Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 16, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
E-Cards and Romance Contest Winners
When emailed greeting cards first appeared, I wasn't much impressed. I didn't mind receiving
them, of course, but would never have dreamed of sending any.
That's probably because my taste in Christmas cards runs to cut paper and unfolding art. Plus,
we send out Christmas cards mostly to serve as carriers for our annual Christmas letter.
Isn't that why we send Christmas cards? To reassure our old friends that we still remember
them, and to be reassured in turn? And the Christmas letter, when people write them, is a way of
keeping tabs on how their lives are going.
I know that people often mock those Christmas letters as brag sheets -- or reports on vacations,
operations, deaths, and marriages. When I was young, I mocked them too.
But now I'm nearing sixty, and I care very much about all those things -- even the operations!
Most of my friends are aging, and I along with them. I try to keep our family letter short and
entertaining, but anybody who doesn't care about what's happening in our lives shouldn't be on
our Christmas card list in the first place.
It's hard to tuck that family letter into an online card.
(Though there's no reason you shouldn't be able to include your family letter as a .pdf. Why
doesn't some online card company offer that?)
(Come to think of it, maybe someone does, and I just haven't found them yet.)
Anyway, one friend of ours has been sending us e-cards from designer Jacquie Lawson's
website on many occasions, and as time passed I noticed that the cards were getting better.
Instead of a sappy written sentiment, the emotional impact came from the images and movements
in the animated cards.
In effect, Jacquie Lawson (probably along with others I haven't seen) has reinvented the greeting
card as a short animated movie.
This year's Thanksgiving card from my friend was so good that I finally became a believer in the
animated e-card as a new art form. I went to the website myself to see what else Lawson was
After looking at her demo cards, I subscribed. Her website maintains my email address list, to
which I'm gradually adding more people who I think might appreciate the cards.
But the thing that clinched it for me was her brilliant animated advent calendar.
I love advent calendars -- the bright-colored paintings with little square windows you open to
reveal the picture underneath.
I've always been a bit of an advent calendar snob, though. I disdain the calendars where the
windows are just arbitrarily cut into the picture without any reference to the picture.
The good advent calendars will place windows on actual windows in the picture, or at other spots
that might really conceal something. Then, when you open the window, it reveals an image that
might really be inside or concealed within the object where the window was located.
Jacquie Lawson's advent calendar tops that. The art is lovely and nostalgic (with a distinct
European flair); instead of windows, it has buttons with the numbers of days in December on
The advent calendar program checks your computer's built-in date and time, and won't let you
open any windows whose date has not yet been reached (though you can always open any whose
date has passed).
Of course, you could change your system date, but why bother? The fun of an advent calendar is
having a surprise every day.
And the surprises are delightful. Each day has its own little animation, and Lawson's work is
almost always charming and clever. Sometimes the little filmette is funny, sometimes it's sweet,
sometimes it's sentimental. Just as a Christmas advent calendar is supposed to be.
When I sent Thanksgiving cards of my own to a small list of people, I paid to have Lawson's
website attach the advent calendar to each of them. One copy of the advent calendar costs three
bucks (cheap!), but if you send five or more, each one costs only two bucks (cheapest!)
Of course, the recipients have to decide to install the program on their computer and then click
on it every day to open the big full-screen picture and then click on that day's button. Judging
from the comments I have (or haven't) received, fewer than half of those I sent the advent
calendar to have actually installed it and used it.
But that's OK. If I sent them a rice-cooker, I would never know if they used it or not. And an
unused electronic advent calendar is a lot less wasteful than an unused kitchen appliance!
Those who did install the calendar, though, have loved it -- as I am enjoying my own.
This paper comes out on December 16th, only nine days before Christmas, but what of that? You
can still go to the website and buy an advent calendar for yourself. When you install it, you open
up the village and click on all the days that have already passed and enjoy the unfolding of the
Why not go and see a demonstration of one of the daily animations? It happens that the one they
chose is charming indeed, but it is not even the best.
Here's the link: http://www.jacquielawson.com/advent/landing
And after you view the advent calendar, you can look at the selection of cards and decide whether
you want to pay to join up so you can send cards of various kinds throughout the year.
When the publisher of Cindy Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt trilogy sent us five copies of the
trilogy to give away to our readers, instead of giving them to friends and family as Christmas
presents, or giving them to a random real estate agent to locate possible recipients for us, we did
the honorable thing and had a contest.
People who wanted a copy of the trilogy were required go online to our entry form and "tell us in
25 words or less what a good romance novel should be like." I further defined this by saying,
"Let us know what you think is most important to make a romance worth reading."
There were about fifty submissions, and all of them were thoughtful and well written. It's hard
to work with a mere 25 words, so some people made lists of single words, others wrote short
phrases, and two wrote haikus. Most people, though, wrote complete sentences. I enjoyed all the
In fact, if these contest entries allow me to make a fair judgment, romance readers are literate,
aware, clear-thinking, and sincere.
The entries fell mostly into these five categories:
- Advice to writers of romance novels
- How a good romance novel should make readers feel
- The pros and cons of the formula that romance novels follow
- How to stay in love, even if you're married
- Funny ones
Not everyone requested anonymity, but we decided not to publish any of the winners' names, in
case they are going to give their prizes as Christmas gifts. And to avoid the possibility of
somebody googling their address and breaking in to steal their copy of the trilogy. Readers of
Amish romances are always playing little pranks like that.
Here are the top five entries (in my sole judgment):
Fifth Place: A haiku about the romance formula:
Not a perfect girl.
A hero jaded by life.
Then she wins his heart.
The other haiku in the contest came very close (though the sender gets no prize):
Put aside their selfish ways
To unite in love.
Fourth Place: One of the entries about how romance novels should make the reader feel:
A good romance novel reminds us that love is eternal -- sometimes unexpected, rarely
without complications, often unavoidable, always life-altering -- but, eternal.
Third Place: This falls into the "keeping marriage alive" category:
A good romance novel should remind you to act a little more like you
did at the beginning of your marriage.
This is excellent advice, but because only women tend to read romances, the reminder usually
goes to the spouse who needs it least.
Second Place: This entry is clearly designed as advice to romance writers:
Makes you love the characters enough to want them to love each other. Then,
doesn't gross you out by making them slobbery lovers.
I'm going to have that one printed up on a t-shirt.
First Place: Not that the places matter much -- all five get the same prize. But in my judgment
this was the very best:
It should remind me why I fell in love with my husband, and encourage
me to feel that excitement and tenderness again.
In other words, all ye husbands who resent the time your wife spends reading romance novels,
think again. It may well be that reading romance novels is the only reason she didn't boot your
sorry insensitive boorish butt out of her boudoir years ago.
While jackboot feminists officially disapprove of romance novels, those of a gentler stripe do
read romances and have opinions. One entry included the stipulation that the "heroine does
some things better than the hero and he's okay with that."
One entry went straight to the nub: "A good romance is what Lady Gaga is not caught in."
Some of the entries, including one of the winners, came from men. One would make men the
bellwethers of a good romance novel: "If a guy wants to read it and tells others, it's
Another man has apparently been roped into reading romances against his will: "A hopeful story
of two honorable people finding common ground, with an explosion for the compelled male
reader." Then he added, "Sorry, hoping for a free anniversary gift."
He may not have won a copy of the Quilt Trilogy, but I did send him my own novel Homebody,
which has a pretty good romance -- and an explosion at the end. So he earned a free anniversary
gift after all.
I can't tell from the sender's name if this one came from a man or a woman, but I think it nailed
the formula of at least one subgenre of romance fiction: "Boy. Girl. Quirk. Earthquake.
Zombie Apocalypse. Vampire and/or werewolf. Vampire and/or werewolf killer. Many dead
vampires and/or werewolves. Kiss. Hollywood ending. Supernova."
How the Romance Novel Makes You Feel:
"Unpredictable, passionate, and full of sparks, a good romance novel's push and pull of love's
development evokes sympathetic tears and joy in the reader."
"A good romance has only one requirement: the reader has to care." (And thousands of would-be
romance writers wish you would tell them how to make that happen every single time.)
"The story makes you yearn for the characters to bond together and find true happiness. You
delight in their discovery of each other."
This next one starts out like advice to the writer, but ends up with the reader's ideal response:
1. Avoid saccharine sappiness at all costs
2. Keep sex minimal and ungratuitous
3. Make me want to kiss my husband
You don't feel like kissing your husband without the help of a romance novel? Sounds to me like
somebody's husband needs to get that tooth-brushing habit the health teacher was always going
This one makes a dangerous connection: "A good romance novel should be like fine chocolate;
enjoy it while you have possession of it and then savor the story for weeks afterwards."
If you savor the chocolate for weeks afterward, you may have a toothbrush problem, too. But I
know what she really means, and I just have to point out that both good romance and good
chocolate can lead to serious rapid weight gain.
"Falling in love is at once addictive, confusing, frustrating, and exhilarating. A good romance
novel should re-create those feelings in all their glorious unpredictability."
This reminds me of what a fourteen-year-old boy once said to me, when I cruelly pointed out that
he probably wouldn't end up married to the object of his passion. "I know it's not going
anywhere, but that doesn't mean I don't think about her all the time."
Maybe romance novels are all about couples therapy: "Through deep characters, it should
encourage people to explore and understand their own relationships more completely."
I'm not sure this works. When I was in college I tried applying the principles I learned from
romance fiction to my relationships.
Formula romances seemed to encourage me to seem dangerous or unpleasant at first, and only
gradually let the woman of my dreams see what a sweety I was. None of them stuck around long
enough to discover the sweety part.
Marital Advice from Romance Fiction
Husbands, if you pay attention to nothing else in this column, read and memorize this list. These
women are telling you what they want -- and so far are getting mostly from books:
"A good romance novel should make the heroine (and by extension, the reader) feel treasured
and empowered, because that's what ideal love should do."
"A good woman finds a good man and marries him, without being forced to lure him into
marriage with her body." (Of course, I lured my wife into marriage with my body, but when
you're desperate, you use whatever you've got.)
"A good romance novel should show us what love can be, even amidst hardship, showing us
the best of two imperfect people." What this means, guys, is that when things are going badly for
you -- or her, or both of you-- that's when you need to treat your wife the best.
Some of the entries offered advice to young people about how they ought to arrive at the decision
to marry: "It allows the reader to get wrapped up in the initial infatuation and the eventual love
solidly founded on choice and truth rather than emotion."
Did you get that, all you young-and-in-love whippersnappers? Emotion may start things off, but
you don't marry until your rational mind catches up and gives its approval.
"It should contain real love rather than lust, and deal with the joys and struggles that such real
love entails." To which I can imagine a cynical editor at a publishing house replying, "Yeah, but
the romances where they squeegee like squirrels sell twice as many copies." Though actually I
hope that isn't true.
"When the characters must learn to respect each other's dreams even when those dreams may
prevent them from being together, that is good romance." I'm trying to parse this. You mean
that if their dreams conflict, you want the romance to end with them saying sayonara and going
their separate ways?
A young woman writer said, "For my romances (and romance novels) I need deep characters that
reflect my own inner stirrings, with complex relationships that acknowledge both virtue and
I'm not sure that it's a good idea to conflate romance novels with one's own romances. Life goes
much more smoothly when the relationship isn't complex, and when you both try very hard to get
rid of all vices. Complexity plays much better in fiction than in real life.
At least that's how it seems to one old man -- and to this contestant: "Each protagonist's
presence should improve, rather than enable [the bad behavior of], the other. And even their
conflicts and disagreements should be, via loving commitment, part of their harmony."
"A good romance should be more about a couple's long-term compatibility and goals than their
physical characteristics and hormone levels." OK, come on, now you're just talking like a mom.
Nobody's going to read a romance novel where the hormones are inert, everybody looks
ordinary, and they carefully check out their compatibility and make lists of goals. That's what
businessmen do when they're discussing a merger.
"The way to a woman's heart is through love and faith and trusting each other." That's what my
mom told me, and in the long run, it turned out to be true. But I sure spent a long time getting
through the stage where women only go for the guy with money or an athletic build. I was never
that guy -- I was the dull trustworthy one.
Comments on the Romance Formula
Here it is, in a nutshell: "Girl meets boy and doesn't like him. Boy likes girl and tries to change
her mind. Hijinks. Girl decides she likes boy. The End." Now that you've memorized it, you
too can write romance novels and chick flicks.
"They should get together in the end. Neither of them should die. (Nicholas sparks needs
"Even though you know how it's going to end, the characters are likeable enough that you enjoy
"There should be intrigue (a love triangle or somesuch), stolen kisses, brazen announcements of
one character's love for another (preferably in written form) and, of course, a happy ending."
What intrigued me was the preference for love to be declared in writing. I think of a certain post-it note in Sex and the City, and have to conclude the guy had the right idea after all.
Maybe that "in written form" thing explains why teenagers in love will text each other while
sitting on the same sofa. Even so, I suspect an awful lot of "brazen announcements of one
character's love for another" are still being declared by mouth. Or delivered by hand.
"It should make me cheer for the hero and never lose respect." This sounds good until I
remember Daphne du Maurier's brilliantest-romance-novel-of-all-time, Rebecca, in which I
spent half the book inwardly screaming at the narrator, "Show a little spunk! And while you're
at it, get yourself a name!"
"It should be fresh, and avoid the rampant cliches that infect the 'chick flicks' and novels of our
age. The characters should be real people."
Alas, romance has long been an editor-controlled genre, and if a writer strays too far from the
formula (i.e., the cliches), the editor pulls tight on the reins.
The exception, though, is "chick lit," which is loosely defined as "romance novels for and by
women who majored in English." Here it's an absolute requirement that the heroine deliberately
violate all the romance genre cliches.
Of course, that is rapidly becoming the formula of chick lit. I'm not sure you can ever get rid of
cliches. So I think that if you don't like the cliches of romance fiction, you probably should be
reading something else.
Which you will enjoy until you notice the cliches of that genre. Every literary community has
their own cliches and formulas. They're only bad when a college professor notices them and
calls them "cliches" instead of "tropes."
This last expression of the romance formula baffled me, I'm afraid: "Romantic hero on
neverending quest. Obstacles serious and humorous. Mostly, a happy story. Another device or
quest to occupy secondary characters. Intriguing hero's romantic interest."
Is it just me, or does this sounds like the blueprint of a Terry Pratchett comic fantasy novel?
Advice for Romance Writers
"The mind's the sexiest part of the body -- and that's where a good romance should happen, in
the mind. The best novels provoke the imagination." Unfortunately, that's precisely the
principle on which pornography works, too.
"A good romance novel should avoid love at first sight unless it really needs to be love at first
sight. Make them work for it."
This advice is half right. One of them needs to be in love at first sight, while the other one
absolutely cannot fall in love right away. That's why it takes a whole movie or book to tell the
story. If neither of them falls in love at first sight, then they go their separate ways and you don't
have a story.
"Characters that you either want to be or want to be with." Yes! Exactly! A good romance
novel needs, above all, to be good company. In the movies, you need a nice woman who shares
your own dreams, and a man that you wish you had come to the movie with.
"A story of a relationship that is first and foremost real enough to believe in, but still dramatic
enough to fantasize about." I think this actually describes an aspect of most good fiction,
regardless of genre.
"Sex should be treated artistically, not pornographically." Personally, I don't care how
artistically you try to write the sex. It'll never be as good as the sex you don't attempt to show us
at all. And in period pieces, there shouldn't be any sex at all.
"A good romance novel creates feelings that are new to you, or that are too bold for you to have
ever embraced them personally." Actually, there aren't any new feelings. If a reader is young or
innocent enough, all the feelings are new. How many romance novels does it take, then, for you
to have felt everything so nothing is ever new again?
"Idealistic without losing touch with reality." Come on, if real people didn't lose touch with
reality from time to time, there'd hardly be any marriages at all. Though the ones that did happen
might last longer.
"Characters who remain true to their values." Actually, in a lot of recent romance novels and
chick lit I keep looking in vain for characters who have values.
"No dithering. We know the hero and heroine end up together; dithering is annoying." Um ... by
this definition, the whole novel is dithering, isn't it? I think you mean that whatever it is that
delays them coming together should be believable and fascinating.
"No vampires." I couldn't agree more.
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Airplanes, Ocean Liners, and Haiku
Thursday, Dec. 16 -- Tea Party Day
The Bostonian protestors had nothing against tea. They liked tea. They just didn't like paying
absurd taxes on it.
Meanwhile, the British thought it was ridiculous for English taxpayers to bear the whole burden
of protecting the North American colonies from the French and Indians. Why shouldn't the
colonists pay for at least some of the expenses themselves? Hence, the tax on tea (and all kinds
of other things).
The colonists understood the need to pay for taxes -- but since they had no voice in how the
taxes were spent, and they had no voice in how the taxes would be levied, to some of them, at
least, it felt like they were being treated like a conquered enemy, with tribute exacted from them
against their will to maintain an army that did whatever it wanted without any reference to them
or their desires.
Since it would be a long wait until the next election in which the colonists could vote for or
against the people who made their rules, all they could do was protest -- preferably in a way that
didn't get them sent to jail. So they painted their faces like Indians (though nobody for a moment
thought they actually were Indians -- it just served to disguise their identities), seized the tea
waiting in the harbor for taxes to be paid on it, and dumped it into the water. It was December
It was childish. It was wonderful. Those darned Americans -- clinging to their foolish idea that
citizens should be able to reject even the wisest decisions of a government they don't feel they
have a voice in.
To celebrate this day, go out and make trouble for arrogant government officials, or -- if
elections are available -- run for office and throw the incumbents out.
Oh ... you already did?
Jane Austen, arguably the greatest novelist of all time, was born in Hampshire, England, on this
day in 1775. She was home-schooled, and honed her skills as a wit and fictioneer by writing
cheerful letters filled with acid wit and the kind of clever language that her smartest characters
use to such great advantage.
She wrote in the English mode, which means her prose was never florid, and her primary concern
was with motives and relationships, not with spectacle and glamor. Her writing was so clear and
her world creation so thorough that even now, two hundred years later, she can be read and
enjoyed by anyone -- without the slightest explanation from a professor or critic.
Ludwig Van Beethoven was born in Bonn on this day in 1770 (probably; he was baptized in a
Catholic church on the 17th, so we assume he was born the day before). In his twenties he moved
to Vienna, the music capital of the world (and the greatest city in the German-speaking world),
where he became, in the opinion of many, the greatest orchestral composer of all time.
His hearing impairment began before he was thirty, but even total deafness did not halt his
composing and conducting. However, unlike many modern composers' music, Beethoven's
never sounded as if a deaf person had written it.
There have been a lot of movies about composers and songwriters over the years, most of them
unbelievably silly. It is fitting, however, that the best musician-movie was 1994's Immortal
Beloved, brilliantly written and directed by Bernard Rose and starring Gary Oldman. No other
movie I've seen has captured so compellingly the idea of where music comes from and what it
To this day, I still flash back to the movie when I hear certain works by Beethoven -- even
though I knew them before seeing it. The movie captured and redefined the music for me.
Friday, Dec. 17 -- Airborne Day
1903. Brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright, bicycle shop operators and mechanics (bicycles
were all the rage then), did all the development of their airplane in their shop in Dayton, Ohio.
They only came to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, because the sand dunes there -- and the shallow
protected waters of Albemarle Sound -- offered their best chance of surviving their flight
attempts if things went awry.
It is absurd for North Carolina ever to have claimed the slogan "First in Flight." The only North
Carolinians who flew back then were birds.
The first powered, controlled, and manned heavier-than-air flight lasted less than a minute.
(Balloons and gliders and models had been flown before.) Others claimed to have flown earlier,
but they didn't meet the same standards.
And the Wrights were also vigorous promoters of their invention and all the improved models
that followed, pushing the government to get behind airplanes for military and postal use.
They might have succeeded earlier if they hadn't insisted on prodding the bodies of everyone
who tried to board one of their planes, except the ones that let the brothers gaze at them naked.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, was published on this day in 1843. A print run of
6,000 copies sold out in a week. I would suggest celebrating this as "Christmas Carol Day," but
considering that Christmas music is blasting everywhere, it might feel redundant.
Saturday, Dec. 18 -- Migrants Day
United Nations International Migrants Day recognizes the contributions that millions of
migrant workers make to the global economy. Many migrant workers are still mistreated and
exploited, especially in those nations that ignorantly make their entry illegal even though their
labor is greatly needed.
President Bush tried to get Congress to enact an excellent bill that would have created a legal
non-citizen status for migrant workers, but his own party scuttled the plan for the most idiotic of
reasons: "Enforce the existing law first."
Which makes as much sense as saying, "You can buy a new car that runs perfectly, but first you
have to repair this total wreck, even though there's no hope of ever getting it to run."
And people ask me why I'm not a Republican.
Sunday, Dec. 19 -- King of the World Day
This is Gluten-Free Baking Week. Baking without wheat and gluten can be challenging,
particularly during the holidays. If you are gluten-intolerant or cook for someone who is, go to
www.theglutenfreelifestyle.com , where you can get expert advice from top chefs and cookbook
Or you can stop by the new gluten-free bakery in Greensboro: Lindy's Goodies at 2823 Spring
The Music Man, written and composed by Meredith Wilson, premiered on Broadway on this day
in 1957 and ran until 1961. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical (beating out West
Side Story) and Best Actor for star Robert Preston.
This tale of a con man who sells band instruments but skips out of town without teaching the
kids to play has spectacular patter numbers, and every song in the show is terrific. The reasons
we don't see more productions of it are:
1. The cast includes dozens of children.
2. The show requires enough band instruments for all those children.
3. Somebody has to wrangle all those children backstage between numbers.
Contemplating 1, 2, and 3 can make potential producers and directors so tired they go catatonic
for several days.
James Cameron's epic Titanic was released on this day in 1997. At $200 million, it was the
most expensive film made up to that time, surpassing even Kevin Costner's Waterworld, but
unlike the latter, it made back the investment many times over.
The film won 11 Academy Awards, including best picture, which tied it with 1959's Ben-Hur.
James Cameron's acceptance speech was so weird it even made us forget Kevin Costner's speech
when Dancing with Wolves swept the Oscars. "I'm king of the world," Cameron proclaimed. It
took most of us several minutes to realize he was quoting a bit of dialogue from his movie. But
he was still, at that moment, the vainest git ever to stand on the Oscar stage.
The film made more money than Microsoft. No, wait, nothing makes more money than
Microsoft. But it was certainly more effective than Windows! Or maybe not: They both crashed
and sank many times a day during Titanic's theatrical run.
Titanic made a lot of money, mostly from teenage girls whose parents let them see an R-rated
movie over and over until they had Kate Winslet's boob job memorized. And while the
"original" portions of Cameron's story stank a little -- a standard melodrama with some of the
worst dialogue ever written -- the handling of the wreck of the Titanic was brilliant and heart-rending, making it a movie worth seeing.
With the sound off.
Monday, Dec. 20 -- It's a Wonderful Day
Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life premiered on this day in 1946. Starring James Stewart
(George Bailey), Donna Reed (Mary Bailey), Henry Travers (Clarence Oddbody) and Lionel
Barrymore (Mr. Potter), the film was nominated for five Academy Awards.
But it didn't make much money, not that first year. Like all the great Christmas movies and
stories, from A Christmas Carol to One Magic Christmas, it's about redemption and recovery,
about finding or remembering love. Which means that it goes to some very dark places before it
comes back out into the light. You almost have to watch it once and then remember it in order to
realize how good it is.
Such an enterprise requires the delicate hand of a director like Capra, who genuinely loved
depicting the common man on the screen and did it better than anyone before or since. All the
attempts to remake or put a new twist on this greatest of Christmas movies have succeeded only
in showing how hard it is to get it right, and how much better Frank Capra did it than anyone
Mudd Day is the occasion to remember Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who was born this day in 1833.
Mudd gave medical care to the injured John Wilkes Booth after he fled from Ford's Theatre
after shooting President Lincoln. You could see this as fulfilling his Hippocratic Oath to give
aid to anyone who needs a doctor, or you could see it as "aiding and abetting" a murderer just
after his crime.
The military commission that tried all those involved with the assassination saw it the latter way
and convicted Mudd and sentenced him to life in prison. He served four years of his term before
President Andrew Johnson pardoned him.
Close examination of the evidence leads most people to conclude that Mudd knew exactly what
he was doing -- and that he lied under oath to the commission, which is only okay if you're lying
The U.S. invaded Panama on this day in 1989 to depose President Manuel Noriega and bring
him to America for trial as a drug trafficker. Noriega eluded capture for a while, and eventually
we were treated to the spectacle of U.S. troops surrounding the building where he was ensconced,
playing obnoxious music very loudly in order to drive him mad enough to surrender. Apparently
Tuesday, Dec. 21 -- Crossword Puzzle Day
In the Northern Hemisphere, astronomical winter begins today with the winter solstice at 6:38
p.m., EST. In the Southern Hemisphere, this is the beginning of summer.
If you talk about its being winter any time before December 21st, people are likely to correct you.
You can be covered in snow or freezing in sub-freezing temperatures, but people will primly say,
"Winter doesn't start until the 21st."
Well, you're right and they're wrong to correct you. Astronomical winter is convenient for
calendars, because there are fixed moments for solstices and equinoxes, but the equally valid
meteorological winter is actually closer to the climatic seasons, running from December 1st to
the end of February.
Apparently most people would rather have hyper-precise dates that are not well-connected to the
real seasons, but which make them feel educated for knowing them.
Arthur Wynne built the first crossword puzzle and published it in a supplement to the New York
World on this day in 1913. The creators of crosswords have become far more clever, and
crosswords have many variants. Celebrate the day by working a traditional crossword, a cryptic,
an acrostic, or a word search.
Humbug Day is celebrated by allowing anyone to say "humbug" a maximum of twelve times,
thus venting their frustration with all the frantic business of preparing for Christmas.
National Haiku Poetry Day is devoted to celebrating the Japanese poetic form. Haiku are
traditionally about the seasons, so this day is held annually on the winter solstice.
There is nothing wrong with haiku, except that the form is so easy to master (superficially) and
requires so little understanding of language that English teachers too often use it instead of
teaching the glorious forms and traditions of English language poetry.
Real haiku are delicate, beautiful, minimalist. Most haiku in English are mere aphorisms at best.
In Japanese, which is largely unstressed, counting only the raw number of syllables makes sense.
In English, which has widely varying syllabic stresses, it makes none -- English verse counts
stresses, not syllables, in order to get the same effect. Imagine a poem with a pentameter (the
blank verse line) followed by a heptameter (half of a ballad stanza) and another pentameter. It
would fit our language far better.
The Japanese form didn't drive out the English one -- our schools have adopted it out of sheer
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature film and the first
Technicolor feature, premiered on this day in 1937. It was Walt Disney's "labor of love" and
involved more than 750 artists and four years of development. Walt Disney received a special
Oscar for Snow White -- along with seven miniature Oscars.
And yes, dwarfs is the technically-correct plural of dwarves. That's because the word dwarf
entered our language after the set of irregular plurals was officially closed. But by analogy with
wharf and wharves, scarf and scarves, and nerf and nerves, dwarves simply feels right.
If philologist and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien can use dwarves, so can anyone.
Wednesday, Dec. 22 -- Baby Gorilla Day
The first gorilla born in captivity, Colo, was born in the zoo in Columbus, Ohio, in 1956. She
weighed 3-1/4 pounds and had no hope of leading a natural life. Her mother rejected her at birth.
There was a contest to name her. Everyone was so proud.
Alas, in too many cases it seems that "born in captivity" will become the only alternative to
species extinction. So it's worth remembering that some species, at least, are able to reproduce
even in the most tragically adverse conditions. She grew up to give birth to three children of
her own, and her line continues to propagate. At 54, she is now the oldest living gorilla in
Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini was born on this day in 1858, to
parents who apparently couldn't decide on a gender appropriate name for their child and gave
him all the names they thought of. He grew up to become the composer of such operas as La
Boheme, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly.
Puccini also wrote the aria "O mio babbino caro" ("O my dear papa," from the opera Gianni
Schicchi in 1918), which may be the most beautiful melody ever written. Sung by the
unsurpassed Kiri Te Kanawa, it was featured in the score of the film A Room with a View, and
every time it comes up in rotation on my computer, I stop whatever I'm doing and cry for the
sheer beauty of it.
American poet Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in Maine on this day in 1869. He won
three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry (in 1922, 1925, and 1928), and is best known for short, ironic
narrative poems like "Richard Cory" and "Miniver Cheevy."
To celebrate him -- a definite non-haiku-writer -- let's look at one of his lesser know poems, a
sonnet entitled "Caput Mortuum." The Latin words literally mean "dead head" or "death's
head," but in chemistry the term was used to refer to the worthless residue after processing or
The poem, then, is about a visit -- real or imagined -- from a poet who writes in an outmoded
style. No longer fashionable -- in the eyes of the public a "worthless residue" -- he still has the
power to stir the younger poet's soul, as he pays for hospitality by reciting magical verses from
his glorious but now-forgotten heyday:
Not even if with a wizard force I might
Have summoned whomsoever I would name,
Should anyone else have come than he who came,
Uncalled, to share with me my fire that night;
For though I should have said that all was right,
Or right enough, nothing had been the same
As when I found him there before the flame,
Always a welcome and a useful sight.
Unfailing and exuberant all the time,
Having no gold he paid with golden rhyme,
Of older coinage than his old defeat,
A debt that like himself was obsolete
In Art's long hazard, where no man may choose
Whether he play to win or toil to lose.
The real question in the poem is whether Robinson is positioning himself as the narrator or the
old poet. Probably both, as he ruminates on an artist's fame, and how thoroughly gone it is when
it goes away, and how bittersweet it is when the poet sees his reputation die while yet he has the
power of creation in him.
But see the power here, when the language rolls along in that sublime iambic pentameter line,
with apt rhymes linking the lines together and clinching the sense that here is something
important and true.
This is the power of the musical English language, with its stressed and unstressed syllables
pulsing like a heartbeat. Lovely as haiku might be in Japanese, with their minimalist aesthetic, I
think they disappear in the face of incantations like Edwin Arlington Robinson's.