Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Christmas Eve Mash-Up

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little blog, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

This has been a dark holiday season. Does anyone feel “Merry”? We stand helpless witness to the collapse of the American economy and its ripple effects worldwide. The joy of gift giving itself was darkened by the death of 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a seasonal worker at Walmart who was trampeled to death when he opened the doors on Black Friday.

It’s as though Pandora revisited the earth, undetected, with another box of ills to punish us anew for that primal theft of fire.

When Pandora’s First Box was opened, and all the ills and toils descended on humankind the first time, Hope was caught under the lid, and came out later to help.

If I could wrap up one thing for my extended family and friends this Christmas it would be: Courage. We will all need quite a dose of it in the coming year.

With the massive layoffs and spiraling down of our micro and macroeconomies, life as we know it will change. But it will still be life. And that’s what’s important.

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
‘Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
‘Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!’”

And when things get tough, remember that fairness is not an attribute of life. Here’s a perfect Christmas example. The character Scrooge is synonymous with misanthrope. But “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” The redeemed Scrooge “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” So why isn't "Scrooge" synonymous with "Mr. Christmas?" Tough legacy for a character.

A small gift from the New Yorker cartoon bank site: a look at the Ghosts of Covers past, from decades when others faced tough times.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate.

I am off to Chicago and Springfield, Illinois for New Year’s, to appropriately usher in the year of Lincoln, and the historic first year of Obama’s presidency. See you all in January.

Monday, December 22, 2008

QQF: Sleek Wreaths and Evergreen Trees

As Christmas decorations go, I have a soft spot in my heart for the white/silver variety, planted long ago when I saw the windows of Saks as a kid. The theme was “Christmas Across the Country.” Each window showed a different family’s holiday: a farm family, Southern family, people in Florida, San Francisco, and New York. The New York window was a duplex penthouse where everything was white—-carpets, couches, drapes, a glass table, Mom in a Jean Harlow white satin robe, and a white Christmas tree with hot pink decorations. It was the coolest, most innately sophisticated thing I had ever seen.

This installed a yearning for what I believed would be the joy of actually living in that white penthouse in that satin robe. That vision was reinforced by incidental set design in the film Holiday Inn, a classic family favorite. The nightclub scenes have silver artificial trees with tinsel where was annually swept away by Fred Astaire in his exquisite tuxedo, and his partner in sequined gown. Again the sophistication was heady and tantalizing.

We were a natural tree family ourselves. The scent of the real tree was a pretty good consolation for the reality of my suburban house as dreams of the penthouse danced in my head.

The penthouse is still in dreamland, though as an adult I face the fake/real decorating dilemma, and then “natural” fake or stylized.

I decided a little of each: a forties nightclub-worthy wreath for the door, with a real tree inside. Fantasy and reality are both best served with each other. Keeps things grounded.

Here is one of Fred’s great dance numbers from Holiday Inn, “Easy to Dance With,” with those big, gorgeous trees.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ave Atque Vale, Avery

At a time that sees Doubt in the midst of the “Christmas season,” a special man gave one last gift to the people at large whom he served: the beauty of his own Mass of Christian Burial. Some lives are replete with gifts from cradle to grave—-such was the life of Avery Cardinal Dulles.

 As the weekday tourists “doing” Christmas in New York entered St. Patrick’s, which sits across from Rockefeller Center and Saks, they found the Gothic cathedral alive with one of the most important rites of the Church: the repose of a soul of the recently departed. The choir sang a choral prelude of Lacrymosa from the Mozart Requiem, and the lovely Protestant hymn, “Abide with Me.” Then the organ sounded the powerful D minor downbeat of the great Faure Requiem as the line of over 100 priests, bishops, and cardinals began the solemn, two column procession down the side aisle and up the grand main aisle, passing the white-draped coffin of the remains of their brother priest.

 The Mass was all the more poignant for the presence of Cardinal Dulles’s family, the living members of generations of one of the country’s great Protestant families of service. Dulles’s father was Secretary of State to Eisenhower (a great-grandfather was Secretary of State to Benjamin Harrison, and great uncle Robert Lansing was same to Woodrow Wilson); his uncle Allen Walsh Dulles was director of the CIA from 1953 to 1961. In another type of service, his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister.

Cardinal Egan’s homily touched on the reality that the Presbyterian-raised, agnostic young man who converted to Catholicism, then entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained ten years later, was not easy for this family to accept. But clearly this Dulles scion had a destiny not formed by human lineage, as echoed in the second reading from Romans: “None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants.”

At the end of Mass came the prayer of commendation for the soul of Avery Cardinal Dulles. Cardinal Egan invoked the cathedral’s tradition of singing the chant Salve Regina a capella before the final prayer. Then the procession began down the main aisle, to the enormous bronze 5th avenue doors that were opened wide, framing Rockefeller Center’s Atlas with the world on his shoulders across the street. The hymn was a funeral text to the tune Melita, which is the Navy Hymn, in honor of Dulles’s naval service in World War 11 The pallbearers raised the casket to their shoulders, and walked down the aisle to the open doors, with the family walking behind them. In one of the finer moments in Catholic/Protestant relations, the church broke into applause.

As the coffin passed me, I was filled with admiration for this life that started in August of 1918, just days after the Battle of Amiens, and gave what he had—an exceptional intellect and generosity—to the service of God. He contracted polio when in his 20s, which came back to cripple him in old age, finally taking away his ability to speak, but a writer he was to the end, writing a farewell to his brother Jesuits on his 90th birthday. The pews emptied out behind the family, as the coffin made its way to the hearse on 5th avenue, amid the Christmas wreaths and garland and colored lights of the season.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

QQF: Mr. Monk and the Kick-Ass Promo

USA’s Monk came out early with its Christmas episode, the day after Thanksgiving. The episode was so-so, but the real holiday gift was the 30-second promo for the new season as Monk, p.i. It was a pitch-perfect mimic of the Magnum, p.i. opening.

Starting with the declarative downbeats of that familiar four-note opening, it completely captures the spirit of '80s cops shows—part T.J. Hooker, part Chips, with a little of Simon and Simon--and Magnum full out. The clip choice from the last six seasons is brilliant: Monk in the Ferrari when he briefly medicates for his depression; Stottlemeyer in organ grinder’s fez when the only person in the locked room with the dead body was the monkey; Natalie as Vanna White; Randy rolling in his desk chair with an esprit de Faceman from The A-Team. Whoever put it together is a first-class tv watcher.

Monk is going into its last season next year. I’m a fan of the series, through its different eras, though I prefer Sharona to Natalie. I wonder if they will solve the mystery of Trudy’s murder before they go.

The Sherlock Holmes angle in any guise is always interesting---we all want to solve the puzzles of ours lives, from the small details to the big questions. But what I really like about it is the premise of this painfully damaged man—who gave up for three years and didn’t leave his house—and then reconstructed his life as best he could. I think that kind of personal struggle resonates with many people.

The Christmas episode, "Mr. Monk and the Miracle," has to do with a fountain in a monastery that seems to be healing people. Of course its specific power is disproved, although Stottlemeyer insists that since drinking it he feels renewed.


Natalie keeps encouraging Monk to drink, since he is in pain all the time. Someone posted on a tvblog that Monk drinking from the fountain is one of the show’s most poignant moments.

But we don’t see that. Monk goes to the fountain and collects the water in a glass, and then just stands there as it goes to black, leaving it completely ambiguous whether he drinks it or not. Sometimes we need something from a story, and so we project it. That’s the interactive part of tv watching, no computer needed.

Friday, December 5, 2008

QQF: The Holiday Windows of Bergdorf Goodman

Midtown is decked out in its holiday finery. The TREE has been duly lit, and Cartier has wrapped itself in its annual bow, which is now a shocking LED red, instead of its classy velvet ribbon of old.

Depending on how your holiday equilibrium calibrates, the decorations can lift you up, or bring you down. The store windows in particular are astonishing flights of imagination and technology, or soulless expressions of capitalism at its most crass.

I try to embrace the best of the intentions, the beauty of the lights, the merriment of elves and Santa’s workshop as I walk up Fifth against the tide of tourists descending to the Apple Store.

One scene that I find myself returning to are the windows at Bergdorf's, the 57th street side. They are a vision of chic, Victorian attitude in smashing red, black, and white plaster.

Charles Dickens’s head surveys the “Ways to Say 'Season’s Greetings'” tableau, as he should. Edward Gorey-like sketches of buildings, bridges, ships and stairs set the backdrop for the hands with quill pens, old typewriters, and vintage phones of this stylized world, all symbols of communicating the tidings of the season.

One model is wearing a fabulous black princess-style coat with cloche hat, another has a stunning shag dress, with elbow-length black velvet gloves. In a flash of whimsy, another model has a sash that says Messenger, a translation from the Greek for angel.

Such a grown-up vision of the Season. I’m so glad that someone sees it this way. That makes me feel merry and bright, as I walk along the park, and into the night.

(photos by Dan Cross)