Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Welcome Literary Yuletide

Christmas is a time for many of our favorite stories. And when you say "Christmas story," the next thought for readers is Charles Dickens' (1812 – 1870) Christmas Carol.

Dickens was very much the "man who invented Christmas" as we know it today with his story of Scrooge and the three ghosts. So as you re-read that favorite, complement it with Les Standiford's, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.

It isn't only Christmas Carol that cements Dickens' place in the canon of Christmas. He wrote many stories and essays about Christmas. One essay in particular, What Christmas is As We Grow Older, captures just what it is that Christmas — and all the world's holidays celebrating the mystery of light out of darkness — make eternally present:

"Welcome, old aspirations, glittering creatures of an ardent fancy, to your shelter underneath the holly! We know you, and have not outlived you yet. Welcome, old projects and old loves, however fleeting, to your nooks among the steadier lights that burn around us. Welcome, all that was ever real to our hearts; and for the earnestness that made you real, thanks to Heaven!"

Over the years I've discovered other tributes to the holiday of "all that was ever real to our hearts." Here are some I recommend to lovers of holiday sentiment.

One of the loveliest Christmas tales I've found is Zona Gale's (1874 - 1938) Christmas: A Story. A native of Wisconsin, Gale was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Miss Lulu Bett in 1921. Gale's writing is graceful and touching without being flowery or maudlin.

"Christmas: A Story" takes place in Old Trail Town where the shutdown of its only employer causes residents to cancel Christmas. But Christmas comes all the same, in the form of a child who comes to Mary Chavah, who has learned from hard experience not to expect much from life, and who, in making a home for her motherless nephew, brings Christmas to the whole town.

Another Christmas story of the American prairie is Cyrus Townsend Brady's (1861 – 1920) novella A Christmas When The West Was Young. The bittersweet story is about a heartsick couple struggling to make it through the prairie winter. Like Gale's story, the harshness of prairie life is a character in the story, and like Gale's story, a child brings Christmas when they least expect it.

Anthony Trollope's (1815 -1882) novella Christmas at Thompson Hall is a plum pudding of a Victorian Christmas tale, with an element of farce, but all ends well even if — horrors! — that includes a married lady finding herself in a strange man's hotel bedroom. It's published in a collection with seven other charming Christmas stories by Trollope.

Mystery, too, finds a home at Christmas, and Louisa May Alcott's (1832 – 1888) story The Abbot's Ghost or Maurice Traherne's Temptation by puts a pleasant shiver in the holiday.

As Little Women's devoted fans know, Jo March (Alcott's alter ego) wrote romantic plays and sensation stories, which Alcott wrote in real life. The Abbot's Ghost is an example of the Victorian sensation story crafted by a master of narrative and dialog.

As a final bonbon for the season, treat yourself to Robert Benchley's (1869 – 1945) parody of Charles Dickens, titled Christmas Afternoon and which begins:

"What an afternoon! There never was such an afternoon since the world began…In the first place there was the ennui, and such ennui as it was! A heavy, overpowering ennui…a dragging devitalizing ennui which carried with it a retinue of yawns, snarls and thinly veiled insults, and which ended in ruptures in the clan spirit serious enough to last throughout the glad new year."

Benchley's piece is in his collection "Of All Things" and in Dwight McDonald's "Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm — and After."

"Parodies" also includes H.L. Mencken's Declaration of Independence in American, and Ring Lardner's theater of the absurd parody, I Gaspiri (The Upholsterers). Give it to yourself as a gift this Christmas.

Many of these works are available for free at Gutenberg.org, and at very low cost on Kindle and Nook. Many are available as free audio books at Librivox.org.

And of course, they can always be found at a public library near you.

Carolyn Schuk (c) 2019

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Proceedings of the Heavenly Planning Commission — Hearing on concept for the Garden of Eden development project

Artist rendering of
"Garden of Eden"
development concept
Attending: Archangel Michael, Planning Commission Chair; Commissioners Archangels Gabriel, Lucifer, Uriel and Raphael; representatives of builder, Heavenly Enterprises; members of the angelic public.

Overview: A proposal for 197 million square miles of parkland with newly created life forms. 75 percent of the site will be covered by water. Agenda report: www.heaven.gov/heavenbase/view.aspx?cloud.

The project is self-sufficient, where "plants" convert sunlight and "molecules" of "carbon dioxide" and "water" into "nutrients" and release "oxygen" as part of the chemical reaction.

"Animals" eat the plants to get the nutrients, releasing carbon dioxide as a byproduct of the "combustion" of the nutrients for "metabolism." "Weather" is a complex process whereby water forms vapor clouds that release "rain" on the park to return water to the "ecosystem."

The Garden will feature many different environments ("climates") that each will feature their own distinctive plant and animal life. Since the life forms will be native, after the first planting, they will be self-reproducing and maintaining and require little or no active gardening.

Resident Angel Eyeore:  I don't know about all that water. How are you going to guarantee that there won't be any flooding?

Resident Angel Oscar the Grouch: I have lived in this heaven for 45 years. It used to be a nice place, where everybody knew everybody else. Now you're proposing to make all these "humans" who can reproduce, according to the EIR, every couple of years. That's going to mean high rise apartment buildings, which will ruin our community, and there will be crime and red cup parties and cruising in cars—

Chair A. Michael: Thank you for your comments. There are no such things as cars. Next.

Resident Angel T. Frothingill Bellows: When are you archangels going to stop acting like you're so high and mighty and better than the rest of us? This is another one of those backroom deals where you guys think you can take our heaven and give it to the big moneybags gods over on Mount Olympus so they can turn it into their own little playground.

Resident Angel Debbie Downer: I have a very serious lung condition, and all the flowers and pollen — not to mention the methane gas that these "animals" will put into the air as a result of this thing called "digestion" — will be very detrimental to my health. When we moved to Heaven from Mt. Olympus ten years ago, we thought it would be a place where we could have a healthy life without Zeus' noise and smoke pollution. Now you're taking about building a giant garden that will make the air toxic. When are you going to listen to the people instead of just the big gods —

Chair A. Michael: Thank you. Your two minutes are up.

Olympus Resident Angel Rufus T. Firefly: I have nothing against gardens. Even though I live on Mount Olympus, everyone here knows that I have done more for gardens in the tri-heaven area than anyone. But this is the wrong garden in the wrong place. Heaven needs to bring in some real experts in earth-making to re-imagine the visioning of the conceptualization of this creation-making in the multiverse geospatial zone. And Archangel Lucifer, you’re doing an awesome job.

A. Lucifer, preening: You too, Rufie.

A. Bellows: You're hearing overwhelmingly the citizens DO NOT WANT a garden. For once put your money where your mouth is and represent the citizens of heaven instead of the big gods. This doesn't fit. Stop putting things where they don't fit. A lot of these animals are butt-ugly. Put them in your own backyard. Go put it on Mount Olympus or Valhalla. For once can't you hypocrites represent the citizens of heaven? Stop representing the big gods.

Chair A. Michael: Angel Bellows, this is my first warning. You've already had your chance to talk.

A. Bellows refuses to stand down: This is a free heaven. The first amendment says I can say anything I want. So screw you, Mike."

Chair A. Michael: There is no first amendment and won't be for another 4,789 years. And there is no second warning.

A pillar of fire appears and consumes A. Bellows. The Garden project is approved in a unanimous motion, with an amendment from A. Lucifer requiring deed covenants that garden residents cannot convert their tree canopies into extra bedrooms.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

When Life Gives You Orchid Buds, Count Your Blessings
By Carolyn Schuk

Our cymbidium orchid usually starts blooming around Easter, as the days get perceptibly longer. Its last blooms fade in mid-June, on the longest days of the year. This year it has five flower spikes. The last time it was so abundant was 1991, the year my son was born.

EasterSince the millennium, the cymbidium's offerings have been slim. It's as if the plant knows whether the year to come will be fruitful or not.

For example, 1991 was a rollercoaster year. When I was seven months pregnant, the retail chain my husband worked for declared bankruptcy and the future looked to be an unemployment line.

Portents of irreversible decline were unmistakable at the software company I worked for. That the management gave my office to someone else while I was on maternity leave didn't help my anxiety level.

So there we were – a baby on the way and what had seemed like economic security evaporating like a freak Silicon Valley snowfall.

When Will was born, things didn't look up. We were now pathetically inexperienced parents with a colicky baby. I remember watching the sun come up one morning after a sleepless night and thinking, My life, as I know it, is over. One friend says that the first months with your first child are, quite simply, the worst of your life.

But as the orchid buds began to open, things, likewise, began opening up.

My husband landed a job with Whole Earth Access helping to open the store – now gone, alas – on Stevens Creek Blvd. Now, while some people – like me – have panic attacks just thinking about a project like this, my husband likes nothing better than being in charge of a big, complicated project.

At only five weeks Will began sleeping through the night – an extraordinary 11 hours from 8:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning. Soon after, I discovered that as long as we went somewhere — especially at night — he was a perfectly happy baby. He was like the old disco song, "I love the night life."

Then my former employer asked me to come back to work as a contractor, managing the company's newsletters. My mother came out from Pennsylvania to help. It was the perfect fit.

With my mother to babysit, I could get out of the house a few days a week, wear real clothes, and talk to grownups. But I could also remain a mostly stay-at-home mom. A few years later, that contract job was the genesis of a freelance copywriting business. That copywriting business evolved into writing for the Santa Clara Weekly, the best job I have had in my life.

By the end of 1991, Bill had a job he loved, Will was delighted with his two new friends in daycare, and I ended the year making more money – and getting more sleep – than I had working full-time.

Twenty-eight years later the orchid bounty still lifts my heart and I still count my blessings – one in particular. 

It was Will's birthday this week, and he can now add "Mueller Day" to the other auspicious event that happened on April 18: Paul Revere's famous ride. A ride that set a new experiment in governance in motion and an investigation that, hopefully, will put it back on the course its founders intended.

Will has grown into a fine man, with the patient persistence to reach any goal he sets for himself, an affectionate husband and (to date) a fond "parent" to his dog and cat. He has a good and generous heart, slow to anger or even annoyance — even with his parents.

And so as the Easter buds open, I'm going to count a new blessing with every one. Happy Easter.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Take Two Aspirin and  Call Me When the Fallout Clears
By Carolyn Schuk

"In Time of Emergency" gains
new relevance in today's world
As we are quarantined by an enemy considered vanquished in mid-20th century America — i.e. infectious disease — a 1968 artifact I found in my in-law's basement some years ago offers an historical perspective on public fears: "In Time of Emergency, a citizen's handbook on Nuclear Attack [and] Natural Disasters."

The Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense published this the same year "Planet of the Apes" hit theaters with its famous shot of a broken Statue of Liberty in the sand after homo sapiens destroyed society in a nuclear war. 

But in the DoD's e=mc2 zone, despair isn't the message. Normalizing nuclear war is. Think of it as just another severe weather event with radiation, emceed by the Weather Channel's Jim Cantore.

"A major emergency affecting a large number of people may occur anytime and anywhere. It may be a peacetime disaster," or, the author tells us in the tone you'd use to remind someone to take an umbrella on a cloudy day, "It could be an enemy nuclear attack."

Sure, the keep-on-the-sunnysiders admit, "people who happened to be close to a nuclear explosion probably would be killed or seriously injured," but "it is likely that most of the people in the fringe area would survive these hazards."

So hopeful fringe-dwellers need to move on to "Understanding the Hazards of Nuclear Attack."

"It is possible," the reader is advised, "but extremely unlikely—that your first warning of an enemy attack might be the flash of a nuclear explosion in the sky."

Although you won't need any advice following that flash because it will be the last thing you ever see, readers are helpfully directed to "TAKE COVER INSTANTLY."

"By getting inside or under something within a few seconds, you might avoid being seriously injured." You can take cover "in any kind of building, a storm cellar…or even in a ditch … or storm sewer …If no cover is available simply lie down on the ground and curl up." Presumably the reader can finish the phrase.

If you're not out strolling under the air raid sirens, "Keep some of the intense heat rays from nuclear explosions from entering your house by closing your doors, windows, venetian blinds, window shades and drapes. If the climate will not permit this…close as many as possible, then close the rest when the Attack Warning Signal is given."

An atomic blast is "several million degrees F within one-millionth of a second following detonation" according to the Atomic Bomb Museum. Prayer seems more useful than closing the blinds. Well, at least the flash won't fade the upholstery before everything's incinerated.

Post-blast firestorms don't need to worry you, though, according to these irrepressible optimists.

"Your home might be saved if you know how to fight fires and have on hand some basic firefighting tools. These include a garden hose, a ladder, buckets filled with sand, containers filled with water, and a fire extinguisher." And, "Remember the 3 basic ways to put out a fire."

Something else to remember: the firestorm from the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 leveled almost the entire city. It's unlikely that happened just because residents didn't have sand buckets.

If you survive to this point, you will have to think about radiation. But there's no reason to go all silly about a few gamma rays and stray neutrons.

You see, "Almost all of the radiation that people would absorb…would come from particles outside
" People who were outside  the
fringe area would not be affected by
the blast, heat or fire"
their own bodies." Thus, "Only simple precautions would be necessary to avoid swallowing the particles."

In case you step out without your lead raincoat, the DoD offers first aid tips.

If exposure is "a small or medium dose" the "body will repair itself and he will get well." In fact, there's nothing here requiring more than the most commonplace medical treatment. "If a patient has headache or general discomfort, give him one or two aspirin tablets every 3 or 4 hours."

And, "Remember that radiation sickness is not contagious or infectious and one person cannot 'catch it' from another." Otherwise there night not be enough aspirin to go around.

Radiation calamities are easily avoided by a handcrafted fallout shelter, according to the DoD.

"It can be any space, provided the walls and roof are thick enough," the authors explain breezily. "Usually, householders can make these improvements themselves, with moderate effort and at low cost."

If your go-to home improvement method is Angie's List, I can report there's an Angie-certified bomb shelter builder who will construct your bunker out of steel, fiberglass or concrete and chock full of amenities from carpeting to a built-in weather band radio.

Once you're snug in the crypt, the discussion turns to quotidian matters—such as the "emergency toilet," on the off chance the municipal water system is hors de combat.

"It could be a garbage container, a pail or bucket … [and] could be fitted with some kind of seat… remove the seat from a wooden chair" and "cut a hole in it." Ouch.

"This shelter will provide excellent
protection, and can be constructed
easily at a cost of $150 in most parts
of the country."
The DoD atomic experts aren't mere utilitarians, however. They reveal themselves to be as alive to the gentler side of things as the World Happiness Council when they turn to the subject of recreation. Just because you're living on spam and using a trashcan for a commode doesn't mean you can't profitably beguile the flashlight-lit hours in the bunker.

Stock up on "books and magazines"—perhaps those back issues of the New Yorker that have been piling up. Or "writing materials" and "hobby supplies"—it's a perfect opportunity to finish that knitting project you started 17 years ago. And don't forget "stationery, a sewing kit and toiletries such as toothbrushes, cosmetics and shaving supplies."

After all, you don't want to greet Armageddon missing a button, without your lipstick and your personal correspondence in arrears.