As we were about to start opening the Christmas gifts on Monday morning, my wife told me that the first gift was for me. It was a small gift box of the sort that is always used in Hallmark Christmas movies -- you know, the kind that looks gift-wrapped, but in fact the lid comes right off.
In movies, that kind of wrapping serves the essential purpose of letting the package come open instantly, without tearing any paper. That means the scene will move more quickly -- not so much unwrapping time -- and also, you can keep using the same prop no matter how many takes the scene requires. Nobody has to keep rewrapping it with the same paper. A definite budget saver.
But my wife's purpose was simpler. That package needed to come open easily, because what was inside needed to be refrigerated immediately. She had taken it out of the fridge only moments before, and there was no way it should sit around waiting for me to get to it in the course of Christmas morning.
So I pulled off the lid, and knew instantly that my wife had won Christmas -- that is, once again she had found a gift so thoughtful, so perfect, that none of my poor attempts could possibly compete. It's hard to be disappointed at "losing" in such a way -- because she really had given me a perfect gift.
It was a small jar labeled "Nana Lu's Mustard."
There wasn't another person in the room who could understand what that meant to me. My dad's mother, Lucena Richards Card (Nana Lu), had made, as one of her many kitchen specialties, a homemade sweet-hot mustard, thick but still pourable. It was always pale yellow, nothing at all like French's mustard -- the only other kind I knew.
As a child, I hated trying new things. But I really liked French's mustard -- I insisted on it for my daily tuna fish sandwiches that I took to school. So when I saw my dad and my older sister eat Nana Lu's mustard with such pleasure, I resolved to give it a try.
My first taste was all by itself, not on anything at all. I had feared it would sting, but not at all. The hotness of it crept up on me; the first taste was mostly sweet, yet full of mustard flavor.
I became a real aficionado, but the problem was that since it contained almost no vinegar, it couldn't be left out like other condiments. It had to be refrigerated. That meant we got it only rarely -- way less often than the other family tradition, Aunt Delpha's Fudge.
Auntie Del's Fudge was a birthday tradition. She was my dad's sister, and also my mom's sister-in-law, making her my aunt on both sides, and all her kids were my double first cousins.
Aunt Delpha seemed to make a batch of fudge for everybody's birthday. It would come in a one-pound See's Candy box, and it's a testament to how brilliant it was that her fudge was the only reason we might ever hope that it was not really See's inside.
Four cylinders of chocolate perfection, that's what her fudge was. My parents would refrigerate it, so it would be easier to cut. Then they would cut up half a roll at a time, fairly thin discs of fudge arrayed on a plate, and each of us would put a slice of fudge in our mouths and let it dissolve.
You would never chew it, because that would make it go away too fast. Only the person whose birthday it was for got extra tastes and slices; that fudge would often last as long as three days. But it was never my fault if it lasted that long. I simply wanted to live the rest of my life with that fudge in my mouth. It was better than talking. It was better than singing.
But eventually, the fudge stopped coming, and years before Aunt Delpha passed away. When she got older, and her husband, our Uncle Sherm (Mom's brother, Dad's brother-in-law) finally succumbed to yet another stroke, Aunt Delpha moved from the family farmhouse to a much more modern house on the same property, with two of her daughters close at hand.
That new house, however, had the most terrible of all "improvements" -- an electric range in the kitchen. My cousins testify that Aunt Delpha tried to make her fudge on that range, but the preset temperatures were never right. On her old gas range, she knew exactly how the flame should look, but on the range you only got settings like low, medium-low, medium, and so on.
None of those was the right temperature for fudge-making. And so she eventually gave up and stopped trying.
Rural electrification was a good thing. Except when it stopped that dependable flow of birthday fudge.
In truth, she was too old to keep up the former pace. Too many children, grandchildren, great grandchildren; too many nieces and nephews and their children.
It would have been fine with me if she had singled me out as the sole recipient of her fudge. Because I was quite certain that nobody else truly understood how perfect it was. (They all said they did, but come on, I'm a reviewer, so I'm much more sensitive to quality. Right? Right?)
I keep trying to find a fudge that's fairly close to Aunt Delpha's, or at least not disgusting by comparison (e.g., Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory). The best I've found is Fannie May's fudge, and while it's very good, it's not really all that close. It makes me think about Auntie Del's Fudge, but it doesn't make me feel as if I've actually had fudge.
There are recipes that die with their makers, even if we have a piece of paper with all the ingredients and instructions on it.
That's how it was with Nana Lu's Mustard.
Now, my wife had seen Nana Lu's Mustard, though as a mustard hater she never tried it; and she had seen how much my dad and I delighted in it. After my father passed away last year, she also saw how much I missed him. And I believe she thought that if she could find a way to make Nana Lu's Mustard again, it would be a kind of comfort.
So she contacted many family members near and far. Nobody had the recipe. I suspect that it's because there are only a few mustard-lovers in the family, so not everybody loved Nana Lu's mustard the way we all loved Auntie Del's Fudge.
But my sister Janice had liked it, though perhaps not as fanatically as I did, and she knew that she had once had the recipe. Since she is the inheritor of our parents' house, it has fallen on her to sort through all the possessions they left behind (as is the tradition, they had taken very few with them), and she had an idea which of the as-yet-unsorted boxes might contain it.
And it did. She copied it and sent it to my wife.
But having a recipe does not mean that you know how to make it. For instance, there were instructions like, "Add water until the consistency is right." What was my wife supposed to do with that?
Experiment, that's what. Yet because my wife is not a mustard fan, she couldn't possibly perform a meaningful taste test herself. She had to make small batches until it looked the way she remembered it looking, and then hope that she had gotten it right.
That's what I opened as the first gift on Christmas morning. The moment I saw the label on the jar, tears came to my eyes. My wife had given me back a piece of my childhood, and had gone to a great deal of trouble to do it. There was nothing in any of my packages for her that could compare.
I was going to end this Christmas far more grateful to her than she would be to me, and so I conceded defeat right from the start. "You've won Christmas," I said.
Then I went into the kitchen and, while everyone else waited near the Christmas tree, I put some of the mustard on a bit of bread with a bit of turkey and tasted it. Yes, that was it, that was right. The only difference was that Nana Lu's Mustard was just the tiniest bit runnier -- but it was actually better this way, with a little more body. Still completely spreadable, but not so likely to spill. I wasn't going to lose a drop.
And it had just the right kick -- not very hot at the first taste, but growing and building in your mouth until it was noticeably -- but not unpleasantly -- spicy.
Yeah, there are super-hot Chinese mustards that make you cry. But my wife's iteration of Nana Lu's Mustard made me cry for a completely different reason. It was a taste of my childhood. It was a bond between me and my dad and his mother. It was a gift of love.
Not everything goes perfectly on Christmas morning. Often, the biggest disappointment is when somebody makes a wild guess as to what is inside a well-wrapped present -- and they're right. We have one friend who is so notorious for this that for his own preservation as a living human he has stopped guessing, at least out loud.
Then there are the gifts for children that they quickly abandon.
We had two of our six grandchildren with us, and they gave the best "we love this gift" demonstration I've ever seen. Lots of squealing and screaming. Toys immediately got played with, and with such enjoyment that we sometimes couldn't get them to pay attention to still-wrapped presents.
In fact, their love of the first few hours of gifts was so great that when, at the end, my wife and daughter started remembering gifts that should have been under the tree, and weren't, it didn't seem like a problem. The little girls kept playing, we had lunch, all was well.
Except for the mystery of the missing gifts. My wife, who has an excellent memory, thought back to several weeks ago when she and I spent the evening wrapping those gifts. We had divided them into two piles, and placed each girl's gifts into one of the big plastic bins we use at Christmas time. Then my wife carefully put those bins in the family room, where the girls always play when they visit. She put the bins behind stuff so nobody would see them and get tempted to peek.
Oh, yes, thought my wife on Monday afternoon. I never got out those bins on Christmas Eve.
The girls had no concept of how many gifts Christmas is supposed to contain. And we had definitely committed the sin of grandparent overkill -- though many of the gifts were ones that our daughter and son-in-law had bought for their daughters and had Amazon ship to us. In short, the overkill was a joint operation.
So, exhausted by the day's events, the girls went to bed Monday night without having been told that half their gifts remained to be opened. And Tuesday went by without any need to have a repeat of Christmas morning.
We'll get to it, mostly because a lot of these gifts won't be appropriate for their age level a year from now. It's nice to know that our daughter and her husband are raising children so happy and generous at heart that when they've received enough, they're not greedy for more,
It's not reassuring to know that we can forget two bins of Christmas gifts -- it especially bothered my wife because, of course, nobody expects me to remember anything ever. We all rely on her memory, so if it's unreliable ...
Neither my wife nor I has any symptoms of Alzheimers Syndrome; nor do we have any family history of it, though each of us lost one grandfather at an early enough age that we don't know whether he might have developed the disease later on.
We know that even non-Alzheimers dementia can be devastating to the life of an old person, so we would never dream of making fun of people who actually suffer from the condition.
Still, our son-in-law had earlier joked with us about what he and others in his Irish Catholic family called "Irish Alzheimers," which means that the person who has the condition never forgets a grudge.
I realized that with precious little Irish ancestry, I have clearly suffered from that condition all my life -- I'm still angry at certain teachers and authority figures who did spiteful, nasty things to me before I got married; and I do not forget or forgive any harm that anyone ever did to any of my children.
That inability to forgive such things is only one of the many reasons I fully expect to go to hell.
But we have now discovered a new condition, called Christmas Dementia, in which you forget the gifts you bought and wrapped.
Despite the evidence of the forgotten bins, my wife does not suffer from this condition, because she and our daughter remembered that there were gifts that had not made it under the tree.
No, I'm the one with Christmas Dementia, because even though I had wrapped at least half the gifts in those bins, I didn't even notice that they weren't there. Nor can I remember even now what any of them were.
And this is not a recent thing for me. I well remember the Christmas when I gave the same CD to the same person twice. Apparently I had bought it when it first came out, in September, then wrapped it and set it aside. In December, I noticed it again, forgot that I had already bought it, and purchased it yet again for the same person.
All I could say, when he opened the same CD for the second time, was, "I can't make you like it, but I can definitely make you own it."
Right now, as I'm writing this, there is behind me a sack of gifts that I never wrapped. There were three other bags here in my office that I dutifully remembered to take downstairs on Christmas Eve, to wrap or stuff into stockings. But this bag had a smaller plastic store bag at the top, which contained electronics supplies I had bought for myself.
Tonight, as I came into my office to write this column, I lifted out that store bag and realized that the bigger bag under it was two-thirds full of really good stocking-stuffer gifts that were now going to either remain with me till next Christmas (at which time I'll forget them again), or will be distributed by hand, never-wrapped, as soon as I feel up to dealing with the humiliation of my Christmas dementia.
This is all a part of my strategy to try to get at least one decent present for each beloved person on my list. (In case you wondered, my list has no unloved people on it.) Since I don't have the talent of the various personal shoppers featured as characters in Hallmark Christmas movies, my strategy is this:
I look at things I can afford, and I think, is there anyone on my list who might really like this? And if I think of somebody, I buy it.
Then, near Christmas, when I'm wrapping like crazy, I pull out all the boxes and shopping bags and can't for the life of me remember whom half of them were intended for. So I reassign them willy-nilly. And then sometimes I remember, and assign them back. Though sometimes I remember after the new recipient has received it, and therefore I don't set things straight. I just feel stupid.
So yeah, that's part of the post-Christmas let-down for me. I had such hopes for Christmas, but time after time I realize, That gift wasn't anything that this beloved person wanted. Once again, I've spent a lot of money buying stuff that nobody actually wants.
That's why my wife doesn't even have to try to win Christmas. She's so thoughtful, so wise, so good at remembering what will mean something to the recipient. I am in awe. All I have are money and the ability to completely forget that I've already gotten something for that person, so I get something else besides.
So my strategy is bulk instead of quality. Quality is better, but as a general rule, it requires a good memory.
Thus I usually end Christmas Day feeling as if I need to apologize to everybody. But I don't do that, because then they would feel the need to reassure me by pretending to like the gift. So instead I just spend the rest of Christmas day playing games with the family, losing because I'm still brooding over my Christmas failures.
Don't think for a moment that this stops me from enjoying every taste of Nana Lu's Mustard.
This was a good Christmas for Amazon.com. Some estimates have it that more than three-quarters of Americans purchased something from Amazon during this holiday season -- and a lot of us bought a lot of stuff from them!
Add to that the fact that various Amazon electronic products -- especially those involving Alexa -- were among this year's top sellers, and you can figure they have to be happy about the bottom line.
But I'm not happy with Amazon's performance this Christmas.
Sure, they got everything I ordered from them to our house (or other recipients) on time. But "on time" is not the only thing I care about.
When Amazon.com first started -- you know, back when it was a bookstore -- one of their hallmarks was that when you opened that weirdly smiling box, what you found inside was a perfectly packaged book.
Remember when they would shrinkwrap the book to a heavy corrugated base, so that there was no possibility of the book breaking free and getting banged up in transit?
Well, I was sad to see how that high standard has disappeared.
For the past few years, it has become more and more frequent that when I order multiple items, including one or two books, those books will simply be tossed into the box along with the other stuff.
When you ship a book in a box with other stuff, and you don't at least wrap it in brown paper, during transit things are going to get pushed down into the pages, folding them, or the whole book will be bent, or all kinds of other damage will occur. Or all of the above.
Whether you're meaning to give it as a gift or read it yourself, it's hard to deal with a book that is bent, or whose pages are haphazardly folded.
We've had books just dropped in a box and left to fend for themselves, or books tightly packed except that there's room for just one more book in the stack, so the whole pile is loose. When books are carelessly packed, of course they'll be destroyed during shipping.
But this Christmas we had the most perfect and classic Amazon Fail.
My wife had ordered a game to give me as a gift. She didn't ask for Amazon to gift-wrap it, because she intended to wrap it herself. The game was packaged in a fairly robust box -- not as nice as a Trivial Pursuit game box, but decently sturdy.
She expected that whatever else happened, Amazon would put that game inside an Amazon-logo box, if for no other reason than that at Christmas time, you want to keep gifts secret.
Now, we don't know, but we imagine that maybe, in the pack-and-ship assembly line at one of the Amazon warehouses, that game and our address came along just as they ran out of Amazon boxes.
While a supervisor ran to fetch more boxes (or yell at the person whose job it was to keep every station supplied), the packer realized that his or her line was still feeding new items to be packed. Falling behind, he acted out of desperation.
Instead of waiting for a brown corrugated box with the Amazon logo, he taped all the way around the edges of the game box so that it wouldn't come apart, and then affixed the stick-on label directly to the front of the game box.
That's right. That game was shipped to us naked, with the label covering most of the lid of the box.
Surprisingly, that game box arrived with less damage than things we have gotten inside Amazon boxes in the past few months. Somebody apparently treated that naked box rather tenderly, seeing how unprotected it was. No bent corners.
But there was no way my wife could give it as a gift -- not even to me! We would have to cut our way through the tape to get the box open, and then, no matter what, we would either have a big shipping label covering all the art and words on the box lid, or we would have the scarred box surface where the label was torn off.
It was a complete fail, so my wife sent it back to Amazon.
So as that employee stood there debating what to do without a brown box to put the game in, he took a course of action that cost Amazon the most possible money: Not only was it guaranteed that the game would be returned to Amazon for full credit, but also the game could not be returned unsold to the manufacturer, because obviously it had been sold, then returned, and now nobody would buy it with my wife's name and address on that big shipping label.
One isolated incident like this might be amusing and nothing else; but in the past couple of years we've had so much careless packing from Amazon that we're now very careful what we buy at the same time as any books (except, obviously, ebooks). Because if we buy books and San Pellegrino Aranciata sodas, or books and 100 seven-ounce clear plastic cups, or books and a four-pack of Viva Choose-A-Sheet paper towels, we can be sure they'll arrive in the same box -- and the book will probably be mashed.
Oh, for the days of shrink-wrapping books to protect them so they arrive in perfect condition!
Obviously, Amazon.com has moved so far past books that they no longer remember when perfect packaging was the only way to compete with physical bookstores, where you can pick the most-perfect copy from the shelf every time.
Obviously, they think that low price (usually achieved by forcing publishers to give them a better discount, which often translates into lower pay for the authors) and speedy delivery (don't you hate having things left on your porch on Sunday, when you're not looking for deliveries?) are all they need in order to compete.
But we, at least, are doing a lot more of our book-buying at Barnes & Noble here in town, because when we bring a pristine book to the counter to check out, the clerk at B&N never bends it, never bashes the pages against the counter to bend them and fold them.
Instead the check-out clerk takes responsibility for laying the books neatly and safely inside a bag, so that when we get the bag home, they're in excellent condition.
Crap-shipping is a service that only Amazon.com offers, and I, for one, am weary of books arriving in that condition.
But hey, Amazon is making so much money selling everything but books that the only way you can be sure to get good quality shipping on a book is to buy it on Amazon from a vendor other than Amazon. Those guys prep your book purchases for surgery, they take such loving care of them.
Isn't it sad when a company's standards go so sharply and so far downhill?
Right now it isn't hurting them -- but it will hurt them, especially when a competitor starts advertising, "We package your book as carefully as Amazon used to, back when they were a bookstore and cared about you as a customer."
Oh, yeah. The new Star Wars movie.
I've heard some people rave about it. Best Star Wars ever! (Close but no cigar.)
I've heard other people rant against it. How could they do this and this and that to our beloved characters! (Because it's a made-up story and the characters aren't real. Sorry to be the one to tell you.)
Look, the J.J. Abrams episode VII brought the franchise back to life after the hideous Lucas-directed prequels, and with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson kept that momentum going.
Where every actor directed by Lucas in his Star Wars prequels gave the worst performance of his or her career (and young Jake Lloyd's career simply vanished after he was forced to say lines from Lucas's script), Rian Johnson, like Abrams, has brought out the best from his actors.
Not only did he get the most coherent performance I've ever seen from Benicio Del Toro, but also he made me actually take interest in Adam Driver's performance (as Kylo Ren), something that has never happened to me before.
Mark Hamill has grown as a man and as an actor since his youthful days in the original trilogy, and he is given some good material to work with here. Andy Serkis is, of course, swallowed up in CGI, but his performance as Snoke was powerful and expressive.
I was also astonished by the way Laura Dern was allowed to play a military commander without having to rant and shout, and let's face it, from top to bottom this cast was well-chosen for talent and looks -- and then were given a script and a director who showed them off to good advantage.
Unlike the Lucas-directed movies, nobody has to apologize for a moment of this film.
After about half the credits, there was the message I was waiting for: In Loving Memory of our Princess: Carrie Fisher.
And that's the elephant in the room, on this movie. Everything in this script makes the story point toward Princess Leia as the heart and soul of the upcoming ninth and final film.
No wonder that J.J. Abrams, as he gets the ninth film returned to him, talks about "taking it in a new direction." He has no choice! Carrie Fisher's death after shooting all her scenes for this movie has tied the next movie in a knot.
Anybody who thinks you can recast that part is insane. What actress of quality would take on some other actress's signature role?
You might as well imagine some other redhead playing Lucy on I Love Lucy or some other actress finishing Gone With the Wind because Vivien Leigh died in the middle of filming.
And you're just as crazy if you think they can use previous footage of Carrie Fisher or, even worse, create a CGI version of her to go through the paces. Even if the CGI were excellent (which, at this point in time, real-person simulations are not), we would all know this was an attempt to make a puppet out of a beloved dead actor.
Carrie Fisher is definitely out of the next picture.
But what about this picture, the one she actually made? The one where she and Mark Hamill -- who were both young kids just starting out in the original Star Wars (which we pretend is episode four, but which we all know is really the first and, in many ways, the best of the franchise) -- get to say good-bye.
You know she must have ad-libbed the line she greets him with: "Luke, I know what you're going to say. I changed my hair." Her horrible hair-do in the first movie is still ridiculous today, so yes, we all like what she's been allowed to do with her hair in this film!
Here's what works in The Last Jedi: Everything that really matters in the story consists of character relationships and self-discovery. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker, but Luke is grimly determined not to train her because he wants the Jedi Knights to disappear from the physical universe.
(Amusing that the same dilemma is coming up in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive, as the Knights Radiant may be the most dangerous creatures in the world.)
There's also the ongoing struggle between Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as a reckless, disobedient pilot and squad leader for the Resistance and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), the commander while Princess Leia is unconscious.
In any military that hopes to survive, Poe would have been imprisoned and/or executed for his disobedience to direct orders in the face of the enemy -- particularly because he causes his side to come out the losers in a game of attrition.
But Hollywood lives on the Myth Of The Rebel, a horrible disfigurement of hero stories in which the hero must always be a brat, no matter how ridiculous it is.
Wasn't Benicio Del Toro's character brat enough for them?
And the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren also works, as they are brought together by the Force to try to lure each other to the opposite side of the Force.
So what is it that doesn't work?
Endless meaningless complications where it seems that all is lost, and then, with a wave of the hand, it isn't lost after all. Sure, they have some babble explaining how things worked out, but it's all kwap.
There's the normal Star Wars sci-kwap, like everybody in airtight ships leaving the doors and windows open, and everybody being able to pilot everybody else's ships without training. Plus the bad guys still keep building huge ultimate-weapon ships with design flaws that allow a perfectly-aimed bomb or thirty to smithereen it.
Of course only one bomber or fighter ever makes it through. Of course the person trying to release the bombs ends up separated from the remote control and has to use the force plus a few kicks to get it into her hand. Of course everybody dies in attack after attack, except the actors we want to keep.
And of course the Force remains the appallingly shallow religion that it has been all along -- Manichaeism without any of the subtlety, or any understanding of how to define good and evil in any way different from nice and naughty. You know, a Santa Claus religion without the reindeer.
Except, by golly, we have the reindeer in a double dose of Disney Cute: the nauseating little owls that become Chewbacca's companions on the Millennium Falcon, and the scampering Crystal Critters (fake-named "vulptex," plural "vulptices) who exist on an ice planet where there is absolutely nothing for them to eat.
Even when the film send Luke fishing, he has to do it with a fifty-foot harpoon from a ridiculous ledge. This is just crapventure, meaningless stunts that destroy believability but, apparently, enhance the audience's adrenalin dose.
Let's face it: There is nothing so ridiculous and embarrassing that true Star Wars fans won't believe it.
Which is why, even though the script takes great pains with the characters and relationship, it barely pays even the slightest attention to how science, engineering, the military, and politics work in the real world.
Whatever they need to have happen, happens, and if it doesn't make sense, you'll either have a true believer who is eager to fansplain it all to you, or you'll hear a critic saying, Why do you care? It's only a movie.
I mean, Star Wars is now competing directly with Marvel Studios steadily-more-nonsensical effort to put every character from the Marvel universe in every movie. Compared to that stuff, Star Wars makes sense.
Hey, eventually you know that Disney will buy Marvel (Or have they already bought it?) and then we'll see X Men showing up in Star Wars movies (not to mention having Guardians of the Galaxy pop up in Princess movies).
Because, you know, the audience is mostly Americans, plus however many foreigners are as ignorant of science, history, and the workings of the real world as Americans are.
Think of our Hollywood crapventure movies as our antidote to the way that other countries' educational systems outperform our own. Who cares if they learn real things in high school and college? Get 'em to watch enough American movies and we'll dumb 'em down to our level.
Look, The Last Jedi is actually better in most ways than most of the movies in the franchise. They were all stupid, right from the start, and if they're getting stupider over time, mostly because of how seriously they take the fake religion, at least the most recent ones have gone back to a much earlier level of stupidity, before Lucas drove the series into the septic tank with his prequels.
I enjoyed The Last Jedi, even as I noticed a lot of flaws. I found myself caring about and being moved by several of the characters and relationships -- way more than in any Star Trek movie, mostly because there were no Vulcans in it.
But maybe a lot of my emotional involvement came from seeing Carrie Fisher on the screen. She was smart and she was skilled, and every moment I saw and heard her on the screen I mourned a little because, doggone it, she's dead, and this is the last we'll have of her performances.
Except, you know, stuff we already have on DVD and DVR.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
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