Thursday, December 28, 2006

So this is Christmas...

Something old
Growing up in Chile, Christmas (December as a whole) happened in the summer (which, come to think of it, I think it still does, at least for those south of the Equator). Typical Christmas presents for the first half of my life always included bathing suits, beach toys, beach towels, arm floaties. It was a little strange to see Santa on billboards and streetcorners in his North Pole red suit with white fur trim when it was 30 C outside - some ads tried to "summer-ize" Santa by giving him a red bathing suit instead; red swim shorts, still trimmed with white fur, and still topped with his traditional Santa hat, accompanied by his trademark black boots - but when you're a kid, and you don't questions eight flying reindeer traveling around the entire world exactly at midnight to give away free stuff to kids for no good reason, why would you question some funny fat man's fashion choices?

Transplanted to Texas, Christmas now happens in the winter. But now we're talking about Texas Winters - a week before Christmas I was walking into Target squinting at the sunlight, wearing flip-flops and a t-shirt, gleefully enjoying the 80 F weather. Coming from way south of the border, I hate it when people complain about this glorious weather around Christmastime, whining that "it doesn't feel like Christmas." Look, if you've always lived in Texas, then this is the weather you've always had, so what does Christmas feel like to you? But mainly my beef is that Christmas has never been cold for me, and I like the warm weather around this time. Partly because of the memories, but mostly because I hate cold weather no matter what the holiday (it's never bothered me that my birthday, which is in July, is no longer in the middle of winter).

My siblings and I would sing about White Christmases and Frosty the Snowman while eating popsicles barefoot in the backyard in eager childish anticipation of Christmas, even though we had never made a snowman in our entire lives. Why would we worry about the "white" missing from our Christmas? I guess it would have been nifty to be able to make our own Frosty, but we didn't have a magical hat so the lack of snowman-making snow was not a big deal anyway.

Something new
When my mom remarried, after eight (or so) years without a single date (to my knowledge), quite a few things changed within our family traditions. I don't know if the fact that I was already in college and out of the house made the transition easier or harder. Not being home as much (even though I was going to school in the same town - I guess I'm not the most dutiful daughter) meant that I didn't see the small, gradual changes, I just got slapped in the face by them when I did come home.

The Christmas traditions changed, adding the traditions of the step-family. I have, in the six (or so) years since the wedding, managed to come to terms with these additions. A variety if issues on my part made this quite a task, but this past Christmas was actually quite enjoyable. Which was a lot better than what I've cause in the past - hopefully this peace will develop into another new tradition.

Something borrowed
This year, my mom started another tradition, which I also hope we keep, cheesy as it is. My step-sister's daughter, aged three and a half, has been going to church with my mom and step-dad and attending the Sunday School and Children's Church classes. The pastor's wife, who leads many of these things, stresses the fact that Christmas is Jesus's birthday, so my mom decided to bake a birthday cake for Jesus.

It sounded goofy when she first said it, but when we sat down, after a huge family dinner where we actually managed to fit the twelve (or so?) family members who were there around the table (made for eight), it didn't turn out to feel so goofy.

My mom's family sings three birthday songs - the traditional "Happy Birthday," followed by "Who is the Birthday Girl/Boy Today?" and, for the grand finale, "We Had a Very Lovely Time" (lyrics available upon request). This is one of the many traditions from my side of the family that the steps graciously added to their traditions without the whining and fussing that I did about their holiday traditions, by the way. As with every birthday, we started with "Happy Birthday" and sang all three songs. I don't know why, but singing those songs, listening to the words I've been rotely singing since I was able to form words, shone a new light on Christmas. It sounds so silly to bake a cake for Jesus, but that's what Christmas is. Instead of getting caught up in the shopping and buying, I'd much rather enjoy cake and ice cream.

I hope we keep the birthday cake tradition... even if I have to admit it's for me, not for the three-year-old.

Something blue
This year, I tried once again to add a "family donation" to a charity, to keep the focus on giving instead of consuming. The idea didn't seem to catch on, and I didn't follow through with it either. The idea was for us to give money to donate, as a lump sum, to a charity on behalf of the whole family, instead of going through the stress and expense of buying presents for each other when we don't need any more stuff, really. This year, I told myself that even if nobody else did it, I'd do it anyway.

Here we are, December 28th, and I still have not even decided how much I'm going to give. I wish I could stick to my good intentions with slightly stronger conviction.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Santa Claus - magical man, or miserable myth?

A post a while back by Marcy made me think about kids and Santa - mainly, if it was "lying" to your children to let them believe in Santa Claus, knowing he's not real. This morning, my students (6th grade, 11-12 years old) were talking about where their parents "hide" the Christmas presents, so I had the brilliant idea of asking them whether they thought parents should propagate this fantasy with their children (we've been studying persuasive appeals in language arts, I thought it fit in nicely - should parents tell kids the truth, or let them believe this childhood myth?)

There was a general outcry among the students - how dare I say Santa isn't real? What was I talking about? Santa is too real!!! (I had one kids yell across the room at an anti-Santaist, "If you don't believe in Santa, then you don't believe in God! Santa is God's helper, just like the Easter Bunny - God can't do it all, so he has people help him, like Jesus." Personally, I thought this went a tad bit too far, but - as has been pointed out to me before, by people with kids - I don't have kids, so what do I know.)

As I tried to retrieve the foot firmly entrenched in my mouth, I modified the assignment - write a persuasive paper telling me if Santa is real or not.

By the time I finished reading them, Grinch McScrooge that I am, even I was believing in jolly ol' St. Nick.

"Why do you not get every present you want for Christmas? Because your parents aren't going to buy you a pony."

"All these Christmas jingles and Christmas specials on TV are for kids, none of them are for adults. That is because adults never have the time for those. They are too busy shopping for presents from 'Santa Claus.'"

"... I asked my mom if she puts the gifts under the tree and she said, 'Would I ever get you those things that you got?'" "... and my dad is just as happy to get the electronics as we are."

"It's true Santa may not be real in flesh and blood. That's why so many parents dread the coming question, 'Mommy, is Santa real?' from their children. I've asked that question and got an answer, but I still believe that a little Christmas spirit can turn anyone into the jolly old man kids call Santa."

"I believe Santa Claus is very real and so do millions of other children of the world, because they know that seeing is not believing, but believing is seeing."

"Pleasure to the mind is not to try finding facts but to let your mind fly and believe."

"Many people have popped the question, 'Is that big-bellied, red-suit-wearing, white-bearded, magical man of the holidays, Santa Claus, real or just a myth?' Well, that is a question that many believed they can answer but truly are forgetting why you should believe in Santa Claus. Santa Claus reminds us to give and love during Christmas, he implies that the holidays are more than just a commercial season. Old Saint Nick is more than believing with your eyes but is believing with your heart. So even if [the half-eaten cookies and drunken milk] can't get you to believe, if you look deep down in yourself you can hear the sleigh bells ring."

For me, the Spirit of Christmas comes in the form of Jesus - y'know, that whole "reason for the season" stuff? - but for people who don't have that in their lives, it's nice to see that someone is keeping that alive for them. In a way.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

This post brought to you by the letter "Rr"

At a recent audition where accents were requested, I got to thinking about this little letter. How is it that this one little letter gets to be so special? It takes a different sound in pretty much every language I know (or with which I am familiar).

Neither Spanish "r" sound is like the English "r" - and even within the English "r" there's a difference between the American "r" and the British "r" (the Spanish "r's" are still like neither one).

The American "r" seems to be preceded by a "w," especially at the beginning of words (which, I guess, is why we have words like "write" and "wreck," that have that silent leading "w"). The British "r" is too snooty to be there, they just gloss over it, except when it's not there - then they add it. Why? Nobody knows. They're British, they think they own the language and can do whatever they want with it.

The Spanish "r" is not as complicated as English-speakers like to make it out to be, really. It's just a simple flap of the tongue to the roof of the mouth - the single "r" is the same sound made by the double "t" in "Betty." See how easy that is? Now do it at super-speed, seventeen times in a row - then you have the double "r" sound!

The French "r" (which I needed for said audition) comes from the back of the throat, and requires phlegm or spit, whichever you have handy. As long as you keep your lips pursed in a seductive "o" shape - you know, like you just took your cigarette out of your mouth - you have the French sounds.

The German "r" (another accent at the audition, even though not for the girls, none of us were trying out for Einstein) is similar to the French "r," but angrier. It's German, it has to be angry.

Then there's the Chinese* "r," which is entirely wacky altogether. As a child, I was greatly confused by jokes with Chinese characters (which now, as an adult, I know are racist and in poor taste, but when I was 10 I didn't really know so forgive me) - you see, the jokes I had heard as a child (in Chile) portrayed the Chinese characters using the "l" sound for the letter "r." However, when I moved to the US, the Chinese characters in jokes used the "r" sound for the letter "l." I didn't get it - I thought they couldn't say the "r" sound, but now you're telling me not only that yes, they can say the "r" sound, but that they used that sound instead of "r"? What the flip?

Years later, the answer to this conundrum finally came to me, in the enlightening years of college. Discussing phonemes that are present in one language and not another, the teacher mentioned that the Chinese character for the letters we call "r" and "l" are the same, but the sound will vary depending on if the sound is at the beginning or end of the syllable - at the beginning of the syllable, the sound was what we call "r," at the end of the syllable it was the sound we call "l" (or the other way around, I can't remember). Therefore, Chinese students had a hard time putting the "r" phoneme at the beginning of a syllable, and the "l" phoneme at the end of syllable (or the other way around, I can't remember. It was a long time ago!) If you think about it, the position of the tongue for both letters (in English) is very similar, almost the same, so this makes more sense than it sounds like it would.

So this is why sometimes Chinese people were portrayed as not being able to make the "r" sound, and other times not being able to make the "l" sound! Their language has both phonemes, they can pronounce both sounds, but not in the places where English (or Spanish) puts them...

You do not understand how relieved I was to find this out. The discrepancy had, truly, bothered me for years. Why? I don't know. Maybe because some of the jokes I'd heard wouldn't work if the other sound were substituted... and part of me was going to feel cheated. Alas, all that fretting was for naught.

I'd share one of those jokes with you, but a) the only one I can remember is in Spanish, and b) it's probably going to be offensive to someone and I'd rather not infuse this blog with negative karma.

*Author's note: as read in the post, my experience with this phonological phenomenon is rather limited, mainly to jokes and the one time it was mentioned in that linguistics class, many, many semesters ago. If I have the wrong language (if it's really Japanese that does that, or if both languages do it) please pardon my ignorance and leave me a comment correcting me - or send me an angry email correcting me. Thank you.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"I give it two thumbs up your nose."

Why do newspaper movie reviewers feel the need to hate life - and movies - so much?

I college, my boyfriend and I noticed this trend - the "I am so superiorly smarter than everyone, I find everything stupid and beneath me" approach to movie reviewing. There was one particular critic for the local paper who was so ridiculous in his reviews, we knew that if he trashed the movie, then we should go see it. However, if he gave a movie a favorable review, then we skipped it - a good review from that pompous prat meant the movie was some sort of pseudo-intellectual, boring-as-bathroom-tile, long and dragging, pointless and meandering excuse for a movie that pompous prats were afraid to denounce as what it was - the lack of clothing of the Emperor.

From my experiences in those days, I learned to avoid movie reviews, especially newspaper ones. (Every now and then I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly, and their reviews - alas! - are sometimes... positive... Now, it can't be that hard, can it?) Then again, it's not like I'm at the movies every weekend, either - I wouldn't have much need for reviews even if I were inclined to read them. However, last week, out of boredom (I was at work), I opened the link from the email I keep getting from one of the local papers leading me to their movie reviews. The caption under the photo of the first movie reviewed trashed the movie. That was that for that review.

The first full review I read trashed the movie. The second review did, too. Just as an experiment, I clicked on the link to the third review.

Alas! The word on the screen were - dare I say it? - complimentary! This was unprecedented! A positive movie review! My faith in journalistic humanity was about to be restored. I had been wrong, after all. They do care! Critics are people, too!

*sheds tear*

Then I got to the end of the review. Even though the story was good, the acting was good, the theme and message were good - the film was overexposed, the camera work (or something else) was shoddy, other technical aspects were not up to par. "You'd do better watching this on DVD, not on the big screen."

Say whut?

You liked the movie, but you're still telling me not to go see it?

I guess it must be a law, that newspaper movie reviewers cannot write a positive, encouraging review. Because, seriously - what was that? One thing would have been just to say, "Some technical aspects of the film left something to be desired," and let the reader/potential moviegoe decide on his own whether to pay the $10 to see this on the big screen, or wait until it became available on Netflix.

Is the newspaper reviewers' union mad at the movie theater runners' union? Is there some underground war of which we, the newspaper-reading and movie-watching lay people have not been made aware? Why such venom spewing from the newspaper reviewers? What did the dude running the movie theater ever do to you? HUH?

Doesn't it seem that the newspaper movie reviews, along with, well, pretty much everything else you would find in the newspaper, would be there to help inform We The People? Your job, as a movie reviewer, is not to show off how much cooler you are because you find Jack Black to be "potty humor" (really? You think? Now, what exactly tipped you off on that one, Stephen Hawkins?), but rather to provide a service and inform the potential movie-goer and help her make a choice as to her plans for the weekend.

Perhaps the problem in this equation is not the reviewer himself, but the editor. I find it hard to believe that finding someone who likes mainstream movies would be such a challenge, but perhaps there lies the problem. Maybe movie reviews are the new obituaries - they start their journalistic career stuck in that department, and that gives said reviewers a sort of snippy attitude, which taints their reviews.

Perhaps the problem is the editors insist on assigning certain genres to reviewers who happen to love movies, but hate that particular genre. Not every movie will be Shindler's List. Accept that fact. Embrace it. And relish in it, because if every movie were like that, we'd have a lot more slit wrists in this world. Sometimes, you feel like watching a mindless action flick - but there are good mindless action flicks, and there are bad ones. There are good fluffy romantic comedies, and there are bad ones. There are good stupid movies, and there are bad ones.

If you truly were as smart as you think you are, you pompous prat, you would be able to tell the difference. And you'd be able to tell the action fan, the romantic comedy fan, the stupid movie fan, if the movie is good or bad. You might even be smart enough to provide enough information to your reader to let her decide if this is the kind of action movie she'll enjoy - how much action, how far you have to suspend your disbelief, so on.

I know there is a massive amount of manure being tossed on movie screens lately. But, a) not all of it is manure; and b) somebody is eating up that manure, because movie producers are still making money. One of the first things I teach my sixth graders when they start writing - know your audience. Write for and to your audience. It shouldn't be that hard a concept for the newspaper movie reviewers to grasp, should it?

Dear Mr. Newspaper Reviewer: If you hate your job, your life, and movies that much, I will be happy to do your job. Send me an email, put me in touch with your editor, I'll take over your duties, and you can go on to find something that better suits your grumpy, pseudo-smart airs.

In other news, if you are a movie fan and would like to write one of your own, consider this site. Let the Frenzy begin!