Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas at our House

This is what Christmas looks like around our house this year:

We had one of these when I was a child, and it was watching the angels fly around ringing the bells was one of my favorite Christmas traditions. My mother brought us each our own as a souvenir of her trip to Austria. She could not have given us a better gift.

You've seen our tree before, but here it is from a distance with presents. We went the "brown paper packages tied up with string" route this year. Actually, we used paper bags from the grocery store and some baker's twine. I kind of love the old fashioned feel of it.

Tonight we went to the Carols by Candlelight service at the National Cathedral. At one point we as we sang Silent Night the lights dimmed until the small candles we each held seemed to be the only light in the cathedral. It was pretty magical, to be honest.
This year's Christmas Village is brought to you by Rice-a-Roni. I started saving cardboard in September for this, just to be sure I would have enough to make a good village. Then I wimped out after three houses. Mr. Awesome gets full credit for the clock tower there (which he made from a random Oreo cookie box).
These ornaments are the best thing I brought home with me from India. I can't look at them hanging like this without think about Whoville.

Welcome Christmas, while we stand heart to heart and hand in hand.
Christmastime will always be, just as long as we have we.

Merry Christmas, friends.

In Dulci Jubilio

The solstice marks the shortest day and darkest night of the year. The sun has been deserting us for months now, slowly edging south to skip along South American beaches and drink mate with the Argentines. I miss the sun and the Argentinos at this time of year, no matter how cheerful the twinkle lights.

I only spent one Christmas south of the equator, and I spent it mostly wishing away the heat and humidity. The giant Christmas tree outside the only Mall in Rosario seemed ludicrous to me as I walked by in drenched in sweat, nut brown from the glaring sun. But even so, it was a good Christmas. My tree was a paper cutout, taped to the wall next to my bed and decorated with drawings sent by primary children from my home ward with notes like "Merry Christmas, and if your birthday is around Christmas, Happy Birthday too!" We ate juicy grilled meat and fresh crusty bread for dinner on Christmas eve, with members who were missing their own missionary that year. I cannot think of a less appropriate time to sing "Silent Night" than the Noche Buena. The revelry lasted all through the short night and into the dawn. At one point the booming fireworks drove my companion and I out onto the roof where we watched the small rockets shooting perilously close to us and lighting the sky with color in short, giddy spurts. We tried to spend the night sleeping, as behooves hard working missionaries, but the revelry outside our little shed seeped under the doors and through the thin walls and into our failed attempts at slumber.

That year, like this, Christmas fell on a Sunday. We saw no other people as we walked the streets that early sabbath morning amid the bright remains of a hundred Christmas parties. The streets were generally strewn with trash but today it was brighter, festive trash that spoke of streamers and fireworks and dancing all night long. It could not have been a more different scene than the snow laced Christmas mornings I was used to spending where medieval carols and twinkling candles stood in for the raucous cheering and midnight fireworks here. I had spent the last six months in that ward, and knew somehow that this would be my last among the members I had come to love so dearly. I will always remember that day as a bittersweet time of parting and goodbyes, amid the joy of Christmas.

Now, several years later, the night-long revelry and dizzying explosions of Noche Buena mean just as much to me as the quieter vigils here on the night when the darkness halts and turns back, banished by the light of the sun on it's return, for we are celebrating the same thing:


Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today! 
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today! 


Monday, December 19, 2011

My life without a television

So, let's get this right out in the open: I do not own a television. This means, of course, that I am better than you. I look down upon you, judging your television watching-ness with lofty self righteousness. I have risen above this world, my friends, and thrown off the shackles of a soulless consumer driven culture. I'm basically Buddha.

Sometimes people ask me "So, is this a decision you've made or...?" And I have to wonder what that "or..." is supposed to mean. Or...what, darling? Or...was the TV stolen? Or...have you not yet heard about TV? Or...did you forget to get yourself a TV and thank heavens I'm here to help straighten your crap out?

Or nothing, people. Of course it is a decision; we do not "accidentally" not have a TV. Although, I will always be a little tempted to say "oh no, it wasn't a decision exactly but there was this squirrel..." and let them try to figure out those ambiguous ellipses. Suckas.

What people are really asking, though, is "Are you taking a moral stance on this issue about the TVs and the watching thereof?" I so want to say yes to that one. I'm judging you, folks. Judgeity, judge, judge! But moral stances take so much effort, and to be honest I mostly just don't want to rearrange the furniture to fit in a television.

Obviously, not having a TV brings specific benefits to those of us who are brave enough to try it. For starters, rather than waste our time watching TV, we find other ways to...waste our time. Mr. Awesome, for example, is a world-class Bloons player (It's a flash game, there are monkeys, he is forbidden to play it with sound. Don't ask any further questions, please.) And I find myself enjoying the written word more often. That's right, I read! I read a lot! Yet another reason to look down upon you, judging your non-reading-ness. And I would too, but I've got one more chapter in this poorly written 99cent ebook to finish so....

Also, without a TV we never see movie trailers, so we never know what's coming to theaters, so we never go to movies. And after reading that my movie-buff family will probably disown me. Sorry mother. I tried to make you proud, honest! I just... (The ellipses are a theme here, folks. Get it?) This is highly beneficial in social situations when everyone else has seen or wants to see a certain movie and we are not able to contribute to the conversation at all. I'd rank it right up there with mentioning our lack of TV when it comes to handy conversational topics.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Istanbul dört: Would you like to buy a carpet?

First of all, this:
Let me introduce you to the blue mosque. Now, I'll be honest, she's kind of a narcissist. I mean, she totally photobombed us nearly every time we tried to get a picture in the main square.

Some random guy offered to take this photo for us. He later tried to sell us a carpet. Such was to become a dominant theme on this trip: helpful friendly people always want to sell you a carpet.
It's like you just can't get rid of her, that gorgeous building. It's even worse at prayer times when the speakers on her six minarets begin a swirling call and response to each other that fills the air almost forces you to stop what you are doing and realize just how big the world is and just how small you are within it. It is a beautiful and daunting feeling.

And, as we all know, when the world becomes too big and you become too small there is only one cure: lunch. All around the main square are winding side streets filled with carpet shops and restaurants. Nearly every roof overlooking the square has been made over into a restaurant terrace. The choice in food is nothing short of dizzying. On this day, though, having survived Haggia Sophia, the Basillica Cistern, and a photo-shoot with the Blue Mosque all before lunch, we were a little too tired to give our restaurant selection much thought. We simply wandered a short way down a winding alley, avoiding the dozens of carpet salesmen offering us "A look, just have a look! No pressure to buy!" until yellow umbrellas and linen table cloths surrounded us on both sides, muffling the roar of Istanbul traffic and blocking out the bustle of busy tourists and the ubiquitous carpet vendors. Again, it felt like stepping through time somehow, only this time not nearly so far into the past, maybe to the 1920's. And we were alone with the sway of the luminaries and the sound of a record player inside somewhere, while a solidary gentleman with a hat sat sipping wine and puffing a cigar. Then they brought us our food.

Lightly roasted chicken in a creamy apricot sauce with fresh vegetables and warm, flaky bread. And Istanbul's signature cup of freshly squeezed orange juice on the side. They sell it everywhere, that orange juice. In street carts and restaurants, they squeeze it right there as you watch. It tastes like a palace in summer. Everything we ate in that city was fresh, though, and that's Istanbul's secret to success. Even the breakfast we had each day at small B&B we stayed in was delicious because it was fresh. Fresh cucumber slices, fresh tomato slices, and fresh bread with a drizzle of honey or some dark, exotic olives. Oatmeal will never quite satisfy me again, I'm afraid.

After we finished that decadent food we just sat there for a while, pretending to be Europeans lingering over lunch rather than confused American tourists who had overeaten, until the waiter stopped by again, and offered to sell us a carpet.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Beginner's Guide to Holiday Films

I make no pretenses about the fact that when it comes to Christmastime Merriment, I'm pretty much a blackbelt. I know a few of you lesser mortals are probably wondering how I do it. But, let's be honest, it isn't a teachable skill.

However, I can and will impart some of my merry-making wisdom to you in the form of a guide, of sorts, of Christmas Films* (which some of you will realize are a key part of the annual festivities as they can and should be watched while decorating trees, baking, cyber-shopping, etc.) So let me break it down for you into some simple do's and don'ts. Ready? Let's begin.

"Smoky Mountain Christmas" starring Dolly Parton and her hair. When it comes to kitschy, corny, twang infused holiday delight, nothing tops Dolly's 1986 classic. This tender, rollicking classic includes such holiday staples as a witch woman, a mountain man, a cottage full of orphans, and John Ritter. But why are you still reading? You should have been sold at "Dolly Parton".
Memorable Quote: "You shouldn't ought to not like people, but if you're going to, he's the one not to like!"-Lorna Davis (Dolly)

"It's a Wonderful Life" starring Jimmy Stewart. I won't beat around the bush here, this movie is aweful. It's about attempted suicide, people. There's your first clue right there. It's about feeling really depressed and deciding to off yourself rather than go on talking with that weird accent that just drives me up a wall. I'll admit that when it comes to Jimmy Stewart and his vocal choices I am nowhere near the bandwagon. Every time he opens his mouth all I really want is for him to stop saying words! However, my antipathy toward the great Mr. Stewart aside (well, not quite aside. Have you seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Yes? My condolences.), the movie itself is just annoying.
Memorable Quote: "What is it you want, Mary? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary." (Or you could just stop talking, dude. Either way.)

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss, narrated by Boris Karloff. Here we have all that is good about holiday films. A green suessian creature plotting grand-theft Christmas. The songs are fantastic, the lyrics profound, and Boris Karloff's narration is creamy, dreamy and devilish good. Also, I defy you not to get a little choked up when the Grinch hears the whos singing after he's taken their toys.
Memorable Quote: (The whole movie is one long memorable quote, people, but for brevity's sake) "Then he got an idea. An awful idea. The Grinch got a wonderful, *awful* idea!"

"How the Grinch Stole Christmas" starring Jim Carrey. Some movies are bad, some movies are aweful, and some movies should be burned over a ceremonial fire. This thing, this twisted, horrible, mangled reproduction of a Christmas classic is a sin against nature and must be stopped!
Memorable Quote: Nope. Not doing it. I refuse to memorialize a single line from this sick, sick travesty.

"The Muppet Christmas Carol" with Michael Caine. I realize that I lost most of you when I dared insult the oh-so-glorious "It's a Wonderful Life" and you know, that's fine. Those of you that did stick around are now scratching your heads about this one. It isn't classic Muppets, after all. And if you've got a problem with odd accents well....Michael Caine? And I'll tell you, when it comes to this choice even I'm a little confused. But I love this movie. I once watched it on repeat for three days straight while writing 10 final papers for various anthropology courses in college. And still I love it. Still I laugh at the chickens and the rats. Still I love to hate the scenes with Miss Piggy. And still I crack up everytime Michael Caine tries to sing along with the final chorus. Accents aside, Dude cannot sing.
Memorable Quote: "You will love is the AMERICAN WAY! (whispering from Gonzo) is the BRITTISH WAY!" -Sam Eagle

Pretty much any other version of the Christmas Carol, particularly ones starring Jim Carrey (because, after Grinch-Gate, I'm boycotting any and all of his holiday films for now until the end of time. Amen)

"Polar Express" starring Tom Hanks. First of all, kudos to the people who were able to convince Tom Hanks to step into a dimentional realignment machine in order to trap him in a two-dimensional animated movie. The result is just how I like this sort of thing: two parts unnecessary and one part creepy. I like this movie, folks. I just do. I like how it makes me want to drink hot chocolate and ask for a single sleigh bell for Christmas. I like how Josh Groban makes me want to "Believe in what your hear is saying, hear the melody it's playing". I like how Tom Hanks manages to play at least three totally different characters exactly the same way.
Memorable Quote: "The thing about trains... it doesn't matter where they're going. What matters is deciding to get on." -The Conductor (aka Tom Hanks trapped in virtual form)

On the Fence:
"Elf" staring Will Ferrel. I'm conflicted on this one. At first blush it should be pretty cut and dry. Watching Will Ferrel caricature a developmentally disabled person shouldn't be on anyone's holiday to-do list. I still don't see how growing up with what appear to be decently mature elves has somehow stunted his cognitive progress. His elf-dad seems to be a fairly normal guy, after all. And yet, still I watch it with my husband. Still I laugh a bit when he launches himself at the tree to hang the star. I cringe at the many humor attempts that fall flat, true. And Ms. Deschanel looks far better as a brunette (Why the blond here, folks? Why? She can't be the most beautiful person Buddy has ever seen if her hair isn't the color of rancid mayonnaise?). So I don't know. I just don't.
Memorable Quote: "Wow, you're fast. I'm glad I caught up to you. I waited 5 hours for you. Why is your coat so big? So, good news - I saw a dog today. Have you seen a dog? You probably have." -Buddy

"Mr. Krueger's Christmas" -Starring Jimmy Stewart. Because the only way to truly appreciate the creepiness that is Jimmy Stewart is to watch him in this vaguely horrific short film wherein he plays an almost, but not quite, child molester. Done and done.
Memorable Quote:
Clarissa's Mother: Did Clarissa leave her mittens here ?
Mr. Krueger: Oh, yes, yes they're right here.
Clarissa: You hung them on the Christmas tree ?
Mr. Krueger: Well, you remind me of everything good about Christmas so I just couldn't think of a better place. Here... there you are.  

*This is by no means a comprehensive list. So when I fail to mention your favorite holiday film, don't go thinking it's a personal insult. (It probably is, but there's no need to dwell on it)