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Ghosts Of Christmas.

Source: Bored Panda

Christmas is generally a pretty jolly holiday but it wasn’t that long ago that it was a time for spooky stories told around the fire, which makes sense. Historically when Christmas came around it was cold, dark, and everybody had to stay inside, so it’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. And a lot of seasonal traditions come from pagan celebrations of the solstice,and while most of the pagans I know aren’t scary people the gradually diminishing daylight as we approach the shortest day of the year. The ghosts in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol are part of a long tradition, one that also gets a nod in Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales when he says, “Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver,” and for me no Christmas is complete without Scrooged. Doctor Who even got into the act with several Christmas specials culminating in Voyage Of The Damned in 2007 and the joke that everybody but the Queen was getting out of London until the holiday was over.

When I was a student in England Halloween was barely acknowledged, but at Christmas we had a costume ball, which was apparently more traditional, and I think we should embrace that on this side of the pond if it means two times a year when we can dress up and tell scary stories.

So I loved reading a story of a woman who got a series of notes from a “Karen” neighbor that her gargoyle statue was “not appropriate”. And of course it escalated quickly and hilariously with more decorations being added and “Karen” threatening to report the display to the local homeowners’ association and the mayor.

Source: Bored Panda

Source: Bored Panda

I’m pretty sure having a neighbor with no sense of humor is as scary as it gets.


Moving Traditions.

One of the things I’ve missed about not taking the bus this year, specifically this season, is seeing the decorations. I’ve missed my afternoon commute getting darker as the days get shorter but brightened with the lights that decorate houses and shops along the way. Most years my wife and I will also drive around the neighborhood to see how houses we pass by without a thought most of the year are decorated, taking on a new distinctiveness. There’s at least one house we used to go by on our way to work each morning that had both a giant inflatable Santa and an inflatable Hanukkah Bear, and it always made me smile even though I had another day at work ahead of me, but that’s another story.

Some years too we’ve driven out to the country to see the Geminids. It was too cloudy this year but I knew they were still there, and most nights I can look to the East and see Jupiter and Saturn getting closer and closer to conjunction, something that hasn’t happened in almost four centuries, and a reminder that even when we’re staying still the world under our feet and the universe we’re part of keeps moving.

This year especially these traditions hold out the hope that next year will be better.



Nobody Calls Him Names Anymore.

“All right, everybody get in formation!” Santa barked. The reindeer lined up dutifully.

“I’ve heard some grumblings in the herd,” Santa went on, “and I just want to say that anybody who doesn’t like it can go live with the Lapps.”

The reindeer pawed the ground and looked at each other nervously. Blitzen, who all of them knew as the smartass of the group, had mouthed off the last time Santa made the same suggestion. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll go live with the Lapps. Compared to this place it’ll be the Lapp of luxury!”

Mrs. Claus had taken him by the bridle and led him off behind the secondary workshop, the one with the heavy equipment. Later that night Donner peeked in the Claus’s window and thought he saw a crown roast being served.

“Now,” said Santa, “this is going to be a tough night. We’ve got fog right down to the deck every place east of the Rockies. Damn climate change. Vixen, you’ll take the lead ahead of Dasher and Dancer from the west coast. Prancer, you’ll take over after that until we get to Chicago.”

“It’s not gonna work, fat boy!” came a voice from the back of the herd.

“Who said that?” Santa yelled. “Nobody talks to me that way! Come on, step up or you’ll all be venison!”

The herd parted but one reindeer, smaller than the rest, with a distinct red nose, stood at the back.

“It was me, old man, and you’d better watch what you say because I’m your best hope.”

Santa narrowed his eyes. “Pretty full of yourself, aren’t you? Think you can get away with being so rude, Dolph? Maybe it’s time for you to—”

“What?” Dolph shot back. “Go live with the Lapps? Maybe you’d just send me back to Chernobyl where you found me.” The reindeer looked around. “Oh, I know you all know. I hear the jokes, the snickers, all the names you call me behind my back. That I’m the Radioactive Russian, the Solar Siberian, the Toxin of the Tundra. Well check this out.” He wrinkled his forehead and his nose began to glow a bright piercing red.

Santa glared for a moment then threw back his head and laughed. “Ho ho ho! That’s a pretty neat trick therem sonny. You know I run a tight ship but every captain knows you don’t put a navigator in the bilge. You can lead the second string.”

“Nothing doing.” Dolph pawed the ground. “I don’t want a piece of the action. You need me to lead the team the whole way.”

“Nobody’s made the whole round trip,” said Santa, “not in a long time. Not since, well, Flossie and Glossie led the team. You think you can handle it?”

“Handle it?” Dolph stepped forward. “You bet your wide load I can handle it. I’m going down in history.”

“All right,” Santa said, “let’s get harnessed up.” Then he turned to Mrs. Claus and muttered, “The kid probably’d taste terrible anyway.”


The Voice.


There’s a voice you hear on public transportation. Riding buses around Nashville I’d regularly hear a guy who sounded oddly like John Hamm making announcements like, “Next stop, White Bridge Road, transfer point for the number three route.” And it was really weird to me that this voice that came over the bus loudspeaker would know exactly where we were and when. I thought maybe the drivers just managed to time things really well, or maybe they activated the announcement, but then someone told me the buses have GPS devices and the announcements come on automatically based on where the bus is. Sometimes I don’t hear it, though—I think drivers can turn it off if they get tired of listening to the same announcements over and over again and they guess riders will know where we are.

There’s also London’s famous “Mind the gap” message that you hear in certain Underground stations, and which I’m surprised to learn is also used worldwide, and way back when I was in Moscow there was a woman’s voice that announced what station we were in, and now that I think about it I want to ride every subway and bus route in the world just to hear what the different voices they use. Especially the New York Subway system where this summer they hired Rosie Perez and Chris Rock to do public service announcements telling people to wear masks. I only just heard about this on the latest episode of the radio quiz show Ask Me Another. And she said that when she was asked to record the announcements she asked, “Are you sure you wanna use my voice to have, you know, the riders hear it every single day every eight minutes?” Well, why not? Okay, I’m not that naïve—I get why not. It seems like most places, at least in my experience, get someone who, well, sounds like John Hamm to do recorded announcements for public transportation and in airports too. But Perez is adamant about getting roles that wouldn’t normally go to someone like her. She says in the interview that she was determined to get, “the Jessica Lange roles.”

And my last rep told me, “Well, you’re no Jessica Lange,” and I go, “Not yet, honey! I haven’t had the opportunity! She was a model, I was a dancer, what? I was a college kid, what? What’s the difference? The color of my skin? This is ridiculous.” And they said, “We got you.” And I said, “You get me in the room, I will do the rest. And if I don’t get the role, that’s on me.” And they got me into those rooms. That’s how things change.

That’s brilliant. In fact the only thing I’m wondering about is how I haven’t heard about this before. Sure, I haven’t been anywhere for most of the year—I haven’t ridden a bus since early March, and I certainly haven’t been to New York City, and, oh, well, I guess it makes sense, but I’m glad I’ve heard it now.

Inaction Figure.

Because Star Wars came out when I was a kid I collected all the toys. And I mean all the toys. My parents were pretty generous in indulging my obsession with everything Star Wars-related so Christmases were big and predictable. I had the Death Star playset. I had the Millennium Falcon. Amazingly I had Boba Fett’s Slave 1, something no other kid I knew had—most of them were amazed it even existed. And I had all the action figures. So of course when I saw this I laughed for an hour:

Source: Entertainment Weekly

And then because my brain can’t leave things alone I started thinking about it. I haven’t seen The Mandalorian—I’ve matured to obsessing about other things, but this stayed with me. For one thing I thought how, even when the original Star Wars came out if there had been flaws like this in it most of us wouldn’t have noticed them because, no matter how obsessive we were, we still had to see it in the theater. We couldn’t pause, rewind, or watch it again—unless we could stay in the theater, and most of us had to go home.

Jeans Guy has been digitally erased now and I’m kind of sorry he’s gone. A lot of work goes into making any show or movie—and I’m speaking from a very little bit of experience here. One summer when I was in college I helped on the production of a documentary about a local homeless shelter. Mostly I carried gear but I also operated sound equipment and got a chance to learn a little about editing. It was an extremely low budget documentary so the work that went into that was nothing compared to what must go into making an FX-heavy science fiction drama.

And no matter how good special effects get we still have to willingly suspend disbelief and it’s not a bad thing to have the occasional reminder—to borrow a line from another show’s theme song, repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax. Some directors have even put deliberate “mistakes” in their films to remind us that we’re watching something artificially constructed. For example there’s a scene in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool in which a mic dips down into view. It looks like a mistake but was probably intentional.

These mistakes can even be inspiring. Like the toys that allowed me to create my own Star Wars stories a mistake can make a film more “real”, more tangible–some special effects artists have said that seeing how the effects on screen were created, realizing that was a job, helped them find a career they love. It’s probably a stretch to say Jeans Guy is living the dream, but at least he’s probably working in a field he’s really passionate about.

I sold all my Star Wars toys and assorted paraphernalia a few years ago, but now I really do want a Jeans Guy action figure.

Swan Dive.

Why don’t we eat swans? I thought I’d jump right in with that question since it’s been on my mind lately. The holidays have become a time for turkey although in Britain at least the goose used to be traditional, and in fact one year for Christmas my mother cooked a goose, which was different from the time my father’s goose was cooked because he forgot their anniversary, but you know what they say: what’s good for the gander is good for making a silk purse out of a sheep’s clothing if you have your cake too, but that’s another story. The main thing I remember about the goose my mother cooked is when it was served it was literally swimming in its own fat so it went from being waterfowl to being fatterfowl, which like the most insulting thing that can happen to a goose aside from being turned into foie gras.

The other thing I remember about the goose is it tasted pretty much like chicken, which got me thinking about the birds we eat. Some are off-limits for obvious reasons. Vultures, condors, and ravens are carrion eaters which is why we carry on whenever we see a group of them hanging around, although some of us have been known to eat crow—if, for instance, we forget a spouse’s anniversary. Hawks and falcons have traditionally been used for hunting so they’ve been useful in getting food rather than being it. Most small birds aren’t eaten because, well, they’re small, although the French eat ortolans, and somewhere there’s a recipe for two dozen blackbirds baked in a pie and, based on what I’ve heard, they’re served still alive. The dodo didn’t go extinct because it was stupid. It was wiped out because sailors who stopped off at the isle of Mauritius ate so many of them and their eggs.

We also eat ducks, and even eat chickens stuffed inside of ducks stuffed inside of turkeys, a pretty tasty combination although I’m a little wary of eating anything that starts with the word “turd”.

So what is it that makes swans special? Yes, they look pretty, but so do Canada geese and, well, as far as I know no one eats those either. Anyway it is probably their looks that saved them. For a long time they were favored by royalty and therefore protected—or at least it was only royalty who could eat them, although at least one Victorian cookbook has a recipe for roasted swans, although they reportedly have a fishy flavor and most people prefer their fish to taste like fish and their fowl to taste like chicken.

Then there’s the mythology. There was Zeus who seduced Leda in the form of a swan, eventually leading to the Trojan War, which makes it sound like Leda would have been better off grilling the swan than sleeping with it. And then there’s Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling which is kind of like a swan itself: beautiful from a distance but it gets worse the closer you get. It’s a nice idea that for the “duckling” things get better but he doesn’t really do anything except get older. If life were that easy we could all just spend those awkward teenage years in isolation which, now that I think about it, doesn’t sound so bad.

There’s also E.B. White’s The Trumpet Of The Swan, which I think I got for Christmas the same year my mother cooked the goose. It was his last novel—sort of a swan song, although he’d live another fifteen years after it was published, and follows a trumpeter swan named Louis who’s born mute so his father steals him an actual trumpet which, like his namesake the great Satchmo, he learns to play. And he goes to school, works at a summer camp where he saves a kid from drowning, composes his own music, does a pretty good cover of “Old Man River”, and tips a waiter who brings him watercress sandwiches.

Now there’s a swan I’d hesitate to eat even though he has good taste.

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