Friday, December 26, 2008

Chrsitmas in Literature (Yeah, A Day Late)

Hey, lookee here: I'm typing this entry on my new laptop!

Yep, big Christmas present my my lovely wife. This will undoubtedly bring peace into our household, as sometimes my children at I are at cross-purposes when it comes to the computer. Can I tell you how many times I have geared up to write the Next Great American Novel only to find my sons are at the computer playing Club Penguin?

Anyway, the entry: for over a week now, I've been meaning to post some trivia questions regarding references to Christmas in literature. Obviously, this would have been more meaningful before Christmas, but... eh, got busy. So here we go. (Answers follow.)

  1. In O. Henry’s short story “Gift of the Magi,” what is the name of the woman who sold her hair to get a Christmas gift for her husband?

  2. In To Kill a Mockingbird, what is the name of Atticus Finch’s brother who visits Scout and Jem for Christmas?

  3. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, what gift from his dead father did Harry Potter get during his first Christmas at Hogwarts?

  4. What Shakespeare play is named after the religious feast that takes place on January 6th (which some believe was when the play was first performed?

  5. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, the narrator describes how Owen Meany, during one holiday season, played a role in a Christmas pageant and a role in a version of A Christmas Carol. What were these two roles?

  6. I am an American poet who wrote a poem called "Christmas Trees (A Christmas Circular Letter)," but you probably know me better for that other wintry poem, the one about keeping promises on the darkest evening of the year. Who am I?

  7. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield spends the days leading up to Christmas wandering around what American city? (Too easy? Try this one on for size: In Catcher in the Rye, Phoebe Caulfield reports she is playing what historical figure in her school's Christmas play?)

  8. I’m an American writer famous for stories such as “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” but I also wrote five stories about old-fashioned Christmas customs. You may not know these stories, but they influenced Charles Dickens, who publicly said he owed a debt to me for the success of A Christmas Carol. Who am I?

  9. John Milton, author of “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” is better known for what other religious poem, about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden?

  10. Which now-classic Christmas movie—about a young boy, a BB gun, and unusual lamp—is based on a book of short stories called In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, written by Jean Shepherd?

  11. Joe Christmas is the main protagonist of what William Faulkner novel with a decidedly non-Christmas-y title?

  12. In what C.S. Lewis novel does Santa Claus give children named Peter, Susan and Lucy “tools, not toys”—including a sword and a red shield emblazoned with the picture of a lion?

  13. What is the official title of Clement C. Moore's “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”?

  14. Boris Karloff, who narrated the animated special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” famously played what famous movie monster, originally created by Mary Shelley?

  15. What Scottish poet wrote the poem “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788?

  16. What Yeats’ poem ends with the line, “Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born”?

  17. How many ghosts visited Scrooge in A Christmas Carol?

  18. This term originally referred to the feast which commemorates Visit of the Three Kings, but it could also, thanks largely to James Joyce, refer to a sudden realization of something. What’s the term?

  19. Dr. Seuss created an iconic Christmas character in 1957. What's Dr. Seuss' real name?

  20. What is the name of Scrooge’s former employer, the proprietor of a warehouse who would host Christmas balls?

  21. What Christmas ballet is based on an 1816 short story by M. T. A. Hoffman about a toy that comes to life?

  22. What Irish poet, famous for “Don’t go gently into that good night,” also wrote “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”?


1. Della

2. Uncle Jack Finch

3. Invisibility Cloak

4. Twelfth Night

5. Baby Jesus, Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

6. Robert Frost

7. New York (or Benedict Arnold)

8. Washington Irving

9. Paradise Lost

10. A Christmas Story

11. Light in August

12. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

13. "A Visit from St. Nicholas"

14. Frankenstein's monster

15. Robert Burns

16. "The Second Coming"

17. Four (Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come)

18. Epiphany

19. Theodore Giesel

20. Fezziwig

21. The Nutcracker

22. Dylan Thomas

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Secret Power of Pajamas

Note from author: Today, we had our first snow day of the year. To mark this momentous occasion, I thought I would post an article I wrote last January about "snow day rituals."

The article ran in the
Hartford Courant on January 20, 2008. Somehow, the piece was picked up by National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation." Two days later, I was interviewed live on the air by the venerable Neal Conan. You can still listen to the interview at

When I stop and think about, the story surrounding this piece really is a testament to the awesome power of the written word: two girls casually mention something to me one morning in a Connecticut high school; I write an article, which is published in a Connecticut newspaper; someone in Washington D.C. reads it and books me on a radio program, which is heard by people across the nation. Like I said, awesome.

Anyway, here's the piece...

I am a high school English teacher, which also makes me a learner. My students teach me quite a few things. Granted, they're usually things no man in his late 30s has any business knowing (new and illegal ways to download music or the term "fo' shizzle"). But recently, my students taught me to something I'll keep with me for the rest of my professional life: the Pajamas-Inside-Out, Spoon-Under-the-Pillow-Snow-Day Ritual.

I learned about this phenomenon in December, the morning after our first snow day. One of my students, still basking in the post-snow glow, said, "I was so sure we were going to school. I mean, I didn't even put my pajamas on inside out the night before!"

"Wait, what are you talking about?" I asked, with my typical air of cluelessness.

"On a night before there's a chance of snow," she explained, "you wear your pajamas inside out and put a spoon under your pillow. The next morning, you'll get a snow day."

"Really? This is a thing?"

"Oh, yeah!" her friend responded with giddy enthusiasm. (These were seniors in high school.) "See for yourself," the first girl said. "Look it up online."

I did, and my eyes were opened. This is not a passing fad, but a way of life. My Internet sleuthing revealed that students from Hillsborough, N.J., to Rochester, N.Y., and on to Fauquier County, Va., practice the Pajamas-Inside-Out, Spoon-Under-the-Pillow-Snow-Day Ritual, or what I will henceforth call PIOSUPSDR.

I discovered that people have done this for years. I uncovered a reference to a Tennessee schoolteacher who learned about the PIOSUPSDR during her first year of teaching, 25 years ago. Other teachers told her, which means the tradition goes back even further.

I also learned that the PIOSUPSDR has some variations. Some students eat an oatmeal cookie before putting on their pajamas inside out. Others lick the spoon before placing it under the pillow.

Even after my exhaustive research, one fundamental question remained: Why in the heck are people doing this in the first place? How could sleeping in inside-out pajamas with a spoon under your pillow possibly influence the weather?

The PJ thing I could sort of understand. Wearing clothes inside out has long been a sign of good luck. (Think rally caps.) But the spoon? I even skimmed through a book of old superstitions, trying to find something that links spoons with weather. I found one that advises couples hoping to conceive a girl to put a wooden spoon under their pillow. But I didn't see the connection to the PIOSUPSDR.

Because my research took me only so far, I went back to my students with my lingering questions. Here's what they had to say:

Question: "Do you wear the pajamas inside out, or inside out and backward?"

Answer: "Just inside out. Once I wore them inside out and backward and the big tag kept scratching my neck and chin all night. The next morning, I had school and a rash on my neck."

Question: "Can I do this in, like, May?"

Answer: "Sorry, but you can only do it when they are actually predicting snow."

Question: "While online, I read that some people throw ice cubes in the toilet in the hopes of getting a snow day. What do you think about that?"

Answer: "Well, that's just silly."

But when I asked if the pajamas/spoon combo works, I got several different answers. Some students squealed, "Yes, definitely!" and had anecdotal evidence to prove it. Others admitted, "Only sometimes" - but even those doubters still do it.

And therein, I think, lies the key. Think about it: we live in a world where multimillion-dollar geostationary weather satellites, orbiting 22,000 miles above our heads, can tell us the weather conditions anywhere on the planet.

All that technology should be enough for anyone, but especially for teenagers, who rely on technology for pretty much everything.

Consider, for a moment, your Typical Teen: When her ear isn't occupied by an iPod, she's got a cellphone up to it. And, when she isn't talking to her friends on her cell, she's IM-ing them about the new photos she uploaded to her Facebook page. While online, she may at some point click back over to her U.S. history term paper, which she can research and write without entering a library or opening a book. She is, in short, inextricably bound to technology.

And yet that same girl, when she hears about a potential nor'easter, will push aside all her electronics, grab a decidedly low-tech spoon and embrace the deliciously irrational possibility of magic and wonder. And there's something sweet about that. Don't get me wrong: The idea of an 18-year-old sleeping in inside-out pajamas with a spoon under her pillow is still kooky. But it's also sweet, and refreshingly innocent.

So yes, this winter my students taught me an important lesson - allow for more magic in your life. Next time they're predicting snow, I'm taking my chances with the spoon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bah Humbug to Cupcake Ban!

Violence, drugs, too many students, not enough funding—so many problems besiege our schools, which one should we tackle first? Fortunately, a few years ago, the Connecticut State Department of Education came up with an answer.

It’s the cupcakes, see. Something has got to be done about the cupcakes.

You know the story: It’s a Winter Celebration (don't you dare call it a Christmas Party!) in Ms. Jenkins’ first-grade class, and Billy’s mom has whipped up some Funfetti cupcakes. So have Olivia’s mom, Joey’s mom, and Katie’s mom. In fact, seventeen mothers baked cupcakes for this one party—all but guaranteeing their children a spot in the Childhood Obesity Club of America, the membership of which currently swells at nine million-plus.

Eat a cupcake, become a statistic—it’s that simple.

In response to the cupcake menace, back in January 2006, The Connecticut State Department of Education created The Action Guide for School Nutrition and Physical Activity Policies, a handbook for helping school districts develop “wellness” plans that meet state and federal mandates.

Fearing they would lose their funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools said goodbye to french fries and soda machines, and hello to Baked Cheetos and rice milk.

A fine first step, indeed, but what of those hedonistic romps we call classroom celebrations?

Now, don’t fret, Ms. Jenkins: the Connecticut Department of Education is not outlawing classroom parties all together (yet). The Action Guide merely says that “food and beverages served at school celebrations and parties must meet the district and nutrition standards.” To that end, the Action Guide provides “Ideas for Healthy Foods,” nutritional alternatives to those insidious cupcakes, such as ham, cheese, or turkey sandwiches (with low-fat condiments); carrots with peanut butter and raisins; or vegetable trays with low-fat dip.

Mmmmmmmmm! Veggies with low-fat dip! What first-grader could resist?

The Action Guide outlines other benefits that accompany the “de-cupcaking” of Connecticut classrooms. For example, in deference to children with special diets, the Action Guide recommends that school districts “discourage the sharing of food and beverages.” Thank goodness someone finally said it: there’s far too much sharing among our young people today. We must stop this incessant sharing, before it gets out of hand.

As I said, the Action Guide does not actually prohibit school celebrations—although certainly that would be ideal. In our country, schools were built to resemble factories, and in factories, we work. Enjoyment—even the fleeting enjoyment represented by a cupcake—has no place in our public schools. In this respect, schools must be like celery—bland and flavorless, perhaps, but something you must suffer through in order to become better, stronger citizens.

You may be wondering: "Why not just have some communication among the parents? Can't it be arranged so just one mom brings in the cupcakes, instead of seventeen moms? Can't we keep the classroom celebrations, but just tone it all down a little?"

Nice try... but those who think this obviously fail to see that cupcakes are gateway desserts. One cupcake will launch you into a lifetime battle with Chubby Hubby, Betty Crocker, and Sara Lee.

Of course, these classroom celebration restrictions will meet some initial resistance, as Billy, Olivia, and all the moms from Ms. Jenkins class long for the cupcake-ravaged parties of yesteryear. But they’ll soon come on board. After all, we’re talking about a program to fight childhood obesity… what kind of jerk would find fault with that?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Rattle and Hum and the Inevitable Backlash

Working with teenagers has taught me not to make any presumptions about the iconic-ness of pop culture icons. (See previous post detailing my disasterous name-dropping of "The Fonz.")

So I'll start by asking: Have you heard of the U2 album Rattle and Hum?

In case you haven't, the Rattle and Hum album...

  • ... came out in the fall of 1988, which makes it-- that's right-- twenty years old. (How's that for a little depression?)

  • ... was recorded during the tour promoting the mega-mega-successful The Joshua Tree album, which debuted on St. Patrick's Day 1987. (In fact, the name Rattle and Hum is borrowed from a line from the Joshua Tree's "Bullet the Blue Sky.")

  • ... includes live performances from the tour, of U2 staples (such as "Pride" and "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") as well as covers (e.g. Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter").

  • ... also includes new material, such as "Desire" and "Van Diemen's Land," which was sung not by Bono but by The Edge, and thus unlistenable. (Always unsettling when Edge takes the mic, isn't it? Sort of like when John Oates sang "Possession Obsession" back in the mid-80s.)

  • ... gives us a glimpse into Bono's now-mythic pomposity through throw-away lines such as "All I want is a red guitar, three chords, and the truth," and "Well, the God I believe in isn't short o' cash, Mister!" and-- my favorite-- "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya..."

  • ... was released in conjunction with a Major! Motion! Picture!, a "documentary" covering the Joshua Tree Tour and U2's journey across America.

  • ... was pretty much panned by critics.

    • I'd like to stick with those last two points for a minute, because they're actually related. Although many critics didn't love the album (a New York Times review called it an exercise in "pure egomania"), they really didn't like the movie. Or perhaps more accurately: they hated the media marketing blitz that came along with it.

      After all, for most of the 80s, U2 was this quaint, socially-conscious college-radio band. Now, not only were these four Irish blokes the biggest band in the world (thanks to The Joshua Tree), they were also taking up permanent residence at Hollywood and Vine with this movie.

      Whatever the case, the folks in the media who had always loved U2 turned on the band in the wake of the Rattle and Hum movie. Perhaps as a result of the critical bashing, the film ended up tanking.

      The rabid fans tried their best, coming out in droves for the November premier (earning the film a respectable $3.8 million for its opening weekend). But the problem was all the non-rabid-fans-- everyone else in mainstream America, basically, who were either not particularly interested to begin with or kept away by the poor reviews. And so, after the initial rush, ticket sales plummeted dramatically, the film was gone from most theatres by December.

      At the time, I remember many folks, fans and critics alike, interpreted the film's not-even-lukewarm reception as a sign that interest in the band had plateaued. Or maybe even worse than that: as a Rolling Stone reviewer said in 1989, "The U2 backlash has set in."

      History has not been kind to Rattle and Hum. To many fans, it occupies a place only slightly above 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop. And that's not fair.

      Except for "Stay (Faraway, So Close)," Zooropa is a lemon (that's a wink! wink! pun, by the way, in honor of a song on the album). At best, it's a loathsome amalgamation of dippy songs not good enough for 1991's Achtung Baby. And Pop is so nakedly awful that everyone associated with it should best pretend that it never happened.

      Especially compared to those two train-wrecks, Rattle and Hum looks pretty good. But even on its own merits, Rattle and Hum has a lot of great stuff going on.

      Don't believe me? Break out your old cassette player and listen to it again. The album has some good-bordering-on-great songs, including some legitimate hits: "Desire," "Angel of Harlem," and "All I Want Is You" (easily one of my Top Ten U2 song, which actually got even more popular in 1994, when it was used in the film Reality Bites.)

      And, while they may not have been "hits" necessarily, two other songs-- "When Love Comes to Town" and "God Part II"-- got some radio play back in the day. Bottom line: the album's not a bad listen, all things considered.

      And yet, the stink of the "U2 backlash" still lingers over Rattle and Hum, and that's actually what I want to talk about here. Why was there a backlash? Was it just because of the movie? Was it overexposure? Was it because the album came so soon after The Joshua Tree, making it seem like Joshua Tree Junior? (Or maybe Joshua Shrub? No? Joshua Bush?)

      Me, I wonder if the backlash over Rattle and Hum had more to do with its predecessor than with the album itself. Remember, The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band in the entire world. It was mega-mega-successful-- which may have been one "mega" too many. Maybe the general public-- including the fans who shepherded the band along the way to super-stardom-- wanted to see them brought down a few pegs.

      I'm likening it to the Red Sox. In 2004, when they were chasing the World Series championship, everyone loved them. Their "idiotic-underdog" chic captured everyone's imagination. They continued to coast on that goodwill in 2005, despite some serious post-World Series overexposure. But by the time they won the World Series in 2007, things changed somewhat.

      Oh, they're still crazy-popular. They still sell out Fenway. But you know what's changed? The phenomenon of playing in an opposing team's stadium and hearing half the fans cheer for the Red Sox-- that's changed. That showed, to me, that the Sox were no longer media darlings, no longer "America's" ballclub.

      And maybe their success had a lot to do with that: They loved the Sox when they were scratching their way to the top. When they got to the top... they moved on to something else. Even worse: they wanted to tear them down. Maybe the same can be said for U2 in the case of Rattle and Hum.

      So, yes, I understand that backlash happens, that in many ways it's inevitable, but I'm still not sure why it happens. Is it a product of overexposure? Are people disappointed? Bored? Ready to move on to something else? Or is it resentment? Do people resent when a band, team, friend, colleague makes it? Do we resent someone else's fame and success?

      I don't know... but the backlash phenomenon is powerful enough to make me wish this blog is never successful. My skin just isn't that thick.