Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Christmas Memory: Wrapping Paper

So many blog posts over so many years, it's hard to remember what I've written about and what I haven't. In terms of Christmas memories, it would be fairly easy to go back through a listing of my posts and check. However, that sounds like work, and today, though I'm at my day job, work doesn't appeal to me. So, I'm just going to give this memory. I'm fairly certain I haven't shared that here before. That memory is...


What about wrapping paper, you ask? What makes it a special Christmas memory?

From as far back as I can remember, which was probably when I was 5 or 6 years old, we were taught to unwrap gifts in a way that the wrapping paper could be reused. And this was strictly enforced by my parents, especially Dad, though Mom never contradicted him. I'm sure that in the years before I can remember, when I was 2, 3, 4 years old, I probably tore into the presents and shredded the wrapping paper. I'm sure my siblings did that in their younger years.

But my memories are of very carefully unwrapping gifts. Before taking too much time oohing and aahing over the gift, each of us would stretch out the paper, fold the tape down to the back of the paper, then fold the paper into a reasonably sized square or rectangle. We would set the paper aside, in a growing stack. Then and only then did we take a lot of time with whatever gift it was we opened.

After all gifts were opened, Dad took our piles of paper down to the basement, and put them on a certain shelf, where the Christmas decorations were stored. All year, as we kids would play in the basement, we would see the paper on the shelf, but never touch it. Next year when it came time to wrap Christmas gifts, the consolidated pile of used paper was brought upstairs. As we had a gift to wrap, we would go to the pile and choose an appropriately-sized piece, and wrap our gift. Usually we would have to trim the paper a little smaller because, no matter how hard we had tried to be careful the previous year, we would always tear the paper. The torn part would be trimmed, and a new gift wrapped in the old paper and placed under the tree.

It got to the point where we would recognize paper, and remember what had been wrapped in it previously. "Oh, I remember this piece! Last year that sweater from Aunt Bernie was in this." As you can imagine, we rarely had to buy new wrapping paper. And, the rule was we shouldn't take a piece of a new roll (assuming a new roll was available) so long as a used piece would do the job.

I'll chalk this up to my parents' Depression-era mentality. Born in 1916 and 1918, they finished their education, came of age, and entered the work force in the heart of the Great Depression. Dad, more than Mom, was fearful of the next depression, and lived just about every day as if he were still in the last one. Nothing that might have residual value was discarded. When bread became stale or moldy, we took it to Roger Williams Park and fed the ducks. Deadfall apples from the tree were used for applesauce or given away for the same purpose. Nothing was wasted. Wrapping paper, that frivolous material whose only purpose was to conceal a gift for a day or a few weeks, fell into that category.

Year by year, the pieces of paper shrunk from trimming, being suitable for smaller and smaller gifts. Eventually a piece would be too small to justify saving, even for Norman Todd, the depression-era man, and into the trash it would go. If it was a piece we remembered especially well, it was almost as sad to see it go as when a toy would break beyond repair and have to be discarded.

And, just as pieces of wrapping paper shrunk, so did the Christmas celebration. The first Christmas after Mom died, when we kids were 15-13-11, we did our gift opening on Christmas eve rather than Christmas day, and that became the new tradition. By this time we were giving each other record albums. Rather than wrap them and put them under the tree, we would find an appropriately-sized piece of used paper, go back to our bedrooms, find the album where we had hidden it, loosely fold the paper around it without using tape, and present it to our sibling. And so a new tradition was born. Not as dramatic as wrapped gifts under the tree, or as difficult to unwrap and get at the gift, but the pieces of wrapping paper started lasting longer.

Just as the wrapping paper shrunk from year to year, so did Christmas traditions. This is one that didn't survive my childhood into my adult years and my family. I tried to get the kids to unwrap carefully, but I didn't succeed. Plus, storing old wrapping paper takes space, which we didn't always have. Actually, I believe they open the gifts carefully, not shredding the paper, but I'm not sure they save it. And the grandkids are too young to be instructed to unwrap with care. A gift awaits, and that darned paper is preventing them from getting to it and using it. So off comes the paper, to be wadded up and put in the trash.

Traditions fade, families break apart and new families form, and life goes on. But memories stay. This one stays with me.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Literary Criticism and Me

I’ve written about literary criticism before, and about I have problems with it. Some years ago I had an exchange at the Absolute Write forums about this. The other person said, “Literary criticism, and critical theory, are ways of reading texts that are interpretive, rather than evaluative. One way of thinking of criticism is to look at it as a reader attempting to find personal meaning in a text, to discover how, and why, a text (a poem, a song, a novel, a letter, an advertisement) does or does not "work" for that reader.”

For many years I critiqued poems at four different Internet poetry sites. I figure I’ve critiqued more than 1,000 poems. A couple of sites have become defunct (one at least lost to hackers), and if I never copied or printed my critiques on those I’ve lost them. So be it. I did a lot of critiquing.
However, literary criticism escapes my understanding. “Interpretive, rather than evaluative” this more knowledgeable person said. I’m not sure what to do with that. Interpret what the author said, but don’t evaluate it. I don’t know how to separate the two. This is probably what got me afoul of so many English classes in my school years.

I’m just about finished reading a small literary criticism about Thomas Carlyle. It’s written by a University of Kansas professor, the cobbled notes of a class he taught. The book is Thomas Carlyle, a Study of His Literary Apprenticeship, 1814-1831, by William Savage Johnson (1911). Johnson shows how the various parts of Carlyle’s philosophy and doctrine began appearing in his early works, though they were not fully articulated until later works. I think this is the second time to read this. I think I began it once before and abandoned it. It’s only 73 pages, and right now I’m on page 64, so less than 10 pages to go.
I imagine I’ll finish it, but I’m not enjoying it. Perhaps Johnson is too deep for me. Or perhaps literary criticism, as practiced by thems that do it, is beyond me.

All of which is causing me to rethink my currently-shelved Carlyle projects, and wonder if instead I need to just trash them. The one I was farthest along with was a study of his short book Chartism. This was to include: background of the conditions in Britain that caused him to write the book; selections from letters before and after writing and publication; the book itself, with my editor’s notes added to help a 21st century American audience to understand it; all the reviews (that I can find) that came out around the time of publication; various reviews and interpretations of the work right up to the present era. Some of these would require release of copyright to include them in my book. I also figured on including an essay or two of mine (yet to be written) of my own literary criticism of the work.
However, based on what I now know of literary criticism, I think this is a dead project. I’m not saying I will never resurrect it, and at this stage I’m not discarding all notes and deleting all files. But I’ll have to get a whole lot of writing, intellectual, and publishing mojo back before I’ll tackle this again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Blessed is the Man

Blessed is the man:
  • who has no bucket list;
  • who has learned to be content with his circumstances, yet who takes responsibility for improving them;
  • who does not need thrills, especially ever increasing thrills, to find meaning or satisfaction in life;
  • who loves his country and community and seeks to improve them by serving them;
  • who seeks to provide daily bread for himself and his family, to the best of his strength, gifts, and talents; and when he can do that helps out some others who can't;
  • who wakes up one morning and realizes, "This is my life, for the rest of my life," and realizes that's okay, he can live with that.