A Christmas Song I Love

I love “O Holy Night.”

I write that unironically. I’m not a Christian. Heck, I’m even skeptical of the historicity of Jesus, and even if he were historical I doubt there’s any truth to the Nativity story as related in Christian mythology. Yet, in the pantheon of Christmas songs, “O Holy Night,” a song explicitly about the night Jesus was born, ranks highly for me. I have 31 different versions, running over 2 hours consecutively, on my hard drive. When the song hits me right, when it’s done sensitively, I get weepy. I find it quite moving.

But not the Arcade Fire version. They sound like they were drunk off their asses, and it’s hard to take it at all seriously.

What about “O Holy Night” do I find so appealing? The tune, certainly. It’s a lovely tune, an evocative tune, whether it’s done on cellos, guitars, piano, harp, even bagpipes. There’s a gentleness to the tune that carries you along and sweeps you away, and it’s hard to believe that the tune is only 150 years old instead of something that’s existed forever.

Also, though Jesus isn’t my myth and Christianity isn’t my belief, I find the chorus — more specifically, the first refrain, the part that begins “Fall on your knees!” — quite powerful.

Such is the power of art. It doesn’t have to be literally true to have an emotional power. There were never Hobbits, nor a Mount Doom or a Ring of Power, yet the ending of The Return of the King leaves me bereft. There was never a Roy Hobbs, he never played baseball for the New York Knights, yet the end of the The Natural (film, I should caution) is simply breathtaking.

In the same way, I can — and do — love “O Holy Night.”

And if you want a really lovely version, I recommend the one by Sleeping at Last. The Eisley version is solid, too.

Christmas Cards for Strangers

I walked into Dallastown this morning and mailed over a dozen Christmas cards, all to people I don't know and have never met.  Madonna and child stamps, my favorite Christmas stamps every year.

The recipients are all distant cousins, all descendants of my great-great-grandfather through his eldest three daughters, two of whom I had no idea even had descendants until recently.  As I researched my genealogy and wandered down lineages, I found names and obituaries.  Those were clues, and clues led to more names and more data, like a puzzle.

I wrote out a short note in each card, scribbled a signature, and wrote a date.  I didn't introduce myself or explain our link.  It's distant enough that it hardly matters.  If they want to get in touch, ask who I am and why I'm sending them a card, the address is on the envelope.  Still, it's an act of random kindness from a stranger.  Maybe one of the recipients had a difficult year or it going through a rough patch, and a kind word from a stranger will make a difference.

That's good enough for me. :)

Adventures in the Kitchen with Cranberry Relish

As a long-time NPR listener, every Thanksgiving I heard about “Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish,” and this year was no exception. Stamberg made it with her granddaughter, and her verdict was, “I’m never tasting it again.”

I’ve never made it, I’ve never had it (I think I’d remember a cranberry relish made with onion and horseradish), and, maybe because I had cranberries on the mind thanks to an Atlantic article on the decline in American cranberry consumption, I decided I’d make it for myself. The recipe was ridiculously simple — five ingredients (four of which I already had at home), grind, mix, and freeze. Plus, I had a blender I’d never used. The stage was set!

And so it was that last night, after work, I ground the raw cranberries (the ingredient I didn’t have) and the onion (which I did) in my blender, then mixed the result with sour cream, sugar, and horseradish. (Why do I have a jar of horseradish in my refrigerator? Because, sometimes, you really need to open up the sinuses, and an easy way to do that is to take half a teaspoon straight.) Then, I needed a container in which to freeze. A decorative candle jar which I had cleaned and scrubbed was close at hand, and then it was done.

Was it “thick, creamy and shocking pink,” as Stamberg wrote, a “Pepto-Bismol pink”? Absolutely. Yes, Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish is strange looking.

The proof was in taking a spoon to what I’d poured in the jar before I froze it.

Wow. That was amazing stuff.

The horseradish and onion makes a nice counterpoint to the cranberry and the sugar. I’m not sure what I’m going to use this for or how I’m going to use it, but it’s really quite good. It has some nice “pop,” and that came through even today when I took a spoonful of the still frozen cranberry relish.

To be honest, I could see myself eating this on its own, straight from the jar. :)

I’m not sure this will become a Thanksgiving tradition, but for this year, I’m glad I have it.

Coloring Christmas

After work I stopped at the grocery store, the Giant off Queen Street, because, obviously, I needed some groceries. Bread, peanut butter, milk, that sort of thing. Life’s essentials.

While I was there, I browsed the magazine rack. There, on the bottom shelf, was a row of adult coloring books. Or, more accurately, magazines. I’m not sure why I stopped to look at them, as I’ve never gotten into the adult coloring book craze. I guess seeing one titled “Coloring Christmas Cats” caught my eye. Next to it was one titled “Coloring Christian Christmas”; its cover featured a snowy New England town, with a banner that read “Peace on Earth” hanging from a church.

I picked up “Coloring Christian Christmas,” mildly curious at its contents, and began to leaf through it. It featured page after page of snowmen, Santa Claus, presents, stockings, snowflakes. Occasionally there would be a lyric from a hymn — “Hark the Herald Angels,” “Angels We Have Heard on High.” Sometimes there would be a single word like “Rejoice.”

One page may have been the Three Wise Men. Another page had an angel, though you could argue it was a Christmas tree topper.

Otherwise, it was roughly 80 pages of secular Christmas traditions.

Surely, I thought, there should be a Nativity scene here. Surely, shepherds watching their flock by night. Surely, a Madonna and Child. Surely, something that justified the title “Coloring Christian Christmas.” No, just a few lines from a few hymns, an angel, and the Three Wise Men.

I’m a fucking heathen, and even I was offended by this. I think the “war on Christmas” is silly in the extreme — there’s a Christian religious festival, and there’s a secular seasonal festival, and they’re called the same damn thing — but I would be completely sympathetic to someone who picked up “Coloring Christian Christmas” and was pissed off that the magazine had a lot to do with Christmas but absolutely nothing to do with religion.

I didn’t even look in “Coloring Christmas Cats.” I wonder if it had any cats in it. For all I know, it’s full of dogs.

Life in Yoe

Yoe is a town wedged between two hills. One hill faces vaguely northwest, the other hill faces vaguely southeast. A creek runs between the two hills, and in the flat plain between them George Street runs from Red Lion to York. A century ago, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Railroad line ran through there as well; the ruins of the station platform are still visible on Pennsylvania Street.

To call Yoe a town is overselling it. There are two used car dealerships, an auto body shop, an auto parts store. It doesn’t have its own ZIP code, sharing one with Dallastown, which is confusing to people as Dallastown and Yoe have the same street names, but those streets are in completely different places.

A photograph of Yoe turned up a few times in my Facebook and Twitter feeds today. The Boston Globe had an article about racial tensions in York County, a year after the presidential election, and the photograph that headed the article and was the article’s thumbnail on social media was of a Confederate battle flag flying in Yoe.

“I know where that is,” I thought. “It’s the house across from the volunteer fire department, a little down George Street from the Methodist church, down towards Red Lion.” The volunteer fire department is my polling station. There’s a judicial election tomorrow. I’ll see it then. It’s no more than half a mile from my apartment.

It’s impossible to miss. Every time I walk to the grocery store, which I like to do on the weekends, I see it. Stand at the corner of George and Main, look toward Red Lion, and there it flies, next to an American flag. I’ve thought about taking a photograph of it. “This is where I live,” such a photograph would say. I’ve sometimes thought about going to the house, knocking on the door, and asking why. “Why do you fly the flag of traitors? What message are you trying to send? That you’re opposed to the federal government? That you’re a racist?” I’d want the conversation to be non-confrontational and non-judgmental, but I know it would turn confrontational and judgmental quickly indeed.

That flag on George Street is only a few months old. It’s only been flying since June or July. I can still remember the feeling of shock, standing on the corner, waiting for the light to change so I could cross, and seeing it there for the first time.

Confederate flags aren’t at all uncommon here. People have them as bumper stickers, like my neighbor in the building across the parking lot from mine. I see them as decorative license plates, like the one I see in Dallastown of the Stars and Bars. They’re flown openly from flagpoles; a house at the corner of my complex has been known to fly one with the Gadsden snake superimposed on the cross of the battle flag.

I’m north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but in many ways, this feels like the most culturally southern place I’ve ever lived, and I went to school in Richmond and lived in Raleigh. I hadn’t known, until I moved here, that York County was a hotbed of Confederate sympathies during the Civil War, that the city of York surrendered to Confederate forces on the eve of the battle of Gettysburg when the Confederate cavalry attempted to seize the bridge across the Susquehanna at Wrightsville.

This is where I live.

Dracula In Space

As was my Halloween tradition, last night I watched a Dracula movie, specifically Hammer’s Dracula Has Risen from the Dead.

The fourth film in Hammer’s Dracula series, and the third that starred Christopher Lee as Dracula, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave sees Christopher Lee’s Dracula seek his revenge on a monsignor who had traveled to Castle Dracula and sealed it with an exorcism and a golden crucifix by seducing the monsignor’s beloved niece and transforming her into his latest bride.

Overall, I thought Dracula Has Risen from the Grave was good. The story was fairly straightforward, the cast wasn’t too large to handle, we spent enough time with several of the characters to make them feel like characters, and the film’s leading ladies, Veronica Carlson and Barbara Ewing, were quite stunning. The conclusion seemed contrived, and I’m still unclear on the geography of the film (something that goes back to Horror of Dracula, the first of the Hammer Draculas), but those are minor quibbles. Who doesn’t want to see Christopher Lee gurning as he’s impaled on a giant crucifix?

Last night, in my dreams, I watched another Hammer Dracula, this one the mid-70s film, The Long Night of Dracula, better known by its American title, Dracula in Space, which I had never seen before.

To be clear, there is no such film. I simply had Christopher Lee’s Dracula on the brain.

In the far-flung future year of 2014, William Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), a veteran of the Saturnian Expedition is the commander of Moonbase UK-1. Shortly after the sun sets on the moonbase, plunging the base into a 14 day long night, an accident with Dracula’s signet ring (for inexplicable reasons an heirloom of one of the members of the crew) resurrects Dracula. And the vampire begins to prey upon the crew of about 100, and he has two weeks to feed until the sun rises again…

One of the setpieces came about fifty minutes in, when two of the crew, one man, one woman, have to leave the base and walk across the lunar surface to replace a fuse on the radio transmitter. The female crewmember, whose name I can’t remember, sees bare human footprints in the lunar dust, and as they pass a rocky outcropping Dracula, not in a spacesuit (he’s undead, so the lunar conditions can’t kill him) attacks them, killing the man (he rips the helmet off and feasts on his blood) and then hypnotising the woman.

Dracula was dispatched by trapping him in the base’s gardens, then the lights (which generated “pure solar radiation”) were turned up to maximum, incinerating Dracula “with the light of a dozen suns.” The signet ring was put on a message rocket and, instead of being fired at Earth, it was shot into the sun, with William Van Helsing saying, “Dracula has died his final death, and the world will forever be rid of his evil,” but the final shot has Dracula’s disembodied voice laughing menacingly.

The film vacillated between cheesy and lurid, something like a cross between a classic Doctor Who “base under siege” story and Barbarella, with Dracula grafted on. I was entertained by the film, but it was also pretty stupid at times.

I’m not sure why I had this dream, maybe because I’d just watched Dracula Has Risen and listened to, a few days earlier, BBC Radio 4’s The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (which is very good and quite lurid). The dream was quite vivid, and when I woke up I was disappointed that The Long Night of Dracula doesn’t actually exist. It should have. Maybe, somewhere in the multiverse, it does.

Swampoodle, in Color!

Two weeks of work, off and on, and I’ve finished my colorization of Washington’s 19th-century baseball field, Swampoodle Grounds.

The “heavy lifting” — the field itself, the McDowell & Sons building over the wall in right-center, a couple of buildings toward center, the sky itself — was accomplished two weeks ago in a blitz of work.  What remained were various touch-ups — telephone (or telegraph) poles, whatever was beyond the right field wall (it was murky to my eyes), some spot colorization of other, more distant buildings to add a touch of color, getting the Capitol dome right.  I’d fire up GIMP, work with it for an hour, and I’d get a little closer to completion.

The most difficult thing, frankly, was determining what, exactly, was beyond the right field wall.  I could see that there was something there, but it was murky, and inverting the original photograph of Swampoodle to make a negative and bring out details didn’t answer any questions.  I could discern trees.  Beyond that?  Uhh…

To my surprise, I discovered that a painting based on the photograph existed, and there I could see clearly what was beyond the wall.  There were buildings, almost certainly the classic Washington rowhouses.  In some ways, what I have there is a “best guess”; edges are fairly indistinct there, and there’s some uncertainty about where buildings end.

The painting also showed that the outfield wall was painted a dark green, but I like the look of leaving it plain black.  The advertisements were also different colors, but I decided to leave those alone.

I wanted cloud cover, partly to cover up how grungy the sky in the original photograph is, so I spent the last two weeks taking pictures of clouds whenever I had a chance and a generally clear shot at them (ie., buildings and power lines out of the way, not to mention no obvious contrails).  I tried various photographs I’d taken, some going back years, but when I would plug them in as a layer none really worked for me.  Maybe they were too oppressive, maybe they looked too weird, maybe, even with Gaussian blur to “age” them, they looked too sharp and too modern.

Thursday I went outside on my lunch break, and I saw clouds that I thought might work.  I snapped a few photos, and when I looked at them at home Thursday night I discovered that they looked very muddy.  The reason?  I had spilled my coffee on the table where my phone was resting that morning, and the coffee had dirtied the lens, resulting in some photos that were blurry and had a yellow-ish tinge.  I took one of the photos, scaled it to the dimensions that matched my work (which added a slight vertical distort), used a Gaussian blur to smudge it some more, and plugged it into my photo.

And it looked right.

I desaturated the original sepia-toned photograph (which makes the colors pop), flattened the image, and it was done.  One hundred and thirty years later, Swampoodle Grounds lived and breathed in color once more.

I keep admiring my handiwork.  I’m really happy with the result.

A Modest Request: A Moratorium on Multi-Doctor Stories

Next week Titan Comics’ Doctor Who: The Lost Dimension comes to an end. The Lost Dimension is an eight chapter multi-Doctor story that features all thirteen Doctors (including John Hurt’s War Doctor), River Song, and the Doctor’s daughter Jenny in one epic storyline with the fate of the universe at stake.

It is also Titan’s third multi-Doctor event in three years.

We Doctor Who fans have been spoiled for multi-Doctor stories the past five years. On television we had “The Day of the Doctor” in 2013 and, at Christmas we’ll see “Twice Upon a Time.” In audio we’ve had The Light at the End, the fiftieth anniversary story with the pre-modern Doctors, and the audio adaptation of Lance Parkin’s Cold Fusion. In comics we’ve had Prisoners of Time, Four Doctors (which actually had six), and this year’s The Lost Dimension, not to mention guest appearances by the twelfth Doctor in the tenth Doctor series and the eighth Doctor mini-series.

I’m sure I’m forgetting something.

I should note, Supremacy of the Cybermen is not a multi-Doctor story; yes, there are multiple Doctors in the story, but they never met or interacted. Similarly, the War Doctor, though he appeared in the eleventh Doctor comics, never met the eleventh Doctor, though his companion Alice did. These aren’t true multi-Doctor stories. Rather, they’re stories with multiple Doctors.

The point is, a multi-Doctor story, which used to be a rare thing that happened every few years feels like a regular occurrence. Tie-ins, like the comic books and the audio dramas, make staging a multi-Doctor story far easier than they were on television, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it over and over, hammering it into the ground. Seeing different incarnations of the Doctor interacting, the same person but different bodies, is fun, don’t get me wrong. But multi-Doctor were also special because of the rarity.

They’re so common now that they’re no longer special.

I wouldn’t mind if something new and interesting were done with bringing multiple Doctors together. Maybe the fate of the universe doesn’t have to be at stake. Maybe the Doctors don’t need to have their memories magically disappear.

Right now, I’m feeling multi-Doctor burnout. And considering there’s another multi-Doctor story coming out this year, the aforementioned “Twice Upon a Time” at Christmas, being burned out on multiple Doctors doing the Doctor Who thing isn’t a great place to be.

Dinner Time Disappointments

Ever see a recipe online that you think looks good, but when you make it for dinner it’s really quite disappointing?

Yeah, that was me, last night.

I won’t go into the gruesome details of what it was, but here are the essential facts…

Facebook shows people pages their friends have liked on the chance that you might like it, too. Friday afternoon it showed me a recipe from a site that several friends had liked (the site, not the recipe), and the picture looked quite appealing. It was a regional pasta dish I’d never heard of, but there are lots of things I’ve never heard of. “I’ll give this a shot!” I said, printing off the recipe.

The grocery list was fairly simple, and during A Prairie Home Companion I went to work. It was straightforward. Saute this, brown that, dump in a jar of tomato sauce, put in a baking dish.

It didn’t occur to me that the recipe called for no seasoning whatsoever. If I had realized, I would almost certainly have used some, because when I took the dish out of the oven it was bland and lacking in flavor. The judges on Chopped would chop this without remorse.

Putting some parmesan on top helped.

Of course, now I have seven cintainers of this in my refrigerator, so I’m set on dinners for the rest of the week.


Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Star Trek’s The Guardian of Forever

Last year, to coincide with Star Trek‘s fiftieth anniversary, Mattel released a line of Star Trek Mega Bloks sets. A few years previous, Hasbro had a line of LEGO-compatible Star Trek KRE-O sets, based on the Chris Pine/Zach Quinto films, and I thought those were well done, even if I did rebuild the miniature Enterprise to make it more Enterprise-like. I saw the Star Trek Mega Bloks in stores last year and was curious about them but hadn’t bought any of them, so when I saw them at Ollie’s on Saturday I went ahead and picked up two, the Guardian of Forever set and the Klingon D-7 set.

I must admit to a certain wry feeling when buying the Guardian of Forever set, knowing that somewhere in suburban Los Angeles, Harlan Ellison was screaming into the night, “I gotcher Scotty right here!” with every set that was bought and built. :)

Of the various off-brand LEGO construction sets on the market, Mega Bloks has been the brand I least like working with. My niece had a number of Thomas the Tank Engine sets that I liked building with her, while my sister and brother-in-law were much less fond of, but those were in a larger-scale format. In the standard LEGO size and style, they have interesting licenses, but the bricks feel strange and don’t always fit together well. Continue reading “Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Star Trek’s The Guardian of Forever”