Sunday, December 25, 2005

i'll be home for christmas

I remember knowing, as a kid, that people who weren't really involved in churches went to church twice a year: at Christmas and Easter. Shortly before my childhood we stopped having Christmas services on weekdays, but whenever it happened on Sunday the church would be packed, as it always was on the Sunday nearest Christmas.

Several years ago, it fell on a Sunday again, and this time there was much worry about whether to even have church on Christmas day, because it might interfere with people's family celebrations. You know, people want to celebrate at home for Christmas, not go to church. We finally decided to have no Sunday school and only one service, at a special time, with kids invited to wear pajamas. This year, we did the same thing, only with civvies.

The whole bit about people wanting to stay home and be with their families was snapped into its proper place when we got home from today's service (well-populated but hardly crowded, at either our church or the Episcopal one down the street). The television was on, and we observed seventy thousand people cheering as the Spurs played Detroit.

With all the talk recently about taking the Christ out of Christmas, we've hardly noticed the real phenomenon: we've taken the Mass out.

Friday, December 23, 2005

hanukkah and big america

Last night, NPR ran the usual handwringing editorial by a Jewish person, about Christmas. Jewish editorialists, at least, feel cowed by Christmas, jealously wanted it as children, couldn't understand why they couldn't have it, don't want to deprive their own children but don't want to sell out. It's sometimes mentioned, as it was last night, that trying to match it by making Hanukkah into a glowing winter celebration is a bit of a stretch because Hanukkah really isn't a major thing in the Jewish faith. It just doesn't occupy the central place that Christmas does for Christians.

Except that's not true.

I suppose that most Jewish people don't really realize that in making Christmas itself a glowing winter celebration we're making exactly the same stretch. We've completely blasted Advent, the hushed season of anticipation, out of the water, and replaced it with capitalism's favorite month.

The real holiday for Christianity is Easter. For centuries it was (and is still, in other cultures) central. Holy Week is our High Holy Days, our time of reflection, penitence, deep joy, trumpet-blaring jubilation. Christmas, on the other hand, was mostly seen as a mass day with some gift-giving attached, leading up to Epiphany. In Spanish-speaking lands, Epiphany (Three Kings' Day) is still the biggie.

So, if you were George Friedrich Handel, you'd write a beautiful and glorious Gloria for the Christmas section of your masterpiece The Messiah, but you'd save the Hallelujah Chorus — the pinnacle of all jubilation-music — for the Easter Section. Yep, look it up: it's an Easter song. We append it to the Christmas section because we're like that.

So I say blow up Hanukkah: inflate it all out of proportion. Make it into the gleaming bejeweled feast America wants it to be. Make it into what we've made of Christmas. That's not necessarily bad: it can be a wonderful thing if the individual is able to keep focus. The real trick is to keep from distorting it into merely a capitalist gorge. Celebrate the comings, first and second, of the Messiah; celebrate the sustaining miracle of God's provision for his people in besieged times. It's good for you.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

the red-nosed messiah

I was playing a gig the other day with the delightful Loretta Cormier, and pointed out that I'd heard "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was written by Jewish songwriters. Since then, I haven't been able to confirm the truth or falseness of that. But of course, as Loretta pointed out, "White Christmas" is by Irving Berlin, and "Chestnuts" is by Mel Torme, both Jewish.

The interesting thing to me, though, about "Rudolph" is its distinctly Christological shape. Berlin and Torme wrote mainly about winter in their songs, but May and Marks wrote about a rejected suffering servant who is then called on to save the day — and the undeserving reindeer — and winds up the center of an eternal rejoicing.

When I mentioned all this to Catherine, she was skeptical, saying I was reading that Christology into the song. But you can't do that with "White Christmas," or "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

"Santa Claus is Coming to Town" is, on the other hand, millenarian rather than Christological. It reminds us that Advent is as much about the Second Coming as the first. Go through the lyrics yourself: creepy, isn't it? No chuckling, no merriment, not a word about gifts and toys for girls and boys. This is the old-school Santa, straight from the Dutch. It sounds like Jesus's warnings about a master who leaves and then returns to reward his servants based on how they've done in his absence.

Meanwhile, what if Isaiah hadn't chosen stones as his metaphor when he said "the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?" He would have done just as well to mention an outcast reindeer.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

impressions of narnia

We saw Narnia this weekend. It was such a wonderful production that I feel bad quibbling about it. The new-agey Celtic soundtrack with pop over the credits. Really? Alanis? Really? And Liam Neeson must have sounded like a great idea in some board meeting, but the moment Aslan opened his mouth I thought, "Snagglepuss." And Snagglepuss never left me the entire time. Couldn't they have gotten Anthony Hopkins? Just hear him say, "Welcome, daughter of Eve," and you get shivers.

Of course, the real problems are carried over from the book. The movie so faithfully tells the book's story that it reproduces the book's flaws as well. The main one has to do with Aslan himself. Lewis said over and over that the book was not to be read as a mirror of scripture. But he did say that his goal was to imagine another world and ask how God would interact with that world. And in this, I think, he failed.

This doesn't take away his success in telling a great series of stories. They're beloved for a reason: they're just marvelous tales, and their resonance with the Christian mythos works wonderfully on that level. But in answering the question of how God would interact with a world such as Narnia, Lewis is guilty in the way most of us are: His Aslan is exactly the Messiah that we all wanted and God didn't give us.

The truer Son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea isn't a majestic roaring lion. He's a donkey. And all those noble beasts — the lions, the centaurs — are the ones who despise him and try to snuff him out, and eventually put him to death on the Stone Table. Right? On a deeper level, those last scenes with the killing and then the great battle look a lot more like a Hindu world or a Manichean one than a Christian one.

But, again, I quibble. The movie, like the book, is thrilling. It's got heart and plot and good actors.

One other thing I noticed about the voice casting. In the Narnia of my childhood imagination, just past the bloom of the Cold War, I gave the wolves, Jadis's greedy, powerful, unbeatable, snarling henchmen, Russian accents. Quite natural of me. In the movie, they're Americans.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

ostranenia and twin peaks

Catherine and I are journeying through the Twin Peaks series. She's never seen it before; I've seen it several times completely through, though not in about ten years.

Watching it again, I'm struck by how everything that made us obsessive about it back then is still intact. The quirky details, the sub-hip music, the overwrought emotion, the donuts, the coffee and pie, the improbable streaks of comedy, the warm visual spectrum that makes the whole world look firelit, the fantastically beautiful men and women who populate the show. None of it has dated. Even the late-eighties fashions still look smashing, though they, alas, are so dated as to seem impossible now.

One thing that shines forth is the likability of almost every major character. Even the ones who lead double lives and are having affairs and breaking major laws have something there to be attracted to. And of course the two male leads, Dale Cooper and Harry Truman, are, though different in every way, a perfect match. Coop is all black and white and slickness and city and fanatical; Truman is all brown and tan and rusticity and country and laid-back. Both are men of true blue integrity, fairness, decency, dignity, and good humor.

We used to gather at Ron Landreth's house to watch each new episode. Each of us had dibs on a different girl: Ron had Donna (the heavenly young pre-surgery Lara Flynn Boyle), Darren had Shelley, I had Audrey, and in Shawn Floyd's absence we assigned him Laura/Maddy. Perfect! And of course we all had dibs on being agent Cooper. The suits, the passionate coffee-love, the mercurial brilliance, the square-hip straight-guy coolness: man! Interestingly, Maddy looks precisely like Catherine when she was a lass — right around the time Twin Peaks was on — with the black-black mane and the giant specs and the long-sleeved high-waisted dresses.

David Lynch, the show's creator and sometime director, also gave us, in Twin Peaks, a way of looking at the world. This happens in all good art, but Twin Peaks was a prime example of what Viktor Schklovsky called ostranenia — that is, "strangemaking," the artist's task of making the world look as strange as it really is by making strange the art that represents it.

There's one whole episode in which the lobby of the Great Northern Hotel is crowded with guys in white sailor suits playing with little balls that make pocking sounds. It's never explained or even referred to: the characters just walk in and out of it, carrying on their conversations. I remember seeing that episode for the first time and thinking how truly odd that was. Only a few weeks later, I was walking through the lobby of the St Anthony Hotel, downtown, and noticed that it was crowded with very small Asian boys and girls, all playing with maracas. Hah! Of course I would have noticed it no matter what, but, having just seen that episode, I saw it through David Lynch's camera.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

simple gifts

The other day, Catherine remarked that she was able to take a deep breath without pain for the first time since her emergency-room episode of several weeks ago. She was so thankful and grateful for that breath and that lack of pain. I remember how it is to have to breathe shallowly to avoid pain: my couple of bouts with pleurisy provided all the experience I desire. And I remember the blessed feeling of relief when it was finally over.

That all got me to thinking about the cancer months, and how I thought of it as a victory in April to be able to walk to the mailbox and back. How long ago that seems! And yet the memories are fresh as ever, especially when they come unbidden like that.

The thing is, I should be grateful now that I can walk to the mailbox and back. (That's something my mom can't do right now, after Monday's surgery on a snapped ankle tendon.) Every good thing that seems so invisible to us is indeed a precious gift: our outlandish wealth, our nearly infinite ability to adapt — the very ability that makes such things invisible in the first place, that all-embracing human resilience that, paradoxically, puts gratitude in such short supply.

Your lack of pain in daily things is something to be grateful for. Your trip to the mailbox is a victory. Breathe deeply.

Monday, December 12, 2005

which came first

A picture from a family friend leads me to ask, which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

why does everyone pick on wagner

Why does everyone pick on Wagner? We just watched a movie that included a depiction of cultural life in Germany in the forties. Sure enough, the concert they went to was a Wagner concert. Not that Hitler didn't enjoy Wagner: just that he enjoyed other stuff more, and considered it more in the spirit of his Germany. Strauss, for instance. Hitler's favorite opera was "Die Fledermaus." When do you ever hear about that, or hear people qualifying their enjoyment of Strauss with some "acknowledgement" of the Nazis' love for him?

More importantly, why do we bring all that stuff in in the first place? Wagner had exactly as much to do with the Nazis as he did with Elmer Fudd.

Monday, December 5, 2005

bugler's dreams

In answer to your question, "What's the problem with trumpet players?" I offer a little something to get you in the mood.

Thursday, December 1, 2005

bad news

Catherine and I went to the doctor's office yesterday. We were glad all over again for the apprenticeship model of the place we go: one main doctor in charge, who's a master in his field, and then several other young docs fresh out of school with new learning in their heads. They switch in and out, trading patients and duties, and then move on to whatever is next in their career. Meanwhile, the master doctor, Schenker, stays there providing age and wisdom and continuity.

Catherine's on her third GI doctor, named Rosencrantz, whom we met today. She's friendly and knowledgeable, and speaks in a rich voice with an eastern European accent. In looking over Catherine's most recent developments, she came to the conclusion, which other doctors had ruled out and then reopened and ruled out and reopened, that Catherine has Crohn's disease. Dr Schenker agreed.

The latest evidence clinched it. As part of her 30-hour schlump in the emergency room last week, Catherine had several tests done — scans, MRIs, X-rays. They showed undeniable evidence of bad activity in the rest of Catherine's colon and all along her gastro-intestinal tract starting right from her mouth on down.

The symptoms of ulcerative colitis and Crohn's are very similar — they're sister diseases — and the treatments are similar too. In fact, we're not making any change at all in Catherine's daily handful of pills. We're simply going to have a new menu of tests over the next while. The real difference is one of degree. Crohn's is a more drastic disease than UC, less containable, and with a more distinct telos. So. For now, at least, that's how things look. We've already swung into the process that's become more familiar to us than comfortable: scrolling through websites, becoming experts, learning the terminology, checking one body of knowledge against another, crying, praying, holding each other.