It’s the Holiday Season

I have always loved Christmas and the Christmas season. I’ve loved it for its reality and for everything it could be.

In its reality I have loved Christmas for gift-giving. I love picking out the perfect present and seeing someone’s reaction when they open it, especially if I am correct in my estimation. I like presents to be thoughtful, sometimes witty, sometimes beautiful or practical. I have loved Christmas for getting presents from others, knowing that they have thought of me and cared enough to spend their hard-earned money or their time on me. I have loved Christmas for decorations, for music; no matter how repetitive the song selection, it still delights me, and I rarely tire of it. I have loved Christmas for movies of all ages, for all ages, of various levels of seriousness or hilarity. I have loved Christmas for the hushed sanctity of Christmas Eve once the light of day has gone. I have loved Christmas for stacks of presents under the tree early in the morning (though I’ll admit the morning has waxed later of late). I have loved Christmas for family time, for cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, for delicious food and flowing alcohol and good moods, happy to be together on such an occasion. I have loved Christmas for the Mass I attend in fancy clothes where I heard the ancient story and sang the antique hymns.

In its potential I have loved Christmas for snow and the smell of a winter night, which is somehow crystalline clean and warmly smokey at the same time. In its potential I have loved Christmas for an unlimited budget to buy everyone I love what they will love and what they deserve. In its potential I have loved Christmas for a similar budget to give freely to those in need. In its potential I have loved Christmas for roaring fires on Christmas Eve and parties where everyone behaves beautifully and has a wonderful time. In its potential I have loved Christmas for streets free from the unfortunate, because they are housed and warm with full bellies. In its potential I have loved Christmas with the knowledge that all on earth have a family of sorts, whether by blood or by choice or both, to turn to, to enjoy, with which to celebrate.

I love Christmas for all that I know it to be, despite materialism and consumerism and stress. I love Christmas for all the potential I know it has to be.

But mostly, I love you.

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, happy holidays.

Grace

 

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The Stupidity of Higher Education

(Disclaimer: I am a big believer in higher education, and a supporter of making it more accessible to all.)

I think it’s ridiculous that it’s common for people to expect that an eighteen-year-old should know what she wants to do with the rest of her life when only a few months beforehand she had to raise her hand, wait to be called on, and ask and be granted permission to go to the bathroom. I’m referring to the tradition of choosing a major upon acceptance to and/or arrival at college.

When I was eighteen I thought I wanted to be on Broadway. When I didn’t get into a musical theatre program, I enrolled in college to study vocal performance, because I was going to work to get what I wanted.

Now I’m an English student, but I don’t think I want to be a full-time writer anymore. Or maybe I do. So far, I think I want to get a master’s degree in finance.

I think it’s ridiculous to expect someone who has most likely always lived in a parental figure’s house under their rules to pick their own career path and stick to it for the rest of their life.

I don’t think college majors are unnecessary. I think they should be less stringent, and that higher education should be more comprehensive. Especially in modern America, where it is incredibly common that a college degree is required for any upward mobility job-wise, education should open many doors, not limit a student to one. If someone wants to be highly specialized, graduate school should be an option they can choose. Someone with a college degree is likely older and arguably wiser than someone with the ink on their high school diploma still wet, and should therefore be more capable of deciding in what field to specialize. Why pressure the very young to make their beds and lie in them when they’re still figuring out how to put it together?

My Writing, part II

I hate when some person in authority tells a group of students they will help them with their writing. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is my past experience with writing and literature courses. Rarely have I ever been corrected where my writing is concerned, whether or not there is any true merit in what I’ve created. As I moved along in school, I learned to tailor my writing according to what was expected of me, and tried to go above and beyond that. As a result, I always regarded as impressive. I remember multiple occasions where my writing was read out loud for the entire class, and no one else suffered such an embarrassing accolade.

You might say that’s what learning is. You’re wrong. Learning is taking a risk, making mistakes, and improving from there. Figuring out the system and working it to one’s advantage is what education in the US has become. The grade is most important, not the content, not the experience.

But I digress. The other reason I hate that promise of assistance with writing is because of my past experience. As I had said, I was always impressive. I was rarely corrected. So when I hear that someone wants to help me improve my writing, an (I like to think) uncharacteristic arrogance flares up in my breast. What makes you any different from those who have taught me before? It asks impertinently. They found little fault. What makes you special?

Despite my arrogance, something in me longs for correction. Part of me longs for a challenge. Something inside me desires someone who shakes up everything I do and know. I want to be great. I want to be one of the greats. And this constant flattery, feeding the beast that is my conceit, it keeps me comfortable. But comfort is not how greats are made, whether it be great people, leaders, or works. 

Snow White and the Tomboy Phase

Like many girls, I went through a phase where I rejected anything “girly.” For me, it happened from about ages eight-twelve. During this time, I refused to wear anything that wasn’t pants, and forget about getting me to consider the color pink (though I’ve never been a huge fan). In my mind, “girly” was inferior. By being a “tomboy” I was superior to those “girly girls.” I didn’t know what my justification for this was at the time, but I’m sure it was an internalization of the patriarchal belief that anything traditionally feminine is inferior. And I believed it! I promoted it! (Not that I had much influence, being a child, but still.)

Of course there are traditionally feminine attributes that can tend to promote “female inferiority,” such as submission and acquiescence. Though these things can be useful in certain situations, being in a constant state of total submission and acquiescence can certainly lead women to be overlooked and pushed over.

However, there are many “feminine” qualities that, while not overtly representative of strength, do, in fact, show an incredible strength of character.

Take the Disney character, Princess Snow White. Firstly, let it be mentioned that she is canonically fourteen in this movie, and so is not a fully grown and developed woman. However, she still shows tremendous strength of character.

Snow White has lost her father, either physically by his death, or emotionally through his marriage to her stepmother, the Evil Queen. She has also been reduced from her status as a princess to a scullery maid, the lowest rung on the ladder of servants. She is forced to dress in rags and spends her days doing chores, and is largely alone.

Despite this, Snow White is kind, trusting, sweet, pure, gentle, and industrious. Despite the abuse and degradation from her stepmother, the loss of her father, and her solitude, she retains her optimism and belief in the good of others. The animals of the forest see her purity and so are not afraid of her after their initial meeting. She is gentle and kind to them in return for their help.

She trusts the hunter who takes her to the meadow of flowers, despite knowing his role in the castle as a killer, and does not suspect him of any ill intent. Snow White trusts the forest animals to bring her to a safe place to stay. She trusts the old woman who gives her a poison apple that it will make her wish come true, despite the knowledge that the Evil Queen is looking for her in order to destroy her.

Snow White also has a strong sense of fairness and justice. When she comes upon the Dwarves’ cottage, the first thing she does is clean it. When the Dwarves agree to let her stay with them, she takes up the role of house mother to seven grown men. She cleans for them, cooks their meals, and makes them treats, while giving them affection and a little bit of sass.

Snow White went through a lot – abuse, loss, and degradation. Yet, despite this, she retained positive qualities, and did not let her circumstances affect her as a person nor her outlook on life. If this doesn’t show strength of character, what does?

Just because someone is traditionally feminine doesn’t mean they are not strong. It means they are strong in different ways. I think we all – men included – have things to learn from Walt’s “original three.”

To Re-Learn – Reimparare

I’ve decided to pick up Italian again.

I had a good basis for it, in eight years of Spanish classes through elementary, middle, and high school. Taking voice and learning the classics helped me with Italian, as well, as I had to know both the literal and poetic meanings of the lyrics.

I wrote previously of my trip to Switzerland and Italy. In Italy I picked up Italian with surprising ease, at least in understanding, and a bit in speaking. I could speak with shopkeepers, to an extent, and could understand their responses once I had returned to English. I suppose this ease shouldn’t have surprised me so much, as I was still taking Spanish classes at the time, and Romance languages tend to be similar.

I took two semesters of Italian in college. Those two classes with two different professors were the best language classes I have ever taken in my life. The professors, young and enthusiastic, had a real love for the language, and truly wanted us to succeed. It helped that my stubborn refusal to learn, so prevalent with Spanish, had disappeared. I have Italian ancestry, and chose to take Italian, where I was forced to take Spanish. (I don’t do well with authority, especially with being told or forced to do things – and most especially when being told to do something I had already planned on doing. But that’s another post.) By the end of the second semester, I was writing letters and journal entries in Italian – probably bad, simple Italian, but I was doing it.

It’s been awhile since I have formally taken either voice or Italian. Awhile ago my mother had bought me Italian for Dummies. So, I’ve begun from the beginning. I’m surprised how much I remember.

Apparently I hold low expectations for myself and my abilities.

Switzerland 

When I was almost seventeen years old, I left the country without my family for the first time, and travelled outside the US for the second time in my life. It was a school trip to Italy and Switzerland, officially the “German trip.” Even though I was almost half German by heritage and spoke English, a Germanic language, I had never taken German in my life, and only knew phrases like “danke,” “bitte,” and “sprechen sie Deutsch?” Which was a ridiculous phrase for me to know, as I did not sprechen sie Deutsch.
Luckily we only stayed in Switzerland a few days, and spent the rest in Italy. I had nine years of Spanish under my belt and knew many more phrases in Italian than I knew in German, due to my mother’s southern Italian heritage.

I did not like Switzerland one bit. For one thing, it was raining and snowing and cold, as northern Europe is bound to be in late March, so that was unpleasant. For another, I found the Swiss in Lucerne to be rude and unwelcoming. In hindsight, it might’ve just been the weather making everyone – myself included – cranky.

The trip got off to a rough start. We almost missed a flight out of Germany, thanks to me, and once in the Swiss airport I felt small and insignificant and dawdling. It was so clean and bright and white and streamlined that I felt like a wasteful, provincial American.

We got on the bus that would be our vehicle over part of the continent. There was our guide, Richard. Richard was an incredibly pink-faced, British gay man with a superiority complex and jet black hair. He took the microphone and said, “Listen up. Now, this will only take a few minutes. Bear with me.”

It did – if a few minutes means almost an hour. The students struggled to stay awake and pay attention. I especially tried to listen. But after half an hour of forcing my eyes open, I looked around and realized everyone else had fallen asleep. I settled comfortably into my seat and napped deeply, the sweet sleep of the weary traveler with the weary ear from listening to a pedantic, condescending British man.

On our first day, Meg, my friend Laura, her father il dottore, and I ducked into a bakery cafe to escape the cold and wet. The three of them ordered hot chocolate. I was the only student on the trip who had paid her own way, so I ordered nothing.

Now, in America, the fact that seventy-five percent of the table had ordered something would excuse the remaining twenty-five percent from having to leave. Apparently this was not so in Switzerland.

A small lady – whether old or young, I don’t remember – came to our tucked-away corner table in a huff. She told me either I could order something or I had to leave.

I wish I could say I told her that was stupid and unfair and that by God I had a right to sit where I wanted and she could shove it up her stupid ass for wanting a visitor to go out in the cold rain instead of welcoming them, but I didn’t.

I ordered the damn hot chocolate. Stupid thing was delightful down to the last exploitative drop.

There were good parts of Switzerland. The light, sour local beer, the hotel bar where we didn’t get carded and had a traditional Swiss drink, and Mount Pilatus.

We couldn’t see the mountain, or any mountains the entire time we were in Switzerland. It was too foggy and cloudy for us to marvel at the beauty of the Alps.

It was forty Swiss francs, but I figured if I was going to spend money, I should spend it on an experience rather than a thing (ahem, ahem, cafe lady). So we, Meg, Laura, and I, boarded a four-person cable car and started the climb.

I was terrified, not by the height but by the shakiness and insecurity of the car. Eventually I let myself get lost in the tall forests below, where fog and snow filled the spaces where massive trees were not, in the cabins and houses far from civilization, in the few ski tracks in the snow.

By the grace of God we made it and met the others at a landing, where we all clambered into a large cable car. We had to stand. Richard told us it would go faster if we stood on one leg. I and a few other gullible ones did it, then realized how ridiculous that was, because body mass doesn’t work that way. If it did, everyone would stand on their scales on one foot.

On our way through the last leg of the journey, we passed through clouds. Clouds! I’d only ever been inside a cloud on a plane. Everything around us was bright white. There was just this bright nothingness. I felt like we were being transported to Heaven.

I wish I could say the summit of Mount Pilatus was inspiring and beautiful. But no one could see a damned thing. It was windy and snowing and cloudy and foggy and altogether less than ideal. We couldn’t even go to the real summit because of snow and wind. There were railings where, in good weather, you could stand and look down the mountain. But when we were there, all there was was that bright nothingness. It was thrilling.

So, Switzerland. I’m sure you’re better than what you presented to me years ago. But I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon. There are other places on my list. 

Knights

The happiest memories from my childhood mostly happened in one place. That place wasn’t Disney World, or a grandparent’s house. No, it was a day camp on the grounds of a Victorian mansion that had once belonged to a prominent inventor.

The Knights of Columbus Summer Fun Camp is a day camp on the grounds of the George Saegmuller home. Saegmuller was a German-born American inventor who was involved mainly in the invention of astronomical instruments around the turn of the twentieth century. The Knights had bought it in the late 1950s and turned it from a private residence to a club, complete with pools, a tennis court, playground, barbecue pit, and main building with two ballrooms.

“The Mansion,” as we called it, always referring to the gray stone structure with imposing and huge white columns as a proper noun, was massive. When we were very young and the camp was a relatively new business, The Mansion was just another place to gather and play. We escaped the rain in the downstairs sitting and dining rooms, careful to avoid the bar further back in the house, from which the scent of cigar smoke always leaked and the sound of billiards being played issued. The third floor attic was apparently where the families and later, the Knights of Columbus, used to have parties and dances, but the low ceilings and dark alcove where the band supposedly played looked an awful lot like a place for Satanic rituals to me. (Not that I would know anything about Satanic rituals. I don’t mess with the shadows.) The foyer of the house was open to the second level. A wide spiral staircase with a fireplace tucked into its base led upstairs, where the “ladies’ salon,” as it was then called, and camp offices were located, as well as a billiard and meeting room, and some old bathrooms, which were likely in their original, but well-kept condition.

As many old houses do, the Mansion had a ghost story. About a century ago, the inventor had a daughter who had a suitor who had gone off to war. One day when the inventor was at a convention, he was told he had a call. (This was back before cell phones were pseudo-limbs, so we all knew that the call had been made to the venue and the inventor had been called away to answer it by the help. That was still a thing that happened in 2002. I know, it’s barbaric and I’m ancient. But if you remember that happening, so are you.) When the inventor reached the receiver, he only heard ragged breathing. It got slower and shallower – until it stopped. He rushed home, certain that something was very, very wrong. He was correct. There, in her bedroom, swayed his daughter. She had broken a ceiling board and hung herself from it with a bedsheet upon hearing of the death of her suitor. When I was little, before they put in the hideous and era-inappropriate drop ceiling, the legendary ceiling board was still broken, hanging in front of the window. We would swear we could see a white figure swaying in front of that window when we passed the house from the outside. We were also six, so make of that what you will.

There was a tower at the back of the Mansion. It once held water for the house. It was taller than the rest of the Mansion, at least twenty feet in diameter. There were small alcoves in the sides of the tower where windows had long since been boarded up.  We used to sit in them and read or talk. When we were very small, we could fit two or three of us in one alcove. You had to do a bit of jumping or climbing to get into them, depending on which you decided to sit in, but the view and the shade was worth it.

Camp, like any other, had traditions. Every morning we would all gather by the flagpole in the front lawn under two very old Chinese chestnut trees, which stank to high heaven and dropped bright green spiky balls the kids in flip flops had to avoid carefully. We would sing camp songs, selected by request or popular demand, for what felt like an hour, and was probably close to it. Then, we’d pray the Our Father (that was before political correctness had really caught on) and say the pledge of allegiance. Of course not every camper was Catholic; I remember one of my very kosher Jewish friends eagerly volunteering to lead prayer, and doing it reverently. To my knowledge, his parents never complained.

Another tradition was Water Day. Water Day was a day that every camper and counselor’s fingers and toes turned to prunes. The counselors had us all put on our still-damp bathing suits and stand on the front lawn near the flagpole. A fire truck would come and spray its hose high, high up in the air, and we ran and played in the cold water that felt like bullets on our young skin. The water made the clay under our feet into soft and slippery mud. Later, the counselors would gather all the water toys camp had: sprinklers, hoses, slip ‘n’ slides, water balloons, and set us free in one area to continue playing. One year it rained on Water Day. Man, was that a good and muddy and cold day. I think the entire camp got horrible colds from it, counselors included, but it was worth it. However, the hoses and sprinklers went away after that, and the fire truck came less and less, and the slip ‘n’ slide was only for occasional use.

It felt like we spent most of the camp day in the pool. Which we probably did, as camp took place in the D.C. summer heat, which can be brutal and unbearable. The air is heavy and wet and HOT; Washington, D.C. was built on reclaimed swampland.

The cruelest thing the counselors ever did to us was the morning dodgeball game. It was always counselors against campers on the cracked, uneven tennis court, first thing in the morning. The counselors were all at least in high school, if not in college or beyond, and we ranged from ages five to twelve. So, you can imagine how fair these teams were. Back then, before dodgeball was quite literally banned in many public schools in various states, including the Commonwealth of Virginia, we used the traditional dodgeball, that ball made of thick rubber with the pattern for grip.

The counselors were merciless. I think that was how they got out their aggression and frustration with us. They threw those balls to knock you down. If, by some miracle, you caught the damn thing, the counselor would be “out.” They had an uncanny way of catching whatever you threw with your puny whatever-year-old arms, in which case you were out. If you got hit, you weren’t allowed to complain. You were just out. To extend the game, the counselors would occasionally call for a “jailbreak,” where whoever was out on either team retook the field. Once, one of my friends was left standing alone on the camper side of the court. The counselors counted down, and the poor girl found herself the target of at least a dozen dodgeballs. To her credit, though she cried a little, she did not fall.

Why, if the counselors were so strong and ruthless, did we play? The answer is simple and slightly horrifying; if we didn’t play, we got no free swim. Can you imagine that? Having to sit in the soupy Virginia summer heat for an hour instead of playing in the pool, simply because we didn’t want to get beat up by vindictive adults? I’m surprised more parents didn’t complain. The only reason dodgeball stopped, other than the ban of it, was because of one specific ball and an unfortunate incident that came about because of it.

It was called “the bullet.” It was a small dodgeball, about half the size of an average one. It had been filled so completely with air that it was rock hard. That little bugger really hurt when it hit you. A counselor-in-training named Shelby was playing on the camper side of the court, because his little brother was still a camper. He got hit with the bullet, hard. It broke his arm. There was no more mandatory morning dodgeball after that.

On rainy days, we all gathered in one place or another to watch VHS’s, mostly Disney movies. We’d sit cross-legged on the hard tile floor, rapt, watching movies we’d seen a million times before, but found no less delightful. The usuals were Richie Rich, The Parent Trap (with Lindsay Lohan), Free Willy, Casper, Casper Meets Wendy, etc., as well as various Disney animated classics.

Of course, there were other things to do once one or two movies had ended. We played cards, board games, and various counselor-beneficial games like “Mafia,” “Ghost in the Graveyard,” and “Froggy Murder,” among others. I remember there was an ancient upright piano that had to have been at least seventy years old in the basement below the ballroom in the main building (not the Mansion). Those who could play, would . . . so we heard endless rounds of “Heart and Soul,” played at varying levels of competence.

Capture the Flag. What a glorious game. The whole camp would shut down and play for half the day. The whole campgrounds were our playing field. The oldest groups of campers tended to be paired with the very youngest, and those in the middle were on the opposite team. Occasionally counselors would join in the fun, unable to help themselves.

Every two weeks, on the second Friday, camp would shut down for the second half of the day. All that week our main activity had been preparing a lip-sync performance. The parents came, and there were hot dogs and burgers that one of the male counselors always cooked on a massive grill. When I say massive, I mean massive. You could’ve grilled an adult human being on that thing. Not that you would. Not that we did. Stop looking at me like that.

My first kiss happened when I was about seven years old at camp. I remember the exact spot. It was under a chestnut tree on a tiny but steep hill, in the area covered by crabgrass. Instead of eating our lunches at the picnic tables like normal humans, my friends and I chose to picnic on our damp towels. Somehow I ended up standing in the crabgrass with Dylan Sax. Dylan Sax was that funny kid whom all the counselors loved simply because he was goofy, and so, hilarious. He kissed me, and I swear the sun shone brighter and white rose petals fell from the sky. A cloud had probably just moved from blocking the sun and it was probably leaves falling in the wind, but it was no less magical.

Those memories are awash in golden sunshine in my mind. I still have some old friends who I saw only at camp: PB, Steve, Smiles, and Caity. It’s been so long. I hope it continues.