Monday, December 27, 2010

Fake tree

Many years ago, I deplored the loss of millions of young trees, to be cut down and displayed for a couple of weeks before being tossed out. Couldn't we just eliminate this somewhat dated symbol of the season?.

We had some friends who developed a small Christmas tree farm. It was a useful tax shelter for them. I also realized that sales of Christmas trees gave employment to many, and often resulted in income for various "good causes", so I relaxed about it. Every year, Barbara and I would go down to buy a Christmas tree, usually from Home Depot. We would somehow load it onto the car, drive home, and then mount it in a reusable stand designed for that purpose.

It was a tradition for some 20 years for our eldest granddaughter (Justine) to help Barbara decorate the tree. We placed the stand on an old sheet, to collect fallen needles, and minimize the work when it became time to clean up.

I always felt that the Christmas tree should not be in place until Christmas Eve, because it was "still Advent". Barbara's plan was to put it up about ten days before Christmas. So I agreed to a compromise: It could go up that early, as long as it stayed in place until Twelfth Night, when it could be taken down, and the unbroken decorations could be put away for another year.

Now that I am not so mobile, Barbara went down with our driver and brought back a small tree. When I saw it, I almost choked, and spluttered "That's a fake tree!".

I am still not completely reconciled to this deception. Where is the delightful smell of pine leaves? Somewhere, out there in the world, there's a tree which is being cut down and will just be put out with the trash. That tree was really destined for our house.

Oh, well; I must admit there are some advantages to the use of a fake. It is (of course) perfectly shaped. It doesn't shed any needles. It can be brought out again next year. Packages can be placed under the tree just as easily as if it were real. Also, I am determined to be more tolerant when Barbara wants to take it down before Twelfth Night.

I am reminded of the time, many years ago, when we brought into the house a somewhat mangy looking live Christmas tree. When the time came, we planted it in our front yard, for use the following year. Over the months, it didn't exactly seem to flourish. No matter: we didn't want it to become too large. But it was so ugly!

One day, Barbara asked our wonderful Japanese gardener (George Y. Sujishi) what he could do to help it along. "Christmas tree?", said George, "I make 'im Bonsai!".

Monday, December 20, 2010

All about "Eve"

No: not the wonderful movie about an ambitious young woman schemer. This is about the ambiguity of the word "eve". It can imply a time late in the day, typically between the evening meal and bedtime, but that usage is relatively rare. We tend to use the longer form--"evening"--for that. The main meaning of "Eve" is the entire day prior to some occasion or happening.

As I wrote here some months ago, another variant ("e'en") is best known for forming part of "Halloween", the day before All Hallows Day, aka "All Saints Day". Most of us consider "New Year's Eve" to be the entire day of December 31, even though we may primarily think of the time leading up to midnight, and the start of a new year in our time zone.

Likewise, "Christmas Eve" is all day on December 24, even though for some worshipers the emphasis is on the "Midnight Mass" at their church. (In most parishes, the service begins earlier. At St. Mark's, Berkeley, we begin with carols at 10:30, and start the service at 11:00, so it is about midnight before the bread and wine of "Holy Communion", the elements of the Eucharistic Banquet, are distributed.)

This year, for the first time, I heard the ghastly phrase "Christmas Eve Day". I shuddered. Then, quite recently, I heard a member of our wonderful extended-and-blended family repeat the solecism. I flinched.

Of course, I knew what the speakers were trying to do: to distinguish between the events of the working day, and the Christmas Eve celebration, which (in our family) takes place in accordance with Norwegian practice, on Christmas Eve. Call me a pedant, call me a stickler--and, yes, language (however "incorrect") is a tool we use to communicate, and the speaker's intent was clear--but, do me a favor, folks, don't bastardize Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 13, 2010


From time to time, I respond to an online poll, which covers various issues, some serious and some fatuous. Politics are always part of this. I'm asked if I'm a Republican, a Democrat, or an Independent. I truthfully respond that I am a Democrat. (I'm of an independent bent when it comes to voting, but I learned years ago that if I wanted to vote in a primary I needed to be a member of a party.) The next question is whether I'm a "strong" or "not-so-strong" Democrat, and I select the latter.

What I truly regret is the polarization of American politics. So I was delighted when Lisa Murkowski's campaign for write-in votes brought her success last week, long after polling day. Although her "official" Republican candidate (Joe Miller) still has a chance to appeal, the State judge who heard the case said that even if all Sen. Murkowski's challenged votes were tossed, she would still have a clear majority. Even in Sarah Palin's back yard, I really doubt that an appeal would get anywhere for Mr. Miller.

I understand that most of the challenged votes had simply mis-spelled "Murkowski". I do think it appropriate for election officials to support the clear intent of the voter.

However, I am shocked that so many voters, who must often have seen the name "Murkowski", can't spell her name correctly. Are they functionally illiterate?

The elitist in me sometimes wishes we had a simple rule to ensure that only those who can read and write have the right to vote. The egalitarian in me knows that isn't feasible, and that there are folk with (say) some physical disability that are quite capable of choosing for whom to vote, even though they could not pass such a test.

Welcome back, Senator Murkowski! You are now free to vote for what seems best for your constituents and your conscience.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


This seems to be a new buzzword. Until recently, it seldom appeared, although it was understood when it did. I have recently seen it in several different manifestations. Sometimes, it is used as a compliment, and sometimes as a politely negative epithet.

Most people would probably yawn at any reference to "baptismal theology". I recently found this referred to as "robust". I suppose that means that it is a lively form of that rather academic concept.

When there is a political confrontation, we hear that there has been a "robust" discussion. That is the equivalent of reporting a political argument (especially between leaders of two nations) as a "full and frank discussion".

When the word is used with health, I visualize a person who brags about being "in shape", and suggests that I need more exercise..

A red wine may be described as "robust", meaning that it lacks subtlety, perhaps to the point of being rough or overpowering.

It's a useful word in sports reports. When I read that a local team has put up "a robust defense", it's probably trying to comfort local fans, who have just had to swallow another defeat...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food Storage

Our refrigerator is bulging with Thanksgiving leftovers. It brings to mind some changes that I have experienced in my lifetime.

I can just remember when my family obtained a refrigerator to replace the icebox, in about 1930. Our large home in England had a room (which we called "the dairy" ) on the north side of the house, next to "the larder", which in turn was next to the kitchen. The dairy was where the "fridge" was located, and where we stored items that kept best when cool..

My father maintained a prize-winning herd of Jersey cattle, so we had an ample supply of full-cream milk. He was a successful businessman, not a farmer, and six days a week he was driven by his chauffeur to catch an electric train from Redhill to Cannon Street, where his company driver would pick him up and drive him the short distance to his London main office.

He loved to have his cattle compete at Agricultural Shows (somewhat similar to County Fairs in the U.S.), and the walls of the cowsheds were papered over with colored cards, celebrating awards, many of them First Prizes.

Our milk wasn't pasteurized, but the cows were "TT" (tuberculin tested). Even with our parents, three children, and about ten household servants, there was probably a surplus of milk, presumably sold to a commercial dairy.

Adjacent to the dairy was the "larder", the main food storage room, next to the kitchen. Then there was a cupboard for cans and unopened packages.

In the "pantry", on the other side of the kitchen, were cutlery, china, glassware, and other supplies for the dining room.

Like so many terms related to food in English, two of those words derive from Norman French--"lard" meaning bacon, and "pain" meaning bread. One doesn't see much lard these days, as Crisco and other vegetable shortenings have taken its place. It is essentially bacon fat, and was used in cooking, where today we would mostly use olive oil, canola, or other frying oil.

A "joint" of Roast Beef was a frequent feature of "Sunday Lunch", the most important meal of the week. Fat was collected from the roasting pan, and this "dripping" was often served (later) to all, being spread on bread. (In small quantities, I'd probably still think it delicious.) I remember the amazement of an audience watching a Pinter play when a character asked what was for breakfast, and was told "fried bread". When served with (say) bacon & egg, fried bread is delicious.

Enough, already. Time to eat some of the superb turkey & mushroom pie that Barbara has made, followed by salad and a cranberry cake dessert. Yum!