Friday Dec. 26, 2014

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Making the Best of the Holidays

Justine called on Christmas day to say she
was thinking of killing herself. I said, “We’re
in the middle of opening presents, Justine. Could
you possibly call back later, that is, if you’re
still alive.” She was furious with me and called
me all sorts of names which I refuse to dignify
by repeating them. I hung up on her and returned
to the joyful task of opening presents. Everyone
seemed delighted with what they got, and that
definitely included me. I placed a few more logs
on the fire, and then the phone rang again. This
time it was Hugh and he had just taken all of his
pills and washed them down with a quart of gin.
“Sleep it off, Hugh,” I said, “I can barely understand
you, you’re slurring so badly. Call me
tomorrow, Hugh, and Merry Christmas.” The roast
in the oven smelled delicious. The kids were playing
with their new toys. Loni was giving me a big
Christmas kiss when the phone rang again. It was
Debbie. “I hate you,” she said. “You’re the most
disgusting human being on the planet.” “You’re
absolutely right,” I said, “and I’ve always been
aware of this. Nonetheless, Merry Christmas, Debbie.”
Halfway through dinner the phone rang again, but
this time Loni answered it. When she came back
to the table she looked pale. “Who was it?” I
asked. “It was my mother,” she said. “And what
did she say?” I asked. “She said she wasn’t my
mother,” she said.

“Making the Best of the Holidays” by James Tate, from Return to the City of White Donkeys. © Ecco Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the first day of Kwanzaa, an African-American and pan-African cultural holiday first celebrated in 1966. The name Kwanzaa comes from a Swahili phrase meaning “first fruits,” and the first-fruits celebration is recorded in African history from as far back as ancient Egyptian times.

Today, Kwanzaa is a weeklong celebration of African culture and unity that started during the Black Freedom Movement in the United States. It is also celebrated in Africa, the Caribbean, South America, particularly in Brazil, and in African communities within Europe. Kwanzaa was founded by Dr. Maulana Karenga, who made the holiday cultural rather than religious so that people of all faiths could come together and celebrate.

The 26th of December is also known as St. Stephen’s Day, in honor of the first Christian martyr (killed in 34 A.D.).

In England this date is called Boxing Day, with offerings for the poor collected in church boxes. Gratuities are given to the postman or gardener or cleaning lady for services rendered the previous year, and children go begging from door to door, as on Halloween in America.

In Ireland it’s Wren Day and “wren-boys” go from house to house, carrying a holly bush adorned with ribbons and figures of birds, and singing: "The wren, the wren, the king of all birds/St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze/Although he is little, his family’s great/I pray you, good landlady, give us a treat."

It was on this date in 1862 that the largest mass execution in United States history was carried out in Mankato, Minnesota. It followed the end of the U.S.-Dakota war, a Sioux uprising triggered by several broken treaties and lack of promised government food assistance. The conflict lasted six weeks and ended when the Dakota surrendered. Henry Sibley, the first governor of Minnesota, led a military court to try two thousand Dakota prisoners. In all, 392 men were found guilty, and 303 were given a death sentence; the rest were given jail time. President Lincoln reviewed the court transcripts and commuted the sentences of most of them, then sent back a list of people he deemed guilty of the worst crimes: rape or massacre. Thirty-eight prisoners were brought to a specially built gallows designed to hang up to 40 people at once. After the Dakota prisoners chanted their death song and joined hands, the rope holding the trap doors was cut with an ax and the men dropped as one.

It’s the birthday of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first calculating machine, born in London, England (1791). He was obsessed with the notion of mathematical accuracy in his work and surroundings. He was fed up with what he called the “intolerable labor and fatiguing monotony” of the hand-calculating of scientific tables, so he invented and built the Difference Engine, which could perform large calculations with the turn of a crank. He then set out to build the steam-powered Analytical Engine, which would have been the size of a locomotive, but he never found a way to make it work. He is also known for inventing the speedometer and the locomotive cowcatcher.

It’s the birthday of author Henry Miller (books by this author), born in New York City (1891). He was rebellious by nature. He said: “From five to ten were the most important years of my life; I lived in the street and acquired the typical American gangster spirit.”

With money his father gave him, intended to finance him through Cornell, he went on a trip through the southwest and Alaska. When he returned, he went to work in his father’s tailor shop, but left after trying to unionize the workforce. After that, he ran a speakeasy in Greenwich Village, but eventually moved to France for nine years. While there, Henry wrote about his bohemian experiences in Tropic of Cancer (1934), of which he said: “This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing.” The book was immediately banned in the U.S. for its obscenities and graphically sexual content. In 1964, the Supreme Court finally ruled that Tropic of Cancer could not be suppressed. He had already sold 2 million copies of it by this time.

It’s the birthday of David Sedaris (books by this author), born near Binghamton, New York (1956). He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. He moved to Chicago, and he made a living painting apartments, squirrel-proofing homes, and working as a house cleaner. Then, in 1992, he read his essay “The SantaLand Diaries” on NPR’s Morning Edition. It was extremely popular. He signed a contract with a publisher, and his books of essays were huge best-sellers — Barrel Fever (1994), Naked (1997), and Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000). But even after he became a successful writer, Sedaris kept his job cleaning apartments for a long time. He said: “I can only write when it’s dark, so basically, my whole day is spent waiting for it to get dark. Cleaning apartments gives me something to do when I get up. Otherwise, I’d feel like a bum.”

His most recent book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, came out last year (2013).

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