Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ask Aunt Tillie: Do Amish Celebrate Christmas?

Blogger's Note: Since this blog is somewhat Amishcentric, I get questions from time to time from readers about Amish life and culture, which I refer to my Aunt Tillie, an opinionated, but humble Amish woman. Here is a recent question and answer. Please leave a comment or email me if you have questions you want me to refer to her in the future.

Dear Aunt Tillie:

The readers of your nephew's blog haven't read much about you lately, and I was just wondering how you're doing? Did you have a Merry Christmas? Do Amish even celebrate Christmas?

(signed) A Friend

Dear Friend:

I had a very nice Christmas; thanks for asking. All 14 of the children and 57 of the grandchildren were at our house for dinner on Christmas Day. I would say we "observe" Christmas more than "celebrate" it. From what I've read and heard from neighbors, our Christmas observances are quite a bit different from the way the English celebrate Christmas.
For one thing, we don't have Christmas lights, since we don't have electricity and it wouldn't make much sense to string lights around that don't light up. Actually, we don't put up Christmas decorations at all and we don't have Christmas trees and don't try to fool our children into believing they get presents from Santa Claus. When I hear people talk about having an "old-fashioned" Christmas, I have to laugh because in the olden days even the English didn't put as much time and trouble into celebrating Christmas as they do now days.
But we are not too Scrooge-like. We give presents to the younger children, although the idea of children making lists and demanding that we give them what's on the lists is unheard of among our people. We don't give presents to our married children, but when we had children at home, we might give the boys each a pair of gloves and the girls a scarf or something pretty, like a scriptural saying to hang on their wall. Abner will usually give a half dollar to each of the grandchildren, although the way inflation is going, I keep telling him he should get silver dollars to hand out. (I don't know if you can even get silver dollars anymore, that tells you how often I get to town.)
From what I've read, Christmas really doesn't have much to do with Jesus's birth, which no one even knows when it happened. Christmas started as a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, which the Catholics appropriated into a Christian celebration. It has pretty much returned to its pagan roots, from what I hear, with just a big buying and charging binge that the stores have promoted in order to sell more. I hear there are people on television and radio trying to get people stirred up about the "assault on Christmas," claiming that the ACLU is trying to ruin this country by making it illegal to say, "Merry Christmas." I like Christmas but I don't get too pushed out of shape about what someone might be trying to do or not do about saying "Merry Christmas." I figure that Christians who want to celebrate Jesus's birth are going to be able to do it without worrying too much about whether someone at the store said, "Merry Christmas," to them.
I hope, Friend, that you have a Happy New Year, and before you ask, no, I'm not planning on staying up until midnight; I don't have a television so I won't be watching the big ball come down at Times Square and I won't be drinking any champagne. If our throats feel scratchy, (or might be getting ready to feel scratchy,) Abner and I might just have a little nip of Kentucky bourbon before we go off to bed on New Year's Eve, but one nip is it. You don't want to be in bed with a drunken Amishman at my age, believe you me!

(Signed) Aunt Tillie

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Crockhead Extravaganza

We're about to head for Gatlinburg, TN where all the Crockheads are getting together for four days in a big seven-room cabin that sleeps 30 people. We will have 27. You can see pictures here. We plan to have a Crockhead Film Festival and Argument. If there is internet access and time, I will blog during the festivities. Merry Christmas, everybody.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Testosterone Anyone?

The secretaries in our office got together and bought gift certificates for the partners. I was happy with mine, which was to Walnut Street Tea Company, where I like to go to buy teas. That is until I found out my partner's gift certificate is for Hooter's! Now I'm afraid I was insulted and didn't know it. Today, for the first time in history I wore jeans to work on jeans Friday. By God, I'm nothin' if not manly. Just because I drink tea instead of coffee don't mean nothin'. (I'm going to start droppin' my g's like George Bush. That helped him get over the stigma of being a cheerleader instead of a football player in college.) The secretaries promised to get me a gift certificate for Lowe's next year. I'll buy me a big drill or somethin'. Either that or find me a country to invade.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Final Report from Philadelphia

After the incomparable Dishkin Brothers finished their set, there was a short intermission so they could gather up their pieces of wood and amplifiers. Then came the performance for which we had traveled to Purgatory and back, Jason Calloway and Christopher Otto. They first did a Xenakis piece written in 1996 for the Lincoln Center Festival called "Huuem-Iduhey," which is Yehudi Menuhim spelled backwards (sort of.) (If you don't know who Yehudi Menuhim is, you wouldn't like this piece.) They then did an original composition by someone whose name I didn't catch and finished up with Ravel's Sonata for Violin and Cello. Calloway quoted Ravel as saying about this piece that it "dispenses with the charm of trite-sounding harmonies." It does indeed, but it has its own charm.

At this point there used to be a video snippet of the Ravel piece. Chris has requested that I remove it, so I have.

The last set was by David Gross and Rhob Rainey and was called "Faces of Death," which is described in the poster as a "reductionist death match between two experimental saxophonists, complete with boxing style managers and high drama." One would think, reading the description, that the "reductionist death match" was between the two experimental saxophonists. It turned out it was between the saxophonists and the audience, many of whom literally had to cover their ears for protection against the assaults. I am told that Gross and Rainey are highly accomplished musicians and that this piece was intended as a parody. The problem was they had five minutes of parody, loosely packed into 30 minutes of our time.

Afterwards, we went out for some drinks, got to bed about midnight and were up again by 5:00 to fly out of Philadelphia, back to the good old conventional Midwest with its trite-sounding harmonies.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

And Back to Purgatory

Cows must be sacred in Pennsylvania. For some reason, no one eats beef chili. We had gelatinous chicken chili for lunch at Ruby Tuesdays (described below) and turkey chili for dinner at Lauren's Dream Kitchen. I'm told the airport cafeteria was offering goose chili for breakfast, but we left too early to try that or duck chili, cornish rock hen chili or pigeon chili, the specialty in the city's Belgian restaurants. Lauren's turkey chili was not only a different species of poultry chili than the gelatinous chicken chili we had at Ruby Tuesday's, but on an altogether higher plane of taste. It was excellent, as was the apple pie pictured in the post below.

After a very fine meal and interesting conversation with the denizens of Dream Kitchen, we headed for downtown Philadelphia in my sister, Louise's van, along with her husband Al, sons, Jason and Andrew and Jason's girlfriend, Angie. I declined the invitation to sit in the front seat with the map to navigate for Al, the driver, figuring that with time running short and none of us knowing where we were going, only a spouse would have the courage to shout, "Why didn't you turn back there?" as we whizzed by an exit. Unfortunately, Sister Louise was too soft spoken (or maybe the map was too confusing) and we wound up completely missing the exit to get downtown, and not realizing the mistake until we were several miles north of Philadelphia and rapidly approaching Camden, New Jersey. I was stuck in the middle seat next to a spouse who kept chanting in a not-so-undertone, "We're going to be late. We should have left earlier."

We finally did find the concert at Nexxus, an art gallery (without any art)located in a trendy part of town (meaning formerly run down but rapidly becoming gentrified) and although we were a few minutes late, the concert hadn't started yet.

First up were the incomparable Fishkin Brothers, Daniel and David, playing the saxophone and daxophone duet. Yes, there is such a thing. A daxophone is an amplified piece of wood which Daniel plays with a bow and another piece of wood. He makes his daxophones out of scraps because of environmental concerns about cutting down the rain forest. It sounds pretty much like you think a piece of wood with a microphone attached to it would sound when it is scraped with a violin bow. Fishkin will sell you a daxophone if you are interested, but since you probably won't be able to find a daxophone CD at your local big box store, you might want to hear an excerpt before you invest in one. Here is a snippet of one of the Fishkin pieces, very dark but the best I could do with a digital camera. At least you can hear what it sounds like. (Visually, this video is terrible; the sound has fidelity, if nothing else.)(Okay, so maybe it would benefit from a little less fidelity, but here it is.)
A sample of the Fishkin Brothers' Sax and Dax duet at the Nexxus Gallery in Philadelphia on December 16, 2006.

I have to go to work now. Next up will be a report on the Calloway/Otto duet, along with a video snippet. Please, please don't go away permanently.

Monday, December 18, 2006

From Purgatory to Heaven

I am hopeful that despite my own skepticism, our Roman Catholic son will be able to pray me into heaven upon my demise, and things are looking good so far. Airport purgatory in Philadelphia Saturday only lasted several hours, whereupon we were transported to heaven my means of my Acura-driving friend, John, with the help of his son, Will. I don't have time right now to describe heaven in any detail or to tell you about the concert Saturday night, but that will come soon, I promise. In the meantime, if you have ever wondered what heaven looks like, I have returned with a picture. I don't know if I would say that this is apple pie to die for, but if you're going to be dead anyhow, this is apple pie you might want to eat for a couple of millenia. Certainly, it's a more appealing prospect than the idea of walking around on golden streets singing hymns eternally.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Airport Purgatory

I think it was W.C. Fields who it was reputed said that he wanted on his tombstone the legend, "On the whole, I would rather be in Philadelphia." I don't know how severely Fields expected to be punished after his death, but the Philadelphia we've seen so far isn't much of an improvement over any place I can imagine. We're in the Four Points Sheraton, located next to the Philadelphia airport. I don't know if airports the world over use the same malevolent architects, or if it's impossible to design an attractive airport, but the ones I have seen, ranging from Seoul to Paris; from Seattle to Philadelphia, all have a dreary similarity. Granted, one wouldn't want an airport surrounded by mountains or high rise buildings, and I guess I can see the functionality of having parking lots and rental car agencies nearby, but is it absolutely essential to erase any vestiges of local color and to banish all decent restaurants from the environs?
We got off to a good start this morning. I was up at 2:30 and out of the bathroom in time for my wife to do her ablutions and be ready to walk out the door at 3:40, precisely the time I had calculated we needed to leave. There was no traffic out at that time of the morning and getting to Bloomington to the airport and clearing security was like the good old days of flying.
We had a layover of a couple of hours in Chicago, and while waiting next to the gate for a plane taking vacationers to the Caribbean, we were reminded of what kind of torture the airline industry puts us in all too often these days. We heard the gate agent next door, in a most cheerful voice inform the waiting throng that the plane was at the gate and she was just waiting for the maintenance crew to finish cleaning the plane before letting them board. She repeated this news cheerfully several times over about an hour interval, and then finally 'fessed up as to what was really going on. It seems the cleaning crew had found a cockroach. One cockroach. But as any cockroach expert will tell you, there can't be just one cockroach; where there is one, there are more. Since the plane was flying into a foreign country, it could not take off with the possibility of any animals, including cockroaches, being on board. So, she said, they were trying to decide whether to fumigate the plane or to get another plane for the trip. The problem with fumigating the plane is that it would need to air out after the fumigation for many hours to avoid making the patients as sick as the cockroaches,so it might not be able to leave for a day or so. The problem with putting another plane in service is that it had to be equipped to fly over water, and she didn't know if they could locate an available plane with the right equipment. So, the poor vacationers, eager to hit the beaches of Martinque were left stewing at O'Hare. (And this was United, which is a relatively benign airline. Don't get me started about that lying Northwestern Airlines.)
But our plane left on time and got us to Philadelphia on time. Our only problem is that we got here too quickly and our hotel couldn't let us check in. No problem, I said, it's noon, we'll just duck into your restaurant and have some lunch.
"Sorry," the desk clerk said, "Our restaurant has closed and won't reopen until 5:00 p.m."
After determining that the nearest open restaurant was a Ruby Tuesday, several miles away, but that the airport shuttle would take us there and pick us up, we went off to kill a couple of hours. I had never been in a Ruby Tuesdays, but was under the vague impression that it was similar to Appleby's, TGI Fridays, and that genre of restaurants, i.e. "pricy tacky." My bowl of chicken chili was a white gelatinous mess with recognizable (by sight; not taste) strips of chicken. I didn't locate anything in the bowl that I would have identified as chili. I also had a salad from a salad bar and by the time I covered the limp iceberg with all the salad bar accoutrements, it was edible, although not $9 worth of edible.
I am looking forward to our trip later this afternoon to Dream Kitchen where I am sure we will have food about as good as we have back in Illinois, if not better.
It's about 3:30 now; the concert is at 8:00 p.m. and I will report further on our adventures as I have a chance.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Badass Poster

Here is the poster advertising son,Chris's concert in Philadelphia tomorrow night.

I don't know how clearly the print shows up, so here is what it says under Jason Calloway///Chris Otto: "perform badass compositions for cello and violin including Xenakis, Ravel, and a bunch of premiers!!!"
My wife and I are flying out tomorrow morning at some ungodly hour (5:40 a.m., which means we have to be at the airport, 50 miles away, at 4:40 a.m., which means we have to leave here at 3:40 a.m., which means we have to get up at 3:00 a.m.) We're getting into Philadelphia about noon, will have a dreamy dinner with Lauren, John, Jack and Will, as well as several members of my sister, Louise's family from Virginia at Dream Kitchen and will attend the concert at 8:00. Sunday morning we fly back to Champaign at some ungodly hour with Chris in tow for the holidays. It will have been the first that we've seen him since last Christmas, so we're excited.
Son Jeremy is in Japan with Bomina this week, having finally gotten there yesterday after a trip from hell,no thanks to the liars at Northwestern Airlines, who cancelled his flight Tuesday morning because of "fog," when there was no fog in either Champaign or Detroit.
If I can get to a computer, I may blog about the Philadelphia concert. I may not.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Book Report: Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

I couldn't find any reviews that were anything less than adulatory of this month's book for the Third Day Book Club, a novel by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone. (I haven't read fellow bloggers' reviews, which aren't up until December 3rd; maybe some of them are critical.) (Not that I'm going to be all that critical, I'm just not feeling adulatory.) (But then I rarely feel adulatory.) (Unless I'm reading my heroine, Patry Francis's, prose.)

The book is set in the Missouri Ozark mountains, but the world they depict is a long way, culturally, if not geographically, from the world depicted in the last book I reported on, Houseboating in the Ozarks. Forrester's Ozarks are a scenic vacation waterland, where nature is unpredictably dangerous at times, but people are unfailingly helpful and polite. Woodrell's Ozarks are scenic, but are inhabited by poor white trash in danger of starving if their lethal relatives don't first kill them for violating a thieves' code of honor.

The book's narrator is a 16-year-old girl named "Ree Dolly." Yes, "Ree" is her first name and "Dolly" is her last name. (For some reason, many of the people who populate the hollows of the Ozarks depicted in this book tend to have last names that sound as if they should be first names. Besides the Dollys, there are the Miltons, the Arthurs, the Haslams and the Jessups, among others, crooks and outlaws, every one. Maybe it's the author's way of showing how unWASPish these hillbillies are; they even invert the WASPish practice of using last names as first names.)

I would call Woodrell a "flashy writer." His way with words made me stop and say, "Wow," at times, but then I realized that the story would have been better served if my attention had not been diverted to the words. He starts out by describing Ree's little hollow like this: "Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone."

His description of Ree a little later is: "Ree, brunette and sixteen, with milk skin and abrupt green eyes, stood bare-armed in a fluttering yellow dress, face to the wind, her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again. She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body made for loping after needs."

It's hard to argue that Woodrell should have used "dilapidated" instead of "halt haggard" to describe falling-down houses or that "her cheeks reddening as if smacked and smacked again" isn't a good turn of phrase, but "abrupt green eyes?" What are those? And, "a body made for loping after needs?" What exactly is he saying? There is a difference between seasoning that makes the prose taste "just right," and dumping every spice in the cabinet into the pot. I began longing for a little bland before I had digested much of this book.

The plot of the book is fairly implausible. Ree's father, a gourmet meth chef, has disappeared after putting up the family home, such as it is, to secure his bond. Unless Ree finds him, she, her two younger brothers and her crazy mother, will be put out of house and home into the cold Ozark winter. She starts asking around and persists after being threatened, and beaten up (losing her teeth in the process.) Finally, the worst guys (it is misleading to call anyone the "bad guys," they're all "bad") relent and take Ree to see her father. With the help of a chainsaw, she secures the evidence she needs to save the house, getting enough extra money in the process to take care of her siblings so that she can realize her dream of joining the Army (although how she will pass the physical without teeth is not explained. Maybe they don't need teeth to eat K-rations.)

Many of the reviewers compare Woodrell to Cormac McCarthy, which is probably why I am not enamored with this book. I don't like McCarthy's work either. Not to say it isn't good writing; smarter people than me like this kind of stuff. I gave this book three stars out of five.