Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year to All, Ring-a-Ding-Ding

Hot on the heels my favorite holiday season come my least favorites - New Years and Valentine's Day. Even when I'm madly in love, neither holiday lives up to its expectations. And I can't even tell you what those expectations are.

A guy friend and I were talking about this yesterday at work - what would be our ideal New Year's celebration? I don't know. Travel back to the 1930s or 40s and celebrate with dining and dancing to one of the famous bands of the era, wearing a wonderful silvery gown, blowing noise makers and wearing silly hats? Well, OK, that's impossible (I haven't mastered the time-travel thing, dammit). Even then, I bet it wouldn't live up to the images from old movies and newsreels.

When I was little, we spent the evening lighting and swirling our sizzling sparklers around in the front yard. Santa always stuffed our stockings with sparklers just so we'd have something with which to welcome in the New Year. What a party guy! Anyway, we'd sizzle and make a lot of noise with those 1950s-type noisemakers, then flop into bed - completely out of it by the time the clock passed midnight.

I can name only three great New Year's celebrations since childhood - two in Vermont (where we once owned a house) and one during my salad days with Turner Broadcasting. All three were mid-sized affairs - 8-20 people - food, music, laughter. One even included silly hats - that was the requirement to get in: a home-made silly hat (the Turner party, obviously). But apart from the hats, the occasion was really no different from any other gathering of good friends for a meal and a chuckle or two.

Nothing like that planned this year, though. Movie and a meal with a friend, then home before the crazy folks hit the road. Maybe I'll stay up till midnight; maybe I won't. But tomorrow - and upholding a fine Southern tradition - I'll tuck in to my meal of black-eyed peas, turnip greens and wedge of buttery cornbread, hoping the coming year brings health, wealth (I'll settle for comfortable solvency), and a surfeit of loving laughter.

Happy New Year to all. Here's raising a glass and waving a sparkler in your general direction!

Friday, December 30, 2005

New Year's Pocket Fluff

In an effort to tie up a few loose ends before giving a big "Mwah!" to 2005, here are some fuzzies I found in my coat pocket:

A remake of Three Men in a Boat - and you know I love my Jerome K. Jerome! - on BBC2 (which helps me not at all, of course) is set for January 3. It'll take donkeys years to get over here, but I'm raising a glass in honor of an updated version of the story. An interesting article about how much fun the three stars had on their boat trip up the Thames can be found here. I love Dara O'Briain's description of how different England is from the river's point of view:

The Thames cuts through an England previously unknown to me. Over the past few years, I have performed in practically every town in this country - by road and rail I have seen each corner of the sceptred isle. By river, however, we might as well have been on a different continent. Oh sure, you knew that Reading, say, was just past that bank of trees on your left, but you never had to see it. In fact the closest parallel I can draw is that it was like walking to work, but only by jumping through people's back gardens.

Jumping through people's back gardens, indeed! What a yummy idea! has its Picks of the Top Theatre Stories of 2005. I'd guess the biggest story was that Broadway really cha-chinged this year, raking in mo' money than it has in years. Fine, fine stuff there right now, both musicals and non-musical plays. The place is really cookin'. Couldn't happen to a finer keeper of live performance (plus off-Broadway, of course).

Looking for a few hilarious literary quotes of the year? The Times of London gives a nice selection from British-type writers (sorry, no Nicole Ritchie). Here are the winner and runner-up:

Sentence of the year -
“In an attempt to breathe life back into the traditional pillars of the economy, the coffin of classical liberalism was nailed shut.” Richard Holmes’s In the Footsteps of Churchill

Runner-up -
“Was it that day that I noticed Myles’s toes were webbed?” John Banville’s The Sea, winner of the Man Booker prize

And my personal favorite - Best obituary headline
“Wykehamist pimp, crack fiend and adulterer who created Henry Root.” William Donaldson remembered, The Daily Telegraph

Something to aim for, fellow writers - Wykehamist pimp, et. al.

A big thanks to all who have sent along book recommendations. I'm making a list and checking out the bookstores this weekend. I'll let you know what I lug home. By the way, anyone read Ursula Under by Ingrid Hill? It was thrust into my hands by a good friend a couple of weeks ago, and I've just uncovered it from underneath various wrappings and ribbons. I started it last night, and it seems pretty good.

Still no word on my former classmate Tom Fox and the other three hostages kidnapped in Iraq November 26. The most recent news story involved a vigil held in Trafalgar Square for Norman Kember, reported yesterday by BBC. Spare a thought for them all as we lurch toward the new year.

The Best of 2005 According to Me

And let's face it, that's all that really matters, eh? Me? Anyway, here are the highlights of 2005, with a little edification (but no introspection!):

Spamalot - Got to see it on Broadway while still in previews. The entire original cast. Sat on same row, 10 seats down from Liza Minnelli (she looked pretty good, too, amazingly). After curtain call the cast led the audience in singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" as confetti rained down on us. I now put on my resume: Sang on Broadway with Liza Minnelli. Well, I did, didn't I?

The Reading Room/research staffs of the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum, Sheffield Central Library - Each person went out of his/her way to help me find solid, interesting resources for my research on Walter. A special doff of the hat to the IWM late afternoon staff who took this picture of me, even though flash photography isn't allowed there and we had to wait until all the other Reading Room patrons had cleared out. You totally rock, people!

The hospitality of old friends - Jean and Aubrey, my English "parents," catered to my every whim while I was in England. Nay - they anticipated my every whim (because I'd never whim on 'em). From Aubrey's wonderful English breakfasts to drinkies in the back garden, Jeannie's fine slap-up suppers and evenings in front of the telly. So much laughter and stories and catching up. Even if I did have to hang out at the Walton Conservative Club. (You'd think a big buzzer would sound an alert when I walk through the door of the place, wouldn't you? But, nah.)

Kay Malcolm Mary at Meso2The hospitality of new friends - Kay and Malcolm, whom I'd only known through email correspondence over the past two years, journeyed to Sheffield so that we could compare Wildgoose notes (Kay runs the best Wildgoose genealogy website) and drive around to some of Walter's old 'hoods. We got on like a house afire, yammering non-stop. And Walter's son Ron welcomed me to his home, shared stories and photographs, and passed along incomparable information about his father. New friends are true blessings.

Walter as Chelsea Pensione
Walter Wildgoose - You left me an amazing story through your letters and the stories you told me all those years ago. The more I learn about you, the more I realize how lucky I am that our paths crossed that summer day in Whitehall in 1977. I don't know that I'm good enough, big enough to tell your story, but you left it to me for a reason so I will do my best, dear Wally.

Journey's End - Incredible production of the classic World War I play at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. The final curtain came down and we in the audience were subjected to 2-3 minutes of sound effects - bombs, guns, bullets hitting dirt. Completely unnerving. Then the curtain call - actors stood in front of a huge backdrop listing WWI casualties. Not a dry seat in the house, folks. Outstanding!

Hurricane Katrina Direct Relief - Grace Davis and Victoria Powell pulled off a super volunteer effort through their grassroots Katrina relief blog. Frustrated with the complete breakdown of the government's and non-profits' ability to get real help to real people real fast, these two women did what any good Girl Scout or PTA mom would do - hook up the "doers" and "havers" with the "needees." Fast. I stand in awe.

Family - The longer I live, the more grateful I am that I have a big, loving family. Many people don't have this and I know I'm extremely lucky. So to daughter Kate, brother Bill, sister Cindy, a host of nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins (first, twice-removed, etc), the big Brennan bunch (I didn't give 'em up after the divorce!), and family members no longer around - heartfelt thanks for your love, support, stories, laughter and tears.

Those are the Best o' the Best for 2005, though the list could have continued beyond all reason. I don't do resolutions, so you will be spared that junk.

Celebrate, my friends, that we're all still here and heading hell-for-leather (whatever that means) into 2006!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

New Year's reflections should only be in mirrors

Does a concentrated effort at year-end reflection help or hurt? According to University of Virginia professor of psychology Timothy D. Wilson in today's New York Times, it's better just to move on. Group studies show that intense debriefing - whether for people in troubled relationships or 9/11 emergency workers - doesn't help the mental and emotional state of the folks in the studies and may even make things worse.

This only shores up my problems with psychotherapy. The constant "why-why-why-so how do you feel about that?" just pisses me off and makes me feel like a dog chasing its tail. My ideal therapist would be the Tracy Ullman on Allie McBeal type - someone brave enough to say "Yeah, you are crazy! Now let's move on and find a theme song for your life." Heck, give me a couple of truth-telling girlfriends and a bottle of wine, and I'm perfectly centered. (Still crazy, but perfectly centered.)

Anyway, per the article, the secret of leaving past mistakes or traumas behind? Just be the person you want to be:

Social psychologist Daniel Batson and colleagues at the University of Kansas found that participants who were given an opportunity to do a favor for another person ended up viewing themselves as kind, considerate people - unless, that is, they were asked to reflect on why they had done the favor. People in that group tended in the end to not view themselves as being especially kind.

The trick is to go out of our way to be kind to others without thinking too much about why we're doing it. As a bonus, our kindnesses will make us happier.

So instead of making a list of what went wrong in 2005 and delving deep into your psyche for the whys and wherefores, a better idea might be to list all the good things that you did or happened to you - no introspection allowed! - then burn it in the fireplace as you drink a glass of hot cocoa. After that, and without thinking twice about it, go forth and do good stuff!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

There once was a New Year '06 . . .

. . . because there's not a year called "Nantucket."

Got a good New Year's limerick in ya'? Give it a try. Here's my tame one:

In search of a New Year’s resolution,
The goal is my self-evolution,
As long as my vow
Leaves room to allow
Impatience and retribution.

If I knew you better, I'd share the not-so-tame one. But don't let that stop you.

Make it stop!

In an effort to purify my heart and mind, I plan to avoid some topics that have over-saturated the media. You can throw 'em at me - but I'm duckin', People. Ears plugged and screaming to the heavens, here's my current Dear God, Make It Stop List:

  1. Bird flu - Look, Chicken Little, call me when you have more definite information.
  2. Terror/terrorism/terrorist - See above.
  3. Paris, Lindsey, Britney, Tom/Katie/Brad/Angelina - I could go on, but you know who the culprits are.
  4. iPod - Sorry. You still look stupid with stuff hanging outta your ears, be it Walkman, cell phone, or iPod. I don't care what the thing does.
  5. Gay marriage - Get over it. Live and let live. And here's hoping gays do a better job with it than heterosexuals.

OK, I'll stop there. C'mon - what's on your DGMIS List?

And keep those book suggestions coming - great stuff there! Thanks!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hot on the trail of a good read

I know there's one out there. I just can't seem to find it. Now that I've re-shelved my holiday murder mysteries, my nose is to the ground in an effort to track down a good book to dive into. My TBR stack is almost ceiling-high, but none of it's floatin' my boat right now, if you get my drift. (Boat? Drift? Sorry.)

So, Watson - a little help, here. Sherlock's smokin' too much bishop to find a good book on his own.

Here's what I don't like: fantasy/science fiction, westerns, romance (the Barbara Cartland kind), self-help books (well, that should be obvious). I'm wide open for anything else - literary fiction, mysteries, biographies, readable non-fiction (not too academic - I'm still on carb-load, remember, and the brain is a bit soppy). Funny stuff, serious stuff, scary stuff, weird stuff.

Suggestions? Give Shorty Sherlock a little hint, huh?

Hi Ho Hi Ho - with a groan and a stretch - it's back to work we go

On the third day of Christmas, my kind boss gave to me - a job to return to. Since nothing really gets back to normal until after the first of the year, I use the week after Christmas to organize things both real and virtual. I still have a brainful of tinsel, so I'll spend the morning doing the manual labor of cleaning my desk. That should get me to lunchtime. After that, I'll be ready to start the organization of computer files which has needed to be done for at least six months. That should last till Friday. See, I need a clear strategy or I'll just put my head on my desk and doze.

But first, the annual post-Christmas Day inventory:
  1. Best meal: Christmas lunch at my sister's (though my own Christmas Eve supper is a close second). We were able to crowd around one table, since three of our group were absent due to illness. Ham, turkey/dressing, Brunswick stew, green salad, ooh and lots more. Plus yum-worthy desserts. But it was the family sharing the meal that made it the best.
  2. Best practical gift: I told you Santa promised me a digital camera if I was a good girl, and I hid my sins of commission so well that he brought it anyway. Poor you - you'll be subjected to many more personal photos on Shorty PJs from here on out!
  3. Best sentimental gift: Sister Cindy put together family picture albums for Brother Bill, Aunt Nell, and me, with scanned images of some very old photos starting with Mother when she was little and carrying right through to Christmas 1960. Cindy's a graphic artist - not a scrapbooker - and she did a beautiful job selecting papers and backgrounds for the pictures. A treasure!
  4. Biggest regret: I know I said I wouldn't worry about eating too much, but boy, did I eat too much! I feel like I huge city-eating slug, and all the pictures taken over the past few days reveal that, yes indeed, I AM a huge city-eating slug. NO MORE WHITE FOOD. I mean it!
  5. Best new tradition: After church and supper on Christmas Eve, Kate, her feller Greg, and I each chose a story to read to the others around the fire. Greg read The Gift of the Magi, Kate read The Polar Express, and I read (you guessed it) A Child's Christmas in Wales. It was a soothing, peaceful way to greet Christmas.
What about you? Was it calm and bright for you, or more 'tis the season to be jolly?

Off to work - must organize, don'cha know.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas should be softly spoken

Christmas Eve is settled and quiet - a time for reading by the fire and watching the last of the seasonal films on my list. Well, it's quiet until we head for the glorious church service, complete with brass, stings, a wonderful kettle drum, and of course the splendiferous Buzard pipe organ. Then we'll sing loud, loud, loud, hug old friends, marvel at the greenery and candles, and gather at the altar for the Eucharist.

Before the service, grown-up Kate will gather in the aisle with friends who used to toddle, clomp, and skip with her down the aisle in angel wings or shepherd's robes when they were small. They all look very adult now, and you have to bore deep in your memory to picture them fiddling with their halos or battling each other with the shepherds' staffs.

Then home for a fine supper, always some kind of seafood. This year, my famous dishwasher-baked salmon. (Don't laugh - I learned this at a cooking class. Put the salmon fillets, butter, dill in oven bags and close tightly and place in a shallow pan. Place pan on lower racks of dishwasher and let it run through the whole cycle, wash and dry. No soap, obviously. It will be perfectly, moistly steamed and very yummy.) Asparagus and scalloped potatoes and lots of odds and ends of pies, cheesecakes, and cookies complete the meal.

Ooh. And one other thing. I'm making "Smoking Bishop" (mentioned in A Christmas Carol) as our warm drink. Here's the recipe I'm using. The oranges, cloves, sugar, and red wine have been enjoying each other's company in an earthenware jug for almost two days now (and it smells potent but divine). All I'll have to do is add the port and heat when we get in from the Christmas Eve service tonight.

One and only one present will be opened by each of us after supper; the rest, tomorrow morning. And tomorrow, we make the rounds. Christmas lunch at my sister's - which will be sort of sad since it will be the last at her house for a while. (After 28 years in the Atlanta area, she and hubby are moving to California in 2006.) Then dinner with my step-daughter's family. It'll be a full day - full of food, family, laughs, and love. Tiring, but we'll all feel oh, so blessed.

Then quietly, quietly I'll settle back by the fire, read parts of A Christmas Carol, all of A Child's Christmas in Wales, and the second chapter of Luke one more time, vowing to hold the feeling of the season as long as I can throughout the coming year.

Children's dreams can not be broken
Life is but a lovely token
Christmas should be softly spoken,

All through the night.

Merry Christmas one and all.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The day before the day before

Chattanooga, Tennessee 1950,
Christmas on Market Street (yes, this is before I was born).

December 23rd was always one of my most favorite days as a kid. We were fresh out of school with only two days to go before Christmas. It was wonderful frenzy - lots of secrets and hiding things and going off with Daddy to do last-minute shopping for presents or groceries. (My mother raised me to believe that grocery shopping was a man's job - Daddy loved it and Mother hated it, so it all worked out.) Anyway, if you went with Daddy you could talk him into all sorts of treats - a new kind of cereal or Fritos or a Tootsie Roll Pop, so it was worth the effort for a kid to be present for that.

We'd always venture to this one little shopping area that had a big Rexall Drug Store, Stone's Hardware, Red Food Store (where you could buy any color food, actually), and this toy store (can't remember the name) that had a big sign out front that counted down the days to Christmas all year long. Nothing was more exciting than to drive by that toy store (I don't think we ever went in) and see "2 Days 'Til Christmas!" Oh, the anticipation! What would the next two days bring?

Daddy loved Christmas and was a wonderful Santa Claus - even the time "Santa" left some of the toys in the attic. That year Daddy, tired from a very early wake-up call, had to retrieve them when Mother noticed things looked kinda sparse under the tree. Still, he never lost his Ho-Ho-Ho.

So December 23rd is the day that I think of as Daddy's Day - moreso than the official Father's Day in June. Daddy with one or two or all four of us children piled in the car, picking up a few things here and there, stopping in at the filling station - "gas station" to anyone born after 1970, I guess - to greet Mr. Snyder (we were regulars) and swill down the obligatory Grapette - our own little Christmas rituals.

Daddy died in April 1999. Happy Daddy's Day, you great loving soul.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Move over, Lucy van Peldt. Here's the REAL Christmas Queen!

Every year we have an employee holiday contest here at Perkins+Will/ Atlanta. Each employee is assigned another person to slam, smear, and generally take the mick out of, all in the name of ho-ho-ho good cheer. (Hey, we're just those kinda folks.) Last year we had to design a CD cover and create a suitable music mix for our unsuspecting assignee. This year in conjunction with our holiday food drive, we had to create a food label for one of our donations (easily detachable, of course). Tip o' the hat to Andrew Crenshaw who was very gentle with me - elevating me to Queen of the Tea.

Eat your heart out, Lizzie Windsor!

The season in stained glass

Night before last I dreamed that the lovely stained glass windows in my church - Atlanta's All Saints' Episcopal - had been knocked out and replaced with a sort of 1960s/70s-looking arrangement of colored glass chunks imbedded in white plaster. I was distraught and kept running up to people crying "Where are the windows? What have they done with the windows?" No one else seemed perturbed about it, which upset me even more.

The dream was so real that I went to mid-week Eucharist yesterday just to reassure myself that my windows were still there.

These are no ordinary windows. Seven of them are from Tiffany Studios, with a couple signed by Himself LCT. Seasons, weather, the time of day all affect how the windows filter the light, and the artisans who designed them knew full well what the results of these differences would produce.

My favorite is the Shepherds' Window because of the eight angels crowded into the upper left corner (I've even written a couple of children's stories about "the angels in the window.") I check my angels every time I enter the church and turn to look at them several times during a service. They enthrall me - why? I do not know. But life would be a little darker and less glorious without them watching over me.

Thought you might like to see the three windows depicting the Christmas season: The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, The Annunciation to the Shepherds (with my angels - and yes, I've named them), and The Epiphany (this one periodically shows up as a Hallmark Christmas card).

And the dream? I think I can interpret it, but it would break De-Stress Rule #10 so I'll put it aside until after the holidays.

But for now - the windows are in place and reflecting the winter light. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Servin' up Wednesday's tid-bit tray

All the odds and sods flickering through my extremely short-attention-spanned mind this morning - grab your cocktail plate and pile it high.

Nostalgic for those holiday TV commercials of old? Well, hop on your Norelco electric shaver and ride on over to Classic TV Ads. The quality's pretty lousy on most of the offerings, but it's still fun to watch and remember. I think the old cigarette ads (Lucky Strike, Chesterfield) are the most interesting. Who knew Christmas in the 1940s and 50s was all about smoking? Damn that 1963 Surgeon-General's report! The site also has clips from TV specials - Rick Nelson, Perry Como, Karen Carpenter, and my personal favorite - Julie, natch. Funny stuff.

Additions to the Christmas movie lists have come through. Nobody reminded me to include the 1994 re-make of Miracle on 34th Street to the post-1960 group (we've agreed to disagree about which version was better) and put Bogart-Ustinov-Ray's We're No Angels on the pre-1960 list (haven't seen it in years - good addition!). There's been some discussion about whether to include A Nightmare Before Christmas in the post-1960s, but I consider that more of a Halloween movie. Thoughts? Oh, and The Open Mind told me about a 1971 animated A Christmas Carol that was missing from my Scrooge list. I haven't seen it, but it's the only Carol to win an Oscar (and Alistair Sim did the voice-over for Scrooge).

The Guardian's Culture Vulture wants to know about your seasonal reading habits. I like to settle in with a good anthology of Christmas mysteries/ghost stories (and I've had trouble finding new ones this year). And you already know my predilection for A Child's Christmas in Wales and A Christmas Carol. What's next to your chair by the fire (besides the eggnog and mulled wine)?

Still no word on Tom Fox and the other Christian Peacemaker Teams hostages. CPT has put a photo album of Tom's work in Palestine and Iraq online. As I try to keep track of developments in the hostage situation, I've run across some ugly, angry posts about these folks who are following their caring, peaceful principles to make the world a better place. I am constantly amazed and saddened by the hatred and hypocrisy spewing from fellow Americans. Find my original post about Tom here.

Tid-bit tray's full now, so I'll stop. Hope there's something for everyone on it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Dickens in black-and-white (and I don't mean film)

The Times (London) is running Dickens' own abridged, serialized version of A Christmas Carol in the newspaper this week, so you may want to put a lump of coal in the stove, pull your shawl around your shoulders, and settle in for a real 19th century experience.

Find Stave One here; Stave Two here; Stave Three here. You'll have to check back tomorrow to find out what happens, though.

There's also an interesting essay by Peter Ackroyd, giving the backstory for the Dickens classic. A little taste, you ask? Here ya' go:

So the story emerged from him almost ready made. His friend and biographer, John Forster, recounted with what “a strange mastery it seized him”; he recounted how he wept over it, laughed over it and then wept again. He pleaded a bad cold and refused all social engagements. In the course of its composition he took long night walks through London, sometimes covering ten or 15 miles at a time. He had finished it by the beginning of December so that, in total, it had taken a little over six weeks to compose. He had done it all in one bound, as it were, and as soon as he had written “The End” he added three double underlinings. Then he said that “he broke out like a madman”.

You may have to register for The Times. (I'm registered for everything, so I never think about it when I link to things. Sorry.) Anyway, enjoy or we'll have to ask you to die and decrease the surplus population!

Christmas Movies, Finale: The New-Fangled, Post-1960 Ones

All right, I'm tossing out a few - and only a few - of the holiday films that have surfaced since the 1960s. All on the list are theatrical releases with two exceptions: The House Without a Christmas Tree and A Child's Christmas in Wales (both made for television). Maybe - probably - your favorite isn't on here, so feel free to shake your fist at the computer screen and tear off a (lovingly) huffy comment. However, here are the goodies that come to my mind (in no particular order):

The House Without a Christmas Tree (1972). Jason Robards, Mildred Natwick, Lisa Lucas - all wonderful in this made-for-TV story about a bitter father, a loving grandmother, and a clever girl who just wants a Christmas tree in the house. Takes place in post-war (WWII) Nebraska. Jason Robards has the just-bubbling-under-the-surface anger down pat, but Lisa Lucas is more than a match for him. If you click on the link, you'll reach the Amazon review - one of the comments is from Lisa her-own-bad-self. Kate and I love this one.

A Christmas Story (1983). Well, what's not to love? Peter Billingsley is adorable, but not sickeningly so, as Ralphie - the kid that just wants a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. The entire cast is brilliant - Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, all the kids. It's funny and charming, and most of us have seen it a thousand times. And will watch it another thousand or two. Certain to be added to the old-time classic list, alongside White Christmas and Miracle on 34th Street.

One Magic Christmas (1985). It's Disney, but don't let that scare you off. It's a dark tale (too dark, some critics thought) - death, job loss, kidnapping - with a sort of It's a Wonderful Life twist. Mary Steenburgen - fabulous, as always - as the mom who has too much on her shoulders to feel Christmasy. And the brilliant (but kinda scary) Harry Dean Stanton, as your not run-of-the-mill angel.

Elf (2003). "Buddy the Elf. What's your favorite color?" Love the way Will Farrell's character answers the phone. Funny, smart, and silly. Zoey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, James Caan, and another chance to see Mary Steenburgen. And the four food groups? Candy, Candy Cane, Candy Corn, Maple Syrup. Now that's my kind of FDA daily minimum requirement!

Home Alone (1990). The ultimate kid-revenge film. Still love this one, just because. Don't know why. Catherine O'Hara is worth sitting through anything. And how much can Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern take? Sheesh. Keep the change, ya' filthy animal!

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989). Ah, the Griswolds. You either love 'em or hate 'em, but many of us can identify with whacky relatives landing on our doorsteps and sweating out a Christmas bonus.

A Child's Christmas in Wales (1987). Finally - this is available on DVD. A beautiful version of Dylan Thomas' classic short tale, starring Denholm Elliott as the grownup remembering those snowy holidays in Wales. Very true - line by line, almost - to the book. Do grab this one if you haven't seen it.

The Snowman (1982). Based on the Raymond Briggs picture book. Glorious music and stunning crayon-like animation. Nominated for Best Short Animated Film Oscar and won the BAFTA for Best Children's Programme. Except for a brief voice-over set-up, the film has no voice-over, which I find very soothing. Love the flight to the North Pole and the snowman that does the Highland Fling.

Love Actually (2003). OK, stop groaning. Granted, there are about 6 too many stories being told and I get confused about who knows who, but I like that they don't all have happy endings. And Emma Thompson deserved an Oscar for that 30-second scene in the bedroom when she realizes hubbie Alan Rickman is having an affair - wow! And I like when Prime Minister Hugh Grant stands up to US President Billy Bob Thornton. (And ain't it hi-larious to even conceive of "Prime Minister Hugh Grant" and "President Billy Bob Thornton"???)

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). The live-action one, with Jim Carrey. I found all the gizmos and sets fascinating - very Seussical. "I'm an idiot!"-"You're an idiot!" echo-fest never fails to make me laugh. And did you catch the little scene when Baby Grinch is dropped at the party house, and the Whos are doing the 1970s keys-in-fishbowl thing? Ha! Ya-Whos!

And so you don't have to scroll through a month's-worth of blog to access the other Christmas movie postings: Christmas Movies, Part I: The Life Lessons, Christmas Movies, Part II: Marley Was Dead to Begin With, and Christmas Movies, Part III: The Pre-1960 Classics.

OK - now hit me with your Bad Santa, Christmas with the Cranks, and Ernest Saves Christmas.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Holiday De-stress List

That's DE-Stress List, not Distress List. I refuse to be distressed right now. Makin' my list and checkin' it twice, here's the plan:
  1. Don't think about money. My gift budget isn't out of whack at all, but the season does leave some shortages here and there, if you know what I mean (and if you don't, then I'm not thinkin' about you, either). I always pull through somehow, so I'm going to run on faith that I'll slide by again. Mark $$-worries off my list until January.
  2. Get a massage. Absolutely - I have an appointment for 7 o'clock this evening. I hope to have bones of jelly by 8.
  3. Read A Child's Christmas in Wales again. And again. And again. Did it snow for 12 days and nights when I was 6, or 6 days and nights when I was 12? (Paraphrasing, of course.)
  4. Watch It's a Wonderful Life and Christmas in Connecticut. I save these two for last. There's a definite order to my Christmas movies that I find comforting and familiar. I know - what a dork!
  5. Have a glass of wine or a gin and tonic every evening after work. I don't need more than one drink, really. If made properly, the first one works wonders. If the first one doesn't relax me, then ten won't. Just one good one for me, please.
  6. Pile the Christmas cards I've received so far in my lap, look and read each carefully, celebrating the person who sent it and the relationship we've shared. I never throw out Christmas cards, by the way - I save them in a huge box and love looking through them again year after year. Kate'll just have to deal with them when I'm dead.
  7. Don't worry about food/calories/dieting/exercise. Just indulge. Like the money worries, I always make it through somehow - gaining here and there, but at some point working it off. Eat, drink, and be merry.
  8. Don't worry about writing - or more accurately, not writing. I'm going to sleep late and enjoy it. I think I need to re-charge. I'll come back to it.
  9. Do what I want to do, within reason. If I want to accept an invitation, I will. If for some reason I'd rather stay in and watch The House Without a Christmas Tree, I will. I'm a grown-up and I can say yes or no.
  10. Laugh. A lot. Actively seek funny stuff. Avoid things that piss me off (like mean people and politics).
And now, my little gingerbread cookies, I must take care of #2 on my list. Chill while I'm gone.

NO Christmas

Deliver on this one, Santa.
What a boring old country we'll be without New Orleans.
(Photo by Rick McKay, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Garth pops the question

Cross Garth off the Available Men list, folks. Saturday, he popped the question to Miss Claire on Santa's knee in Athens, Georgia. I love the stunned look on Claire's face, and Santa's is priceless! Garth forewarned the photographer to make sure the magic moment was captured, so you're seeing the proposal and ring reveal at the primo time.

Big congratulations to the happy young couple!

Severe case of Writer's Guilt

Or maybe that should be Non-Writer's Guilt. Since Thanksgiving, I've had a devil of a time concentrating on my writing. My early morning writing time has evaporated, as I tend to roll over and sleep the extra hour and a half rather than pull myself out of bed to cuddle up with the laptop. And I find the Christmas tree a huge distraction - more often than not, I just sit and stare at it and let my mind drift all over the place.

Now, obviously, the holiday is taking my heart and mind away from the writing, and once things calm down in dark and dreary January, my muse will crawl out from whatever rock she's hiding under. I hope. But I figured this would happen, so the chunk of the story I'm writing takes place during Christmas. I thought having the Christmas tree in my face would help push my creative buttons, but it's not turning out that way.

So I'm feeling guilty about it. Not huge mass-murderer guilt, but constant niggling pricks that I'm not doing what I oughta. Like not keeping to a diet or sending over-due thank you notes. Maybe I should just say to hell with it, this isn't going to happen until after Christmas, and tamp down the guilt. But, oh, I do feel like a lazy, no-good, sham-writer right now. Sigh.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Words and Music

I love Christmas carols. There. I've said it. Now, under no circumstances should carols be assaulting our sensabilities before the Friday after Thanksgiving - that interferes with our "Over the River and Through the Woods/We Gather Together" humming - but after that, all bets are off.

My theory is that if commercial entities would just play great renditions of the carols instead of generic, Muzak-y stuff, folks wouldn't complain so much. Of course, piping Julie Andrews and Andre Previn or anything from the great "Winter Solstice" artists throughout the stores would probably make people stop and listen, then wander off in haze without buying anything. As it is, everyone just wants to hurry up, buy, and get the hell out before the music drives 'em crazy.

I can't think of one carol I absolutely hate - it's all in the arrangement, artist, and accompaniment - but I do have favorite lyrics that touch my soul whenever I hear or sing them. Here are some of the most beautiful to me:

"In the Bleak Midwinter," words by Christina Rosseti/music Gustav Holst (so right away, you know it's gonna be downright good):
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,

Snow on snow.

"O Little Town of Bethlehem," words by Phillips Brooks. I have two favorite chunks of lyrics in this one, starting with the entire third verse:

How silently, how silently
The wonderous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heaven.

No ear may hear his coming,

But in this world of sin,

Where meek souls will receive him,

Still the dear Christ enters in.

There's also a lovely section in rarely-sung verse four:

Where charity stands watching
And faith holds wide the door,

The dark night wakes,

The glory breaks,

And Christmas comes once more.

"It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," words by Edmund H. Sears. Verse three is a lament of a weary world that "beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong," but oh it continues:

O hush the noise
And cease your strife

And hear the angels sing!

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This one was written in the heat of the Civil War, which accounts for the despair of the middle verses. The message is timeless:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

So try to ignore the awful things bombarding you this time of year. These songs really are beautiful and many, many times beautifully performed. Stop and think of the words, often penned during the bleakest of times, that - in the end - offer hope during the dark winter.

And if you want a treat, stop by Pratie Place and listen to Jane's seasonal music offerings - she's giving us the gift of a song a day, starting with "In the Bleak Midwinter." The antithesis of Muzak - beeee-yooo-tiful. Today's song is "The Holly Bears a Berry." Thanks, Jane!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Tom Fox and the other hostages: Still waiting to hear

The Toronto Star is reporting that an Iraqi hostage negotiator working to free Christian Peacekeeper Teams' Tom Fox, Norman Kember, James Loney, and Harmeet Singh Sooden is missing and believed kidnapped. There's been no word on the fate of the four hostages since last Saturday's deadline passed. Many speculate that there won't be any news of the four men until the Iraqi election news has cooled.

A list of news stories about my former classmate Tom can be found here, and Tom's website is here.

During this busy season please spare a thought for Tom and the other hostages, their families, captors and negotiators.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Woo-hoo! What a ride!

A friend just sent me this quote. Don't know who wrote it/said it/screamed it, but for what it's worth:

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming WOO HOO what a ride!

As I skid sideways with my chocolate and martini, Let me hear ya' say A-men!

Christmas Movies, Part III: The Pre-1960 Classics

Gather 'round, whippersnappers, and I'll tell you about a few Christmas classics produced years and years before 1983's A Christmas Story. I know you're thinkin' "Was there ever a Christmas movie conceived before little Peter Billingsley said 'Fuuuuuuudddddggge' or Scottie Schwartz got his tongue stuck to that pole?" Well, yes, my children. And here are my Oldie-Goldies:

Heidi (1937). Oh, come on! You love her and you know it. Little Shirley Temple sobbing "Grandfather! Grandfather!" and singing "Silent Night" around Herr Sesemann's Christmas tree. Poor Marcia Mae Clark (Klara) - rumor has that Shirley's mom was always on guard to make sure Marcia Mae didn't upstage little Shirl, so she made life hard on the director and the poor wheelchair-bound (for most of the film, anyway) actress. Other things to recommend Sparklin' Shirley's Swiss miss tale - Arthur Treacher, the whacked-out monkey, mean Fraulein Rottenmeier, and, of course, the broken snow globe - oh, the humanity!

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). It's a wonder the scenery survived this one, with Bette Davis and Monty Woolly chewing their way through it. I love this film. Woolly's character is based on the infamous Alexander Woolcott, and the actor does a fine and funny job of milking the sarcasm and pomposity imbued in dialogue based on the play's Hart-Kaufman script (but they weren't the screenwriters). And you know I love me some Miss Bette. Woo! The whole cast is fabulous - Billie Burke, Ann Sheridan, Reginald Gardiner, and lovable Jimmy Durante. I can watch this one over and over. (And all of us would-be novelists can identify with the poor doctor!)

Holiday Inn (1944). This is our introduction to Irving Berlin's song "White Christmas." And Bing Crosby begins his reign as Mr. Christmas Movie. Bing is the Good Guy and Fred (Astaire) is the Bad Boy. (I think it was just the opposite in real life.) Will Bing ever get the girl? That scene where she tries to sing "White Christmas" on the movie set, and she picks up his pipe - well, kinda makes you wish real love was like that! Several of H.I.'s songs recur in the 1954's White Christmas (see below).

Going My Way (1944) / The Bells of St. Mary's (1945). See? I told you Bing was Mr. Christmas Movie, though these aren't Christmas movies per se - they're always shown during the holidays, though. Sort of a "Salute to 1940's Catholicism" theme. So I put these two together since Bells continues the Going story. Barry Fitzgerald is lovable and Ingrid Bergman is gorgeous, even as a nun. And lookie at the picture - why, it's our dear Gene Lockhart whom we love as Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol! Watch these two favorites, and you'll be swingin' on a star (unless you want to grow up to be a mule).

Christmas in Connecticut (1945). How yummy is Barbara Stanwyck in this film? Yeah, right, Reginald Gardiner - like you could get Barbara Stanwyck even without Dennis Morgan sniffin' around! Sydney Greenstreet is downright adorable as Stanwyck's magazine boss Alexander Yardley; so is Una O'Conner as the stereotypical Irish cook Norah. And let's rave a mo about S.Z. Sakall as Felix. He wasn't nicknamed "Cuddles" for naught (seems no one could keep from pinching those voluminous cheeks - the face kind). This is sheer screwball comedy, but that's just fine with me. And who wouldn't give their eye-teeth for that great house in Connecticut? Umm-um.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Another gorgeriffic actress takes over the screen in this Santa Claus-Big American Department Store tale - Maureen O'Hara. That she stands out is saying a lot, since she has to elbow perky little Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn outta the way. (Gwenn won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his Kris Kringle role, by the way.) I think this version resolves itself a thousand times better than the 1994 version (though I know that my bud Nobody disagrees). To quote our dear Gene Lockhart - this time as the judge: "Eh... Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it. Case dismissed."

White Christmas (1954). Der Bingle, again. But even better - Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney. I think Bing pales in comparison to these two, but some reviewers disagree. Irving Berlin score - much of it lifted from Holiday Inn. Mary Wickes - as always - hilarious. (She's also the nurse chased by penguins in The Man Who Came to Dinner.) Kaye's "Doin' Choreography" number is classic Kaye, as is the drag "Sisters" routine with Crosby. Ooh. And Rosemary singing "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me" - what a voice! The movie's picture-perfect grand finale is iconic. Lap it up, chirrens.

Have I missed one of your golden-oldie favorites? Are there any pre-1960 British Christmas films that I don't know about? Tell me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Golden Ticket: Take THAT, Ticketmaster!

Score one for the little guy. I just trotted my heinie-bohunkus down to the Fox Theatre box office and got two excellent tickets for a Saturday evening performance (instead of the Thursday matinee Ticketmaster tried to pawn off on me) of Wicked. Sah-weeeeet! Lucky for me, the Fox is only two MARTA train stops from the office, so it was a piece o' cake. Oooh! And no service fee. Plus, a really nice gentleman-type human being at the box office.

Ahhh. It do feel good to win one 'gainst The Man.

(And, shhhhhhhhhh! Don't tell Kate about the tickets!)

The ultimate Grinch: Ticketmaster

Aaaaaargh! How much hate can we generate for this entity? Ticketmaster is the very worst of what capitalism has to offer - and at the expense of art and art-lovers.

I really wanted to get Kate tickets for Wicked for Christmas (it comes to Atlanta in May). Now, I realize I'm a little late jumping on this, but I managed to find two good seats for my boss the other day so I figured I could find something decent. But as of 9:30 this morning I've given up on getting any cooperation from Ticketmaster who holds the monopoly on tickets for events at the Fox Theatre here in Atlanta.

Ticketmaster's website is so convoluted and a pain in the ass to navigate - you have to keep typing those stupid hidden words (and some are so well hidden that they are unreadable). Then you're given 2 minutes to nail your reservation, which isn't enough time to pull up the seating chart to find what you're being offered or to fumble with your credit card.

Then it wants a huge service fee - um, for what? I did all the work - and you should pay me for those damn hidden word exercises!

So I figure, shoot, I'll call to talk to a human - and I use the term loosely; they work for Ticketmaster, after all - to find the best seats. Now, this really makes 'em huffy. Why, someone has to provide a service for that humongous fee! The very idea! I don't care about the date or time, I just want the best seats available whenever. This completely baffles the buffoon at the other end of the line.

Um - database, anyone? Can't you search by "best available" regardless of date? No? Then I guess you have to do what you ask your website customers to do and go date by date, performance by performance. But. I get the distinct feeling that the lazy slob on the other end of the line checks one performance, says "that's it, nothing else available," refusing to check the other dates. Obviously, this guy's heart is two sizes too small (and his brain's about six sizes too small).

Wonder if I can just go to the Fox box office and buy tickets? I'll check that out. If not, guess the Wicked plan's off as a wonderment-filled Christmas present for Kate. Perfect gift, though - she'd love the show. (I saw it in New York with the original cast, lucky me.)

OK, that's my Ticketmaster vent. The whole idea behind this blood-sucking company is - in short - WICKED! (and I don't mean the Idina Menzel/Kristen Chenoweth kind, either).

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Keeping a tight holiday schedule (that's "shhhhedule," darling)

I'm a lot like this. Except younger. And with red hair.
Oh, and my family's not so screwed up.

All caught up in the holiday whirlwind and haven't had much time to grab hold of the desk long enough to pull me out of it to slap down a post. Here's what's happening:

Work this week - busy, busy as everybody tries to slide things in under the 2005 wire and get a jump on January. (You understand, though, because I know you're going through the same thing.) But I still look adorable, even as I brush the loose strands of hair from my face in the frenzy.

Tonight - Kate and I are having dinner with a friend at the Piedmont Driving Club. No, we ain't members - we not be rich or couth enough - but we have a friend or two who lets us bask in the glory of this most exclusive of the exclusive Atlanta private clubs. And you know we'll look precious and remember to keep our elbows and feet off'n the table.

Tomorrow night - Holiday Pops Concert at All Saints' with Kate, her guy Greg, and my second cousin Nell. Another fabulous chance to look cute and sing real loud. Fa-la-la. Then to dinner at a trendy midtown restaurant - Two Urban Licks. Are ya' keepin' up?

Thursday night - Well, a conflict of interests. Have a fabu-invite for a hoppin' 'do at friends' house, but have to pass it by since there's a Galaxy Music Theatre board meeting scheduled at same time. And since I'm secretary of the board and the meeting's at my house, guess I'd better opt for the board meeting. (Here's hoping many a gin will be raised in my honor at Jim and Francis' party.)

Friday night - Finish shopping and addressing Christmas cards, and I mean it! Saturday - lunch with a friend.

Sunday - Big family (cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, out-laws, the works) Christmas pig-fest and laugh-till-you-cry celebration. It'll be loud with everyone talking at once. Woe be to those who can't multitask their listening and talking efforts!

I'm afraid to look at next week's calendar. Suffice it to say, it'll be more ho-ho-ho-ing, eating, and being joyful that I have dear ones to ho-ho with. Still keepin' up?

In the midst of your wildness and festive frenzy, spare a thought once in a while for my former classmate Tom Fox and the other hostages in Iraq. There's still no news of their fate; the deadline lapsed on Saturday.

For now, I need another cuppa tea. (And the news today is that tea helps stave off ovarian cancer, as if I needed a health reason to drink the stuff.)

It's hard - but ultimately satisfying - being the Christmas Queen.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Christmas Movies, Part II: Marley was dead, to begin with

All right, you buncha Scrooges. It's your day in the sun, or the big curtained bed, as it were. Settle back - this is going to be a long one.

Can you think of any single tale that's been told and re-told through movies and television more than Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Not even Pride and Prejudice - which seems to produce a new version every few years - can compete. Why, every sit-com and soap opera has done its Scrooge wa-hoo, and some have done two or three.

Everyone has their favorite version. I'm hard pressed to choose just one. I think each is a reflection of its time (as are all artforms), and that's what makes each interesting. A couple of pre-1938 offerings were produced, but I've never seen them, so they're not on my list. (If you've seen them, by all means throw in your two-cents' worth.) Here goes:

A Christmas Carol (1938), starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. I love the soft ethereal feel of this one - very 1930's MGM. Also love Ann Rutherford as Ghost of Christmas Past and the Lockharts (Gene and Kathleen) as the Cratchits. (Look for young June Lockhart, as well - she grows up to be Timmy's mother in TV's Lassie and the mom in Lost in Space.) Owen (later Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins) is a wonderful old movie-type Scrooge. But as usual, a sappy Tiny Tim.

A Christmas Carol (1951), with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. This is probably the most famous movie version of the story, and I think it's the darkest (very post-war England). There's something weirdly appealing about Sim (his eyes, I think). Nothing especially stands out about it, except that it works, so who can argue with that. Tiny Tim not quite as sappy as all the others. Look for Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Naugatuck on TV's Maude) as Mrs. Cratchit.

Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), voice of Jim Backus as Scrooge. Lots of songs by Broadway's Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (Funny Girl, for goodness sake!). The animation leaves much to be desired, but I still love this one (a hold-over from childhood, I suppose). Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim - and he says more that "boing-boing-boing."

Scrooge (1970), a musical with Albert Finney as Scrooge. A 1970's big budget musical, very Oliver-ish, with a score by Leslie Bricusse. I love this - it's sooooooo seventies, and I'm a Finney fan, so it works for me. Alec Guinness is a hoot as Jacob Marley's ghost. Great, wonderful, huge production numbers, and you know I'm a sucka' for that stuff. Another wussy Tim, though.

An American Christmas Carol (1979), with - wait for it - Henry Winkler as Scrooge. A late-1970's version of a 1930's Depression-era curmudeon. I've only seen this one a couple of times, and have only vague recollections of it.

Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), with - who else? - Scrooge McDuck as Scrooge and Mickey Mouse as Bob Cratchit. Fond memories of watching this with Kate when she was little, so I hold it dear for that reason.

A Christmas Carol (1984), George C. Scott as Scrooge. A big favorite, because Scott strides all over, under, and through the part. Very solid. I don't remember the Tim, so he must've not affected me one way or another.

The Jetson's Christmas Carol (1985), Mr. Spacely - who'd you think? - as Scrooge. Just for fun. And Astro pulls through.

Scrooged (1988), Bill Murray as Scrooge. This is one of the movies I watch - no matter the time of year - when I need a good laugh. Very yuppie-1980s, and Murray is hilarious - but so are Carole Kane (as the violent Ghost of Christmas Present), David Johansen/Buster Poindexter (Ghost of Christmas Past), and Bobcat Goldthwait. I feel sorry for those of you who didn't get to see it in its original run - sitting in a packed theater when Murray does his funny stuff at the credits - fun, fun!

Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988) - well, it's Blackadder and Baldrick, what more needs to be said? And you can bet that Baldrick has a cunning plan. Hard to find this one - be on the lookout in case BBC America or PBS slips it in somewhere.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), Michael Caine as Scrooge. Another child- and muppet-lover-pleaser. Kermit as Bob Cratchit, with Michael Caine bearing down on him.

A Flintstone's Christmas Carol (1994), Fred, natch, as Scrooge. But Wilma's the real star of this one - her inner bitch comes through!

A Christmas Carol (1999), with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge. A TNT original movie and OK. I'm not overly fond of Patrick Stewart, so I prefer George C. to Mr. Star Trek Guy.

A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004) with Kelsey Grammar as Scrooge. Threw this one in, since it's the latest iteration, but I haven't seen it. Can barely tolerate Grammar, but it looks like it has a strong cast otherwise, so I'll try to catch it next time it airs.

I don't have a favorite Scrooge (Owen/Sim/Scott/Murray, I guess), but I will throw my lot with the following:
Marley: Alec Guinness
Ghost of Christmas Past: Ann Rutherford
Ghost of Christmas Present: Edward Woodward/Carole Kane
Bob Cratchit: Gene Lockhart/Mickey Mouse

What did I leave out? Make your case for your favorite or least favorite. As an aficianado of "A Christmas Carol," I find something redeeming in each version. (But I still wonder why they change Belle's name in some of them. And Fan's.)