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It was Thoreau, I think, who warned against endeavors that require new clothes. After high school, a girl I knew told me with some enthusiasm that she had just applied for work as a bank teller. I knew other girls who aspired to much loftier heights. A few of them became remarkably successful. The liberation movement was only a theory at that point, a theory we hadn't heard about, but either we were ignorant of discrimination and glass ceilings or else the girls I tended to associate with were undaunted by their immediate prospects. She wasn't a powerhouse or a genius like so many of the others. Her ambition, or lack of ambition, was something that shocked me at the time. I'm much wiser today. The pay was lousy and the work was essentially menial. She accepted that. Still, she said, "You get to get dressed up for work."

In the Army, I dressed in olive drab fatigues every morning. Even if it was dressing down, it seemed like dressing up to me. I loved that I could chose between any of a dozen identical outfits and always be perfectly attired. I liked the égalité and the fraternité it conferred, even if the liberté was somewhat lacking. I wore boxer shorts for the first time, because that's what the Army issued. In the barracks there was always a flurry of white t-shirts and boxer shorts. The moment my duty was complete, I switched back into jockey shorts. The lack of freedom they provided paradoxically became the symbol of freedom itself. Then, for some reason, about ten years ago, I threw a three-pack of colorful boxers into the cart, expecting to use them as sleepwear. Women at the time, young women, like the girl mentioned above, were wearing men's flannel boxers as shorts with their own underwear underneath. Like all such fads, it has slowly become difficult to remember.

Over the years, I acquired a sizable stack of boxer shorts, and the jockeys were one by one tossed in the trash, though I'm sure there's a box in the garage somewhere with emergency backups. While the number seemed large, it allowed me to be somewhat cavalier about doing laundry. Then a peculiar thing happened. If I didn't know better, I'd say they programmed it in somehow. The elastic on my favorite boxers died. Not like the One-hoss Shay where at half past nine everything wore out and went to pieces like bubbles do, but with an irritating gradualness. I found myself tugging at them. They'd slip down and I'd pull them back up to shorts level, or belt level. As I put them on, I'd hear a crackling sound — the sound of elastic giving up the ghost — and realize that while I could still probably sit or sleep in them, I could no longer walk. So, the pile of boxers is following the same course as the jockey shorts.

Just as the flannel shorts young women used to wear have disappeared, they no longer make the underwear I've grown used to. Perhaps if I grew younger each year instead of older, I could adapt to younger styles. But, I don't want knee length or bikini-style briefs. I don't want underwear with rigid elastic or coarse cotton. I want my soft, overly washed, pleasantly staid boxers back. When I get dressed for my next endeavor, the last thing I want to think about is my underwear.
 
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I talked with my son Chris about the symbols for the planets and how in their elaborate history they were pieced together from parts of another and very familiar symbol of Christianity. In fact, it's a very much older symbol. In the process, I mentioned something about the Hermetic Androgyne, a symbol of the Great Work in Alchemy. It has sometimes been represented by a particular grouping of the planetary symbols. While I won't be turning lead into gold in this post, though one never knows, I will be sharing the basic plan behind the symbols, as well as the androgynous symbol just mentioned. There's nothing new or original in this post. Most of it was learned from Titus Burckhardt's Alchemy, Element Books Ltd (1986), originally in German (1960), now sadly out of print.

I mentioned the planets in a previous post, Sunday, Moonday, Marsday…. On the phone with my son, it became suddenly clear that describing symbols rather than displaying them can be very confusing, so I put the following together, deciding that it might be of interest also to others. My friend Amie has spent many years on these things, so it can't be learned in a day.

World Here is the primary symbol, a circle with a cross inside, that is sometimes referred to as a solar cross or sun wheel. You've seen it many times before as the distinctive mark behind the head of Jesus. Its function is to equate him with the Sun, source of life and light. While it consists of a circle and a cross, symbologists might say that other forms are agglomerated in it. The circle, for example, holds the arc of a crescent, or many arcs of many crescents. The cross is made of, but also contains, a vertical and a horizontal bar. In addition, it conceals a small dot at the center, which is only visible once the cross is removed. All these things have evolved into an enormous network of meanings. The vertical line is the bond between heaven and earth. The horizontal line represents the expansive nature of creation. We could go on and on, and our time would be well spent. I hope you will take the time to pursue this on your own. But for now, our subject is the planets.

AlchemicalAndro

We saw before how the planets could be arranged in a circle according to their cyclic speed, and how the days of the week could be generated from that order. Here the order of the planets is completely different, though perhaps not completely. In their basic form, we see something that was less obvious before. The symbols are built entirely of circles, crosses and crescents — the contained parts of the solar wheel. In the bottom right, we recognize a somewhat simplified Saturn. It contains only two of the main elements, a cross and a crescent. We may also notice that the crescent is attached to the bottommost part of the cross. We notice that Jupiter, just above, consists of the same parts differently distributed. The crescent now attaches to the horizontal bar. Clearly, something is intended. Jupiter, by the way, looks a lot like the Arabic number four, symbolic of stability, and the symbol for Saturn looks remarkably like the sickle he used to castrate Caelus, his father, or Uranus, symbolic of the heavens. If you'll notice, the cross becomes a handle as the sickle evolves into a scythe. I'm lingering on these two in order to emphasize the depth of possible meaning in such basic symbols, and to emphasize their antiquity. The crescent moon as sickle is a truly ancient association.

In this order, we see that there are crescents on one side but not the other. There are four crosses in the bottom four symbols. On the right, the crescents go from below to above, but on the left side, the crosses themselves go from below to above the circles. One side is associated with the Sun, the other with the Moon. The goal, however, is not to become the Sun, but to become the Sun and Moon combined. The symbol for Mercury seems by its position and composition to make that almost clear. And that's as clear as Alchemy gets.

DoubleMarsPerhaps we can now drop the pretense that the symbol for Venus represents a woman holding a mirror. Mars, however, is less obvious. We're used to Mars holding a sword or thrusting a spear or penis. Here, he's a circle with a cross on top. If the cross is a symbol of materiality, as is often mentioned, then perhaps Mars is the material commander, next in line to the Sun himself. In fact, both symbols are ancient. They both repersent Mars. But the circle with a cross on top, more often an orb with a cross on top, has become the symbol of sovereignty. You've seen it in the hands of Kings, Queens, Emperors, and also Jesus. There's a reason for that, a reason I may try to explain in the near future, but for now it's enough to know that they both mean Mars.

Yes, I've skipped a great deal. In the old days, Amie would stop me about half-way through to demand that I skip the rest and just tell her what it all means. Why are they doing this? Of course, I can't do that. If I could, I would already have explained everything and we'd have nothing left to do. I'm not one of those cheerful people who think the meaning of life is looking for the meaning of life. I just think it's unlikely you'll find the answer unless you keep asking the question. Knowing the question is itself a great start. And the question is, with all deference to Amie, what on Earth does it all mean?
 
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I stopped at the payment center this afternoon to pay my electric bill. It's run by a Nigerian couple. Ebony black with pearl white teeth. Always smiling. Always a kind word or a clever remark. They were unusually happy today. In fact, as I approached the window they were choking back laughter. The wife was reading an email out loud in their native language, a dialect she finds difficult to explain. I could see the picture attached to it — a goat standing on what looked like the roof of a house. She read a few more words and they burst into uncontrollable laughter. The picture was amusing, but not hilarious. A goat standing on a roof. The husband was now laughing so hard he had trouble punching the keys. "Sorry," he said, gasping for air. "Sorry. Sorry. Just… In Nigeria? At Christmas?" He pulled himself together, somewhat. "At Christmas? We like for dinner goat."
 
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There is a certain chaotic quality about life that I try to respect. Acquiescing to chaos, unfortunately, breeds only more chaos. Respect builds a relationship with it, integrates it into the human scheme, our scheme. If we control too much, we lose control. D.T. Suzuki included a story in Zen and Japanese Culture that deeply touched me as a young man. In preparation for the visit of a neighboring Zen master, a disciple is given the task of cleaning the monastery courtyard. Try as he may his work is rejected until his master shakes the plum tree allowing a few random leaves to fall on pristine tiles. It's much easier to respect chaos that is tightly controlled. The disciple of this story might have said, "The courtyard is already clean." Zen stories are often the record of verbal combats. But, the courtyard was not clean. After many tries, it was overly clean, overly controlled, overly humanized. It lacked that peculiar element of chaos that makes things perfect. Raindrops on the window this morning.
 
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I don't get worked up over Easter, perhaps because its secular aspects (new clothes and Easter bunnies) seem both self-serving and silly. The coordinating of the solar and lunar calendars is interesting. I'm fond of repeating to people how Easter is calculated. But it's possible to consider such things even in the absence of glazed ham and peas. For our first Easter together I rounded up bags of Bordeaux Easter eggs from See's Candies. They had to be Bordeaux. I drove from one See's to another, four different stores in three different towns, to accumulate them. My wife was just past midway in her first pregnancy. As I downed a late breakfast or brunch somewhat bleary-eyed, having worked past midnight the night before, she downed a pound or so of high quality Bordeaux eggs. The climax of this strange event was that she ran to the bathroom and threw up. When her head stopped spinning, she called her sister and sat there chattering with the phone in one hand and a nicely decorated half-pound Bordeaux egg in hand. I wondered if she thought — of course, thinking itself was at the core of this problem — that in the United States all Easter eggs had to be eaten before noon. She cycled through this process with and without calling her sister until every last crumb and globule of Bordeaux was safely gone, and then went back to bed. After many more trips, she showered, got dressed and was ready for Easter dinner. When I look back, I see nothing but warning signs, one after another, that I was too young, too inexperienced and too optimistic to heed.

But, this is Christmas, not Easter, the grand secular holiday of holidays. Nothing holds a candle to it. And yet, the single most wonderful day of the year is now the day after Christmas. What's done is done. What wasn't done can no longer be expected to be done. The presents are opened or missing or excused. The mystery and anticipation is put finally to rest.

On a side note, the Senate passed a health care bill this Christmas Eve to the consternation of many. I'm convinced it's the word Care in Health Care that causes so much trouble. Mandatory caring is something only a communist would favor. People should be free to care or not to care. When the House and Senate versions are harmonized, or rectified, or whatever they do, we'll find ourselves with some sort of national insurance program. If they're smart, they'll eliminate the words Health Care altogether, which would leave us quibbling over nothing more than monetary considerations, for which there is an easy answer. It brings us, oddly enough, back to Christmas.

If we change the nature of Christmas, its accepted nature, from a day of gift giving and caring for others to a day when people give to themselves the one thing or things they've wanted all year, if we bypass altogether the necessity to care either for or about others and add a December surcharge on all gifts with 5% payable directly to Goldman Sacks, we could easily fund an insurance program that would benefit… Well, that would benefit us. Without having to specify beyond us those who would actually benefit, the economy could be healed, doctors could charge what was convenient, the wars could go on, and almost everyone — except grandmother — could live happily ever after.

Under my plan, a plan that I expect to be far more successful than Easter eggs, the best day of the year could once again be Christmas itself.
 
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To me, it's another day, though I always hope it will be more than that. I make an effort to stay in tune with the great themes of the universe, at least the solar system. It moves slowly enough, but also quickly enough that with a minimum of effort I can keep track of its changing character. The great theme of Christmas, however, turns out to be another Christmas. I suppose that could be something to be glad of, if quantity were the only issue. We could count our Christmases and be glad, or else count them and be weary. It's hard to say what the optimal response should be. This period of time, this portion of the year has long been associated with plenty — Saturn and Santa are very close relatives. But, just as Saturn was overthrown to make way for a new age, Santa spreads his token plenty in the leaden cold of winter. Christmas is the promise of things to come, not the reality of them, just as faith is the expectation of things unseen. The death of the Sun is also the birth of the New Year. What we mourn we celebrate, what we lose we anticipate, and for all such things we say,

     Merry Christmas
 
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We all tend to get pale this time of year. The sun gave up working overtime months ago. So, a sign in the parking lot caught my attention this afternoon.
Unlimited Tanning
S P E C I A L
$20.00
It seemed too good to be true. The sandwich I was eating while I read the sign cost almost half that. A thought ran through my head. Maybe they're one of those fly by night operations that hope you'll be so disgusted by the place after your first visit that you never come back. I walked a bit closer to read the small print. At the very bottom it said: per month. Wasn't unlimited and per month somewhat contra­dictory? Then the sandwich kicked in and my blood sugar got back to normal. The special was $20.00 per month. The name of the business is Unlimited Tanning.

On further reflection, maybe I should open a business called Free Sandwiches.
 
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On this day of Winter Solstice it seems appropriate to say something about the heavens and how we interact with them. If you already know why the days of the week are named what they are and why they appear in the order they do, I suppose you could skip this post. I knew for years that the days were named after planets, but never once wondered, for example, why Tuesday follows Monday. There are two separate though related explanations for the order of the days in the week, one far more interesting than the other. I'll cover both of them in this post. If I hadn't found it exciting at one point in my life to learn these things, I wouldn't bother you with them now. I hope to write more about them in the days or weeks to come. What I cover today is the ticket to things far more interesting. But, first we must know the days of the week.

Sunday is the easiest to start with. Sun + day = Sunday. Monday is Moonday. Tuesday… Here the problems begin. What possible connection could there be between Sun, Moon and Tuesday? Tuesday is named after the Norse god Tyr, but before that will make sense, we must know something about the classical planets.

Before the invention of the telescope — Galileo made the first scientific use of the telescope, but its fairly certain he did not invent it — there were seven visible objects that moved among the stars. These were the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. No Uranus, no Neptune. These are visible only through telescopes more powerful than Galileo's. No Pluto. Poor Pluto is no longer considered to be a planet. Of course, there were comets, but these were more like occasional intruders. So, while it may seem strange to call the Sun and Moon planets, they are exactly that — things that move (from an Earth-centered perspective) against the background of the stars.

The names Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn should sound familiar. They are the names of Roman gods, or the Latinized versions of Greek gods. You learned about them in elementary school. The Latin for sun and moon, by the way, is sol and luna . The Romance languages, the languages that grew out of Latin, make it much easier to see the planets, or their names, in the names of the days of the week. Everyone knows Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday). In Latin, Tuesday is dies martii, the day of Mars, which is easily seen in the French word mardi. There are similar derivations for the other days. But to get from mardi to Tuesday takes one additional step. The Roman historian Tacitus, in his Germania, provided a list of correspondences between the Norse gods and those that evolved nearer the Mediterranean. He did so in the belief or knowledge that the same principles that caused one also caused the other. He determined that the Norse god Tyr, a god of combat, was the equivalent of Mars. In Old English, Tyr was Tiw. From Tiw comes Tuesday. Thus, Tuesday is Mars day. That's a long way around, but that's how it is.

In the same manner, Wednesday is Norse Oðinsdagr, which in Old English became Wōdensdæg and is therefore, following Tacitus, Mercury's day. Thursday is Thor's day, Thor being Jove or Jupiter. Friday comes from Freyjudagr, by way of frīgdæg, Freyja and/or Frige being Venus. Which brings us back to Latin. Saturday is Saturn's day. So, even if it's no longer apparent, even in English the days are named after the planets.

The next order of business is the order of the planets, not the order of the days, but the classical order of the planets themselves. This seems tedious, but first we must know the planets and then the days. In school, I learned that the order of the planets was Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. I'm sure you learned exactly the same. Of course, that's their order from the Sun. It also neglects the Moon. In ancient times, distance from the Sun was poorly understood, if understood at all. Once we accept the Sun as planet, it's difficult to imagine it not being the first planet on the list. It's certainly the most prominent. But, the planets were listed by speed, not prominence. Not speed in the sense of velocity, exactly, but by the quickness of their cycles.

The Moon in this system is the fastest thing in the Universe. It completes one lunar cycle in only twenty-eight days. It returns to the same place in the heavens after passing through all the constellations in roughly twenty-eight days, or the same place plus one twelfth, give or take. It's the roughly and the give or take that keep things interesting. If you object that the Sun goes around the Earth in a single day, you're neglecting to realize that the Sun and everything else goes around in the same period. The Sun's cycle is one year. It takes a year to move through the months and finally return to its starting place.

Mercury is very difficult to observe because of its proximity to the Sun. It appears somewhat randomly at sunset or sunrise close to the horizon and then disappears into the light or sinks out of sight. Still, it was very well known even in prehistoric times. It's cycle is a hundred and some days. Because it's an interior planet, i.e. between us and the Sun, its cycle is defined as returning to the same place in relation to the sun, not the same place in relation to the stars. Mercury is the second fastest.

Venus, also an interior planet, is perhaps the most spectacular of the bunch. It alternates between morning and night star. At it's brightest, only the Sun and Moon rival it. It rises inconspicuously into the evening sky near sunset over a period of months. Eventually, it shines very brightly. It's the star people normally wish upon. Then, in a period of days, it falls from the sky and is seen no more. Its fall is the source of many myths. After passing near the Sun, it makes an equally spectacular rise into the morning sky where, over a period of months, it gradually disappears. It goes behind the Sun. Although its velocity is greater than the Earth's, the Earth is racing around in the same direction, so the apparent cycle of Venus is greater than one year. Venus is the third fastest.

We skip the Earth, because the Earth is the center of everything. It stays put while all else revolves, rotates or retrogrades. The periods of the outer planets, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, are very roughly two, twelve and twenty-eight years. If the skies were clear tonight — it's raining at this particular center of the universe — I could admire the conjunction of the crescent Moon and Jupiter. Something's always going on up there. So, we now have our corrected list of planets. It reads, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. If we place them on the Wheel of the Planets, they should look something like this:

PlanetWheel
Starting with the moon on the bottom left and moving clockwise, each planet in succession is "slower" than the one preceding it — until the jump from Saturn to Moon where the wheel starts over again. Now, replacing the signs with the days of the week that represent them and connecting the dots to form a seven pointed star, we end up with the following:

SevenStarDays

Long before you learned the names of the gods in elementary school, you learned to make five-pointed stars without lifting the point of your pencil. Seven-pointed stars are the same thing with different angles. Starting from the Sun, or Sunday, draw a line to Monday. From Monday, continue the line to Tuesday, then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and back again to Sunday. You have just drawn a seven pointed star. You have also discovered, whether you yet realize it or not, the secret to the order of the days of the week. What seemed random and meaningless turns out to be complicated, but precisely ordered. You can do the same thing in a very laborious and uninteresting way. You can start with the first hour of the day and call it Moon. After that, you can work your way through the planets three times and then add three more. You will have managed to go from Sunday to Monday and can continue in this manner throughout the week. The Babylonians did something like this to determine which planet ruled each hour, but if elegance has anything to do with truth, they discovered the seven-pointed star first and then copied out the rest.

There it is, the answer to why Tuesday follows Monday. I hope this will be helpful. I hope it will prompt you to see things somewhat differently. It's a truism that the marvelous lies behind and below the surface of everyday things. It's always there, always waiting. I would only add that if you know how and where look, even Mondays can be delightful.

Happy Winter Solstice

May your days grow longer and your heart be full.
 
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I've noticed that the more people know me, the less likely they are to believe me. I've been accused of exaggeration so many times that I tend to ignore it. Occasionally, I'm accused of out and out dishonesty or untruthfulness. Generally speaking, the more humorless the individual, the more likely he is to quibble over precise amounts and descriptions. A thousand people, for example, is not nine hundred ninety-nine plus one, it's lots and lots of people. Enough people that it's hard to count, or enough that it was startling to behold. "I stepped outside and found a thousand people standing on the lawn." Well, that's not true. There isn't room for a thousand people in the front yard. There was maybe twenty-three, twenty-four. Let me see. No. More like twenty. If there was a thousand, they'd fill up the steet.

Actually, you could fill the street with no more than two or three hundred, so a thousand, in some ways, is not only more accurate than two hundred, it's also far more interesting than twenty, twenty-one.

The truth is arrived at by increments, not something one swallows whole. People assume, most people almost always assume that others see the world exactly as they do — as if there were only one set of eyes. Of course, even our own eyes sometimes deceive us. God knows what other eyes see. The French have a delightful expression, et encore, that tacks neatly on the end of that statement. It changes the sense to even God doesn't know, but only as an afterthought. Of course the French are notorious exaggerators.

I'm writing this as an introduction. I received a comment on the side from someone in a position to know. It speaks volumes, I think. "Your writing is always beautiful. It exaggerates sometimes, but not in a bad way. I just read your blog and found it very heart warming to hear the stories about your family. Any non-knower of Evan would think you were raised in the most wholesome house in town. Not the case." I appreciated the "beautiful" part. The rest is true. But, not a truth that stands easily on its own.

People of my generation are usually comfortable with the expression bad vibes. It may be dated, but everyone has gone somewhere, done something and felt uneasy about it. Bad vibes. Good vibes and bad vibes, however, seem very different from good and evil. Mention the word "evil" and people flee, as if there's a Bible about to be thumped. We've eased the word out of our vocabularies. Evil is now a fiction, something that propels chain saw movies and gothic novels. It's as two dimensional as Satan, and almost as lovable as vampires. But, as we assure ourselves, it does not exist.

That's the part of reality we do not swallow whole. Or, one of the many parts. The Gnostics believed, if we can believe their surviving traces, that the world is a great clash of wills between good and evil, light and dark, truth and deception — two equal forces and the play between them. ShivaThe Hindus recognize something called asuric forces and represent them as demons. At the mythic level, there are Devas and Asuras, godlike entities representing good and evil. But, these are not primary forces of the world or universe, only aspects of it. Sri Aurobindo taught that there is no independent evil. Evil is a kind of vacancy, or the consequence of the vacancy created by the need to condense awareness or being into ego. In order to have individual beings, the Great Being must create the illusion or limited reality of separateness, thereby creating areas that are not truth oriented. As the need for separateness declines, evil will be reabsorbed. In the familiar picture of Shiva Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, he stands on a small demon. He does not slay the demon, he subdues it. In psychoanalytical terms, he sublimates it. George_novgorodAs part of the dance of Shiva, evil is reabsorbed. Nor is this concept foreign to Christian icon­ography. St. George slaying the dragon is an easy example. Keep your eyes open and you will see many more. While he does eventually slay the dragon, he does so in the second half of the story, the one having to do with converting the kingdom. He slays it on condition that they convert to Christianity. However, the first and more authentic part of the story has him defending the fair maiden by subduing the dragon. He charges it on his white steed with a lance. He then borrows the maiden's girdle or belt to fashion a kind of leash. The maiden leads the dragon back to town or castle where the conversion takes place. Two stories merged into one. The saint's job is to subdue and integrate evil.

Some people are sensitive to such things, some very sensitive. But the truth does not go down in one gulp, nor does it often go down at all without a sugar coating. We are too wise, too mature, to scientific to see things as they actually are. So, an important element in story telling, an essential element in rubbing shoulders with people in an uplifting manner, and an absolutely necessary element in self-discovery, is to identify and to incorporate evil into good without calling undo attention to it. The good, after all, is all that will ultimately survive.

So, I like to think that my stories are the sugar coating. If successful, they also contain truth, or a tiny portion of it. At the very least, they prepare one for the next dose. The dull and the overly wise tend unknowingly to exempt themselves. The truth, as I've said a thousand times, is what you make of it.

Shiva from Google Images, Saint George from Wikimedia Commons.
 
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Lot's of panic in the air tonight. I've just returned from the store — Albertsons, not the department store. People are grabbing things for dinner. They're also walking rather quickly on the wrong side of the isle and pushing their carts around corners without looking. A lady at the checkout stand who knows me as a regular customer shot me a look and said, "What's wrong with people?"

We have Black Friday, the Twelve Days of Christmas and Christmas Eve, not to mention Christmas itself. Perhaps we should also have the Three Days of Panic. The weekend before Christmas, Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, are a joyless time. People return from Black Friday victorious, having vast stretches of time to sort, wrap and feel smug about their trophies. The Three Days of Panic produce only panic and more panic as retailers offer rain checks for pink MP3 players. As if a rain check would do one damned bit of good. What the hell good is a rain check ? Have you checked the storeroom?

She turned her head from the other customers as she handed me my receipt. "I went shopping last night," she added, with a rather long pause. "This year I'm giving my husband groceries."
 
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This is a slightly revised version of my answer to Christopher's comment concerning his Welsh Dragon tattoo. Now that he's had a chance to read it and discuss it with me, I've decided to move it into the post section. We had a long and pleasant conversation on the phone last night. It's always interesting to me that his taste in movies and actors is almost identical to mine. His approach is far less intellectual, which is probably a blessing, but we remember and laugh at the same scenes, the same dialogue, even from movies we haven't seen for ten or fifteen years. I'm a character in his life, just as my father and his father are characters in mine. In fact, my father is a character in his, only a very different one. He too absorbed far more than he understood, and is trying very hard to make sense of it. Perhaps the path is meant to be long and incomplete.

You make an interesting point about God giving you your first tattoo. When we left the hospital, I checked to make sure it was really you. You didn't require an identity tag, you already had one.

I wanted to mention that since your father is half Welsh, and your mother not Welsh at all, you are one quarter Welsh, which leaves three quarters unaccounted for.

On your mother's side is the odd fact that your mother's mother is half German. Her mother, your great-maternal-maternal-grandmother, had an affair with a German soldier, which was a very unpopular thing to do. Your great-grandfather stepped forward to marry her while she was pregnant, because he very much loved her, and also because he wasn't very much bothered by such things. I had a drink with him in a Paris café shortly after my marriage to your mother. At least, I think I did. He was well into his eighties at the time. I had just come from having lunch with his wife, your great-grandmother, and was so drunk that I had to be steered in the right direction. For her, it was just another lunch. So, if you're good with fractions, your mother's mother was one half German, your mother, therefore, one quarter German and, if I have all the right people in line, that makes you approximately one eighth German.

As for the French part, your mother's mother's mother, the one we've been talking about, came from the vicinity of the Pyrenees. So, barring the occasional Spanish traveler or Basque separatist, she was as French as anyone from the Pyrenees can be said to be. Which leaves your mother's father's side.

Berdard (pronounced "bear narr") was as Gallic as they come. Of course, there might have been a tiny bit of devil mixed in. He could be very charming. He was vague about his background. I do know that he spent several years in England as part of the French resistance, running missions behind the lines under Col. Keffer, waiting for D-Day. You have a book about that. Unfortunately, it's in French. There's a scene depicting his discovery in The Longest Day. The guns that 80% of his group died to capture were already gone. He's the one breaking down the door. When your grandmother agreed to marry him, or perhaps suggested it — the French are generally too polite to do the math — he had to travel back to England to make sure everything was OK, that everyone (not someone) was in agreement. Ever the gentleman. He worked for British Airways after the war. I remember a picture of him on the mantel standing next to a very youthful and happy looking Queen Elizabeth. (He had just cracked a joke.) Behind them was what looked like a DC3 with BA markings. So, we'll count him as completely French.

About the German, however. Before you run off and figure out which flag was flying for your German tattoo, I asked Bernard one day how a WWI German soldier found his way to the Pyrenees, or how a young woman from the Pyrenees found her way to a German soldier. He said, rather man to man, "Ah, well, you know. Maybe she exaggerates."

So, it's possible, if you read between the lines a bit, that you're half French after all. Anyway, half French, a quarter Welsh, and the remainder lost in the great expansion of America. Some ended up as Tennessee farmers, some followed the wagons westward with the Mormons. Generally speaking, they were a dull lot. My mother's great-aunt Delia, which would be three greats for you, was married to a Senator for a while and lived in a hotel most of her life. I suppose she was the least dull of the bunch. My mother, whose middle name was Delia, had memories of her in a Rolls Royce, rather spectacular back then. So, the American part has at least one interesting story. But, before you run off to find a State Flag of Tennessee, I met her when she was a hundred and something, rocking on the porch in Kelso, Tennessee. She was a tiny, frail thing at that point. She apologized about not serving lunch to her guests, but she couldn't find any niggers to do the cooking. "We'll have to make do with sodee pop," she said. And so we did.

It may be that a relative remembers you some day as that crazy, colorful uncle, or great-uncle, or second-cousin, or great-great-grandfather, if you ever have children of your own, who lived by the beach and designed t-shirts. It's more important, however, to be something distinct and separate, something not merely the result of others. Marshall Macluan said that we drive into the future with our eyes in the rearview mirror. How much more interesting it might be to keep both eyes on the road.
 
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Once again, the answer to a short question has turned into a post.

I hope you mean two or three fingers on the side. There's probably a law against mixing Penderyn with tea. As a young boy, I was served tea with half-n-half and sugar, because that's how my grandmother drank it. Once home, I drank it black, because that's how we did things. My grandfather took his with milk, milk and sugar, or sometimes black. He was fond of drinking it in a manner thought very low class. The process of making tea involved rinsing the pot with boiling water. The pot was generally full of dead tea leaves, so the rinsing did two things: it heated the pot and got rid of the leaves. There was a very large and rather peculiar jade plant at the back door of my grandmother's kitchen that was covered in tea leaves. She poured hot water into the pot, swished it around carefully as she walked toward the back door and then rather indiscriminately dumped the water with tea leaves to her right. It wasn't clear if the jade plant appreciated this or not. On the other hand, it was very large.

I've heard lots of theories about how tea should be measured, or how much to use. My grandmother had a small collection of tea scoops, shallow disc-like spoons with stubby handles. They had pictures of Welsh women in costume, castles and the names of cities she had visited. They were something like National Park mementos. One of them had a picture of Queen Elizabeth and commemorated her coronation. They travelled home to coincide with it, and stood along the way with great enthusiasm to see her golden coach clop by. But the scoops were banished from the kitchen. She measured, my relatives measured and I for years measured tea by the pinch. A pinch uses the tips of all five fingers to bunch up as much tea as will easily stay. It's an art, really, because the saying One pinch per person and one for the pot is a very elastic saying. The Welsh were rather heavy handed with their tea and liked the strongest variety available. Today, Welsh tea is grown mainly in Africa. The Jewel Tea Company, which went door to door, made an Iced Tea Blend that was perfect. Presumably, it had to be strong and black enough to stand up to the ice cubes.

Then, boiling water — the kettle was left boiling until the pot was rinsed — a tea cosy and a short wait, which made for strong, black, very hot tea.

You may have noticed — maybe it's no longer true — that the saucers for tea cups are rather deep. Even after making the tea just right (adding milk and sugar, or just milk) it should still be too hot to drink. What my grandfather did was to allow the tea to dribble down the side of his cup into the saucer and then slurped it up from there. Eventually, it was cool enough to drink, so he drank the rest from the cup. I remember most of my relatives doing this from time to time. I also remember learning how low class it was. I'd be punished if I did that myself. Of course, as perhaps you've already guessed, I learned that from my mother.

I'm going to switch to another locale for a moment. When I was eighteen, I spent a summer in Denmark. I won't go into the details of it, which could fill a book, but one particular memory applies here. After my first dinner at the summerhouse on Fanø, my girlfriend and her mother went the very short distance to the kitchen to make tea. It warmed my heart. Another country that appreciates tea, I thought. Her father, who was proud of his ability to mimmic Americans, this time gave his best imitation of an Englishman. "Oh, wonderful," he said, "Let's have a spot of tea with the ladies." I was troubled by the irony in his voice. Then he added in his Coals to Newcastle voice, "Such a shame we will not be able to have cognac or Cuban cigars with our coffee." I learned almost instantly to love coffee.

So, to answer your question, black tea is perfectly fine. I've learned, however, that the tannins in tea like to be neutralized by milk. I say that I've learned that, but now that I type it, it seems like I'm making it up. A number of years ago I forced myself to add milk. The sugar is for drinking it alone, not by oneself but without biscuits. Once you've got the hang of milk, the sugar in the biscuit completely transforms the taste of the tea. As for whisky, especially a good whisky, among the very best I hear, if you really need fortifying on a damp but beautiful afternoon, I think you should look for coffee and, if you can find one, maybe a cigarette.
 
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My older son Christopher has a Welsh dragon tattooed on the inside part of his lower arm. He mentioned it only afterwards, so I was unable to talk him out of it. Parents can be such boors sometimes. For the life of me I can't remember which arm — the patronymic one, I suppose. Of course, his father is only half Welsh, which makes him a quarter Welsh. Still, he was looking for a connection to the world, and there are far worse things than being connected.

I saw the exact same bright red tattoo on the upper arm of a gorgeous barista wearing a sleeveless blouse at Linaea's Coffee House in San Luis Obispo a few years ago. I asked if she was Welsh. "Am I what?" she replied. "Welsh. That's a Welsh dragon, isn't it?" "Oh, yeah," she said, sort of half-remembering. "They had a whole bunch of them, but I really liked this one the best."
 
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A longwinded answer to another comment by JoAnn.

I have not been to Wales, though many of my relatives have made it back. To me, Wales was always a small house in Torrance and the wealth of experience associated with it. Many of my relatives have made it back. What they got from those trips has been sometimes dubious. My father, when he retired around 1970 — he was the Superintendent of a school district, or Head Master as my grandmother insisted — was given a trip to Wales by the PTA, a rather lavish gift, all things considered. He managed to take in Paris, London, and finish up with a round of golf at St. Andrews. He took with him a clunky cassette tape recorder from Radio Shack and brought back interviews from along the way. In Aberdare, he interviewed his cousins and second cousins. One of them told a typically long story about the morning he was on his way to work and an accident occurred right in front of him on the street. A policeman, who was not far away, heard the noise and rushed to the scene. He directed my cousin by many removes to stand right there and wait for the investigating officer. So, you see, he had no choice but to obey. As a result, and here follows the year, the month, the date, the day of the week, small reports on the weather and the commotion surrounding him, he was late for work. It spoiled his perfect record, but what could he do? At this point my father would hastily snap off the machine and say, "On his tombstone they'll write, HERE LIES RHYSE WILLIAMS / HE WAS ONLY LATE ONCE."

Aberdare is a short distance, perhaps a century or two, north west of Cardiff in the far south. Jan Morris comes from the northernmost part. Still, a Welshman is a Welshman. I was a member of the American Welsh Society for a few years, mainly so I could drive my grandmother to meetings and participate in tea and stories of the old country. The Great War, death, illness and poverty prevailed, but always in well rounded stories, vast quantities of detail, and long pauses shared by all where tears tended to well up and people fiddled with things — lost brothers and fathers and uncles mostly. And to sing songs and cheat at Whist. My grandmother thought that cheating was the second rule after hide your cards. I ended up with bruises on my shins, but I also learned something about the fine art of gestures in the midst of distracting conversation. Of all my relatives, I miss her the most.

My grandfather was a socialist and an atheist with a third grade education, but an autodidact to end all autodidacts. He was 5'3" tall and knew everything. The best picture we have of him — my aunt has it somewhere — is lying back in bed with a book held to the light in one hand. He turned the pages with his thumb. He took me to the Spit and Argue club in Long Beach one Sunday afternoon. People took turns standing on a box defending various points of view. All the way home he grumbled about their stupidity. He was a founding member of the Longshoremen Union and had cauliflower ears from all the fight's he'd been in. The people who knew him said that if he'd only been taller, he might have been content not to know so much or to back up what he knew with his fists. Of course, they generally took the union for granted. He was a baker by trade, the skill he brought to America, his way out of the mines. It was a small bakery in Harbor City that provided the wherewithal to raise a family. He died on my thirteenth birthday, in his sleep, on a trip home to Wales.

I have not read Jan Morris. Nor have I read How Green Was My Valley. Of course, everyone else has. Dylan Thomas came from just up the coast in Swansea. I can still recite many of his poems. Under Milkwood is a monument.
Alone until she dies, Bessie Bighead, hired help, born in the workhouse, smelling of the cowshed, snores bass and gruff on a couch of straw in a loft in Salt Lake Farm and picks a posy of daisies in Sunday Meadow to put on the grave of Gomer Owen who kissed her once by the pig-sty when she wasn't looking and never kissed her again although she was looking all the time.
The thing about Wales that most people don't understand, especially those captivated by its beauty, is that Welsh immigrants brought Wales in their heart when they came. It has many fine things to recommend it. But they came to be free from it. They came to escape the dismal lack of opportunity, the second classness of it all. They weren't dispersed into a diaspora. The old country they longed for existed almost as much at the dinner table as it did on a map. And the Wales they escaped seemed not to miss them in the least. It's a difficult equation, but the Wales I remember, and the reason I avoid books about it, is a Wales of old, very proper, warm-hearted oddballs, and the world is all the less for their absence.
 
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Since reading JoAnn's comments about potatoes, I've found myself thinking more and more about food. I think it was "multiple heads of roasted garlic" that got me, though as I rolled over last night I distinctly heard myself say, "Dusted with sea salt." I can only imagine what I was dreaming. As a result, I have remembered three more one item meals.

The first is an old memory, all things considered. It has to do with my father, a man who still makes his way through the produce section shamelessly tasting grapes and strawberries in season. When they sold bins of individual candies, he always came out with extras in his pocket. A product of Welsh immigrants and the Great Depression, he valued particular things in ways I was incapable of understanding. Ice cream, for example. We never made a meal of ice cream, though we may have missed a few because of it. But I do remember us eating nothing but seedless grapes, an entire shopping bag filled to the brim with grapes, the day they hit 2¢ a pound. I remember heaping them into the cart, and once home, rinsing and distributing them in bowls — one bowl after another. As a tradition, it came from somewhere, the old country, I suppose, or from his barefoot boyhood memories. Anyway, we sat on the floor those nights watching Sid Caesar, Ed Sullivan. We did this several years running and then never again. Maybe it was the price of grapes, maybe the effect the grapes had, or maybe we just forgot. I was too young to be bothered by it. I was also more interested in cake than grapes, but I do remember it. No plates, no table, no television after the table is cleared, just grapes and grapes until there was nothing left but stems. As for the ice cream, it's still in the freezer. I think he lies to his doctors about it. But, he's well into his nineties now, so whatever bad habits he has have proven themselves effective. What possible harm in a few scoops of ice cream?

The other meals, many years later and an ocean away, were asparagus. We only had canned asparagus growing up. To this day I'd rather die than eat canned asparagus, though I'm more mature about it now than I was then. So, when my new mother-in-law, beaming with pride, announced she had just had the good fortune to purchase an enormous quantity of first harvest asparagus from a Parisian marketplace, memories of pound-sized portions of steak tartare flitted through my brain. Seeing my perplexity and mistaking it for curiosity, she explained the tradition of having nothing but asparagus the first night of the first harvest, and nothing but cold asparagus the following lunch. She cooked a small separate dinner for the dog that night.

As it turns out, dark green canned asparagus and the pale, fresh, perfectly prepared variety have nothing in common. If you've got your notebook ready, you'll be disappointed to learn that I was not allowed to observe what went on in the kitchen. My presence there interfered with its natural functioning. I was only a relative by marriage, after all. White wine to be sure. Obviously salt. Garlic? Maybe just a touch. There was no effort to conceal the asparagus, only to enhance it. Chicken stock? Pointless to ask. The white wine in the pot was probably the same white wine that we drank — and drank. I don't think she would ever use two grades of wine. However, such things were well above my need to know. And clarified butter in large ramekins on every plate. Anyone who says you can only eat so much clarified butter hasn't had enough first harvest asparagus. There was no salt or pepper on the table, only an enormous long pile of neatly stacked oddly shaped logs. The thing I learned, that I simply never imagined, was that you eat them down to the point where they become tough and then cavalierly throw the rest away. The French do this in one graceful motion. Americans were held to be extremely wasteful, but this to me seemed positively sinful. Aren't you even curious to know if you missed any, I wanted to ask. Still, they were right. There's an edible part and an inedible part. So why was the inedible part such a prominent part of canned asparagus?

Lunch was the same, but cold. Only, the butter had become fresh mayonaise with capers on the side, and next to that was another ramekin of olive oil with pepper(?) and lemon juice. Everything was simple but secret. It seems like I'm confusing this with avocados, but perhaps I'm only remembering that we ate them both in similar ways. Except, the avocados we ate with very small spoons.

Unfortunately, these are memories without many answers, which is disappointing and probably why they required so much effort to retrieve. It's difficult to remember the taste of asparagus, even steak tartare, when it's tied to memories of an ex-wife and mother-in-law. It's much easier to remember the taste of the wine and the Gauloises I was forced to smoke on the balcony with the door tightly shut. I still have dreams that involve smoking after all these years. I'll notice a cigarette between my fingers and wonder whose hand it is, or take a long tasteless drag, watching the tip glow and crackle in response, wondering what seems wrong about this, but in all the years and in all the dreams I've never once found myself regretfully unmarried, or wished I had ordered snails.
 
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For Beatles fans this won't be necessary, but for those who got this far without them, Jai Guru Deva OM is the first line of the captivating refrain to "Across the Universe." Fiona Apple sang a wonderful version of it for the Pleasantville soundtrack. I'll have something to say about that in just a moment. The Beatles came by that particular phrase as a result of their association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an association that made Eastern religion, or pop versions of it, an essential component of the Sixties. It means — more or less — Hail [or praise] to [the] Guru [named] Dev[a], followed by an incantatory . Swami Brahm­ananda Saraswati,
Shankar­acharya of Jyotir­math (Guru Dev) was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's guru. The line that follows it, the one I summed up with "La, la, la, la. La. La la…" (taking Amie's uninhibited lead) is "Nothing's gonna change my world." In fact, the next four lines are "Nothing's gonna change my world," sung like a mantra. One of the great songs of the Twentieth Century.

It's use in Pleasantville, however, points to an inherent flaw. The underlying theme of Pleasantville is the resistance to, yet the inevitability of change. Weaving several symbolic lines into one, the Sixties were confronting and replacing the idyllic Fifties, the predictable was making way for the unexpected, the ordinary for the extraordinary, innocence for experience. So, just as color was on the verge of fanning its peacock wings on television, the citizens of Pleasantville, though not all of them to be sure, were on the verge of blossoming. The last time color and black and white were so cleverly contrasted in a film was when Dorothy woke up in Technicolor Oz. But, "Nothing's gonna change my world" is essentially a statement of resistance, whether directed at the old world or the new. Color was strongly resisted in black and white Pleasantville. The irony to me is that jingle jangling multicolored hippies (my contemporaries) on the road to enlightenment sang or hummed to themselves, "Nothing's gonna change my world," as if holding on to their perceptions and beliefs, as if resisting change with all their might was the lost key to transition and ultimate happiness. Every new belief seems eternal. The lyrics probably should have been, "Everything changes my world" — because nothing happens that does not change everything. Without knowing it, they were ever so happily on a collision course with what they replaced.

So, the use of the song in Pleasantville struck me as ironic. "Change is constant," said Heraclitus. "You cannot step into the same river twice." Therefore…

Ah, yes. Therefore.
 
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I found a Father Christmas for 99¢ at an Atascadero thrift store the week before last. He's of traditional Nordic design (with a small Made in China sticker, of course) in hand-painted not quite porcelain. He's rather thin by contemporary standards — not the jolly old St. Nick who jiggles and bellows, "Ho, ho, ho." He's tall, in fact, with his left hand clutching a thick black belt and an oversized pipe in the other. His lips seem rounded into Oh rather than Ho, and for good reason. He's an incense chimney.

There's a space where you slide incense cones under his flowing robe, next to a shoe protruding with a tasseled toe. The smoke from the incense rises up inside and then streams out his mouth. When I realized what it was, it was impossible to resist. I'm burning a Champaca sandalwood cone as I write, and he's puffing away contentedly next to the salt and pepper shakers from IKEA. It should probably be pine incense, but the closest thing I had was leftover sandalwood. The soft green aloeswood box turned out to be empty. It's really hard to throw such artfully hand-made boxes away. It seems like they should be refillable or something. Anyway, it seems like I have lots and lots of incense. What I actually have is tiny boxes.

The wall behind him, the wall contrasting with coils of smoke, is Christmas red — Amie's doing. So, I've managed by a series of accidents and coincidences to create a Nordic/Indian Christmas ambience in the kitchen this year. It's the only touch of Christmas in the house, and it seems like Christmas bhajans might be appropriate, though I doubt there are any.

Bhajans (songs of praise) remind me of the breakthrough Amie experienced during her first psychotic break at Power Pole 22 with Al in his duct tape boots curled snugly and faithfully at her feet. She decided to sing songs of praise, bhajans to the night, the stars, and to God and everything. She knew hundreds and hundreds of songs and there was no one next door, no one in the next room, absolutely no one to inhibit her. Then the breakthrough. Most of the lyrics she knew were, "La, la, la," or "La di la, la." After a few songs it came to her as a great revelation in the desert that she should learn more lyrics, people should learn more lyrics, because you just never know when you'll need them.

Oh, Amie. Jai Guru Deva OM. La, la, la, la. La. La, la… Where are they? Where are the Beatles when you need them most?
 
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I'm boiling potatoes for lunch, what some people call supper. Sometimes I make an entire meal of potatoes. I focus on the taste of salt, something I tend otherwise to limit, the distinct flavor of the butter, nothing quite like it, and the bland taste of the potatoes themselves. Almost bland. The kitchen is filled with the smell of boiling potatoes, a smell anyone would recognize. The challenge, I think, is transferring that distinctive smell to the tongue. Potatoes are a kitchen meal, I think. They're best consumed close to the pot they were boiled in. I haven't yet decided if red wine interferes with or enhances the taste. It's an ongoing experiment.

It's unusual that anyone bothers to comment on potatoes. How often have you heard, "These are really good potatoes," unless they were fancied up a bit? Or, unless someone was really straining for a compliment. Mashed potatoes are one of the few things I treasure from a disastrous marriage to a Parisian woman. I treasure my children, of course, but mashed potatoes are something else again. I learned to add cream, butter and Bon Bel Cheese in completely unreasonable amounts, and to make tons of potatoes at a time. The leftovers, after they are nice and cold, can be shaped like fancy cookies and baked in the oven. If you counted the cheese wrappers and the butter boxes, you'd know exactly why they brown so beautifully. They are the one sort of potato, I find, that everyone comments on.

Hot dogs weren't always the maligned things they are today. When I ate them as a child — they were a staple of early 1950s cuisine — I never considered their sodium nitrate content. Nor had the word "byproducts" entered my persnickety vocabulary. Hot dogs, or wieners, as we sometimes giggled, were a salty taste explosion that had no equal. Of course, American hot dogs pale by comparison to the ubiquitous Danish pølser (ubiquitous in Denmark anyway) or the French saucisson. As it turns out, there's an entire world of sausages to experience, but hot dogs are still hot dogs. Today's hot dogs, the ones I'll be having with boiled, salted and well buttered potatoes, are turkey dogs, not really hot dogs at all, but they're 40% lower in fat, which means I can use 60% more butter. Something like that.

Not the wine I'm drinking as I type, which would have to be described as on the low end of acceptable for these parts — I'm at the geographic center of an emerging wine region — but the wine we used to drink with hot dogs. A more recent memory, not a childhood one. Our neighbor worked for a major winery in the area. They have employee sales now and then to get rid of odd lots and leftovers. It does wonders for morale. He left a case of white wine on the back porch with a few stray bottles thrown in for good measure. When we gushed over his generosity, he cautioned us to go easy because he had paid less than a dollar a bottle — much less — including two rather expensive reds. It was summer, so we were living outside with the BBQ. Red wine or beer with plank steak, white wine with hot dogs. The hot dogs were mostly to satisfy my childhood tastes. Anyway, we plowed through the case of cheap white wine, calling it Hot Dog Wine. Ah, summer. We never drank so much. When it finally ran out, we went to the store for another case, but there was obviously a mistake. The cheap white wine that we had come to depend on was nearly twice the price of the red wine with plank steak. Hot Dog Wine? What were we thinking?! We didn't barbecue another hot dog all summer.
 
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My mother was born on December 7th. For the greater portion of her life that day was Pearl Harbor Day. Today, except for the opening day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, it's mostly the 18th shopping day before Christmas. When the process of dropping Pearl Harbor from calendars began, I was somewhat incensed. It seemed wrong to neglect the one day each year that would "live in infamy." The Japanese and the Germans, as taught in the early fairy tale version of our schools and media, were evil. Later, their leaders were evil and they, like us, were as innocent as lambs. Then, with one thing and another, it became complicated.

Of course, the men and women who died that fateful morning were innocent, and should be remembered. The United States was wronged. We would never ourselves resort to preemptive strikes or secret attacks on foreign lands — unless we could do so with impunity. Things have become so complicated in recent years that remembering the dead seems almost paradoxical and counterproductive.

Our trading partners become close friends and our past, if remembered, becomes an impediment to future growth. It's a tough choice today between a Mercedes and a Lexus, or a Porsche and… I suppose there's no real competition for that one. We should remember, however, that one day they could all end up as Chinese sub­sidiaries. Who's to say any longer what's right and what's wrong? Things change. Time waits for no man. It's foolish to clutch the tattered flag of yesterday. And a hundred other clichés. Still, on this day of days, it seems terribly wrong to forget too easily.
 
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The odd thing about winter is that the moment it begins the days become longer. The seasons are like tea kettles, they don't boil the moment you put them on the stove, you have to wait for them to whistle. The cold of winter is the doing of fall. There's a built-in delay that warns against checking only the calendar, or relying too heavily on the angle of the sun. Already I'm talking about winter, and it's two and a half weeks away. Last night it was 27° and misty. As I write, the thermometer is trying desperately to reach 40. For a place where 110° in September is not uncommon, this qualifies as cold. Of course, I see pictures in the news of people trudging through snow and realize it's only relatively cold — mild, in fact. But for me, it's definitely cold.

Years ago I visited a quilt shop in Hawaii. The missionaries brought skills from colder regions when they came. They taught the natives quilting among other things. Had they been more receptive, the natives might have taught them a thing or two, like cuddling up when it gets cold or the advantages of having more than one wife. The Hawaiians still produce magnificent quilts. They have a flare all their own. "But, what do they do with them," I asked. I was already on my second or third shirt that sweltering day, on the verge of abandoning resort casual. "Oh, goodness," the charming gray haired descendant of missionaries replied, "sometimes it goes down to 60° at night. Without a good quilt they'd freeze."

Well, if it reaches 60° before mid-afternoon today, I may run naked in the streets. There must be a formula with lots of squiggles and subscripts in Physics somewhere that says heat falls faster than it rises. The transition from summer to fall always seems more abrupt than the transition from fall to winter. The transition from winter to spring is a long and chaotic endeavor. And then it's summer again. I wonder if it's just that in January we start looking forward to summer, while in November and December we don't even look forward to looking forward to summer, we just regret the summer that is already gone. Things seem colder than they are. Except that my fingers have turned purple.
 
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I'm trying to decide what I want for Christmas. Since today is the 1st of December, and therefore almost Christmas, it seems imperative that I decide. My next door neighbors are working on their third or fourth list already. To keep them occupied, their mother gives them sheets of paper and pencils and tells them to go through the ads. Later on, as I understand it, they go through their individual lists and decide what's acceptable or unacceptable. They aren't getting full-sized motorcycles this year, not that they haven't tried, so dirt bikes are unacceptable. They've been making lists since Friday — Black Friday — and revising them as if their lives depended on it. A full four weeks of their young lives will be invested in wishing, hoping for, attempting to convince, or generally begging and manipulating, which isn't all that unusual, of course. What got me was telling them to go through the ads.

I remember thumbing through a friend's Sears and Roebuck Catalog as a child. We didn't buy things through catalogs and almost never shopped at Sears. So, while I can't remember which friend, I'm positive it wasn't our catalog. As a cornucopia of material excess, it was mesmerizing. I'll include women's underwear in the list, which was interesting for a while, but the mixture of microscopes, pool tables, Erector Sets, cameras, Lionel trains, and everything from basketballs to catcher's equipment, with guns, skis and spring-loaded traps thrown in for good measure, made not lusting after material possessions almost imposible. Most of it was junk, I suspect, but it glittered and glowed. The lure of it, the spell it cast still tugs at me.

But, newspaper ads and mailers are not catalogs. They turn out to be compendia, for the most part, of merchandise that retailers hope you will buy from them rather than from someone else. The question is, do you see yourself buying a Canon PowerShot from, Target, Wall-Mart, K-Mart, Best Buy, Costco, or CVC? That's the local choice. Also, ads are salted with high profit items, which means your local retailer, if successful, can sell fewer of whatever they turn out to be than whatever he might have sold with a lower markup — and end up with the same number of dollars. Your part in this wonderful equation is the privilege of getting less for your money, perhaps only something of lesser quality, but with more glitter and glow. If people were more introspective than ad inspective, they might discover what they actually want or need. If it's socks or t-shirts, a constant need in my life, then check the ads and mailers. But, if you're just trying to figure out what you really want for Christmas…

Of course, the question might be why you're wondering that in the first place. Every so often my kids, who are old enough to have kids of their own, have been disappointed by the gifts I gave them. I have since given up on gifts. An emergency kit for the car was one such disappointment. It was something I gave William — not the only thing, but the "biggest" thing. A few months later he had a blowout on a busy highway and remembered it in the trunk. At that moment, with Christmas far behind, the wisdom of it dawned on him, but the disappointment, I think, lingered. It neither glittered nor glowed at the time of giving. My other son's bitter disappoint was that I sent his gifts to his grandparents' home where he would eventually find them. It didn't matter what I had given him, because if I had really cared, he said, I would have given him the gifts directly instead of just leaving them somewhere. It was March or so before he found them and June or July before he mentioned them. So, I asked if he'd prefer that I send things to:
"Bucky"
c⁄o General Delivery
Wherever the Grateful Dead Are Playing
USA
He thought about that for a while and then changed the subject.

The truth is, I've grown to hate Christmas. I've also been hated for hating Christmas. It's my duty, I'm told, to maintain the illusion that adults are in fact children once every year or any time they're at Disneyland. Their innocence should be respected. Mostly, I hate the demands people make. Christmas, as now practiced, is an Annual Day of Entitlement. Ill-conceived and poorly thought out material needs are expected to be filled. It's a town where every street is a one-way street and they all lead to ME. I'd settle for a nice meal, a hot cup of tea and pleasant conversation.

Remember, only twenty-three more shopping days until Christmas.
 
bottom rounder