Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lennon and Laptops

Coming, perhaps appropriately, on the heels of yesterday's review of John Lennon: The Life, a number of readers have e-mailed to ask my opinion of the recent "One Laptop Per Child" commercial that uses Lennon's likeness and a digitized "voice." If you haven't seen it yet, here you go:

My reaction? Meh.

While many of the commenters on YouTube are offended that the highly-selective Yoko Ono would sanction the use of John's image for a charity that hands out laptops -- and there's a lot of chatter on whether that's a charity Lennon himself would have embraced -- it's not really the kind of thing that bothers me. Yoko is famously careful and tight-fisted when it comes to John's name and reputation -- even going so far as to stiff-arm Paul McCartney when he recently suggested that "Yesterday" be credited to McCartney-Lennon, rather than the more familiar Lennon-McCartney -- so I wouldn't presume to second-guess her assent for this particular organization.

For my part, I'm just not that impressed with the ad. Given that Yoko so rarely allows for John's name and image to be used, I expected something a little more spectacular or moving. The brief and grainy glimpse we get of John in the final few seconds -- with the Forrest Gump digitizing of the mouth -- doesn't really work. And the voiceover, while it very well may have been put together using actual Lennon clips, sounds to me like the cartoon version of Lennon from Yellow Submarine -- or, better yet, like Paul Rudd doing his deadpan Lennon in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (NSFW, due to naughty language and drug humor...):

The heart is probably in the right place, but the ad just doesn't do much for me.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Reviews in Brief: John Lennon: The Life (Philip Norman)

"In September 2003, I suggested to John's widow, Yoko Ono, that I should become his biographer," writes Philip Norman in the Acknowledgements section of John Lennon: The Life. However, after reading the final manuscript, "Yoko Ono was upset by the book," Norman tells us, "and would not endorse it . . . [saying] I had been 'mean to John.'"

I actually don't think Yoko's got anything to worry about; Norman's book is both clear-eyed and appropriately sympathetic as it traces the arc of Lennon's all-too-brief life and career. While there's much in here that's familiar, Norman uses both old and new sources to revisit apocryphal or second-hand stories -- most of which are familiar to Beatle fans -- and determine their veracity. He puts to rest, for example, the Did they or didn't they? question that has surrounded Lennon's vacation in Spain with manager Brian Epstein (they didn't), and accepts as fact many of the stories that expose John's darker side, such as his brutal beating of Cavern DJ Bob Wooler, or the lurid sexual fantasies involving his own mother.

There's also quite a bit that's new in here, too -- or, at least, was unfamiliar to me. Norman explores, for example, exactly what "business" Yoko was doing during Lennon's househusband years -- she was dealing mostly in mundane real estate transactions, but is also given full credit for shrewdly negotiating music contracts that maximized John's profits and protected his copyrights. He also examines some of the theater pieces that were based on Lennon's writings in the 1960s -- a hidden gem in the literate Beatle's career -- exposes a charming addiction to board games, and explains about as well as one can the complicated legal wranglings that finally dissolved the band and led to years of hard feelings.

For perhaps the first time, too, some of the supporting characters in Lennon's story finally come into their own. John's Aunt Mimi -- who can often come off as a bit of a shrew -- gets a bit of her own narrative, as Norman uses letters Mimi wrote regularly to a young female fan named Jane Wirgman to reveal just how thoughtful and protective of John Mimi could be, even as she continued to be embarrassed by his antics or appearance. You'll also have a better understanding of Freddie Lennon, John's seaman father who abandoned his wife and son, then rematerialized after John made it big. Freddie has his own reasons -- excuses -- for his actions, but for the first time, you'll have his own words and private correspondence to help you decide whether you buy it or not.

If there's a complaint I have about this otherwise thorough biography, it lies in Norman's narrative voice. Norman's prose isn't ever stilted -- he's too good a journalist for that -- but it can be somewhat stodgy (he calls the lyrics to "Twist and Shout," for example, "dippy"). He also inserts way too many clunky moments of foreshadowing of Lennon's fate, often resorting to eye-rollingly lame declarations of irony that are a stretch, at best.

For example, as the Beatles frolic for a photo session in New York during their first American tour in 1964, Norman can't help but indulge in dramatic voiceover. "Hindsight gives this routine scene a horrible irony," he writes. "Just across the park lies a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building" where John would be shot to death in 1980. Later, Norman tell us that for the 1972 U.S. Presidential campaign, "John pinned high hopes on the Democratic candidate, George McGovern, senator for South Dakota -- an omen if ever there was one . . . " It took me a moment to figure out why this was "an omen" -- until I realized it was the use of the word "Dakota" in the sentence that was supposed to be so ominous.

Perhaps even more annoying -- especially to the biographer in me -- there's no sign of a bibliography, sources, or endnotes, only an index. There were several times in Norman's book when I found myself saying "Where'd you get that?" and turned to the back looking for his source, only to come up blank. Perhaps, at 851 pages, there simply wasn't enough room left. But I'm sure I'm not the only one missing it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Dinner

Happy Holidays! As promised, here are some highlights from Washington Irving's 1820 short story "Christmas Dinner." Enjoy.

The dinner was served up in the great hall, where the squire always held his Christmas banquet. A blazing crackling fire of logs had been heaped on to warm the spacious apartment, and the flame went sparkling and wreathing up the wide-mouthed chimney. The great picture of the crusader and his white horse had been profusely decorated with greens for the occasion, and holly and ivy had like-wise been wreathed round the helmet and weapons on the opposite wall, which I understood were the arms of the same warrior . . . A sideboard was set out just under this chivalric trophy, on which was a display of plate that might have vied (at least in variety) with Belshazzar's parade of the vessels of the temple: "flagons, cans, cups, beakers, goblets, basins, and ewers," the gorgeous utensils of good companionship that had gradually accumulated through many generations of jovial housekeepers. Before these stood the two Yule candles, beaming like two stars of the first magnitude; other lights were distributed in branches, and the whole array glittered like a firmament of silver.

We were ushered into this banqueting scene with the sound of minstrelsy, the old harper being seated on a stool beside the fireplace and twanging, his instrument with a vast deal more power than melody. Never did Christmas board display a more goodly and gracious assemblage of countenances; those who were not handsome were at least happy, and happiness is a rare improver of your hard-favored visage. . . .

The parson said grace, which was not a short familiar one, such as is commonly addressed to the Deity in these unceremonious days, but a long, courtly, well-worded one of the ancient school. There was now a pause, as if something was expected, when suddenly the butler entered the hall with some degree of bustle: he was attended by a servant on each side with a large wax-light, and bore a silver dish on which was an enormous pig's head decorated with rosemary, with a lemon in its mouth, which was placed with great formality at the head of the table. The moment this pageant made its appearance the harper struck up a flourish; at the conclusion of which the young Oxonian, on receiving a hint from the squire, gave, with an air of the most comic gravity, an old carol, the first verse of which was as follows

Caput apri defero
Reddens laudes Domino.
The boar's head in hand bring I,
With garlands gay and rosemary.
I pray you all synge merily
Qui estis in convivio.

Though prepared to witness many of these little eccentricities, from being apprised of the peculiar hobby of mine host, yet I confess the parade with which so odd a dish was introduced somewhat perplexed me, until I gathered from the conversation of the squire and the parson that it was meant to represent the bringing in of the boar's head, a dish formerly served up with much ceremony and the sound of minstrelsy and song at great tables on Christmas Day. "I like the old custom," said the squire, "not merely because it is stately and pleasing in itself, but because it was observed at the college at Oxford at which I was educated. When I hear the old song chanted it brings to mind the time when I was young and gamesome, and the noble old college hall, and my fellow-students loitering about in their black gowns; many of whom, poor lads! are now in their graves."

The parson, however, whose mind was not haunted by such associations, and who was always more taken up with the text than the sentiment, objected to the Oxonian's version of the carol, which he affirmed was different from that sung at college. He went on, with the dry perseverance of a commentator, to give the college reading, accompanied by sundry annotations, addressing himself at first to the company at large; but, finding their attention gradually diverted to other talk and other objects, he lowered his tone as his number of auditors diminished, until he concluded his remarks in an under voice to a fat-headed old gentleman next him who was silently engaged in the discussion of a huge plateful of turkey.

The old ceremony of serving up the boar's head on Christmas Day is still observed in the hall of Queen's College, Oxford. I was favored by the parson with a copy of the carol as now sung, and as it may be acceptable to such of my readers as are curious in these grave and learned matters, I give it entire:

The boar's head in hand bear I, Bodeck'd with bays and rosemary

The table was literally loaded with good cheer, and presented an epitome of country abundance in this season of overflowing larders. A distinguished post was allotted to "ancient sirloin," as mine host termed it, being, as he added, "the standard of old English hospitality, and a joint of goodly presence, and full of expectation." There were several dishes quaintly decorated, and which had evidently something traditional in their embellishments, but about which, as I did not like to appear overcurious, I asked no questions.


When the cloth was removed the butler brought in a huge silver vessel of rare and curious workmanship, which he placed before the squire. Its appearance was hailed with acclamation, being the Wassail Bowl, so renowned in Christmas festivity. The contents had been prepared by the squire himself; for it was a beverage in the skilful mixture of which he particularly prided himself, alleging that it was too abstruse and complex for the comprehension of an ordinary servant. It was a potation, indeed, that might well make the heart of a toper leap within him, being composed of the richest and raciest wines, highly spiced and sweetened, with roasted apples bobbing about the surface.

The old gentleman's whole countenance beamed with a serene look of indwelling delight as he stirred this mighty bowl. Having raised it to his lips, with a hearty wish of a merry Christmas to all present, he sent it brimming round the board, for every one to follow his example, according to the primitive style, pronouncing it "the ancient fountain of good feeling, where all hearts met together."


Here's "The Christmas Dinner" in its entirety. Interestingly, when Irving reprinted his Christmas stories nearly forty years later, he added the following postscript:

At the time of the first publication of this paper the picture of an old-fashioned Christmas in the country was pronounced by some as out of date. The author had afterwards an opportunity of witnessing almost all the customs above described, existing in unexpected vigor in the skirts of Derbvshire and Yorkshire, where he passed the Christmas holidays. The reader will find some notice of them in the author's account of his sojourn at Newstead Abbey.

But enough of Christmas and its gambols; it is time for me to pause in this garrulity. Methinks I hear the questions asked by my graver readers, "To what purpose is all this? how is the world to be made wiser by this talk?" Alas! is there not wisdom enough extant for the instruction of the world? And if not, are there not thousands of abler pens laboring for its improvement? It is so much pleasanter to please than to instruct--to play the companion rather than the preceptor.

What, after all, is the mite of wisdom that I could throw into the mass of knowledge! or how am I sure that my sagest deductions may be safe guides for the opinions of others? But in writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil is in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good-humor with his fellow-beings and himself -- surely, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.
At this time of year, we couldn't ask for much more than to "rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care."

Merry Christmas. Take care of each other.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

For your holiday reading, here's an excerpt from Washington Irving's 1820 short story "Christmas Eve," lifted from the pages of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

And remember what I told you here yesterday: when Irving tells you something is "ancient custom," he is not to be trusted. The rogue.

Anyway. Here we go:

The grate had been removed from the wide overwhelming fireplace to make way for a fire of wood, in the midst of which was an enormous log glowing and blazing, and sending forth a vast volume of light and heat: this, I understood, was the Yule-clog, which the squire was particular in having brought in and illumined on a Christmas Eve, according to ancient custom.

The Yule-clog is a great log of wood, sometimes the root of a tree, brought into the house with great ceremony on Christmas Eve, laid in the fireplace, and lighted with the brand of last year's clog. While it lasted there was great drinking, singing, and telling of tales. Sometimes it was accompanied by Christmas candles; but in the cottages the only light was from the ruddy blaze of the great wood fire. The Yule-clog was to burn all night; if it went out, it was considered a sign of ill luck.

Herrick mentions it in one of his songs:

Come, bring with a noise, My metric, merrie boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good dame, she Bids ye all be free,
And drink to your hearts' desiring.

The Yule-clog is still burnt in many farm-houses and kitchens in England, particularly in the north, and there are several superstitions connected with it among the peasantry. If a squinting person come to the house while it is burning, or a person barefooted, it is considered an ill omen. The brand remaining from the Yule-clog is carefully put away to light the next year's Christmas fire.


Supper was announced shortly after our arrival. It was served up in a spacious oaken chamber, the panels of which shone with wax, and around which were several family portraits decorated with holly and ivy. Besides the accustomed lights, two great wax tapers, called Christmas candles, wreathed with greens, were placed on a highly polished beaufet among the family plate. The table was abundantly spread with substantial fare; but the squire made his supper of frumenty, a dish made of wheat cakes boiled in milk with rich spices, being a standing dish in old times for Christmas Eve. I was happy to find my old friend, minced pie, in the retinue of the feast and, finding him to be perfectly orthodox, and that I need not be ashamed of my predilection, I greeted him with all the warmth wherewith we usually greet an old and very genteel acquaintance.

. . . no sooner was supper removed and spiced wines and other beverages peculiar to the season introduced, than Master Simon was called on for a good old Christmas song. He bethought himself for a moment, and then, with a sparkle of the eye and a voice that was by no means bad, excepting that it ran occasionally into a falsetto like the notes of a split reed, he quavered forth a quaint old ditty:

Now Christmas is come,
Let us beat up the drum,
And call all our neighbors together;
And when they appear,
Let us make them such cheer,
As will keep out the wind and the weather, &c.

The supper had disposed every one to gayety, and an old harper was summoned from the servants' hall, where he had been strumming all the evening, and to all appearance comforting himself with some of the squire's home-brewed. He was a kind of hanger-on, I was told, of the establishment, and, though ostensibly a resident of the village, was oftener to be found in the squire's kitchen than his own home, the old gentleman being fond of the sound of "harp in hall."

The dance, like most dances after supper, was a merry one: some of the older folks joined in it, and the squire himself figured down several couple with a partner with whom he affirmed he had danced at every Christmas for nearly half a century. . . .


The party now broke up for the night with the kind-hearted old custom of shaking hands. As I passed through the hall on my way to my chamber, the dying embers of the Yule-clog still sent forth a dusky glow, and had it not been the season when "no spirit dares stir abroad," I should have been half tempted to steal from my room at midnight and peep whether the fairies might not be at their revels about the hearth.

My chamber was in the old part of the mansion, the ponderous furniture of which might have been fabricated in the days of the giants. The room was panelled, with cornices of heavy carved work, in which flowers and grotesque faces were strangely intermingled, and a row of black-looking portraits stared mournfully at me from the walls. The bed was of rich thought faded damask, with a lofty tester, and stood in a niche opposite a bow window. I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window. I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighboring village. They went round the house, playing under the windows. I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly. The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment. The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight. I listened and listened--they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.

Tomorrow: Irving's "Christmas Dinner." Meanwhile, here's "Christmas Eve" in its entirety. Go read it. It'll make your day.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Father Christmas and Secret Origins

When I give talks about Washington Irving, inevitably, one of the first questions I get is, "Why did you choose Irving as your subject?" And my answer is, "Because I'm a Christmas junkie."

About ten years ago, while browsing the paperbacks table at Trover Books on Capitol Hill, I came across Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, a book that -- according to its back cover -- "charts the invention of our current yuletide traditions, from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and, perhaps most radically, the practice of giving gifts to children." That was enough for me. I paid at the register and it was mine.

Niseenbaum's book is terrific for a number of reasons -- if you're even remotely interested in folklore, early American culture, or Christmas, I strongly encourage you to read it -- and it goes a long way toward debunking some of the common mis-perceptions about my favorite holiday. For example, you'll read how Christmas was actually outlawed in the United States until the early 19th century, mainly because Americans used the day as an opportunity to eat and drink to excess, then would go out and sing loudly, demanding food and drink of neighbors -- and any neighbor who failed to deliver the goods risked being dragged out of the house and beaten up. Hence the lines in "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" in which carolers demand figgy pudding ("Bring some out here!") and then declare that they "won't go until we get some!"

But where the book really shines, however, is in its discussion of the dewy-eyed images of Christmas we Americans have conjured up and embraced as our own. All those Currier & Ives images, Nissenbaum tells us -- sleigh rides over icy ponds, Yule logs burning in the fireplace, Santa Claus soaring over the treetops, children waking early and eagerly Christmas morning, and rambunctious Christmas dinner parties -- never existed. They weren't part of old English tradition, they were simply made up by an American writer named . . . Washington Irving.

Well. That was news to me, so I went out and looked for Irving's Christmas stories. As it turns out, most of them are hiding in plain sight, right smack in the middle of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., Irving's collection of short stories and essays that's remembered for "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," and, alas, not much else. But never mind.

In that section -- five short stories in which Irving's narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, experiences Christmas Eve and day in the home of Squire Bracebridge -- Irving all but creates our modern day Christmas. Yule logs crackle in the fireplace, children sing carols on Christmas morning, good looking couples dance in old houses crammed with antique furniture, and on Christmas Day, the extended family surrounds an enormous table groaning under roast beef and turkey, puddings, and foaming tankards of beer. Squire Bracebridge, we're told, celebrates Christmas in the old style -- except it's also made clear, through winks and a sly gesture that involves laying one's finger on the side of one's nose -- that the Squire hasn't quite got his facts right. But all is still right with the world.

I read Irving's Christmas stories -- which I'll tell you more about -- and loved them. Then I read some more Irving, and loved that, too. What surprised me most was his voice: this was no stilted, Puritan, 19th century prose; it was chatty, charming, and completely relaxed. And the more I read, the more I wanted to know about this guy. So I looked, and looked, and looked . . . and there wasn't a thing available.

Finally, I found what was considered to be the last word on Irving, a 1935, two-volume biography by Yale English professor Stanley Williams. While the Williams biography is thorough, it's clear that the more Williams wrote, the more he decided he didn't like Irving very much. He regarded him as lazy, dopey, a hack, and mostly lucky -- a writer who only succeeded when the competition was sparse. It wasn't really the book I wanted to read.

So, borrowing a lesson from David McCullough -- who, I think, borrowed it from Thorton Wilder -- I decided to write the book I wanted to read -- one that looked at Irving with a more modern eye, was more understanding and forgiving of his flaws, and which appreciated just how hard the guy had to work to succeed in a time when, yes, there was no competition, but there were also very few role models.

And it all started because of my love of Christmas. Really.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

There's Always A Nerd Table

The conversation I had with one of my sources yesterday -- I always think of them as "conversations" rather than "interviews" -- went spectacularly well. If this project pans out, and this is any indication of the caliber of people I'll be dealing with -- self-deprecating to a fault and bone-dry funny as hell -- then this is going to be even more fun than I already thought it would be.

One of the best lines of the day came as we were talking about a particular conference that she and her fellow [AWESOME OCCUPATION REDACTED] attend each year. "Even all these years later, it's still a small enough group that we mix together well," she said.

"Ah. So, no Cool Kids Table, then?" I asked.

"Not really," she said, then squinted in thought for a moment. "No, but there's always a nerd table," she said. "Always."

Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Go Away, I'll Be Right Back . . .

I'm working under a deadline this week -- as well as preparing my background materials and interview questions for another source for my work in progress -- so I'm stepping away for just a bit. But I'll do my best to be back here before the end of the week.

In the meantime, just because I think it's funny, here's video of Senator David Vitter of Louisiana -- on the floor of the United States Senate during the debate on the auto bailout bill -- struggling to use the term "bass-ackwards" and completely botching it.

Checking through the Congressional Record, I see some diligent staffer has gone through and cleaned up Vitter's words for the official record of proceedings, removing from the speech any mention of the word "ass," as well as Vitter's bumbling attempts to come up with the right turn of phrase. Here's the official transcript of Vitter's speech, as it appeared on page S10844 of the December 10, 2008 Congressional Record (and you can follow along with the video above at the appropriate point):

Well, my reaction to that is pretty simple. I think the average American would say: What? Isn't that putting the cart before the horse? $15 billion, and then later, after that is out the door, we will see a detailed restructuring plan? Secondly, even more important than that, it means that the impetus, the pressure to make that restructuring truly fundamental, truly to the core, which is absolutely necessary for these companies to survive, that pressure is not nearly as great as if we held the money until that detailed restructuring plan was presented.
What? You didn't realize the Official Record could be edited and revised? I'll talk about that some other time, then.

Have a good week.

Friday, December 12, 2008


My pal Scott Phillips is a staff writer for the new kids' television series Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, and he gave me a heads up that there'll be a "sneak preview" of the series -- which is Officially Premiering in 2009 -- on the CW Network this weekend. Check your local listings and write it down on your calendar now. In ink.

The premiere episode isn't written by Scott -- his first episode will be episode three -- but Scott promises that the show is "dark and cool and has lots of Kung Fu and monster fights." That's enough for me.

When I saw Scott in Albuquerque last winter, I had the pleasure of watching the rough cut of the pilot episode -- which Scott had a hand in writing -- and I can vouch that the show promises to be loads of fun (plus, I got to watch it with writer commentary in my left ear the entire time, which made it all the more entertaining). If you're a kid -- or kid at heart -- who digs the Power Rangers, kung fu, or just lots of cool comic book fighting, then you'll like this. Plus, Scott's a funny guy, and usually manages to stick in some funny bits or turns of phrase in every episode.

Give it a watch. And while you're at it, check out Scott's always-entertaining blog about his Netflix addiction, right here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Santa Dilemma

One of the most pressing moral dilemmas faced by parents is the Santa Claus Problem. You know how this works: as parents, we tell our children they should never lie, because lies make Baby Jesus cry and the world a rotten place. Yet, come Christmas time -- the time of the year when lying should be last thing on our minds -- we tell our kids an enormous fib -- namely that a jolly, bearded man in a red suit -- using some sort of mystical power that allows him not only to travel around the world in one night, but also gives him an ability to know whether our child is good and therefore deserving of swag -- will come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and leave them presents.

This is a recent dilemma to be sure, born of what I guess one could call liberal guilt. Frankly, I don't think any handwringing went into my own parents' decision to fill my head with the Santa story. And to be honest, I never once wrestled with the problem, either. To me, it's all part of the fun. I suppose if one were really struggling with the issue, it could be argued that parents are merely indulging in a time-honored tradition of passing folklore from one generation to the next, conveying a mythology so persuasively that children are convinced it's real.

When you think about it, though, parents don't really have to work that hard at it anyway. I mean, I never needed any help believing a drooling maniac waited in my closet every night after the lights went out, even though my parents did everything they could to convince me that wasn't the case. If I could believe in something my parents were working like heck to convince me wasn't real, it didn't take much of a suggestion that something, or someone, did exist to make me embrace it entirely. I wanted to believe, and therefore I did.

Actually, I believed in Santa for a long time -- probably longer than I should have -- because my parents were just so darn good at it. They never did anything terribly elaborate, like stomp around on the roof on Christmas Eve, but they always did just enough to convince me that there was something going on that was beyond their control. One year, my dad found a ratty old gunny sack and left it next to our fireplace, with a note from Santa that our house had been the last one he had hit on the block, so he had left the empty bag behind. Nice touch.

Another time, my parents hired a young man to dress as Santa and visit our house a few days early -- just dropping by to check on us, you know -- and deliver a few presents. Both my brother and I bought it without question, though my parents had to do a bit of scrambling when my kid brother -- who even at age five seemed to be able to play all the angles -- demanded to see the reindeer.

But it was a masterful bit of misdirection -- perpetrated when I was around seven years old, I would guess, when I was already becoming something of a Santa scoffer -- that made me an absolute believer.

We were set to spend that particular Christmas with my grandparents in Kansas -- two whole states away from our New Mexico home -- and were scheduled to drive there three days before Christmas. My parents awoke my brother and me at about 6 a.m. and asked us to get in the car, which my dad already had idling in the driveway. As we staggered blearily through the living room where our Christmas tree stood, I carefully checked to make sure there were NO SANTA GIFTS sitting on the floor in front of the fireplace. There weren't.

This was the test, then: if there really was a Santa, he would show up while we were out of town and leave behind the Mego Batcave I so desperately wanted. But if my parents were Santa, as I suspected, then our absence from town -- or so my logic went -- clearly meant they would have no opportunity to place our gifts in front of the tree. I was as certain as a 7-year-old boy can be certain of anything that when we returned to Albuquerque a few days after New Year's, there would be no Santa gifts waiting for us. My parents' jig was up. Smugly, I settled into the back seat of the car. Several moments later, my parents came out of the house carrying the last of the suitcases. My dad locked the house, loaded the car, and we drove away.

Of course, what I didn't know was that in the 90 seconds it took my brother and I to pass through the living room and get into the car, my parents had immediately pulled everything out of a front closet and quickly set it up in front of the Christmas tree. When we returned to New Mexico a week later (fighting our way through an ice storm that sealed my dad's decision to never drive anywhere for the holidays ever again), my brother and I walked slowly from the car into the house, and peeked skeptically into the living room . . . and oh my gosh Santa had come while we were gone!

For the next few years, then -- again, for probably longer than I should have -- I was one of the Jolly Old Elf's most ardent defenders, once nearly getting into fisticuffs with Dan Duddingston for daring to challenge the veracity of St. Nick. I think I finally accepted Santa's status as pure folklore -- and then only grudgingly -- by the fifth grade.

As I said earlier, I've never had a problem perpetuating the Santa story -- but my own daughter is far more clever and observant than I ever was, and, despite my best efforts, was a Santa Skeptic by age six. Oddly, though, she had a harder time letting go of the Easter Bunny. A magical rabbit who somehow delivers candy and chocolate eggs? No problem. A white-haired old man in a flying sleigh delivering toys? No way.

Fortunately for me, now that she's a worldly 12-year-old, she's willing to indulge in Santa just for the pure fun of it. And for some reason, that's made him even more real to her -- and to me -- than he ever was before. Santa Dilemma solved.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Potency of Life

December 9, 2008, marks the 400th birthday of one of the most celebrated poets in the English language, John Milton. Colleges and universities around the world -- and, appropriately, even a number of churches and cathedrals -- are celebrating the day with marathon readings of Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Hit the Googles and see if there's one taking place near you, and then by all means go.

If you're a fan of, say, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, or Kevin Smith, you'll see in Milton the roots of much of their respective mythologies involving God, Satan, and Heaven and Hell. Moore's epic battles of angels and demons, Smith's very human archangels and devils, and Gaiman's charismatic Lucifer Morningstar, for example, can trace their way back to the pages of Paradise Lost. Milton, who was blind at the time he composed the epic poem, dictated much of it aloud to other poets for transcribing -- and that's one of the reasons, I think, why Paradise Lost remains so exciting: Milton had to hear it in his head first before he had it put to paper. The language is colorful and electrifying to the extreme, and -- though Milton had no inkling of such a term at the time -- incredibly cinematic.

Milton loved the English language, and not only penned some memorable, oft-quoted phrases (most of which are now cliches), but created words we're still using today. Ever told someone that it's "better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven"? You were quoting Milton. "A heaven on Earth"? Milton. Ever use the word "dreary"? Milton. "Self-esteem?" Milton. The title of Philip Pullman's series "His Dark Materials"? That's taken from Milton, too.

But it's more than his love of language or his poetry that should endear Milton to writers. Milton was one of literature's first great political radicals, with strong views on government, religion, and censorship. While it was stodgy government views on divorce (particularly, his own) that spurred Milton to write Areopagitica -- drafted as a political speech to be delivered before Parliament -- the tract remains one of the most stinging indictments of government censorship, as well as one of the most celebrated defenses of literature:

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.
Go read John Milton. Now.

Happy 400th.

Friday, December 5, 2008

We're All Misfits!

There are a number of questions that remain among life's most imponderable. What is the true nature of good and evil? Why does God allow suffering? And the most important question of all -- at least as it relates to western culture -- in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, what in the heck was wrong with the doll that it earned a place of shame on The Island of Misfit Toys?

For the benefit of those who've on another planet for the last forty years, one of the key conceits of the Rankin-Bass Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas TV special is that "defective" toys that no child loves all end up on the Island of Misfit Toys, presided over by the kindly King Nightracer. Among the island's disgraced residents are a squirt gun that shoots jelly, a cowboy that rides an ostrich, a spotted elephant, a train with square wheels . . . and a doll that appears to have absolutely nothing at all wrong with it.

My brother and I always pondered exactly what the doll's problem might be. She didn't appear to have any undergarments on, but we let that particular quirk slide. Perhaps, we thought, it suffered from some invisible ailment, like Tourette Syndrome, that caused her to unleash a stream of profanities instead of a plain "mama." But then, we heard her speak normally to the rest of the toys -- so, so much for that one. Finally, we decided we knew what her problem was.

To this day, we still refer to her as "Diarrhea Dolly."

A Misfit Toy indeed.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The End of An Era

Last night's Domenici staff celebration was an absolute delight. Lots of familiar faces, many of which I hadn't seen in years, and plenty of opportunities -- usually starting with the question, "How old are your kids now?" -- to feel really, really old.

Domenici staffers -- perhaps a reflection of the Senator's own rather laid-back demeanor -- always seem to always be among the funniest and most self-deprecating people around, and I spent much of the evening, as it seems I spent much of my seven years on the staff, in one hilarious conversation after another. As I chatted with one colleague, for example, who had served as one of my Legislative Correspondents before moving on to the private sector, our discussion went like this:
Me: "...so where did you go after leaving the Hill?"

Him: "I got into banking, and worked for a while at Lehman Brothers. But now I work for the federal government again."

Me: "Oh really? For who?"

Him: "Citibank."

*insert rimshot here*
That was par for the course for the evening. And also keeping with the habits that made us famous, the open bar was completely decimated -- it looked like it had been hit by a bomb, frankly -- while the free food remained largely untouched. Old habits die hard.

There was a hodgepodge of memorabilia for the taking -- mostly plaques and awards that couldn't be packed away, and framed artwork that had hung on the walls since . . . well, forever. And for collectors of political rarities, there was an enormous stack of campaign stickers for the 2008 Re-Election Campaign That Never Was:

The Senator himself made brief remarks, his formerly booming voice (the one I always called his "speechifyin' voice") now raspy but still authoritative. "I'm hoping I was able to give each of you a little something," he said to us, "and I think you all gave a little bit of yourselves back to New Mexico, and to the country."

The celebration was touted as commemorating "the end of an empire," but I never really felt "empire" was the right word. It sounds a bit too . . . iron-fisted or militaristic, which was never the way Senator, or his staff, did things. Perhaps "the end of an era" is a better way of putting it -- an era of unequalled service to New Mexico, to the United States Senate, and to the country, that spanned across four decades.

When we've had staff reunions in the past, we tended to break up into clusters defined, as I see it now, largely by Presidential terms. Always, it seems, standing closest to the Senator were the 70's Staff -- the cool kids, who got in the door first and went through the rough and tumble Nixon-Ford-Carter years. Then there was The 80's Staff, composed of disciplined budgeteers, who worked through the Reagan era, sometimes shepherding Reagan's budgets through, other times fighting his tax cuts. The 90's Staff were the acerbic workhorses -- an offbeat group that fenced and bantered in the tumultous politics of the Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton era -- while "The 'Oughts", serving from 2000 on, are the committed policy mavens of post 9/11 America. Last night, however, there were no cliques or clusters; instead, it was simply one enormous, extended family.

My evening ended on an entirely appropriate and fitting note. As a colleague and I were leaving, we stepped off of the elevator on the first floor of the Dirksen Building, only to run into Senator and Mrs. Domenici, who were on their way back in. "Senator forgot his coat," Mrs. Domenici explained in that disarmingly apologetic way she has. Almost on autopilot, we steered the Domenicis off to one side, sitting them down near the security station in the care of two Capitol Police, then went back upstairs to retrieve the Senator's coat.

We delivered it to him at the front door of the Dirksen Building, then -- again, almost on autopilot -- waited until he had squirmed his way into the wool topcoat, then held open the door as he and Mrs. Domenici passed through it and into the brisk December night.

Once a staffer, always a staffer. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

People For Pete

Tonight, down on Capitol Hill, is the final gathering of former and current staff for my old boss, U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici, who's retiring from office. I wasn't able to attend any of the similar events in New Mexico, so I'm glad Barb and I will be able to make tonight's celebration.

While cleaning out my basement last month, I came across a manila folder crammed with mementos from my Hill years, and found this photo of the Senator's personal staff, taken at the annual Christmas party in 1993:

That's me in the back row, just right of center, with the dark red sweater and the beard, trying way too hard to look older than my 26 years.

Fifteen years later, I not only can still name nearly everyone in this picture, but I'm still good friends with many of them. This particular batch made up the Senator's personal staff for much of the mid-1990s, and because we worked together for so long -- a stretch of five years with a relatively cohesive staff is a rarity on the Hill -- we were a tight knit group. To this day, we still refer to ourselves as the Domenici Mafia.

Of the members of our Mafia, Ari Fleischer -- kneeling in the front row in the Santa hat -- is probably the best known and most famous alumnus, serving as President George W. Bush's press secretary in the early days of his administration. But the rest of the gang aren't doing too shabbily, either. Some are serving in high-ranking positions in the federal government, while others are lobbyists. Some ran for -- and won -- locally-elected offices. There are attorneys and forest rangers and health care workers, retirees and stay-at-home parents. A few worked for the Senator right until the end. And there's not a bad banana in the bunch.

I'm looking forward to seeing many of them tonight, along with countless others who made up the staff over the Senator's 36 years in office. It's always amazing to me how quickly we all fall together, even when we haven't seen each other in over a decade. You're never really out of the family.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Christmas, Here's Your Cue...

Sit down cross-legged on the floor of the living room and pull a TV tray over in front of you. In the days before video tapes, DVDs, and cable television made it possible to watch Christmas specials year round or multiple times, you had exactly one shot a year at catching Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without A Santa Claus, or A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you missed it, you were outta luck until the next December. If you were like me, then, you were on your butt in front of the television, a Swanson's pot pie steaming in front of you, with five minutes to spare.

With that in mind, let's kick off the Christmas season with an appropriate bit of fanfare. (And my fellow Gen Xers, prepare for flashbacks in 3...2...):

The Christmas Season is officially here!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Grindstone and Coming Attractions

I'm back, after a good week away in which I had a terrific conversation with a source (during which I was also given several more contacts), a good day at the Library of Congress (I'll sing the praises of their online newspaper archives later), and a terrific Thanksgiving weekend. And all this in spite of the fact that both Maryland and New Mexico were smoked in their respective college basketball tournaments over the weekend.

Our two Christmas trees also went up over the weekend, the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, wreaths were hung on every exterior window, and we filled our flower boxes with real pine greens and lanterns, which we light each evening. Absolutely beautiful. Now we just need the snow to make it a Currier & Ives postcard.

Meanwhile, returning to the day job after a week away means a bit more craziness -- especially as we're in the homestretch of wrapping up a long year in which my particular Councilmember served as Council President, and we're working to ensure a smooth transition. So bear with me if I'm a bit erratic. Or at least moreso than usual.

But Christmas is one of my favorite things to talk about, so when things settle down, I owe you some posts. It was actually my love of Christmas that spurred my interest in Washington Irving to begin with -- and I'll tell you that story, too. I'll also grumble a bit about the new John Lennon biography.

Happy December!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bigger Than Jesus

I know, I know . . . I vowed to stay away for a week. And I really am on my way out the door to go interview a source, but I just couldn't let this go past.

Over the weekend, the Vatican announced that it had "forgiven" John Lennon for his 1966 comments in which he remarked that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. According to the article on the BBC website (which you can see here):
The semi-official Vatican newspaper marked the 40th anniversary of The Beatles' "White Album" with an article praising Lennon and the Fab Four from Liverpool.

The paper dismissed Lennon's much-criticised remark that the Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ as a youthful joke.

The paper described the remark as "showing off, bragging by a young English working-class musician who had grown up in the age of Elvis Presley and rock and roll and had enjoyed unexpected success".
Um. No.

Give Lennon a bit more credit than that. While Lennon was certainly indulging in a bit of "showing off," he and his views were a lot more complicated than the Vatican is giving him credit for. For the record, here are Lennon's remarks, in their entirety, and in context with Maureen Cleave's interview and article in the March 4, 1966 London Evening Standard:
Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. 'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first-rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.' He is reading extensively about religion.
Once can certainly parse Lennon as much as one wants -- and back in 1966, Lennon's remarks were widely interpreted as enormously sacrilegious, with Lennon daring to displace Jesus with the Beatles at God's right hand.

But what Lennon was actually trying to do was make a point about Christianity -- which, in 1960s England, Lennon viewed as being subverted by the Church of England to the point where its message had been lost. Consequently, English teenagers were choosing the Beatles -- or television, or pop culture, or just about anything else -- over religion. That, to Lennon, was why Christianity would fade -- not because of the Beatles, but because the Church had failed to advance its message. And that -- again, to Lennon -- was the real problem.

Here's Lennon trying to explain just that view in a 1966 interview in Los Angeles -- and not really making things much better:

Finally, after countless protests in which Beatle records were burned in bonfires ("Hey, they had to buy them to burn them!" Ringo later joked) and the KKK began making gauzy threats, manager Brian Epstein had had enough. After a formal statement of apology failed to cool tempers, the Fabs were finally persuaded to sit before the cameras in Chicago for a hastily-called press conference at which Lennon offered a half-hearted, though Officially Formal Apology:

Once again, however, the press don't seem to get it, and Lennon -- normally quick-witted and articulate to a fault -- still couldn't make his point clear. And obviously, even 40 years later, there was still some confusion from the Vatican as to what Lennon was really saying.

Still, even if it missed the point, I give the Vatican credit for taking notice of the Beatles for their "unique and strange alchemy of sounds and words." Which rather sounds like the way one would describe a blind date.

All right, I'm outta here. Really.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Hello, I Must Be Going...

Next week, I'll be taking a brief hiatus from blogging while I do a bit of poking at my Work In Progress (which I still can't talk about, but if and when I can, I'll explain everything). On Monday, I'll be interviewing a source for several hours, then heading over to the Library of Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, it's a little thing called Thanksgiving; on Friday, I'll nail my butt to the chair and do some keyboard pounding.

Meanwhile, to tide you over, here's a bit of Groucho Marx, bidding you farewell in Animal Crackers:

See you soon! Be good.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Someone Is Gunning For Masks...."

This just keeps getting better and better.

While I and my fellow nerds are squeeeing all over the Internets about the prospects of a way-cool Watchmen flick, there's one person who is decidedly unenthusiastic about the film: Watchmen writer Alan Moore.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, there's a fascinating article and interview with the always-interesting Moore, who says he will be "spitting venom" all over the movie. He's entitled. Moore's a purist about his work and the comics medium in general:

Moore said that with "Watchmen," he told the epic tale of a large number of characters over decades of history with "a range of techniques" that cannot be translated to the movie screen, among them the "book within a book" technique, which took readers through a second, interior story as well as documents and the writings of characters . . . he believes "Watchmen" is "inherently unfilmable."
I agree with Moore only to the extent that it's impossible to pack into even a three hour movie all the complex layers, subplots, and backstories that embody Watchmen. (There's already a rumor that the comic-within-a-comic, Tales of the Black Frieghter, was filmed but cut from the movie due to length -- and will be put on the DVD release as a bonus feature.) In fact, I've always argued that it would make an ideal 12-part made-for-cable film, rather than a full-length feature.

That being said, I'm still excited about the film. And Alan Moore is more than allowed to be crabby. He's earned it.

The interview with Alan Moore is here -- and I warn you in advance not to read the comments, as they make me want to punch some people in the face. (For the record, Moore earns nothing off the film adapatations of his work -- he signed the film rights to Watchmen, for example, over to artist Dave Gibbons.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Carnival of Light

Over the weekend, Paul McCartney announced his intention to release a 40-year-old "lost" Beatles track, a 14-minute avant garde piece assembled by McCartney -- with an assist from John Lennon -- called "Carnival of Light." As reported by the London Guardian, the track was never released -- not even for the deep-drilling Anthology collection -- "because three of the Fab Four thought it too adventurous."

As a Beatles completist, you can be sure I'll buy anything Sir Paul wants to release. But will the track be worth listening to? Here's what I know about it:

In 1967, Paul McCartney was asked by his friend, the artist and journalist Barry Miles, to assemble a soundtrack for an electronic musical festival to be held that winter at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. McCartney -- whose taste for the avant garde had been spawned and whetted largely through his relationship with the actress Jane Asher and a number of her artistic acquaintances -- eagerly agreed to submit a piece. On January 5, 1967 -- as the Beatles were putting the finishing touches on "Penny Lane" -- McCartney persuaded his bandmates to dedicate a few moments to laying down an avant garde soundtrack.

"We were set up in the studio and would just go in every day and record," McCartney told the BBC. "I said to the guys, this is a bit indulgent but would you mind giving me 10 minutes? I've been asked to do this thing. All I want you to do is just wander round all of the stuff and bang it, shout, play it. It doesn't need to make any sense. Hit a drum, wander to the piano, hit a few notes ... and then we put a bit of echo on it."

The banging away in Abbey Road's Studio 2 lasted for 13 minutes and 48 seconds -- at that time, the longest uninterrupted track the Beatles had ever recorded. Here's what Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn says about the recording session:

"...it was a combination of a basic track and numerous overdubs. Track one of the tape was full of distorted, hypnotic drum and organ sounds; track two had a distorted lead guitar; track three had the sounds of a church organ, various effects (the gargling of water was one) and voices; track four featured various indescribable sound effects with heaps of tape echo and manic tambourine.

"But of all the frigthening sounds it was the voices on track three which really set the scene, John and Paul screaming dementedly and bawling aloud random phrases like 'Are you all right?' and 'Barcelona!'

"Paul terminated the proceedings after almost 14 minutes with one final shout up the control room: 'Can we hear it back now?'"
According to Geoff Emerick, the Beatles' go-to recording engineer, neither he nor producer George Martin was all that impressed with what they heard. "When they had finished," recalled Emerick, "George Martin said to me, 'This is ridiculous, we've got to get our teeth into something a little more constructive.'"

When asked about the track twenty years later, Martin claimed not to remember the recording session ("..and it sounds like I don't want to, either!" he joked). But when asked about the track again recently, his response was more diplomatic. "It was a kind of uncomposed, free-for-all melange of sound that went on," said Martin. "It was not considered worthy of issuing as a normal piece of Beatles music at the time and was put away."

McCartney apparently lobbied for its inclusion on Anthology, but was vetoed by the other Beatles. Their attitude, McCartney said, was "'this is rubbish.'"

McCartney's announcement has caused a bit of a dither in the Beatles fanbase -- some are excited by the idea of a new track, while others accuse Sir Paul of going to the Beatles vault once too often, milking the Beatle legacy for another quick buck. I'll willingly admit to falling more into the former camp -- I'm always interested in hearing what was left on the cutting room floor or given up for dead, as this track apparently was -- and I'll eagerly pick up anything they want to release. If it's unlistenable, I'll simply treat it as I do pieces like "Revolution 9" and "Flying": when they pop up on the iPod, I'll just push the Forward button.

I'm a Beatles Completist, McCartney Enabler, and, apparently, part of the problem. But I'll gladly take "Carnival of Light."

The Guardian article can be found here. And, closer to home, you can see The Washington Post's take on the story right here.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Skillful and Habitual Oddities

I always put DVDs and CDs back in their cases with the title straight up and down, for ease of reading.

I can only talk on the phone with the phone pressed against my right ear.

I take notes in fountain pen.

I'm not a great driver, but I can squeeze a car into almost any parking space with room to spare.

When I listen to music, I often try to sing only the harmony or backing vocals. I call this "Singing the John Oates Part."

I organize my bookshelves by topic -- and then I arrange books by height on each shelf, from tallest to shortest.

I consider myself an artist, even though I can't really do anything but draw cartoons.

I generally force myself to listen to five songs on any radio station before I change the channel.

I can build a roaring fire in a fireplace in no time whatsoever.

My handwriting is terrible, yet I can print beautifully.

I can get lost backing out of my driveway.

I love my coffee strong -- but then I fill it full of cream and sugar. Which sort of defeats the purpose, I suppose.

What are your odd skills or habits?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Aw, Shucks . . .

A Google crawl only just recently brought this to my attention, but I was pleased -- and pleasantly surprised -- to see the Writers and Editors website mention my homepage -- linked over there to your right -- as an example of a well-designed author website for marketing, publicity, and promotion.

Considering I'm in company with Tom Wolfe, Judy Blume, and Miranda July's way clever page, it's high praise indeed. And the credit goes solely to Me Bruddah Cris, my web designer and webmaster, who did a terrific job taking my lame pencil drawings and even worse over-the-phone descriptions and turning them into news you can use.

Thanks to Pat over at Writers and Editors for the compliment. Her main page is here, and you can see her discussion of internet marketing here.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day

"It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
-- Abraham Lincoln
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

Monday, November 10, 2008

Agent K!

Congratulations to Agent J and his wife, Cameron, on the birth of their son, Roan Michael Lyons, on Tuesday, November 4! Quite an election day for them, I'm sure.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Great Fall

It might be early November, but you'd never know it from the weather in Maryland. Even as the Midwest is pummelled by a freak blizzard, the Atlantic seaboard (or at least our corner of it) is enjoying temperatures hovering near the 70s. So we get to enjoy the autumn colors in spring-like temperatures.

That's causing some amusing confusion in our yard. The view from our kitchen window -- framed by a walk-under trellis with a wisteria vine -- looks like a typical autumn postcard:

Meanwhile, a lone zinnia -- a decidely summer-loving flower -- has decided to raise its head at the very edge of a cleared flower bed, to give November a blast of summer color. He's understandably confused, be we're enjoying him while we can.

How's your autumn looking?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Still More Profanity! *%!& Yes!

Friend O'The Blog Brian D. -- who's not only a pal, but one of those rare lawyers with a sense of humor -- shot me a message regarding yesterday's post about the Supreme Court's "fleeting" profanity discussion that helps put some of the remarks in better context. Over to you, BD....

Reading today's blog, curiosity got the best of me and I set out to find the transcript. As great as the Post article was, the reporter actually bungled it. In that exchange, Garre was actually conceding (for the moment) that if something is "funny" it may not be "shocking, titillating, or pandering" and therefore the FCC would consider that in not fining someone -- which was the proper set up for Scalia's joke.

Here's the exchange:

JUSTICE STEVENS: Maybe I shouldn't ask this, but is there ever appropriate for the Commission to take into consideration at all the question whether the particular remark was really hilarious, very, very funny? Some of these things --


JUSTICE STEVENS: -- you can't help but laugh at. Is that -- is that a proper consideration, do you think?

GENERAL GARRE: Yes, insofar as the Commission takes into account whether it's shocking, titillating, pandering –-

JUSTICE SCALIA: Oh, it's funny. I mean, bawdy jokes are okay if they are really good.

I'm with you -- can't wait to read the decision on this one.
Back to me again. I'm glad to see the Justices have a sense of humor about it, even as they continue their delicacy with language (it's like the Monty Python sketch, where a group of politicians trying to come up with a new sin tax keep talking about taxing "thingy"). But I think it also brings up a good point that I hope they'll keep in mind during their decision: context counts. I'm glad Stevens is questioning whether that deserves "proper consideration."

We'll see what happens. Keep watching.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Supremely F*%#ing Funny

I loved this story in today's Washington Post, about the Supreme Court's discussion of whether the government can fine television networks for a one-time, "fleeting" expletive on television. The case came about in response to Cher inadvertently(?) dropping the Queen Mother of Swears on a live awards show in 2002.

I got a kick out of government's attorney arguing that overturning this policy could lead to "a world where the networks are free to use expletives . . . 24 hours a day," including "Big Bird dropping the F-bomb on Sesame Street" -- a hilarious bit of hyperbole -- but more than anything, there's something really funny about the Supreme Court justices trying gamely not to use the dirty words in question in the courtroom, falling back instead on more delicate terms like "F-bomb", "freaking" and "the eff word."

And then there was this:

...88-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens asked whether the FCC would sanction a broadcaster if the indecent remark "was really hilarious, very, very funny." Solicitor General Gregory G. Garre said the commission would, along with "whether it's shocking, titillating, pandering."

"Bawdy jokes are okay, if they're really good," Justice Antonin Scalia cracked, to more laughter.
I don't know how this is going to turn out, but this is one Supreme Court opinion I'm going to read. But only to see if they left in all the dirty words.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


My wife and I headed over to Damascus Elementary School at eight this morning to cast our votes in the election. There are thousands of reasons we love living in a small town, and here's yet one more: here's the line we stood this morning as we waited to vote:

(Sorry it's blurry; I took it with my phone camera as I was approaching the entry.)

Yup, we waited exactly ten seconds before we signed in to cast our ballots. However, it's different in other places across our county. One of my colleagues reported standing in line for more than 90 minutes; others have been in line since the polls opened at seven this morning and, as of ten a.m., still haven't reached the voting booth.

But you know what? None of them are complaining. "I waited in line for Green Day tickets for six hours," one person told me. "I can certainly wait four to vote."

I agree. Heck, I've waited two hours to ride Space Mountain at Walt Disney World. With that in mind, waiting in line to vote isn't an inconvenience; it's practically downright patriotic.

I don't care who you vote for today, just so long as you vote. Too many have worked too hard and given too much to make sure you can.

Do it.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Topping It Off at the Pasatiempo

My pal Brian D. informed me that there's an interview with me in Pasatiempo, the arts magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican. It's actually the transcript of a conversation I had over the phone with reporter Craig Smith about ten months ago, as I was stuck in traffic. It's also one of the first interviews I ever did -- at least sitting on the business end of the microphone -- and I think the jitters show, since I tend to ramble a bit from each question.

There's one funny moment, though, right at the end of the discussion, where a misheard, mis-transcribed word, makes things sound rather dirty:
The other thing I would really hope comes through in the book is how hard this guy really had to work. If you see his letters, he didn’t spell very well; it’s why I wanted to print his letters as they are. He had to work hard to make his writing work. He took it very seriously.

While people thought he was writing this elegant prose and topping it off, he was humping.
Actually, what I said was "tossing it off," not "topping." But paired with the term "humping," it probably sounds more interesting that way.

Here's the link to Pasatiempo, but it's a bit of a mess navigating the pages. If you're so inclined, I'm on pages 32-34. At some point, I'll put a (corrected) transcript up on my main website.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Real "Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

As I discussed here yesterday, Washington Irving's tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of those true rarities in American literature -- a tale nearly all of us can summarize, even if we've never read the original story.

Or can we?

Most of us recall Irving's tale mainly through a series of strong visual images: Ichabod Crane on horseback, looking like a scarecrow on a hobby horse. Ichabod Crane dancing gawkily with Katrina Van Tassel. Crane spurring his horse Gunpowder through darkened woods, with the Headless Horseman in hot pursuit. And, perhaps the sharpest picture -- thanks largely to Walt Disney -- a pumpkin hurled straight at Ichabod Crane's own head.

Irving -- who called his tale merely a band connecting a series of "descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc." -- would likely be delighted that so many of his mere "descriptions" have been burnt into our brains. But what we've buried among those strong visuals is the tale itself, which unfolds in a slightly different manner than we may remember, and ends with a bit of a twist and a flourish.

Let's revisit Irving's "Legend" -- or maybe you'll be visiting it for the first time -- and experience his tale as Irving really wrote it. I think you'll find it's just as good, if not better, than the way we think we remember it.

Much of "Sleepy Hollow" is actually set-up for the climactic chase, and Irving devotes pages to descriptions of his characters -- especially Ichabod Crane -- and their motivations. Here's Irving describing the physical traits of his gawky school teacher -- and you can see why this was a no-brainer for a Disney animator:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Next, Irving makes certain we understand that Crane is easily spooked and has a whiff of nervous-nelly about him, information we need for later:

...as he wended his way by swamp and stream and awful woodland, to the farmhouse where he happened to be quartered, every sound of nature, at that witching hour, fluttered his excited imagination . . . and if, by chance, a huge blockhead of a beetle came winging his blundering flight against him, the poor varlet was ready to give up the ghost, with the idea that he was struck with a witch's token....

...How often was he appalled by some shrub covered with snow, which, like a sheeted spectre, beset his very path! How often did he shrink with curdling awe at the sound of his own steps on the frosty crust beneath his feet; and dread to look over his shoulder, lest he should behold some uncouth being tramping close behind him! And how often was he thrown into complete dismay by some rushing blast, howling among the trees, in the idea that it was the Galloping Hessian on one of his nightly scourings!

Now enters the love interest of the tale, Katrina Van Tassel, "a blooming lass of fresh eighteen," Irving says, "plump as a partridge; ripe and melting and rosy-cheeked as one of her father's peaches, and universally famed, not merely for her beauty, but her vast expectations." Not quite a "huge tracts of land" joke, but close. Anyway, Irving then establishes that Ichabod Crane's interests toward Katrina aren't based purely on the power of her looks or personality:

...as he rolled his great green eyes over the fat meadow lands, the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit, which surrounded the warm tenement of Van Tassel, his heart yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains, and his imagination expanded with the idea, how they might be readily turned into cash, and the money invested in immense tracts of wild land, and shingle palaces in the wilderness.

Vying for Katrina's hand -- and making up the third point in the tale's love triangle -- is the brash Brom Bones. While we likely remember Brom as either the bullying blowhard from the Disney cartoon, or the sulky Captain of the Football Team from the Tim Burton film, in Irving's original tale, Brom is actually a rather likeable rogue:

He was always ready for either a fight or a frolic; but had more mischief than ill-will in his composition; and with all his overbearing roughness, there was a strong dash of waggish good humor at bottom . . . The neighbors looked upon him with a mixture of awe, admiration, and good-will; and, when any madcap prank or rustic brawl occurred in the vicinity, always shook their heads, and warranted Brom Bones was at the bottom of it.

Irving has neatly set up the two rivals competing for the hand of the love interest -- now it's time to bring them together. In "Sleepy Hollow," Irving brings Ichabod and Brom to the Van Tassel home for an evening dinner and dance -- and where Ichabod listens to some of Sleepy Hollow's "sager folks" telling ghost stories. Here's Irving setting up the appearance of the Headless Horseman, as well as the rules of the coming chase. And you might want to check the doors and windows before you read it:

The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

The sequestered situation of this church seems always to have made it a favorite haunt of troubled spirits. It stands on a knoll, surrounded by locust-trees and lofty elms, from among which its decent, whitewashed walls shine modestly forth, like Christian purity beaming through the shades of retirement. A gentle slope descends from it to a silver sheet of water, bordered by high trees, between which, peeps may be caught at the blue hills of the Hudson. To look upon its grass-grown yard, where the sunbeams seem to sleep so quietly, one would think that there at least the dead might rest in peace. On one side of the church extends a wide woody dell, along which raves a large brook among broken rocks and trunks of fallen trees. Over a deep black part of the stream, not far from the church, was formerly thrown a wooden bridge; the road that led to it, and the bridge itself, were thickly shaded by overhanging trees, which cast a gloom about it, even in the daytime; but occasioned a fearful darkness at night. Such was one of the favorite haunts of the Headless Horseman, and the place where he was most frequently encountered. The tale was told of old Brouwer, a most heretical disbeliever in ghosts, how he met the Horseman returning from his foray into Sleepy Hollow, and was obliged to get up behind him; how they galloped over bush and brake, over hill and swamp, until they reached the bridge; when the Horseman suddenly turned into a skeleton, threw old Brouwer into the brook, and sprang away over the tree-tops with a clap of thunder.

We’re approaching the climax. With the party over, Ichabod Crane -- who we've already seen is a nervous wreck about the dark -- rides away on his horse, Gunpowder. Here's how Irving describes the night, so effectively that you can practically feel the chill and hear the sounds. If this isn't a Halloween night, I don't know what is:

It was the very witching time of night that Ichabod, heavy-hearted and crestfallen, pursued his travels homewards, along the sides of the lofty hills which rise above Tarry Town, and which he had traversed so cheerily in the afternoon. The hour was as dismal as himself. Far below him the Tappan Zee spread its dusky and indistinct waste of waters, with here and there the tall mast of a sloop, riding quietly at anchor under the land. In the dead hush of midnight, he could even hear the barking of the watchdog from the opposite shore of the Hudson; but it was so vague and faint as only to give an idea of his distance from this faithful companion of man. Now and then, too, the long-drawn crowing of a cock, accidentally awakened, would sound far, far off, from some farmhouse away among the hills—but it was like a dreaming sound in his ear. No signs of life occurred near him, but occasionally the melancholy chirp of a cricket, or perhaps the guttural twang of a bullfrog from a neighboring marsh, as if sleeping uncomfortably and turning suddenly in his bed.

[. . .]

He was, moreover, approaching the very place where many of the scenes of the ghost stories had been laid. In the centre of the road stood an enormous tulip-tree, which towered like a giant above all the other trees of the neighborhood, and formed a kind of landmark. Its limbs were gnarled and fantastic, large enough to form trunks for ordinary trees, twisting down almost to the earth, and rising again into the air . . . As he approached a little nearer, he thought he saw something white, hanging in the midst of the tree: he paused and ceased whistling but, on looking more narrowly, perceived that it was a place where the tree had been scathed by lightning, and the white wood laid bare. Suddenly he heard a groan — his teeth chattered, and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze. He passed the tree in safety, but new perils lay before him.

As a famous television ghost hunter might say: Zoinks! And now, Irving unveils his ghost, giving him a casual entrance that may leave readers feeling as if they've just swallowed a whole snow cone:

In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something huge, misshapen and towering. It stirred not, but seemed gathered up in the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.

. . . Though the night was dark and dismal, yet the form of the unknown might now in some degree be ascertained. He appeared to be a horseman of large dimensions, and mounted on a black horse of powerful frame.

... On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck on perceiving that he was headless! —- but his horror was still more increased on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of his saddle!

And away we go, in the mad dash through the woods, as Ichabod sprints for the church bridge -- which, you remember, it was established the Horseman cannot cross! -- and nearly falls off his horse in the process:

His terror rose to desperation; he rained a shower of kicks and blows upon Gunpowder, hoping by a sudden movement to give his companion the slip; but the spectre started full jump with him. Away, then, they dashed through thick and thin; stones flying and sparks flashing at every bound. Ichabod's flimsy garments fluttered in the air, as he stretched his long lank body away over his horse's head, in the eagerness of his flight.

As yet the panic of the steed had given his unskilful rider an apparent advantage in the chase, but just as he had got half way through the hollow, the girths of the saddle gave way, and he felt it slipping from under him. He seized it by the pommel, and endeavored to hold it firm, but in vain; and had just time to save himself by clasping old Gunpowder round the neck, when the saddle fell to the earth, and he heard it trampled under foot by his pursuer…

An opening in the trees now cheered him with the hopes that the church bridge was at hand . . . "If I can but reach that bridge," thought Ichabod, "I am safe." Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath . . .

Ichabod and Gunpowder finally make the church bridge . . . only to discover that the Horseman isn't about to play by the rules -- and provides poor Ichabod, and readers, with one of the most memorable departing gifts in literature:

Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash,—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

End of story? Not quite -- and here's the part most of us don't remember. Irving actually gives us three denouements to choose from -- the first of which is the creepier, Hammer horror film ending:

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master's gate...In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses' hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

The brook was searched, but the body of the schoolmaster was not to be discovered . . .

Don't like that one? Here's the second:

It is true, an old farmer, who had been down to New York on a visit several years after, and from whom this account of the ghostly adventure was received, brought home the intelligence that Ichabod Crane was still alive; that he had left the neighborhood partly through fear of the goblin and … that he had changed his quarters to a distant part of the country; had kept school and studied law at the same time; had been admitted to the bar; turned politician; electioneered; written for the newspapers; and finally had been made a justice of the Ten Pound Court.

Did Ichabod Crane really survive his midnight ride through Sleepy Hollow, then? If so, was there really a Headless Horseman? And what became of Brom Bones and Katrina Van Tassel? Irving answers our questions in the story's true payoff:

Brom Bones, too, who, shortly after his rival's disappearance conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he chose to tell.

Despite the punchline, Irving can't resist wrapping up his story with a creepy flourish, swirling his cloak about him as he ends his tale and disappears into the fog:

The old country wives, however, who are the best judges of these matters, maintain to this day that Ichabod was spirited away by supernatural means; and it is a favorite story often told about the neighborhood round the winter evening fire. The bridge became more than ever an object of superstitious awe; and that may be the reason why the road has been altered of late years, so as to approach the church by the border of the millpond. The schoolhouse being deserted soon fell to decay, and was reported to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate pedagogue and the plowboy, loitering homeward of a still summer evening, has often fancied his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.

You can read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in its entirety by clicking here. And please do.

Have a happy Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Spooky Sleeper of a Tale...

Tomorrow is Halloween, which means it's time to re-read one of the classics of American literature, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Pull your copy down off the shelf, and turn to pa . . . what's that? You don't own a copy? You've never even read it?

It's okay.

Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of the great sleeper hits in American literature, a story whose elements stay in our collective American consciousness even as the book itself fades from college and high school syllabi or other reading lists. As I say often, it's become such a part of our American DNA that most of us can summarize the story even if we've never read it.

"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" made its first appearance on March 15, 1820, as the third and final story in the sixth installment of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of short stories and essays that Irving had been publishing at irregular intervals since June 1819. "It is a random thing," Irving said of his tale of Ichabod Crane, "suggested by recollections and scenes and stories about [Tarrytown, New York]. The story is a mere whimsical band to connect descriptions of scenery, customs, manners, etc."

While "Sleepy Hollow" takes most of its basic plot elements from Dutch and German folklore, it can rightly be called our first true American ghost story. Irving not only gives his tale a unique American setting, with distinctly American references (he mentions, for example, the tree where the spy John Andre was hanged during the American Revolution, and Ichabod Crane is said to be from Connecticut), but he tells the tale in a uniquely American voice -- funny, self-confident, and with just a touch of self-deprecating cockiness. It also contains all the elements we expect of a good Halloween story: a cold autumn night, a spooky bridge, a shimmering apparition, a clattering chase, and yes, there's even a pumpkin.

Irving's ghost story was an immediate hit. "In my opinion [it] is one of the best articles you have written," Irving's best friend, Henry Brevoort, wrote to him in April 1820. The critics agreed, even as they only somewhat joked that Irving was the finest British writer America had ever produced. "[Irving] seems to have studied our language where alone it can be studied in all its strength and perfection,” wrote a reviewer in the English Quarterly Review, "and in working these precious mines of literature he has refined for himself the ore which there so richly abounds."

"Sleepy Hollow" remains perhaps the most memorable item in Irving's large oeuvre, his perpetual crowdpleaser. So popular was the story in Irving's lifetime that when he prepared an Author's Revised Edition of his works late in life, Irving slightly reordered the essays in The Sketch Book to end the volume with "Sleepy Hollow" as its exclamation point.

Thanks in part to two movies -- the 1958 Disney short, and the 1999 Tim Burton film -- "Sleepy Hollow" remains as popular today as it did in Irving's time. And thanks to those movies, if I were to ask you to summarize Irving's tale, you'd probably come up with a series of images rather than the actual plot: Ichabod Crane sitting gawkily on his horse Gunpowder. Crane dancing goofily with Katrina Van Tassel. Ichabod Crane riding Gunpowder for all his might, as the Headless Horseman gains on him. A flaming pumpkin hurled through a covered bridge, straight at the viewer.

That's all fair enough -- the story probably is more about mood than plot, and as Irving himself noted, the tale was simply a "whimsical band" to connect various "descriptions of scenery, customs, [and] manners." But there's still a bit more to it than that -- including an ending that no one seems to remember.

And tomorrow, I'll talk about it.