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broodings from the burrow

December 30, 2010

boxing day blizzard, gobble gobble, and catching up
posted by soe 11:18 pm

Rudi and I are back home after a lovely, but all-too-short, six-day stay in Connecticut. We ate all manner of delicious things. We caught up on sleep. We gave and received an array of glittery gifts. And we laughed with family we see all too little of. I’d say it was a good Christmas.

Here are three moments of beauty snapped in the final week of the year:

1. Snow starts falling around 9:30 on Boxing Day morning and doesn’t stop until the following afternoon, leaving roughly eight inches of fluff on the ground for the fierce wind to blow about for another day. It makes the northern Connecticut farmland nearby look especially Christmassy.

2. A rafter of more than sixty turkeys stop by after the storm subsided to take advantage of the berries on my mother’s bushes and my father’s full bird feeders. While most of the birds leave via the back property line, five of them are startled into ungainly flight, eventually landing in the trees.

3. This time of year is good for catching up with old friends. Cards roll in with photos of friends’ and relatives’ children and notes from those we haven’t heard from in a while. In reply to a text message requesting an address update, a former student announces he’s engaged and says he’ll call soon with an update. And although the weather prevents Karen and me from getting together while I’m up north, we do get the chance to chat on the phone three days in a row, which is absolutely lovely and something we don’t do enough of anymore.

How about you? What’s been beautiful in your world this week?

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December 23, 2010

wassailing, you first, and fully eclipsed
posted by soe 10:51 am

Rudi and I head north this afternoon for the holidays. I anticipate a rollicking drive full of merriment and sing-alongs, but what’s more likely is one of us catching up on sleep while the other drives. I’m prepared for that, too: I have the audio version of The Christmas Carol queued up for Rudi’s naps.

But before we join the Christmas migration out of town, I wanted to share three beautiful things from my week past:

1. Sunday night we join a group for caroling. Bundled against the chill, we wandered with a dozen strangers through a neighborhood not our own, singing songs of wonder and joy. Children in pajamas were our favorite audiences, but the house where the owner requested a second song and then passed around a plate of cookies was pretty awesome, too.

2. Ten minutes before closing time at a big box store, I join the queue at a checkstand. The couple in front of me notice I only have one item and kindly invite me to jump ahead of them and their cart. I demur, but the clerk is fast so practically by the time I’m done thanking them for their offer, they’re ready to pay.

3. Rudi and I head out for the eclipse of the full moon. In the wee hours of the Solstice, the quiet, clear night affords us a magical viewing from a local traffic circle as we watch the moon diminish before our eyes.

What’s been beautiful in your world this week? Please share in the comments.

And, finally, before I sign off, I wanted to point you to this story featuring what started as one beautiful holiday thing that snowballed to encompass thousands of them. I warn you, it moved me to tears.

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December 20, 2010

into the stacks: miracle on 34th street
posted by soe 4:13 am

Miracle on 34th Street, by Valentine Davies

From the jacket:
“A white-bearded gentleman who appears t the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade fills in for an unfit Santa Claus — and is asked to become the store’s resident Santa.”

My take: I went to the library seeking some Christmas reads and was disappointed by what I found in the adult section. Luckily, the hallway outside the children’s room offered a display of holiday books. Being a longtime fan on the movie, I snatched up this novella. Published concurrently with the movie’s release (both were based on a short story Davies wrote after getting out of the service following WWII), the book’s framework is familiar to almost everyone: When it turns out that our hero Kris Kringle’s MO is to send store patrons to whatever store best meets the needs of their children, he launches a campaign of goodwill that spreads across the city. At the same time, he decides to embark upon a more personal campaign — winning over the parade’s organizer, a single mother, and her young daughter.

As noted above, I found the story to be remarkably similar to its on-screen counterpart. Certain details were changed: At the start of the story, Kris is evicted from the old people’s home because of who he says he is. He also frequents the zoo, where he’s friendly with the reindeer. Alfred, the young man in the movie, doesn’t appear in these pages, while Mrs. Walker and Mr. Gaynor, her neighbor, get quite a bit of extra time devoted to their blossoming relationship.

It’s just different enough to keep you turning the pages. But it’s just similar enough to make you anticipate certain milestones and they occur more frequently than they did for me in The Wizard of Oz earlier this year. It’d be good as both a read-aloud book for young kids and a chapter-a-night Advent treat for the adults. As feel-good a classic as the movie.

Pages: 128

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December 16, 2010

hill gatherings, snowglobe, and shall i ring you up?
posted by soe 11:24 pm

Eight days until Christmas people…

Three short and sweet beautiful things from my past week:

1. I find myself on the Hill for back-to-back parties. Charles and Jordi’s includes macaroons and the chance to trade knitting lessons for hair trims. Sarah’s party (co-hosted by Megan) provides the chance to watch childhood tv specials, eat a vast array of Christmas cookies, and meet Holden, Susan and Phillip’s one-month-old son, for the first time.

2. Twice this week it’s snowed in D.C. The first happens one night around midnight, when we look up from Holiday Inn to find flakes swirling outside our window. When the ground is essentially clear the next morning, we’re glad we responded by running outside. This morning’s snow arrives equally quickly but carries on longer, offering us glimpses of snowglobe-like weather each time we glance out the office windows. It also sticks around longer, giving us an inch-and-a-half of white on every surface.

3. I stop for a hot, fortifying beverage at the coffee stand before joining the 20-person-deep queue snaking around the front of store. The barista asks if I’d like him to ring up my purchases at the same time as my tea. Yes, please!

What’s been beautiful in your world this week?

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December 13, 2010

how to create a great christmas mix
posted by soe 4:10 am

Advent Tour 2010Christmas music is as intrinsic a part of my holiday season as is a tree or presents. Each year my family looks to see who has new holiday albums coming out and breaks out the old favorites from years past. Each of us has a pretty sizable collection of Christmas albums crossing genre and spanning a variety of delivery formats from LP to 8-track to mp3.

My dad has been making annual Christmas mixes for the last fifteen years or so. He made a few Christmas tapes when I was growing up, but making it a yearly event definitely became much more feasible once you could build your playlist on the computer and then burn it to disc. Each year you eagerly look forward to seeing what he’s included on his holiday cd.

After making a few gift tapes myself back in college, I found the process to be a lot of work and stopped making mixes. But the allure remained and, after mulling it over for a couple of seasons, I finally made my first Christmas mix cd last year. It’s a surprisingly involved process if you’re like me and prone to getting a bit obsessive about getting your mix just so. But I thought today, in honor of being a stop on the Virtual Advent Tour, that I could offer some insights into creating a Christmas mix that you and your loved ones will enjoy for years to come:

  • Start with a wide selection of music. It helps to have a collection of cds, records, or mp3s from which to draw. It is not imperative, however, as you can find plenty of holiday tunes online from which to draw. Clearly, free options are your friend, particularly if you’re starting from scratch.
  • Begin early. Prep now for next year. Just create a playlist labeled Christmas 2011 in iTunes or your preferred music playing program and dump songs you like there. Consider this your vault. It’s not too late to create one for this year, but if you want one done by Dec. 25th, don’t wait!
  • Song selection is key. Here are my rules. Obviously yours will vary by taste and inclination:
    • I like to keep it pretty even between male and female singers. That’s a personal preference because I definitely notice when a mix slants one direction or another. (Although, usually I find that if there’s a noticeable bias it tends to be toward the mix creator including a mostly male line-up.)

    • Shorter songs are preferable. Aim for roughly three and a half minutes per song. Older songs are usually shorter; more modern ones tend toward the five-plus minute mark. I’m not saying to exclude long songs, although I try to keep those to a minimum. Christmas songs tend to get a bit repetitive and the longer one goes on, the easier it is to get tired of it. Plus, if you choose to burn your mix as a cd and you pick long songs, you get to include fewer songs.
    • Include some artists you love even outside Christmas. Last year’s cd included John Denver and the cast of Glee. This year I have the Indigo Girls. You might decide only to include artists you listen to year-round, but I tend also to add artists I’m not familiar with who have songs I find very catchy. Last year, for instance, I found a track featuring the Banks Soundtech Steel Orchestra performing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I’d never heard of them until I came across that song, but it’s a fantastic twist on a familiar carol.
    • Find a balance between modern and traditional holiday music. By traditional I’m referring to songs everyone can sing along to. Marvin Gaye’s “Purple Snowflakes” is a song you can groove along to, but it’s not one that’s likely to get a carload of people singing along with it on first listen. But those unique tracks tend to be ones that people remember because, honestly, nearly every singer with a Christmas album has done a version of “Silent Night.” (I also like to throw in an instrumental or two. If your audience’s attention has wandered, a lack of vocals can help recall it to your mix.)

  • Once you’ve assembled a collection of songs you like, it’s time to start playing with them. First, know your target number. If you’re putting this mix on a cd, you have 79 minutes to play with. If you’ve picked mostly longer songs, that’s probably 15 tracks. If you’ve gone with shorter pieces, you could get 20 or more songs on the cd. But it’s good to check this number regularly because there’s nothing worse than putting together a mix you love only to find that the last five songs aren’t going to fit on.
  • I find it’s important to get your first and last songs right. The first song needs to draw your audience in, so I like an upbeat song to get you started. And the final song is that last taste you’re leaving people with. I like something a bit quieter here to send your listener out on a peaceful note. “Silent Night” would be a good choice here or “O Holy Night.”
  • In between those I try to alternate every couple of songs, upbeat for a couple, then slow for one or two. Listen to your mix several times. If you find you’ve stopped hearing it or you get bored, move your songs around to create better transitions or bump the song that bored you. Sometimes a song sounds perfect by itself but just refuses to play nicely with any of its neighboring tunes.
  • Finally, don’t forget to come up with a catchy title for your mix and artwork for it if you’re making cds.
  • And, as with any holiday endeavor, try to remember you’re doing this because it’s fun and you like Christmas music. If it becomes too much of a hassle, by all means stop. There’s nothing wrong with just putting albums on the stereo or computer or listening to an all-Christmas radio station. This way gives you a unique and special holiday mix, but it’s definitely less important than spending time with your loved ones. And there’s always next year.

As a thank you to all who’ve popped in today, I’d like to share this year’s Christmas mix with one of you. Leave me a comment by Thursday night at 11:59 p.m. EST telling me the song you’d include on your holiday mix, and I’ll pick someone’s name at random to receive a copy of my yet-to-be-named cd.

And, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to stop by the other blogs on the Advent Tour today: A Book Blog of One’s Own, The Friday Friends, Nose in a Book, and VVB32 Reads.

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December 9, 2010

another round, sweet ride, and precious cargo
posted by soe 11:21 pm

Today was Thursday. How did that happen? I’ve accounted for the end of last week through Sunday, but where did the beginning of this week go?

However, if it is Thursday (and every calendar and computer has assured me that it really is), it must be time to reflect on three beautiful things from the past week:

1. Every year we drive out to Aldie, Virginia, to cut down our Christmas tree and then stop by the British Pantry to pick up a treat or two. Arriving a little earlier than usual this year, we ask if there’s an open table in the tearoom. After a delicious full tea with sandwiches and sweets, the matron asks us if we’d like a couple more scones because it’s the end of the day.

2. A few blocks from the Burrow an orange motorcycle with a sidecar sits parallel-parked. I wonder where its riders are and where they’re heading.

3. An impoverished man steps onto the Metro. He settles into a seat and gently nestles his aged, off-white accordion at his feet.

How about you? What’s been beautiful in your world this week?

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