Saturday, December 24, 2011

December: A Buffet of Choices

(Next posting will be New Year's Day.)

Whether one thinks of the holidays this time of year in religious or secular terms--or as one big solstice metaphor for ending the dark and returning to the light--we have quite a buffet of choices in ways to celebrate.

I can remember when we didn't start thinking about Christmas until after Thanksgiving.  Stores took down their turkey and pilgrim decorations--there even seemed to be a pause--and then put up their Santas.  No such thing as catalogs arrived in the mail.  But now, as someone phrased it, it's one long spill-way "from trick-or-treat to ho-ho-ho."  A friend sent me a Christmas card one year showing a corporate Santa looking down from his office window and saying to his helper-elf:  "They're starting to relax again.  Switch the festive vortex up to maximum." 

It does seem as if we squeeze more and more metaphorical dishes onto the table--all under the heading "Holiday Season."  If there's something to show-case, enjoy, sell, let's schedule it in December, we seem to say.  Church bazaars.  Open studio tours.  Library book sales.  Sing-alongs.  Locally-made craft and farmers market items--holly wreaths, clay pots, jewelry, hand-bags, fruit preserves.  Store sales.  Annual workplace dinners.  A party or two or three.  (One December back in the '80s, one or both of us went to 13 gatherings.)  Or we can stay in and watch one of those seasonal dramas in which a couple of precocious kids--have you noticed, kids in today's dramas are portrayed as having more smarts than their parents?--figure how to fix up his widowed father with her divorced mother who finally recognize true love the night everyone congregates to light the village Christmas tree.  There's often a little jingle of bells on the sound track to indicate that the real Santa was in the crowd working his magic.  (Christmas in TV drama terms today = magic.) 

Interspersed in all this--for me, at least--is a plethora of December birthdays including my own.  (Once, as a child, because my birthday was so close to Christmas, my parents decided to celebrate it in June.  When December came around, it didn't seem appropriate to skip it, so we did it all over again.)

But since December is a buffet, we can take our pick.  What will we choose?  The all-you-can eat plate with seconds and thirds?  The big tree, the end-of-year letter sent out to 60 friends, the splurgy menu?  Over the years, that's been my choice, and it was fun.  But now I choose simple.  I choose not to start the season too early--then I dash into a store and out again before yet another version of Winter Wonderland or Jingle Bells hits the sound track.  I choose to play the music I love as I celebrate this return-of-the-light time of year with a nightly candle, a good book, and a glass of wine.  I choose to shop at (and thus support) local independent stores.  And these days (for myself, at least ... and after all my decluttering), other than something sweet like family photos, a pretty scarf, or a special hand-embroidered tea towel, I tend to prefer gifts that are consumable.  You know:  chocolates, candles, flowers, soaps, a pot of bulbs to bloom mid-winter.  I admit to being tired of poinsettias, but amaryllis or spring bulbs beautifully pep up the days.

Without contradicting myself or getting too complicated about it, I also choose to turn the holiday into an occasion.  Making brownies for the neighbors.  Making the annual fruitcake with family members.  Using pretty tissue and ribbon to wrap gifts.  (I'm not too fond of the new method of putting things in paper bags with a dollop of tissue paper on top.  But it's good for off-size things.)  Hanging a gold paper star from Germany in the front door window instead of fiddling with a tree which I don't have a place for anyway.  Turning berries I've kept frozen since their high summer season into a family pie.  And reading 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to the little ones on Christmas Eve.

Speaking of good music, here's an enchanting two-minute link to Tchaikovsky's Sugar Plum Fairy on the perfect instrument for it--the glass harp. 

What Makes December December

All of the above
Reaching the darkest-shortest days
Then starting the journey back to the lightest-longest 
Transitioning from cold weather to really cold weather, aka winter
Corelli's Christmas Concerto (forgot to add it to my favorites list)
Lots of birthdays
Thinking ahead to a fresh year and a little restructuring

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nine Children's Classics

I've taken to re-reading books lately that I read as a child.  After all my downsizing over the years, I still have enough to fit on a shelf.  I've kept them dusted and have sometimes taken one, opened it, glimpsed through it ... to find that whole era instantly popping up before me as I read birthday or Christmas wishes written in my mother's hand along with the date--1945, 1946, 1947.  The books then seemed especially handsome ... more so than today's.  Well-made, beautifully illustrated, nicely bound, good paper, sturdy.  My brother and I accumulated two splendid collections--he got the Scribner's Illustrated Classics editions, often illustrated by N.C. Wyeth, including such adventures of The Deerslayer, The Scottish Chiefs, Kidnapped.  And I received the Grosset and Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library editions.

Whatever the selection, the books seemed to have soul.  Rather than following the Conflict and Resolution formula publishers now seem to require, these stories simply told a good tale.  Now, even if you're a little pig, you need to have some sort of problem that is then resolved by the end of the book.  And then no children's book today would think of using such a "difficult" word as "soporific"--as Beatrix Potter included in The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, thinking it a perfectly good word, totally appropriate for a child.

After not having read many of these stories for something like sixty years, I wondered how I'd feel about them from an adult (even old-age) perspective.  Here, then, in the order read are the nine I've re-read so far.

1.  J. M. Barrie:  Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.  This has always been one of my favorite books--for its large type, the feel of its binding, its absolutely splendid illustrations.  Of course, with the name, Wendy, I have a kinship with the story of Peter Pan.  But, lo, this proved to be a totally different animal.  Here, Baby Peter, all of a week or two old, leaves his home and goes to an island in London's Kensington Gardens to live with the birds who, we are told, are the ones who deliver human babies to their mothers.  Finding that he can't fly, he's stranded until he finds a way to maneuver himself around the park where he meets a new playmate, a little girl named ... Maimie!  Ever heard of Peter Pan and Maimie?  He finally decides to go home only to find a new baby in his crib so he leaves again.  Though I've been dusting this book all these years, even thumbing through the illustrations, I'd totally forgotten the story line--an odd mix of being both sad and rambling.

"Peter Pan is the fairies orchestra."
2.  C. Collodi (Carlo Lorenzini):  The Adventures of Pinocchio, illustrated by Helene Carter.  Of course, Walt Disney usurped this story, so our image of Pinocchio doesn't match the illustrations, here almost stick-figure-ish.  But no matter.  Though the tale is very moralistic, assuming all little boys are scoundrels unless they are properly reined in, I was able to find it good fun.  Originally a tragedy in which Pinocchio is hanged for his many faults, on his editor's prompting, Collodi introduced the Blue Fairy in the latter half of the book--someone who helped Pinocchio at strategic points thus producing a happy ending and making the book suitable for children (or so the editor said).  (Jiminy Cricket got that role in the movie.)

3.  Johanna Spyri:  Heidi, color illustrations by Edna Cooke Shoemaker.  As the others, I had not read this in ages but had often thought about Heidi up on that Swiss alp, eating her bread and cheese, drinking goat's milk, and looking out at the stars from her straw bed.  That simple life, to me, always seemed totally charming.  On re-reading it, I was surprised to find just how religious the tale is--how her life only achieved its happy ending through prayer and the grace of God.  But, it is a book of beautiful descriptions of a beautiful place and an engaging child.

4.  Hans Christian Andersen:  Andersen's Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Szyk. Oh, golly.  Except for a rather small collection of his truly great classics, I found the tales surprisingly insipid.  Sorry.

5.  Kenneth Grahame:  The Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.  Confession:  I believe this was the first time I'd read this book.  I remember giving it a go as a child, only to find it too difficult.  But now, joy of joys, it turned out to be the prize-winner of the lot.  It was funny, delightful, all about golden afternoons, amusing conversations, and rather sweet adventures.  Plus a beautiful description of pastoral England.  I'd no sooner finished it than I wanted to start all over again.

6.  Mary Mapes Dodge:  Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, illustrated by Louis Rhead and Frank E. Schoonover. This is a dear story about a young impoverished Dutch boy and his sister, Gretel, who take part in a skating competition to win a pair of ice skates.  By the end, everyone is happy and the father, an amnesiac in bed for years, has regained his health.  In doing her research, however, the author (a 19th century New Yorker) incorporated great wads of travel-guide-type information, almost as if she were paraphrasing some source chapter by chapter.  Here's a description of Dutch houses.  Here's one of porcelain stoves.  Here's some Dutch vocabulary.  So one does get an education ... but an overabundance tends to disrupt the story line.

7.  The Arabian Nights, illustrated by Earle Goodenow.  These are mostly unrelated ancient and medieval tales from Persia, India, Turkey, Central Asia, Egypt, India, etc.--tales of artifice, stratagem, jewels, robberies, beautiful women.  The lead story about Scheherazade is a Persian tale.  (And the Persian language and people, of course, are not Arabic.)  And contrary to Disney's rendering, Aladdin is Chinese.  With such a wide geography under its belt, the name "Arabian" is something of a misnomer.  But, again, no matter.  They're wonderful tales.

8.  Rudyard Kipling:  The Jungle Book, illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg.  This is also a compilation of separate, independent stories with the central one focusing on Mowgli in India and featuring anthropomorphized animals who teach him the ways of the jungle (and hence, the world).  Kipling, as always, is a master story teller.  No complaints. 

9.  Rachel Field:  Hitty, Her First Hundred Years, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop.  I read this book at least twice as a child and enjoyed it just as much again now.  It's an appealing story (not always P.C., though) about a small wooden doll's adventures from the 1820's to the1920's.  After leaving her home in Maine--as she's left behind here or picked up there--she's worshiped as an idol in the South Seas, stuffed for years down into a horsehair sofa, featured as a fashion model for a New Orleans cotton exposition ...  You get the point.  It's great fun and sweet in its way.

More to come ... after I've re-read the others.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A "Just Between You and I" World

A year or so ago, when my New Yorker arrived, I gave a hoot of appreciation when I ran into a cartoon by William Haefeli showing two men at a bar, one saying to the other, "You have no idea what's it's like to be a 'just between you and me' person in a 'just between you and I' world."  I've been hoping for more in a possible series of grammar jabs but no such luck.

I'm not a school teacher but have been "accused" of being one (what's the matter with being a school teacher?) because I have on occasion brought up grammatical issues.  In fact, I've been tempted sometimes to actually go to a school or two and ask when their students study grammar these days.  Or do they?  Or has the study of grammar become obsolete?  Not sure what the problem is but it's definitely become a "just between you and I" world. 

In somehow thinking "me" a "bad" word, people are substituting "I" more and more often.  "They're coming to spend the holidays with Bob and I."  Nooooo.....  You wouldn't say, "They're coming to spend the holidays with I."  That's the clue, the key, the test.  If you don't say "between we" then you don't say "between you and I."  Good old "me" needs to go back in that slot.

Now, here's my biggie.  It used to creep into speech only now and again.  Even a villain portrayed by Kirk Douglas knew the proper usage.  (I'll get to it in a minute.)  All prose knew the correct usage.  Now, it's seeped into everyday speech, movies, books, newspapers, Google news, song lyrics.  Here it is.

I've had a series of shoulder problems over the years requiring long bouts of physical therapy.  Invariably, therapists would tell me, "Lay down on the table."  Ooooooooooo..... nooooo.  To sort of edge in perhaps too subtle a call on their mistake, I'd say, "Do you want me to lie on my back or stomach?"  I'd sort of emphasize the word, "lie," ever so slightly.  (It never worked; they never caught on.)

But now, using "lay" instead of "lie" is such common usage, I'm almost pulled up short when I hear it used correctly.  I think to myself--and yes, I do do this--"my, he/she got it right."  But you hear people telling their dogs to "lay down" or they'll talk about "laying on the sofa" and reading.  I want to say, hey guys, "lay" requires an object.  It means "put."  I want to say that one doesn't "put" on the sofa.  One puts something on the sofa.  You lay your silver spoons on the table.  You lay 58¢ on the counter.  "Lie" means "stretch out, lounge."  You tell your tiger to lie down. 

Of course, just to confuse things, "lay" is the past tense of "lie."  So, you lay down yesterday.  But in the present tense, using "lay" instead of "lie" would be similar to saying, "I'm going to reclined in the hammock." 

In fact, I sometimes wonder if that dear prayer hasn't contributed to the problem:  "Now I lay me down to sleep."  No one much pays attention to the "me" thinking you can delete it.  But if you delete it, you need to rephrase it:  "Now I lie down to sleep."  As grammar books point out, only chickens lay.  So if you're not a chicken and you don't plan to lay an egg, then remember that good old word, "lie."

I actually figured out how to illustrate this posting.  Think:  "Dreaming of mice, Puss is lying on Fifi."

I have other grammatical issues but, lucky you, I'll save them for another day.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Gallery of Trees: Ways We Fit Them into Our Lives

Driving to town one day recently, I noticed The Big Switch.  Rather than carrying kayaks on roof-tops, passing cars were now carrying Christmas trees.  It got me to thinking about how we fit trees into our lives ... so much so at this time of year especially, that when I read that the President wanted to add a 15¢ tax on the sale of all Christmas trees to (of all things) promote their image, I thought that, of the many images in the world, the Christmas tree is already right up there on top, even in non-Christian countries.  I remember walking along the streets of Bangkok one 90ยบ day when I saw a brightly decorated Christmas tree in a shop window.  "Now what's that doing there," I said to myself.  Of course, I immediately realized that it was December--despite the tropical climate. "But this isn't a Christian country," I countered ... only to remind myself that Christmas was (now) more a commercial holiday than a religious one.  Shopper's Paradise Hong Kong (our next stop) revealed even more decorations plus German carols piped into elevators and (one day) a Santa being pulled down the street in a rickshaw.

So I decided to go through my photos and look for ways we do indeed fit trees into our lives in this and other cultures.  Besides celebration, some trees are used in a spiritual context.  Some for shade ... for fodder ... for food.  Some to attract tourists.  Some to provide warmth.

Too bad we have to chop these dear things down but we do bring them into our homes and dress them up.

If you go to Bali, you'll find occasional statues, trees, large rocks, shrines wrapped with a black-white-grey checkered cloth called Poleng, indicating that whatever is wrapped contains a spiritual (or even magical) charge.  Or, as we sometimes say, that a spirit dwells within.
Sacred tree in Bali

When I visited Paphos, Cyprus, one year, I ran across this tree with its myriad strips of cloth (each with a prayer written on it) tied onto the branches.
Prayer tree above Agia Salomonis Catacomb, Paphos, Cyprus

Here are two photos taken just outside Kathmandu, Nepal.
This is considered a sacred tree.  What makes it sacred, I don't know.  But being sacred, its leaves and branches have not been cut for fodder or firewood .... has its neighbor.  It's easy to spot the non-sacred everyday trees because in this deforested land, this is what they can look like.

A banyan tree outside Pokhara, Nepal, provides these porters with shade and a place to set their dokos (baskets).

One of many in an Indio, California, grove of date palms.

Here's more a case of fitting ourselves into the tree's life by slipping tin cans over the trunk to protect it from bark nibblers.
Willow or poplar trees in Ladakh, India

Here's a vintage photo taken by my father in the early '40s.
A fallen giant sequoia has been turned into a tourist attraction.  Sequoia National Park.

Ah, the end of several good trees, now ready to bring us warmth.