That’s my medium and I’m sticking with it: A Charlie Brown Christmas

Presently we’re entering the home stretch of the Christmas Feast — a time when even many of those faithfully desiring to keep the feast find themselves getting worn down by Christmas fatigue.  I can think of at least two sources of this fatigue.  The first is that celebrating and having a good time are hard work — good work, but work not easy to keep up over the long haul.  The second is the encroachment of the commercial racket.  After all, we’ve been bombarded with various and sundry Christmas messages since November 1.  How much longer can we even think about it?

The last half century has not produced too many effective fortifications against Christmas fatigue.  But it has produced one highly improbable one: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Upon one viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is evident that this is a different Christmas special. In modern American Christmas entertainment, it has no parallel. First, compared to most of the slick, well-polished Christmas specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas has a rough, unfinished feel to it.  The characters are actually voiced by children, in most cases children with no previous voice-over experience; and, in many places, the show plays more like a series of loosely connected comic strips than a well-integrated story (not surprising, given that the three-frame comic strip was writer Charles Schulz’s regular medium). Far from being limitations, though, those qualities actually make the special earthier and more like real life. There is no glitz, no jingly-jangly bells, little adornment, and much melancholy.  The common theme that holds the show together is the extended jeremiad about the commercialization of Christmas.

Indeed, Charlie Brown’s struggle against the commercialization of Christmas in the show paralleled Charles Schulz’s struggle against the CBS executives.  Schulz had to fight on a few fronts to keep the show as he’d conceived it.  First, in keeping with convention for kids’ shows, the CBS execs had wanted to add a laugh track – a suggestion Schulz firmly rejected. Second, the execs didn’t like Vince Guaraldi’s brilliantly understated jazz score; this, after all, was a children’s Christmas special, and why would anybody even think about setting it to jazz? Again, Schulz held the line. Finally, the CBS execs were appalled at Linus’s reading St Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus – better to stick with a vague, lowest-common-denominator Christmas message to avoid offending anyone. This was Schulz’s Alamo: No gospel of Luke, no show, he said.

Schulz’s battles are a fitting backdrop, then, to the show itself.  A Charlie Brown Christmas begins with Charlie Brown announcing the problem that will dominate the story: “There must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents, and sending Christmas cards, and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy.” Things get worse when Charlie Brown learns that both his dog and his little sister have “gone commercial,” and when Lucy tells him that “we all know that Christmas is a big commercial racket. It’s run by a big eastern syndicate, you know.” And Charlie Brown’s “rock bottom” is the ridicule he receives for picking a small wooden tree (significantly, the only wooden tree on the lot) over a flashy aluminum one for the Christmas play.

It is at that point, when the salesmen in the temple of Christmas seemingly have their feet most firmly planted on Charlie Brown’s neck, that in exasperation he asks the momentous question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?” Then Linus steps into the spotlight, and with his trusty blanket and a simple recitation of the Christmas story as recorded by St. Luke, drives the salesmen out of the temple, with their shameless sales pitches and bloated pageantry. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Smiling, Charlie Brown picks up his fragile little tree and walks happily out of the theater into the crisp, starry December night.

His joy, though, is short-lived. The first blow it suffers is seeing that Snoopy won first prize in the commercial lights and display contest. When the “big eastern syndicate” running Christmas gets its tentacles into your beagle’s doghouse, it’s easy to take your eye off the babe in the manger and the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem.

Charlie Brown shrugs that off, though, and proceeds to put one of the bulbs from Snoopy’s doghouse on his little tree. Disaster – the tree collapses from the weight. Crushed, Charlie Brown walks off, lamenting, “everything I touch gets ruined.” This is a thornier problem than commercialization, because it isn’t inflicted from without, but from within. And it has a sting of truth in it common to all. Like Charlie Brown, we are a people of clumsy and unclean hands, and our deeds, projects, and relationships all bear our smudgy fingerprints.

Thankfully, Charlie Brown has a good friend who comes along, sees the wreck he’d left in his path, and, with a little love and his trusty blanket, heals it. That friend is of course Linus. In the theater Linus had taken on the mantle of a prophet, confronting big evils with plain truth; now, in this scene, he’s become a priest, intervening for and lifting up the broken and downtrodden.

It isn’t a complicated story, and, as I mentioned before, the component pieces don’t hang neatly together. But I’ve been watching it since I was eight, when I did not even know that the weird text Linus read in that animated auditorium was from the Bible. For years, I could not understand the quality that kept dragging me back to watch it, year after year, or why Linus’s reading had so deeply seared my young pagan mind.

But now I get it. A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of the few pieces of holy Christmas entertainment produced in the twentieth century. Fittingly for a Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas does not animate distant, untouchable holiness, but holiness come near and reaching out, stirring our imaginations, fortifying us against the cultural acids that wear us down, leaving us a little different than before. The show isn’t bombastically holy, but — perhaps as real holiness always is — it’s gentle and unemphatic. Far from being ponderous, it wears its gravitas lightly. In a world overcrowded with entertainment profane, banal, or even just vaguely wholesome or fuzzy-warm, A Charlie Brown Christmas stands out as a testament that real, gritty, in-the-medium and on-the-ground holiness never goes out of style. Which is, after all, what Christmas is all about.


The humor of English

Words… words… words…

Brian talked about empty words…and I am going to talk about the power of words, the humor of words, and my love of words.

English is a fascinating language.  It has been refereed to as the bastard tongue because it borrows shamelessly for other languages and makes those words its own.  It is curious how English has changed over the years.  Those of you who have struggled over reading and/or watching a Shakespearean play maybe surprised to know that Shakespearean English is actually classified as modern English.  It would seem that while English gathers words from other languages it does not always retain said vocabulary. John Branyan points out in his little skit that Shakespeare had a working vocabulary of 54000 words while the modern American has only about 3000.  I am not sure how accurate his numbers are but it doesn’t sound to far off.

Here is a little humor on this very subject:

Shakespeare would have lived during the height of English word borrowing. As part of his grammar schooling (aka elementary education) he would have mastered Latin, Greek and French.  Word borrowing form these languages would have been acceptable as well us rather common.  His peers would have known what he was talking about.  Shakespeare also made up words.  We’d call him a wordsmith.  But he gave us words like “heartburn” and “puke.”  But one of the joys of the English language is that it is not stagnant.  We may have lost words but we gain words all the time as well.  And we don’t have to go back that far to see new words.  No one had heard of Google 15 years ago and now Google is not only a noun but a verb. I google things all the time. “Just google it.” There are now ipads, ipods, skype/skyping.  Words that are now part of our every day vocabulary.

So don’t be daunted by the immensity of the English language.  Embrace it; after all for most of us it is our native tongue.  Read the classics and enjoy the process of learning new words, rediscovering old words, and keeping the English language alive!

A New Year’s Resolution: No More Empty Words

Don't stick your tongue out at me!

Empty words.  Those words are so powerful and yet so…empty.  Bare.  Blank.  Dead.  Deflated.  Exhausted. Vacant.  Vacuous. Void.  Wasted.  And yet we cling to those empty words like they are our children.  We coddle them.  We lavish attention on them.  We cradle them like a baby bird.  But should that be so?  Are we, as writers, simply preying upon innocent words that have done us no harm?  Try reading through this Wikipedia article for an idea of what I’m discussing.  Come back tomorrow and the next day and I’ll paste links to other people talking about empty words.  I might even just steal their stuff wholesale and pretend its mine, if I’m feeling really devious!

Right….  Blah, blah, blah, blah!  😉

I hope I didn’t lose anyone in my lame attempt at irony.  I opened a post on empty words by giving you empty words–a list of synonyms, meaningless “profound” comments, a link to Wikipedia, and a picture of an unrelated cute animal (My dog, Caspian, BTW).    The internet, particularly the blogosphere, produces far more inane banter than it does decent text.  I hereby resolve (and humbly ask that you join me) to do my part over the course of the next year to change that by contributing content that represents actual effort and therefore might possibly be worth someone’s time!

Don’t get me wrong–I don’t want to judge empty worders all too harshly.  I understand the temptation all too well and have been guilty of it myseld.  Years ago I tried my hand at political/cultural op-eds.  I tried to write a couple a week in order to establish my name and get some ideas out there. Though not a blogger in the truest sense–I was writing for a variety of websites, not just my own blog–I quickly discovered the blogger’s dilemma:  There were days when I simply had nothing worthwhile to contribute that others hadn’t already said, but I still had to write something.  The result was self-admitted slop that I couldn’t defend from myself, let alone the public.  It wasn’t long before I just dropped it altogether.  I would rather just not write than have to spew nonsense for the sake of getting words onto the internet.

I don’t think it has to be this way.  Here are some thoughts on how we might try to address the problem:

  • Give some thought to your blog structure and authors:  Here at LHP, we actually have it rather easy, and that’s because we worked it out ahead of time.  We have seven regular bloggers and people who contribute guest posts.  That means that we are able take off weeks (sometimes a month) to recharge our creative batteries. You might consider bringing in like-minded friends and establishing a regular schedule.  For even more fun, you might consider bringing in people who profoundly disagree with you.  🙂
  • Remember that you don’t have to blog every day, just often:  I’ve read sites that disagree with this, but if you care about producing content instead of slop, I suggest you ignore them.  Write when you have something worth saying, and (as long as you’re also easy to find on the search engines) people will take notice.  Blogging three times a week, for example, will give you a regular schedule, and a chance to breathe between posts.  Remember, if your schedule starts to wear on you, your posts will start to wear on us.
  • Break up longer posts into installments:  Do you really think that thousands of people are going to actually read your three thousand word treatise on whatever?  Even if they are interested in the topic, probably not.  Does that mean it isn’t worth saying it all?  Of course not, but give it to your readers in smaller doses spread out over time.  That approach lets you have your say, gives your readers something good to look forward to, and doesn’t overwhelm them. (I would provide a series of links in each post to make it easy for them to navigate to the rest of your essay.)  It also increases the useful life of an idea, allowing you the chance to not only say it right, but to get that coveted breathing room you need to come up with other thoughts that matter.
  • Plan ahead.  Balance “filler” and “anchor” posts:  One important distinction I came across as we began our own blog is the difference between “filler” and “anchor” posts.  In short, not every post needs to be of cosmic significance and draw in a thousand hits per month.  You want those posts, of course, but if you just throw them up whenever they first occur to you, your blog will likely alternate between feast and famine.  Planning ahead a bit by spacing out your anchor posts between smaller (but still worthwhile) posts will even out the keel significantly without burning you out.
  • Redefine “filler” posts:  Filler posts need not mean “ripped off content” or “mindless blather.”  You don’t have to talk about the significance of your breakfast.  Aim to make these posts shorter than your anchor posts, and to identify several large themes or situations that can quickly provoke you into saying something that is (you hope) worth hearing.  Book and movie commentary is a tried and true approach, but there are plenty of other topics to think on, such as flash fiction or even politics.  Over the past year, I’ve developed my “Music to Write By!” series to help fill this gap.  This year I intend to add a series on the flora and fauna of fairieland, inspired by my recently returned copy of Katherine Briggs Encyclopedia.  The key, in the end, is to produce a meaningful post worth someone else’s time without exhausting yourself.  It can be done.

And finally, be patient!  Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither is a successful blog.  Take your time with your ideas, plan accordingly, and relax.  After all, this is supposed to be fun, isn’t it?  😉

Happy New Year!

For the Moment he is in One of Those Magical Flying Machines

Our resident science fiction expert Erik is currently making an epic journey (think Lord of the Rings) through the air (okay, maybe more like… what’s a good sci-fi reference? I have no idea) to reach Scotland and help me hunt for dragons and claim castles for a couple of weeks.  He was hoping to put up a post during his layover, but since Amsterdam is apparently devoid of both tulips and a good internet connection, I just thought I’d explain the situation so that those of you who are waiting with bated breath for a savvy post on tech-related awesomeness would understand why it is being delayed.

In the meantime, you can ponder the wonders of airplane flight and how it is clearly a thing of magic, not science, that people can sit in a gigantic machine suspended in the air and confidently expect it to stay aloft and not plunge into the Atlantic.

Definitely magic.


Miniseries Review: ‘Neverland’ When Peter Learned to Fly

A week ago, I watched a two part mini-series that aired this month on the Syfy channel called Neverland.  As you can probably guess, it is based on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (which I reviewed in an earlier post here), but also predictably, it is very loosely based.

I will start off by saying that I very much enjoyed the miniseries.  I watched it knowing full well that it would not be a play by play of the book.  The preview (given at the bottom) told me that from the start and knowing what I do of Syfy, I expected it to be a creative reinterpretation.  I think it’s important to have reasonable expectations when watching something that is based on literature.  Otherwise, you will spend the entire film griping rather than actually assessing whether it is worth watching on its own merit or not.

Now, I will do my best to discuss the miniseries without giving away anything, but if you are terribly nervous about it and don’t want to accidentally find out that everyone dies at the end – I mean… any of the details, go hunt down the miniseries and watch it before reading on.

What Did I Like?

Why is Hook hugging Peter Pan? And where's his hook???

The story explains how Peter, the Lost Boys, and Hook came to arrive in Neverland and sets up a sort of possible prequel to the story of Peter Pan that we know.  I found this intriguing and original because there was no Wendy, no longstanding feud between Peter Pan and Captain Hook, and no adventures at all yet in Neverland for Peter and the Lost Boys.  We get to see who they were before they went to Neverland.

I loved the creation of Neverland itself.  It is extremely beautiful, dangerous, and alien.  When the boys come to Neverland, you feel as though you were somewhere very, very different.  Strange woods, ten-legged monstrous crocs, and vast expanses of cliffs and mountains give the viewers a sense of vastness and also of being far from home.

And finally, the characters, I thought, were generally well done.  Peter is a cocky, but sweet and brave young boy, and his relationship with James Hook is an interesting one.  The pirates and Lost Boys, as well as Tinker Bell, did a good job in their secondary roles.

What Was I Less Thrilled About?

I said that the series is a spin off of the original Peter Pan legend so it is not trying to be ‘accurate’ per se.  It interprets and changes different things in order to tell a good story, and I really have no problem with that.  However, the show did attempt to weave in many of the key Peter Pan elements, such as how he learned to fly, how Hook ended up with, well, a hook, and the relationship between Peter Pan and Tinkerbell.  It did a very nice job, too.  But there is one thing about the story of Peter Pan that the show promisingly picked up and then rudely dropped and I found that a bit jarring.  I won’t go into detail, but if you know anything about the book, you will know that the Peter Pan of the book is a very carefree, forgetful person.  He nearly forgets about Wendy and the boys while they are flying to Neverland.  He is Pan, a heedless and mirthful figure that we might admire, but we cannot truly bond with.

The miniseries began to do something with the idea of Peter Pan as the mirthful, but forgetful character, utterly lacking in maturity and growth, but then the director seemed to change his mind and a truly brilliant idea was lost.

The other issue that really bothered me was how rushed the ending was.  It had a good, steady pace up until the last bit and then seemed to realize that it was out of time just when most viewers would really have liked to see a little more development of the final stages.  The ending was too fast.

To Sum Up:

All in all, it is well worth watching, so long as you know what you are dealing with.  It is Syfy, so there is science mixed into the fantasy (which in itself might make you twitch since Neverland is the antithesis of scientific study), the interpretation is deliberately not by the book, and it is certianly not a high budget film.  On the other hand, it is a fun story with beautiful scenery about a character that many of us are quite fond of, despite his flaws.

I will add as a final note that while the series is relatively clean, there are a few brief scenes that involve two characters in bed.  They are short and nondescript, but they are there, so bear that in mind.  Otherwise, this is an enjoyable adventure series for older children, as well as adults.