Name Time

'La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),' by Oiluj Samall Zeid on Flickr

[Image: “La Otra Navidad (The Other Christmas),” by Oiluj Samall Zeid; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license. The site is a mausoleum in León, Spain, commemorating Republicans killed in the Spanish Civil War. Each nameplate represents one victim.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

[Interviewer Terry] Gross: I’d like you to read another poem from your book “Book of Longing.” And this is called “Titles.” Would you tell us when you wrote this?

[Leonard] Cohen: I’ve been writing it for a while. But I finished it last winter in Montreal. It’s a poem called “Titles.”

(Reading) I had the title Poet. And maybe I was one for a while. Also, the title Singer was kindly accorded me even though I could barely carry a tune. For many years, I was known as a Monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone. But I acted generously. And no one found me out. My reputation as a Ladies’ Man was a joke. It caused me to laugh bitterly through the 10,000 nights I spent alone. From a third-story window above the Parc du Portugal, I’ve watched the snow come down all day.

As usual, there’s no one here. There never is. Mercifully, the inner conversation is canceled by the white noise of winter. I am neither the mind, the intellect nor the silent voice within. That’s also canceled. And now, gentle reader, in what name — in whose name — do you come to idle with me in this luxurious and dwindling realms of aimless privacy?

(Leonard Cohen [source])

and:

The secrets to living are these:
First, the past cannot be improved upon.
Acknowledge what was and move on.
Next, the future cannot be molded.
Then, why bother?
Last, nothing can ultimately be controlled;
Not the past, nor the future, nor the present.
Accept this moment as it is.
Honoring these three,
One lives without shackles.

(Wu Hsin [source])

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Midweek Music Break: I Moderni, “Carol of the Bells”

[Video: “Carol of the Bells,” by I Moderni]

I Moderni — Italian for “The Modern” — was at the time they made this video an a-capella quartet who placed second in the fifth (2011) season of the Italian X-Factor series. (They’re now a trio.) I’m crippled in my search to learn much about them: every single thing I’ve found on the Web about them, so far, is in Italian. Of course I can use Google Chrome to automatically translate, but it’s tough going…

In any event, here’s their decidedly unconventional video take on this familiar onomatopoeic Christmas carol. The song has always struck me as almost obsessive, hypnotically so; it has “lyrics,” but after you’ve listened to or read even a few stanzas it’s hard not to think, like, It doesn’t matter what the words say. (Poe’s ode to bells can do the same number on you. Clearly, there’s something about bells…) In I Moderni’s video reading, the words go even further — into territory like this:

Let yourself to be taken over by the music, your attention to the the world will wander. This will allow the real truths of the world to come out and play, unobserved, unbound by the familiar, animated not by human preconceptions but by their absence.

I really like this. It’s not quite horror; these aren’t “Chucky”-type dolls. But it sure as hell doesn’t square with “reality,” whatever that is. The right word might be eldritch.

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Ed.)

[Video: “The Wexford Carol,” performed by Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Kraus.]

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” current list? Here y’go:

2008 2009
2010 2011
2012 2013
2014 2015

Let’s get right to it:

Per usual at this time of year, I’m adding ten songs to the previous years’ selections. These are presented in two ways, in two separate little audio-player thingums:

  • The complete playlist — now up to ninety songs total (about four and three-quarters hours’ worth).
    • The list plays straight through, from start to finish, in the order in which the songs were first presented here at RAMH.
    • but you can also pop out the playlist into its own, compact window. This lets you proceed to read through the rest of the post or use your browser for something else — or close it altogether — while the music’s playing. (Note that the pop-out window will automatically begin playing.)
    • If you’d prefer, you can also shuffle the complete list in random order, in a pop-out window, by clicking below:

      Pop Out to Shuffle!

  • OR you can simply play this year’s list of ten songs (about a half-hour in length). This is pretty straightforward: sequential order, no pop-out window, no shuffle mode.

In either case, or even if you don’t want to listen at all, you might want to glance at the complete current list of song titles and performers. (Note: this is just a listing; you cannot play music from it.)

Okay, here are the two player doo-dads — the complete, followed by the current…

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (complete)

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (2016 Only)

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Winter’s First Week

Cover: 'December,' by George Winston

A bit of a changeup from the usual Friday routine here. Let’s start with a couple of things not from whiskey river (because, well, why not)…

...a song for winter

…and:

Christmas Trees
(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

(Robert Frost [source])

…and:

December Notes

The backyard is one white sheet
Where we read in the bird tracks

The songs we hear. Delicate
Sparrow, heavier cardinal,

Filigree threads of chickadee.
And wing patterns where one flew

Low, then up and away, gone
To the woods but calling out

Clearly its bright epigrams.
More snow promised for tonight.

The postal van is stalled
In the road again, the mail

Will be late and any good news
Will reach us by hand.

(Nancy McCleery [source])

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2015 Ed.)

[Video: Anaïs Mitchell, “Song of the Magi”: a subtly subversive “Christmas carol” if I’ve ever heard one. (Lyrics)]

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” list? Here y’go:

2008 2009
2010 2011
2012 2013
2014  

If you’ve visited RAMH at about this time in previous Decembers, you know (more or less) what to expect from this post. You probably don’t know it all though…

For starters, I’ve moved the text listing of all songs — which was taking up way too much space in the post itself — into a separate pop-up window. If you’d like to keep the complete current songlist open for reference in a separate window while the music plays, use this link. (This is just a simple text list of song titles and artists, not an actual player.)

One other (bigger) change here: the little audio-player gizmo has changed since 2014 (for reasons boring and technology-driven):

  • The song titles, alas!, now appear as grotesque file names rather than, y’know, good old English. You’ll still be able to glean the titles themselves, but still…
  • Play, pause, forward and reverse buttons — that stuff is still here.
  • …but the player now includes a “popout” feature, which opens up the player in a separate, smaller window of its own — good for tucking to the side, if you just want to keep the music in the background while you go off elsewhere on the Web.
  • Finally, if you’re observant, you’ll notice a more standard, more obvious way to obtain the current track for yourself — without requiring the secret RAMH “decoder ring” trick I’ve provided in the past.

Enough of all that. Here’s the little player doo-dad. (Note that the post itself continues on below it — if you need something to read in the meantime!)

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (complete)

If you’re pressed for time, and/or just don’t want to (re-)listen to the earlier years’ selections, the similar gizmo which follows lets you listen to just 2015’s ten-song list, without having to fast-forward through earlier years’ lists:

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (2015 Only)

Update: new feature

You can now open the full playlist in a separate window with “shuffle” mode enabled. This will begin playing as soon as the popout window open. (Some mobile devices/tablets disable the autoplay feature, though.)

Pop Out to Shuffle!

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2014 ed.)

[Video: note the bass with a truncated bottom. It’s called a Czech-Ease road bass, sold (and apparently designed) by one David Gage of New York. As for the performance, lauded by Penn Jillette as “a tiny little bit of perfect,” it really channels Patsy Cline, doesn’t it? (At the outset, you may wonder — as did I — where the plural “duelling bassES” comes from. Give it time — almost a minute.) For more information on Kate Davis, drop by her Web site. Elvis’s original version of the song is number 22 in the below list, from 2010.]

So: another year, another Christmas… Here (as I’ve done annually since 2008), I’ve added ten songs to the bottom of the previous years’ entries. As before, these artists and songs appear, back-to-back, in the following playlist:

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” list? Here y’go:

— 2008: —

  1. Peter Robbins et al.: dialogue from A Charlie Brown Christmas
  2. Anonymous 4: Hodie Christus Natus Est
  3. Waverly Consort: Three Spanish Villancicos – Dadme Albcrecias
  4. Perry Como: Home for the Holidays
  5. Mannheim Steamroller: Joy to the World
  6. George Winston: The Holly and the Ivy
  7. Celtic Woman: O Holy Night
  8. John Denver and the Muppets: The Twelve Days of Christmas
  9. Al Hirt: Nutty Jingle Bells
  10. The Roches: Deck the Halls
    — 2009: —
  11. Charlotte Church: Mary’s Boy Child
  12. Madeleine Peyroux/k.d. lang: River
  13. George Winston: Variations on the Kanon
  14. Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops: The Toy Trumpet
  15. Eartha Kitt: Santa Baby
  16. Mannheim Steamroller: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  17. Celtic Woman: The Wexford Carol
  18. The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Jingle Bells
  19. Jimmy Boyd: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
  20. Cumberland Gap Reunion: Silent Night
    — 2010: —
  21. Sam Phillips: Cold Dark Night (lyrics)
  22. Elvis Presley: Blue Christmas
  23. Loreena McKennitt: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (may be my favorite addition to this year’s list…)
  24. The Chipmunks: The Chipmunk Song
  25. Frank Sinatra: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  26. London Philharmonic Orchestra: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  27. Tony Elman: Winter Creek
  28. Sara Groves: Toy Packaging (lyrics) (…and this may be my favorite for grins)
  29. Harry Belafonte: Mary’s Boy Child
  30. Ray Conniff Singers: Ring Christmas Bells
    — 2011: —
  31. Ralph Marterie and His Band: Dig That Crazy Santa Claus
  32. Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  33. The Indigo Girls: It Really Is (A Wonderful Life) (lyrics)
  34. Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
  35. Dean Martin: Baby It’s Cold Outside (also see the wonderful American Songwriter writeup on the story of this song’s composition [thanks, Jules!])
  36. Ferrante and Teicher: Sleigh Ride
  37. Bo Dollis & Wild Magnolias: Shakana Santa Shake It
  38. Neil Diamond: Silver Bells
  39. Taverner Consort, Choir, & Players (Andrew Parrott, conductor): Branle de l’Officiel (Ding! Dong! Merrily on High)
  40. George Winston: Carol of the Bells
    — 2012: —
  41. Michael Tilson-Thomas & Philharmonia Orchestra: The Nutcracker (Overture)
  42. Vince Guaraldi Trio: O Tannenbaum
  43. Troy Hess: Christmas on the Moon (And don’t worry, it’s not just you: no one else seems to understand the lyrics (other than the refrain), either.* America’s Singing Souvenir Troy Hess was four years old when he recorded this in 1970. )
  44. Barbra Streisand: I Wonder as I Wander
  45. Frank Sinatra: Jingle Bells
  46. Al Hirt: Ave Maria
  47. Art Neville: Christmas Gumbo
  48. Ella Fitzgerald: Frosty the Snowman
  49. Dean Martin: I’ll Be Home for Christmas
  50. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
    — 2013: —
  51. Knightsong: Christmas Is Coming
  52. Mannheim Steamroller: Pat-a-Pan
  53. Vienna Boys’ Choir: The Little Drummer Boy
  54. Tori Amos: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  55. Cumberland Gap Reunion: The First Noel
  56. I Soloisti di Zagreb & Antonio Janigro: Toy Symphony: I: Allegro
  57. Liuba María Hevia (Spanish-language site): Venid Fieles Todos (Adeste Fidelis) (probably my favorite track in this year’s mix)
  58. Corporal Blossom: White Christmas
  59. Perry Como: O Holy Night
  60. Enya: Oíche Chiúin [Chorale]
    — 2014: —
  61. George Winston: Some Children See Him
  62. She & Him: Baby It’s Cold Outside (this year’s favorite!)
  63. Bing Crosby: Winter Wonderland
  64. Barry Gordon: Nuttin’ for Christmas
  65. Mahalia Jackson: Go Tell It on the Mountain
  66. Bobby Helms: Jingle Bell Rock
  67. Ray Conniff & the Ray Conniff Singers: The Twelve Days of Christmas
  68. Barbra Streisand: Jingle Bells? (And yes, the question mark belongs there! You might be interested in the Midweek Music Break for this song, posted on December 24, 2014 — which explains why this number replaced the one I first included here.)
  69. Emmylou Harris: Light of the Stable
  70. Boston Pops Orchestra: The Nutcracker: Final Waltz

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To fast-forward to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter. And a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter.)

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If you’re pressed for time, and/or just don’t want to (re-)listen to the earlier years’ selections, with the player gizmo below you can listen to just 2014’s ten-song list, without having to fast-forward to it through earlier lists. And as in the last couple of years, I’ve also given RAMH regulars (and anyone else who can figure it out!) the chance to use their secret right-bracket decoder rings, to listen to the playlist later without even visiting here. Here we go with the ten selections from this year only:

[2014 only

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2013 ed.)

[Video: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (with She Her & I), “All I Want for Christmas…” See note at the bottom of this post for more information.]

As in every year beginning in 2008, I’ve added ten songs to the bottom of the previous years’ entries. As before, these artists and numbers appear, back-to-back, in the following playlist:

— 2008: —

  1. Peter Robbins et al.: dialogue from A Charlie Brown Christmas
  2. Anonymous 4: Hodie Christus Natus Est
  3. Waverly Consort: Three Spanish Villancicos – Dadme Albcrecias
  4. Perry Como: Home for the Holidays
  5. Mannheim Steamroller: Joy to the World
  6. George Winston: The Holly and the Ivy
  7. Celtic Woman: O Holy Night
  8. John Denver and the Muppets: The Twelve Days of Christmas
  9. Al Hirt: Nutty Jingle Bells
  10. The Roches: Deck the Halls
    — 2009: —
  11. Charlotte Church: Mary’s Boy Child
  12. Madeleine Peyroux/k.d. lang: River
  13. George Winston: Variations on the Kanon
  14. Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops: The Toy Trumpet
  15. Eartha Kitt: Santa Baby
  16. Mannheim Steamroller: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  17. Celtic Woman: The Wexford Carol
  18. The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Jingle Bells
  19. Jimmy Boyd: I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus
  20. Cumberland Gap Reunion: Silent Night
    — 2010: —
  21. Sam Phillips: Cold Dark Night (lyrics)
  22. Elvis Presley: Blue Christmas
  23. Loreena McKennitt: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (may be my favorite addition to this year’s list…)
  24. The Chipmunks: The Chipmunk Song
  25. Frank Sinatra: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  26. London Philharmonic Orchestra: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
  27. Tony Elman: Winter Creek
  28. Sara Groves: Toy Packaging (lyrics) (…and this may be my favorite for grins)
  29. Harry Belafonte: Mary’s Boy Child
  30. Ray Conniff Singers: Ring Christmas Bells
    — 2011: —
  31. Ralph Marterie and His Band: Dig That Crazy Santa  Claus
  32. Nat King Cole: The Christmas Song
  33. The Indigo Girls: It Really Is (A Wonderful Life) (lyrics)
  34. Johnny Mercer and the Pied Pipers: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
  35. Dean Martin: Baby It’s Cold Outside (also see the wonderful American Songwriter writeup on the story of this song’s composition [thanks, Jules!])
  36. Ferrante and Teicher: Sleigh Ride
  37. Bo Dollis & Wild Magnolias: Shakana Santa Shake It
  38. Neil Diamond: Silver Bells
  39. Taverner Consort, Choir, & Players (Andrew Parrott, conductor): Branle de l’Officiel (Ding! Dong! Merrily on High)
  40. George Winston: Carol of the Bells
    — 2012: —
  41. Michael Tilson-Thomas & Philharmonia Orchestra: The Nutcracker (Overture)
  42. Vince Guaraldi Trio: O Tannenbaum
  43. Troy Hess: Christmas on the Moon (And don’t worry, it’s not just you: no one else seems to understand the lyrics (other than the refrain), either.* America’s Singing Souvenir Troy Hess was four years old when he recorded this in 1970. )
  44. Barbra Streisand: I Wonder as I Wander
  45. Frank Sinatra: Jingle Bells
  46. Al Hirt: Ave Maria
  47. Art Neville: Christmas Gumbo
  48. Ella Fitzgerald: Frosty the Snowman
  49. Dean Martin: I’ll Be Home for Christmas
  50. Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht
    — 2013: —
  51. Knightsong: Christmas Is Coming
  52. Mannheim Steamroller: Pat-a-Pan
  53. Vienna Boys’ Choir: The Little Drummer Boy
  54. Tori Amos: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
  55. Cumberland Gap Reunion: The First Noel
  56. I Soloisti di Zagreb & Antonio Janigro: Toy Symphony: I: Allegro
  57. Liuba María Hevia (Spanish-language site): Venid Fieles Todos (Adeste Fidelis) (probably my favorite track in this year’s mix)
  58. Corporal Blossom: White Christmas (see below for more information about this track)
  59. Perry Como: O Holy Night
  60. Enya: Oíche Chiúin [Chorale]

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the little Play button. To fast-forward to the next number, once a song is playing you’ll find a little fast-forward button to the right of its progress meter. And a fast-rewind to the left, for that matter.)

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If you prefer, with the player gizmo below you can listen to just the current ten-song list, without having to fast-forward to it through earlier lists. And as in the last couple of years, I’ve also given RAMH regulars (and anyone else who can figure it out!) the chance to use their secret right-bracket decoder rings, to listen to the playlist later without even visiting here. Here we go with this year’s selections only:

[2013 only

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An E-Publishing Experiment (2): Short Holiday Reading for Under a Buck

How It Was: Christmas (cover)Moving right along…

So I’ve had a short story for sale for a week so far, as described in this post. (The book itself can be found on Amazon.com; that’s the Amazon US link, although it’s also available at the company’s UK, Australia, Brazil, Germany, India, [etc.] sites.) At 99 cents apiece (less Amazon’s cut), I’ve sold about a dozen copies of that story to date (one was “refunded,” for reasons unknown — probably a double download).

As I mentioned at the time, I haven’t really done anything to promote it, other than to announce its availability on Facebook and Twitter. I did a follow-up on Facebook, a day or two later, and — for what it’s worth — sold more copies via the follow-up than from the original announcement. I made a point of not urging anyone to spread the word, buy copies for friends and family, and so on; I just announced the story’s availability, to see what happened next.

From this small chunk of data, so far at least, I (not very earth-shakingly) conclude:

  • People who see the announcement are more likely to respond to it. Thus, the timing of the announcement is critical: almost no one can read every single posting in his or her Facebook and/or Twitter feeds. Follow-up can greatly announcements improve the odds of likely purchasers even knowing about the sale in the first place.
  • Since Facebook and Twitter (and RAMH itself, for that matter) are self-selected population samples — only people who “know” me in one way or another — presumably all of those dozen sales so far came not via word-of-mouth, but in direct response to the announcement.

I don’t know how to encourage word-of-mouth sales without constantly nudging the people who’ve bought it so far — remember, people I “know” — and risking wearing out my welcome, so to speak. Especially now, at this time of year, people (even generous friends) simply don’t want, let alone need, to be badgered repeatedly to buy something.

So, let’s move on to phase 2, applying some of these lessons (and leaving some of the mysteries unresolved for now).

You can find my next 99-cent offering here, at Amazon’s US site: “How It Was: Christmas.” If you’ve been reading RAMH for a while, you’ve seen this (both the overall series, and this specific volume) referenced before. One of my very first posts here described the series’ genesis, and what to expect from the individual booklets.

Of all four books, this one is most likely to “sell,” I think — especially at this time of year. I’ve done a couple of things to open it up a little further:

  • I’ve enrolled the title in Amazon’s “Kindle Select”KDP Select” program. This will provide me some promotional opportunities downstream. Chief among these: I will be able to RAISE the sale price, with the intention of immediately offering it for sale at a deep discount back to the 99-cents level.
  • The book will also be available for free “library” lending to Amazon Prime customers. I won’t get a direct royalty from these so-called borrowings, but I will get a small bit from some kind of Amazon’s global library promotions.
  • I’ll do more than one follow-up announcement on Facebook, and also make a point of following up a couple of times on Twitter. (As ever, I don’t want to wear out my welcome. If anyone sees me approaching that limit, I hope you’ll let me know!)
  • A bigger risk, maybe: I’m offering the book free of all digital-rights-management constraints. This means that someone who BUYS a copy can simply turn around and give the book file to anyone else. Of everything I’ve written, maybe, this Christmas booklet is “most likely to succeed,” at some point (perhaps years in the future). To the extent that more and more people read (and of course like) it, future sales of both other How It Was books and everything else I might e-publish might get a boost.

Again, let’s just see how things play out. And I’ll report back on this phase, too, at some point.

Thanks as always for reading anything at all which I’ve written… and of course, thanks extra if you’ve paid for it, and/or encouraged someone else to do so. ;)

 

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Gobsmacked by Natural History

Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker

[Image: Cover of The Golden Treasury of Natural History, by Bertha Morris Parker. Colors tinkered with a little to match its present look as closely as possible.]

A holiday, a small bedroom in a small house, The Boy, The Book

I don’t know what triggered the recent obsession, but something must have. Not that I’ve ever really forgotten its object; years ago, I started referring to it this way: possibly the best book anyone ever gave me. I’m not kidding myself, or you: it may not be the best-written, the book I most wish I myself had written, even my favorite book. My original copy got swallowed up into Book Heaven long ago, and I had not (until recently) laid eyes on another copy for maybe forty or more years. But for its long-term impact on me — its staying power in my head — nothing else comes close.

It came to me as a Christmas present when I must have been, oh, maybe nine or ten years old. (It certainly feels like I’ve known it that long.) Dad had always held blue-collar jobs, and Mom — when she eventually went to work (as opposed to, haha, the sheer non-working pleasure of raising four kids) — held secretarial and clerical positions. So we never had anything you could call superficially “privileged.” But at Christmas, they annually went overboard. We got so much stuff.

In retrospect, I wonder if at that time of year they might have been just throwing things at the walls of our minds to see what would stick. I know they loved us — never once doubted it, even — but they’d had little if anything like training or orientation as parents. We were like four aliens deposited in their household: total strangers, maybe even only nominally of the same species. How could they entertain us? Would we like music, maybe? (Get them an LP!) Would we want to become homemakers, or mechanics? (Get them a toy oven, or a garage — made of finger-slashing tin in case they want to become surgeons!) Artists? (A Play-Do factory! a watercolor paints set! colored pencils! crayons and coloring books! heck, throw in a jigsaw puzzle! All in the same year!)

So this one year — again, I think somewhere between third and fifth grade — I found (among the rubble of childhood avarice) two books for me: both non-fiction, both about science. One was a large-format hardcover book, maybe 9″ x 12″, maybe fifty pages long,, entirely about astronomy. I don’t remember many specifics about that book — certainly not the title. It had no paper dust cover. The front, spine, and back were of some ultra-high-gloss material; the predominant color was deep navy blue, scattered with stars. Of all the sciences, astronomy has held my attention the most, and I think to that book must belong a great deal of the credit.

But the other book: ah, the other book. That was the unforgettable one.

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Holiday Traditions: “The Christmas Date”

Not even remotely our 'Asian fusion' experience on 12/23/2012

[Scene from A Christmas Story. The Peking duck no longer smiles at the Old Man.]

In 1993, The then Missus-Eventually-To-Be and I went on our first one of these, and we’ve done so every December 23rd since. (Which, yes, made 2012 the twentieth time.)

That first year, we had a few things generally to celebrate, aside from the holiday itself. Eleven months before, on January 1, I’d moved sorta-kinda-ever-so-cautiously to this area, from the Richmond, VA neck of the woods, expressly to be closer to her. I didn’t move straight to this city, mind you, but to a town about forty minutes away — one with the small-town feel I was used to, and hoping to continue. I was jobless and all but flat broke then [*], so I took as a priority the getting of work… Yet, y’know, a common downside to small towns is that most of the work to be had must be had in nearby cities. So I eventually scored a series of part-time/temporary jobs down here, and by the fall was working enough that a date-date didn’t feel like an extravagance. Indeed, in October we’d abandoned all pretense at tentativeness and moved in together, to our first house: another thing to celebrate. And we had rich creative lives, as well, especially thanks to The METB‘s course of studies for a Masters degree in English (“creative writing emphasis,” as the University said).

So we splurged, that first year, on a meal at a splurge-worthy downtown restaurant called Chez Pierre. It was then a small, elegant, intimately lit, fireplaced and stone-walled nook of a place on the same block as the old Federal courthouse, and it was easy to love: the service was personable, the atmosphere relaxed — take as long as you want! — and the food spectacular. (When they had to relocate a few years later, to a giant sprawling brick pile in the area known as Midtown, we never did get used to the changes; Chez Pierre finally changed hands, and then, after what was widely felt to be a slow decline, finally went out of business last year.)

But — and this would become the enduring (and to me, endearing) little hook to the Christmas-date tradition — The METB did not know in advance that we’d be eating there. She knew only that we were dressing up (if not strictly, given our circumstances, upscale). And en route to dinner, I drove a circuitous route, expressly to keep her guessing…

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