On Sending Christmas Cards

A Merry Christmas - Santa and Child in a Vintage Car Vintage Postcard

I have great memories of looking through my mother’s Christmas card list. Looking through those names and addresses was part of the Christmas ritual.

We had old family friends named Helen and Henry who lived in the town with the lovely name of Maple Shade, New Jersey, on the street amusingly named Forklanding Road. We sent cards to Uncle John and Aunt Bessie who lived on Rochambeau Avenue in the Bronx. Uncle John was my grandfather’s brother but I have no memory of actually meeting him and Aunt Bessie in real life. Still, I marveled at their exotic address. Why was it “the Bronx” and not just “Bronx?” And how elegant Rochambeau Avenue must be! I pictured it as French, with ladies walking poodles past sidewalk cafes. My mother’s Christmas card list was a family history document, a collection of names and addresses of relatives near and far, old and new friends from various phases of their life.

Boy with Snowman Antique Postcard

I sometimes feel defensive about clinging to the habit of sending out paper cards. A lot of people think that sending Christmas cards is a waste of time, paper and postage, and that it’s totally unnecessary in the age of electronic communication. Every December, newspapers, magazine, blogs, etc., are full of articles about how to simplify Christmas, and it seems that reconsidering the sending of paper cards is always one of the first suggestions.

And I’m just fine with that — if you take no joy from sending Christmas cards, don’t do it. I remember the days when the sending of Christmas cards was a social obligation, and people worked hard to maintain their Christmas card lists. I remember people checking off names as people received cards — if someone who you didn’t send a card to sent you one, you were supposed to quickly send one out to them, and if someone you sent cards to didn’t reciprocate for two years, you could safely drop them from your list. Or at least this was what the advice columns said: my mother was not the type to be checking lists and dropping names. But in those days, the same kind of people who today care about how many Facebook friends they have measured their popularity by the number of Christmas cards they received.

But it doesn’t need to be like that. We should all send as many Christmas cards as we want, which might be fifty one year, zero the next and twenty the following year. Who’s counting? We should all graciously receive whatever cards we happen to receive, and send whatever we feel like sending — which for a lot of people is none. When you see Christmas cards as obligations, and associate them with pride on the one hand or guilt on the other, you’ve lost the spirit of the season.

I’ve always liked sending cards as a small way to keep in touch with people who are important to me. This includes some people who I see all the time or perhaps communicate with frequently via e-mail, Facebook, etc. There are also a few people who I mainly keep contact with through the annual Christmas card — sad, perhaps, but better than nothing, and just writing their names and addresses once a year reminds me of the good times we’ve shared. I wish I could say that I individually select cards for each person and wrote thoughtful little notes on each card, but I don’t. I just buy UNICEF cards, sign them and send them, most years anyway, and I hope that people I care about don’t sit around wondering why they did or didn’t get a card from me this year.

And whether by card, e-mail, Facebook, or just a good thought, I wish all my friends a merry Christmas and/or a Happy New Year!

A Merry Christmas Postcard

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Sitting Pretty


I can’t believe that I have never seen this movie before! Sitting Pretty (1948), directed by Walter Lang and based on the 1947 novel Belvedere by Gwen Davenport, was the first of the three Mr. Belvedere movies, and starred Clifton Webb in the title role. It’s available free on Hulu.

Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara play the modern, sophisticated suburban couple Harry and Tacey King. He’s a successful lawyer and she’s a sculptor and stay-at-home mother with three rambunctious sons and a big dog who jumps all over people. The maid quits and the couple have babysitter problems, so Tacey advertises for a live-in mother’s helper to babysit and do light housework. Lynn Belvedere applies and is hired sight-unseen, and the Kings are surprised to discover they have hired a middle-aged man with a highly superior attitude — he immediately informs them that he’s a genius. They reluctantly allow him to stay on trial, and while they are somewhat bemused by his eccentricities — he’s a vegetarian who practices Yoga and seems to have experience in every field of endeavor. But although he professes to loath children, he works miracles with the boys and even the dog, so he stays on with the family.

But of course complications arise in typlical screwball comedy fashion — a nosy neighbor spreads rumors, misunderstandings come between the Kings, and Tacey leaves home to go stay with her mother. And although it’s clear to everyone that Harry and Tacey adore each other, they both sit by the telephone, too stubborn to make the first move toward reconciliation. But suddenly chaos erupts when Mr. Belvedere’s novel comes out — a book no one knew he was quietly writing while living with the Kings. It’s a shocking expose about life in the suburbs, with all characters based on real and easily-identifiable members of the community, including the head of Harry’s law firm. Harry loses his job, and when Tacey hears the news she rushes home to his arms, and all misunderstandings are quickly resolved.

The script was written by F. Hugh Herbert, and, as the New York Times review observes, “The screen plays from Mr. Herbert are not conspicuous for their tax upon the brain,” but it’s quite entertaining.

But the thing that really appealed to me were the cars, clothes, and especially the Kings’ house and all of its furnishings! Fabulous, and just my style — it makes me wish I had been born just a few decades earlier!

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Miss C.’s Poetry Voice

Stavros ReservationA few days ago, I posted my memories of my elementary school teacher, Miss C., who I had for the third and fifth grades. I forgot to mention how much she liked poetry and recitations. She read us poems in a slow, dramatic voice, made us copy poems as handwriting exercises, and had us memorize them and recite them to the class.

The poem I remember best from her class was October’s Bright Blue Weather, by Helen Hunt Jackson. Although it appears in many anthologies for children, it’s pretty long and the language is challenging. I don’t think we had to memorize this one, but I remember sitting at my desk in our classroom on the second floor of the Charles J. Capen School, dutifully copying the poem on composition paper.

I copied the first verse, hearing Miss C.’s poetry voice in my mind:

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather

I paused for a moment after writing the line “October’s bright blue weather,” and looked out the window, and there it was — a dazzling blue October sky! This was a thrilling moment for me, literature and nature coming together. And every October, that phrase sings in my mind, every time the sky is blue and even when it isn’t. I think it’s a beautiful line, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much if Miss C. had not read it to us in her dramatic poetry voice.

DaffodilsI remember a few other of Miss C.’s favorites. In the spring, she read us Wordworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” still one of my favorite poems. She did a great reading of this, pausing slightly after dreamily reading the first two lines, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” and switched to her surprised voice for the next two, “When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils!” There isn’t an exclamation point in the original poem, but that’s how she read it. Every time I see daffodils, I hear her voice in my mind.

I also remember her reading us psalms every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Hard to imagine such a thing now, and I don’t remember any other teacher reading from the Bible. Her favorite was Psalm 24, King James Version. The first few lines she delivered in a matter-of-fact, almost sing-songy fashion:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the floods.

But then she’d switch to dramatic mode to ask the questions, placing emphasis on the word who:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

And then to her teacher voice to clearly state the answer:

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart!

She recited this as if there were an exclamation point, and I always expected her to add, “That’s who!”

And now that I know she’s gone, that’s how I picture her, on top of the hill of the Lord, standing right next to his throne, inspecting the hands and hearts of incoming souls to decide who shall pass and who should fail. It would be a perfect role for her — she had standards and knew how to enforce them, and I can’t imagine her ever wanting to rest in peace.

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Rowe Quarry

Rowe Quarry

Rowe Quarry was on the Malden-Revere line, about ten miles north of Boston, just off Route 1 and visible from the highway. For many years, it caught my attention every time I drove by. I grew especially fond of it during the four years that I worked in Revere and drove this route to work every day. I loved the weathered wood, the wonderful angles, and the rocky cliffs surrounding it. I developed had a vague sort of ambition to draw, paint or photograph the site, an odd ambition for me since I can’t draw nor paint, and, in those days, I never took anything but family snapshots.

Rowe QuarryWhen I got my first digital camera ten years ago, I drove past this site occasionally and thought I ought to stop sometime and take a picture, but either I didn’t have the camera with me or I was in a hurry or both. One Saturday morning, I finally made a special trip down and took two pictures. I was pretty pleased with myself, and thought I’d take many more. I imagined myself taking pictures of the quarry in different seasons, in different weather, from different angles. It would be my special thing. Rowe Quarry and me! We’d would be like Rouen Cathedral and Monet!

Just a silly, secret daydream. I was unaware at the time that this rock crusher was soon to be torn down, and that the site would be redeveloped as Overlook Ridge. Nor was I aware of the environmental contamination issues present at the site, although now I wonder how I missed all the local news coverage. I was shocked shortly thereafter, when I drove by and it was just all gone.

I still drive up Route 1 frequently, and I still look over to the right at the Revere-Malden line, half expecting to see this old familiar site. I’m still disappointed every time. I miss it. I’m glad, though, that I took two photographs before it was gone. I’m pleased that they get a slow but steady stream of viewers. Nearly all coming from Google searches, so I know that there are some other people out there who miss it, too.

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On This Day in History: September 19

Up, Up and Away!

On September 19, 1783, the Montgolfier Brothers launched the first hot air balloon carrying passengers: a sheep, a duck and a rooster. The balloon was launched from the gardens of the Palace of Versailles and witnessed by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The flight lasted eight minutes and the balloon traveled nearly three miles before landing safely. The three animals were unharmed.

Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride by Marjorie Priceman, tells the story of this flight with a few pages of text followed by a series of glorious, nearly wordless illustrations of the flight itself, from the perspective of ballooning’s “first brave passengers.” The adventures of the animals in flight include encounters with a flock of birds, a boy with a bow and arrow, laundry and a church steeple — these incidents are not part of the historical record but the author claims she “heard this part of the story from a duck, who heard it from a sheep, who heard it from a rooster a long, long time ago.”

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Reading Around

Kindle on My PhoneMy reading habits changed when I bought my Kindle a few years ago, and they continue to evolve. When I first got the Kindle it seemed so much more convenient than dragging around a bunch of books, and I started carrying it around. I still use the Kindle when I am at home or on a business trip, but I now I find it inconvenient to drag it around with me all the time. That’s because I do carry around my slick little cellphone, and I use that for reading books in small doses while sitting in waiting rooms, over a cup of coffee, or riding the subway. It took me a little practice to get this to feel natural — the problem wasn’t the small screen or backlighting, it was just finding the right hand position and mastering the quick page flip so it felt natural.

Some books work better for this than others. I enjoy reading Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely and all the Freakonomics-type books this way, but not fiction and narrative nonfiction like history, biographies and memoirs. Short stories, essays, and all those books of “fascinating facts” also work well on the phone. I don’t think this would be nearly as convenient if Amazon didn’t sync my collection among all my devices (the Kindle, desktop PC, netbook and phone) and keep track of my place.

Day 160: June 10, 2010But it’s not that I never read paper books anymore. I still borrow lots of library books, buy some books I know I want to own, and reread books from my home library. And while I bring the Kindle on business trips and find it very convenient for reading on the plane and in a hotel, I never bring it on vacations where I am going to be traveling around with a backpack, staying in random places where I feel it would be just one more thing to worry about keeping safe. For those trips, I bring one or two long but compact paperbacks, often old favorites that I want to reread. For example, when I went to Jamaica I brought my old Signet Classics copy of “Great Expectations,” bought for sixty cents when I was in high school. That’s a very cold, damp, wintery book which contrasted beautifully with the dazzling warmth and beauty of Jamaica in the spring.

Back from the Coffee FactoryBack when I bought that copy of “Great Expectations,” there were fewer reading options. Buy or borrow from the library, hardcover or paperback, that was about it. Now everything is much more complicated. Both paper books and ebooks can be bought or borrowed from the library, and ebooks can be read on any number of devices. It’s complicated, but as a reader, I appreciate having so many options.

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Scan and Copy Those Precious Pictures

Day 241: August 29, 2010I’m going through a box of old Polaroid pictures taken by my uncle Steve Brown, and came across these three. Wonderful photographs taken over fifty years ago of my father, my aunt, my grandmother and my cousins, pictures I had never seen before.

But look how close these were to being lost! They were in a fire and could easily have been destroyed, but fortunately the flames just nipped around the edges and didn’t destroy the images themselves.

Photographs are so precious and so vulnerable. Printed on paper, they can all too easily be destroyed by fire or flood, or damaged by mold, mildew, insects, etc. Digital images can be lost when a drive crashes, deleted in error or forgotten in the transfer to a new computer. And both types of photographs can be lost to posterity if the right person doesn’t take possession of them after you’re gone.

So scan every paper photograph you care about, and make more than one copy of the file, kept in different places on and offline. Give copies to members of your family, either on a CD/DVD or other storage device, or sent by e-mail. Upload them to Facebook or Flickr or Ancestry.com — the more copies that are out there, the less likely it is that the image will be lost to future generations.

Digital copies are great, but make paper copies, too. Prints are inexpensive, so make lots and give them to all your family members. Some people will just toss them in a file or a desk drawer, but most of those copies will get passed along to younger family members, and there’s usually at least one person in every generation that’s interested in this kind of thing.

The care and preservation of photographs is a complex topic, and there are lots of books and websites that explain it all in more detail. But sometimes I think the technical stuff scares people away, and that they put off doing anything with their photographs until they have time to learn more and do it right. But don’t put it off — stuff happens and a single copy of a photograph can so easily be lost forever.

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