Friday, November 27, 2009

Santa's invented origins, courtesy of Rankin-Bass!

In the olden days, people didn't have electric lights. So the change in the number of daylight hours was a really big deal for people who lived far from the equator. Additionally, what you could eat depended on the season. Harvest coffers were full in the late Fall, and the best time to slaughter animals for fresh meat was early Winter.

Obviously, when the days finally started getting longer again, it was time for a celebration and a feast! It was time to deck the halls with what lights and colors you could find, in honor of the warmth and light to come. It was also time to enjoy some of the best food and ale you'd have all year -- and share it liberally with the neighbors -- before saving the rest saving the rest away to keep you through the Winter months.

There was no mass communication or rapid transit, so the legends and precise dates and customs of Yuletide varied from town to town, just as languages and dialects varied across the countryside and from one land to the next. But there were a number of elements that were standard fare:
* Feasting and drinking,
* expectation of charity -- the "haves" of a community were expected to share the feast and ale with the have-nots, upon request or for a symbolic price such as a song,
* lights and colorful decorations,
* a late-night vigil or party,
* masks and role-play (choosing a king of the feast),
* other normally-frowned-on behavior, such as gambling,
* stories and legends.

Despite how far removed we are from those days, vestiges of all of these customs have been preserved -- spread across the entire holiday season in Halloween, Hanukkah, Christmas, Boxing Day, New Year's, Epiphany, and others.

Now, here's my question: Am I nuts to think that the real story of these customs is more interesting than some random, just-so stories?

Obviously, I'm thinking of the Rankin-Bass special Santa Claus Is Coming to Town -- one of the canon of TV specials that were so central to the Christmas traditions of my childhood. I have no memory of ever being disappointed by the idea that Santa Claus isn't real. Yet I remember being a bit disappointed when I realized that the children's questions -- posed in this special -- are legitimate questions with interesting answers, but the real answers have nothing whatsoever to do with the answers given in this special.

The impact of Clement Clarke Moore's poem ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) in shaping the "Santa Claus" legend is interesting. Ditto for the contributions of Thomas Nast, and even advertising campaigns by Coca-Cola and Montgomery Ward.

That beef aside, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town is a fun little program. Burgermeister Meisterburger steals the show with his song-and-dance about how he hates toys and is outlawing them. He's not quite Heat Miser and Snow Miser, but he has a lot of good lines. (Actually, he looks a lot like Heat Miser, now that I think of it...)

Jessica, a.k.a. Mrs. Claus, isn't nearly as interesting as I remember her -- along with her early-70's ballad about her grand epiphany that her place is beside her man. Maybe I'm just getting picky in my old age.

Of course, Santa Claus Is Coming to Town isn't the only Rankin-Bass special about a made-up Santa origin story. Fifteen years later they came up with The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. (I discovered this just last year, through a comment on my blog.) Naturally, this second Santa-Genesis story is totally incompatible with the first.

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus has a far more Paganesque feel to it than the earlier story. I give it points for the explanation of how Santa speaks so many languages, plus its attempt at illustrating the cruel injustices of the world. Like all of the Rankin-Bass specials, this one is kind of weird and trippy.

On some level, though, I feel like it's not quite as charming as the light, insouciant Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. Is it just a question of childhood memories and nostalgia coloring my opinion?

Do the rest of you have any opinions on which Santa origin story is best? And why?

Thanksgiving humbug!

After more than seven years in Europe, it's kind of weird to be back in the land that adds "Thanksgiving" to the holiday schedule. I still maintain -- as I said way back in my Tradition! post -- that Thanksgiving is a lame holiday.

The main problem with Thanksgiving is that it's an invented holiday -- one that was invented by people who had little imagination and no interest in having fun: the Puritans. I don't object to invented traditions on principle. (For every tradition, somebody's got to do it first, right?) But it's possible to do it well, and it's possible to do it badly.

Take Kwanzaa, for example. Placing it between Christmas and New Year's was a stoke of genius! The kids all have the week off of school anyway, and are milling around the house just looking for something to do. Plus, having a row of candles corresponding to each day shows good co-opting of other familiar holiday traditions (which is how holiday traditions generally get started). And the inventor of Kwanzaa picked holiday colors, whole slew of craft activities, and a purpose that hits the right spot on the vague-to-specific spectrum for lots of different people to find meaning in it. See? Now that's a well-crafted invented holiday. If I were black, I would totally celebrate it.

(Actually, that reminds me that I'm planning to take up celebrating International Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

Thanksgiving, by contrast, is the fruit of the original "War on Christmas." The Puritans had outlawed the celebration of Christmas for approximately the first hundred years they were on the American continent because it was too pagan, and, well, too dang much fun. I'm not joking, BTW. The Puritans were the real "Burgermeister Meisterburger," literally outlawing fun just because they don't like to see other people having fun. And they introduced Thanksgiving to get people's yearly feasting out of the way early. If Bill O'Reilly were really serious about wanting to stop people who wage "War on Christmas", his first step would be to denounce Thanksgiving.

(Actually that's one point for the Puritans over today's religious enforcers -- at least they didn't come up with that ridiculous "War on XYZ" phrase that's so popular today.)

As a result, the one tradition we have for celebrating Thanksgiving is feasting. Oh, and praying. That's it. And, frankly, when you're living in a society where no one at your table has ever had to go without food, more eating is not a way to mark a special occasion. Special occasions should be marked by doing something different, that you don't do every single friggin' day.

Now I just want to answer (in advance!) the two obvious objections to what I've said: (1) I've somehow missed that other Thanksgiving tradition, the thanking, and (2) Christmas is worse, because it's about eating stuff and buying stuff you don't need at Wall-Mart.

For #1, two popular bloggers have explained how it doesn't make sense to thank random chance (here and here). I would actually take that a step further for those of born into rich countries and other advantages. It's like setting aside a day just to say "Yay, I'm glad life is unfair because I got a bigger slice of the pie than 90% of humanity! And now I will eat it in front of everyone with great relish!"

For #2, the timeless mid-winter festival of lights has morphed and evolved to fit many cultures, including its current consumerist incarnation: "Christmas" (along with its cousin "Hanukkah"). But it is so laden with millennia of traditions that you can find something interesting in it. If you're not a scrooge. ;^)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

An erotic alternate universe!

"Most smut fans will tell you that they have a strong preference for either visual porn or written porn -- a preference for sexual images or sexual stories that's so deeply ingrained, many people think it's hard-wired. Adult comics give us both. And in giving us both images and stories, adult comics create a bridge between the two.

-- Greta Christina

That's definitely true for me. I like striking images, but I'm almost never aroused by visual images alone, no matter how beautiful or naked the subjects may be. There has to be a story -- or, specifically, a scenario that creates erotic tension. Yet, perversely, I get stuck on erotic stories because the words get in the way. Reading a verbal description isn't the same as seeing, no matter how good a writer wrote it. Erotic comics hit the sweet spot.

Best Erotic comics 2008 and Best Erotic Comics 2009 showcase an amazing range of different artistic and narrative forms, from beautiful and poignant to funny to earthy to grotesque.

These books would make a good starting point for couples who are looking to introduce shared erotica into their relationships, but are a little hesitant -- there's almost certainly something here that will appeal to you and help you explore what you like. (Though, be warned that there are things in here that will probably upset/offend more sensitive souls.)

I'd like to mention a few highlights. I hate to narrow it down because there were so many great stories, but I'd like to give you an idea of what's in the books:

The first ones I caught myself coming back to re-read were some funny ones, like Dori Seda's story with the joke ending where something unpleasant breaks up the orgy. Then there was the excerpt from "Trucker Fags in Denial" -- which really is grotesque, but in an intriguing way. Actually, many of them are excerpts from larger works. I'd be curious to read the rest of Gilbert Hernandez's "Birdland," among others. I also liked some of the snapshots of the culture at large, such as the descriptions of strange porn films, and Ellen Forney's illustrations of personal ads.

While reading these books, I couldn't help but keep thinking of one other thing Greta Christina said:

"I am strongly of the opinion that truly first-rate erotica will excite you, even if it doesn't push your personal erotic buttons. First-rate erotica gets you excited about the sex the characters are having -- regardless of whether it's sex that you, personally, would enjoy having, or that pushes your personal fantasy buttons."

Naturally I kept asking myself, "how do these books measure up?" And, also, "how do I measure up?" On some level, I feel like it's wrong to pass judgment on my own sexual responses, yet it was such a tempting challenge!

I think we all (me and the two books) did pretty well. I'll admit that there were a few stories I didn't find that interesting (of the more than sixty short stories), but for the most part I found them exciting and compelling -- even the ones that didn't drive right up my erotic alley. And I feel I've expanded my horizons in directions that would never have occurred to me on my own.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's that time of year!

Time to break out those crazy Christmas specials that I watched a million times as a kid -- and subject my own kids to them!!!

It's also time to pick one and look at it in a new way! Last year's pick was Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey -- a Christian answer to the more popular "Rudolph" legend.

The year before that, it was The Grinch and the true meaning of Christmas!

Back in 2006, I talked about how The Year without a Santa Claus proves that colorful characters and memorable scenes are far more important than trivialities such as internal consistency or a plot that makes sense.

Then -- since I was young and ambitious that year -- I compared that one to The Polar Express (and to that cartoon with the mice) in terms of the treatment of skeptics in Christmas-land!!

From those clues, you should be able to triangulate which special(s) I'll pick this year!! I'm holding off on posting about it until after Thanksgiving, though (out of consideration for the seasonally-sensitive among you).

In the meantime, you can warm up by listening to some festive carols for a Merry (secular) Christmas and other Happy Holidays!!!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Right Questions: Eric T. Freyfogle's "On Private Property"

Remember how I was complaining about ideologues' lack of new analysis? Specifically, the inability to use data and observation of human society over the past half-century to evaluate and modify beliefs and theories...?

Well, I had a clever idea of my own the other day! Instead of just complaining that I haven't tripped over any new ideas, why not wander over to the bookstore and look for some? And I found a real gem: On Private Property: Finding Common Ground on the Ownership of Land,by Eric T. Freyfogle.

What does private property even mean? What precisely can you expect to do to/with/on your land when your right to property is upheld? If you think those questions have simple, clear, well-understood answers, you're wrong.

On the most basic level, your use/enjoyment of your property affects your neighbors' use/enjoyment of theirs, and vice-versa. Land use disputes can't be simply interpreted as one side upholding the right to property and the other side opposing it. They're more reasonably characterized as a complex negotiation over how the rights and interests different parties interact. And, unfortunately, US court rulings on property disputes often tend to have an "ad hoc" quality -- instead of being based on a general, objective set of principles.

Freyfogle gives a fascinating historical overview of how our definition of property has evolved over the past few centuries. He uses a number of actual property-dispute court cases to illustrate the ambiguity of what is (and has traditionally been) guaranteed by the right to property. And he proposes a framework of ideas about how we can understand better what private property should mean.

Whether or not you agree with his answers, Freyfogle is asking all the right questions. There is nothing more mind-expanding than looking at familiar issues from a new perspective by analyzing the key assumptions. And the question of how land and resources are divided is going to be one of the most critical issues of our time as population pressure continues to rise to the nine billion mark. We're not living on the edge of the (supposedly) unlimited frontier anymore, folks, and it's time to think hard about what that means for our society and the world.

I'd like to recommend this book for online discussion. I would especially like to recommend this book for any of you who call yourselves "Libertarians" or "Objectivists" -- if you're going to hold up the right of property as the most crucial right, then it's in your interest to be sure you know what you're talking about. Unfortunately, unlike The Authoritarians (which we discussed earlier), this book isn't available for free download. It costs $16 from the publisher. Worth the money, IMHO, but I hope they'll eventually pasture it as a free (or very cheap) e-book at some point so it can enjoy wider distribution.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The conclusion of Bordeaux Mission!

Feeling the light breeze on my face, I looked out at the water. The edges of the moving water between the feet of the bridge curled into little whirlpools here and there. I tried to drag up all the rusty memories of my former life in Orem, back when everything was so much simpler. I was so faithful then, what had happened to me?

Picturing my home and my family, my youth and my old ward, I started to feel like a good missionary again. I kept all of these pleasant images in my mind until it was time to go get Nick and go to my interview with the Mission President.

When it was my turn, the Mission President shook my hand and started asking me all of the familiar temple recommend questions: Read the rest of the story ->

Saturday, November 07, 2009

To think, I was so careful to keep my secret project a secret!

Remember that mysterious professional/research project I've been doing during this six-month stay in the U.S.? The one I'd assumed I was supposed to keep confidential? Well, it turns out that the publisher has already posted it on Amazon. Lucky thing it's almost done! And I'm really pleased with how it's turning out. :D

On a related note, I made a couple of Twitter accounts this past week: chansonexmo and chexplore. I did it mostly because I'm writing a BlackBerry application that uses Twitter. However, while I'm on Twitter anyway, I'd like to know what's up with my blog friends. So, if you Twitter, please leave a comment with your Twitter name so I can follow you.

Follow me at your own risk, though! I'll be sending quite a lot of test tweets. I think I'll try to send most of the "Testing 1, 2" messages from "chexplore" and use "chansonexmo" (mostly) for real updates.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Still segregated after all these years: Jonathan Kozol's "The Shame of the Nation"

Seems like only a half-century ago that the U.S. Supreme Court declared (in Brown v. Board of Education) that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." And where are we today?

Still separate. Still unequal.

It turns out that -- while it's not so hard to eliminate de jure (legally-enforced) segregation -- de facto segregation is a bit harder to root out. Kozol reports that the poorest schools (in large, Northern cities) typically have a student body that is more than 90% black and Hispanic. Schools with a real mixture of races are actually quite rare in and around U.S. urban areas -- they're typically either almost entirely black+hispanic or almost entirely white+other. Even in areas of NYC where the residential neighborhoods themselves are fairly integrated, school choice programs within the public school system create a dynamic where the white kids get sent to one school and the black kids to another.

Kozol describes the harm. Poor schools often have major infrastructure problems such as overcrowded, dilapidated buildings with chemical hazards. It's not rare to lack playgrounds, not to mention basic materials like books and chairs for every student. When one school can spend $17,000 per pupil and another only $9000, it makes a huge difference (multiplied by the number of kids in the school) in terms of the quality of teachers you can attract and the supplies and infrastructure you can buy.

Since race is mixed in with the money situation, it makes the "haves" care that much less about the plight of the "have nots." Probably most of the people reading this post are right now saying to themselves "Of course the children of the rich deserve a better quality of education than the children of the poor because they're paying more in property taxes." When people call America a "land of opportunity," they don't mean it's supposed to have a level playing field. They mean that you can buy opportunity (if you have the money), otherwise you get a curriculum that is designed to produce docile, obedient, low-level employees.

Kozol argues that the de-facto segregation is itself a problem (apart from the money problem) because being able to interact easily and comfortably with people of other races is an important factor for success in a mixed-race country. I agree, as I discussed in my post European dream.

Unfortunately, the problem is incredibly difficult to grapple with. De-facto segregation is not illegal, and apparently is not covered by the Brown decision mentioned above. People who would like to see greater equality can do very little to stop the momentum of the current system. A major overhaul would not merely be expensive -- it would be a political impossibility. In today's America, putting equality and the common good above the individual's right to leave his fellows in the dust (if he can) is almost universally viewed as "communism" and hence evil.

This problem illustrates the difference between civil rights for black people and civil rights for gay people. Black people in the U.S. face major structural inequalities that don't have any simple solutions. The thing that's so infuriating about anti-gay discrimination is that it's just so gratuitous! You could pass a law that doesn't affect the straight majority, and problem is essentially solved. Refusing to grant gay people equal rights is like kicking them in the face just for the sake of kicking them in the face. For black people, it's not nearly so simple. The relevant laws and court cases have been on the books for nearly a half-century or more -- and the inequalities are still there. It's because there's no simple, obvious, fair way to even things out. Ditto for Hispanics and immigrants.

The most encouraging possibilities mentioned in Kozol's book are found in the few schools that really are integrated. Their success demonstrates that it's possible, and may encourage parents to do more to integrate the schools in their own districts.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

It's not that simple...

Friday morning I gathered my things and Elder Beaverton helped me carry them to the other side of town to the mission office. Elder Beaverton didn't have to move his own things this time -- he just had to gather up his new companion, Elder Wilson, and bring him back to the apartment. Read the rest of the story ->

Sunday, November 01, 2009

These are S&M's, Mommy, not M&M's!

OK, you can probably guess where that quote came from. ;^)

My 6-year-old Leo -- who loves chocolate but not fruit -- discovered the remaining Skittles I'd bought for the trick-or-treaters. And he can identify letters just well enough to tell that it says right on the package that they aren't the treat he was hoping for...

And today's "expat story hour" question is: What did my kids think of their first American Halloween?

They absolutely loved it! Halloween (essentially in its American incarnation) is appearing little by little in Europe, but it's not like here. Their school had Halloween activities all day on Friday -- with the kids and teachers all dressed up in their costumes -- and we went trick-or-treating with a group of neighbor kids in the evening.

I remember having great fun at Halloween parties as a kid. Our Mormon ward was pretty cool, so we never did did any of those lame anti-real-Halloween substitutes like "Trunk-or-Treating" or a "Hell House." We had a fairly standard fun Halloween party every year with costumes, games, bobbing for apples, and haunted rooms with things like cold spaghetti and peeled grapes pretending to be other things...

So I felt bad that we ended up not taking our kids to any of the Halloween parties we were invited to. I wanted to, but it turned out that October 31st was the only day this whole semester that there was a (relatively) kid-friendly matinee at the Metropolitan Opera! And that was another one of the big cultural experiences we didn't want our kids to miss on during this stay in the U.S.: a trip to the Met!!!

My husband got one shot of the chandeliers before we found that photography isn't allowed -- even in the foyer!!

We went to see Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which the kids have seen a bunch of times on video, so they knew the basic story and the music. We all had a great time!! For the kids, just seeing any kind of show performed live (like a movie, only live!) is already exceptional, and they liked looking through the binoculars at the orchestra playing their instruments. And we got back just in time for trick-or-treating, so it was perfect!!!

Some Halloween I hope I can do this though...