Nollaig Chridheil!

On Christmas Eve I went to a church service.

No, I’m not abandoning my atheism, nor am I plagued by doubts. The reasons are far more interesting than that.

In June, I wrote about the walking route I take through Dallastown and how, when I passed a church on Main Street, I noted with approval that they had a sign out front wishing Muslims “a blessed Ramadan.” I thought that was a wonderful message of tolerance and welcome and one very necessary in these times of xenophobia and nationalism. It was something to celebrate.

Not everyone in the community saw things that way. One school board member took offense to the sign, he railed against it on social media, he left an angry phone message with the church, and the church found itself under siege by an angry community.

I wrote the church a letter of support, and I decided that I would attend a service there to show support for their message of inclusiveness.

And then, because I’m a lazy jerk who enjoyed his Sunday mornings of NPR and coffee and the occasional baseball game, I didn’t follow through with my promise to myself to attend.

In the middle of the week, the promise still lingering, “What about a Christmas service?” I thought. I wasn’t traveling this year to see family due to my work schedule, I had no plans for the weekend, so the moment seemed opportune.

And so it was that I went to St. Paul’s United Church of Christ for their Christmas Eve service. Continue reading “Nollaig Chridheil!”

An Angel Tree Package for the Office

As the company has done for a number of years, a Christmas tree was put up in the lobby and, a few days after Thanksgiving, Angel Tree stockings were hung.

I had decided long ago to participate in the Angel Tree program this year and, when I was passing by the lobby area on other business and saw they were up, I stopped and spent a few minutes deciding upon which one to pick.

I chose, similarly to last year, a boy, eight years-old. I signed my name to a sign-up sheet on the front desk, and, with a spring in my step, back to work I went.

There wasn’t any guidance with the stockings as there were with the Angel Tree tags a few years ago. Those tags indicated ideas for toys and clothing sizes. I had to operate blindly, but I was fine with that. You see, I already had a half-dozen items at home for my Angel Tree recipient. I wouldn’t say I had a plan for the recipient, per se, but I knew this was something I wanted to do, and since I knew it was something I wanted to do I saw no reason not to start buying items. And if there had been guidance, the recipient was still going to receive the things I had bought.

I didn’t have a budget. Instead, I was going to buy strategically. Like last year, I was going to do a box of stuff. If I was out at a store and I saw something that intrigued me, I would buy it. In October, then, I started buying items here and there, so by the time the stockings were hung on the tree I had a box of stuff ready to wrap.

That was my strategy, then, and when I was done the recipient would receive a wrapped box, he would unwrap it to find the box was filled with more wrapped boxes, and he would then unwrap another half-dozen interesting things. An eight year-old, receiving an Angel Tree package from the Salvation Army, probably wouldn’t be looking at the brightest Christmas. Every little bit helps.

With the Angel Tree gifts due at the office on Monday morning, Wednesday night after work I sat down and started wrapping. I gathered up the wrapping paper out of my coat closet — most of it Peanuts related — and found my Scotch tape. plugged in my Christmas tree, and queued up Christmas-themed episodes of The Thistle & Shamrock to really get the festive spirit going. Time to go to work. :)

This is a complete overview of the items I had on hand:

For those who wonder about these things, the part of my living room bookshelf you can see holds part of my Beatles library. (There are more Beatles books in my bedroom. And my dining room. I have Beatles books everywhere.) From the left, there’s Philip Norman’s Shout!, then Mark Hertsgaard’s A Day in the Life, and next to it is Bob Spitz’s biography of the Beatles. Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In is on that shelf, as is Ray Coleman’s Lennon. The missing book (seven spots over from the left) is Ian McDonald’s Revolution in the Head Third Edition as that’s presently in my bedroom; I was rereading the entries on “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” recently due to the 15th-anniversary of George Harrison’s death.

Let’s take a look at the items individually, and I will muse upon them as I go.

First up, a Rey puzzle based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Rey puzzle

I also had a Finn puzzle. The Rey and Finn puzzles were actually the last two items I bought for the package.

Finn puzzle

One of the first items I bought was an Australian collection of Peanuts comic strips. I found this at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, and it was all of two dollars. “This is nice,” I thought, and I thought it would make a good Angel Tree gift.

Peanuts collection

Also found at Ollie’s, but not on the same trip, nor the same Ollie’s, was this Matchbox-esque car! They had all of these baseball die-cast cars, and I couldn’t find any for any team I liked. If I wanted the Phildelphia Phillies or the Texas Rangers or the Miami Marlins or the Houston Astros, they had plenty of those. Cubs or Nationals? Heaven forfend! But they also had this 2012 World Series car. “Why not?” I said. “Kids love Matchbox cars.” And yes, I’m well aware that this one is by Lionel, not Matchbox. :)

World Series Lionel car

Next up, a coloring book! I picked this up on the same Ollie’s trip where I picked up the Peanuts collection.

Justice League coloring book

Coloring books require crayons! This was one of the last items I bought. I picked these up at the 5 Below across the street from Diamond’s offices.


While I was at 5 Below, I also picked up this Spider-Man action figure. Kids love Spider-Man, and kids love action figures. :)

Spider-Man action figure

A DVD! This is the Babar movie from a few years ago. (Come to think of it, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a live-action Babar movie along the lines of the recent Paddington Bear.) When I was young, I loved Babar, so this was an easy choice. I think it was three dollars at Big Lots.

Babar movie

Kids need stuff to build with, and I was intrigued by this Mega Bloks set. This also came from Ollie’s, and it was the most expensive item in the box (at seven dollars). I got this at the same time as the World Series Lionel die-cast car.

Mega Bloks Jeep

And we need a book!

Also from the Ollie’s trip where I get the Mega Bloks set, I found a book on baseball for young readers — Michelle Green’s A Strong Right Arm, a biography of Negro League pitcher Mamie Johnson, a woman who played for the Indianapolis Clowns in the 1950s. I read it after I bought it — it’s not very long and it’s written for young readers — and I quite enjoyed it. The book talks about growing up in the segregated South in the 1940s, discovering one’s talents, and pursuing one’s dreams. Though I don’t know who is receiving the book, I saw important messages in the book for everyone.

A Strong Right Arm

And with that, my wrapping was done!

Oh, I still had the Sega All-Stars die-cast of Tails, but I had no idea how to wrap that due to the shape of the package and, as I would soon discover, I wouldn’t have had room for it in the box.

Pile of presents

Then I selected a Christmas card out of my collection and began to pen a letter from Santa Claus.

This is something I’ve done with the two Angel Tree packages I’ve done. I was inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, and the first two I did were quite elaborate. They weren’t illustrated like Tolkien’s — I’m a shite artist — but I spent time talking about what life was like for Santa Claus.

For this card I wrote about how the elves were loading the toys in the sleigh, how the gnomes were making the final pre-flight checks, and how Mrs. Claus was shoving Santa out the door. Christmas, after all, is the one time of year he gets him out of the house. :)

The card written, I filled the Diamond shipping box, used a little bit of filler paper, taped it up, and wrapped.

Wrapped box

Again, for people who care about such things, the bookshelf to the right is my graphic novels bookshelf. It’s largely alphabetical, and you can see my Hellboy and Invisibles collection at the top (there’s a Batman shelf above it), Lucifer and The Maxx on the next shelf, and my Sandman boxed set below that. On the bookshelf to the left, there are Doctor Who books visible at the top (with a shelf of Sherlock Holmes books above that), Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books (in their Dark Horse editions) and Michael Moorcock’s Elric books (in their Del Rey trade paperback editions of a few years ago) on the shelf below that, and Fantagraphics’ Peanuts Every Sunday collections and my Harry Potter collection, with a selection of Panini’s Doctor Who collections in between.

I didn’t keep track of what I spent, but it was right around thirty dollars.

I killed one roll of wrapping paper. I had bought a new roll just in case — Peanuts, unsurprisngly — then never used it. The roll of Scotch tape was much diminished when I was finished. And I limited myself to a single bottle of Highland Brewing‘s Oatmeal Porter as I wrapped.

Satisfied with my work, I sat on my couch and listened to Archie Fisher talk about Christmas in Glasgow on The Thistle & Shamrock.

Thursday morning I took the package into the office and dropped it off with Human Resources. I had done my duty, I had brightened a stranger’s Christmas (or would, two weeks hence), and I could get on with the business of sending my publications to press.

Publishing. It is merciless with its deadlines. :)

Love Actually: Watching the Film for the First Time

Last night I watched Love Actually for the first time.

I’ve had it on DVD since forever — I bought pre-owned from the EB Games store I managed back in 2005; I still had the price stickers with the date we took it back in trade inside the case — and I’ve never watched it. I may have watched the beginning, as Bill Nighy trying to sing the lyrics to “Christmas Is All Around” and screwing it up, was familiar to me, but nothing else about the film was.

Love Actually DVD coverWhy last night? For one thing, it’s reputedly a “Christmas classic,” largely by virtue of taking place at Christmas time, a low bar that even Batman Returns easily surmounts. Mainly, though, my friends seem to fall into two groups — one that loves the film without reservation, one that despises the film without mercy. Then I read an article about the film yesterday — the thesis was that one of the characters was a sex robot — and I decided that was so weird that I needed to have an informed opinion about the film. I watched the film. I even watched the deleted scenes, complete with writer/director Richard Curtis’ introductions. If I were going to watch the film, I was going to get the whole experience.

My opinion? Love Actually is a very well-made terrible film. It’s not as sexually problematic as Curtis’ About Time was, but that’s a low bar to clear and not a reason to commend Love Actually.

For something that billed itself as “The Ultimate Romantic Comedy,” I didn’t find a lot of amusement in it. Rowan Atkinson as the jewelry salesman, now that was a funny bit, especially as someone who has worked retail and dealt with anxious and rushed customers at Christmas. I was somewhat charmed by the end of the Colin Firth story. Hugh Grant going up and down the street looking for his dismissed assistant’s home was amusing in that amusing Hugh Grant way. And though it wasn’t funny, the Liam Neeson/Thomas Brodie-Sangster story was nice. I generally even liked Emma Thompson’s storyline, which also wasn’t particularly comedic.

What I didn’t like…

  • The horny douchebag who goes to Wisconsin to have an orgy with a bunch of strangers. Really, what was the point of that? Why did the movie waste any time on it? It doesn’t connect with any of the central plots of the film. The assembly cut of the film was 3 and a half hours, and Curtis struggled to get it down to a watchable level. This entire plotline could have been excised. Boom, there’s fifteen minutes.
  • The Keira Knightley plotline. The actual wedding was charming, with the band popping up everywhere to play “All You Need Is Love.” “That’s really sweet,” I thought. After that, it’s about a stalkerish creep who gets rewarded with a kiss for being a stalkerish creep. I could ask the same questions I asked of the horny douchebag storyline — the story doesn’t connect with any of the characters in other plots, so why waste the time on it? I understand that it was supposed to connect more closely — the stalker owns (or works in) the gallery where Alan Rickman has his Christmas party and he knows the other woman in the Rickman storyline — but in the released film it doesn’t connect elsewhere in a meaningful way and becomes a superfluous waste of time.
  • The Colin Firth story, believe it or not, despite finding the ending of it somewhat charming. The story is cute, don’t get me wrong, but it also doesn’t intersect with the other stories. And the “We hate you, Uncle Jamie” scene — were these people we were supposed to know? Were we supposed to care about this? In the film as edited, it wasn’t the right scene to get the story back to the Portuguese maid in France. And, unfortunately, the lack of connection to other characters makes it superfluous.
  • The Martin Freeman story, though interesting in an absurdist sort of way — two body doubles for movie sex scenes find love on the movie set — had the common problem of being disconnected from the other storylines. Why are we investing time on this? Did they know any of the other characters? They’re at the Christmas pageant at the end, but just because they’re there it doesn’t mean they matter or are signifcant to the larger plotlines.
  • Alan Rickman. I don’t buy his storyline because, even as late as the Christmas party, he seems wholly oblivious to Mia’s obvious lust for him. And even when he leaves to go Christmas shopping with Emma Thompson, when Mia tells him to buy her something, he is basically, “Why?” That’s not being flirtatious and cryptic. That’s being, “What planet are you on?” If there were problems in the Rickman/Thompson marriage that made Rickman open to cheating (or, at a minimum, contemplate cheating) on his wife, the film doesn’t give us even a hint at that. Rickman, in the few scenes we see of him with Thompson, appears to be a loving husband and devoted father. There is so much of this story missing that it’s difficult to accept.
  • Hugh Grant as (essentially) David Cameron. (He’s not Cameron, obviously, but he’s clearly a Tory; he keeps a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in his office.) Let me be clear — Grant’s performance is a delight. I enjoyed Grant in this role. My problem is, what was the great issue between Britain and America? (And I don’t mean a smarmy Billy Bob Thornton appearing to make a move on his assistant.) What is this great political crisis? What is the issue? I wanted to know more about that. Because without that, it comes across as Grant forces a diplomatic crisis with the United States because he thinks he saw Billy Bob horndogging on his crush rather than as a genuine difference of opinion between the transatlantic allies. There’s a really interesting story lurking here in the background, and Curtis completely ignores it.

Conceptually, I think I understand what Richard Curtis wanted to do with Love Actually — he wanted to do a supercut of a bunch of different romantic comedies and stuff them into one single film. I admit there are interesting story fragments scattered throughout Love Actually. Most probably couldn’t support a film of their own; I probably wouldn’t watch a film about the numbskull who goes off to Wisconsin to have a sex party with a bunch of total strangers, and Keira Knightley as a newlywed who’s the object of lust by her husband’s best friend probably wouldn’t have a lot of appeal to me, either. But there are really too many fragments for this film to support; it wanders down pointless tangents, wasting time so that none of the stories can stand on their own. The stories have beginnings and ends, but there aren’t a lot of middles because there isn’t room for the middles. If they were ever filmed, they were edited out. Some filmmakers, like Terrence Malick, find their films in the editing room, junking entire plotlines and hours of footage. Love Actually, conversely, was lost in the editing room. In attempting to keep as much of his vision as possible, Curtis sabotaged his own film.

I could see the outlines of a good film in Love Actually. If I were editing this film — I would pare it down to the Grant, Thompson/Rickman, and Neeson storylines. I’d make Neeson’s late wife Joanna the younger sister of Grant and Thompson, rather than have Neeson and Thompson as friends. There would be more room to develop each storyline properly, so there would be more depth to Grant as the Prime Minister, more grounding for the martial state of Thompson and Rickman as well as insight into the parenting of their children, and more bonding between Neeson and Brodie-Sangster. (I did find myself wondering where Brodie-Sangster’s mother was, since Neeson was his stepfather.) The result would be a much stronger film, a much more focused film. We would have more time with a smaller cast of characters, and we would have more time to care about them and their problems. More importantly, we would have time for actual conflict, and conflict is what drives drama.

I can see why people love the film. Love Actually is well-made, there are lots of interesting actors. Sometimes they even get to do interesting things. But it’s a very problematic film, a film that doesn’t work, and that’s why I didn’t care for it.


MyPhoto01Merry Christmas, everyone!

Yes, I’m an atheist. Yes, I use the words “Merry Christmas” unironically. I’m waiting for Sean Hannity’s brain to explode. :lol:

As many of you know, I’m not religious. Christmas holds no spiritual meaning for me. As a mythicist, I even doubt that the events Christians celebrate today actually happened. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and don’t celebrate the spirit of Christmas. I listen to Christmas music year round and, when done well, I find it moving. The decorations bring life to this lifeless time (which is why I think winter becomes depressing by mid-January as the decorations come down). To me, Christmas is a time when we reflect on what’s truly important in our lives. No, not material goods, though that’s certainly the way it feels every year. To me, Christmas is when we remember our friends, our loved ones, and our common humanity. To me, Christmas is a time of life, renewal, friendship, and love.

And also Kimar kidnapping Santa Claus and taking him to Mars, where Voldar learns the true meaning of Christmas. Or at least gets attacked by rampaging toys.

So on this Christmas Day, I want to say that I love and appreciate each and every one of you reading this. Some of you I knew in school. Some of you I have worked with, either now or in the past. Some of you I know through conventions. Some of you I’ve never met but thanks to the wonders of the Internet we’ve forged bonds. And some of you don’t fit any of those categories. Nonetheless, each and every one of you has contributed to my life and made it better. You have been light in the darkness. You are important. And you are valued.

Whatever holiday you’re celebrating today — Christmas, Winterval, Yule, even Doctormas for the Whovians — take a moment and reflect on the people that are important to you, the people who have made you better, the people you love and appreciate. That’s my holiday wish to you.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Whatever you do today — go to the movies, watch Doctor Who, etc. — I hope today is a wonderful one for each and every one of you. :)

A New(ish) Beatle-esque Christmas Album

Among the podcasts I listen to regularly, one I particularly enjoy is Things We Said Today, a weekly podcast of Beatles discussion with Ken Michaels, Steve Marinucci, Al Sussman, and Allan Kozinn. A year ago, the podcast changed its focus from Beatles news to a weekly theme, and this week’s episode dicussed the Beatles’ Christmas work, from the annual fan club discs (which still have not been officially released by Apple) and “Christmas Time Is Here Again” to the Beatles’ solo holiday efforts — John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” Ringo Starr’s album I Wanna Be Santa Claus, and George Harrison’s New Years song “Ding Dong.”

In discussing the works, the panel gave Ringo’s I Wanna Be Santa Claus its proper due. It’s a Ringo Starr album that happens to have a Christmas theme (much like Carbon Leaf’s Christmas Child, come to think of it), and it’s among his most enjoyable albums of the last twenty years. They were also quite positive about the other songs, and I learned that John’s “Happy Xmas” uses the tune of an English folk song about a racehorse, “Stewball.” The things I didn’t know!

harkThey also talked a little bit about some Beatle-esque Christmas albums, in particular The Fab Four’s Hark! and Rubber Band’s Beatmas, both of which I discussed here a number of years ago. (At that time, Hark! was a two-disc release.) Both bands took the hooks of Beatles songs, and used them to interpret a classic Christmas song in a Beatle-y style. One song of note is The Fab Four’s “Dear Santa,” which reinterpets a song Ringo Starr wrote and recorded for I Wanna Be Santa Claus in the style of Paul McCartney’s “Oh Darling” from Abbey Road. Also, The Fab Four’s “Little Drummer Boy” was used in an episode of House; this song was in the style of Abbey Road‘s “Sun King.” (For a complete list of what draws from what, I broke down The Fab Four and Rubber Band albums in posts over the years.

There is another that I found on iTunes a few years ago — St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band. It leaves me feeling “meh.”

In my opinion, The Fab Four’s Hark! is definitely worth getting. I love the version of “The First Noël” on the latest edition; it riffs on “Let It Be” and uses both George Harrison guitar solos. Other standouts include “What Child Is This?” (in the style of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) and “Jingle Bells” (in the style of “Tomorrow Never Knows”). If you can only buy one, that’s the one to buy.

I bring all of this up because this week’s Things We Said Today alerted me to a new-ish entry in the genre of Beatle-esque Christmas music — Abbey Road Christmas.

They cautioned that it wasn’t great. I started a few Google searches anyway. I could find YouTube videos quite easily, such as this Beatle-esque take on John’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” as if sung by Ringo with harmony vocals by Paul:

abbey-road-christmasBut this didn’t put me close to finding Abbey Road Christmas. Amazon wasn’t helpful. eBay had no idea.

Somehow — and I can’t tell you how this happened — I ended up striking gold on a foreign version of Google Play. And what I discovered is that there were two albums — Abbey Road Christmas, by the British Invasion All-Stars and A Christmas Tribute to the Beatles, by the Abbey Road Xmas Ensemble — and, from playing the sound clips and comparing them to the YouTube videos, they seemed to be almost the same. The difference, hence the “almost,” is that A Christmas Tribute had thirty tracks instead of Abbey Road Christmas‘s twenty-five. Both albums were the same price — just under ten dollars — so I bought A Christmas Tribute to the Beatles.

I’ve listened to the album thrice now — yesterday and today at the office (as background while I was working) and yesterday evening at home.

christmas-tributeIt’s not bad, by any means. The Beatles soundalikes — whoever the anonymous musicians behind the “Abbey Road Xmas Ensemble” and the “British Invasion All-Stars” art — are maybe better at evoking the idea of the Beatles than imitating the Beatles. There’s certainly a sound to the music that sounds Beatles-derived, and the occasional song directly uses some Beatles hooks (like a cover of Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone” that riffs on “Let It Be”). It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s not trying to be.

What it is, though, is interminable. The thirty tracks run 90 minutes total, and of the 30 tracks, nine of them are Beatles covers. (The 25-track version, Abbey Road Christmas, has five Beatles covers, by comparison. And one fewer version of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” as well.) The brain just goes numb. This is the kind of album that requires some DIY moxie — figure out the tracks you like and make a playlist of those in your mp3 player of choice, skipping entirely over the lesser tracks and Beatles covers. Whittled down to 12 tracks and a 40-minute running time, this could really soar.

There’s really no reason to buy Abbey Road Christmas; you get all of the same material, plus five more tracks, when you buy A Christmas Tribute to the Beatles, for the same price. I do like the cover art for Abbey Road Christmas a little more, but that’s a purely aesthetic thing, and I’m prone to being silly over aesthetic things like that. The albums also aren’t new; Abbey Road Christmas was released (according to Google Play) in 2010, and A Christmas Tribute the year after. But they are new to me, and I imagine they would be new to you, the reader, as well.

I don’t feel I wasted my ten dollars by any means. I may not revisit this album for another eleven months, and it won’t supplant The Fab Four’s Hark! in my esteem, but it will certainly be a nice complement. There are some nice tracks here, especially “Merry Christmas Everyone” (a song I was wholly unfamiliar with, it should be admitted), and, setting aside the Beatles covers, A Christmas Tribute to the Beatles is properly festive. :)

Link Round-Up: December 21

Here are some things I read today that interested me.

Link Round-Up: December 14

I am inaugurating a new blog feature — a mostly-daily link round-up of things I read and found interesting.

It’s primarily as much for my benefit as it is yours, the reader’s. I see something, I have thoughts, and then I forget about it or, worse, post a Tweet with the link and then never think about it again. The thing is, I’ll think six months later, “Hey, wait, I read some article way back when,” only then I can’t remember quite exactly what it was.

These link round-ups will be eclectic because I have eclectic interests. This one covers Robert Plant, China, and Christmas songs.

Some days I might have two or three links. Some days I might have ten or more. It’s a matter of what interests me that day.

I’m using a WordPress plugin for this. It’s one I’ve had for a while, as I liked the concept of it, but I’ve never used. I suspect it may need some coding work; it was released a few years ago, then abandoned, and I’ve noticed that something about it doesn’t quite work. That’s something I’ll need to look at.

For our inaugural round-up…

This Year’s Angel Tree Package

Last week was… not the best.

I should clarify. It wasn’t bad. It was simply stressful. And hectic. And tense. And all of the things that a week that where the catalog and orders go to press usually is.

Thankfully, the week ended with the Nerd Prom — the Employee Appreciation Party (or the Christmas Party) — and after the week that had been, the Nerd Prom was muchly needed.

Last week, the Christmas tree in the office lobby was put up, and it was decorated, as it always is, with stockings for the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program.

I did the Angel Tree for the first time three years ago — and enjoyed it — but for various reasons, mainly not checking the tree at the right time, I didn’t the last two years.

As I walked past the tree Wednesday afternoon — or was it Tuesday? — I looked at the stockings on the tree, saw one for a “Boy Age 7,” and took it. My week had been overwhelming to some extent, and the thought of helping someone who needed help I saw as a way of balancing the karmic scales.

(Yes, the Salvation Army sucks, and there are sound reasons for never, ever associating with them, but there’s also a seven year-old boy who needs something for Christmas. I can overlook the Salvation Army’s problematic aspects if I can use them to help a person.)

Unlike three years ago, where I had a hang tag that had a short want list and clothing sizes, all I had to go on this year was “Boy Age 7.” I then got some clarification from Human Resources about whether or not I had to use the stocking; after all, three years ago I didn’t. I was told that I could put anything in whatever I wanted; the little bit to identify the recipient was all that was necessary, and it needed to be visible. I could work with that.

Clothing was out — I had no idea what size to buy for, and I didn’t want to take a chance of buying the wrong size. “A gift receipt!” you’re thinking, and I considered that, but then I thought through the problem — would this child have an adult who able and willing to go to the store I bought the clothing from to exchange it? I sadly realized that wasn’t an assumption I could make.

I settled on following the gameplan from three years ago — buy a bunch of small, inexpensive stuff, wrap it individually, then box it in a Diamond shipping box and wrap that.

Let’s see what I did.


That’s the stuff, except for three things that I left on my coffee table, pre-wrapping.


I decided early on that I wanted to get my Angel Tree recipient some coloring books. And I did — I found two at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet that I thought would work. One was a Spider-Man coloring book, the other was a Star Wars Rebels coloring book. Coloring books require crayons, so I picked up a box of crayons at Big Lots Saturday night before the Nerd Prom.


Also picked up at Big Lots on Saturday night, this set of Batman-themed Hot Wheels cars!


Friday morning I stopped at Target before work to buy Coldplay’s newest (and possibly final) album, A Head Full of Dreams. I saw this LEGO set and picked it up at the same time. (It also almost got put back when I couldn’t find the Coldplay album. I eventually located it; even though it was release day, it had been banished to the back of an endcap. Thank you, Coldplay, for being there!)

Not pictured, there was also an off-brand LEGO-compatible building set of a fighter jet that I found at Big Lots. It was a decent sized set, about 160 pieces. This gave him two things to build and play with — the TIE Fighter and a fighter jet. I, personally, was more interested in the road construction crew set Big Lots had — it had a concrete truck! — but since I’d already purchased the TIE Fighter, I wanted something else air-related so they could dogfight.


I thought my recipient needed puzzles. I bought three. One was a lenticular Avengers puzzle, and then I bought these two Star Wars puzzles.


I wanted to give him a book of some sort, but I had no idea what to give him. (For Christmas when I was seven, my parents gave me a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The year before, so when I was six, or it may actually have been the year before, they gave me The Chronicles of Narnia. These weren’t helpful touchpoints.)

I saw this book, The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Favorite Folk Songs, at Ollie’s, and I was instantly taken by it. It’s a picture book, and two dozen classic folk songs are printed and illustrated. Plus, there’s a CD of Peter Yarrow (the Peter of Peter, Paul, and Mary) performing the song. It, too, was the sort of thing my parents would have given me at that age.

Not pictured, I also bought a book on the Smurfs at Ollies. It was a cute introduction to the characters.


This I pulled from my personal collection. Patrick Mconnell’s Mutts, which chronicles the adventures of the cat Mooch and the dog Earl, is one of my favorite comic strips, and it would be the right speed for a seven year-old.

Not pictured, there was also a Transformers calendar that I bought at Dollar Tree. Also not pictured (and not wrapped, because there was no good way to wrap it) was the first issue of Titan Magazines’ Star Wars Rebels magazine; this was left on the giveaway table at the office a few weeks ago, and I decided to pass it on.


And here’s the resulting wrapped packages.

I then sat down and wrote out by hand a short letter from Santa Claus to the little boy about the important things in life. Then I discovered that I no longer have any idea how to write the word “Santa” in cursive. (I can do my signature. Otherwise, I’ve forgotten cursive altogether.)


I didn’t have a lot of room left over, and I couldn’t have fit anything else into the box even if I’d wanted to.


I taped up the box then wrapped it in A Charlie Brown Christmas paper that I also bought at Big Lots on Saturday night.

This morning I took the box into work, taped the necessary identifying materials to one side, and turned the package over to Human Resources.

All told, not counting the Mutts book out of my personal library, this came in under thirty dollars. The most expensive things were the Peter Yarrow book and the LEGO-esque jet fighter; each of these were five dollars. My goal was to buy strategically, to get a lot of things, and I’m sure there’s stuff there that I’m sure he’ll enjoy. :)

I can’t fix the world. Sometimes, in my darker moments, I’m not even sure I can fix myself. I can make things better for one person, though, at least for one day. I’ll count that as a win.

Merry Christmas, little boy. :)

Cloudy With a Chance of Coding

Over the past week, in spare moments here and there, I’ve been working on a WordPress project — a Christmassy theme.

I used to throw up a Christmas theme on the blog in December. For two or three years, back around 2007 and 2008, I used Brian Gardner‘s “Wonderland” theme. I enjoyed spreading some seasonal cheer that way. :)

In 2012, Automattic (the company behind WordPress) started releasing annual Christmas themes, beginning with Cheer. I used that one in 2012, but the themes for 2013 (Shine) and 2014 (Together) didn’t do a great deal for me, so my holiday tradition fell by the wayside.

I thought about resurrecting the tradition, such as it was, by putting Cheer back up for the month of December. It would need a few modifications under the hood, so that it would work with the modifications I made to Hitchcock.

I’m still undecided if I’m going to use it after Thanksgiving, but the project is done.

As for what I’m using currently — Hitchcock, which I like a lot — there are two more things on my to-do list that I’m still thinking about.

One of those two things I’m undecided how I want it to look. Do I want to do a series of tiles, or do I want to do a slider? I spent some time thinking about the problem yesterday, and I realized that, insofar as the PHP code is concerned, I wrote the routine I need (specifically, a “Walker”) two and a half years ago. It’s just a matter of deciding which nav menu to use (an unconventional use of the nav menu function, true, but it’s easy to maintain on the fly) and what the HTML output needs to look like.

That’s what’s happening on the coding front.

Doctor Who Conquers the Martians

On Saturday night, the eighth season of Doctor Who came to a close in “Death in Heaven.” I’m not here to talk about that. I’d rather discus the teaser for the forthcoming Christmas episode, with Nick Frost (probably best known to Americans for his collaborations with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright — Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) as Santa Claus.

Now, the teaser.

Now, I should tell you that, for several years now, I’ve had a mad idea about Doctor Who, Santa Claus, and my dream Christmas special.

Doctor Who Conquers the Martians.

I’m sure you’ve heard of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a childrens’ film made in the mid-1960s. On Mars, the children are lethargic and addicted to American television, and when Kimar, the leader of the Martians, is told by an old seer that what the children of Mars need is Christmas he embarks on a mission to Earth to kidnap Santa Claus. But another Martian, Voldar, wants to depose Kimar and kill Santa Claus, and can Christmas triumph on the Red Planet?

This works perfectly as a Doctor Who story!

The Ice Warriors, who live on Mars, kidnap Santa Claus for similar reasons. Now it’s up to the Doctor and two children to be menaced by a polar bear, go to Mars, rescue Santa Claus, foil a full-scale invasion of Earth by the Ice Warriors, and save Christmas.

This writes itself!

And, it could be done! For some reason, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians isn’t copyrighted and is in the public domain.

It would be goofy and fun. And Christmassy! Most Doctor Who Christmas specials aren’t especially Christmassy. They might be set at Christmas (like the RTD-era Christmas specials or, especially, “The Snowmen”) or on a winter world (like “The Time of the Doctor”) or both (like “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”), but they lack a certain Christmasness.

Let’s be honest, here. I’m a bit disenchanted with the whole “Doctor Who Christmas special” thing. They’re not very special anymore, and they don’t embrace the holiday season. So, why not pull out all the stops, play up the Christmas fun in a Doctor Who style, and then rest the concept of a “Doctor Who Christmas special” for a fair few years allowing other, equally worthy shows, to get a Christmas Day slot on BBC1. “Go big or go home,” as they say.

As an aside, the other idea I’ve had? The Doctor and Santa Claus team up to fight the ancient evil that is the Krampus, much like the Beast in “The Impossible Planet” or Abaddon in Torchwood.

I don’t know what we’ll get from this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special. The teaser makes it look a bit like The Thing or Alien, albeit with Santa Claus. Because why not.

I wonder if it will be half as fun as the Christmas special in my dreams, Doctor Who Conquers the Martians. :)