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From Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers

(stolen from a blog post from last year at Mange Merde)

And numerous indeed are the hearts to which Christmas
brings a brief season of happiness and enjoyment. How many families, whose members have been dispersed and scattered far and wide, in the restless struggles of life, are then reunited, and meet once again in that happy state of companionship and mutual goodwill, which is a source of such pure and unalloyed delight; and one so incompatible with the cares and sorrows of the world, that the religious belief of the most civilised nations, and the rude traditions of the roughest savages, alike number it among the first joys of a future condition of existence, provided for the blessed and happy! How many old recollections, and how many dormant sympathies, does Christmas time awaken!

We write these words now, many miles distant from the spot at which, year after year, we met on that day, a merry and joyous circle. Many of the hearts that throbbed so gaily then, have ceased to beat; many of the looks that shone so brightly then, have ceased to glow; the hands we grasped, have grown cold; the eyes we sought, have hid their lustre in the grave; and yet the old house, the room, the merry voices and smiling faces, the jest, the laugh, the most minute and trivial circumstances connected with those happy meetings, crowd upon our mind at each recurrence of the season, as if the last assemblage had been but yesterday! Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!

Cheryl and I watched Love Actually again last night. It’s a winsome movie, perfect for this time of the year. My parents got here today. They’re exhausted and temporarily without luggage, but glad to be here, glad to see Violet.

Cheryl made a wonderful bacon-mushroom quiche and I helped out with a delicious roasted-potato-and-mustard-vinaigrette salad. Dessert was molasses spice cookies and tea.

All are sleeping and snoring around me. It’s a lovely night.

From the excellent, comprehensive, and highly recommend Oxford Companion to Food

COOKIE the name used in N. America for a small, flat, sweet confection, which approximates to a sweet BISCUIT as eaten in England, although cookies tend to be richer and have a softer, chewy texture. The name first appeared in print as long ago as 1703.

Generations of immigrants from all over Europe have contributed to the American tradition of cookies. Early Dutch settlers introduced their recipes for various types of koekje, Dutch for “little cake” (see BANKETBAKKERI), the name which needed only slight adaptation to become cookie. English, Scandinavian, German, and E. European settlers introduced numerous types of biscuit, including many which could be classed as cookies, and maintained their connection with feast days. Cookies were originally associated, in the USA, with New Year’s Day; references cited by Craigie and Hulbert (1938) from the early part of the 19th century show that cookies and cherry bounce (a cherry cordial) were the correct fare with which to greet visitors on that occasion, although already threatened “by plum-cake and outlandish liqueurs”, as one author put it. Read the rest of this entry »

All from


[Lat.,=coming], season of the Christian ecclesiastical year preceding Christmas, lasting in the West from the Sunday nearest Nov. 30 (St. Andrew’s Day) until Christmas Eve. In the Roman Catholic Church it is traditionally considered a season of penitence and fasting, to prepare for the holy day, and its liturgical color is purple. However, the Roman observance has always contained an element of joyful anticipation of Christmas, a feeling that prevails during this season in Western churches today. Originally Advent was seen as a time of preparation for the feast of Christ’s nativity. But during the Middle Ages this meaning was extended to include preparation for Christ’s second coming, as well as Christ’s present coming through grace.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2007 Columbia University Press.

Read the rest of this entry »

There’s a certain Slant of light
by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
’Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

I have a 102.5 fever, so I missed yesterday’s post. Here it is!

To Violet, on the first week of Advent

While you sleep, at long last, in what is hopefully a warm room,
the searchlight of a roving mind swings around, time after time.
In the car
on the way home
your mom and I make up a Death Cab for Cutie song:
“Another cold night in Cleveland
in my brown corduroy jacket
I drove alone”
And this is that through which we move, my love.
A mountain range, a peak of which we each are fast approaching,
and as Poincaré before me, I fire light across the distance,
trying to tell you the time.
1999. Two-by-fours in the barn, ready to go,
I sat with a piece of scratch paper, trying to figure this out:
A regular pentagon contains a rectangle and a triangle;
three-sixty plus one-eighty is … five-forty, which means…
and I couldn’t figure it out then; a little bit of shame in front of my grandfather.
Now, though, a better version of me:
five-forty divided by five is one-oh-eight,
and so each of the five exterior triangles is isosceles
and the paired angles then have angles of…
one-eighty minus one-oh-eight is seventy-two
(which divided by two is thirty-six) and there are
five pairs of those angles, which means that
those angles take up five times seventy-two
is three-sixty degrees of the total interior, which
means the total amount in the points is five-forty
minus that three-sixty,
which is one-eighty,
which you divide by five,
so that each point in a regular star
should have thirty-six degrees.


Lay me in a bed with amber glow filling the room,
and place the sound of fun outside, ready to start playing
at the moment I am to awake, so that I can lie there
and bathe in vicarious jubilation.
Place me in the back-right of a blue Ram van, driven by
my father, and let us stop at Great Bend or Clarks Summit.
Let me know when we see “Deer Crossing” signs,
so I can count down from ten.
Put me back again in the passenger seat,
with my head in my hands, not yet on paper half the man
I couldn’t quite convince myself to convince them
I would come out to be.
Sit me in the dark, illuminated by punctual flashes,
with you on my lap, and your mother’s warmth behind us,
and the lights of the tree. We bathed in our own jubilation
and you in the middle of us all.
So this one I just wrote. Happy Advent!

“The Ice of Boston” by The Dismemberment Plan

( Check it here:

Pop open a bottle of bubbly…yeah.
Here’s to another goddamn new year.
And outside, 2 million drunk Bostonians
Are getting ready to sing “Auld Lang Sine”…out of tune.
I sit there in my easy chair, looking at the clouds, orange with celebration
And I wonder if you’re out there.
Hey! The ice of Boston is muddy
And reflects no light, in day or night
And I slip on it every time
Pop open a third bottle of bubbly
Yeah, and I take that bottle of champagne
Go into the kitchen, stand in front of the kitchen window
And I take all my clothes off, take that bottle of champagne
And I pour it on my head, feel it cascade through my hair
And across my chest, and the phone rings.
And it’s my mother.
And she says “HI HONEY HOW’S BOSTON?”
And I stand there, all alone on New Year’s Eve
Buck naked, drenched in champagne, looking at a bunch of strangers
Uh, looking at them, looking at me, looking at them, and I say:
“Oh, I’m fine Mom—how’s Washington?”
Hey! The ice of Boston is muddy
And reflects no light, in day or night
And I slip on it every time
Hey! The ice of Boston is muddy
And reflects no light, in day or night
And I slip on it every time, time, time, time, yeah…
So I guess the party line is I followed you up here.
Well, I don’t know about that.
Mainly because knowing about that would involve knowing some pathetic, ridiculous, and absolutely true things about myself that I’d rather not admit to right now.
Woke up at 3 A.M. with the radio on, that Gladys Knight and the Pips song on
About how she’d rather live in his world with him
Than live in her own world alone
And I lay there, head spinning, trying to fall asleep
And I thought to myself: “Oh, Gladys, girl, I love you but, oh—get a life!”
Hey! The ice of Boston is muddy
And reflects no light, in day or night
And I slip on it every time
Hey! The ice of Boston is muddy
And reflects no light, in day or night
And I slip on it every time


I don’t know that “Ice of Boston” is the best introduction to the D-plan if you’ve never heard them before. I think my favorite song would be “Back and Forth” (an explication of which (or an effusion of glee regarding) I also owe you, followed closely by “A Life of Possibilities.” That said, “The Ice of Boston” captures something for me.

I wonder how many people have spent New Year’s alone. I talked a little bit about solitude, and I think that winter and solitude are kind of linked–snow carries with it such silence, and everyone seeks shelter indoors, so there are times when you’re all alone.

I remember, in Baltimore (whoa–just had a moment of deja vu. have i written this before?) a time when…so, I need a little back story.

In Baltimore, for the last year and a half or so, Cheryl and I lived in an apartment in Mt. Washington, a really great little neighborhood that had a little businessy district type thing with a few restaurants and a pottery place and a psychic, and then a Light Rail stop, and then a fancier little place with a Whole Foods and a wine shop and some other stuff–a garden shop. Anyway. The closest thing to us was Mt. Washington Pizza, about a 2 minute walk or a 60 second sprint. The two nice things about which were that it also served Indian food (really common in Baltimore: Pizza/Indian food place. who knows?), including kickass Chicken Tikka Masala, and B. that you could order a pizza when the Simpsons started, head over when the second commercial came on and get back before the commercials were over.

So the memory is during one of those commercial breaks, heading out, walking down the steps, walking across the street, going inside, exchanging my cash for pizza, heading back out, walking back across the street, and going inside again. It must have been mid-to-late December. There was a thin layer of snow on the grass (it never really sticks to the streets that far South), and outside it was completely silent–as silent as I have ever heard it anywhere outside. In rural areas, there is honking of geese, which carries, and falling snow and cracking limbs, but there were no cars, and the snow muffled everything so much, and it was just my footsteps. I went inside the pizza place and it was filled with an amber incandescent glow tinted blue by a television set, and it was warm and loud and bright when I opened the door, and when I went back outside, I was warmer because I was carrying a pizza, but it was still silent.

That’s not what the Ice of Boston brings to me, though, although the silence is part of it. In the winter of 2000-2001 and the winter of 2001-2002, I stayed in the apartment of my grandparents’ barn. So my grandparents bought an old farmhouse when they decided not to move to a smaller, more manageable place like sane people in their early 50s. The barn of which has an attached “apartment”–kitchenette, bathroom w/shower stall and one big room. It has brown carpeting, a treadmill perennially covered with boxes and boxes of read romance novels, a refrigerator full of food that will get used shortly after nuclear winter sets in, and a shower stall perennially full of boxes and boxes of romance novels.

Two Christmas seasons I stayed in that room, chain smoking and watching 2 am infomercials for electroshock stomach tighteners. (reread that last sentence and really try to picture it) I’m not sure if I ever actually spent New Year’s Eve by myself, but I spent a lot (a LOT) of time by myself in that room, especially considering I spent a whole summer working at Hollywood Video, closing up shop, coming home with 2 movies, watching them both til like 5 in the morning, sleeping til noon and then doing it all over again.

In the cold of winter, smoking cigarettes under the electric blue of the barn light, with the orange glow of the cherry so shockingly contrasted, that’s what this song brings back to me. These are Christmas seasons that don’t often make it into postcards, but one of them was very formative for me. I was reading DFW’s Infinite Jest, and it was then that I realized how much I strive to be challenged by cool stuff. The book requires 2 bookmarks, one for where you’re reading and one for how far you are in the copious endnotes, as well as a dictionary on the side. It’s hard fun, and it was the first hard fun I’d had in a long time. It was the sort of thing that made you think “why the hell am I spending my time locked in this room? i need to go for a walk.”* At one point, i walked five miles at 10 pm to the nearest McDonalds, got a cup of coffee and took a piss, then turned around and walked the five miles back, just to kill some time. Didn’t see a single soul along the way, although a good half dozen cars passed. That much walking makes your butt hurt the next day. The Christmas lights were pretty though.

Previous time spent in the room bordered on madness, not gonna lie. Anyway, I raise a toast to all of you spending the holidays alone. It’s a different kind of life, one I miss in an odd sort of way. That said, I couldn’t be happier. Tree this weekend!

*I should note that DFW’s articulation of the philosophy of AA (and NA, by extension) is really very well-put and he obviously did a @$#%load of research and I only wish that he’d put a little more faith in it, personally-wise.

Another really amazing class. The material was very critical of Unitarian Universalism in a really insightful and responsible way, and it really gave me a new sense of depth on the foundations of our institution and on the challenges we face as a community. I’m very new to the UU thing, so I have a bit of a tin ear to the internal monologues common to UU-ers, but I got the sense that there was a sense of skepticism, interest and critical thought among the group tonight–which is pretty much what I think you shoot for in a class like this.

The material for today’s class was:

David E. Bumbaugh – On Being a Born-Again Unitarian Universalist

Anthony David – Torn Between Unitarianism and Universalism

Anthony David – A Unitarian Universalist Creation Myth

Before class started, I started thinking about the material we read before class and drawing up a little mental map for myself about “born-again-ness”, and mostly came up with stuff about devotion and diversity–devotion to making faith and metaphysics a central part of life and diversity in the sense that it is no longer compartmentalized into a small segment of life, but instead covers all aspects of your life.

I started making a list of questions that would go on the “faith form”: who are you, where are you, what were you, what will you become, where will you go, why are you here, etc. I then started thinking about meta-questions. “Is the individualistic paradigm a valid approach to these metaphysical questions?” “Does ‘who am I?’ even makes semantic sense?” “Upon what assumptions are my fundamental questions predicated?”

That was as far as I got, more or less, and then class started.

As an ice-breaker, we paired up and tried to come up with UU signature aspects. I was a little disappointed in myself, I think. I went for the ingathering of the waters, which has deep and personal meaning for me, but it was right there at hand, and I feel like I would have earned more for trying harder.

(The summer after freshman year, when I went to the river and moved rocks and smoked cigarettes with my pant legs rolled up and tried to find a place to fit–it’s worth writing about some time in here, as a lot of my analogues derive from what I learned moving rocks and changing the course of the river.)

The majority of the class was about the “ghosts” that haunt our Unitarian Universalism and the reading on a creation myth started us off–the driving force there being that as a tradition derived from a standing order church continues to feel a compulsion to serve everyone within the sound of its bell.(which, upon further review, is an interesting economic institution. The argument was that the presence of the church was a Public Good, and so in order to solve the freerider problem, taxation was used to support the church…makes economic sense, but violate the principle of separation of church and state)

While the idea of ghosts was by no means intended to be negative, I argued that ghosts are unavoidable in a liberal religious tradition. Insofar as liberal religious traditions take pains not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater,” there will always be aspects of the baby that then become our haunting spectres. We call it a church, and neither a mosque nor a synagogue, despite my atheism, for example. That said, I wouldn’t argue that we should just call it a building… In many cases, these ghosts just complicate things, like baroque ornamentation, or other odd architectural features that merely seemed like a good idea at the time. In some cases, though, they can hold us back.

We talked at length about the idea that Unitarian Universalists favor universality rather than particulars, and that this is both a strength and a weakness. At its best, it belies our belief that there are many paths to truth. At its worst, we end up doing nothing but singing songs about how inclusive we are and taking a Noah’s Ark (two of each)–or Pokemon (gotta catch ’em all!)–approach to building a congregation. Rev. David made the very good point that, for all our inclusiveness, we are neither a terribly large nor an incredibly diverse faith tradition. He also noted that megachurches–not renowned for their inclusivity–are among the most culturally diverse faith organizations.

This got me thinking–why do megachurches work?

One reason: trying to get two of everything doesn’t work. Then each person only has one person like them in the congregation. Try getting 150 of every type of person and suddenly you have a diverse community where everyone feels like they have someone to talk to. So sheer scale can help a lot.

At the same time, I think there is an irony to inclusiveness. By valuing our inclusiveness so much, we effectively become a very exclusive congregation: we only attract people who can stand to be around strangers, people who are themselves personally inclusive. So by trying to include lots of kinds of people, we end up only attracting one kind of person–the inclusive kind. Consequently, we are a pretty exclusive bunch.

Megachurches only attract one kind of person as well–those willing to embrace conformity, within certain bounds. They, too, are an exclusive bunch.

As conformity has historically been favored by evolution, and as a willingness to embrace strangers is sort of a freakish mutation (although one I value greatly), it’s not surprising that megachurches have a larger draw than UU congregations. (I have to say, though, I think UU has a lot more to offer many people than they realize, and at least some of this difference is certainly due by a relative difference in willingness to evangelize.)

We talked about a bunch of other stuff, but as I’ve got a TychoCelcchu CoH shoutcast (don’t ask–it’s dorktacular) burning a hole in my desktop, I’m gonna wrapt this up pretty soon.

So, the last thing on my mind is the idea of questions as ends in themselves. We talked about this briefly in class, but I think about it a lot. We require at least tentative answers to take actions, but without negative capability (or omniscience), we will have trouble drawing a conclusion without certainty, and trouble being okay without a conclusion.

When the nagging need for answers gnaws at us, we have to either embrace doubt (this is especially integral for undecideable propositions, the definition of which I torture into including such questions as “Does God exist?” and “Does free will exist?) or turn to faith. In truth, I think doing both is the best course of action. Without at least a tentative answer, we cannot act. In order to arrive a tentative answer in a morally responsible way, we have to move past doubt to take a leap of faith; that said, in order to arrive at a tentative answer in an intellectually responsible way, we have to remember that we doubt our faith, and thus that the answer can only be tentative. More on this later, for sure.

Another heck of a class.

I just had a few thoughts in the shower this morning and wanted to elaborate on my reinterpretation of the concept of sin. As I interpret sin, the idea of “original sin” and the “fallen state of man” have radically different interpretations, in that they become almost tautological. This is to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is literally equivalent to the statement “Nobody’s perfect.” The denotation is pretty similar (although I don’t believe in the existence of the divine except insofar as it represents an humanly constructed ideal to which we all strive), but the connotation is incredibly different.

In particular, human conscience is fundamentally correct, but limited by our human fallibility. That human fallibility is the source of our essential triumphs, our ability to appreciate our brief existence for its scarcity, and our ability to work together to transcend our individual mortality and fallibility to be better version of ourselves and achieve greater goals than any of us could achieve individually before we shuffle off this mortal coil. By the same token, that fallibility is the source of many of our shortcomings, as we underestimate the risks inherent in future tasks and make bad decisions based on faulty information, and give in to time-inconsistency of preferences, and fall victim to our lacks of sympathy and foresight.

In my view, though, this “sin” should never be a source of shame–for one thing, without sin, we would each be perfect, and there would be nothing of interest. For another thing, and this is the really important one for me, perfection is simply not feasible–it doesn’t exist outside of our concept of the divine; it’s a stylized model, just like perfect competition or a frictionless vacuum. We don’t expect the world to feel guilt or shame for having friction or air–in fact, while a world without friction might make Newtonian mechanics a little easier to understand, it would be a fundamentally (and, since I love the world we live in, tragically) different world than the one we know and love. It’s not even clear what it means–it’s not internally consistent, because the source of friction is the electromagnetic forces that keep solids coherent and thus a projectile wouldn’t just take a purely parabolic arc in a frictionless world, it would also cease to cohere. All of which is why we ended up coming up with physical models that incorporate friction and electromagnetics and why scientists keep searching for better and more coherent models.

By the same token, I think sin functions much better as a descriptive concept–a heuristic device, really–that allows us to think about the negative space between intention and action, and allows us to engage with these ideas in useful ways. It’s tautological in that “sinful” means “less than perfect” which is to say “possible in our universe.” Wherever there is entropy, there is “sin” in this sense, and it becomes the source of all beauty and love, chaos and complexity and change. Without sin, there is no growth, no progress; all is stagnant and fixed.

So to the extent that “sin” is useful as a concept for thinking about human behavior, I like to make use of it, but I’d really like to see it stripped of its associations with shame. I think all human error derives from our very real and beautiful limitations, which we can come to embrace, accept, and occasionally transcend, but which should not be associated with guilt or recrimination.

Is “that’s so retarded” really actually quite offensive?

In high school, I regularly used “that’s so retarded” and “that’s so gay” to mean more or less the same thing, although “retarded” usually implied “unnecessarily and baroquely stupid; obtuse” where as “gay” usually meant “unnecessarily and wastefully (in the utility sense) restrictive; ‘lame’ .”

I stopped using “that’s so gay” after I met gay friends that found it offensive. I now find it offensive. I stopped using “that’s so retarded” after a friend of mine who has an autistic brother was offended by it. I recently started using it again (although far more sparingly than I did when I would rifle off off-handed put-downs in my high school days).

There’s really no good substitute for “that’s so retarded!” It may just be the case that one can either be successfully descriptive at the cost of being deemed an asshole; or one can be inoffensive at the cost of a succinct and, at times, perfectly apropos phrase (or indeed a number of them, as the slope slides).

Cheryl and I talked about this at some length when I made the more or less conscious decision to reinstitute “retarded” in my vocabulary. Certainly, I mean no offense by it. I wish, in fact, that there were some totally different word that could be used to replace the literal meaning/etymological origin of the, I argue, entirely new and different word “retarded” that I use, which is actually simply a homophonic homograph

It’s not the image of the mentally retarded that I’m going for. It’s onomatopoeia mostly. Cheryl offered “That’s so ridiculous” but it doesn’t do the same thing.

It may be indefensible. I mostly want access to what I think is ultimately an incredibly poetic phrase, without offending people. To that end, my current plan is to only use it around people who I can be sure will interpret it to mean what I want it to mean, and not interpret it to mean what I don’t want it to mean. I’m not sure if that’s having my cake and eating it too, or if it’s only eating cake when I’m not around people watching their weight.

Any pointers? Am I just an asshole?