Sunday, December 27, 2015

Second youth, vehicle edition.

I seem to be posting a lot of memoir-ish stuff lately. I hope it doesn't mean I'm entering my second childhood. Although maybe I am.

This photo shows one of my Christmas acquisitions: a toy car. More specifically, a blue 1964-and-a-half Mustang coupe. It's about five inches long -- much bigger than a Hot Wheels car -- and it has a friction gizmo hooked to the back axle, so that if you roll it backward and let go, it will run forward under its own power.

I'd been eyeing this car at the grocery store for several weeks -- because, you see, I used to drive a vintage Mustang, back when they weren't quite so vintage.

I think I might have mentioned previously that my father was an auto mechanic by trade. He worked for a dealership, but he also tinkered with our family vehicles. He'd pick up a car with some kind of problem, then spend his own time fixing it. We always had two cars in the garage and another one or two parked in the driveway.

At some point in the late '60s, he procured a 1967 Mustang coupe, green (although I guess Ford called it "lime gold" -- the things you learn on teh intarwebz!), with a bashed-in door on the passenger side. Pre-wreck, I expect it looked like this:

Due to his work, Dad knew the guy who owned the local junkyard. The guy found him a passenger door from another lime-gold Mustang, but there was a superficial problem. Ford made the car with two interiors: black and lime-gold. Our Mustang had the lime-gold interior; the replacement door had the black. But it fit. And it's not like anyone would notice it when you'd pass them on the street.

Dad gave the Mustang to Mom. I was relegated to driving the '62 Ford Falcon, which had a manual choke. Peppy it was not; it went from zero to 60 in about an hour and a half. Anyway, eventually we got rid of the Falcon and sometimes I'd get to drive the Mustang.

It was a lot of fun to drive. It sat pretty low to the ground, and it had a shift lever on the floor despite the automatic transmission. But by the time I got to drive it, it was already almost ten years old, so it had the usual issues -- as well as some unusual ones. One day, I noticed the passenger-side carpet was soaking wet. I duly reported it to my father, who let loose his usual string of obscenities and accused me of driving too fast through a puddle and forcing water up into the passenger compartment. Then he pulled up the carpet and discovered the floor had rusted through. Luckily, he had some spare sheet metal from our old shower stall; he riveted it in place and caulked it up, and the car was ready to roll again.

I left the Mustang behind when I went to college, but I always thought of it as my car. So imagine my dismay, around 1980 or so, when Dad told me he'd sold it for $2,500. "You wouldn't have wanted it, anyway," he said when I complained. "It was all rusted out, and it would have cost too much money to keep it running."

Well, maybe. But it would have been nice if he'd given me the option.

Fast-forward to the grocery store on Christmas Eve. We were on a mission for a few things we'd forgotten, as well as a stuffed Darth Vader toy that my daughter Kat had seen on the previous trip. As she hunted for her toy, I ran across the car. So I got it. 

They didn't have any green ones, so I settled for blue. The trunk doesn't open, but the doors do, and there are suitcases in the back seat. Where should we go?

These moments of vehicular blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Yule: a festival of Light.

I am almost ready for Yule. The cookies are baked (and mostly out of the house); the tree is up and decorated; the gifts are wrapped. Well, mostly -- I need to go out and pick up a few odds and ends tomorrow.

We wrap ourselves in hubbub at this time of year: concerts and pageants at church and school, cookie exchanges, gift buying and giving, travel plans, cooking and cleaning, lists and more lists. It's easy to forget, surrounded as we are by lights and noise and our self-enforced busyness, why humans first began to mark the winter solstice at all: the dying of the light.

Cultures all over the Northern Hemisphere mark celebrations at this time of year. Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa are the best known in the United States, but there are others. Encyclopedia Britannica lists several winter solstice festivals around the world: Dong Zhi in China, a family end-of-harvest celebration; St. Lucia's Day in Scandinavia; Saturnalia, popular in ancient Rome, although not so much anymore; Yalda, the birthday of the sun god Mithras, in ancient Persia; and Soyal, celebrated by the Hopi and Zuni in the southwestern U.S. They left out quite a few, of course -- including the celebration known by various Neopagan groups as Alban Arthan, Yule, or simply the winter solstice.

As diverse as these celebrations are, a singular idea stands behind them all: on the shortest day of the year, things look bleak for humanity. It's going to get cold, and stay cold for some time. It won't be as easy to stay warm and comfortable. Things won't grow as well, if they grow at all.

So they lit their candles and bonfires to call back the light. And today we do the same: we light our candles and our fireplaces, and limn our houses and trees with light.

As modern people, we know, of course, that the sun will return -- that if this Tuesday is indeed the shortest day, then the hours of light can only get longer from here. Much is made of the ancients coming up with these celebrations in fear that the light would never come again, but that seems condescending to me. I think, once ancient humans had lived through a few annual cycles, they would have been smart enough to figure out that the sun's return wasn't a fluke. Still, winter was a dangerous time of year, and it might have made sense back then to throw a party to appease the gods, so They would be encouraged to come back.

Even today, it's not a bad idea. So I suggest that each of us light a candle this holiday season. If nothing else, we'll make the world a brighter place.

And to further encourage you, I offer this song, which I listened to earlier today while wrapping gifts. Happy holidays, everybody.

These moments of bloggy light have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The tinsel debacle.

Mom would have approved.
It's a Sunday night in mid-December, which means I should have our Yule tree up by now. But the calendar messed me up this year. I usually wait 'til the weekend after my birthday to put up the tree, which would be this weekend -- but I also needed to bake cookies for gifts for various folks at work, and this was the only weekend for that project before everybody scooted out the door for vacation. Alas, cookies take precedence. And there's one more weekend before Yule for purchasing and decorating the tree.

We used to put up a Christmas tree, but somewhere between the kids leaving for college and me realizing none of us were Christian anymore, I switched to putting up a Yule tree. It looks the same, but it's a little heavier on the non-religious symbols -- birds, pine cones, holly, candles, and so on. You might think you see some ornaments that look like angels, but really, they're goddesses. No, really, they are.

Also, I need to have a real tree every year. Like just about family in the '60s, my mom switched over to an artificial tree as soon as we could afford it. She hated finding dead needles in the carpet in July, I guess, but I always missed the smell of the real thing.

After we got the fake tree, it wasn't long before Mom handed over the majority of the setup task to me. (The tree was women's work; my brother might have participated when he was a kid, but once we switched to a fake tree, my father was never involved.) Assembling the tree itself was okay, I guess, if you didn't mind the branch-A-into-support-A aspect of it. And hanging the ornaments was kind of fun, even if there wasn't much room for creativity. If you have the same tree with the branches in the same places every year, and the breakable ornaments go close to the top, and Angie the Christmas Tree Angel gets pride-of-place near the tippy-top, and all the plastic Santas and snowmen go on the bottom -- well, it gets to be the equivalent of a paint-by-number exercise after a few years.

Mom kept two jobs for herself: the lights and the tinsel. Like everybody else in the '60s, we had light strings with those big, fat C7 bulbs -- the kind that burned hot, so you had to be careful about what you put next to them. The strings were also wired in series, so that if one bulb went out, the whole string went out -- affording endless hours of fun, unscrewing each bulb and screwing in a new one, to find the one that had blown. Rarely did two bulbs blow at the same time, which was a Very Good Thing for obvious reasons. Anyway, I suspect Mom kept the task of putting on the lights to herself because she believed me incapable of evenly distributing them on the tree.

She did let me try the tinsel -- once. For the uninitiated, the kind of tinsel I'm talking about came in long, shiny strands that were draped over each tree branch to mimic icicles. Wikipedia tells me the stuff is properly known as lametta, but we always just called it tinsel. Today, it's is made of either PVC or mylar, but it doesn't drape the same as the old stuff, which was made from metal -- aluminum, or sometimes lead foil, although the lead was phased out in the '70s over concerns it could give kids lead poisoning.

Anyway, as I said, what you're supposed to do is take one strand at a time and drape it artfully over each branch -- maybe three or four strands per branch. It was the last step in decorating the tree, other than setting up the little houses underneath, and it took a massive amount of time. The year she handed me the tinsel boxes, I was determined to find a faster way. It wouldn't make a difference if I put several strands on each branch at once, would it? And who cared if they were kind of squished together?

Mom cared. A lot. I was dressed down and dismissed, and she took off all my wads of tinsel and attempted to straighten the strands and apply them, one at a time, to her own satisfaction. She never let me do the tinsel again, which was fine with me. The whole project was way too fussy for my taste.

Next weekend I'll go out and get a real tree, as I always do. I've switched to LED lights now, after using mini-lights for many years. I still put Angie the *cough*Yule Tree Goddess*cough* near the tippy-top; the glass ornaments go close to the top, and the plastic Santas and snowmen go at the bottom. It will smell terrific, and I'll find needles in the carpet in July. But I will never put tinsel on my tree.

These moments of bloggy lights and tinsel have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mellowing in my old age (maybe).

Vladimir Nikulin | Fotolia
Tomorrow is my birthday. I won't quite reach "old fart" status this year, but I'm getting pretty close. And I find that while I'm less tolerant of certain things (racism, misogyny, oligarchy, and people who make me jump through hoops for what I'm due instead of just giving it to me) as each birthday passes, I'm also more willing to let some things go.

Take, for example, the use of certain words. No, not those words. 

Here's what I mean: On Monday, Chuck Wendig put on his crankypants and vented about this Wall Street Journal article, which talks about how language teachers are restricting their students from using certain words. Good, bad, fun, and said are out; instead, these fifth- through seventh-graders are being encouraged to use longer words. (At least one teacher has even banned you and I from classroom writing. How do you get around pronouns, for goodness' sake? I'm envisioning the class turning in work in a sort of Japanese style: "Why did honorable friend not answer when this person texted?")

The WSJ story makes it out to be a new thing, or at least a new-ish thing. But when I mentioned the furor to my daughter Kitty, she said she'd gone through the same thing with her teachers. That means this pedagogical idea has been around for at least 15 or 20 years.

I know why the teachers are doing it. Kids that age ought to be expanding their vocabularies, especially if they want to do well on the SAT in a few years (and if their teachers and parents want them to do well on the SAT, which of course they do). Short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words will only get you so far on standardized tests; you need to be able to wheel and deal with more complex words, and writing them is one way to learn them. But I worry whether these teachers are teaching precision in vocabulary. Okay, maybe you don't want the kid to use said if they're shouting. But an across-the-board "pick another word" edict can get you some pretty odd juxtapositions: something like "Deal me in," he beseeched just isn't going to cut it in most situations. 

The biggest problem, however, is that the kids internalize these rules, and then have to unlearn them later. Good and bad are perfectly fine words. In some cases, they're the perfect word. You don't have to call your salad magnificent unless it actually is. And embroidering on bad can be a lot of fun, but it can also go over the top pretty fast.

Said, too, is a perfectly fine word. In journalism, it's considered the perfect word for attribution. In fact, journalists like all sorts of short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words. Of course, they have some dumb rules, too. I vividly recall one writing expert telling us not to use the word feel when referring to a person's opinion. You know how people sometimes say, "I feel this is X because..."? That sent this guy through the roof: "YOU FEEL WITH YOUR HANDS!" he wrote in the class handout.

But going back to said: Many creative writing types recommend its use in dialogue tags, almost to the exclusion of anything else. Said blends into the background for the vast majority of readers, letting you -- and them -- get on with the story. Lately, I even find myself using said sometimes when a character asks a question.

Then there's another type of crankypantsy vocabulary practice: that of putting one's nose in the air and declaring this or that not a word. Self-appointed word police will even check the dictionary for words they're suspicious of, and the Oxford English Dictionary is one of their go-to resources. 

It turns out that the folks at the OED don't consider themselves any sort of authority on whether something is or isn't a word. Their take is that words are invented all the time. If someone uses it, it's a word. If a lot of people use it, it might get into the dictionary. But if it's not there, it doesn't mean it's not a legitimate word.

(Take that, Chrome! Crankypants is too a word!)

Anyway, my gift to you on this birthday eve is to use whatever words your teacher tells you to use -- in class. Outside of class, you have my permission to use whatever word you want. Including those words.

These moments of not-so-crankypants blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell