the greatest showmen

In the week leading up to Christmas, I used my MoviePass (a small investment that pays off hugely even if you don’t go to the movies as often as I do) to see three films: The Man Who Invented ChristmasStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and The Greatest Showman.  I am a casual Star Wars fan at most, so I am both unqualified and a little frightened at the prospect of jumping into the debates surrounding the latest installment, so I won’t.  I’ll simply say that I found the story satisfying and the visual experience awesome (especially in IMAX) and that I am MAD SHIPPING Rey and Kylo Ren (as are the filmmakers, I think, in a subtle way that I really like).

The other two films I saw are about larger-than-life nineteenth century entertainers: Charles Dickens (in The Man Who Invented Christmas) and P.T. Barnum (in The Greatest Showman).  Yes, I called Dickens an entertainer, because that’s how he saw himself (he always wanted to be an actor, and he found his headiest enjoyment in the dramatic and comic public readings he gave toward the end of his life), and I don’t think calling him that diminishes the literary merit of his work at all.  Barnum, of course, can’t really be called anything but an entertainer.  In the remainder of my post, I’ll say a few words about each movie and then explain the similarities I see between these two wild, frustrating, delightful, troubled (and troubling) men.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is the story of Dickens’ composition of A Christmas Carol.  While indulging in some magical realism, it remains remarkably faithful to the biographical facts and psychological truths of Dickens’ life.  As a Dickens fan and scholar, I found virtually nothing to quibble about; it was emotionally and intellectually on point.  The performances were excellent, especially Dan Stevens’ portrayal of the young, dandyish, and rather pretty Dickens.  (Okay, he was kind of gorgeous–I mean both Stevens and the real Dickens.)  I wish this movie had received wider release.

The Greatest Showman has received wider release and much more hype.  I suppose one would call it a bio-musical.  The music is effective, inspiring, and catchy.  The message is simple: Love yourself; follow your dreams.  But this message is, of course, complicated by the historical facts: P.T. Barnum built his business on deception, and–regardless of how well he may have treated his employees–he was still charging money for them to be viewed as curiosities–that is, freaks.  The musical format makes it easy to forget that people weren’t going to Barnum’s circus to see talented singers and dancers.  They weren’t going to see a fantastic female singer who happened to have a beard.  They were going to see a bearded lady, period.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Greatest Showman was the similarities I saw between Barnum (at least the way he was portrayed in this movie–I haven’t done any research on him) and Dickens.  Both grew up as working, lower-class boys who then spent their entire adult lives trying to get respect from the wealthy who would never see them as anything but vulgar entertainers.  Both were amazingly creative and audacious, if not always prudent.  Even Barnum’s weird obsession with promoting the renowned singer Jenny Lind (who didn’t really need a promoter) reminded me of the series of bad decisions Dickens made during his mid-life crisis.  It’s also interesting to note that Dickens had a lifelong enjoyment of the circus.  I wonder if he ever got to see Barnum’s show on one of his visits to America.  I’d have to check and see if the dates line up.

I may pursue this theme later, but I’ll close for now by recommended all of the films I’ve just mentioned.  Even the troubling Greatest Showman is enjoyable, well-executed, and deserving of any honors it may receive during this award season.

 

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your New Year’s inspiration

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas (although, as we learned in my last post, we are still in the Christmas season and will be until next Saturday, which is Epiphany) and didn’t miss me too much during my unannounced hiatus last week.  Today, I have a story to inspire you toward whatever goals you may be pursuing in the new year.

Last week, we were staying in a hotel while visiting family in Ohio.  One morning, I was in the fitness center doing a walking incline workout on the treadmill, when a little old lady–I use the term quite literally, with no disrespect intended–came into the room and hoisted herself up onto the elliptical.  My initial reaction was “Bless her heart,” but as the minutes went by, I could see in my peripheral vision that she was holding her own pretty well.

When I got off the treadmill, she was still going at it, and she wished me a good day, a merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  (At least I think she did–I had my music up loud.)  I thanked her and asked if she wanted the TV remote, which had been sitting unused on my machine, but she couldn’t hear me very well either (she didn’t have her hearing aids in, as she told me a few minutes later), so she got off her elliptical to find out what I was talking about.  I felt bad that she had to interrupt her workout, but it quickly became apparent that she wanted to talk.  We had one of those polite little strangers-in-public exchanges, but this wouldn’t be an interesting story at all (sorry about the long set-up) if not for what she asked me while I was on my way out the door.

“Have you ever run a marathon?” she asked.  I popped out one of my earbuds and answered, “No, I’ve run a half-marathon, but not a full marathon.”

“Oh, you have to run a marathon,” she said.  “I’m training for my 13th marathon.  I didn’t run my first one until I was 61.”

[From here on, I’m not going to continue with this dialogue thing–just imagine me saying variations of “Wow, amazing!”]

She began speaking as if me signing up for a marathon were a done deal.  “Just have fun,” she said.  “You can alternate between walking and running, at least on your first two marathons.”  (Now she was assuming I was going to run two.)  “Don’t worry about keeping up with the Kenyans.”  Here I laughed knowingly; my heart always sinks when the first Kenyan runner passes by on the return leg of the Virginia Ten-Miler when I’ve barely gotten started.

The conversation was short, and it ended with an exchange of first names (hers: Connie) and with Connie telling me she would pray for me and my family (this is not really a surprise in Central Ohio, Bible Belt North).  I walked away from the fitness center with a lot to think about, most of which can be summed up in various cliches such as “Don’t judge a book by its cover” and “It’s never too late to try something new.”  So I won’t belabor the point.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, and I hope Connie’s example won’t discourage you (“I’m not her, so I won’t try”) but inspire you.  Your thing may not be running marathons (though apparently mine is), but you do have a thing–go do it.

People, look East!

Did you know that, for the first time in 14 years, there are four Sundays in Advent this year?  I learned this yesterday when I attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lynchburg, VA, as a change of pace from my home church.  I have no intention of switching churches anytime soon, but as I explained to several people, I enjoy attending liturgical services around holidays, especially Christmas.  My boyfriend was a good enough sport (maybe because he got to have breakfast at Market at Main first) to go along with me to this service involving a lot of standing, kneeling, and even walking up to the altar rail for Holy Communion.  (He said he was watching me and doing whatever I did.  I didn’t know what I was doing either; I was watching the person in front of me.)

We were also reminded in the sermon that right now, we are not technically in the Christmas season.  We are in Advent, and we will be until December 24, that rare fourth Sunday.  Christmas begins that night and goes until January 6, variously called Epiphany, Twelfth Night, and Three Kings Day.  Of course, as my evangelical friends will rightly remind me, we can celebrate Christmas all year, and the dates matter less than the substance of what actually happened and what it means for us.  But the significance of Advent is that it’s all about hope, expectation, and waiting.  These are not only essential disciplines for the Christian life but also just good general life habits.  Advent and Christmas, if we see them in their true Christian light, teach us that what we await far exceeds even the weeks of excitement and preparation.  The days after December 25 are not a letdown, as we often think of them, but a continued celebration of the long-expected Christ who has finally come.

Yesterday’s service closed out with a beautiful hymn by Eleanor Farjeon that I had never heard before.  I loved it so much (especially the bird verse, of course) that I wanted to share it with you.  Please enjoy it, and think about it this week when you start to wonder if Christmas is really worth all the fuss.  It is, and far more!  Think about it later this winter when you feel exhausted from walking around in the dark and shivering all the time.  Spring is coming!  And think about it throughout your life when you are tired of waiting for a break, waiting to see the fruits of your labor, waiting for your prayers to be answered in a way that you can see and understand.  Love is on the way.

(Note: I added the exclamation points because I felt they fit the tone of the song better than the periods that were printed in the bulletin.)

1. People, look East!  The time is near of the crowning of the year.

Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table.

People, look East and sing today: Love the guest is on the way.

2. Furrows, be glad!  Though earth is bare, one more seed is planted there:

Give up your strength the seed to nourish, that in course the flow’r may flourish.

People, look East and sing today: Love the rose is on the way.

3. Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.

Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.

People, look East and sing today: Love the bird is on the way.

4. Stars, keep the watch! When night is dim, one more light the bowl shall brim,

Shining beyond the frosty weather, bright as sun and moon together.

People, look East and sing today: Love the star is on the way.

5. Angels, announce with shouts of mirth Christ who brings new life to earth!

Set every peak and valley humming with the word the Lord is coming.

People look East and sing today: Love the Lord is on the way.

 

 

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.

 

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!