1) Dreaming of a White Christmas
I grew up in a tropical climate, so the concept of a white Christmas was totally foreign to me until mom and I moved from Colombia to upstate New York. Snow was, indeed, a wondrous thing to a 9-year-old who had never seen it before. We also discovered, though, that however prettily it settles on the Christmas pines, snow can also be kind of a pain in the ass. For the latest proof see this week’s travel news out of the East Coast. Still, when you don’t have to fear its effects on your holiday itinerary, snow does add a certain charm to the season. Few things compare to burrowing yourself in a warm blanket, Christmas lights flickering, mug of hot chocolate in hand, as winter does its thing outside.
There was no such picture in our house this year. Denver weather, fickle mistress that she is, teased us with a cold spell early this month before temperatures settled into the 40s and 50s over Christmas, showing few signs of fluxuating too drastically before the calendar turns. Not that I’m complaining. I still get chills when I think about the winters hubby and I endured during our adventure in Chicago. There is cold, and then there is winter in the Midwest. Denver winters are much milder in comparison. That can be hard for some who don’t live here to believe since blizzards and bone-chilling temperatures have a reliable tendency to make an appearance when the Broncos are on Monday Night Football or the Rockies are playing October baseball and the rest of the country happens to be looking our way.
So a white Christmas is not exactly rare here, but it’s also never a guarantee. That I’ve come to expect, even wish, for one every year is a product of the very cold places I’ve lived since moving to the United States, but also an inclination that runs contrary to the Christmases of my early childhood in Latin America. I guess at this point in my life, I’ve spent more Christmases in cold weather so warmth feels like a novelty. Of course, when the cold does come around and I’m wrapping myself in several fleece blankets trying to keep my feet from feeling like icicles, I remember that my mind may have come to terms with weather above the Tropic of Cancer but my body still lives at the Equator.
2) Listening to an old song
When I was in eighth grade and my mom bought me my first CD player, I began to realize that there was a whole universe of great music that existed outside of the limited boundaries of popular radio. Many artists, like The Beatles and Bob Dylan, came to me slowly through friends and that magical adolescent artifact, the mix tape. Other songs popped up in movies and eventually led me to older, even better material. Think Streets of Philadelphia as a path to Born to Run. And then there were the obscure nobody bands that few ever hear about but, for a few brief minutes, become deeply important to introverted teenagers looking for greater meaning in life courtesy of the local DJs on the alternative station. (Remember local DJs? A galaxy truly far, far way.)
One of those bands for me was The Connells of Raleigh, North Carolina. They were around for most of my high school years and released several albums that I could listen to over and over (Fun & Games was my favorite). When I was a junior in high school, they played a show in Atlanta that my mom, beyond all reason, let me go to with three of my friends. It was the first concert I ever went to without adult supervision.
There were two opening bands. The first was Greenberry Woods, whose name I couldn’t even remember when I started writing this blog post. I wouldn’t know their music from Justin Bieber now if it weren’t for the magic of the Internet. The one detail I could never forget was the lead guitarist’s name, Ira B. Katz, a name I decided to give to my car. Don’t ask me why. It was fun to say, and the real Ira was super nice when my friends and I went up to talk to the band after their set. (It would be pointless to deny to how desperately groupie-ish we were, at least on that day.)
The second band to play was The Indians. They had a song on the Reality Bites soundtrack, which made them a bit of a 90s one-hit wonder. I bought their CD at the concert, and when I made the transition to digital, downloaded it to my computer along with everything else. I don’t skip over their songs when iTunes shuffle is inclined to play them, but I don’t go out of my way to listen to them either. It’s music that, perhaps more than any other I still listen to, is tied to a particular era of my life. I don’t know that I would pay much attention to them if I heard them for the first time now, but they meant something to me then. Years later, their music still evokes very precise memories of the tepid rebellion of a sixteen-year-old going to a concert in the big city in a maroon Toyota Corolla named “Ira.”
I started thinking about all this recently, when I decided to go through all the music on my iTunes—almost 3,000 songs—in an effort to purge duplicates and anything else that’s just taking up space. Hubby has been doing this too, listening to everything alphabetically by artist. I opted to do so alphabetically by song, and A-I-A-O by The Indians was waiting to be heard once again at the top of the list. It’s a nice song, not their best, but just like everything of theirs, it takes me back to that show and to the kid I was in high school. Good times. Mostly.
3) Reading a story about a girl
Girls will read boy stories, but boys won’t read girl stories. It’s a silly notion, but one treated as gospel when it comes to marketing books and movies for young audiences. It is the reason aspiring writer Joanne Rowling was told to go by her initials, “J.K.,” on the cover of her soon-to-be-world-famous books about a boy wizard name Harry Potter, lest the boys who were sure to love her work be less likely to show interest if they saw that it was—God forbid—written by a woman. Such is the world we live in, where marketing forces pigeonhole writers who happen to be women and belittle stories about girls by assuming that they won’t have universal appeal, that women can only write for women, that boys are unable recognize heroism when it is performed by someone of a different gender.
The underlying assumption is that boys can’t relate to girls because all girls care about are boys and gossip (and, when we’re talking about adult women, getting married). I wouldn’t have interest in such stories either. And yet popular culture can’t help but continue to foist them on us. Bride Wars, anyone? It can be frustrating to those of us who grew up reading Nancy Drew to walk through the young adult section of a book store and find nothing but queen bee types staring down their noses at you from the covers of Gossip Girl and its various clones. All I will say about Twilight, not having read the series or seen the movies, is that the ubiquity of the Jacob vs. Edward question suggests that Bella’s story isn’t about her but about the boys she has crushes on.
So it was with some nervous anticipation that, after multiple recommendations from reliable sources who insisted that here, finally, was an interesting girl story, I started reading The Hunger Games. It’s a young adult science fiction novel about 16-year-old Katniss, who lives in a post-apocalyptic, future North America and does her best to protect her mother and sister from the oppressive forces of the ruling Capital. The Capital’s tyranny involves forcing each of the twelve districts under its control to give up one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a gladiator-like tournament in which participants battle to the death. Sound harsh? Violent? It is. Very.
In The Hunger Games and its two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, author Suzanne Collins makes a strong statement about war, violence and humanity’s basest instincts, among them the voyeuristic tendencies now on display in the concept of reality television. She doesn’t mince words. When Katniss volunteers to take the place of her younger sister in the Hunger Games, her survival depends on her physical strength as well as her mental fortitude and her unrelenting lack of sentimentality. Katniss is, in any number of ways, the antidote to all the silly things girls of today are told to care about. So, yes, I loved these books and highly recommend all three. Collins’ writing is not perfect and the plotting a bit clunky at times, but her message and intentions are compelling and the story itself a thrill.
The series is a younger, distant cousin to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—the subject matter of which is decidedly more mature and sexual in nature, but which also stars an enigmatic and intelligent female protagonist prone to extreme violence. Collins books, like Larsson’s, are not for the faint of heart. She is writing about war, as I said, and doesn’t shy away from the devastation and consequences of it. It isn’t a happy story, so one shouldn’t expect a happy ending. But it’s a good ending, and worth reading whether you’re a boy or a girl.
4) Drinking to days gone by
I used to love Coke. Growing up in Barranquilla, my cousins and I used to take turns asking my grandfather for the money to buy a bottle, the glass ones that you see in Norman Rockwell paintings. It was usually up to me to convince him since, so they said, I was his favorite. Once he relented, we, pesos in hand, would run over to the one-room grocery across the street from his house and the family hardware store. We didn’t usually have bottles to trade in, so when we didn’t want to stay in the store to drink them, the shop owner would pour the Cokes into small plastic bags for us and put a straw inside. It was delicious and refreshing. In the U.S., as I got older, Coke never tasted as good, in part, I suppose, because nothing is ever as good as you remember. There was also the issue of high fructose corn syrup, which is what you find in Coke sold in the United States instead of cane sugar.
High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener, yes, but it doesn’t really sweeten, just adds a lot of calories without doing much in terms of flavor. It’s bad for you, can be found in pretty much everything and has taken the brunt of the blame for our country’s obesity problem. So it gets a bum rap even though real sugar, in the amounts you get in Coke, isn’t particularly good for you either. And anyway, let’s be honest here: “Real” and “natural” are all relative terms when it comes to food and the chemistry of making it inexpensive. The Coke people are smart, though, and at a time when everyone and their foodie is turning their nose up at the fake stuff and asking—nay, demanding—the real thing, the Coca Cola company wised up and started selling something like the real thing here too. “The Real Thing” used to be their slogan, after all.
This version, “Mexican Coke” as it has come to be known, is the formula the company bottles to sell in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. It comes in the pretty glass—no deposit bottle or plastic baggies necessary anymore. Drinking it, I can taste all the flavor that I loved as a kid. It may very well be the exact same as every other kind of Coke, chemically speaking, but even if the difference is all in my head, I don’t mind. It makes me like drinking Coke again, almost as much as I used to when half the fun was begging Nono for the money to buy one.
It seems like a weird foodie/hipster thing to be a snob about Coke and caring whether or not it’s sweetened by corn or cane sugar, but when drinking the corn stuff, I don’t taste much of anything except fizz. Maybe it’s just my memories that I’m enjoying more than the actual drink. But I do like to think that the “real” sugar makes a difference. Mary Poppins had a whole song about how far a spoonful of it could take you.
5) Suing the hand that saves you
I wrote earlier this fall about getting into Smallville again, now that it’s in its tenth and final season. It’s been fun to see the show take its final steps as it aligns with the Superman canon of the comics, in which we know dear old Clark will report the news as the mild-mannered and spectacled Mr. Kent by day and don those lovely blue tights to fight crime as Superman by night, all with the feisty Lois Lane by his side. With eleven episodes to go, we’ve only caught a glimpse of the suit, which is currently locked in Jor-El’s ice fortress, and Clark still hasn’t mastered the whole flying thing. But Lois finally knows that Metropolis’ as yet still anonymous superhero—nicknamed “The Blur” for his faster than a bullet speed—is the farm-raised boy she loves, and she and Clark are engaged. Clark is struggling with how or if to show his face to the suddenly not so adoring masses, who have turned against him thanks to the influence of Darkseid and the Vigilante Registration Act, a new law intended to account for and control superheroes and prevent a possible insurrection at their hands.
The VRA raises an interesting question. How would the law and our government react if there really were someone out there who could do superhuman things? Can you imagine the talking heads on Fox News talking about it? Smallville, for what it’s worth, makes the suggestion that conservatives are more inclined support the VRA. This isn’t the first time that such a question has come up in superhero stories before. Both Marvel and DC Comics have touched on the legal and political ramifications of superheroism in the past. Even Pixar posed it at the start of The Incredibles, when we learn how one guy’s lawsuit forced superheroes like Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl to go underground.
Well, if you’re wondering exactly how the current U.S. Code would handle the likes of Clark Kent, look no further than Law and the Multiverse, a blog by a group of comically inclined lawyers in which they explore questions about superheroes such as: Is Superman an illegal alien? Is he a registered “aircraft” with the Federal Aviation Administration? Is his heat vision a weapon as covered by the 2nd Amendment? It is a terribly geeky endeavor, which, of course, means I find it endlessly fascinating.
On the flying question, the lawyers interpret FAA code to surmise that Superman, who can fly due to his own power, would not fall under the agency’s registration regulations. Ironman, on the other hand, is a human who needs a special suit to fly and is by definition a person riding an aircraft, so aircraft regulations would apply to him.
Part of what I’ve always loved about science fiction or superhero or fantasy stories that defy the boundaries of the world as we know it is the way in which they explore how extraordinary circumstances affect the humanity of the characters that live within them—be those characters actual humans or not. But it’s also fun to consider the reverse: How would extraordinary characters affect the very ordinary circumstances in which we live? Would the government continue to churn along and let Superman be Superman? Would Clark Kent ever want to run for president? And if he did would he have to disclose that he’s Superman?
Brian K. Vaughan, who wrote the very awesome comic Y: The Last Man, recently brought another series, Ex Machina, to an end. This one is about a superhero who is elected mayor of New York City in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and intersperses the first hundred days of his administration with flashbacks to his past before he was an elected official. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.
For the record, I don’t think Clark would ever run for office. He has no birth certificate, for one thing. But one of the points that Smallville and previous iterations of his story have made clear is that the law matters deeplyto him. He wants to do right by it, even if he doesn’t always abide.