Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Forty Mid-Life Lessons

Well, I'm 40 years old today. I'm officially middle-aged. That must mean I've gained wisdom and have life lessons to teach, right? So, herewith, 40 lessons. Take them for whatever they're worth.

1. For all except a rather small minority of people on this planet, probably nothing is more important than finding a partner you can make a loving, respectful, happy union with, and then keeping that union together through thick and thin. Compared to accomplishing that, just about every other failure shrinks into insignificance; compared to giving up on that task, just about every other success does the same.
2. Read. Start young, and don't ever stop.
3. Write. Poetry, fiction, criticism, songs, essays, letters, scholarship, personal diaries...it almost doesn't matter what.
4. Don't let all the things Karl Marx got wrong prevent you from learning from what he got right.
5. Be a patriot, not constitutionalist. (That is, love your homeland, not your homeland's government.)
6. Have or adopt or foster or spend time with children. There's nothing better.
7. Find a church, and stick with it; the more time you commit to it, the more truth you'll find both within and without it, and plus the your fellow parishioners won't bug you so much after a while.
8. Occasionally visit other churches too. You shouldn't spend your life wandering from one house of worship to the next, but it is good to learn what other people are looking for; it might help you see your own choice more clearly.
9. People who won't even acknowledge the upside of protectionist or socialist economics are people who have allowed Ayn Rand or P.J. O'Rourke to convince them that forms of life have no historical or material grounding, but rather are just things individuals make up as they go along. They're wrong.
10. Much as it compromises my own profession, this would be a better world if there were more social and economic opportunities not tied to getting an official piece of paper from a black-robed, accredited intellectual like me.
11. Vote.
12. Just about everybody likes some sort of fluff; practically everyone is some sort of geek. This is not to say that every idiosyncratic preoccupation is equally worthy--not everything is relative. But if you argue against others' obsessions, argue respectfully, because you have them yourself.
13. Take a pay cut rather than work in a cubicle; turn down the promotion in favor of the office with a window.
14. Manners and rituals and customs and uniforms and holidays are all important secondary goods: not absolute, but not to be casually dismissed either.
15. Take breakfast seriously: learn to how to make waffles, biscuits, potato cakes, fresh orange juice, maple syrup, poached eggs, cinnamon rolls. It's the most important meal of the day.
16. Commuting to work on a bicycle is good for the environment, good for your body, and good for your soul.
17. While others study romantics and agrarians for their poetry, study them instead for their ideas.
18. Occasional goofiness and irresponsibility can be a good thing.
19. Context almost always matters more than content.
20. Ideas can't give offense; you can only choose to take offense at those who deliver them.
21. A little Luddism never did anyone any harm.
22. Nearly all "expert" nutritional advice is flawed.
23. If at some point in your life you learn (or even just pick up a little bit of) a foreign language, don't make the mistake of forgetting it.
24. Derek and the Dominoes, John Denver, the Commodores, Jackson Brown, Blondie, ABBA, Electric Light Orchestra, Parliament-Funkadelic, Lou Reed, the Clash, Supertramp, Earth Wind and Fire, the Bee Gees, Carly Simon--all this, plus the Rolling Stones, Neil Diamond, Michael Jackson, Elton John, the Eagles, Talking Heads, Linda Ronstadt, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, and James Taylor at the height of their creative powers? Don't listen to the haters; the 1970s were the greatest decade in American pop-rock radio ever.
25. Plant a garden.
26. Aristotle (and Confucius, and Rousseau, and Tocqueville) was right: we are discursive, communal beings, who find ourselves most fully through fellowship and service and role-performance with other human beings. So don't take that individualism crap too seriously.
27. If you have an addiction, don't hide it, don't think you've got it under control, and don't allow yourself to believe it's just a problem with your self-image or self-esteem; get yourself into a legitimate, faith-centered 12-step program, and stick with it.
28. Slow down; take that family vacation in the car.
29. Play on the computer if you must, but Dungeons and Dragons will always be better with pencils, graph paper, and some 20-sided dice.
30. Subscribe to a daily newspaper. Read it.
31. Shop locally, especially for food. If you go to a farmers market, get to know the farmers, and find out where the food you buy comes from.
32. Move to a neighborhood that has sidewalks or quiet streets, where you can walk to church or the grocery store or the kids can walk to school. Then do so.
33. Naiveté gets a bad rap. Second naiveté especially so.
34. Take traditions seriously enough to be able to argue with and reject them; don't just leave them alone to die.
35. You can (and should) be liberal without being a liberal.
36. It probably doesn't matter too much if your partner isn't all that interested in your personal hobbies or what you do at work or what you do with your other friends. It does matter a lot if you can't explain to your partner why those things are important to you...or if you can't appreciate in turn what your partner explains to you.
37. Brown bag your lunch to work.
38. A truly humble person can't be humiliated.
39. In the end, after all the ethics and commandments and tough choices and hard judgments, as important as they are, never forget what this passage of scripture says truly matters.
40. Have fun.

Oh, and happy new year, everyone.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Morning Videos: "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Christmas Day may be past, but I think I can still put this up on the blog, given that 1) the whole 12-day long Christmas season is still with us (hey, it's only Boxing Day today, for heaven's sake), and 2) as I've previously publicly defended this song, not linking to the video itself seems churlish, and 3) it's one of my favorite videos from the 80s, and one of yours too. No, don't try to deny it; you were another white suburban American 16-year-old, just like me, and you too watched this video with enormous curiosity and a certain self-denied embarrassment, hoping to privately straighten out your personal confusion over just who Paul Young was, or over which member of Bananarama was which. Tragically, the video didn't come with subtitles.

Hope everyone had a good Christmas. And, if anyone knows, who is the guy at the back of the chorus who turns and laughs at the camera near the end of the video? I still can't place him.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


It's been pretty cold in this part of Kansas lately; little snow, but temperatures that feel near the arctic level just the same. It was already going to be a low-key Christmas around the Fox household this year anyway, for financial reasons, but the weather has been keeping us indoors and inactive even more than usual. With the cold, everything slows down; slows, quiets, and eventually stills. Certainly not the way my wife and daughters (who tend to be a lot more sensitive to cold weather than I am) would prefer their winters, but for this part of the season, anyway, stillness has it's upside.

Amongst those cultural critics who look upon modern life and see little that is admirable and even less which is sustainable, Bill McKibben definitely has a rather one-sided fan club. Whereas Wendell Berry, for example, can find readers and enthusiasts on both the right and left, McKibben's followers are almost always on the progressive side of things. This isn't surprising: he made his name with The End of Nature, a provocative book on global warming, then later followed-up on the environmental catastrophe theme with Maybe One, a book urging everyone to restrict themselves to reproducing only once. Folks whose complaints with modern life arise from religious or traditional concerns don't, for the most part, respond well these kind of deep ecological, vaguely or arguably anti-family pre-occupations.

I myself am not a huge McKibben fan, though I've read a lot of his work, and found much in it to learn from and admire. This year, I'm thinking a lot about the ideas he put forward in Hundred-Dollar Holiday, a wonderful and thoughtful--if not entirely liveable--essay on what a simpler, more local, less commercial Christmas might entail. Again, this isn't a message that is likely to resonate terribly well with you if, in the midst of whatever concerns you may have about the busyness and business of modern life, you're also trying to bring up four well-adjusted daughters in an ordinary, mid-sized American city, as we are. But then, we've compromised on localist resolutions before, and that hasn't stopped us from trying to take them as guides to our living anyway; Christmas wouldn't be any different. Besides, probably the most important point McKibben makes in that book is simply that Christmas festivities have always been adapted to one's time and place. A Christmas of noise and celebration, of gift-giving and light-stringing, of feasting and exuberance, is the legacy of the West's much poorer and much more agricultural past, when nothing provided more of a break from the routine of life than a little rowdiness and luxury and overeating. In the world of constant noise and selling and appointments and expectations we have today, trying to limit oneself, so as to turn the holiday into something different, makes good sense.

It's interesting that this same week I've been talking online with some folks about Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. I've talked about my passion for that story a couple of times before, and it was fun to discuss it with others. One point which came out in our conversation was that the ideal which Dickens sketched out in that novella was not a Mckibben Christmas; Dickens very strongly believed (as was brought out in the Orwell essay on Dickens I mentioned in the latter post) in commerce and celebration and material things and festive times as forces for good. Of course, he believed in those things liberally, and crusaded against those individuals and institutions which worked against them from being within the reach of all men, especially the poor; but he did not imagine Christmas as a reason or occasion for us to attempt to rise above such concerns entirely. Clearly, McKibben and Dickens live in two very different worlds (though I wouldn't be surprised if, in the end, their perspectives on and faith in Christianity and the Bible weren't pretty much the same). The rest of us, hounded by the overwrought expense and rushed pace of the holiday around us on the one hand, yet also desiring to partake of that good cheer which Dickens (as well as others, including our own experiences) has taught us to understand as being a legitimate part of the "Good News" of the season on the other, are stuck in between.

So maybe we just muddle along, in our usual ameliorative way, looking for some compromised simplicity and some arbitrary spaces to step back and step away from it all and be still in the midst of our modern busyness. I think it can be done. In the aforementioned post on Dickens's masterpiece, I mentioned another masterful storyteller, Garrison Keillor, whom I'm just liberal enough and Christian enough and sentimental enough to be just about the perfect audience member for. His annual Christmas broadcasts are important events in my yearly routine, and one monologue of his, given back in 2001, included a passage that seems appropriate here:

This is the best parts of Christmas, the part just before it starts. There are these whole big patches of serenity that open up, and you feel this peace of Christmas, when the rush has sort of quieted down a little bit and there's not that much that remains to be done--or it's too late to do what needs to be done--and you sit and enjoy the quiet. You walk outside on a Christmas eve after you've done with the supper, and you're going to go off to church, and you look up at this great vast starry sky, and at black branches poking up into it, and you just stand there and you breathe it all in. That's Christmas: that part, right there, that's the peace of Christmas. Or on Christmas Day, when the company has not come yet and everything's done--the cookies are all baked, and you've done your turn around the living room with the vacuum, and the table is all set--you have this little twenty minutes, this little half-hour, and you just drink it all in: it's such a lovely, lovely time, when you can just sit and think back about all the Christmases that you remember.

Twenty minutes doesn't seem like much; certainly it's not any kind of hundred-dollar manifesto, looking to change one's routine entirely. But it is something; it is a bit of stillness that keeps you from losing sight of that alternative entirely. And maybe one of the reasons our North European/New England shaping of the holiday has stayed with us for so long is that our memory of the cold and dark--or the actual experience of it--gives those moments of stillness and memory an edge, an advantage against all those other things, as worthy and appropriate as they may be, which too often drag us away from homes and hearths where siting down and counting blessing and breathing it all in is a little bit easier.

This Christmas, I'm thinking of the way, as a boy, I would try to find a way to get myself alone in the living room late on Christmas Eve--a difficult thing, in a large and noisy home with eight siblings, but I usually managed it just the same--where I would light the candles on our Swedish Angel Chimes, and listen to the bells ring. And I'm thinking of Melissa's and my first Christmas as a married couple; we returned home late on Christmas Eve from a visit to my grandparent's, had a light supper, then walked to local Catholic parish, and attended a midnight mass. Walking home on that cold and clear Utah night, returning to our scrawny tree in our underheated (and soon to be condemned) apartment, where we lit some candles and put on some music and sat down. It was like everything was on pause; everything was before us, waiting for us to begin.

And, of course, it did begin, and it's still going. Four daughters will be waking up tomorrow morning, looking for evidence that Santa Claus had come (which he will have, of course), and their bound to be noisy. And then the day will be upon us, and we'll have stuff to do. But we'll have had the night before--and next year, God willing, we'll have another cold and still night before, and many more after that as well.

I'll finish with my father-in-law's favorite carol, and one of mine as well:

Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.
For all is hushed,
The world is sleeping,
Holy Star its vigil keeping.
Still, still, still,
One can hear the falling snow.

Sleep, sleep, sleep,
'Tis the eve of our Savior's birth.
The night is peaceful all around you,
Close your eyes,
Let sleep surround you.
Sleep, sleep, sleep,
'Tis the eve of our Savior's birth.

Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.
While guardian angels without number,
Watch you as you sweetly slumber.
Dream, dream, dream,
Of the joyous day to come.

Here's wishing you a joyous day tomorrow, everyone--and maybe a quiet twenty minutes or so, lying still in bed, before it all begins. Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Morning Videos: "Gabriel's Message"

It's long-haired, late-80s, deep-thinking, jazz-experimenting, Amazon-forest-saving Sting, and he has a Christmas message for us all from above. Or rather, a message just for you. That's right, you: the one he's staring at. Don't break eye contact; his gaze will set you free.

I shouldn't mock; I loved this album, and this track, when I first encountered it at college. Still do.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Welcome, Damon

My old friend Damon Linker has blogged occasionally before, but now he's back in style, holding down one of the new blogs which The New Republic is hosting on its site. His first post, a defense of Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the prayer at his inagural, is I suspect a model of what we'll be getting from him: smart and succinct takes on the intersections of politics and religion in America today. Onto the blogroll he goes!

Oh, and what about his point? Really, between Damon's thoughts, and Steve Waldman's much lengthier take here, there's nothing more to say. Obviously Obama is not a socially conservative Christian, but his choice of Warren--assuming we are to read anything into this ceremonial choice at all, which unlike Damon I think maybe we can, assuming we don't allow ourselves to get carried away--shows him to be a little more serious, maybe even a little more orthodox, than either those on the secular left or the theocon right are willing to admit. Insofar as conservative Christian voters are concerned, yes, sure, it would be easy to deride Warren and by extension his connection to our new president; with his rhetoric of the "purpose-driven life," he can be dismissed as an exponent of Christianity Lite, of "moralistic therapeutic deism" as the current phrase has it. But then, what would one make of the inaugural of President Eisenhower, which Damon helpfully links to, with its pious, serious, but also thoroughly nondenominational prayer language at its beginning? In a liberal society, the best context for expressions of piety are ones which emphasize the service, generosity, charity and unity which dedicating one's life to God ought to make possible. Warren exemplifies this. And as for those on the opposite side, who feel that Warren's Biblically grounded, socially conservative views somehow compromises what he can represent in the context of an inaugural prayer, that it's a rebuke to Obama's winning coalition...well, that buys into the exactly the same for-us-or-against-us mentality which cultural warriors on the right depend upon. You'd think Obama's desire to bring rivals together would have shown his supporters on the left that such isn't the kind of game he plays.

[Update, 12/18--Damon's just put up a follow-up post, and he agrees with me. So there.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Surrogacy, Class, and Conservatism

This topic is pretty late in blog terms, but it's still worth discussing. Two weeks ago, Doug Merrill (of A Fistful of Euros fame) called my attention to the discussion about Alex Kuczynski's first-person article on surrogate motherhood in the New York Times Magazine taking place over on Matt Yglesias's blog. Matt actually brought up the piece twice over there, both times posing what seemed to me to be basically the same question: it's one thing to understand (even if one doesn't agree with) the social conservative objection to surrogate motherhood, but what to make of conservative objections which highlight the inegalitarian nature of these transactions? Doesn't that expose some inconsistency there, or at least some misunderstanding of the global reach of the income inequality which creates incentives for actions which social conservatives deplore?

I wouldn't disagree with either of those accusations, but that's an old point for me. The advancement of socially conservative goals is and ought to be linked, as far as I'm concerned, with a serious concern for social justice, meaning fair distribution and opportunity, and economic and civic equality. By the same token, the attainment of social justice cannot elide the importance of respecting, conserving, and sometimes even promoting traditional attachments, of both a communitarian and a moral nature. But this Christian democratic point of mine is one I've made often before, and I no more expect to find a lot of company in sharing it than I did when I first started sketching it out over five years ago. So Matt's head-scratching response to some of the confused snarks at Kuczynski's piece didn't surprise me.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised at the appearance of a new favorite blogger of mine, "Hector," in Matt's comboxes. Hector's a graduate student whose focus is agriculture and botany rather than the social consequences of the behavior of oblivious rich New York liberals (and feel free to read the whole piece--you may find some sympathy for Kuczyski's blight, but her inability to do more than gesture in the direction of the moral and class dilemmas involved in employing a surrogate mother for one's own child, before rushing back to her money-soaked lifestyle portrait is grating in the extreme) but his grounding in, and international perspective on, the whole range of natural law and Christian socialist thought makes him a good interlocutor in regards to the intersection of morality and liberal individualism, as I discovered in some of the discussions about Proposition 8 on Hugo Swchwyzer's blog. Certainly he handles himself in the comboxes than some others who have stumbled into this latest iteration of the argument over surrogate motherhood. I'm thinking here of Erin Manning, a smart and capable commenter who recently took over at Rod Dreher's blog for a stint. She highlights the questions posed by a couple of pieces which appeared in the Wall Street Journal; the first, Thomas Frank's take on Kuczynski's self-indulgent piece (the fact that it's a leftist like Frank attacking what Manning calls the "new secular morality" ought to have drawn her attention), and the second, a hand-wringing bit of reportage about how the upper-middle classes may have to let the domestic help go in these bad economic times, especially if the choice is between employing a nanny and getting Botox treatments. Erin recognizes, to her credit, that there is a real linkage between these two pieces, but she seems unable to fully articulate it. The common theme she names capably: "this has to do with our culture's acceptance of the notion that we can outsource our children's upbringing [or their birth] to temporary workers without this damaging our children [or family relationships] in any way." What is needed there is some good old Marxist rhetoric, such as Hector's Christian socialism provides: rhetoric like alienation, or better, commodification. In other words, this is a matter of how modern economic life and modern technology can potentially commodify that which ought to, somehow or another, maintain an essential connection to the natural, the personal, the intimate. To lose that connection is to--not always, but often--lose our ability to draw upon the traditions, roles, and associations which are sustained by those natural grounds, and hence to be that much more at a loss when we try to figure out how to be parents, employers, caregivers and neighbors, and so much more. Take it away, Alasdair McIntyre.

Manning's almost-but-not-quite formulation of the linkage here is emphasized by her refusal to see this as a "mommy wars" issue. Now I don't know exactly what she has in mind while speaking of the mommy wars, and no doubt a great deal of harmful and false judgments are thrown about in the midst of that debate. But nonetheless it is a real debate, and asking questions about how the rich vs. the poor, or the SAHMs vs. the professionally working mothers, or the traditional parents vs. the egalitarian parents, choose to--or are able to--prioritize or re-organize such impossibly basic things like having a baby, feeding a child, cleaning a house, or playing with one's children, is an intensely important debate, one involving difficult choices and heavy judgments. (Laura McKenna has been my preferred guide to these arguments for years now; check out this blog conference she held a few years back as good a place to start.) Perhaps those judgments seem too often to result in unfairly pitting women against one another, but I see that as primarily a function of people and perspectives which begin the arguments by remove economic and structural issues from consideration, meaning that the majority of those who get to set maternal and paternal leave policies, those who develop and drive and advertise on behalf of lifestyle choices and technological enablers of such, get a free pass. And that's not the way it should be.

Other smart conservative commenters who get into this debate, like James Poulos, seem to make the same mistakes. In James's case, he figures that surrogate motherhood will never be particularly common (though one of his fellow bloggers disagrees) if only because there will be "something" that will leave the majority of those involved in said transactions feeling vaguely guilty and uncomfortable. And if that turns out not to be the case, then he reserves the right to criticize those who choose surrogacy simply as a way of avoiding the messy, painful, dangerous, natural work of pregnancy, as "a greater inconvenience than they feel their child is worth....unless, of course, she was earning millions for doing something that for some reason required she not grow and birth me, and then she gave me enough of those millions, etc., etc." There are a lot of difficult questions here, questions about the opportunities which globalization and technology have thrown into the laps of many (though mostly into the laps of the super-rich like Kuczynski); eschewing or being cavalier about the economics which put these socially conservative considerations before our eyes in the first place is not the best way to answer them.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Morning Videos: "Breakout"

Well, it's finals week here at Friends University, and all my students are, of course, looking forward to their Christmas break. So let's honor that, shall we, with a little joyous, busting-out music, courtesy of Swing Out Sister. The fact that it's cold and gray outside, and this video is filled with color, only makes it that much more appropriate.

(And yeah, I missed a week. Sorry.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Worst Christmas Specials Ever

So, obviously, I'm still not back to regular blogging yet, to whatever extent that I ever actually am a regular blogger. (I wonder how many times over the past five-plus years I've said that.) Giving finals and grading papers and other end-of-semester stuff is to blame, plus a variety of deadlines--some actual, some self-imposed--that are demanding my attention. Anyway, I'll get back to it eventually. (I wonder how many times I've said that too.)

In the meantime, it's time for some holiday posts, and there's no better one to start with than this oldie-but-goodie from John Scalzi, who wrote it ages ago (like around 2004, or even earlier): "The Ten Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time." It's long since made the rounds in the blogosphere, probably multiple times, but I still find it just about the funniest thing I've ever read online. Enjoy.

An Algonquin Round Table Christmas (1927)

Alexander Woolcott, Franklin Pierce Adams, George Kaufman, Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were the stars of this 1927 NBC Red radio network special, one of the earliest Christmas specials ever performed. Unfortunately the principals, lured to the table for an unusual evening gathering by the promise of free drinks and pirogies, appeared unaware they were live and on the air, avoiding witty seasonal banter to concentrate on trashing absent Round Tabler Edna Ferber’s latest novel, Mother Knows Best, and complaining, in progressively drunken fashion, about their lack of sex lives. Seasonal material of a sort finally appears in the 23rd minute when Dorothy Parker, already on her fifth drink, can be heard to remark, “one more of these and I’ll be sliding down Santa’s chimney.” The feed was cut shortly thereafter. NBC Red’s 1928 holiday special “Christmas with the Fitzgeralds” was similarly unsuccessful.

The Mercury Theater of the Air Presents the Assassination of Saint Nicholas (1939)

Listeners of radio’s Columbia Broadcasting System who tuned in to hear a Christmas Eve rendition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol were shocked when they heard what appeared to be a newscast from the north pole, reporting that Santa’s Workshop had been overrun in a blitzkrieg by Finnish proxies of the Nazi German government. The newscast, a hoax created by 20-something wunderkind Orson Wells as a seasonal allegory about the spread of Fascism in Europe, was so successful that few listeners stayed to listen until the end, when St. Nick emerged from the smoking ruins of his workshop to deliver a rousing call to action against the authoritarian tide and to urge peace on Earth, good will toward men and expound on the joys of a hot cup of Mercury Theater of Air’s sponsor Campbell’s soup. Instead, tens of thousands of New York City children mobbed the Macy’s Department Store on 34th, long presumed to be Santa’s New York embassy, and sang Christmas carols in wee, sobbing tones. Only a midnight appearance of New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in full Santa getup quelled the agitated tykes. Welles, now a hunted man on the Eastern seaboard, decamped for Hollywood shortly thereafter.

Ayn Rand’s A Selfish Christmas (1951)

In this hour-long radio drama, Santa struggles with the increasing demands of providing gifts for millions of spoiled, ungrateful brats across the world, until a single elf, in the engineering department of his workshop, convinces Santa to go on strike. The special ends with the entropic collapse of the civilization of takers and the spectacle of children trudging across the bitterly cold, dark tundra to offer Santa cash for his services, acknowledging at last that his genius makes the gifts — and therefore Christmas — possible. Prior to broadcast, Mutual Broadcast System executives raised objections to the radio play, noting that 56 minutes of the hour-long broadcast went to a philosophical manifesto by the elf and of the four remaining minutes, three went to a love scene between Santa and the cold, practical Mrs. Claus that was rendered into radio through the use of grunts and the shattering of several dozen whiskey tumblers. In later letters, Rand sneeringly described these executives as “anti-life.”

The Lost Star Trek Christmas Episode: “A Most Illogical Holiday” (1968)

Mr. Spock, with his pointy ears, is hailed as a messiah on a wintry world where elves toil for a mysterious master, revealed to be Santa just prior to the first commercial break. Santa, enraged, kills Ensign Jones and attacks the Enterprise in his sleigh. As Scotty works to keep the power flowing to the shields, Kirk and Bones infiltrate Santa’s headquarters. With the help of the comely and lonely Mrs. Claus, Kirk is led to the heart of the workshop, where he learns the truth: Santa is himself a pawn to a master computer, whose initial program is based on an ancient book of children’s Christmas tales. Kirk engages the master computer in a battle of wits, demanding the computer explain how it is physically possible for Santa to deliver gifts to all the children in the universe in a single night. The master computer, confronted with this computational anomaly, self-destructs; Santa, freed from mental enslavement, releases the elves and begins a new, democratic society. Back on the ship, Bones and Spock bicker about the meaning of Christmas, an argument which ends when Scotty appears on the bridge with egg nog made with Romulan Ale.

Filmed during the series’ run, this episode was never shown on network television and was offered in syndication only once, in 1975. Star Trek fans hint the episode was later personally destroyed by Gene Roddenberry. Rumor suggests Harlan Ellison may have written the original script; asked about the episode at 1978’s IgunaCon II science fiction convention, however, Ellison described the episode as “a quiescently glistening cherem of pus.”

Bob & Carol & Ted & Santa (1973)

This ABC Christmas special featured Santa as a happy-go-lucky swinger who comically wades into the marital bed of two neurotic 70s couples, and also the music of the Carpenters. It was screened for television critics but shelved by the network when the critics, assembled at ABC’s New York offices, rose as one to strangle the producers at the post-viewing interview. Joel Siegel would later write, “When Santa did his striptease for Carol while Karen Carpenter sang ‘Top of the World’ and peered through an open window, we all looked at each other and knew that we television critics, of all people, had been called upon to defend Western Civilization. We dared not fail.”

A Muppet Christmas with Zbigniew Brzezinski (1978)

A year before their rather more successful Christmas pairing with John Denver, the Muppets joined Carter Administration National Security Advisor Brezezinski for an evening of fun, song, and anticommunist rhetoric. While those who remember the show recall the pairing of Brzezinki and Miss Piggy for a duet of “Winter Wonderland” as winsomely enchanting, the scenes where the NSA head explains the true meaning of Christmas to an assemblage of Muppets dressed as Afghan mujahideen was incongruous and disturbing even then. Washington rumor, unsupported by any Carter administration member, suggests that President Carter had this Christmas special on a repeating loop while he drafted his infamous “Malaise” speech.

The Village People in Can’t Stop the Christmas Music — On Ice! (1980)

Undeterred by the miserable flop of the movie Can’t Stop the Music!, last place television network NBC aired this special, in which music group the Village People mobilize to save Christmas after Santa Claus (Paul Lynde) experiences a hernia. Thus follows several musical sequences — on ice! — where the Village People move Santa’s Workshop to Christopher Street, enlist their friends to become elves with an adapted version of their hit “In The Navy,” and draft film co-star Bruce Jenner to become the new Santa in a sequence which involves stripping the 1976 gold medal decathlon winner to his shorts, shaving and oiling his chest, and outfitting him in fur-trimmed red briefs and crimson leathers to a disco version of “Come O Ye Faithful.” Peggy Fleming, Shields and Yarnell and Lorna Luft co-star.

Interestingly, there is no reliable data regarding the ratings for this show, as the Nielsen diaries for this week were accidentally consumed by fire. Show producers estimate that one in ten Americans tuned in to at least part of the show, but more conservative estimates place the audience at no more than two or three percent, tops.

A Canadian Christmas with David Cronenberg (1986)

Faced with Canadian content requirements but no new programming, the Canadian Broadcasting Company turned to Canadian director David Cronenberg, hot off his success with Scanners and The Fly, to fill the seasonal gap. In this 90-minute event, Santa (Michael Ironside) makes an emergency landing in the Northwest Territories, where he is exposed to a previously unknown virus after being attacked by a violent moose. The virus causes Santa to develop both a large, tooth-bearing orifice in his belly and a lustful hunger for human flesh, which he sates by graphically devouring Canadian celebrities Bryan Adams, Dan Ackroyd and Gordie Howe on national television. Music by Neil Young.

Noam Chomsky: Deconstructing Christmas (1998)

This PBS/WGBH special featured linguist and social commentator Chomsky sitting at a desk, explaining how the development of the commercial Christmas season directly relates to the loss of individual freedoms in the United States and the subjugation of indigenous people in southeast Asia. Despite a rave review by Z magazine, musical guest Zach de la Rocha and the concession by Chomsky to wear a seasonal hat for a younger demographic appeal, this is known to be the least requested Christmas special ever made.

Christmas with the Nuge (2002)

Spurred by the success of The Osbournes on sister network MTV, cable network VH1 contracted zany hard rocker Ted Nugent to help create a “reality” Christmas special. Nugent responded with a special that features the Motor City Madman bowhunting, and then making jerky from, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree, all specially flown in to Nugent’s Michigan compound for the occasion. In the second half of the hour-long special, Nugent heckles vegetarian Night Ranger/Damn Yankees bassist Jack Blades into consuming three strips of dove jerky. Fearing the inevitable PETA protest, and boycotts from Moby and Pam Anderson, VH1 never aired the special, which is available solely by special order at the Nuge Store on TedNugent.com.

I still crack up when I get to the Ayn Rand special, with its whiskey tumblers and "anti-life" invective. And, of course, any sentence that actually includes the words "Shields and Yarnel" is, by definition, hilarious.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Problem with Our Elites

Sorry for the light blogging here since before Thanksgiving; the usual end-of-the-semester crunch is to blame. Hopefully I'll be up a running with some stuff over the weekend, or early next week.

I had to, however, take the time to note this wonderful and thoughtful post by Ross Douthat. Ross is almost always smart, but this post, on the pitfalls, mistakes, and vices of our current American economic elites, as compared with the elites of different eras and in different places, is simply brilliant. It’s filled with interesting ideas (such as the possibility that the elite which Tom Wolfe described 20 years ago has perhaps managed to both combine the worst and lose the best characteristics of American elites both past and present), and moreover, it’s not unwilling to indict its author as being a member of—and thus perhaps possessing some of the same flaws—that very cohort. All this, plus a Spider-Man reference. It’s great. There's something for everyone--liberal or communitarian or conservative or socialist or egalitarian or aristocrat--to chew on therein. Go and read it.