Monthly Archives: December 2012

An Announcement, a Heartfelt Wish and a Poem for Our Times

First of all, it’s time for Christmas vacation for everyone here at the Biscuit City Studios. We’ll be taking a break until after New Year’s Day. On behalf of the management and staff, I want to wish everyone the most blessed and peaceful of Christmases and a prosperous and happy New Year.

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow heard church bells ringing on Christmas Day of 1864. The war had been going on for over three years, and as he reflected on the bells and life at the time, he put his thoughts into a poem, “Christmas Bells.” Some of the verses were later set to music. The words, thoughts and feelings still speak to our circumstances today.

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

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Making a Difference, and Merry Christmas

“Oh, Father, it feels just like we’re in a Victorian Christmas card!” exclaimed Tiny Tim.

I think we’ve all heard of cases where one person makes a difference. The 1960 Presidential election was won by less than one vote per precinct. Occasionally there are stories in the paper about people with humble jobs who manage to give a great deal of money to charity. Then there are those charismatic figures like Dr. Paul Farmer chronicled in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains who through their energy, hard work and compassion make a difference. Sometimes, though, we think that as ordinary individuals we can’t make much of a difference.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably contributed to more people’s image and idea of Christmas than any other work outside the Nativity story in the Gospels. Yet, in 1842, the year before the story was written, Dickens was almost a failure as a writer. He had had great success with his first five novels, but the next three books did not do as well.  His father had spent time in a debtors’ prison (the dumbest idea ever thought of) and, at age 31 with a large family to support, Dickens saw himself sliding toward the same fate.
It was A Christmas Carol that saved him.  Written in six weeks, it was not enthusiastically received by his publishers, so Dickens took it upon himself to be responsible for the book’s publication.  The publisher received a commission based on sales and Dickens bore all other costs. The financial rewards came slowly, but the book had three printings by the end of 1843.  It was immediately and immensely popular.
Christmas in Dickens’ time was a minor holiday, observed (if at all) without lights and trees and presents and parties and cards.  Something in his story struck a chord, and the observance of Christmas began to change, no doubt helped by Queen Victoriawhose family was regarded as the ideal for British society. Prince Albert was from Germany, and brought many Christmas customs with him. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens combined two traditions of old Christmas observances—telling ghost stories and marvelous tales of the holiday. There’s a reference to this custom in the popular song, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (perhaps best known in a version by Andy Williams who had the unfortunate habit of pitching songs out of his range). The lyrics go, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories/ Of Christmases long long ago.” Dickens has four ghosts (Marley is a ghost, remember?) and the irrepressible high spirits of the Cratchits in his story. The transformation of Scrooge from miser to philanthropist is a heartwarming tribute to the power of the season. A recent book on A Christmas Carol is titled The Man Who Invented Christmasand while that might be an oversimplification, Dickens’ work shows what one person can do.
There is one notable coincidence about the story. In 1843, Sir John Callcott Horsley commissioned the first Christmas card with an illustration by artist Henry Cole, possibly under the influence of Dickens’ tale.  The English Victorians were crazy for sending cards with pictures (landscapes, mostly) to each other, and Cole’s role in introducing the Penny Post three years earlier might have been a factor in producing the cards. The picture showed a family with a small child all drinking wine together. (The illustration was controversial, although giving children watered wine at the time was not unusual.  At least it wasn’t gin, which was tremendously popular in that day among all classes and a real drag on the society and economy.) 2050 cards were printed and sold for a shilling each.
Obviously, the custom of sending Christmas cards has grown enormously since 1843.  The U.S. Census Department estimates that 1.9 billion cards were sent in 2005 (Who knew that the Census keeps track of matters like that?  I don’t recall being asked how many cards I sent on the last census.  I must have gotten the short form.) Valentine’s Day is next with a comparatively paltry 192 million.
The point is that one (very talented) person changed the face of the Christmas celebration. I would encourage each of us to think about what we as individuals and together as  groups can do to make this world a better place.  Somehow I think that would be the best present of all. In your observance of the holiday, whatever that may be, I hope you will take the time to read one of the versions of A Christmas Carol to recall its powerful message. It comes in short and long forms and is ideal for reading aloud. And in the words of Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”

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Canticle of Hope–Joseph Martin

An anthem from composer Joseph Martin, beautiful in its sound and filled with hope in its message.

“Peace fall like a gentle snow…” On all of us.

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Poem for a Sad Week in December

Statue of Grief, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D>C. 

At times like these, and there have been too many
Times like these
I would like for time to
Run backwards,
To return bullets to the mouths of guns,
To stream blood spilled on floors
To its rightful place
To pull fully loaded 757’s back from
The Twin Towers,
To reverse all the effects
Of war, famine, pestilence,
Violence, abuse, bullying, ignorance
Racism and apathy
Through millennia
But then
But then
I am broken to remember this:
We live on this side
Of Paradise.

–Dan Verner


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A Page for the Families, Friends and Neighbors of the Victims Involved in the Shooting in New Town, Connecticut Last Friday

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December 17, 2012 · 1:11 pm

Poem of the Week–"Windrow"

Celtic chieftain’s burial barrow, located in present-day Germany


The suburban harvest of oak and maple leaf
Has been gathered to the curb by rake and blower
And lies in great windrows on the asphalt
Of street, land and cul-de-sac
Awaiting the roaring gathering-in
By a great dragon of a truck
Which devours leafmeal
Sucking it all in,
Attended by men with rakes.
In their trail the streets shine with rain
And so we move from autumn
To winter.

–Dan Verner

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Writing and Culture

It’s writing, that relatively new human activity, that brought on nearly every damn thing else–the development of societies, governments, freedom, mercy, empathy outside time and across distances, the advancements of science, the whole spectrum of the arts of civilization, including elements that may destroy it all in the end. And finally the real matter of alleviating so many ills that afflict us, is the need to affect culture–more than politics. Change a culture for the better, and the politics will change for the better.

–Writer Robert Bausch

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Technology Wednesday–A First World Problem

You might recognize the tangle of cables pictured above as a fairly typical cluster of power and connection cables for computers, phones, cameras and other electronic devices that we have all come to depend on. You might also think that I need to organize said cables, which I tried, but it didn’t help much. So I keep the ones I use most frequently plugged into a power strip, and the ones I use less piled in a shoe box. I dumped the cables out of the shoe box onto the floor for dramatic effect.

Yes, I know this is a first world problem and I should either get organized or shut up, but it occurred to me that it would be nice if manufacturers of electronic devices could agree on some standard plug-ends for these cables. The USB (the U does mean universal, after all) comes close, but there are also mini-USB’s and 1/4 inch plugs and 3.5 mm plugs and RCA plugs and plugs I don’t know the name of except they’re not like any other plugs.

If standards seem impossible, manufacturers did agree on standards for the LP record, the (shudder) eight-track cassette, the cassette audio tape, the VHS video tape, the CD and, I suppose, the .mp3 format. So it is possible. So what do ya say, manufacturers? You can name it anything you like or you can name it after me. I won’t mind a bit. Just a plug for standardization.


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The Autumn Leaves

Jacques Prevert

I seem to be writing about leaves a lot this week. Maybe that’s because there are great piles of them at the curb everywhere I look when I go outside.

I was reminded of the poem “Autumn Leaves” by the great French poet Jacques Prevert, published in 1945. Johnny Mercer wrote English lyrics for the song in 1947 and it was made famous by various artists, including an instrumental version by Roger Williams.

Here’s a combination French/English version by Edith Piaf:

Autumn Leaves

Words: Prevert/Mercer 
Music: Kosma

The falling leaves
Drift by the window
The autumn leaves
Of red and gold

I see your lips
The summer kisses
The sunburned hands
I used to hold

Since you went away
The days grow long
And soon I’ll hear
Old winter’s song

But I miss you most of all
My darling
When autumn leaves
Start to fall

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Bringing in the Leaves

Leaf truck and vacuum, but not from Manassas. This does look like our corner of the world, though.

The neighborhood we live in has a number of mature 100 year-plus maples and oaks. They’re one of the reasons we bought the house 25 years ago. In the spring, their leaves are a golden green; in the summer, they furnish cool shade; in the fall, a flaming display of reds and oranges and yellow. And yes, they fall to the ground and must be blown or raked to the curb to be gathered up by the great roaring leaf truck run by the City of Manassas.

I supposed the suburban homeowner could let the leaves lie, but no one does. Every lot is cleaned of its annual leaffall and the great long leafbarrows taken up by the huge vacuum hose. The streets left behind are pristine, and so we are ready for winter. It’s part of a suburban cycle as sure as the harvest of rural areas. 

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