Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sniff. Sniff.

Some things that make me cry, in increasing order of absurdity:

1. When Gene Autry sings "Santa Claus knows we're all God's children/That makes everything right."

2. The key change in Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas."

3. When the chipmunks sing "We can hardly stand the wait/Please Christmas don't be late."

4. The neighing sound at the end of Boston Pops' "Sleigh Ride."

Friday, December 19, 2008

The 2008 Watering Place Gift Guide

For those who started reading less than a year ago, last year's intro still applies (and some of the list is the same, too):

"This gift guide is a little different. I like Design with a capital D mostly when it's on the Internet or in a magazine, not my house. I know nothing about technology. I violently disapprove of whole categories of products--such as scented soap--most of the time. I can't guarantee that you'll be able to find these gifts--some of them are...metonymic, let's say."

1. 70s Music
It's time to really embrace this stuff, if you haven't already. Artists like Dan Fogelberg, Steven Bishop, Bill Withers, and Donald Fagen are too easily taken for granted. Let's move them to the top of the stack, or the playlist, or whatever it is you currently work with.

2. My Santa Statue
Someone gave me this as a hostess gift at the first Christmas party we had in our new house--nine years ago! It came from a particularly delicious store, so I was excited when I saw the box at the end of the night. When I opened it, I was disappointed. I needed another Christmas knickknack like a hole in the head. But the next year I got the idea to put him on the newel post. One of the children knocked him off and broke his arm, and it's the old story--I cried, and discovered how much he meant to me. Now he is firmly attached with fun-tac, and he makes me happy every time I use the stairs. Don't be afraid to give someone something they won't immediately go crazy over. And don't be so sure you don't like the thing you just got.

3. My Mystery Grandmother Photo

This is someone's Scandinavian great-great-grandmother. It could be mine, but I know for a fact it isn't. Anyway, this picture is a fantastic piece of cultural history, and I see something new every time I look at it. I had it scanned at Kinko's and so far I've made a big framed print which hangs over my desk, and also had it put on the cover of a notebook at Snapfish, which came out great. Perhaps there is a photo kicking around your place with untapped potential.

4. The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story
It's still funny a year later, and on sale. Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends is also on sale, and also excellent.

5. St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
Ambrosia in a beautiful bottle. Just watch your consumption; this goes down really easy. Remember peach schnapps? Easier.

6. German Chicken Games
We love to play a game called "Hick Hack In Gackelwack," now available in an English language edition as "Pick Picnic." Another, dominos-and-dice, chicken game is "Pickomino," which we know as "Heckmeck am Bratwurmeck." Like Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, and Hi-Ho Cherry-O!, these games can be played with the very young; but unlike those games, these games do not make you want to stab yourself in the eye with a fork.

7. Arrested Development: The Complete Series
Please believe me; it is so funny. Last year I said the world would be a better place if everyone read The Fountain Overflows. I could make the same claim about watching AD. It's very good. Really.

8. This Pin
I'm not sure what the message of this one is. Keep reaching out? Appreciate your Peter Gabriel t-shirt? Despite what I said above, good design is paramount to a successful gift?

9. Ballet Shoes
A new BBC version of the beloved Noel Streatfeild book, featuring Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame. I am one of those annoying people who points out all the ways in which a movie is not faithful to a book, and this is one of the least objectionable adaptations I have ever seen, especially given the compression to 84 minutes. At the bottom of this post are some spoilerish exceptions* for any Shoes purists more pathological than I.

10. Spiked T-Shirts
Not-so-little-R asked for the "Humanity Is Underrated" shirt, and he's getting it, dear boy. Spiked Online is edited by self-identified Marxist Mick Hume. Last time I checked I was very much not a Marxist, but Spiked displays some thinking so clear that it rises above ideology. To wit: this article about a national anti-bullying campaign that says, "Hang on, wasn't it the state itself that was recently bullying children for being overweight?"

*SPOILER: Theo Dane is kind of trashy and sometimes seems to be hitting on Sylvia, not to mention engaging in a love triangle with Sylvia and Mr. Simpson, who has become a widower and marries Sylvia at the end of the movie.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


When I am in France or Italy (okay, okay, that's a total of three occasions, but I'm willing to draw a conclusion from them) and attempting to speak the language, I find that it stirs up my brain in weird ways, making me unable to remember the simplest English words and effortlessly produce many of the 50-cent variety.

It seems the stress and anxiety of the past few weeks (months) has done something similar to my musical brain. I lay in bed last night with about eight bars of wordless melody running repeatedly through my head. I could tell they were the end of a verse, but could not remember the chorus. I tried picturing the CDs in our collection, and then the albums, and I thought about artists, and genres, and finally it came to me: Billy Joel's "Downeaster Alexa." A song that is not in our collection, and a song I am pretty sure I have not heard since I saw the Brown Derbies perform it twelve years ago.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What We Truly Seek

On December 6th the Wall Street Journal reviewed The Magician's Book by Laura Miller, in which the author traces her relationship with the Narnia books from enchantment to disillusionment to acceptance. I admit to a teeny bit of disappointment upon rereading the chronicles as an adult, more because of their sparseness--my own imagination seems to have filled in a fair bit--than anything else. I was upset about Susan's exclusion from the paradisical "real Narnia" as a child, but it doesn't bother me as much now that I understand her sins are apostasy and lack of faith, not lipstick and nylons. I never felt tricked or betrayed by the allegorical aspects of the stories, and in fact I find The Last Battle to be a very illuminating and comforting theological text, both in its descriptions of the nature of Heaven and in these words that Aslan speaks to the Calormene youth who worshipped Tash:

"For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him...Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek."

What troubles me is this quotation from Miller's book: "Myths and stories are repositories of human desires and fears, which means that they contain our sexual anxieties, our preoccupation with status, and our xenophobia as well as our heroism, our generosity, and our curiosity. If we were to purge our shelves of all the great books tainted by one vile idea or another, we'd have nothing left to read -- or at least nothing but the new and blandly virtuous." The first portion of her statement is true and helpful, but that last clause seems fraught with peril. We must not assume that our newest ideas are necessarily virtuous, and we slip and show our most Tash-like natures when we assert that virtue is bland.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I'm Still Here

I see that my last post was October 30th. I think it was October 9th that my perinatologist put me on modified bed rest, and I promised R. that I would not "spend hours slumped over the computer keyboard." In any case, it was on November 17th that I was hospitalized because the baby showed signs of being in distress, and on November 26th that my tiny and beautiful son was born, two months early. Early in the morning on December 2nd he became ill, and by the evening of the 3rd he was gravely ill. He now seems to be getting better: "progressing," the doctor says.

But that's not what I came here to tell you about, as Arlo Guthrie says. Came to talk about my grandmother, and about prayer.

Grammie taught me to sing "Jesus Loves Me," and to play it on the piano (she wrote the notes in pencil on the ivory keys of her baby grand, and the melody in notes on a piece of paper: GEEDEGG...); she taught me to say "Now I Lay Me" and then the Lord's Prayer, and she taught me all the Bible stories I know. I can still hear her voice softly calling "Samuel! Samuel!" and see her aged fingers pressing into the imaginary holes in her palms. Grammie had two Catholic suitors and chose the one who did not insist on raising his children Catholic, so I'm not sure she would be happy that I found my home in the Roman Church; but I am sure that she helped lead me there.

So many people are praying for my son, and I am praying too, but it is hard. When I pump breast milk, and try to achieve let-down even though I don't have a baby in my arms, I say the Hail Mary over and over. It seems appropriate, and I tell myself that the Blessed Mother would only laugh
with me at the absurdity of the breast pump. I speak to all the saints I love, and all the ones who have a special interest in sick babies. In a way, though, I didn't feel I was praying very well until I got a song stuck in my head:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sang it to my baby through the porthole of the isolette on Friday afternoon, and he opened up his tiny dark-blue eyes for the first time in a long time and gazed at me. That song kept playing in my head, and then yesterday morning I sat on my bed combing my hair, which since I went on bed rest has reached the middle of my back and is the devil to comb. I remembered that Grammie told me when she had my mother her hair was a mass of snarls, and her mother came to the hospital and gently combed it all out. I thought of another song, "In The Garden," one of the two that Grammie wanted played at her memorial service:

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses

And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

These gospel songs were the songs of my grandmother's youth. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder in 1883, my grandmother in 1927 went to tent revivals as evening entertainment. So yesterday I sang "In The Garden" through the porthole, and thought about Grammie. R. was the only one of her great-grandchildren she ever saw--she died when he was 11 months old--but I will never forget the way she received the news that he was expected, so joyful and yet so comfortingly matter-of-fact. It made sense, given that a baby is a common occurrence and a miracle at the same time. Faith can move mountains, but perhaps we show the most faith when we move a mountain and then move on.

R. and I left the hospital after shift change last night and drove wearily to my parents' house for dinner. "I've been thinking about Grammie all day," I said to my mother, and she said, "Today
is her birthday. She would have been 100 years old today."