Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Music

All right, I don't really go through new (or even "new to me") music that much in a year, particularly not when compared to the books I read. In a given year, I'm lucky if I discover a few new songs, never mind new albums. Still, one of the blogs I love to read just did back-to-back "Year in" entries for books and for music (I was already doing the book thing anyway), and it got me thinking. I'm not exactly on any cutting edges, but the music I've discovered this past year has entered into me, and so it's worth reflecting on a bit, at least for my own sake.

Over the summer, I was thinking about the high school a cappella group I direct (students do the administration of the group, but I handle the musical side, which includes arrangements). So I was thinking about music and I was hoping to bridge the gap a little between my tastes and my students tastes, so I figured I would be well-served by seeing what was in vogue and, out of that cesspool of banality, choose some things that didn't make me gag.

Of course, with those prejudices on the table, it should be no surprise that my methodology probably left something to be desired, since I avoided entirely all of the official Top-40 type lists where that actually-popular music shows up. Instead, I ended up focused on Esquire's 30 Summer Songs Every Man Should Listen To. I listened to all 30, primarily with an ear to what would work as a cappella, but also with an ear toward what I myself liked. Judging by the few that I've put before them, my students have never heard of any of them.

One of them really grabbed both Lauren and me: "Anna Sun" by Walk the Moon. Not only did we love the song, but then we found out that they'd all gone to Kenyon (and the song itself was very Kenyon-referential). How we failed to buy their album, I'm not sure.

We also both really liked: "Lost in My Mind" by The Head and the Heart and "Losers" by The Belle Brigade. I was also a fan of "Coming Back to a Man" by Dawes.

Our big discovery this year was Miracles of Modern Science, which we heard one Sunday on NPR. Lauren, perhaps because she used to play viola, particularly loved this rock group based on violin, cello, upright bass, mandolin, and drums, so I surprised her with a copy of their new CD Dog Year for Christmas. As an added bonus, when I ordered the actual CD through their website, not only could I download it immediately and listen to it for almost a month before Lauren did, but I also received a personal thank you card from the band for buying the album. How cool is that? On the strength of this--and their quirky yet effective music--I have to give them the status of top album of the year. For the record, I did buy at least one other album this year. At least.

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011: The Year in Books

Each year, I like to do a post looking back at the books I read in the previous year. In past years, this hasn't told regular readers much they didn't know, because I was religious about posting book reviews. This year, not so much. So if you see anything on the list that you want to know my thoughts about, just ask. 

Thanks in large part to the iPods that Lauren and I gave each other last Christmas, my numbers are way up, though most of them are audiobooks. Last year was a record low (since I started keeping records in '99) 24 books read. This year marks a record high: 64. Of those, 50 (!) were audiobooks (the rest included 3 ebooks and just 11 dead tree books). A few different factors go into this: the low number of "real" books comes in part from the lack of reading time that having a young child involves and in part from the fact that I was re-reading the first eight doorstops of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series; the high number of audiobooks is because my iPod lets me listen to them faster than normal (and I can get them for free from a whole bunch of Indiana libraries via direct download). Speaking of re-reads, 11 of the 63 books I read were re-reads (Erikson's plus the first four books of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire in preparation for reading the new one).

Below, I've listed all the books I read by category, indicating which were audiobooks (aud) and which we re-reads. As I wrote above, if you're interested in hearing more about any of these, let me know, because I haven't reviewed very many of them.

Fantasy and Science Fiction (34)
Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay (aud)
Steven Erikson, Memories of Ice (re-read)
Orson Scott Card, Pathfinder (aud)
Steven Erikson, House of Chains (re-read)
Orson Scott Card, The Lost Gate (aud)
Steven Erikson, Midnight Tides (re-read)
Orson Scott Card, Empire (aud)
Orson Scott Card, Hidden Empire (aud)
Steven Erikson, The Bonehunters (re-read)
Scott Lunch, The Lies of Locke Lamora (aud)
Patrick Rothfus, The Name of the Wind (aud)
Scott Lynch, Red Seas Under Red Skies (aud)
Patrick Rothfus, The Wise Man’s Fear (aud)
Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven (aud)
Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (aud)
Janny Wurts, Stormed Fortress
George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (aud, re-read)
George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings (aud, re-read)
George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords (aud, re-read)
Jasper Fforde, Shades of Grey (aud)
George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows (aud, re-read)
China Mieville, The City and the City (aud)
Steven Erikson, Reaper’s Gale (re-read)
George R.R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons
Jim Butcher, Ghost Story
Steven Brust, Tiassa
Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children (aud)
Albert Brooks, Twenty-Thirty (aud)
S.M. Stirling, Island in the Sea of Time (aud)
Steven Erikson, Toll the Hounds (re-read)
S.M. Stirling, Against the Tide of Years (aud)
Janny Wurts, Initiate’s Trial
S.M. Stirling, On the Oceans of Eternity (aud)
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (aud)

General Fiction (7)
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (e-book)
John Green, Will Grayson, Will Grayson (aud)
John Green, An Abundance of Katherines (aud)
Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader (aud)
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany (aud)
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (aud)
Vladamir Nabokov, Lolita (aud)
George Pelecanos, The Way Home (aud)

History (1)
Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror (aud)

Humor (2)
Roy Blount Jr., Long Time Leaving (aud)
Stephen Colbert, I Am America And So Can You (aud)

Non-fiction, Self-Help, Leadership, Business (19)
Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Work Wrrk (aud)
Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (aud)
Timothy Ferriss, The 4-Hour Body (e-book)
Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (e-book)
Brooks Landon, Building Great Sentences (aud)
Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein (aud)
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (aud)
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (aud)
Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (aud, re-read)
James Hunter, The Servant Leadership Training Course (aud)
Adele Faber, How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk (aud)
Daniel H. Pink, Drive (aud)
Chip Heath, Switch (aud)
James O. Toole and George Guidall, Leadership A-Z (aud)
Daniel Amen, Change Your Brain, Change Your Body (aud)
John Medina, Brain Rules (aud)
Douglas Mason and Spencer Smith, The Memory Doctor (aud)
Novella Carpenter, Farm City (aud)
David Brooks, The Social Animal

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The No-Internet Blues

In other entries, I’ve alluded to the fact that, during our winter break from teaching, we’ve been moving into a new house. We’re moving roughly 3 minutes away from where we lived, just a mile or so outside of our little town. The move keeps us juggling a lot of balls all at once, and one of those has been the question of how the outside world will reach us: internet at television. As we compared the various options, nearly-physical pain gripped me. Every option seemed to be vastly overpriced.

As we got deeper into matters, we discovered something even stranger: when we reconciled ourselves to the outrageous prices, it turned out that no one wanted to provide us with what we wanted at any price. What?!
A little personal history seems in order here. When it comes to television, since my college days, I have typically been a reluctant consumer. In college, the only access to television was in a shared lounge, and I was generally too busy for TV anyway. When I went to graduate school, I lived off campus but again didn’t have time for TV anyway. When I started teaching at a boarding school, I continued to feel that I didn’t really need TV, but then at the end of my first year I discovered that I could have it for free with no effort, so I got basic cable. I continued to have it through my five years at that job, but when I moved to Rhode Island, I once again abandoned the television. When Lauren and I moved in together, we used the rabbit ears to give ourselves some semblance of television, but we didn’t use it that much. When we moved back to Pennsylvania, I was finally moved to get television, through DirecTV, seduced primarily by the promise of NFL Sunday Ticket. Ultimately, I regretted the decision, but that’s another story. When we first moved to Indiana, we lived in an apartment owned by the school, which entitled us to get basic cable for $8 per month. Actually, I think the living situation forced us, but for $8 we were perfectly happy to have it. And to become quasi-addicted to it, even though our viewing numbers are probably well below the national average.

The internet is a similar story. Whereas television in my childhood was free, the internet was non-existent for me until I went to college. There, of course, access to it was free. When I went to graduate school, I briefly got dial-up service through AOL until I figured out that I could get it free from my university as long as my advisor signed off that I “needed” home internet access. Living and working at a boarding school after that, I had free internet access in my apartment (and 95% of the other places I spent my time). In Rhode Island, my upstairs neighbors shared the password for their wireless internet, and although we had said something vague about sharing the cost, they never told me what I owed them, so I had another year of free internet. When I moved several blocks away, one of the neighbors had kindly left his or her internet unsecured, and since I could pick it up in half the apartment, that was good enough. One year back in boarding school made the grand total look something like this: 14 years of internet access for the cost of one or two months of AOL service. Not too shabby.
But, of course, it couldn’t last, and here in Indiana, we’ve paid $40+ per month. Since we were moving, we decided to look at other options, and since $8/month television was no longer an option, we thought we'd look into the possibility of bundling our service for better value. Somehow, though, everywhere we've called claims not to service our address. That is to say, after they find our address. You see, for some reason, we don't show up. Oh, the post office knows where we are, but Google Maps can't find us, and neither can any cable, satellite, or internet provider. The house has apparently been there for the better part of 60 years, but for some reason, it can't be found. I have no idea what to make of it.

I'm surprised that living just a mile and a half outside of town means that no one provides service. as though this house, nestled snugly between neighbors on a stretch of road that's lined with houses, is too far into the rural boonies to get any of the conveniences of modern society. It seems crazy to us. With what we're ready to pay, it feels like they should want to come run the lines out to us, never mind already having them in the ground or the air or whatever. 

But no, that's not how it works, apparently. Just as frustrating as the fact of their repeated denials is the fact that each time we call one of these places, it takes about 20 minutes of being on hold and talking to a representative just to hear that, sorry, we can't help you. Did I mention we've switched to a pay-as-you-go phone service with limited minutes per month? Gah!! 

The result is that we have no internet and no idea when we might get it. On clear days, my wife's computer can poach internet from one of the neighbors, but neither our iPods nor my laptop can manage to wrangle the signal. I've had to go into my office at the school or to the apartment we're moving out of in order to check e-mail or post blogs. 

It's a good thing that we're also incredibly busy getting moved, or we might go crazy without access to the internet.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I pulled a fast one

Over the past several days (or weeks—maybe we should say weeks) I’ve taken in far more calories than I needed. So yesterday, our day of travel to return home from the holidays, I took in far fewer than I needed. For such a largely secular person as myself, I’ve done rather a lot of fasting in my lifetime.

I cannot now recall how we hit upon it, but early in our senior year of college, my best friend and I decided to try out fasting one day each week. We chose Sunday not so much because of its commonly-held holiness or its supposed Sabbatical qualities, but simply because it was the most convenient. During the week, we figured to be too busy to go without calories. Anyway, if Saturday was particularly good—as college kids might define it—we wouldn’t necessarily feel like eating much on Sunday anyway and some kind of cleansing might well be in order.

For us, we didn’t consider it spiritual, per se. Certainly, there was nothing we would have called religious about the practice. Instead, it was an exercise of willpower. Just as we expected exercise in the gym to pay off (mostly, we didn’t exercise in the gym, but we understood the principle), we expected this exercise to pay off as well, in greater self-control and discipline. Our fasting rules were pretty basic: absolutely no solid foods; getting liquid calories was permissible, but not ideal; drink lots of water; if necessary, food could be eaten after the sun went down (this was a sort of safety valve).

For the most part it went well—better for me than for him, I suppose, as he had a tendency to get headaches, either because he wasn’t drinking enough water or for some other esoteric reason. He used the safety valve more than I did. But in any case, we did it and we made it through, week after week. I found that it actually seemed easier to go without food than it was to moderate my intake of food. Easier, you might say, to avoid being led into temptation than to be delivered from evil. If you don’t even go to the dining hall or spend time around food, it’s just not that tempting, especially if you’re able to distract yourself with something else. And as bright, motivated college seniors, we always had plenty to think about on a Sunday.

One of the benefits I found was that although I felt like there was a certain edge to my consciousness—something that was hard to define as better or worse, just different—overall I felt more even-keeled. Without the spikes and dips of blood sugar that typically go with eating, I felt very steady. And either because of that steadiness or because I was spending 2-3 fewer hours on the task of eating, I felt incredibly productive on those Sundays when I fasted. Aside from that, we just felt after each fast some sense of being cleaner or purer or better than we had been before we did it. Even knowing that might well be illusory didn’t mean that the feeling didn’t have a real effect, and it’s hard to call that mindset difference a negligible one.

Yesterday's fast went nicely. I had some grape juice in the morning, as well as some green tea, and some vitamin water as we were driving back, and a whole lot of water, which was more or less running right through me all day. The sugar in the vitamin water actually made me feel worse for a little while there, but I soon returned to an equilibrium. And now I'm back on my regularly-scheduled nutrition plan.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Routine Holidays

Earlier this month, I mentioned in passing that I think diets and exercise routines work best when one is on a regular schedule, and the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Year's is not, for most of us, very conducive to regularity. For us, we're traveling during both holidays, and with the break from school, we're also working to get things done--this year, it's moving: could there be anything more disruptive to routine?

But just because it's bad for a diet and exercise routine is no reason to think it's bad. Consider our move: we're getting out of our apartment and getting into a house, and we need to get that done by the end of the month. And taking a week or so to go visit family in Ohio in the middle will make for a hectic few days when we get back. But at the same time, we were both pretty physically beaten down after a few days of moving, so heading to Ohio was a good bit of R&R.

And while I basically decided to eat whatever was put in front of me, well, that was kind of nice too. I showed during the last year that I can lose weight, so I don't need to worry about putting on a few pounds around the holidays, as long as I'm able to really commit to my health regimen when the new year comes around. So yeah: that was nice too.

More to the point, the disruption to regularity was a wonderful chance for all of us to spend time with our family: our 2-year-old got time with her grandparents and her aunts and uncle, we got time with our parents, with Lauren's siblings and sibling-in-law. And that was great. Since we live 4-5 hours away, we don't get to see them very much in the normal routines of our lives, so the holidays are a great opportunity for us to make up for lost time.

Now as we get ready to head home, to finish up that last disruption (moving), and get back to our routines, we really appreciate the chance to break out of those routines for a while here at Christmas.

Monday, December 26, 2011

I Choo Choo Choose to Write About Trains

Trains and their tracks have criss-crossed my life for as long as I can remember, intersecting nicely with this month's writing prompts at CafeWriting. I'm adapting one of the prompts there to give you seven vignettes about trains in my life.

1. I grew up outside a town that was criss-crossed by train tracks. I remember an elementary teacher telling us that if nuclear war broke out, our little town in the middle of nowhere was on the Russian target list, because it was a railroad hub. I doubt the story, but it speaks to the importance of trains in our town: The Railroad was the single largest employer in the town. The nearest tracks were less than two miles away, which was close enough that you could hear the trains if you were listening but mostly you would tune them out if you weren't. One of our neighbors had retired from the railroad and took his career to the extreme: he had a segment of railroad track installed in his yard along with a red caboose.

2. As a kid, I loved the model train we had in the basement. We had it set up on a one-piece ping pong table on top of our pool table. I built scenery for it, mostly pretty rough stuff, like a drive-in movie theater made from a cardboard box or roads made from paper. Imagination filled in the rest. I was older when a local man used our nearby community center to set up his own incredible model train town. It took up an entire large room and had such realistic scenery that it looked as good as the view from a low-flying plane. But in its way, my own train set-up meant more to me, because it was mine, because its places and history were populated from my own brain.

3. The practical effect of living near a train town was that you had to plan an extra 10 minutes for any trip if you wanted to make sure you arrived on time. To get to high school, I had to cross two different sets of tracks, and it was by no means impossible that I would encounter a train at both tracks. Even if you didn't sit and wait for trains, it still took time to make your way around the impediment. Train tracks and impatience worked together to ensure that most of us who grew up there got to know every possible way to get from point A to point B, as well as a decent sense of the probability that a given road's track would be unblocked by the time you got there, based on the direction of travel and the speed of the train. Trains coming into town tended to get gradually slower while trains leaving town sped up. You know, actually, if you grew up outside of town, you probably knew all the ways to get around on your side of town. The other sides might well be a mystery.

4. It wasn't until I went to Europe, in my early 20s, that I got to experience passenger rail travel--and fell in love with it. Of course, Europe is a different place (actually, lots of different places!) than the U.S. Without troubling about a car, the trains of Europe let me get wherever I wanted to go, easily, and all the time I could be sleeping or reading, walking around--whatever. After 8 hours of train travel, I could arrive feeling refreshed. Eight hours of driving? Yeah, right. Time in the train could be spent planning the next adventure with a guidebook, or writing in my journal about the last adventure, or writing postcards, or sleeping it off, or getting some reading done, or relaxing and talking with a traveling companion. Twice, I took advantage of a sleeping car, which doubled as transportation and hostel, taking us from an evening in Berlin to a morning through evening in Munich, and then another overnight train found us in Rome.

5. When we lived in Providence, RI, the trains weren't as good as in Europe, but they were serviceable. We could take a cheap commuter train into Boston on the weekend, getting there just as quickly as if by car, but without the need to find--and pay for--parking. There in the northeast, Amtrak is about as good as it is anywhere in the country, with more trains to more of the places you want to go. Lauren took the train into New York City just as easily. Now we live in north-central Indiana, and the commuter rail that runs across northern Indiana and Illinois from South Bend to Chicago provides a similarly easy way into the big city... except that we need to drive an hour to get to the train in the first place. Still, it's nice to avoid traffic and parking, and in a city like Chicago you can get anywhere you want to be through the use of other trains--the L in Chicago or the subways of other cities.

6. My hometown revolves so thoroughly around trains that it has a train museum. Despite the fact that my mother still lives in the house where I grew up, never in all the years that I or she has lived there have I gone to the train museum. A friend of mine assures me that it's pretty good, especially for kids, so we've put it on our To Do list for some future visit, but like so many local attractions, it continues to draw people from elsewhere while the locals ignore it--much like the caverns we have two miles from our house: never been there, despite going to two other caverns in my childhood. But anyway, we're going to get to the train museum. Some day.

7. One of the things that thrills my wife and me is the possibility of expanded train service. Rumor had it that a new line would be going from Chicago to somewhere by way of a town just 20 minutes from us. We were totally excited about that (and then the funding fell through). We heard they were going to build a high-speed line from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Even though it doesn't directly affect us, we have family in Ohio, came from Ohio, and just generally maintain an interest in the state. How cool would that be, connecting the three main cities of Ohio (sorry Toledo)? Bengals-Browns games? Take the train to the game and back--and sleep off the alcohol you had to consume to make that game bearable! Added bonus: residents of both cities can easily go see the only relevant football team in Ohio, the Buckeyes. Anyway, this apparently isn't happening either. ::sigh::

We didn't do it, but since we were honeymooning out in Oregon, we seriously considered taking a train out there--we just didn't have the time. Maybe some day. And maybe someday we'll be a country with a serious passenger rail service between most points A and B.

We can dream, can't we?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas: Wars, Battles, and a General History of a Major Holiday

Many social conservatives want to see a "War on Christmas," but probably more accurate a description comes from the title of Steven Nissenbaum's history of the holiday, The Battle for Christmas. It's not so much that we have a war on Christmas as we have had over the centuries a lively debate about what Christmas is and isn't. And yes, through the years some people have wanted not to celebrate it at all (but mostly those people were Christians--more on that later).

The date December 25 was taken for Christmas back in the 4th century, not because anyone had evidence that this is when the famous little tyke was born, but because those crafty Christians wanted to annex the pagan winter festival. From the Roman Saturnalia onward it was--and remained--a time of drinking and debauchery for many centuries. In 16th-century England, it was the center of a festival of misrule, in which people boozed it up, and the poor went door to door essentially demanding "trick or treat"--give us good food or money or gifts or we'll wreck $#!+. Think of carols like "We wish you a merry Christmas" and all its demands for figgy pudding, as well as all the wassailing songs and their demands. "Here we come a-wassailing," for instance, first reminds the listener that "We are not daily beggars / That beg from door to door, / But we are neighbors' children / Whom you have seen before"--and then they go on to ask for money, cheese, some of the Christmas loaf, and (of course!) some wassail. And in "Wassail, wassail," after they spend innumerable verses building up the master of the house, they get to the point, asking for drink and to be let in by the fire.

The holiday as a festival of misrule was basically accepted by the upper classes, too, as a sort of pressure valve for the lower classes. The social hierarchy is inverted once a year: no big deal. The wealthy would get angry with particular wassailer or particular acts (the common folk could get pretty rowdy and destructive if their demands weren't met!), but overall the drinking and singing and demands for food and drink and gifts were tolerated.

For exactly this reason, Christmas had a hard time making its way across the pond. The Puritans outlawed it on the basis of its nature as a holiday of drinking and debauchery, as well as on the argument that the Bible doesn't indicate when Jesus's birthday was, thus God has no interest in having us celebrate it. Nonetheless, people rather like an excuse to drink and revel, especially in the bleak midwinter, so it continued on the edges of legality in New England and had a bit more success in other parts of the country. Since it couldn't be ended, it ultimately ended up tamed--by a rather unlikely force.

In the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, retail stores were just starting to take off. Standardized manufacturing was just getting going on a large scale, and retail stores were outlets for all these material goods. The problem? America was firmly entrenched with the so-called Protestant Work Ethic. That is, people worked hard, saved their money, and didn't buy stuff they didn't need. Retailers knew this would never do, so they are the ones who took the largest steps to inventing the Christmas holiday as we know it. They made Santa Claus big (okay, years of cookies and 2%-to-whole milk did that) and they marketed Christmas as a time of love and good-will and--you guessed it--gift giving. They employed writers to create the stories that presented this kind of Christmas. They made people nostalgic for a type of Christmas that hadn't even existed before: a warm, cheery, wholesome holiday--and it became precisely that. The St. Nicholas mythos got drawn into it (and St. Nick pulled to Christmas from his normal place at--duh--the feast of St. Nicholas in early December). And some of our ideas were just flat-out made up. In the process, Christmas went from being a public holiday to a private one, from one celebrated in the streets with the community to one celebrated at home with the family. From a drunken revel for adults to a child-centered holiday of gift giving.

I didn't get much further in the book, but I reckon it likely that, once commercial forces had sanitized Christmas and made it good and pure, Christianity decided it was high time to get back in the Christmas game, and they set about re-holy-daying it. That is, they claimed it for their own now that it was a wholesome time. And who can blame them? It's a nice little holiday.

But, of couse, retailers did their job too well. We've gone from the protestant work ethic to the consumerist spend ethic, and whether we work enough or not, by Visa we can spend! We don't just spend the money we have, we spend the money we will have, which is just a more positive way of saying the money we haven't. As the culture has changed and become more materialistic, so too has the holiday become ever more materialistic. Religion, naturally enough, fights against this tendency (we're reminded that "Jesus is the reason for the season," i.e. not Santa Claus or gift-giving). So, too, do more secular types who nonetheless see something negative in crass materialism.

Secular though I may be, I have at least that much spiritualism that I mistrust unchecked materialism--even as I enjoy the hell out of a limited degree of it. Because yes, I like stuff, just like most Americans do. But not to the exclusion of all else, and not beyond a certain point. There's a limit to how much stuff any person needs, and there are a lot of things more important than stuff. As long as we don't lose sight of those philosophical touchstones, gift-giving during this season is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Gift-giving is--to steal a phrase--an outward and visible sign of an inward condition. It's most meaningful when it comes from the heart and speaks to the heart, when it's freely given and not expected as a duty.

For me, Christmas isn't a religious holiday, though they're welcome to keep claiming it. It's a social institution that's evolved through many different forms and ultimately is--or will be--whatever we make of it. Although the name puts a distinctly Christian stamp on it, our brief look at its history shows us what an uneasy time religion has had throughout the centuries in trying to claim it. That's why I say it's a social institution: it has shaped our culture and been shaped by our culture, and anyone who participates in that culture, it seems to me, has a claim on that tradition in whatever form they choose to stake that claim. There was a festival at the winter solstice before Christianity claimed it by naming it Christmas, and I'd wager that in many places there was such a celebration long before Jesus was born. We need a holiday at this time of year, which is probably why many religious traditions--as well as non-religious traditions--have a holiday at this time of year. I suspect that even if something happened that caused everyone to cease believing in Jesus, we'd probably still celebrate Christmas, because it's just the sort of thing we want.

Never has that been more true than now, when I have one little girl and another on the way--the magic of Christmas has become for many of us the magic of childhood, as we adults are fueled by their excitement. And really, both of our mythologies speak to this reverence for childhood, whether it's the story of Santa Claus bringing toys to good little girls and boys or the story of a child born in humble circumstances and destined to change the world.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say two things: 1) this is based almost exclusively on Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas and 2) I've published versions of this in three previous years on this and my former blog.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve: Some Assembly Required

We got to play Santa's Little Helpers tonight, putting together this:

Lauren had read on-line that it took a couple hours to put together. We hit a snag with the very first shelf, when the bolt didn't fit into the housing right. So after a few choice words, we moved on without it. If we need to, we can drill a hole and fix it later. It seemed to go pretty smoothly after that, and Lauren concluded that the people complaining about how long it took to put together must be idiots. Soon after that, our daughter woke up unhappy, so Lauren had to go get her to sleep, which meant that I had to finish without her (my sister-in-law Emily helped!). It took an hour and forty-five minutes, and there was a bit more frustration, but hey, it came together, which I guess makes me only slightly brighter than... oh well.

When she came out in the morning, she was still too dazed to be entirely excited, but the kitchen is vying with the doll house right now for "best toy ever." She also got pots and pans to go with it, so we had to nudge her to keep opening presents, or she would have spent all morning cooking "like Dada."

My sister-in-law and I also wrapped up a gift for my brother-in-law. He will never guess what it is:

Pretty cleverly disguised, don't you think? If you want, I can reveal in a future post what is wrapped up here.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Toddler Talk

Yesterday's post's mention of our daughter and her language-learning suggested today's post: things our daughter does to amuse and/or exasperate us:

She has long loved phones, and will play with ours when they come within reach. She walks around, babbling away happily, but her conversations always start "Hello, this is John."

The other night while we were packing stuff, from the dinner table she yells out "I eat bread, okay?!" And sure enough, there she was with a loaf of Italian bread, gnawing away at it. She sat there and ate most of a loaf. Okay?!

Not too long after that, Lauren noticed her apparently painting. Painting the table and chairs. With butter. Not okay.

Last night, we caught her dipping water out of the dog's dish. When we said "No!" she dipped in one more time and backed away from the dish as she poured it on the floor. "Me wash floor!"

She can dutifully recite to us the information that if she's "naughty," "Santa no bring presents." She also knows that, among the presents she won't be brought, what she wants includes "kitchen," "phone," and doll house." When it comes to defining naughtiness, she can tell you "Me no touch TV." Of course, that doesn't stop her.

Speaking of presents, she was looking through the presents at grandma's house, she picked up one that was rectangular and thin and said "book." There's no fooling her, evidently.

For weeks now, she's been saying "Me help you," which we thought was a very nice, giving thing to say, even if we didn't need her help. Until we realized that she's actually saying that she needs our help. Which is useful information for us to know, I suppose.

She's gotten better about telling us when, for instance, she has a mess in her diaper, though she does sometimes give false positives in that regard, but when we say "Let's go change your diaper," she insists "No! I okay!" Even when she's got a poo-filled diaper or has pee soaking her clothes. "I okay!"

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Light 'em up!

A few weeks ago, my two-year-old and I were driving home late in the evening and she was just a bit fussy. To try to distract her, I got her excited about the Christmas lights that we saw. We'd pass one, she's be suitably impressed and occupied, and then... "More lights!"

Well, sweetie, that's not easy to do. They come when they come, and we live out in the country, so sometimes it can take a while. Still, we made it.

Then a couple nights ago we were all in the car together and we again got her to look at--and for--the Christmas lights. This time, though, her refrain is "I see more lights, please!" It's like her little brain is making neural connections at an astronomical rate or something....

I always loved Christmas lights when I was a kid. I referred recently to what may or may not have been the first time we enacted the tradition, but it absolutely became a tradition for us to drive around on Christmas Eve after the church service and look at light displays. Occasionally, we'd go to one of those all-out Christmas Village type things where you paid an admission fee to drive around and look at their displays, but mostly we just went to see what regular people had put up, free for the rest of us to view.

A part of me always wanted for us to put up some ridiculously detailed and inventive display of lights, but one way or another it just wasn't in us. I wonder what it is, though, that drives some people to create a huge winter wonderland on their front lawn while others decorate minimally (or not at all, though in that case there's often a very good reason, I suspect). This year, we didn't decorate at all, thanks to the move. We did put up the tree inside (that started as my gift to Lauren and ended as her first project before we settled in our first night (I put up the tree and got out the decorations, but I couldn't find the lights). Just yesterday one of our neighbors went from no decorations to enough white lights to read by without eye strain, so it's obviously not too late for us to decorate, if only we had the time or the energy. As it happens, we don't have either one. Anyway, since our neighbor's lights are powerful enough to blast through our black-out curtains, we really don't need to do any ourselves. I suspect our neighborhood is about to cause a brownout for the area anyway.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cookies, etc

There's been a lot of talk lately on Holidailies about baking cookies for the holidays, and I remember that tradition fondly from my childhood. But I always seem to find myself too busy, even when I'm not moving. Maybe next year? You know, when we have two children under the age of three. Yeah, I'll be baking like crazy.

My mother is supposed to take cookies to some kind of pot luck at the nursing home where she did rehab after a heart attack. She's refusing, though, insisting that she's going to make bars instead. I doubt that they'll throw her out of the potluck for her square transgression into a circular space. It's not like they asked for cookies and she's bringing sloppy joes. Even if she did, they'd be foolish to turn her away--she's always made mean sloppy joes.

My mother never considered herself much of a cook (though I suspect she'd put many, many people to shame in this regard), but I think she always knew that she could bake the heck out of sweets. Cookies, cakes, pies, but especially cookies. Cookie-baking was always quite an affair in our house--she and my dad would work together. She'd take out the mammoth Kitchen Aid mixer and stir up a batch of cookies that was at least triple the recipe (why spend the time if you weren't going to be able to feed several armies at the end of the day?). And then do the same for several other cookie recipes. Always we had chocolate chip. Our other staple cookies were peanut butter cookies and corn flake cookies. In later years, mom could never seem to bake cookies without doing (no joke) potato chip cookies. Other cookies would come and go. At Christmas, it was always a time for chocolate fudge and peanut butter fudge, and a few time she tried her hand at Divinity, which never matched up to what she remembered her mama making. Not knowing the difference, I certainly liked it well enough.

Other goodies that would be made this time of year included buckeyes (peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate) and her famous chocolate chip peanut butter squares. The squares she's planning to make this year in lieu of cookies are called Chewy Bars. It's not a great name for them, because 1) they aren't really "chewy" per se and 2) the name should really emphasize the fact that their active ingredient is cream cheese. Doesn't that knowledge make you want to say "yes please" faster than the name "chewy bars"?

I think it would be great to bake a whole bunch of cookies, mostly to give away. We would, of course, get to eat some ourselves, but mostly they would be for giving away. Maybe next year...

What are your favorite cookies to bake (or to have baked for you!) this time of year?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Moving loads, mostly just dumping off

At the end of some days, you're so tired to can't sleep. Yesterday was one of those, and I feel another one coming on tonight.

You see, my wife and I are educators, and right after we sent the students to their scattered homes for break, we went into super-home-packer mode, as we're moving from our apartment into a house to make room for the upcoming addition to the family. Yesterday morning, I was up bright and early (thanks dog!) so I spent some time before 7 am building shelves in the basement of our new house, then came home and started ferrying good from one place to the other. Lauren set the goal for us to sleep in our new house last night, so like Cortez burning his ships, we packed our bed first (it's a Sleep Number, so we had to disassemble it), ensuring that we had to get at least that much done yesterday.

We did, but only just barely--it was close to midnight until any of us--including the 2-year-old--got to bed. Then the two year old woke up just about once an hour all night. And then the dog woke me around 6:15, which made me awake even if I didn't want to be, so I decided to go one further than Lauren: we would not only spend our first night in the new house, we'd have our first breakfast there. I just had to, you know, go back to the old apartment and get the supplies for breakfast!

Then we spent all day moving stuff. Thankfully, we had friends to help us. Our friend Marcy came over and spent 4 hours in the morning helping us pack, then she tagged out and her husband tagged in, helping us through the afternoon. About the same time, another colleague (Eric) showed up with high school boys in tow--yes! Eric had something else in tow: a trailer. With his trailer plus my truck bed plus four of us to load and unload while Mark and Lauren prepped things to be packed, we were able to work steadily. I should note that everything happened on a different schedule than we'd intended: we had originally planned to move Tuesday, but the weather reports called for snow/rain all day, which sounded like better unpacking weather than anything else. So even though we weren't really that ready, we made today The Big Move. Like I said, it worked out well, though. We didn't get our apartment totally cleared out (worse comes to worst, we have 'til the end of the month), but we got everything moved that we need help with, all the two-person jobs. With Lauren pregnant, we literally couldn't have done this, but even beyond this our friends were such a huge help to us today.

Now we're surrounded by boxes that, for the most part, are a random assortment of things that all just happened to fit into a box together.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mutiny Before Christmas

Two-hundred and eighty years ago today, my Sherck ancestor arrived in North America.  It's not a story, unfortunately, that was passed down through the family, at least not through my branch of the family. I found this by finding the genealogical research that someone else had done. Anyway, I found it fascinating. Here's how it went down:

In May of 1731, Casper Schirch set out from Rotterdam with his wife and small child on the ship "Liebe und Einigkeit" ("Love and Unity") along with a number of other German Mennonite emigres. The name of this ship is the earliest documented example of extreme irony in my family, as you'll soon see.

The ship went to Falmouth, England, to take on supplies before heading out to cross the Atlantic. Twelve days after setting out, the passengers were assured that they were halfway there. Over six weeks later, still at sea, drinking water and food were being rationed. For the next six weeks, the passengers had no bread and only small amounts of water. Crew members sold rats to the passengers to eat. Oddly enough, no favorite recipes for preparing rat have come down through the generations of my family.

Many passengers died, and they were simply thrown overboard--stripped of clothes, not weighted down, simply left to float behind the ship. The captain demanded payment for the dead as well as the survivors. Looking for ways to meet this demand, passengers examined their trunks of possessions and found many things missing. Believing that the captain meant to starve them and take all of their possessions, the desperate passengers seized the captain and crew and took over the ship. Three days later, one week before Christmas of 1731, they landed at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts after 25 weeks at sea. Only 48 of 156 passengers survived the crossing (Casper's wife and child did not).

The passengers were off the water, but they weren't out of the woods yet. The passengers took the captain to trial for his "barbarous treatment" of his passengers. However, the court acquitted the captain and crew because, well, that's what courts did (hmmm... wealthy ship owner or poor [German] immigrants...?). Officially, there was not enough evidence, so the Germans had to pay the court costs which, of course, they didn't have. So they were jailed. Welcome to North America, folks.

But he and his offspring did well enough in the end--in his lifetime, he became a successful farmer in eastern Pennsylvania. He remarried (twice) and had a whole bunch of children, many of whom had a whole bunch more children, and as far as I can tell, his lineage is in no real danger of going extinct.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pa rum pa pum pum

When we bought it, this seemed like a great idea:

But instead of fostering our daughter's musical creativity, tonight it interfered with the path of my foot as it sneaked the rest of me out of the bedroom after putting my daughter down to sleep. Nothing like the jangle of a tambourine and its friends to wake a toddler and make her twitchy. Instead of the half hour it initially took to put her to bed, I was in there for an hour and a half before I was able to sneak away.

Oh, and yesterday this box o' fun tried to kill me when I came to bed at 1 in the morning. I don't know what we have this for anyway: I'd like my daughter to be a musician, not a percussionist!

Just kidding--I didn't mean to denigrate any drummers out there (for the drummers: "denigrate" means to put down).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Mental Fitness

I got up bright and early Thursday morning to go lead a fitness class at the school's fitness center. Sloshing through a rainy but warm pre-dawn, I arrived to find a line of the regulars waiting to get in. This is unusual, because usually the fitness center is open 15 minutes or more before its official opening time, 6:00. It was right around 6, and it wasn't open. No one spoke much and it seemed like everyone would have been content to wait there until, well, until they weren't, but I said "Well, for those of you who want to do it, we can have our fitness class up in the gym."

I thought I might get some extras into my class, but no, it was just my regulars. The class grew out of the plyometrics workout in P90X, but while P90X is designed to be done at home with minimal equipment, I can take advantage of the fact that our fitness center has stackable boxes made for plyo and add different exercises accordingly. Well, normally I can, but today I had to strip it back to a more minimalist workout and I had to do it on the fly. No problem.

Though not joining my class, most of the others who'd showed up did find something to do, mostly hopping on the ERG machines and rowing, or else walking the track. One older woman, though, felt the need to complain loudly about it all. When we thought we saw the fitness center monitor coming, she said "Only an hour late!" and said it again when she walked in (except that it wasn't her--whoops!). I let the woman know that I had e-mailed the Fitness Center's director and she said "Well, she's always late."

I don't actually think that's true. It hasn't been my experience, and although I've cut back my gym time, I had 3 or 4 months where I was there at 6 am four days a week, and I can remember one time that this monitor was late. But this woman was determined to be unhappy, and that was that.

I know in the past that I've reacted negatively to setbacks, and I'm only human, so I'll certainly do so again, but when you see it in someone else, it's easy to see how unproductive it is and the kind of negative energy it brings. I was glad, yesterday, to be part of the solution, getting people to go ahead and work out instead of just standing around or giving up and going home.

The key, if I may, seems to be flexibility. In my case, I just had to make some minor modifications to a workout whose ancestor, anyway, was done with almost no equipment, so that was pretty easy. But if, for instance, I had come in planning to do a chest and back workout, even if I really wanted to use weights and machines, I could get a pretty decent workout from push-ups and the chin-up bar that I know where to find. And if the workout I wanted to do was impossible, I could always go for a run or find something to do and not get too hung up on not being able to do what I planned. As long as you get something done, call it a win and get on with your life--it's too short to get so negative about it.

And you're all free to remind me of this if you catch me jumping to negativity!

Have a great weekend, everyone--maybe the reason positivity is easy for me is because we sent the kids home and started break. Three weeks! Which would be better if we didn't have to spend about a week of it moving, but c'est la vie. Best to you all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scarier: Santa or a 1000-pound animal?

Someone got her first pony (okay, horse) ride yesterday. She warmed up on this beast:

And then she insisted that she wanted to ride a real horse:

And we walked her all the way around the riding arena, no problem. She was way calmer sitting on a horse than when she sat on Santa's lap last year. Heck, she was calmer on the horse than she is on grandpa's lap. I'm still laying even money that she cries when she sits on Santa's lap this year, though she did seem okay with getting a present from a horseback-mounted Santa yesterday. But again, there was a horse involved, so it's too early to call. Santa gave her this:

However, as you may be able to notice, its right rear leg is a little gimpy. I'm afraid we're going to have to put it down. Ah, the lessons the Christmas season can teach our children.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

There's no Santa Claus?!

On Facebook, a friend of mine wrote about her 9-year-old daughter finding out that (spoiler alert) there is no Santa Claus. She asked all of her friends when their kids found out. They told all these stories about how their children had been disillusioned in this regard. Since our daughter's just approaching 2, she barely comprehends Santa Claus, except to know that if she's good Santa will bring her a kitchen.

So, lacking a story to share, I just made something up:

My daughter is almost two and we've already told her straight up that there's no Santa Claus, no Easter Bunny, no Tooth Fairy, and no God. She also knows that life is dark and meaningless. There's nothing cuter than hearing a 2-year-old say "I'm a nihilist."
I don't really remember when or how I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but I suppose it was ultimately good practice.

What about you? Do you have a story to share, either about when you found out or when your kids did?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas Music

Tonight was our school's Christmas concert, with an array of instrumental and choral groups, some dancers, and even a guest artist, a professional singer (alumna). It was nice, but I'm not going to say much more about it. Instead, I wanted to use it as a springboard to talk about some of my favorite memories of music and Christmas.

1) Vinyl. Growing up, our Christmas music in the home was on vinyl, and it was just about the only time of the year that we listened to music, aside from some patriotic stuff (Dad love Kate Smith's "God Bless America") around the 4th. The music I remember most was Mitch Miller's Christmas Sing-a-long with Mitch, which I think I loved as much as anything for the included singalong sheets. Also firmly lodged in memory were the Bing Crosby Christmas albums, particularly White Christmas and some record that had "The Little Drummer Boy," which was quite possibly my favorite Christmas song.

2) One year, right before Christmas, my parents bought a new car. From my young perspective, the most amazing feature of this vehicle was that it had a tape deck. I think we literally bought the car on Christmas Eve. On the way home, we stopped at a gas station and bought two tapes, both filled with Christmas music. That night, after an early Christmas Eve service at church, we spent a couple hours driving around looking at lights and listening to the two tapes we'd bought.

3) From my youngest days right up 'til now, I've always had a soft spot for Christmas Eve services, because they were almost exclusively made up of the singing of carols. That plus the solemnity of an evening service by candlelight equaled magic.

4) In high school, I was in our show choir, the Choraliers. I was in it three years, and with the director we had my last two years, it was awesome. We performed a lot of Christmas shows, and I loved it. Our director put together a good show and emphasized professionalism to us. It was so much fun to put on a good show, to bask in the appreciation of the audiences. I don't remember all the songs we sang, but two of the most fun were "Fruitcake" and "The Monotone Angel."

5) Also in high school, one year I had a solo at the Christmas concert. There's a tenor solo in "Twas the Night Before Christmas," and I had it. It was a real confidence-booster to be chosen for the solo. It was also a big dose of reality when I messed up at the concert. It would hardly be the last solo I would fail to carry off perfectly, but I survived the experience relatively unscathed.

6) My freshman year of college, I got pulled in to be the tenor in a barbershop quartet. It pulled me out of my comfort zone and gave me plenty more opportunities to botch music (the karaoke contest we entered was a particularly embarrassing example). One of the things we did, though, was to go around to the freshmen dorms and sing Christmas carols in 4-part harmony. It was so cool. Even after our lead--the guy who put the whole thing together--failed out of school, we got together a group the next three years to continue (and expand) the tradition. It was such a cool experience.

7) In graduate school, we did a Madrigal Feaste. So much work, so much fun!

8) As a young choral director at an all-boys school, I drew on my college experience and had our Double Quartet (which, sadly, rarely seemed to have 8 members) go around campus caroling every year. It would take us 2-3 hours on a night that was cold in a time of the year that was incredibly busy, but I don't think any of the guys ever regretted the time spent doing it. Their fellow students were appreciative (for the most part) and the faculty whose homes we went to were positively adoring. We could usually consume our weight in cookies and hot chocolate if they knew we were coming.

9) During one of the two years I lived in Rhode Island, I was pulled into a Victorian Carolers group called VOX (Voices of X-mas). We performed probably 2-3 times each week during the month of December, with gigs split charity work--hospitals, nursing homes, and the like--and swanky, exclusive events that paid well. Even the latter was ultimately charity work, because all the money we raised beyond operating costs were donated to charity. I loved that experience, and I've been meaning to recreate it where I am now, but it's just so hard to find the time when you're starting a family. One of these years...

10) The final spot is reserved for whatever it is I'm going to think of tomorrow, because right now I'm just rushing to get this thing written before the day's over! I'm sure I've forgetting at least one incredible experience with Christmas music. And if I'm not, well, then consider slot number 10 to be reserved for your own use, to share a story!