In the Bleak Mid-winter

I graded a paper about Christina Rossetti this weekend, so I’ve been thinking about her poem “A Christmas Carol” and the various ways it’s been set to music, usually under the name “In the Bleak Mid-winter.”  Take a minute to read it, and I’ll meet you back here when you’re ready.

So, obviously, we don’t know if Jesus was born in the winter, and even if he was, there probably weren’t copious snowdrifts on the Middle Eastern hills.  But Rossetti’s poem doesn’t actually imply that the first stanza, which describes a winter scene, is the setting for the next three stanzas, which describe Jesus’ nativity.  The “long ago” of stanza 1 could refer to Rossetti’s childhood when she first learned what Christmas means.  (This would explain the childlike tone of the famous final stanza.)  In general, I think stanza 1 is best read not as a literal description of the setting of Jesus’ birth but as an impression of the dark (literally and figuratively), seemingly hopeless world into which he was born and in which we still live.

Think about winter.  It’s a difficult season for many people simply because of where the earth is positioned in relation to the sun, let alone because of the painful associations that the winter holidays have for many people.  I am fortunate enough to have virtually no memories but happy ones of the Christmas season, but I really struggle with winter.  I find the cold exhausting and the darkness depressing and disorienting.  Of course, winter has a beauty of its own–think of a cardinal against a backdrop of snow or the dark outlines of bare trees at twilight.  And winter has a few pinpricks of warmth (Christmas), hope (New Years), and pure fun (the February holidays: the Super Bowl, Valentine’s Day, and the Oscars).  But these glimpses are scant compensation for a grueling three or four months (or longer, depending on where you live) of huddling against the “frosty wind” and facing a seemingly endless night.

When I think about long periods of darkness, the 400-year silence between the last Old Testament prophets and the birth of Jesus comes to mind.  Isaiah was prophesying about the breaking of this silence when he wrote these words, which Handel later incorporated into The Messiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shone” (Isaiah 9:2).  We, too, live in a time when we want God to speak up and explain why life is so hard and what he’s going to do about it.  But we, unlike those inter-testamental Jewish people, can look both backward at the moment where God came to be with us–Immanuel–and forward at the time when the Prince of Peace will “establish [his kingdom] with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever” (Isaiah 9:7).  When he comes to set things right, winter will no longer be bleak.

 

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Don’t try to do everything–but do something.

Last year, I enjoyed writing an Advent-themed post for each Monday leading up to Christmas (and I hope you enjoyed reading them), so I’ll be doing it again this year.  Christmas Day is a Monday this year, and I plan to post as usual!

Today, I want to give you a life hack from The Girl Who Tries to Do Everything.  Ever since Facebook started suggesting events in my area (sometime this past summer, I think), I’ve become obsessed with marking myself “Interested” in as many events as possible.  They all look so fun!  The events I actually show up to comprise, predictably, only a small percentage of the ones I star.  Also predictably, the number of suggested events that look really fun has increased sharply with the onset of the Christmas season.  And also predictably, I didn’t go to a single one of the events I was supposedly interested in this past weekend.  But I did have a lovely time at home decorating my tree, writing Christmas cards, listening to the same Christmas albums I always listen to, and drinking way too much hot chocolate.  So here’s my advice: Don’t try to go to every event and participate in every activity that comes to your attention this Christmas season.  But, conversely, don’t let your inability to do everything paralyze you into inaction.  Do a few meaningful things that make you happy–which may not be the same as mine.

Here are some things I’ve decided to do this month:

  1. Go see ONE Christmas play/show/concert: A friend of mine is stage-managing a production of White Christmas, and since I know that I love this story and its music (here is a post that addresses an interesting sartorial question from the film), I know that attending the show will be worth my time.  Accordingly, I’ve already bought myself a ticket and put it on my calendar.
  2. Pick ONE recipe to take to parties: Fortunately, several of the Christmas parties I’m attending this month are catered or at a restaurant.  But for those parties where I’m excepted (or feel obligated) to contribute food, I’m not trying a different ambitious recipe for each one; I’m making festively-shaped sugar cookies.  That’s it.  I do love to cook and bake–you know that if you read my blog regularly–but I can get serious burnout at this time of year if I’m not careful.  By reserving my cooking/baking powers, I should have enough motivation to contribute quite a bit to my family’s holiday meals at the end of the month.
  3. Look at Christmas lights: Along with listening to music, it’s one of the only forms of holiday entertainment that is free and can be done on the way to something else.  My neighborhood is making a solid showing this year, so all I need to do in order to infuse a bit of Christmas cheer into my day is take a slightly different route to my house.
  4. Make every moment special: That sounds like it belongs on an especially cheesy greeting card, but it’s actually quite practical advice.  In December, if I’m sitting down to grade papers or read a book, I plug in my Christmas tree, light all my candles (and there are a lot–I like to pretend I have a fireplace), put on some Christmas music, and make some hot chocolate in one of my festive mugs.  So I’m celebrating Christmas even when I’m not celebrating Christmas.
  5. Spend time with people: I’ve made it sound like I’m doing all of this alone, and I certainly do enjoy hibernating in my house.  But this year, I had friends over to help decorate my Christmas tree, and even though I didn’t attend any of those events I starred this past weekend, I did spend some time with people each day.  Because in the end, what we do is less important than who we do it with.  And that’s sappy, but I can say it because it’s Christmas.

beautiful sights in “Rust Belt” America

I put the term in the title in quotation marks because it often connotes ugliness and depression, and while it’s certainly true that much of America’s Midwest has experienced economic decline over the past decades, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty–in all its senses, including aesthetic beauty–to be found throughout this region.  Here are a few word pictures of beautiful sights I saw in Ohio and western Pennsylvania this past weekend.

The Laurel Highlands with a dusting of snow: I always say that the temperature drops five degrees as soon as you cross into Somerset County, PA, and it sounds like a joke, but it’s a real weather phenomenon that others besides me have observed.  Last Wednesday as I drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Somerset County–the crown jewel (or the frozen heart) of the Laurel Highlands–was the only place where a powdered-donut coating of snow lingered, from a previous shower, on the trees and hillsides along the road.  I’m glad no new precipitation fell during my trip, but the snow coating added to the festive feeling of driving home for Thanksgiving.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Squirrel Hill tunnel in daylight: On Saturday, my dad and I took a day trip west to Ohio.  It was a sunny day, and when we hit Pittsburgh around 9:00 am, the city appeared to advantage, with the sun glinting off the rivers and the colorful bridges, which are always striking no matter how many times you’ve seen them and no matter how much bridge maintenance is occurring at any given time.  I remarked to Dad that Pittsburgh is fun to drive through (as long as traffic isn’t too heavy) because it’s a little like a roller-coaster, with tunnels, bridges, level changes, and exit ramps in odd places.

Patchwork farmland in Holmes County, Ohio: I’m not sure if Holmes and its neighboring county, Tuscarawas, actually count as part of the Rust Belt because they’re rural areas that have always (as far as I know) been rural and home to large Amish communities.  I did see a factory as we were driving, but even it looked old-fashioned and charming, with brick chimneys instead of metal.  Anyway, around 4:00 as we were leaving the retirement community in Walnut Creek where my grandfather lives, and the sun was just starting to think about setting, I remarked that the scene in front of us should be on a calendar (and it probably has been at some point).  Ohio has a gentler topography than western PA and West Virginia, with rolling hills rather than mountains.  At this time of year, the fields have been harvested but the pastures are still green, and the trees still cling to some leaves as they make architectural shadows against the hillsides.  The landscape isn’t dramatic, but the colors are, especially when the sun hits them just right.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt tunnel at night: There was a Penguins game Saturday night, so traffic was a little backed up going into the city, and Dad and I were musing about whose great idea it was to make tunnels the only non-aquatic way to enter a relatively major city.  The tradeoff, of course, is the breathtaking view when you exit the tunnel and immediately find yourself in the middle of a light show, with the bridge lit up above you, the skyscrapers lit up in front of you, and lit-up boats on the rivers on all sides.  On Saturday night, the effect was heightened by the gleaming yellow bowl of Heinz Field, where all the arena lights were on (apparently in preparation for Sunday night’s Steeler’s game?), and there was also a large, lit Christmas tree below us to the left.  The whole experience was like driving through a Christmas tree.

There’s beauty everywhere, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that hard to find in Western PA and Ohio.

new kids in Hawkins

First I’d just like to say that while I’m writing this second of my two posts on Stranger Things 2, I’m eating a 3 Musketeers bar.  I normally don’t eat these except when I buy the fun size Mars variety packs for Halloween, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 3 Musketeers is in my top five, but the nougat really is a nice change from your average dense, heavy candy bar filling.

All right.  Last week I promised to write about the new more heroic, more mature, and more comedic Steve, and I was also asked to write about the new characters (besides Bob, whom I addressed last week).  So here we go.

Have you noticed that classically good-looking people are few in Stranger Things and that when they do appear, they are sometimes a bit morally suspect?  We’ll talk about the long-lashed, almost girlishly pretty bad boy Billy in a moment, but for now, let’s think about Steve, who was probably the most attractive person in season one (if you can get past his hair.  You have to do that with a lot of characters in this series.  It’s 1984.).  In season one, he was at worst a bully (though his sidekicks were the ones who were really mean to Jonathan) and at best a doofusy dreamboat who took a fancy to Nancy (who, since we’re on the subject, is a cute girl but is a little too waifish, with her enormous eyes, to be classified as model-gorgeous).  In this season, Steve earns sympathy by getting dumped (in an awkward, inconclusive sort of way), earns B.A. points by wielding a nail-spiked baseball bat (less sleek but perhaps more effective than Negan’s barbed wire-wrapped Lucille on The Walking Dead), and ends up becoming a protector, style mentor, and life coach of sorts to the kids, especially Dustin.  (I think I actually squealed out loud with delight when I saw that Steve was driving Dustin to the Snow Ball.)  He’s still a good-looking guy, but now that he’s become more relatable (significantly, that happened partly because he got his face beat to a pulp), he can fit in with our band of misfits.

Now, the person who beat Steve’s face to a pulp: Billy.  Obviously, this guy is a classic example of the adage that hurt people hurt people.  When we got a glimpse of Billy’s verbally and physically abusive father in action, Billy became a lot more understandable as a character, but for me, he didn’t became sympathetic.  He’s still arrogant, a bully, a mean big brother, and a racist.  As I mentioned last week, I haven’t looked at anything on the internet about this season yet, but I have this feeling that some people may be shipping the now-single Steve with Billy—after all, they had a tense conversation in a locker room and are the two most attractive people in town.  I hope it doesn’t happen.  I like Billy as an antagonist, and I like Steve carrying a torch for Nancy.  Let’s keep it that way.

Quickly, my thoughts on the other new characters:

Billy’s sister Max, AKA Madmax: She was more interesting for the reactions she caused in the other characters (especially Eleven!) than for herself, but I think she has potential to be a strong member of the team.  My favorite moment with her was at the Snow Ball when she kissed Lucas and then smiled.  I think it was her first actual smile all season, and it was a sweet moment.

The doctor from Hawkins Lab, Sam something? (Paul Reiser): I like that his character put a more complicated and human face on the operation than we saw last season.  I thought he did a pretty brave thing staying in the building and guiding Bob over the walkie-talkie when all those demodogs were running around.  But I’m still not sure if I like him.  It seems like his story trajectory is not yet finished, so perhaps we’ll see him next season.

Again, let me know what your thoughts are!

I finally caught up with the rest of the world and watched Stranger Things 2.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I watched the series on my laptop, which has a line down the middle of the screen (which sometimes created an amusing split-screen effect), but even with the small screen and display glitch, I feel like I got the full experience.  Because Stranger Things isn’t ultimately about a cosmic battle—it’s about the intimate emotions of the people in the Party fighting that battle.

Maybe it’s because I watched the final episode last night, so it’s fresh in my mind, but for me the moment in this season that encapsulates that emotional core is when Nancy comes over to those clunky, retractable, wooden get-a-splinter-in-your-butt bleachers (one of the countless nostalgic references in the show) and asks Dustin to dance, and we see that Dustin has been crying.  Not like a baby or like a drama queen, but like a seriously let-down 13-year-old boy.  I love that this vulnerable moment is shown but not belabored for all its sentimental worth.  That’s what this show does: It pierces your heart, but it doesn’t let you wallow—because there is, after all, a cosmic battle to be fought.  And like my favorite fictional cosmic battle (to save the Wizarding world, obviously), this one is fought using very non-fictional weapons: honesty (friends don’t lie), loyalty, courage, and love.

Let’s talk about courage for a minute.  I haven’t read anything on the internet yet about Stranger Things 2, but I’m guessing I’m not the only one who fell into unexpected love with Bob Newby, superhero.  I mean, I expected to enjoy Sean Astin’s performance, but for the first few episodes, the show seemed to be sending Bob down a “mom’s dorky boyfriend who doesn’t get it” story trajectory.  But of course, when Bob is invited into the Party (the larger Party that encompasses everyone–kid and adult alike–who gets pulled into the orbit of this conflict) and given room to use his dorky yet awesome skills, he becomes a hero.  And yet he doesn’t suddenly turn into a fearless guy who always knows what to do.  I appreciate the shots of Bob hiding in the closet from the…demodogs, I guess we’re calling them? (thanks, Dustin) because we see that he’s sweating, he’s almost hyperventilating—he’s terrified.  But he does what is necessary.  In a conversation, I said that Bob is not a brave person, but he does brave things.  Those are the kinds of characters that I love.

One more character who really wrung out my heart this season: Hopper.  He told Eleven/Jane/Kid that he feels like a black hole, an entity that sucks people in and then destroys them, but I think the better metaphor (analogy?) is of an emotional punching bag.  I think of that horribly sad shouting match with Eleven about halfway through the season, where she was doing most of the shouting (and telekinesis) and he was mostly just absorbing it, taking in the hurt.  And then I think of Mike screaming at Hopper in the last episode because he didn’t understand, wouldn’t understand that Hopper did what he did because he loved Eleven just as much as Mike did.  No wonder the guy keeps breaking all his health resolutions—a man who takes all those hits has to do something to cope!

I’ll probably write more about Stranger Things 2 next week because I’ve got more to say, including about this season’s most delightful surprise, a brand-new Steve: babysitter, mentor, and unlikely big brother.  Meanwhile, tell me your thoughts.  Or go watch the show, if you need to do that first.

Thor: Ragnarok (another good review)

I’m sure I’ve said before on this blog that the Thor films are my favorite Avenger movies–not just because of their central character (who’s gorgeous, funny, sensitive, and smarter than people give him credit for) but because of the whole mythology-infused world of the stories and the painfully realistic (though sometimes hilarious) family drama that lies at their heart.  Anyone who knows me in real life is aware that I have a special love for Loki, but I’ve never been one of those fans who advocate for him to get a solo film.  Loki needs Thor, and both need Asgard.  And as we learned in Thor: Ragnarok, Asgard is a people, not a place (and certainly not just a throne).  Read on if you’re not worried about spoilers.

When trailers for Ragnarok started appeared several months ago, I was worried that the movie, with its neon colors, comedy, and rock-and-roll soundtrack was basically going to be Guardians of the Galaxy 3.  (Though I was pleased to see “Immigrant Song” finally associated with a Thor movie.  And not that there’s anything wrong with Guardians–I just wanted Thor to be Thor.)  And certainly, there are elements of Ragnarok that would fit comfortably in the Guardians universe, like the trippy trash planet Sakkar (which also reminds me of Mad Max and those weird landfill people from the last season of The Walking Dead) and the new character Korg, a humanoid pile of rocks with a Kiwi accent and a deadpan delivery, who shares certain qualities with Guardians characters Drax and Groot.

Yet, despite the fact that we’ve departed far from the Shakespearean line delivery of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (and of the old comics) and the high seriousness of much of Thor: The Dark WorldRagnarok still feels like a Thor movie.  Maybe it’s the callbacks to the previous films–lingering interior and exterior shots of Asgard on the verge of destruction and appearances (however brief) of Thor’s old comrades.  (I wanted to cheer when Heimdall finally showed up!)  But I think the main reason Ragnarok feels like a Thor movie is that even though I spent most of the film laughing, I still felt the gravity of what was at stake.  And I felt that Old Norse sense of the dignity of dying alongside one’s companions (even though, happily, most of our favorite characters didn’t die).

One key death in the film, of course, is Odin’s, and I loved this beautiful, understated scene.  It was fitting that Odin, now humble but never humiliated, should spend his last moments not detailing his exploits but calling attention to the wild cliffs of the Norwegian coast.  Most importantly, he tells both of his sons that he loves them, and I think this explains not only the surprising (yet really not surprising, when you think about it) new power Thor attains at the end of the movie (I loved this) but also the subtle difference in Loki throughout the rest of the film.  Not that he suddenly converts to a thorough-going good guy, but he seems to have softened just slightly.  I really believed he was going to cry when Thor was talking about how it would be good for Loki to stay on Sakkar.  (Darn you, Tom Hiddleston, and your beautiful eyes.)

And that scene takes place just before the first occurrence of the recurring “Get Help” bit, which has been making me giggle out loud every time I recall it.  There’s a lot about the Thor movies, as a series, that’s really good, but I maintain that the best thing about them is the chemistry between Thor and Loki.  Whether they’re physically fighting or verbally bantering (or Thor is throwing Loki at unassuming guards), they act like real brothers, and I’ll never get tired of watching.  Here’s hoping their Sakaarian spacecraft leads them to more adventures that we’ll get to see.

what I would say if I were on Talking Dead

Sometimes I think about what I would say if for some reason I became famous enough to sit on the celebrity couch in Chris Hardwick’s fake studio apartment.  Lately, the guests (and Chris) have been doing fairly well at focusing on The Walking Dead instead of promoting their own work and making dirty jokes.  But there are some topics nobody has broached that I think need to be addressed.

  1. Negan is not a good role model or even a cool guy.  I made this quite clear in my post from a year ago entitled why I hate Negan, so I won’t belabor the point now.  At the time, I said he was an engaging character, but now I find his swagger contrived (which it is, of course–it’s a post-apocalyptic persona) and his relentless unkindness, even to his own terrified followers, almost unbearable to watch.  Yet convention attendees are still dressing their little kids up in Negan costumes.  It’s troubling, to say the least.  I wish Rick (or anyone, really) would kill him ASAP–next Sunday, preferably–but I’m sure he won’t die until the end of this season, if even then, because he seems to have surpassed Darryl as the darling of ratings.
  2. The most interesting characters are the people who seem to have nothing to offer–the ones considered dead weight or even liabilities according to the masculine contribution-value paradigm I wrote about in another post.  Sure, we need people like Rick who have gun skills and leadership abilities, and people like Carol whose past traumas have made them tough, but we also need people like Father Gabriel, who had to go through a serious worldview shift in order to even comprehend what was happening, and people like Eugene, who concocted the (end of the) world’s biggest lie because he was so afraid of being cast out or killed by people he knew were more capable and prepared.  People like these latter two, perhaps my favorite characters right now, provide a necessary non-majority perspective and are able to empathize with others who aren’t brave or bad-ass and yet have worth just by being human.  (Well, Father Gabriel is able to empathize.  Eugene’s not great at people skills, but he’s improving.)  I often think back to Dale in Seasons 1 and 2 and that bewildered look he would get, which I affectionately refer to as The Dale Face.  Dale clearly was having trouble reconciling his understanding of the world with the horror he was seeing around him.  I would have the same trouble, and I’m glad to think I would.  The people who aren’t troubled by the zombie apocalypse are the people who scare me.  And even some of our most confident and capable characters have had to go through periods of retreat and reflection–Morgan, most notably, but also Rick when he went through his gardening phase.  (By the way, I was annoyed with all the fans who mocked “Farmer Rick.”  Besides processing his own grief, he was also creating a sustainable food source for his community.  Since when is that a bad thing?)
  3. King Ezekiel, his tiger, and his kingdom have turned this show into a bizarre mashup of a gritty, hyper-realistic road story set in the near future and a faux-medieval high fantasy, Lord of the Rings style, and I love it.  He’s the best thing that’s happened to this show in a while.
  4. Please, someone, wash and cut Carl’s and Darryl’s hair.  I can hardly stand to look at them.