Saturday, December 31, 2011

Big, Fun and Scary 2012

I’ve written quite a lot about my self critical nature and how negatively it affects everything I do.  How it leads to negative self appraisal and subsequent feelings of depression, how it affects my view of my place in the world, how it leads me to judge all of my accomplishments as not good enough and especially how it affects not only my writing itself but the entire process therein.   I’ve also written about the moments that have occurred wherein I was able to rise above that critical voice and actually fully inhabit whatever activity I was engaged in.  There have been many of those moments this past year and they’ve led me to believe that I am, if I choose to be, in transition to becoming something other than what I have been.

Which is why I am setting one single goal for myself this coming year: to accept.  To accept myself as I am without thinking about what I should be.  To accept my life as it is without bemoaning the lack of things or events I think I’m supposed to have or experience.  To accept my activities as they are and not invalidate them as not enough.  To fully inhabit myself and my life without constantly comparing everything to something else.  Acceptance.  The kind of deeply fulfilling feeling one gets from knowing- in one's soul- that they are exactly what and where they're supposed to be without any qualifiers or caveats.  That is my goal.

Now, they say that you’re less likely to achieve your goals if you don’t set any for yourself so you may be wondering how this emphasis on acceptance will lead me to accomplish any of my goals in the coming year.  Well, I’ll tell you.  Accepting myself will, I hope and believe, lead me to write not out of guilt but out of an honest desire to write.  It will lead me to begin editing my novel with an appreciation for all the intricacies of editing rather than a bulldozer-like desire to rid my manuscript of everything I judge to be wrong with it.  It will lead me to read more due to an honest love of the written word rather than a sense of obligation.  It will lead me to teach myself how to paint without looking at all the brilliant artists out there who are so much more talented than I am and finding my fledgling attempts lacking.  It will lead me to pursue my own personal goals in martial arts without judging myself against those more limber, stronger, or faster than I.  It will lead me to investigate the world I live in without constantly marking my progress- or perceived lack thereof- against some ridiculous benchmark that has absolutely no bearing on my life, anyway.  Acceptance will blanket every facet of my existence and lead me to think and do differently.  Better, hopefully.  But most certainty differently.

And that’s why there’s only one goal- cause it’s a mighty big one.  My work on this and my progress following will be frequent topics of exploration here in my writing so hopefully there will be evidence beyond my own internal thought process to further validate this goal and its effect on everything I do.  I hope that any readers who may come by to read these topics of discussion will find them to be worthwhile.  But even if not, this is my personal goal for my life- it matters more to me than anyone else.  But I will say that my understanding of this whole self-discovery thing leads me to believe that it will have a much larger ripple effect than I can see from here.

Happy New Year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Big, Fun and Scary 2011- The Year In Review

1) 211 IN 2011!
This is my 210th blog post for the year in which I am reviewing what I have accomplished from my big, fun scary challenge list.  Tomorrow will be my big, fun scary challenge for 2012.  Short of the world actually ending on new year’s eve (which I think was limited to the cusp of the new millennium, anyway) I will be writing my 211th blog post tomorrow and therefore completing this challenge.  I’m confident enough in my chances of the world not ending to call this one done.

Reading back through the posts for the year I’ve discovered quite a lot of lessons that I didn’t set out with the intention of learning.  I set out with the goal of high volume thinking that it would lead me to develop a habit- like brushing my teeth.  It has not done that.  I am no more able to write without the neuroses in my head driving me mad now than I was before and I have no intention of setting another high-volume challenge for myself next year.

But here’s what I have learned:  The Flash Friday community of writers is a truly amazing place to be. And if you truly do rise (or sink) to the level of the company you keep then these are people I definitely want to be around if I want my writing to improve.  While I won’t make any promises of posting every Friday I will promise to keep posting my short stories within that community because the feedback and sense of good company is far too great to lose.  I am hopeful that not putting the pressure on myself to write so often will lead me to write and revise so that when I post, even if it took a couple weeks to get ready, it will be a better product than if I just wrote and posted in a desperate attempt to make the timeline.

I like writing non-fiction.  I have a weird notion in my mind that non-fiction is somehow a less noble calling than fiction so I give myself more credit for completing the flash stories or NaNoWriMo or some other fiction piece.  But the movie reviews, the history of holidays, the personal entries about my thought processes and the observations on the world I live in are actually pretty damned significant to me.  I admit that I wrote a lot of those because of that 211 challenge but I discovered something in the process: I actually like writing them.  With my fiction, I doubt and judge and drive myself mad with criticism.  With my non-fiction I seem to do that less, enough to actually enjoy the process sometimes.  That’s too big of a boost to give up on, so expect to see more of that in 2012.

I have, in spite of all those previously mentioned neuroses, grown over the course of this year.  Not enough to have built aspirations for publishing on a level beyond this blog but enough that I want to keep going and keep challenging myself to do something different.  To fail better.
2) I WILL GET A BETTER JOB!
In May I was lucky enough to start work at a pretty great company after a mere three weeks of not working.  Having the guts to trust my gut and quit without another job lined up has had the biggest impact on me of just about anything I’ve ever done.  The world not ending, me not breaking down, the better job becoming available with pretty great timing all pointed to the fact that giving up my previous worldviews and shifting to a perspective that might actually be right for me is not only possible but actually has quite a lot to back it up in terms of real-world experience.  That, even more than the job, is why this was so incredibly important to me.
I’ve written about the simple pleasures of my new job in here quite a lot- the sunny office, the wonderful potlucks, the competent co-workers and the unimaginably laid-back nature of my boss keep me not only sane but, most of the time, pretty damned content with my job.  But, like anything else in my life, it is not permanent.  While it is a great job I am firm in my belief that that’s all it is- a job.  It is not the career I want, not anymore.  The tough part is that I have no earthly idea what is.  But that’s another challenge.
3) I WILL FINISH MY NOVEL
When I wrote that goal back at the end of 2010 I did have a specific novel in mind: the 2010 NaNoWriMo novel.  I have not, despite an additional NaNoWriMo challenge in August, completed that novel.  But I’m ok with that because I did finish A novel- my NaNoWriMo novel for this year.  And here’s why I’m counting that for this challenge: because it taught me what I hoped to learn about finishing a novel.  That it is thrilling and exciting and wonderful to be able to write those two little words: the end.  And that it is, despite that breathtaking sensation, still just the beginning of the process.
All the pep talks, all the other writers, everyone who’s involved in the process of their own creativity says that editing is where the real challenge begins.  Rewriting is where the story gains wholeness, gets connected, becomes more than just a brilliant mess of ideas.  And so editing is, needless to say, my next big challenge.
4) I WILL TRAIN, TEST AND BE AWARDED 2nd DAN IN TANG SOO DO!
This was the most definite (i.e. nothing short of a shot to the head was going to stop me from doing it) but also most reinforcing challenge for me this year.  It reinforced the awesome belief that I’m capable of so much more than I think I am if I stop listing to that horrifically critical voice in my head.  It reinforced the awesome feeling I get from being a part of that community, that family of martial artists.  It reinforced how incredibly important that part of my life is and how desperately I’d be asking for madness if I ever stopped doing it. 
I didn’t write much about it, simply because it’s hard to put that experience into words.  (And because we're not allowed to talk about it in public forums such as this.)  But suffice it to say that it will continue to be a very big, very important part of my life not just in the coming year, but for a long time to come.
5) I WILL GROW
This is an on-going process, obviously.  But having recently done a review of this year of my life in conversation with a friend I have pin pointed quite a lot of really significant changes in this department.  As I mentioned earlier in #2, having quit that literally soul-sucking job without knowing where I ‘d end up was a life changing moment.  Accepting that the career path I set out on is not one I want to stay on has been life changing.  Seeing this world so drastically differently with this new perspective has been a cavalcade of life-changing moments.  Coming to grips with life not being at all what I was taught it would be and learning that nothing works the way I thought it did continues to be life changing.  But I’m more at peace with that massive realization than I ever have been before.   My new mantra on that front has been “You’re not supposed to know and no one can tell you.” 
I’m not supposed to know how the world- or life- works.  And the more I see of people who think they know the less I believe what they tell me.  My life is going to be one surprise after another until the day I die.  Things will work out differently at the end then I thought they could at the start.  I will become someone, not completely different than I am now, but significantly less like what I think I have the potential to be at this point in my life.  And instead of reacting to all that with fear, I’m going to try my damndest to greet each new unexpected change with acceptance and, with any luck, a little grace.
For those of you who followed any of my progress over the past year by reading these crazy little posts of mine, I can't thank you enough.  This blog, and the responses I've gotten from those who have read it, has meant so much to me in this process of growth.  So thank you.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bev's #bestreads2011

I don’t read many books, I admit it. When I come home at the end of the day my natural reflex is to change into comfy jammies and soak into the couch cushions watching tv. I think often about how much more intelligent I might be if I read more often and continuously buy books in hopes of rectifying this. I currently have… oh, at least twenty brand new books sitting and waiting patiently to be read. And so it is that my best reads list for 2011 is terribly short. All I can say is that I will be very consciously working on lengthening it for next year by reading at least the bulk of those previously mentioned patient books.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
This book had the biggest impact on me of anything else that I read this year. It was so personally meaningful that I wrote a love letter- to the book- in the blank page between chapters. I was just so grateful to have found something I connected so deeply with. Both the story of this woman’s journey and the language she used to describe it were so significant to me that I’m incapable of listening to anyone complain about it. You should have heard how vehemently I defended the book when someone complained that they too could have a spiritual awakening if they were given a giant book advance and free reign to travel the world in search of themselves. It’s like an old friend that I can’t hear a negative thing about without jumping up to point out why I love it so.
Read the full review of Eat, Pray, Love

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore
I bought this book for one simple, terribly shallow reason: I love vampires. And love stories about vampires? I’m on that like white on rice! (Save for Twilight- yeck!) But when I took it home and started reading I was surprised to find that in addition to it being a truly delightful story it was written by a man who has quickly become one of my favorite authors. There aren’t many authors like Christopher Moore out there- authors who use fantasy as a source for terribly humorous situations who also have the ability to make really endearing characters with very few words. What impresses me most about him is not only how terribly familiar the character quirks of his main characters are, but how he can make a minor character seem just as familiar and then pass them by like someone you’d see on the street. He can introduce, pull the plot point out of, and then dismiss a character within the space of a paragraph and make you feel like they’re just as fleshed out and real as the characters you follow throughout the whole story. I am a true Moore fan because of this book and that list I mentioned earlier has several of his tomes on it that I’m looking forward to reading- not the least of which are the two sequels to this story. ^_^

Crossed written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Jacen Burrows
I read this because my boyfriend highly recommended it to me. Every time he’d turn the page I’d hear him exclaim and then excitedly tell me what horrifc situation had been drawn. I’d heard so much about it before I even picked it up that I had no other choice but to read it. And I’m so glad I did. Not because the story was so life-changingly awesome but simply because it reintroduced me to a genre that I somehow lost sight of over the years: the graphic novel. There’s something about the format that is so brilliant it can’t be copied in any other form of media. The way that scenes unfold square by square, the short, clipped sentences that speak volumes, the way the characters are made fuller through subtle actions. I rediscovered a love of the genre because of this book, because it does all of that masterfully. The full two page spreads are also horrifically impressive and tend to sear themselves onto your brain like nothing else.
I just received the first three volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Christmas (which I’ve read so many positive reviews about that my expecations are pretty damned high going into it) and I can’t wait to read them. And I bought my boyfriend the sequel to this first book of the Crossed universe. Needless to say, I’ll be reading it after him.
Read the full review of Crossed

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another Conversation About Writing

Over Christmas, my mother spoke with me once again about this writing thing I sometimes do. My mother has the unquestionable faith of a child when it comes to my writing- she sees it a holy thing and believes it will one day save the world, no matter how many doubters are out there. Unfortunately, my writing’s biggest barrier is me and I am always quick to point out how misguided her faith is.

“You know, I showed your Christmas piece to my friends and they all said that you write so well,” she tells me in her lovingly lilting voice.

“Well, I'm glad you liked it,” I say sheepishly. I had sent my mother the piece simply because it expressed gratitude for the Christmases she and my father worked so hard to provide for me as a child, not as a sample of writing to show her friends like an A-laden report card.

“I really think you should write,” she says with that smile that makes me feel unworthy for having it bestowed on me.

“I do write,” I defend, “a lot.”

“But you know what I mean- you should write a novel.”

“I’ve written three. Every November I write another one.”

“But you should actually publish them,” she says, rolling her eyes at me.

“Ok, no- being a good writer, which I don’t think I am, first off, and being a published author are two entirely different things. I have no problem saying I’m going to keep writing but I hold no illusions about actually becoming a published author. Being a published author means being good enough to get an agent who actually thinks your story is marketable and getting published and-”

“But you can publish online now- they have those websites where you can publish your own book!”

“I know they do. But if even if I did do that no one would want buy it so it’d be a waste.”

“Oh, Beverly,” she says with that alarmingly familiar exasperated voice of hers. “You know you’re your own worst enemy?”

“I know, mom. I know.”

My mother’s ability to cut to the heart of the matter, carve it out and place it- still beating- on a golden platter in front me drives me mad.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas in the Now

My biggest ongoing issue, on a personal level, is my seemingly never-ending quest for self acceptance. Towards that end, I have been working very hard on trying to live my life within the present moment- without fear, judgment or focus on future issues. I know, I’m so terribly unique.

At any rate, Christmas has always been a source of… problematic thinking for me. I worry, I fret, I think “well maybe next Christmas”. I focus on the things I don’t have in my life. Not trivial things like Christmas gifts but large life goals like a career I actually want or marriage or other things to help me establish a sense of solidity. I don’t know why. Big family holidays just seem to bring that out in me. My focus shifts to the milestones in my life that I haven’t reached.

Well, since one of my goals for this year was growth, I have to mark an accomplishment: I enjoyed Christmas. Within the moment, without thinking about life or what was lacking in it or how I think things ‘should’ be or any of the other bullshit that might get in the way of me just enjoying the activities I’m currently engaged in. I ate delicious food with no other thoughts in my head but how delicious it was. I enjoyed the company of my family without thinking that they’re not technically (legally) my family. I enjoyed the company of my spouse without worrying about the fact that he’s not actually my spouse. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for what I have in my life without worrying about what I don’t.

I know enough to understand that the path to growth is not marked by major life milestones but rather by the small, seemingly insignificant moments wherein you do something different. Well I had a number of those moments this past holiday. Moments where I was truly joyous because I was present with the joy and not stuck in my head with future thoughts. Moments where I appreciated what was in front of me without worrying about whether or not it fit into some package I sometimes think it’s supposed to come in. Moments where I was present, alert and aware of how many extraordinary gifts I have. If anything I thought about how much I don’t need anything else, cause gratitude tends to remind you of that.

I enjoyed Christmas. And in the vein of being present, alert and aware I am marking that very significant accomplishment for myself. Because I’m the only one who can.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Buddy's First Christmas

As I said yesterday, there were many wonderful things these past days that made the holiday truly joyous for me.  Visiting two families, two huge delicious dinners, two sets of gifts to unwrap.  But among all the amazing and wonderful attractions that made this holiday the one that got the most attention at both venues was Buddy.

He was passed around like a hash pipe at a bake-in: no one could get enough of him.  And despite the fact that he spent the night in a strange house, despite the fact that he was in the car for a collective total of over six hours in the two days, despite visiting two unfamiliar places and being passed around by a host of strange people he handled it all like a pro.  There was no destruction of things he might have chewed on, nothing got peed on, no one got growled at.  He seemed to know that however strange his surroundings might be he was in the company of people who thought the world of him.

He even let us put his Christmas outfit- a little Santa hat and matching collar- on him.  He hated every second of it, of course, but he conceded to be photographed and cooed at by us crazy humans. 

And I must say, it was nice to have everyone get such a kick out of something that sometimes drives us nuts and whom we can take for granted.  It served as a nice reminder that among all the great gifts we received this year the biggest gift of all was most certainly Buddy.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve

The food was amazing.  The decorations were picturesque.  The unwrapping of the presents was fun.  But more than anything else what I am aware of is the people, the company and the love.  If there was ever a time to express gratitude it is now.  I am so lucky.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Silent Night

She didn’t know it- she was never told or taught. But she’d discovered it like everything else she knew. There was simply a limit to how much one could take. Everyone was different and there was no way to measure what would mark one’s capacity. But she’d reached hers.

She didn’t feel it coming, she thought the pain would never end. But one day she’d woken up, prepared for the drudgery her life had become- and it was gone. It simply wasn’t anymore. She felt nothing. There was no relief, no release. There was just an empty space where her emotions had once been.

Love, jealousy, desperation, anger and the need for revenge- none of these drove her actions. She performed them with the same simple meticulous calculations she’d come to be known for in everything she did. But as she moved through the motions in preparation for the biggest holiday she felt none of strains that had previously defined the time. She simply did, performed, executed.

The meal was perfect- not only in preparation but presentation. And the house looked as beautiful as it ever had. More so because of the quiet that fell over the scene when the meal was finished.

She went through the house room by room, making sure everything was in order. The clothes hung in the closet like sterile instruments. The bed clothes were tucked in place. Each item place perfectly. All was immaculate.

Downstairs the large room beckoned. She sat there for a time, watching the lights glow softly from the tree. The holly hanging over the mantle place was dark and still. The colors of the table spread blended together- each item placed so as to convey an overall wholeness. The empty faces of her company were the only objects out of place. But they would be gone soon.

She looked into her husband’s eyes, now large and unfocused. The frothy drool coming from the corner of his mouth reflected the candle light from the table, letting her know the job was done. His mouth would emit no more lies. She looked at him, waiting to feel something- one of the familiar emotions that had been the last years of their marriage. But the empty space remained.

His parents evoked a similar lack of response, their silence deepening the calm of the scene. There would be no more manipulations, criticisms, evaluations of her shortcoming as the wife of their perfect son. As she looked at them feeling nothing she knew they would not be missed. The world would move on without them. And although it might not be a better world, she knew that at least she would no longer be a part of the game.

She took one last look around the picturesque home that had been the lie of her existence and sighed. Not from regret, nor loss, nor anything else that might mark such a departure. She sighed because it fit the scene, which was perfect.

As she locked the door behind her the flames illuminated the windows. It would soon be the brightest Christmas scene on the block. And although the charred ruins would mar the perfection of the scene the bodies would be ash. Her memories would have nothing real to connect with.

As she walked down the dark street the falling snow threatened to chill her. But behind her the fire was spreading, crackling to life as it fed on the gas that had ignited it. She carried the warmth of it with her.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

On Candy Canes

Candy Canes are one of the few Christmas traditions which are, by all accounts, 100% Christian and therefore relatively new. The story goes that the canes were commissioned by a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany who, upset by the rowdy children disrupting his Christmas eve service, asked a local candy maker to create something to keep them quiet. The main idea of the candy cane was that the white (already common) was supposed to be symbolic for the sinless nature of Jesus and the crook at the top was representative of the Shepard’s crook.

Apparently, the treat worked very well because soon it was being replicated all over. In addition to being a treat for the kiddies it was soon discovered how neatly they hung on trees and thus they became the popular decorations we see today. It is unclear where or when the stripe came into play but the first published recipe for the canes- complete with candy stripe- came out in 1844. Shortly thereafter the sugary treats were seen in drawings, mentioned in children’s books and otherwise initiated into the realm of Christmas traditions.

Over the years other popular stick candy flavors of fruits, soda pop and other flavors were made into cane shapes and added to the popular Christmas tradition. Now they come in just about every flavor imaginable are common enough that it’s pretty rare to see a tree without them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

They want her.


        She can feel it her bones.

Their whispered invitations and passing caresses were enough to drive her mad.
And now as she sits
                   watching the blood spill from her veins

she awaits being enveloped in their embrace.



But on the other side the world is cold and distorted.

They are all there,
         just as they always have been.

But although she is now with them,
                                                     she is more alone then she ever was.

And now
        Always will be.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The History Of Christmas: Part 4- The Christmas Story is Written

So, America was founded by puritans who did not celebrate Christmas. After the American revolution Christmas was lumped in with other English traditions and therefore made even more unpopular. While immigration brought older Christmas traditions to the new world in select areas the “American Christmas” had not yet been invented.

Two writers helped to invent it. One was an American writer who wrote a series of stories, much in the same serial method as his English counterpart Charles Dickens used. The stories were titled The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent and contained some of his most famous works including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. It also contained the lesser known but more relevant (for this topic) “Christmas” stories. These stories, titled “Christmas”, “The Stage Coach”, “Christmas Eve”, “Christmas Day” and “Christmas Dinner” told the story of the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. Akin to the traditions of 12th Night the servants in these stories intermingled with those they served and the lines that separated them vanished as they enjoyed each other’s company. Unlike the traditions of 12th Night the activities they engaged in were not marked by raucous excess but by family-friendly activities that celebrated the joy of children, friendships and togetherness.

Around the same time Irving’s better-known counterpart Charles Dickens published the ultimately more famous “A Christmas Carol”. This story also highlighted an abolishment of class lines as the main protagonist discovers that love rather than money is the source of true happiness. In so doing he abandons his former ways to embrace a spirit of goodwill towards mankind- specifically those less fortunate than him. The story also depicts familiar togetherness as he observes others celebrating Christmas with their wives and children suggesting that this is the true purpose of celebrating the holiday.

Given that reading was the primary source of inexpensive entertainment for the masses back then these two writers became, in conjunction with presumed jealousy for those observing the customs of their immigrant neighbors, the source of the American Christmas revival. Sentiment dictated that the traditions be brought back and the holiday be celebrated as the grand event it used to be. It is here that the grand “melting pot” theory of American culture can be seen- our modern day Christmas traditions are a combination of Pagan, Catholic, Protestant, English, German, Romanian, Italian, Spanish, Irish, French, Dutch and a whole host of other customs from different religions and cultures. American Christmas is a melting pot holiday- it’s got a little bit of everything.

As the holiday gained popularity churches, townships, schools and local government entities started providing Christmas activities to celebrate the popular holiday. With so many government officials celebrating it and businesses closing on the day it became a necessity to officially declare it a holiday. And so it became one in 1870.

Since then the holiday and revelries associated with it have become so popular and profitable that it is now the biggest holiday of the year economically, religiously, and socially (though many bemoan that fact). And while the emphasis on family togetherness depresses the hell out of those without family and stresses out those with them the family-friendly activities celebrated are a heck of lot less destructive than those of the older catholic traditions and therefore guarantee the holiday’s continued popularity.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The History Of Christmas: Part 3- Christmas is Cancelled

I mentioned earlier how the puritans were against all frivolity and fun and thus outlawed most of the earlier customs associated with Christmas. Well it got so bad that by the early 17th century that Christmas was- by all official religious doctrine- completely outlawed. The puritans didn’t even acknowledge the day in somber religious masses or quiet contemplation- they outright cancelled it.

Why? Because the puritans believed in purity of worship and doctrine and sought to identify the truth of the religion they practiced. One of the truths they advocated was that Christmas as celebrated by members of the protestant church was a creation of those seeking to keep pagan traditions alive. They focused on historical records which pointed to the birth of Jesus as occurring during the summer and stated that all the customs and traditions of the holidays were paganistic, hedonistic and therefore unholy.

So, during the great English Reformation they outlawed the holiday and its practices. However, this movement (along with many others) made those still in the Church of England (i.e. protestants) very unhappy and there was a great split between puritans and those remaining. Many of these devout puritans traveled to modern day America to form their own colony so that they could practice their religion as they saw fit. Those who remained in England separated entirely from the Church of England. Protestants remaining in the church returned to the more traditionally Catholic celebrations of the holiday.

Puritanism lost popularity and therefore numbers of followers back in the homeland but continued to go strong as more came over to America seeking religious freedom. And so it was that Christmas as is traditionally known did not come to America until relatively recently.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The History Of Christmas: Part 2- Christmas Mischief

It’s no surprise the rowdy roots of Christmas come from a culture marked by excess- the Romans. Specifically their holiday of Saturnalia, honoring the Roman God Saturn- the God of agriculture. They honored him with a month-long celebration of hedonism and the reverse of societal norms.

In addition to sacrificing, feasting, drinking and general partying the Romans switched up roles by acting as if the slaves and peasants were the top of the crop. They would allow them to sit at the grand banquets and indulge- or overindulge while giving them free reign to speak freely. The courts, schools and businesses were all closed during the holiday so no punishments would be doled out for a slave getting too rowdy. (Though I’m sure that after the celebrations ended those slaves who did go overboard were dealt with harshly.)

In addition, role playing and guising were common forms of entertainment and in this way a peasant might play a king while a king might act as a slave. Another reversal came in the form of gambling which slaves were normally forbidden to do. And finally, one more root of the season- gift giving which took place throughout the holiday.

Fast forward several centuries and Christianity is born. In the beginning Christmas was not part of the Christina calendar- the main holiday of the religious year was Easter. However, many people weren’t giving up their pagan roots and continued to celebrate the winter solstice. So, to help people convert the powers that be adopted the holiday around the same time calling it the birth of Christ (even though all historians agree the man was actually born in summertime.) They took on the decorations, the feasts and the celebratory activities and tied new meaning to all of them.

Looking at the festivities of Saturnalia we can see clear connections to the tradition of 12th Night which was how most people were celebrating Christmas by the middle ages. During 12th night a Lord of Mischief is selected by getting a lucky slice of cake containing a bean. Whoever gets the bean becomes the king and whoever gets the pea becomes queen, ruling over their subjects for the evening. Those subjects, in order to please their king and queen, adapt different roles for their pleasure. Due to this role playing the normal restrictions of being a peasant or servant did not apply and people were free to live it up, drinking tons of wassail, feasting on foods and acting out uproarious roles.

This frivolity continued throughout the Carnival season all the way until Mardi Gras when people went all-out for the last day of excess before the long fast and repentance of lent. The revelers- primarily the poor- became increasingly rowdy during the 12th night carnival, going to the houses of richer socialites and demanding their best food and drink. Those who did not abide them their demands received the worst kind-of mischief.  But, just like Lent follows the Carnival so too did those in charge of Christmas observations begin to demand reform of the decadent ways of Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The History Of Christmas: Part 1- Ancient Roots of the Feast

Winter was harsh time for everyone. Even those born in warmer climates experienced the change of seasons and crops could fail if little rain fell or insects were overly populous. The life sustaining foods of nature defined the existence of early mankind and anything that threatened the survival of mankind itself. Thus winter has been a challenge to survival since the dawn of time.

Early religions, therefore, were based almost solely on pleasing whatever gods might guarantee a reprieve from the harsh punishment of the season. Gods for plants, for animals to be hunted, for plentiful rains or warm suns- all were worshiped and appeased in hopes of safe passage through the season. Though historical record came long after many religions had already died out what we do have record of indicates that most of the customs still in practice had very ancient roots.

The most ancient practice was arguable the feast- the act of consuming large amounts of food in celebration. This was done out of necessity- meats and fresh harvest fruits would not keep and needed to be eaten before rotting. A variety of different religious customs honored different gods through feasting. The Celts celebrated a full day of the winter solstice by marking the passage of the sun and oriented their societal year around the event with marriages and acknowledgements of births and deaths. The Norse Vikings burned a Yule log to symbolize the return of light after the solstice. Even the Greeks and then Romans in warmer climates celebrated the harvest with feasting and drinking.

Different customs were adapted by different people but the activities remained remarkably similar- the feast. So now when we gorge ourselves on turkey and casseroles and vegetables and pies and cookies and candies and everything else under the sun we’re actually continuing one most ancient traditions. And sure it looks a bit different, but the act hasn’t actually changed all that much in thousands of years.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On Santa Claus

I’ve seen television programming making fun of the fact that Jesus and Santa are so wrapped up with each other in a lot of children’s minds that they can’t tell the difference. The history of the figure who eventually came to be known as Santa Claus actually explains a lot of this confusion. Most people know that Santa Claus is based on the real-life Saint Nicholas from 3rd century Scandinavia (modern day Turkey). But that seems to be the bulk of what people know about him.

When we take a look at the man’s history and the reason for his sainthood we see quite a lot of similarities with Jesus. Both gave up worldly materials and lifestyles to pursue a more spiritual calling. Both traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. Both have religious observations associated with them in December (Jesus for his birth, St. Nicholas for his death). And both have been associated, in various ways, with the spirit of giving.

So it’s no surprise that he remained one of the most popular saints throughout the centuries that followed. And because of this, many other cultures around the world adopted their own version of him who, while different in appearance or traits all shared the benevolent gift-giving activities of the original Saint. But in American culture the transition from poor, wandering do-gooder to jolly fat man has much more to do with marketing than religious storytelling.

The traditions associated with St. Nicholas spread to the new world when Dutch settlers came over to America. It is assumed that the idea of St. Nicholas coming and giving gifts or filling stockings probably spread through verbal tradition in Dutch culture long before those stories started being re-told in America. One of the traditions passed down through early Dutch settlers is the name: Santa Claus derives from the Dutch Sinter Klaas, a shortened version of the Dutch translation of St. Nicholas. Other things passed down were the idea of the man as a jolly one who enjoyed merriment and gift-giving.

The single largest contributor to the modern day Santa Claus seems to be the well known poem “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” which give us the rotund physique, flying sleigh led by reindeer and magical being capable of filling stockings for all the little girls and boys of the world. That Santa, while possessing the white beard and rosy face was dressed solely in fur and not the familiar red suit we now associate with him.

The complete image, as well as the North Pole workshop filled with busy elves and his loving wife Mrs. Claus actually comes from a cartoonist Thomas Nast who, in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 drew the full scene that we now associate with Santa Claus. Soon the Salvation Army adopted the image in order to raise money for the free Christmas meals they provided and Santa suit wearing men started standing on street corners ringing bells to collect donations, followed quickly by shop owners eager to attract holiday shoppers. Within a few decades the image and tales associated with it had cemented their legacy into the American psyche.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Yum

One of the best things about this job is the fact that it’s common for my coworkers to get together for a lunch time potluck. We take a slightly extended lunch break, sit in someone’s office munching on yummy foods and chit-chat. For a person like me who’s last job was located deep within the seventh circle of hell this practice is nothing short of a miracle.

Today was no exception. Not only were we celebrating Christmas (I provided the decorations and music) but also the promotion of one of our techs and the birthday of our head nurse. There were warm pretzels, healthy salad and veggies and the usual assortment of munchies. The pinnacle of the tasty treats was a batch of Christmas tree cupcakes made by one our nurses who took a cake decorating class a while back and has since been treating us to some of the most impressively crafted sweets I’ve ever seen. I joyfully gorged myself on food and enjoyed the blessed break from the craziness that is my job. And as much as I enjoyed the Christmas ambiance there was one fact that I found far more enjoyable: that we’ll be doing it again in January.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The colonies marched through the endlessly dark tunnels without map nor guiding light.  Their mission was only to spread; destination was meaningless.  And by sheer number, sheer force of mass, they spread forth and filled the intersecting passageways.  Soon there was no escaping their onslaught.  They burst through the small opening to the outside world, the damn bursting and spewing forth their numbers in a massive rush.  Achoo.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I saw a hawk today.  It was riding the updraft from the highway nearby, lazyily making long circles through the sky, spiraling slowly upwards.  It was such an effortless advance, he never even flapped his wings.  And I had the thought I so often have when I catch a glimpse of these creatures: I wish I could fly.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On Wreaths

The Christmas wreath is an example of one of those more archaic customs I was talking about earlier which has made its way, in one form or another, into the holiday through several centuries of customs. It’s also a pretty great example of necessity being the mother of invention. At its most basic, the Christmas wreath is a circle of evergreen twigs. Evergreen has always been a symbol for eternal life and back before the dawn of civilization (and indoor heating and supermarkets and other necessities for surviving cold weather) when the likelihood of surviving a winter in any given year was pretty slim people looked to evergreens as a symbol of hope.  The circular arrangement of the wreath is symbolic of the circular pattern of the seasons and a reminder that spring- and that plants that sustained them- will come again. Historians think that people were decorating their houses with them in wintertime- regardless of religion or folk custom- for far longer than historical record indicates. Because of this, there’s debate on exactly where it came from and when it became common custom. Regardless, chances are good that wreaths were decorating doorways long before Christianity came into existence.

Like most Christian holidays, Christmas sucked up the preexisting customs of the time and adapted them to fit the symbolism of the holiday. Extra colors, decorations, and variations were adapted over the years and turned into a symbol for more specific themes. Arguably the most well known variation is the Advent Wreath which marks the passage of time in preparation for the coming of Christ with candles. But all wreaths follow similar visual cues around Christmas time and as such are amazingly abundant just about everywhere you look nowadays. I like them because I grew up lighting the candles on our advent wreath so they’re deeply rooted in memory as being intrinsic to Christmas. And because they smell nice.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Movie Review: The Muppets

I grew up watching the Muppets.  Even more than Sesame Street or even Fraggle Rock I remember them, their antics, their quirks and their adventures better than just about any other childhood entertainment.  I loved The Muppet Show, I watched The Jim Henson Hour with the same fervor and I was such a fan of Muppet Babies that I can still sing the entire theme song from rote.  As such, the Muppets hold such a dear place in my heart that I will gladly go to see any new movie with them.  Enter 'The Muppets', the first Muppet movie to be released since the mid-90’s which means that any fan of the Muppets will automatically have to see it at some point. Given that fact and the assumption that they could have pasted together a couple of hastily written musical numbers and filled the rest of the time with cameos you gotta respect everybody who made this project for really putting their all into it. Whatever criticism I may have of it is made with the acknowledgement that it is a real movie and not a cheap ploy to squeeze hard-earned cash out of hard-core fans.

That being said, I personally found this to be the saddest Muppet movie of all the Muppet movies to date. And yes, I know that I’m a complete child for this, but I teared up a number of times throughout the movie. Why, you may wonder? Because it begins with the terribly incorrect premise that The Muppets have somehow been forgotten, become obsolete or are unwanted. It’s like the “clap if your hands if you believe in fairies” thing only we were never given the opportunity to clap.

The plot itself is thankfully a little more complicated than just disproving that point. The movie begins with the introduction to Walter, a muppet in a human family. Walter’s got one huge problem growing up in what otherwise seems to be a pretty great life in Smalltown: he’s a muppet. His top height is about two and half feet. So he can’t ride the rollercoaster, ride a bike or play sports with the other kids. His older brother Gary (later played by Jason Segel) is incredibly devoted to him, opting out of other activities that Walter can’t be a part of so that he won’t be left out. But the overall feeling we get from Walter is that of longing to be accepted, to be a part of.

When Walter and Gary discover The Muppet Show Walter is awestruck and the two of them instantly become the show’s greatest fans. Walter especially looks at them as the family he so desperately needs in order to gain that ever-elusive feeling of belonging and spends most of his life growing up with the dream of someday meeting them all.

Fast forward ten years and Gary is celebrating his tenth anniversary with his girlfriend Mary (the adorable Amy Adams) by taking her to LA for a romantic dinner and vacation. Still living with his muppet brother after all these years he of course plans to bring him along, much to Mary’s chagrin. They arrive in LA and head straight to Muppet Studios which have closed down and fallen into a state of disrepair, and all of the Muppets are nowhere to be found (the premise I mentioned earlier). Walter decides to snoop around in Kermit’s old office and discovers the bad guy (a very enjoyable Chris Cooper) and primary plot point of the movie: a rich oil tycoon is buying the theater with plans of demolishing it in order to dig for oil underneath. Walter, being the devoted fan that he is, sets out to find the Muppets, warn them, and help them save the theater.

I will direct you to Wikipedia for the rest of the plot synopsis and move on to the critique. As I said earlier, despite the familiar characters, jokes, gags and references (traveling by map, “let’s use a montage”, etc) I would label this as the saddest of the Muppet movies. When we first see Kermit he is living in solitude, mourning the loss of his muppet family. Why? They never explain it. But we see the rest of the characters being gathered back together from a number of depressing states (Fozzie seems to have it the worst, living in Reno and staring with troupe of muppet impersonators). The worst estrangement was that of Kermit and Miss Piggy who have seemingly divorced in all but name, again for reasons that are never explained. I refuse to believe that I am the only person who found their wedding in The Muppets Take Manhattan to be one of the most romantically satisfying of all time and to suddenly find them not on speaking terms with not so much of a passing mention ast to why was a little traumatizing.

All that being said, it’s still completely endearing in the way that you would expect a Muppet movie to be. The gang reunites, Gary resolves his codependency with his brother and devotes himself to Mary and Walter finds that sense of belonging he so desperately needs. And the finale? The finale made me cry harder than any of the sad stuff because the Muppets are reminded of how truly loved they are and always have been. In that respect the resolution is certainly satisfying and you could make the argument that I should have known all would be forgiven when I found myself getting super sad over the state of things at the beginning. And you could also point out the fact that in that same movie I mentioned earlier they all went their separate ways in a very sad stretch of screen time before they got back together to 'take Manhattan' anyway, so it’s not even like it’s a new plot device. Well, to that I say: “I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now!”

Ah-hem, but I digress. Whatever issues I may have I will point out that they are my issues and I can’t imagine that other viewers would be nearly as upset as I was. And in terms of musical numbers, character arcs, and good ol’fashioned triumph over meanies it’s a great picture. But the most important fact, the reason that every Muppet fan will want to see it, and the main point of resolution for the whole thing is right there in the title. Seeing our old friends back in action and doing what they do best is the greatest thrill of all.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Crazy For Christmas

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

“What?”

“Look around you- just for a second. What do you see?”

"I see… a home decorated for Christmas.”

“To the untrained eye that’s exactly what it would appear to be. Right out of Better Homes and Gardens, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“You know what I see? I see a collection of objects, each one painstakingly thought over, considered and placed as if staging a murder scene- like anything not quite perfect would lead the viewer to know the truth.”

“What… are you talking about?”

“These aren’t decorations- they’re props. And that sickeningly cute snowman sweater she’s wearing isn’t just jolly attire- it’s a costume. She’s playing the role of the happy woman at Christmas time hosting her family but just under the surface? A maniacal, crazed woman cracking at the edges.”

“Don’t you think you’re being a little dramatic?”

“Seriously- look at this. What do see?”

“A nativity.”

“Really? Look a little closer. See it now?”

“Nope, still looks like a nativity.”

“Get your nose right up against the cradle there- there you go. Now, look.”

“Are these… did she carve these herself?”

“Yup.”

“Dear god, why?”

“Because the one that she special ordered from the store wasn’t oak wood- it was cedar. Cedar stains, she explained to me. So she ordered the wood and hand carved each tiny little figure, then painted and sealed them. Because that’s the only way it would be perfect.”

“Holy… how long did it take her?”

“Four months. And that’s just for the nativity. That wreath on the door you just walked past? She made that herself, collected each little twig, weaved them together, hand painted each tiny little needle so it would look like it had fresh snow on it. And those stockings? Hand knitted from scratch- no pattern, no book- just started and kept on re-knitting till they were prefect. And that Christmas pyramid behind you-“

“I get it. So don’t touch anything, is your point.”

“Yeah, that would be it. And for the love of God don’t ask her about any of it or we’ll never get out of here alive.  As soon as she starts talking about it she goes back to childhood memories and starts crying.”

“Uh-huh. So this is what you meant when you warned me about your mom being crazy for Christmas, huh?”

“Yup. Aren’t you glad you married me?”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses

I’m going to start off this review with another review for a slightly related TV show. For those who have not seen it let me inform you that It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is the funniest show I have ever seen. And I mean that with no exaggeration whatsoever. I have actually; literally lost count of the number of episodes that have made me laugh so hard that I honestly lost the ability to breathe- that’s how laugh-out-loud funny this show is. I will also say, just as fair warning, that it is also the most un-PC show I have ever seen in my life. There are more racial stereotypes, homophobic remarks, gender role slanders, ethnic slurs, religious blasphemy and morally bankrupt jokes than you can track without a really advanced matrix, so it’s certainly not for the faint of heart. But if you don’t take life too seriously it is, as I said, the funniest show that has ever existed on television.

One of the main characters from that show is played by Charlie Day whose character is also called Charlie. Charlie Day is one of the three main characters of Horrible Bosses. He is just as hysterical in the movie as he is in the show and he arguably carries the bulk of the spew-the-liquid-you-just-drank-out-your-nose moments. I’m definitely biased in that review but I can’t help it- I find him painfully funny. His high-pitched, squeaky freak-outs absolutely kill me. But, like most of the really crazy comedians throughout history he is nothing without a straight man or two to make him look even more crazy by comparison.

In this movie there’s arguably two: Jason Sudeikis from Saturday Night Live and Jason Bateman who’s been in a string of movies recently (three this year alone). Both of them have an uncanny ability to deliver a punch line without a hint of finding it humorous and it makes the landing that much more hysterical to see it delivered deadpan. That being said, they’re both hysterical in their own right- especially Jason Sudeikis who delivers more “no, white men can’t say that” lines than anybody. The combination of the three of them works on so many levels and their chemistry is the source of all the magic in this movie.

That being said, the supporting characters are certainly fun. Kevin Spacey is at his best as the same type of truly evil bastard you saw him play in Swimming With Sharks. Colin Farrell is a hard-core douche and because his only purpose is to be the kind of guy you’d really want to murder you don’t care a bit that he’s super one-dimensional. And Jennifer Aniston is refreshing as a sex-crazed manipulator who loves toying with poor Charlie, especially after seeing her as such a sweetheart in so many romantic comedies.

However, none of them hold a candle to Jamie Foxx who’s name -all by itself- is a killer: Motherfuckah Jones. Especially when he instructs them as to the correct pronunciation: “white dudes say motherfuck-E-R, black dudes say motherfuck-A-H”. But when you find out what previously referenced “nasty shit” sent him to prison for a dime you practically fall out of your chair laughing. (I won’t spoil that for you, suffice it say you don’t see it coming.)  The three of them seeking murder advice from him is a direct throw back to the three main characters of Office Space seeking money laundering advice from Orlando Jones- i.e. hilarious.

As I said, there were far too many laugh-out-loud moments in this movie to count and the plot is unimportant in comparison to the banter, outrageous situations and overall character interplays. The three of them together- Charlie, Jason and Jason- is pure magic like I haven’t seen since Charlie was paired with his other comrades in Sunny. All-in-all, I haven’t laughed this hard at a movie in longer than I can remember.

If you’re fine with seriously un-PC humor I would highly recommend you check out both It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, now in its seventh hilarious season and Horrible Bosses. And don’t drink anything while watching them unless you want to choke.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Best Christmas

They always say that it’s the things that don’t work out- the parties that end disastrously, the trips that go spectacularly awry- that you remember best. That is certainly true for me when it comes to Christmas.

I was 7… or 8. Santa was still real, toys were still the best presents, and Christmas was still the best thing ever. I came home from the last day of school before the long break feeling a little more lethargic than usual. By the next day I had a high fever and could barely get out of bed. My parents did what they always did when either my brother or I got sick- they set me up on the couch so they could keep an eye on me. My family hovered around the living room for all family activities and the couch was the center of that. I loved being sick for that reason- all the extra attention and all.

On Christmas eve I was still pretty ill and I didn’t want to move from the couch because, well, I didn’t want to move. My dad was all ready to let me stay there when my mom pulled him aside, angrily explaining that if I was there I would “see Santa.” (That should’ve been a clue for me, but I was 7 and really quite sick.) So I got sent to bed.

The next morning I was so excited that I convinced myself I was feeling better, and I ran out to the tree with all the giddy energy I normally displayed for the holiday. My brother and I tore into our presents like carnivorous animals, tossing wrapping paper about like discarded bones. There were the typical squeals of delight and enthusiastic ‘thank you’s and my mom was glowing.

But then I started getting lightheaded, then dizzy and I barely made my way to the couch before collapsing. I remember trying to push some of the wrapping paper aside in order to make a space to land on and it feeling like it was made of iron. My mom, upon seeing that I wasn’t interested in opening the rest of my presents instantly knew that something was wrong.

A minute later the thermometer confirmed it and I was back on the couch, cold compress on my head and blanket covering me like a burrito. I don’t even remember the rest of the morning and I’m pretty sure I slept through Christmas dinner.

I didn’t get better until a day or so before the winter break was over and it was time to go back to school and I’m pretty sure I complained to all my friends about how I’d spent the entire vacation sick with the flu. I have no doubt that it was my biggest tale of woe for years.

And yet, when I think back on Christmases from my childhood, that’s the one that I remember. And in the warm glow of sentiment it isn’t being sick or missing the festivities or not having the energy to open my presents that I really remember. It’s lying on the couch, firmly blanketed, with my family surrounding the tv as we watched some Christmas movie. It’s the fact that there was so much wrapping paper that I couldn’t clear away, that my mom was so protective of the Santa illusion, that there was a wonderful turkey dinner I slept through.

Somehow, that Christmas shows me how incredibly lucky I was, how much I was loved, how exceptionally good I had it. That’s the one that registers as the best Christmas, even though I’m sure most of the great things are misplaced pieces from other years. That Christmas sits atop a pedestal above all the others in my mind as the perfect holiday.

Funny how memory works like that.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

O Christmas Tree

During the month of Halloween, I talked quite a lot about the traditions of the holiday and their pagan roots. Unlike Halloween, Christmas is a Christian holiday and therefore can’t be directly traced back to pagan traditions. (Save the argument that it’s the Christian replacement for winter solstice festivities). However, similarly to Halloween, a lot of the modern-day traditions are a hodge-podge collection of other more archaic traditions and the Christmas tree seems to be one of those.
The Christmas tree as we know it- an evergreen decorated around Christmas time- was first recorded in 16th century Germany. The German tradition was adapted from the mystery plays done in churches at Christmas time, the most popular of which was the Paradise Play. This play represented the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and subsequent banishment from paradise and the promise of the coming savior. The only prop for the play was a fir tree decorated with apples, representing the tree of knowledge from the garden of Eden. This play was conducted on December 24th which, in eastern orthodox religions, is the feast of Adam and Eve. The argument goes that the paradise trees went from churches to homes as people took on their own celebrations of the holiday.
Another tradition originating in the same place (Germany) at roughly the same time is the Christmas Pyramid. These are the contraptions with jolly-looking wood figurines featuring a spinning propeller on top moved by the heat of the candles below. Many people argue that the candles and decorations were added to the paradise tree to create the Christmas tree.
Traditionally, Christmas trees were erected on December 24th (the feast of Adam and Eve) and taken down on January 6th (the day after twelfth night). Thanks to consumerism they now seem to be erected most often on or directly after Thanksgiving and find their ways to street corners for trash pick-up by mid January.

Like most religious holiday traditions the Christmas tree experienced periods of feast and famine. The puritans- being steadfastly against fun or merriment of any kind- outlawed them. The rich aristocrats brought them back and used them to show off how many candles they could afford. Schools, local governments and townships have proudly displayed them and then chucked them when people called fowl over lack of separation of church and state.

The complete history, needless to say, is far more complex and fascinating because it involves cultural traditions from a whole host of other cultures who have their own spin on it, politics, religious controversy, economics and a bunch of other topics. But I’ll leave you to research far more qualified historians for that.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Goodwill: Practical Application

I'm a big fan of the idea of karma. Both good and bad. I rely on the hope that the effort I put into being a good person will pay off overall in terms my life working out for me. And when I look around the world and see people being hard-core assholes I console myself with the belief that they will reap what they sow, even if I’m not lucky enough to ever see that happen. My world view is very much tinted by this belief system and it’s my automatic fall back when I start to feel hopeless or out-of-control in my life.

So it’s no surprise that when I try to celebrate this holiday for what it’s worth I think of what I need to be doing to get myself a good karma vote for the season. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed doing, both at this time of the year and whenever I get an e-mail from the red cross, is giving blood. It’s the ultimate karmic action because much like energy and thoughts, once I put it out there I have absolutely no control over what will happen with it. My blood could go to anyone: good person, bad person, scientists doing research that might lead to a cure for something really nasty. I convince myself (because it makes me feel better) that it’s going to help save the life of somebody pretty cool and that that person, because of the life-saving blood they got from me, will go out into the world and do really great things with the life they’ve got.

It’s also a pretty great reminder to me of one really huge thing I have to be grateful for: my health. My disease, while seriously crappy when it comes to dietary issues, doesn’t limit me physically. I can go and give a pint and not be so dead afterwards that I can’t move. And knowing that I am healthy enough to be able to donate blood is a pretty solid reminder of ‘yeah, you’re doing pretty damned good’.

So if you’re trying to come up with ways to give back this season, in addition to donating a gift to a military family or grabbing that extra coupon for the food drive in the supermarket I’d recommend checking out the blood drives going on near you. There are always a ton this time of year because blood supplies get low and they really need the help.

And tonight when I’m lying on the table, squeezing that ball to speed along my blood flow into the bag, I will be thinking good thoughts and hoping that it ultimately ends up being the greatest gift somebody could receive this season.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Power of Memory

I was talking yesterday about the connections formed in memory by smells, sights and sounds and I’ve had a pretty huge reminder of that today. I have conceded to start listening to the Christmas music that’s been playing since the middle of last month because, in my opinion, once it’s December it’s fair game. And it’s a pretty firm reminder of how incredibly powerful memory is.

For example, there are a number of songs that I learned to sing for chorus either in church or school over the years which, having exited both church and school many years ago, I wouldn’t expect myself to remember. And yet when those songs come on the radio, guess who’s singing right along? Both the soprano and alto parts, amazingly enough.

Of all the random, useless pieces of information that seem to be firmly and unchangingly rooted in my memory these songs stick out as remnants from my past and remind me of how incredibly powerful memory is. It’s kinda cool to be reminded of the power of my brain. But I still wish I could use that brain power to store information that is actually, you know, useful.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Christmas Thing

So, it’s December. And that, of course, means Christmas. I will be seeing it, smelling it, hearing it, feeling it and being intellectually flooded with it for the rest of the year. Being a relatively cognitive creature I am trying to be very conscious of how I process all that stimulation and to chose what I do with it very carefully.

I was doing a lecture for my clients today on neurobiology and the basics of how the brain works. I found myself wondering how the memories associated with Christmas trigger me. I know a lot of people (really, a lot) whose memories are almost solely bad and any reminder of Christmas instantly puts their defenses up. It’s like Christmas phobia- that twinkling light or song on the radio or smell of pine candles tenses them the way a web would tense someone with arachnophobia.

I know other people who love everything about it and their houses are already fully decorated well before Thanksgiving. All the music and bells, the candles and baking and other olfactory stimulants, the lights and trees and visual hits and the memories tied to all of these are positive for them and they purposefully inundate themselves with all things Christmas.

I am neither one of these. Christmas was truly magical for me as a kid and has gotten significantly less so over time- but I don’t hate it. I haven’t swung to the other end of the spectrum. I try to enjoy it, try to embrace it in novel ways beyond those methods the commercials advocate. I find my mind being pulled in a billion different directions with it all- some cynical, some sentimental.

Ideas for stories are introduced and then dismissed as dumb or overdone within the space of a second. Anecdotes from my past which I could imagine being interesting to write for the blog get shut down by prejudgments that they wouldn’t be nearly as cool in reality as they are in my head. Reading all the themed Friday Flashes has just sped up the process and I’m feeling more than a little overwhelmed.

My natural process- thinking of something and then dismissing it well before I actually get to the process of writing- seems to have kicked into overdrive and it’s making my head hurt. And at this moment I can’t figure out what to let past the mental filters and what really shouldn’t be written. So nothing gets written.

Well, nothing except for this entry on the whole mental process that’s been kicked off by this man-eating holiday season. We'll see what comes out next.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Finish Line

Is less of a line than a hastily drawn maze consisting of a series of squiggly intersecting lines. Those lines might lead to a bunch of dead ends that don't actually connect but until you start drawing your path you won't know.

That's the ending of my novel, in a nutshell. It is messy, it was rushed, it more than likely has a whole lot of lose ends that seriously need to be tied up (I think I got one of my MCs out of coma by accidentally knocking a get well plant on him, I'm not sure because it was one in the morning by the time I conceded to end the damned thing and go to bed.  And no, I don't care that that's technically one hour over the dreaded midnight deadline- I'm counting it!)

HOWEVER- and this is the important point here- it's DONE. My ending, while incomplete and messy and possibly even slightly nonsensical at the end, is actually written. And while it may require extensive work to be anything near what I pictured it to be while writing it it's at least there. It exists. And of all the novels I have written (and this is number 3), this is the only one I can say that about. For the first time- ever- I actually finished a novel in November.

Here are the stats: Before last night's writing session I had a total of 52, 371 words. After last night's month end blow-out I have a total of 59,576. That means that last night over the course a mere four hours I wrote 7,205 words. In four hours! I can't help but be a little impressed with myself.

It was nothing like any of the other writing sessions I've ever had. I wasn't aiming for word count, I wasn't trying to think of the next scene, I wasn't typing without any real sense of where I wanted my words to take me. It was like running down a busy sidewalk- I had somewhere I needed to be. So yeah, it was chaotic and frenzied and I'm sure I tripped up a bunch of times but I ran. And I got to where I wanted to end up.

So even though I have daymares of reading the thing and finding a Swiss cheese- like number of plot holes, or characters that are even less than one dimensional, or scenes that make no sense whatsoever I can at least say that the first draft has been written. And I've never been able to say that before.

Which makes this the single biggest accomplishment I've had as a NaNoWriMo writer thus far. Because all the pep talks and all the encouragement and all the writing buddies and all the group writing sessions and all the web videos and all the stuff that goes into making NaNoWriMo such an amazing event actually led me to complete my own personal goal. Beyond the arbitrary word count number, beyond the fun of just participating. I set a personal goal and I reached it. So regardless of what happens next I am pretty damned proud of myself.