Thursday, December 24, 2015

Real Meaning of the 12 Days of Christmas: Recollections & Rant

            Merchants have turned the 12 days of Christmas on their head, with popular culture -- movies and ads – depicting the 12 days preceding the holiday as the most important times to express consideration and get busy with that shopping.  Traditionally, The 12 days of Christmas follow the birth of the child Jesus. It took the Three Wise Men – shadowy figures from East of Palestine – that long to reach Bethlehem after the star appeared to guide them on the so-called Holy Night.

            This night was fixed at December 24, to co-opt the pagan rituals. In early times of winter celebration, feasting in the lord’s castle or the village continued until Jan. 5, the Feast of Epiphany or Little Christmas as it was called in the ethnic community where I was raised. On this night, the myth holds, the Wise Men reached Bethlehem to complete the cycle of rejoicing following the birth of the new king. 

            12 Nights of Socializing

 In my father’s extended family, and my mother’s smaller local family, there was much visiting in the evenings during the 12 nights of Christmas. The men returned from work, generally factory or crafts jobs; the family had dinner. Then the children were bundled into snowsuits, and we set off in the dark, chill night on icy streets. Or relatives might ring the bell about the time we finishing cleaning up after supper.

            In that case, we children were expected to allow ourselves to be hugged, answer questions civilly, open any gifts in the presence of the givers and say “thank you” as sincerely as we could manage as kids, no matter what our personal opinions might be. Then we might go to our rooms, which were not equipped with televisions.  A television was a space-consuming piece of furniture and the focus of the living room. Even radio was not available until my teens, when cheap Japanese transistors came into widespread, affordable use.

       The Social Protocols     

Certain visits were obligatory. Visits to grandparents and/or get-togethers with siblings occurred on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Less close connections were attended to during the week. Nieces and nephews were expected to visit their aunts and uncles, bringing the children to meet the great-aunts and –uncles. Godparents had to be visited, or the godparent might visit the child’s home. There didn’t seem to be a pecking order on that. In general, it was expected that families with young children and older people were less mobile, so they would be visited. In general, younger people visiting older ones showed respect.

            Conversation often centered on family. Conversations included keeping track of marriages and – rare in those times, divorces, as well as births, illnesses, children’s education and antics, and gossip about mutual acquaintances. In addition to information sharing, one conversational ploy was known as fishing.  Direct questions about many things were rude. If one suspected that a woman had died her hair to cover the gray, or someone’s child was getting into trouble, one might volunteer some information that would anticipate a similar self-disclosure from the other person. If I wanted to know if cousin Holly’s child was failing in school, I might volunteer that one of my children was struggling with math or English or some such. Inquiry could be deflected by focusing solely on the inquisitor’s situation: “I am sorry to hear it.”

             Circles of Friends in the Seventies

 As a young woman, there was a lot of visiting among friends during the holiday season. This was accompanied with capacious quantities of wine, weed, and great food. A few businesses even gave a paid break week for the days between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. The feeling was that not a whole lot of work would be done anyway. Many business places were looser about hours, especially if business was a bit off.  In the newspaper business, for example, Christmas was often a famine period. This was before our nation celebrated national holidays with shootings, and before celebrity gossip and local police blotter stuff was elevated to the status of news worth anyone’s time. Congress and most state legislatures are on break, and once upon a time in the United States, political coverage constituted a good part of what was considered news.  A phenomenon such as the Kardashians was not even a gleam in the cameras’ eyes.

            Now however, the 12 days of Christmas have fallen on hard times. What was once a joyful period of carousing during the darkest nights of the year has become an excuse for employers to model themselves on Scrooge and fire employees who prefer to spend time with family on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas or Hanukkah, or Passover or Eid, or Diwali, or whatever occasion might be of sacred importance to that worker.

            The 12 days of Christmas, a time for opening one’s heart to an ever widening sphere of people with food, conversation, and drink, is simply a marketing ploy. And it's too bad that advertising analysis co-opts ancient cultural roots, simultaneously pretending to honor them while subverting the social and cultural practices toward a calculus of endless consumerism.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Joseph Gordon-Levitt Becomes Stylish Actor with Good Taste

I was not impressed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt when I first saw him in Third Rock from the Sun, a loony sitcom about aliens reporting from Earth.

I thought that Kristen Johnson, with those long legs and great timing for wise-ass combacks, would be a force to be reckoned with. I was wrong.

Photo from

It is Gordon-Levitt who shines these days.

Slight of build with a face more cute than handsome, Gordon-Leavitt endows the crazy cyclist messenger in Premium Rush. He inhabits the character with a cocky taste for danger that makes this most mundane job as exciting and dangerous as climbing Mount Everest.

He pushes this ability to capture both sweetness and risk-taking in Brick, a film that reminds me mightily of Dealing or the Berkeley-to-Boston  40-Brick Lost-Bag Blues, an early Michael Crichton effort under a pseudonym with his brother Douglas. In both, students assume noirishly adult lines and lives.

Brick lacks the good-natured humor of Dealing, but the world has changed a great deal since those simpler times of the Seventies. It improves upon it with the subtle cleverness projected by Gordon-Levitt and some catching dialogue.

It is disconcerting when high school students act and talk with the worldliness of characters in a Sam Spade novel. Despite the milieu, it is well done.

Gordon-Levitt pulls it off. Writing of his role in an earlier film, the San Francisco Chronicle noted he "embodies, more than performs, a character's inner life," according to Wikipedia.

Stephanie Zacharek at Salon similarly praised his ability to create a "spell  in subtle gradation," also quoted at Wikipedia.

Gordon-Levitt adds elegance and sophistication to this worldliness in the shadowy (and disturbingly violent) comic book adaptation, Sin City: A Dame to Die For. He plays a supremely self-confident gambler, again pushing against the qualities that he seems to seek out in independent and studio films alike.

I've only seen the trailers from The Walk. It appears that Gordon-Levitt once again inhabits his character, based on Philippe Petit, who actually made the daring performance on a high wire between two New York skyscrapers.

It is interesting to see a young actor emerge into a formidable stylish. I hope I'm not wrong when I predict Gordon-Levitt will pick up a well-deserved Oscar one of these days.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why I Miss Kyra Sedgwick in "The Closer"

The Closer is in reruns, and this gives me a chance to watch details of techniques that I didn’t notice when my goal was to follow the mystery.

Kyra Sedgwick’s expressive face must surely be one of the reasons her character is so appealing.

I loved her as Brenda Lee Johnson, a tough-minded police chief detective who didn’t mind stepping on toes in her single-minded pursuit of truth.

She’s brash. She forgets dates with yummy Fritz Howard (Jon Tenney) of the FBI, and he love her anyway most of the time.

She makes tough decisions. Won’t cooperate with her? She will plop you down in the middle of a gang war, making sure your homies believe you’ve been a snitch, and if they should kill you – well, karma’s a bitch.

She smart, almost too smart for her own good. By turns charming and threatening, she is famous for closing the tough cases by eliciting a confession from the perpetrator when the evidence isn't enough to secure a conviction.

And brave. Did I mention brave? She may be scared, but like a good soldier, she does not let fear dictate her actions.

Throughout it all she looks terrific.

 And oh those expressions that move across her face when she savors a luscious chocolate, oozing with marshmallow or caramel, at the end of a long day. It is a face of utter sensuality and bliss. 

Or when she flirts. Or pretends she's going to apologize and then turns the apology into an evaluation: "I am so sorry that you are incompetent to do your job."

Brenda Leigh Johnson was not a super hero. She was a believable older woman character of strength and shortcomings in roughly equal measure. She struggled, she wasn’t always a good person, but she was always authentic.

She lived her values.

Brenda Leigh Johnson, I miss ya, baby.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Free Verse: Growing Older

One thinks for a moment
At the beginning
That life will be orchestras playing at weddings
Cake and bridesmaids’ bouquets
Nights a little tipsy
Or filled with hallucinations of a garden of stuffed animals
The roar of an expressway like a waterfall in the distance.
Driving in cars to airports
To pick up luggage filled with grass.
Boys who want to run their hands up your leg.
Sweet kisses, deep and filled with longing
And lust.
One thinks this will last forever.
Enjoy being young, we are told.
We can see the physical changes.
The bodies grown wrinkled,
A bit stooped,
Slower, a bit musty.
But it’s not the body changes that dim the orchestra
And the street lamps wetly off the pavement.
One stares with far-off eyes into an unknown distance
Wondering where the others went who came before
And wandering off darkling into the everylasting night.
We’ve heard the orchestra before
Danced our dances.
No more young men who want to run their hands up my legs.
No more sweet kisses that last until dawn.
Only night.
Only the fading strains of the orchestra that is getting ready to pack its gear.