Saturday, December 22, 2012

An Alternative Christmas

Merry Christmas, y'all!
It occurs to me that among holidays, Christmas requires even more advanced preparation in order to be able to celebrate as we are accustomed to on the day itself than some of the others. One could come home from work on October 31 and ransack one's closet for a costume to wear to a Halloween party that night. As long as the turkey isn't frozen, one could pick it up from the grocery store the day-of, along with some fixin's, and enjoy the day with friends and football with a minimum of fuss. (Generally speaking, fuss is directly proportional to the length of the guest list and the size of the meal.) But Christmas? To carry on as usual and then drop everything for 1-2.5 days (or 12, depending on country and tradition) would be...weird. Insufficient. Sudden. I guess that's why Advent is the season of waiting and preparation, huh? Christmas seems to require a holiday meal and baked goodies, presents that have to purchased and wrapped (and sometimes shipped) ahead of time, greeting cards with a newsletter to family and friends we may have been ignoring the rest of the year, and of course decorations around the house: fresh-chopped fir tree and nativity scenes inside, lights on the eaves and bushes outside. It wouldn't be Christmas without those things--would it?

I find myself particularly crunched for time this year, because I am trying to finish a semester of teaching (that means grading), and a dissertation chapter (personal deadline: Dec. 31), and a lot of paperwork. The paperwork is for various financial aid and fellowships for next academic year (August 2012-May 2013) and is due to my department by Feb. 1, but instead of using January for a "break" (and applications), I'm flying to Germany for research instead. That has required quite of a bit of preparation, too! Thankfully I have been able to make time for "Christmas" this Advent season. Here are some of the slightly... "alternative" ways I've been celebrating.

If Rainbow Brite celebrated Christmas, this is what the lights
on the bushes in her front yard would look like. Also: snow!

Seculo-Religious Party
At my department's annual holiday party, it has recently become a tradition, once most of the guests have left, for Dear Husband to play the host's piano while the rest of us sing. My one adviser is German by extraction and not otherwise religious but insists that we only sing proper Christmas songs. However, he left early this year with his young children, so the rest of us mixed "O Come All Ye Faithful" with "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." And ended the night belting out Beatles tunes and "Born to Be Wild."

Deconstructed Christmas
Every year one of the pastors at church writes "an alternative" Christmas play. This isn't your traditional pageant with the oldest boy and girl playing Joseph and Mary, three kings, some shepherds, and a gaggle of kindergartners as angels. Rather, it's a "deconstructed" drama set some time in modern history (usually "the present," but last year it was set in the 1950s). And it grapples with "the true meaning of Christmas," what Joseph might have said to Mary, or how Christians can best practice discipleship in the world today. It's an all-church production involving the praise band, chancel choir, children's choirs, teen band, and youth and adult actors. Of all the Christmas dramas I've seen here, I thought this year's was the best. "Stealing Christmas" tackled church hospitality, pastoral burn-out, vandalism, homelessness, and illegal immigration.

Road-Trip Christmas, Part 1
A member of our congregation is living 1.5 hours away at a facility with the nursing staff to accommodate her respirator, which she uses because of advanced ALS. One of her friends organized a bunch of us to go caroling there last Sunday afternoon. We caravaned over, sang for her and some of the other residents, and then drove on back. I'd like to think that the elderly woman who held my hand and cried was moved to tears by the gesture rather than the poor quality of our singing, as our renditions of "Joy to the World" and "Frosty the Snowman" were more heartfelt than tuneful.

Christmas by Proxy
Our Bible study group has a tradition of shopping at the local Toys R Us for the Marines' Toys For Tots charity. We get to wander around the store, reliving our childhoods and critiquing the current taste in playthings. After purchasing some Legos, board games, stuffed animals, outdoor toys, and plastic dinosaurs, we go next door to the Barnes & Noble for Starbucks hot drinks and conversation until they kick us out at closing time. One of my brothers requested a donation to charity this year instead of presents, so DE, these are "for you"!

DIY Christmas
Dear Husband recorded a Christmas CD of organ music earlier this year. I recently created the cover art for the jewel cases by cutting down old Christmas cards. This was a waaay more satisfying way to spend a morning than slogging through some dull scientific text in German. (Yes, those exist!) Some of these CDs are gifts for family, and the rest are going to elderly churchfolk for whom the holiday will be especially tough. I like the orange one on the far right, the only one we haven't given away yet.

Road-Trip Christmas, Part 2
DH and I live away from family, so the second part of our road-trip Christmas will be driving to his parents' house on Christmas Day. We will eat a family dinner and open presents with the kids that night. I hear there's also a trip to the aquarium in the works. We'll drive back home in time to go to the big city for New Year's Eve--I'll try to post an entry about that quick trip before I fly off to Germany. Fröhliche Weihnachten!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Twelve Days of Christmas Tree Ornaments

For my first but hopefully not only Advent/Christmas post this year, I decided to do a holiday mash-up: Advent calendar meets Catholic catechism disguised as the second-most-annoying Christmas song.* Each "window" on the Christmas tree opens to reveal a story about that ornament. You can sing along to the final verse at the bottom.

1--This clear glass ball filled with orange confetti and adorned with an Orioles logo is one of several tokens harkening back to our years in Charm City. (Another is the metal silhouette of the downtown skyline you can see next to the number "1" on the tree.) Both were gifts my father picked out.

2--When DH and I got married, good friends JS and DS gave us a beautiful boxed set of wedding-themed glass ornaments. Every year I make sure at least the bride and groom make it onto the tree.

3--Cookies, crafts, camping, songs--all things I associate with Girl Scouts. As a small reminder of those experiences, here is a beaded wreath I made in Juniors.

4--Wanting to do something different than the stereotypical angel tree topper (and secretly knowing I would not be able to find an angel I liked better than the one my parents have), I purchased this beaten-aluminum star made in Mexico from our local Ten Thousand Villages shop the first year we got a tree for our apartment.

5--Last Christmas DH's parents gave him a Klingon Bird of Prey ornament. You plug it into the socket of one of the lights on the tree, and it shoots photon torpedoes. Or at least that's what the manual that came with it claims.

6--Candy canes. Because every multi-media collage should have an edible component, and the apples the local farmers market sells are too big to tie onto the branches. Plus, I would eat all the apples. Every year DH says he will eat the candy canes, but he always forgets. So I will try to pawn half of these off on friends and end up throwing away the rest, since I discovered the hard way that rodents can smell pure sugary goodness through a sealed plastic bag. The year I tried to store a perfectly good box of unopened candy canes in the garage for the next Christmas I came back to a pure, sugary mess.

7--A German tradition is to hang a green glass pickle among the branches of the Christmas tree. Whoever finds it first will receive good luck (and an extra present!). With just the two of us, we take turns hiding the pickle. DH didn't do a very good job this time...

8--This is a ceramic snow hare perched on a long icicle. My grandparents brought me and my brothers one each as a souvenir after their cruise along the coast of Alaska. DH--channeling one of our pastors!--told me it looked like "a bunny sh*tting an icicle." I...I got nuthin' on that.

9--Being a musician and a music teacher, DH frequently receives music-themed gifts. Our tree boasts two of them this year: the metal eighth note you see here and an O-gauge wooden grand piano deeper in the branches. (On a related note, DH probably owns enough music-themed neckties to open his own kiosk at the mall. Our future children will be prohibited from taking this easy way out on Father's Day!)

10--I made this ornament out of a clam shell I found at the beach when we got engaged. It hangs from a rustic-looking piece of hemp with the tag "I can see what is important." TheKnot has taken down our website, or I would link you to that to read our story. Basically, in the morning DH lost his glasses in the surf, and while walking on the beach as the sun set that night, he proposed. While discussing our future together he uttered that line. Thankfully, I believed him.

11--This is a hand-made, cross-stitched Chrismon like the ones used to decorate the Christmas trees in the sanctuary of the church where I grew up (and met DH). The ladies of the church made them. Each one had a different symbol, like a crown, a sheep and shepherd's crook, or a fish. This one is a Star of David. I would guess it was purchased at the annual bazaar (or "bizarre," as the signs read one year).

12--This is a bear sitting in a wreath cross-stitched into an oval and fringed with white lace. My name and "1990" are written on the back, so I suspect it was a gift from my next-door neighbor or another of the elderly women who acted as "in-town grandparents" while we were growing up.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for,

"On the twelfth day of Christmas we decorate the tree (with) twelve kinds of cross-stitch, eleven cryptic Chrismons, ten smelly sea shells, nine nods to music, eight souvenirs, seven green glass pickles, six candy canes, fiiiiive Klingon birds-of-preeeeey, fo-ur metal stars, three beaded wreaths, two sparkly lovers, a-and o-one Or-i-oles ball!" Plus three strands of plastic beads and a string of white lights. Apologies about the scansion--I numbered the rectangles before I got around to writing the lyrics.

What's on your tree?

* Dear Husband is of the opinion that "Sleigh Ride" is the most annoying Christmas song. You are welcome to disagree with him in the comments.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Real Housewife of Champaign County

Chatting with Dear Husband from the ladder while installing aluminum covers over the gutters of our house on Saturday afternoon, I jokingly asked whether he thought my life would be worth a reality television show. The last week had been momentous, and with my needle-nosed pliers in hand, I was feeling particularly accomplished. He replied that we may have been to two parties in as many days, but I would have to bad-mouth the neighbors while hanging out the laundry if I expected to be (in)famous. So my turn on the celebrity D-list seems to have ended before it ever began. Nevertheless, I would like to remember what happened over the last week of November 2012--when the TA and GA union managed to avoid a second strike in as many contract cycles--so I present it here to you in sketch form.

Monday: Having finished drafting her fourth dissertation chapter (of six) more than a month ahead of schedule, Frau Doktor Doctor went back to Chapter 1 to begin the editing process. She spent the early afternoon observing contract negotiations at the University and the late afternoon teaching her undergraduate students about NGOs engaged in treating and curing tuberculosis in countries like South Africa and Peru. Fell asleep reading a colleague's diss chapter after dinner and therefore had the energy to join a minor act of civil disobedience on campus: a "work-in" at the Union that lasted all night (the building officially closed at midnight). Did some committee work while others played cards, edited the union's history for its webpage,  "slept" on a couch.

Graduate students "occupy the union" to demand a fair contract.
Tuesday: Worked from home until early afternoon when it became evident that major decisions were being made in caucus, so took the bus to campus to participate. Witnessed the tentative agreement signing that forestalled a possible strike. Ran the sound board for the union meeting. Kept a Skype date with a friend. Fell asleep during Bible Study.

Wednesday: Dissertated all morning, taught in the afternoon, joined the colloquium to discuss her colleague's chapter (which she had since finished reading). Had drinks briefly before attending a teaching seminar on "how to hold effective group discussions." Went to choir practice to rehearse Sunday's liturgical dance.

Thursday: Dissertated an impressive 8 hours in and around chatting up the neighbor who decided to hire a tree-removal service to cut down all the branches of the two large trees growing in our yard that extend over the property line into her yard. Apparently she had discussed this with the previous home owners (i.e. at least 5 years ago) and had recently decided something absolutely had to be done about it and as soon as possible so she never got around to asking/telling us about it. Hung wet laundry on her lines because the arborists were working in our yard.

Help out! Donate for
(Switzerland, 1956)
Friday: More dissertating in the morning, financial aid meeting at noon, and then teaching prep. Frau Doktor Doctor considered the day's lesson a complete success: two pairs of teams debated whether it was ethical, socially responsible, cost-effective, and/or medically necessary to (in)voluntarily isolate individuals infected with either active tuberculosis or with HIV. The two cases are not entirely equivalent, but that was the point: does it matter whether the infection is curable or life-long? The students seemed really taken with utilitarian arguments about the good of the many out-weighing the good of the few. Even though the current international standard of public health practice is community-base, out-patient care of TB (via DOTS)--because most patients are not infectious after two weeks of treatment--the students in the audience voted unanimously that the team arguing for (in)voluntary isolation had made the better arguments. This may be because the team fudged a little on the length of treatment in closing statements (leaning toward 2 weeks instead of the 6 months required for treatment and outlined in the debate guidelines). The second vote was much closer: 5 to 4 in favor of allowing individuals infected with HIV their freedom. This may be because the student delivering the closing statement for the "con" team made a slippery-slope argument about human rights and even played the "Hitler" card. Frau Doktor Doctor tried not to laugh at the audaciousness of the move but did not disqualify it.

She was able to slip in to hear most of the job talk by a fellow historian of medicine before taking the bus home and prepping for a potluck dinner. After some mulled wine that was strong enough to get someone drunk just from the smell of it, she and Dear Husband slipped out early to go home but fell asleep before getting around to the movie they were going to watch (GATTACA).

After seven years of marriage and four Christmases in this house, we decided we were ready to graduate to nets of colored lights on the bushes out front. Because we're running out of replacement bulbs, half of each strand of white lights blinks, as the photo demonstrates. Don't the gutter covers look nice?
Saturday: After a trip to the farmers/holiday market, Frau Doktor Doctor decided to make the most of the unseasonably warm weather to hang another load of laundry, the Christmas lights, and some new gutter covers. No one was bad-mouthed. The evening was spent at another holiday party: she attended as a "sexy elf" (green dress, red scarf, and fishnets); DH went as a "sexy dreidel" (navy Dockers, blue-striped sweater, and blue sports coat).

Sunday: Attended the contemporary worship service to practice sign language. Danced with the children at the main service to an inspiring rendition of "Kumbaya" (really!). Did committee work all afternoon and evening while "watching" football at a friend's place. Much sleep. Being a real housewife of Champaign County is exhausting! But sometimes satisfying.