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In the Bleak Midwinter
by Christina Rosetti

(from hymns and carols of Christmas)

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

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the ancients believed that the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea. Of course, what held up the sea was another question. They did not know the answer.

The belief of the ancients was the result of imagination. It was a poetic and beautiful idea. Look at the way we see it today. Is that a dull idea? The world is a spinning ball, and people are held on it on all sides, some of them upside down. And we turn like a spit in front of a great fire. We whirl around the sun. That is more romantic, more exciting. And what holds us? The force of gravitation, which is not only a thing of the earth but is the thing that makes the earth round in the first place, holds the sun together and keeps us running around the sun in our perpetual attempt to stay away. This gravity holds its sway not only on the stars but between the stars; it holds them in the great galaxies for miles and miles in all directions.
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“The Ice of Boston” by The Dismemberment Plan

( Check it here: http://krucoff.com/2006/01/pop-open-3rd-bottle-of-bubbly.html)

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

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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.

I’ve been a full-time stay-at-home dad/full-time grad student for the last five months or so, now, which really mostly means I’m not getting as far ahead on my dissertation as I’d like. That said, thanks to Violet’s near-constant demands for entertainment and my interest in saving my lower back by sitting as much as possible and letting her go unheld as often and long as she’s willing, I can now play guitar–badly, but I can decisively call it playing guitar now, not just whatever it was I did when I held a guitar and interfaced over the last near-decade. I now know all the basic chords and can string them together at will and have memorized a bunch of songs, many of which include at least one drop of the f-bomb. This is complicated.

Many of my favorite songs feature the f-bomb, and at their best, they feature it just the once (the exception that proves the rule: “F$%# and Run” by Liz Phair) , but it serves an essential purpose–it’s either the part of the song where the decrescendo ends and you need to imply that the meaning is still emphatic, even if the sound is not loud, or it’s the part of the song where the crescendo has occurred and the words contain too much denotative meaning to express the necessary, and so only expletives can get the job done, and when one is grasping for an expletive, anything worth doing is worth doing right: hence, f-bomb. (example of the first: “1330 Oak 1995” by Kind of Like Spitting. example of the second: can’t think of it right now–feel free to come up with one of your own and holler if you like)

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I got a mailer on the introduction of FF Meta Serif, which is a font for those out there not into design. It’s exciting because I liked FF Meta a lot, but mostly because now I’m pretty much an economist/dad and I like that I get mail when new fonts are invented.

This isn’t a paid promotion or plug–hell, I bought FF Meta with expenses paid, so I don’t know that I’d pay for it; plus, I’ve never used it. Still, if you want to see what looks like a nice, fat, readable font, go for it: http://www.fontshop.com/features/newsletters/nov2007_a/

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Now, for what I intended originally to write about. Cheryl and Violet and I have become members at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, and it’s been a really great experience so far, a few months into attending. I have an elaborate religious life-story, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that it’s been uniformly positive, and still I’m an atheist. Going to/joining what is, effectively, a church, definitely seemed like a complicated idea–one I bristled against at first when Cheryl said she thought we should try it out.

I comprehended my hesitation a little better during today’s service. There’s a quiet period in the service, an “Invitation to Meditation” is what I believe they call it. As the meditation closes, the minister names those people who are having milestones or hardships so that we may keep then in thoughts/prayers as we see fit. After he says names, everyone is invited to say their own names, out loud or silently. It’s a beautiful ritual, the effect of which is at least to give everyone there a moment in the week to think about the people in their lives and try to figure out if anyone is experienced abnormally great joy or sorrow. I don’t believe in any metaphysical powers of prayer, but I still find I really like it.

Not to mention the “sanctioned” or what-have-you stating of names/events made by the minister, which often involves requests for cards/flowers/visitors/donations/condolences in the case of people in the hospital or grieving and merely information in the case of landmarks.

The rationale of it notwithstanding: today the Rev mentioned a member whose name I had never heard and don’t remember. She had, evidently, after a long and difficult process, successfully brought her adopted 18-month-old daughter home from Nepal.

I’ve been really callous, internally, at least, about international adoption (I have begun/continued to default on really callous, internally, I’ve begun to notice–which is one of the reasons why I sort of need to be part of a spiritually nourishing and challenging congregation) and sort of miserably failed at viewing it as a personal milestone, and seen it more as sort of a weird upper-class white affectation.

It dawned on me today that the brief reference Rev. David was making was a really watershed moment in someone’s life. She had sought out and successfully taken responsibility for a new person. A new person in her life.

A new person! A new person. A real, live, life. A new life. Someone different than everyone else–not even just everyone else you know, but EVERYONE else, ever.

I don’t know–for many people, this may be far less complicated than it is for me. I have spent a lot of spare brain cycles justifying decisions to strip people away, to reduce interpersonal connections. These were people who had other people; I am (or at least have been historically) almost universally unnecessary in the lives of others. This isn’t just a fear of commitment–I’m fine with commitment, which is sort of a well-delineated and totally enforceable contract, the optimal length and terms of which are totally solvable.

To some extent, it has been a question of the best way to climb that mountain.

(That mountain, here, is how to be good–which is sort of the central question of my life, I think.)

When being good is a destination, even if it is a destination in only the most abstract sense, it becomes simple, sometimes, to see other people as hindrances. It’s like trying to go to the movies in large groups. It’s difficult, verging on pointless, at times. It’s just better to all go by yourselves.

This is sort of the dominant meme of personal existence in a lot of our culture, I think, and it’s certainly something I’ve imbibed. The explosion of the nuclear family is in part, a result of this and a cause of this. Growing up, I definitely was urged to move out and move on, as my father had done before me and his before him. The suburban American dream involved perfect labor mobility, a lack of emotional and personal attachment to a place and people and a culture and a tradition.

We are not atomic; we are not built thusly. And people have expectations of us, they place constraints on us, on our hearts, even through no wish or fault of their own. These are the ties that bind, and they sometimes constrict.

More often in my life, if I choose to be honest with myself, people know me better than I know myself. They know my best self, at least, and when I have guests, my house gets clean, and when I cook for other people, I make everything more delicious (the trick is that extra stick or two of butter), and when people disagree with me, I either figure out why I’m right, or find out I’m wrong and then I can be right forreal, forreal.

A new person. I know better now what that means, because I have one of them. In fact, I have lots–not just Violet but new friends, fellow members of the congregation. I was going to say “So often,” but the truth is “Always…” Always, the other people sitting in the service are total ciphers, and not only do I neither know nor care, but I can hardly fathom that they have lives outside those walls, that things happen, that they lie awake at night hoping that they outlive their children, hoping that they get to see all of it, then when they face their own personal end, that it be sweet and not bitter, and that the version of themselves they get to know therein is someone with honor and honesty and decency.

I never really saw other people as keys to that before today–I must have known on some level, because I’ve spent much of my life attaching and detaching–I mean, I am living a full and healthy life (much of which has been rigged in my favor, I’ll admit). I still think of conversation as an unpleasant necessity sometimes, and I think I’ll embrace it more, now.

I’m glad to be necessary, to feel like I have to–like it’s a moral imperative to– sacrifice some of my maximization just to help out, that maybe that’s maxing something else–a better function (by maximizing of course, I really mean blindly staggering generally northward, metaphysically, but the modeling thereof is similar, WLOG, I argue).

A new person. It’s a whole new life opening up ahead of you, every time you engage. And I think I thought it stood as good a chance of being bad as good. I was almost certainly wrong. New people are almost always a boon, a gift; even to brush up against people briefly and tangentially is to live a richer life. As I say that, a part of me I’ve known for a long time rebels, but the evidence is against him, and I don’t know that the argument of experience is enough to quash the force of identity–but it’s definitely a conflict worth embracing.