Good riddance, 2012

To paraphrase the line from True Grit:

“Goodbye, 2012 – the love of decency does not abide in you.”
I got married early in 2012; that was pretty much the high point. And while getting married is good (assuming it’s voluntary) the entire rest of the year pretty much sucked. Illness, injury, expenses, drought, storms, political shenanigans, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo … I’m exhausted. And I don’t even watch Honey Boo Boo.

In fairness, as I write this I’m on an antibiotic (for diverticulitis) that’s making me feel sick, so I don’t exactly have a great attitude.

But maybe that’s one of the most important things about turning over the calendar: It really is a chance to turn over a new leaf, if you can find one in Indiana this time of year. A new start is something we all need from time to time, maybe this time more than ever. Okay, so 2012 was awful for many of us: Let’s make 2013 better. In big ways, in small ways, in any way we can. I’m not so foolish as to say things can’t get worse – but we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t at least try.

Happy New Year!

Christmas Traditions: America Steals From the Best



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK

            This being Christmastime, I thought it might be a good time to discuss Christmas. Yes, my mind does sometimes flow in logical, if obvious, directions.

            Christmas is, again obviously, a celebration of the birth of Christ. Or maybe not so obviously. In fact, that might be one of the single most forgotten facts of the Christmas season, and in today’s politically correct world we’re often encouraged not to mention Jesus while marking Jesus’ birthday.

It’s kind of like celebrating Independence Day without mentioning Independence, or America, or powdered wigs. It’s a known fact that we beat the British army because that powder kept getting in their eyes.

On the other hand, experts say Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th at all: He was most likely born in the spring, which kind of fits the whole rebirth theme better, anyway. There were sheep being tended in the fields, for instance, which happens in the spring. In December, the sheep and shepherds tend to stay inside and sleep together. For warmth, I mean. That being the case, if Mary and Joseph had arrived in Bethlehem in December, the inns would have space but there would be no room in the mangers.

Also, early paintings of Jesus’ birth show the Wise Men holding Easter baskets, so there you go.

If Christmas is being stolen for secular purposes, I suppose it’s ironic: Early Christians stole late December for their purposes to begin with. Many Europeans celebrated around the time of the winter solstice. I usually mourn the first day of winter, but they had a point: After that, the days would start to get longer, and the Sun would return.

The Norse celebrated Yule, by setting fire to logs so large they would take as many as twelve days to burn. If the logs went out early, they would burn drummers, dancers, and pipers, thus ending that annoyance. Then they would feast on geese, calling birds, and turtle doves. So you see, the origins of that song are much darker than you knew. It also didn’t end well for the maids a’ milking, who would lose their jobs when it came time for the beef roast.

On that note, the end of December was the time when Europeans had a supply of fresh meat (remember those cows? They couldn’t afford to feed them all winter.) It was also a time when wine and beer finished fermenting and could be drunk. If you lived in northern Europe pre-central heating, what better way to spend winter than fat and drunk?

On another related note, down in Rome they partied through the winter solstice and on for a whole month, and when Roman’s partied, they partied. Many of them also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the sun, on December 25th. Apparently they’d party ‘till Mithra came home.

Then the Pope came along. He didn’t like partying. He sure as heck didn’t like other gods. Also, although he lived there, he probably didn’t think much of the Romans as a whole, what with the whole feeding lions thing and all. Since he had no idea when Jesus was actually born, he decided to trump the pagans and go with December 25th. Why not?

It worked, too. The Pope spoke, and within just four hundred years the Feast of the Nativity had spread across most of Europe. I realize “just” is a relative term, when speaking in centuries. I got gray hairs after just twenty years of child rearing.

But people kept partying, so eventually England did something many of us now say as a joke on bad days: They cancelled Christmas. The same thing happened in parts of America, too. Eventually it came back, but after the Revolution Americans decided Christmas was an English custom, so they dumped that along with tea.

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until 1870, when workers started looking for another long break. They turned the hard partying holiday into something more family oriented, which I suspect is a little closer to what the Pope had in mind to begin with.

That’s about the time we Americans did what we do best: We stole from other countries, taking this and that from here and there to develop our own Christmas traditions. We tell ourselves we’re following long tradition, but as in so many other areas, Christmas in America is a mutt.

Stockings hung by the chimney came from Nordic countries, for instance. Their stockings got wet in all that snow, so they hung them up to dry. Hopefully the tradition of putting gifts in there arrived at about the same time as the tradition of regular laundering.

It was the Roman celebrations honoring Saturn and Mithras that brought us singing, candle lighting, and gift giving. You had to get a Roman pretty drunk before they started giving away their stuff.

            The early Christian church gave us the word Xmas: In Greek, “X” is the first letter of Christ’s name. In Bethlehem, X marks the spot where Jesus was born. I’m making that part up.

            Germans brought the Christmas tree to America. Not literally – they used trees already here, let’s not get silly. In medieval Germany, a popular play about Adam and Eve featured an evergreen decorated with apples, which I assume Eve would then eat. The apples, not the evergreen.

Poinsettias come from Mexico, but were named after the American ambassador to that country, Dr. Joel Poinsett. Just think, we could be displaying Joela’s every Christmas.

The first Christmas card was created by an English illustrator, who later changed his name to Hallmark.

So you see, we’ve stolen from the best, including our uniquely American tradition of going out the day after Christmas to embarrass ourselves by getting caught returning gifts from relatives, by those relatives, who are returning gifts from us.
 
By the way, I just took a trivia test involving facts about Christmas traditions, and scored 100%. When it comes to holiday trivia, clearly I’m full of it.

Words With the Big Guy



                “Words With the Big Guy” was originally a gift to readers who bought my novel Storm Chaser last Christmas; this year, it was printed in the Christmas insert of the Albion New Era, Churubusco News, and Northwest News newspapers. The story was inspired by “Santa’s Spirit”, which I wrote in 2006 for the Christmas edition of my column, “Slightly Off the Mark”.

“Words With the Big Guy” features Beth Hamlin, a popular character from Storm Chaser and its prequel short story collection, Storm Chaser Shorts; but this story takes place before those events, so no spoilers. Merry Christmas!



WORDS WITH THE BIG GUY

                Santa Claus stood in front of the Noble County Courthouse, checking the harnesses on his reindeer.

                The real Santa Claus.

                Across the street Beth Hamlin slid to a stop and grabbed her friend Kim’s arm. “Do you see what I see?”

                “I thought we –?“ Kim followed her gaze. “Oh.”

They’d planned to go caroling after the Christmas Eve service – meaning they felt like singing at the top of their lungs while waiting for Beth’s brother to pick her up – but now paused in front of the hardware store, across the street from Albion’s Courthouse.  Kim, her raven hair and black wool coat brightened with a layer of snow, stood open mouthed until she breathed in a flake that made her cough. “Very realistic.”

Strings of multicolored lights hung from the Courthouse’s Romanesque clock tower, and joined with the decorative street lights to illuminate typical small town Indiana decorations: a manger, fake presents and, across from the two girls on the snow covered lawn, a painted Santa and his plywood sleigh team. Behind that, at the base of an evergreen, stood … Santa and his sleigh team.

“Well, he meets the description.” Beth glanced at her friend. “Of course, it’s Christmas Eve. You can’t swing a stocking without hitting Santa on Christmas Eve.” Too bad, ‘cause I’d like to have some words with the big guy.

Earlier, as they left the church singing “Let it Snow”, white stuff began drifting down. It seemed like a coincidence at the time, but they’d been belting out “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” when they spotted the object of that song – who had indeed come to town.

Good thing they weren’t singing about the Grinch.

 “Yeah, but …” Kim rose to her tiptoes, a habit for the shortest person in tenth grade. “But those are –“

Eight calm, patient animals stood harnessed to a red sleigh while a figure worked his way down the line, giving each an encouraging pat.

“Well, maybe they’re not.” Beth sometimes tried to think like a cop – like her father. “Have you ever seen a reindeer in person? Maybe those are something people raise around here. Like alpacas. Or maybe somebody imported Japanese cows.”

“My grandparents grew up in Japan. They’d have told me about cows that looked like reindeer.”

“Okay.” Beth shrugged, adjusting the big yellow coat her mom bought her the month before. “Let’s go talk to him.”

“Let’s huh?” Beth started forward, but Kim pulled on her arm. “Just because we’re in a small town doesn’t mean he’s not some kind of –“

“Chance will be here any minute with his car full of guns.” Beth glanced toward the Lutheran church a block north, where people milled in front while cars pulled away. “If we get in trouble kick and scream, not necessarily in that order.”

Without giving her friend a chance to argue, Beth stepped off the curb and strode across the street. At least, she tried to: Kim refused to release her arm, and reluctantly trailed her at what amounted to a shuffle. “Look, he’s just some old guy who dresses up once a year to surprise kids.”

Kim shook her head. “Don’t you watch horror movies at all?”

They crossed the sidewalk, stepped into six inch deep snow, and worked their way around the fake Santa. The real one – well, more real – glanced up at the sound of their footsteps and sent them a wide smile. “Beth and Kim!”

Great, someone she didn’t know who knew her. It happened all the time – not so much in the village of Hurricane where she lived, but often here in the county seat, where everyone knew her mother and brother. “Hi, um, Santa.”

Fur lined his red outfit, as white as the full beard. He had a big belly, and Beth had no doubt it would shake if he laughed. His eyes twinkled. Of course. She had to admit, this was the best Claus she’d ever seen. “So, Santa … how’s that whole stealth thing working out for you?”

“Sometimes I need to stop and check the harnesses, and I can’t do that easily on a rooftop. You wouldn’t want old Santa falling out of the sky, would you?”

Kim solemnly shook her head, and Beth realized she’d have to carry this conversation. Which was fine with her, because from the moment she spotted the old man she had something to say. “Back when I still believed in you, you never gave me what I wanted for Christmas.”

Santa turned away from the reindeer, mouth downturned, and gave the girls his full attention. “Not even I can bring back the dead, Beth. I’m just an old soul with a little Christmas magic.”

Beth’s heart thudded. She felt Kim hug her arm, and after a moment the old man reached out to squeeze her other shoulder. “Deep down, you knew that.”

“How did you –?”

“People say everything happens for a reason.” His gentle voice didn’t sooth her mind, but instead dredged up that night: The knock on the door, the crowd of neighbors, her older brother gathering his sobbing sister in his arms. “But it’s not true, Beth. Sometimes senseless things happen, and I can’t do much about it. I hand out little pretties to children; that’s all I can do.”

She cleared her throat. “Doesn’t seem like much.”

“No. And yet, you still have the police officer teddy bear you got for Christmas later that year, don’t you?”

Beth stared at him, unable to speak.

After a moment Santa turned back, to reach into the huge red bag in his sleigh. “Gifts are different things to different people. Some have all they need, so the gift isn’t as important as the thought. Some are satisfied by little comforts: a plate of cookies, a picture from home. “

He turned and held up three brightly wrapped packages. “For some – for people whose worlds crumble around them – there’s nowhere to go but up. Whatever makes it a little better opens a world of possibilities.”

“Hope,” Kim whispered. Beth started; she’d forgotten her friend still stood beside her.

“There you go.” He handed one gift to Kim and one to Beth.

Beth stared at the little package, then sniffed and rubbed her nose on her coat. “It’s a music CD.”

Santa smiled.

“You know what I wanted, when I was little? An encyclopedia.”

Kim turned to her. “Really?”

“After Dad died I just wanted to learn. I wanted to know everything in the world. But we had problems with the bills for awhile, so I just used the one at the library, and the internet.” Beth shrugged. “I guess the library was my gift.”

“Give this to your brother.” Santa held out the other present.

Beth took it, but had rallied enough to want a little control back. “Chance doesn’t need a G.I. Joe – he needs a girlfriend. Then he wouldn’t be such a bear sometimes.”

“I don’t carry girlfriends in my bag.” The bearded man climbed up into the sleigh and took the reins. “But who knows? Gifts arrive in the strangest ways, on the wind.” He waved and gave the reins a shake. The reindeer jolted forward, taking their cargo around the bulk of the courthouse. Beth watched, hoping the rig would soar into the air, but lost sight of Santa in the glare of a car that emerged from the same direction.

A blue and white police cruiser turned a corner and stopped behind them, next to the fake Santa’s plywood sleigh. As the girls turned to it the driver lowered his window, revealed a military cut version of Beth’s yellow hair. “Kim, you need a ride?”

“Um … no thanks, Chance – Mom and Dad are just up the street.” She gave Beth a look and a small wave, then headed back the way they’d come.

Beth trudged over to the squad car, then looked back. Tracks emerged from behind the Courthouse, cut through the snow cover across the square, then disappeared the other way. She climbed into the passenger seat, but instead of belting herself in sat there with the presents in her arms. “Did you see –?”

“Santa? I sure did, and I think he was the real deal.”

“I’m fifteen, Chance.”

“Okay, I didn’t recognize the guy as he passed, but he obviously enjoys it.” When she didn’t answer, he added defensively, “He had lights, and a slow moving vehicle sign on the back, so I figured … what the heck? It’s Christmas.”

“So it is.” Beth pulled herself together and handed Chance his package. “It’s after midnight.”

“So it is,” he mocked gently. He worked his fingers down the edge of the paper, trying to get it off in one piece. “When I was a kid, Santa used to bring me a pen and pencil set –“

The wrapping fell off, and Chance sat back, staring at the illustration on the box. “What –?”

“What is it?”

“It’s … a model kit. A 1967 American LaFrance fire engine. I’ve wanted one of these since I was your age.” He looked up toward the courthouse lawn. “Right after Dad died, I decided to be a firefighter instead of a cop.”

“What – you did?”

“Yeah. I thought Mom wouldn’t want me to take the chances Dad took.” He chuckled, and turned the model kit over to study the label. “As if firefighting was less dangerous … then I joined the volunteer fire department and did both.” After a moment he looked over at Beth. “Open yours.”

“It’s a music CD. I’m afraid it’ll be Justin Bieber.”

“I thought all you girls loved him. Go on, open it.”

“I’m not like other girls … but I’d be okay with Lady Antebellum.”

“Who’s she?”

All thoughts of music fled when the red and green paper came off. She stared down at the thick case, which promised at least two CD’s inside, and it took a moment before she remembered to breathe.

“Really –?“ Chance set his gift down and reached out to take Beth’s wrist, steadying her hand so he could study the case.  “Wow. I didn’t know they still made encyclopedias on CD. Isn’t that something.”

Beth just stared at the CD set, then looked up toward the glowing Christmas lights on the square. After a moment, apparently misinterpreting her expression, Chance patted her shoulder. “I know it’s not Lady Anthill …”

“No, it’s – it’s perfect. Multimedia, updatable …” She shivered, then patted Chance’s hand and reached for her seatbelt. Dwelling on it here wouldn’t do any good. “Let’s go, Mom’s waiting for us with hot chocolate and cookies.”

“Chocolate chip.” He started the engine, but still cast concerned looks her way. “So, what do you want to be when you grow – graduate?”

The tracks on the courthouse lawn vanished as Chance drove past the Lutheran church. Beth spotted Kim outside by her parents, jumping up and down as she gazed at something in a small box. “Oh, I don’t know.” She reached into a pocket for her cell phone, but decided it would be better to wait until Kim calmed down. Then, not wanting to pass up the chance to get under her brother’s skin, she added, “Maybe a cop.”

“Oof – there goes my Christmas spirit.”

Beth laughed, then took a breath. Would Mom let her stay up late researching? After all, she didn’t believe in Santa … but she did want to know more about him.

The Royal Blog of Oz: Giving the Gift of Oz

The Royal Blog of Oz: Giving the Gift of Oz: Early this year, I got to visit my youngest brother Daniel. We live in the same city, but we rarely see each other. He's 13 now, and quite w...

Doctor Who fanfiction: The 13th B'ak'tun

The 13th b’ak’tun

            K’iche froze, hammer still in the air, poised to make the last mark in a stone inscription he’d been working on for so many years. The noise from the courtyard outside, a weird, pulsing, roar that pierced the humid air, made his hair stand on end.

            He rose partially to his feet, enough to give him a view through the window of the stone temple, and saw the morning sun eclipsed by the Blue Box.

            Of course.

            Willing his pulse to slow enough for him to keep his aim steady, K’iche sat back down and carefully made the last mark in the circular stone, exactly where the astronomers had instructed it should go. Then he carefully laid the hammer down and dropped to his knees, head bowed.

            “Oh, hello!” The strangely garbed man strode in as if he owed the place – which he did, in a way – and unhesitatingly grabbed K’iche’s arm to help him up. “K’iche, yes? I’m the Doctor.”

            “On behalf of all my people I am honored, god Doctor.” He refused to meet his guest’s eyes, instead gazing at an outfit of brown trousers, strange footwear and unknown materials.

            “Yes, well …” The Doctor glanced behind him, and K’iche noticed a young woman, also dressed oddly, in the doorway. She nodded at the Doctor, giving him an encouraging – and pointed – look.

            “Ah, yes – fantastic.” Producing a strange silver device, the Doctor waved it over the finished inscription. K’iche stumbled back when the little stick glowed and emitted a whine. “Just as I thought. Don’t worry, K’iche, this isn’t dangerous to you at all, much. As a, um, god, I need you to start a new inscription for me.”

            Oh. Five more years bent over a stone tablet, carving out symbols. “It shall be as you wish, god Doctor. Your coming was prophesized by the great goddess of the River, but your purpose was not.” K’iche gestured up toward the inner wall of the temple, above the doorway. The others turned to see the carved outline of the Blue Box and proof of the god’s identity, the badge of honor he wore beneath his chin. “She told my great-grandfather that your tie of bow would bring coolness.”

            “The goddess River –? Well, of course.” The Doctor put his magic stick away and again glanced back at the girl, who shrugged. And grinned. “Right. Well, what I need you to do is extend your calendar for another, oh, five thousand years or so.”

            K’iche froze. Suddenly his moment of joy turned to terror. “I … wish to obey, god Doctor, but  …”

            “Yes?”

            Encouraged by the god’s mild tone, K’iche took a breath. “We were instructed to extend our long count calendar to the 13th b'ak'tun only – Instructed by the god Itzamna himself.” He chanced a look at the Doctor’s angular face, and saw the god raise an eyebrow.

            “Itzamna? Orange robe, weird hat, tall, skinny, insufferable?”

            A pretty good description, actually. “Ah … very tall, orange robe, yes.” Considering the way Itzamna responded to a doubter among K’iche’s people by freezing the man solid – in the middle of summer – repeating any insults seemed unwise.

            The girl gave the Doctor a questioning look. “One of you?”

            “Not exactly.” The Doctor waved her off. “You let me worry about Itzamna. He won’t harm you, and he won’t destroy the calendar. But you have to understand, what you’d doing here, it’s a cause and effect thing. You’re at a crux point – if you don’t extend the end date, it really could bring terrible events beyond having to print up more calendars.”

K’iche didn’t really understand, but he got the point. “It shall be as you wish, god Doctor.”

“Just make sure you have the next thirteen b’ak’tun done by … well, there really isn’t much of a rush, is there? Before the first one runs out.”
             
The Doctor turned and swept through the door, followed by the girl. Frozen for a moment, K’iche had to hurry to catch up. He saw startled priests enter the courtyard, catch site of the Box and its occupants, and prostrate themselves. At least there would be witnesses. “But god Doctor –!”

            “Take your time, do it right. Oh, and stop with the ritual sacrifices, would you? Those aren’t cool.” With a wave, the Doctor followed his companion through the wooden door with the strange markings.

            The Blue Box wheezed and faded, leaving K’iche to explain his conversation with a god to people who, fortunately, could testify that he hadn’t been drinking too much fermented juice. Although a night of 
drinking might be a nice break before he started the new project.

#

            Itzamna the god watched the chattering group of priests and astronomers go into the temple. They couldn’t see him, so he didn’t bother hiding his annoyance. Insurable Time Lord! For all the power his people wielded, the one unyielding rule they had was to never cross the Time Lords, especially this one. His plan to enjoy planetary fireworks in a few millennia had come to nothing.

            Still … while he couldn’t destroy the new calendar, or stop the Mayans from making it, nothing said he couldn’t store it in a safe place once it was finished. Maybe … beneath the Antarctic ice cap? Then he’d still get his fun, when people of another era found the original calendar and realized it would end. After that maybe, rather than destroying humanity, he’d let them stick around and see how entertaining they could be, in what they thought of as the distant future. It might be best to wait until they achieved space flight before putting them on trial.
 
            Yes. He was getting bored being Itzamna anyway – instead, it was time for him to do what he did best: Mess with people. What was the point of belonging to the Q Continuum if you couldn’t have some fun?

Happy Mayan Apocalpyse!



SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK

            Maybe an apocalypse on December 21st wouldn’t be such a bad thing, if it meant I wouldn’t have to go through another Indiana winter.

            There’s a much simpler explanation as to why the Mayan calendar screeches to a halt. Some people think the world is going to end because that very accurate calendar stops on December 21st of this year; others think the date ushers in a New Age where we’ll beat our swords into ploughshares, dogs and cats will lie down together, and the government will give us all new cell phones. I’d like an iPhone, please. The ways things are going, that last is the most believable part of all of this.

            But what if the Mayans just ran out of paper? Or, in their case, stone?

            “Um … excuse me, Mr. B’ak’tun, but there’s a problem … I reached the end of the stone.”

            “So what? You’ve gone hundreds of years into the future with it, K’iche’. By then we’ll all be dead and your stone will be buried in the jungle somewhere. Let’s break for lunch and a bracing game of Bul.”

            Two thousand years later, the Bul is as thick as ever.

            (Bul was a real Mayan game, by the way: It was played with corn. Do with that as you will.)

            The main proof that the Mayans weren’t predicting the world’s end is the fact that January didn’t bother them. I mean, they were in the tropics, January was probably nice. Wouldn’t they have preferred to end the world in May, before it got too hot?

            In theory the only good thing about January is that the days are finally getting longer. In practice you rarely see the sun in January. People have been known to go blind in March, from staring up at the strange glowing ball in the sky and trying to decide whether it’s an angry Mayan god. Their eyes burn out while they attempt to pronounce “K'inich Ajaw”, which translates into “Why would some fool move north? It never snows here”.

            (I know I discussed hating winter and moving south last week, but if I’m still here suffering, you will 
too.)

            No, January is more a celebration of Chicchan, the gods who bring clouds, and Cum Hau, who was in charge of death and the underworld and lives in International Falls, Minnesota. Those few times when the weak, pale Sun is visible, it’s hovering over the former Mayan empire.

            Coincidence?

            (Yeah, probably.)

            Of course, it also hovers over Hugo Chavez, and the only thing he ever successfully predicted was the winner of the last Venezuelan election.

            So I’m not looking forward to January, but a more immediate concern is that my wife’s birthday falls on December 21st – the same day some people think the world will end. Should I throw her a party early, just in case? Or should I wait until the end of the day, in the hopes that I don’t have to shop for a birthday present? (‘Cause – I am a man.) If I wait, and the world doesn’t end, she’ll probably make me wish it had.

            My point is that you shouldn’t sweat the Mayans, although I assume the Mayans did sweat themselves. They were very good calendar makers, but if they could really predict the future, why did they hang around until they sold too much debt to the Aztecs, and their empire crumbled around them?

            Or … did they? Maybe they all escaped. Maybe they stop by now and then in little saucer shaped ships, check out our TV programming, and fly away shaking their heads, wondering if they should have left smarter people behind.

            If you really want to predict what’s going to bring civilization to an end, I suggest you look to Washington, D.C., and count how much money the federal government spends making – ironically – money. A hundred years from now we’ll be sitting around the fires in our caves, burning worthless cash and thinking of how surprised we were when China called in their loans and we didn’t have any collateral.

            And then, having nothing better to do, we’ll start carving out calendars.