticlimactic about leaving snow on the ground and arriving in light jacket weather at Christmas. Could've used maybe one more day for visiting old friends and family, but I am enjoying my own house and my own bed and holing up with my own remote and a few days off work.

Still and all, good to see the family and eat their food and have some traditions. I fear this may be the last year for Midnight Mass and opening presents at 1:30 AM. It's a long standing tradition for my family, and we've generally caught a second wind (and a taste for some wine and dessert) by the wee hours... but we had more unanimous trouble getting past the turkey coma than years past.

Somewhere in his homily, my folks' pastor had a great point about the hope which Christmas embodies, and with which Catholics are supposed to live every day, and how that should affect our actions. It's not exactly the warm fuzzies which we prefer at Christmas, but I suppose a good Narnian should play the hand he's dealt.

Unfortunately, as a homilist, he doesn't seem to know how to quit when he's ahead. (I know. Mr. Pot? There's a Mr. Kettle on the line for you.) For rhetorical reasons I can't recall, he felt the need to weigh in on the So-Called War On Christmas. (He's against it. - Calvin Coolige, attrib.)

Now my point of view on the whole thing is pretty simple: Christmas is over commercialized, and that's not news. It's not about what the government does, or doesn't do, and it's not about what language people use to say, really, "have a good week." And it's not run by a big Eastern syndicate. If Christmas is messed up, it's the by the compilation of our own choices, and people who can't keep their noses in their own business.

Once upon a time, we called this kind of thinking "conservative", but I guess we have to call it something else now.

Frank Rich points out that all the warriors for Christmas seem to have something to sell... O'Reilly's ratings, Gibson's book, even Jackie Mason's standup act. One might even extrapolate out to my parent's pastor. (He was selling a message, not asking for cash, but rallying the base to be sure.) Even my own dog's gone commercial.

But I wasn't going to rant. I was going to tell you about my great Christmas. Herself and Meself adopted a new trick for long car rides from our friends Michael and Ann: reading out loud. And what better for Christmas than A Christmas Carol. This is one of only about 3 or 4 books I reread every couple of years. What I love about it is that I "know" the story by heart, and yet it's sprinkled with these gems of writing which seem to seldom make it into the movies or readings.

And so I'll give that great warrior for Christmas the last word:

"Spirit," said Scrooge, after a moment's thought, "I wonder you, of all the beings in the many worlds about us, should desire to cramp these people's opportunities of innocent enjoyment."

"I!" cried the Spirit.

"You would deprive them of their means of dining every seventh day, often the only day on which they can be said to dine at all," said Scrooge. "Wouldn't you?"

"I!" cried the Spirit.

"You seek to close these places on the Seventh Day," said Scrooge. "And it comes to the same thing."

"I seek!" exclaimed the Spirit.

"Forgive me if I am wrong. It has been done in your name, or at least in that of your family," said Scrooge.

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."

A Christmas Carol Stave 3

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Feels like years since it's been here

Happy Solstice! (Yes, yes, I am behind my time. I was making rather merry last night. Yule Bowling might be a new tradition.)

I feel like the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas is just a long hard slog toward the solstice. Every day it's a little darker when I wake up, every day it's a little darker when I leave work, until I'm trying to do both in the pitch dark. My animal nature says that if I had a lick of sense, I'd hibernate. With trying to get through the end of the semester, and all the card sending and gift choosing and decorating and cleaning, I usually get to a point when I'm ready to chuck it all and check out the southern hemisphere.

In a particularly Scroogelike mood, I might argue that we should move the big secular shebang to a nicer time: Easter or Columbus Day or the Fourth of July. Sometime when I don't have to slip on the snow or juggle packages in heavy gloves. Sometime when the cold isn't sneaking in the corners to bite at my joints.

But at the Solstice, I know that the worst is over. That's as dark as it gets. The days get a little longer, and getting everybody together starts to sound more appealing. Set something on fire, whether it's a literal Yule log or the lights on trees and windows, and as Lou Reed put it, set the twilight reeling.

Happy holidays and the blessings of the season to you and yours.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Edge of the Empire garrison town

For your listening pleasure, NPR enters the No-Spin Zone. (Or perhaps the Forum Anti Devolvo?)

Yo Saturnalia!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Let me stand next to your fire

Oh, you know he'd laugh.

R.I.P. Richard Pryor.

In my book, Pryor stands with Cosby and Newhart as the great geniuses of American standup. (Carlin is a close fourth and everybody else is sucking wind.) His word association skit with Chevy Chase has to be one of the top 5 moments in Saturday Night Live history.

Thanks, Richard.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

In the Bleak Midwinter

It was in 1991 that I took a fantastic course on "Theologies of Liberation." For a whole semester we looked at different ways to understand that God loves us as equals, and demands that we love each other as equals. Further, that this respect is not a reward waiting for some in the next world, but a reality we should both expect and grant to all in this one. And further still, that to support, or even ignore, an oppressive system is to participate in its sin.

Powerful words for a boy brought up on songs of Irish revolution and workers' rights. For a while, this was the only way I saw my Catholicism; no big surprise, I suppose. Time, maturity, and another fabulous religion course (Fr. Frank Gignac's line-by-line instruction on appreciating the historical and literary aspects of the Gospel of John) eventually led me to a more complete, if less stridently revolutionary, understanding of my faith.

So this is the background I bring to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the resulting blog kerfluffle.

(Capsule review of the movie: well paced, faithfully told. Excellent child actors. The animation work on the animals was just stunning, especially compared to my memories of old animatronic or cartoon TV versions. I'm discovering I prefer my fantasy with a more personal and less epic scale, like this. 4 stars.)

(Capsule review of the kerfluffle: for the radical side, we have Polly Toynbee hates Christianity (and makes at least one important factual error in recalling the plot of the movie), and Shane thinks she's an idiot (although he makes a great point about free speech at the end). Meanwhile, over in Moderateland, CPF says sometimes an allegory is just an allegory. and Neil Gaiman points out Adam Gopnik's rather balanced New Yorker article about C.S. Lewis, wrestling with the tension between imagination and dogma.)

It seems that Aslan is a stumbling block for some people. Without a doubt, he's a symbol of the power of God, and of the rule of clearly defined goodness over obvious evil. If you see that and think that "might makes right," I can see why. On the other hand, what I saw was a shadowy resistance leader, whose secret movements were only whispered about... appropriate for a movie where the first shots are the Luftwaffe's view of the Blitz. So where others saw the English Lion, I saw the Lion of Zion.

On one level, this is a debate between authorial intent and reader response. But on another, we've walked into the great challenge of Christianity: if we believe in a God who is the Alpha and the Omega, both the tower of fire and the whispering breeze, we don't get to choose. We can't pick the lion or the lamb. Both are right, and we have to find a way to reconcile them and keep both in mind.

It's merely facile of Disney to take a religious allegory, set in a world that is "always Winter, never Christmas" and featuring a cameo by Father Christmas, and release it in December. However, it's good to have this debate while Christians concentrate on the meek baby in the manger. Now, while we think about gifts and kindness, is also the time to remember hard work and the struggle.

This I Believe: deep faith is when the hum of your own cognitive dissonance actually resolves into a chord.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

It's much better with than without it

Since TRP opened the debate about what Christmas songs should be forever banished, I'm going to put in a plug for my favorite Christmas albums. Every time the radio plays something off that list, we ought to call up and ask for a tune from this one.

I first saw Vinx opening for Sting during the Soul Cages tour in 1991. It's an amazing thing to watch one man, alone but for a drum and a hell of a baritone voice, hold the attention of an entire arena. Seeing him live a few years later at Blues Alley remains one of the top five mind-blowing music moments of my life. So I was thrilled two years ago when he released a Christmas album, Little Drummer Boy.

I think of Vinx's work as jazz, although I've seen it called "world music" too. (What does that mean, anyway... is someone out there listening to music not from the world?) Both are fair descriptions of this album, full of syncopated rhythms and resettings of classic carols. Vinx's lush voice can croon The Christmas Song or rip the roof off of We Three Kings. His New Orleans shuffle version of Jungle Bells and his reggae Winter Wonderland are among the highlights of my holiday.

Hipster's Holiday is a Rhino Records compilation which I bought for one song, my absolute favorite Christmas song: Pearl Bailey singing Five Pound
Box of Money
. The album is a fun compilation of jazz and R&B, mostly from the '50s. Some of it is very accessible, like Louis Armstrong hamming up 'Zat You, Santa Claus or Lionel Hampton hollering Merry Christmas Baby. Other tracks may have to grow on you, like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross' Deck Us All With Boston Charlie or Leo Watson's scatted Jingle Bells.

I think the reason I like this album is what it reminds me of. I used to love to do my Christmas shopping with my Walkman on, listening to WPFW Pacifica Radio. When Pacifica wasn't railing against the corruption inherent in the system, they had the best blues and R&B DJs in DC. Those guys would dig up the most magnificently soulful holiday one-off singles and play them non-stop the week before Christmas. As soon as I got out of the malls and away from their Muzak versions of "Carol of the Bells," I went to 'PFW for the antidote.

Hipster's Holiday also reminds me of the Dr. Demento show. When we'd just started going out, Herself and I used to stay up until 1 or 2 AM on Sunday night listening to Dr. Demento on WHFS. It was a great wind-down from the weekend, even if it did mean we dragged a bit on Monday morning. The good Doctor used to do Christmas songs every week from Thanksgiving until the New Year's countdown, and every year at this time, I wish somebody near me carried him.

'HFS dropped Demento, and eventually changed formats entirely, and I moved to the boonies. But whenever I hear We Wanna See Santa Do The Mambo or Be-Bop Santa Claus, I can't help but think fondly of those old days.