Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christmas In Luxembourg, Ohio: Index Post

When Jill O'Leary, a Los Angeles accountant, has to go home to Luxembourg, OH to save her family's inn right before Christmas, she expects problems with her ex, with her mother Regina, with her sisters, with her late dad's financial affairs. What she doesn't expect is drama of Shakespearean proportions. This is what happens when a Hallmark Christmas movie turns into King Lear.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14
Part 15
Part 16
Part 17

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 17


It was in the quiet period between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that word leaked out among the business community of Luxembourg that, during a ill-attended meeting of the Green Township trustees on December 24, the BlueStone Development Group had submitted an application to rezone 60 acres of scrub land down by the highway from agricultural to planned commercial development. Along with this application, BlueStone, represented by Vijay Singh, also submitted preliminary plans for an outlet mall to be built on this same parcel. At once speculation began. Bidding wars erupted for plots that had been worthless a week before. Local businesses began to make five-year plans for improvements and renovations based on the proposed crowds of bargain-hungry shoppers soon to descend. A few crochety landowners vowed to fight the rezoning tooth and nail, but most of Luxembourg County was desperate for economic revival. There was little doubt that within 24 months, the BlueStone Outlet would have a triumphant ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Devoted outlet mall shoppers are a breed apart. They shop in multi-day sprees, and at the end of the day, they need somewhere to stay. And there was, at present, one established lodging in small Luxembourg, Ohio: the Luxembourg Inn, proprietor-to-be Jillian O’Leary.

“I feel like I’ve just been pushed out of an airplane, and I’m about to find out if my parachute works,” said Jill to Garrett, Mr. Singh, and Amita, all gathered around a table at the Inn’s restaurant. “I’m miles up and I’m not dead yet, but I’m going to need a landing plan real soon.”

“You won’t have any trouble getting a loan application through now,” Garrett said. “You’re poised to be the prestige option for shoppers and tourists who want somewhere elegant to stay. And you have at least two years to complete your upgrades and be ready. The chain hotels will be starting from the ground up. We’ll need to look at the proposal to see what we’re competing against.”

Mr. Singh held up a hand. “BlueStone’s proposal only covers retail. Hotels will need to be proposed and built separately by independent developers.” He smiled seraphically. “I quite enjoy the Luxembourg Inn, myself.”

“I don’t know how exactly I’m going to balance this,” Jill said. “Hotel proprietor in Ohio, accountant in Los Angeles. Amita, can you believe we’ll be going back to Los Angeles after all this? No more snow, for a start.”

“Not me,” said Amita shyly, exchanging a private glance with Mr. Singh. “Vijay and I are going to his family’s compound in Hyannisport for a few days. I’m going to meet his mother.” 

Once again Jill’s ears started ringing with the twang of a distant sitar. First thing I fix is the sound system in here, she thought as everyone stood up. Amita seized her in a fierce hug and whispered, “Wish me luck! His mother is very old-fashioned.” 

“Every good thing,” Jill wished her, squeezing her tight.

“Maybe we’ll both be quitting soon,” Amita murmured in her ear. Mr. Singh was shaking Garrett’s hand and exchanging business cards. Then he took Jill’s hand and held it briefly to his lips, as he had at the white elephant party.

“Farewell, Miss O’Leary,” he said, as cool and thrilling as ever. “I look forward to a successful future partnership.”

The twanging swelled and then receded as Mr. Singh and Amita walked arm in arm from the restaurant. Garrett rubbed his ear and shook his head as if to clear it.

“How cagey that man is,” he said. “‘A successful future partnership’. Partnership with whom? With you? With the Inn? With Amita? A generic future partnership? He promises everything, unspecifically.”

“With Reagan, maybe,” said Jill. “It’s probably thanks to him that she nabbed Dad’s property by the highway.” 

“She ought to sell now,” said Garrett.”By the time BlueStone is making offers, they’ll be driving hard bargains. Right now people are crazy. They’ll pay anything for that land. Unless she really does want to build her forever home there.”

Jill scoffed absently at the idea of Reagan’s forever home. She had already dismissed Mr. Singh’s parting words, and was meditating on Amita’s. Quit her job? She had never considered running the Inn as a viable option. The financials were a mess. But even if they had been entirely solid, how could anyone have full autonomy while Mother was still near enough to drop in and see if things were being run her way? Now, however, blessed Del was taking Mother on and moving her far across time zones and almost over the continental divide.

Visions of a different future danced in her head, one where Mother was a mentor and guide to her as they worked through the Inn renovations together. One where she could draw on Mother’s intuitive design sense without fear because Mother wouldn’t take the rejection of her ideas personally. One where they had a partnership built on mutual respect and expertise. 

In this fallen world, however, some people were best loved at a distance. For years that distance had been the divide between Los Angeles and Luxembourg. Now there was no barrier to coming back: not Heath Albany’s dog, not Mother’s imperiousness, not even bad career prospects. Definitely not close ties in Los Angeles. Her main friend there was ready to embark on her own adventure.

And some people were better loved up close, in person.


At 9:00 on the morning of New Year’s Eve, Garrett was on the porch once more, knocking on Mother’s door. Jill answered, wrapped in scarf and puffy coat.

“Well, I’m here,” he said, wiping the mud from his feet. “And dicey enough it was to get here, what with the melting snow and now these trucks in your driveway. What did you want to show me?”

Jill held out her hand. “Will you take a walk with me?”

They strolled down the driveway, through the gates, and along the sidewalk to where the silver maple leaned. A truck was braced by the trunk, and a man in a cherry picker wielded a chainsaw branch by branch. The crews at the bottom grabbed the wood and loaded it up to be fed into the chipper.

“You’re getting rid of the silver maple,” Garrett stated, not needing to phrase it as a question since the answer was before his eyes.

“I have no desire to maintain a monument to your past mistakes,” Jill said. “It’s time to plant something new and straight.”

They watched, fingers living and entwined, as limb after limb fell from the great bare trunk. When all that was left was a column of tree twenty feet high, the man in the cherry picker gave a shout. He reached out and grasped the raccoon’s hole and easily rocked the entire tree back and forth.

“Hollow!” he yelled. “All the way down.”

As slices of the trunk tumbled down, the rotten core crumbled away. Garrett walked over and kicked a thin ring of wood, five feet in diameter. 

“All this time I thought I’d ruined this tree,” he said. “Me, with my own stupid choices and addiction, I destroyed it single-handedly, and every time someone looked at it they could say, ‘Garrett French did that. It’s all Garrett’s fault.’ Sometimes I thought I didn’t die when I hit the tree only because God wanted me alive as an object lesson. This is what you should not do. And all the time, this is what was at the center of all my guilt and self-loathing. Nothing at all.”

He turned back to Jill and took her hand again. “When I hit the tree, the hollow trunk must have absorbed the blow and cushioned most of the shock. I didn’t destroy the silver maple. It saved my life.”

“I’m glad,” she said, working her cold fingers back between his. “To be honest, I’d rather have you than the tree.”

They walked in silence back to the house. As the front door shut out the whine of the chipper digesting branches, Jill looked up. The ball of mistletoe dangled in the center of the hall, suspended only by a fine clear thread that glinted in the chill morning light.

“Piss off,” she told it.

“What do you have against the mistletoe?” Garrett asked, close and confident by her side. “I like it, myself.”

“It mocks me,” she snapped, angry at his new-found closure. “It seems so inviting, but it’s still Mother’s mistletoe, in Mother’s hallway, in Mother’s house. I just can’t let that go. I don’t even know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I haven’t grown up past being a rebellious teenager. I’m so edgy, knocking over her tree and about to make out in her hall.” She yanked her hand from his with the ruthlessness of one ripping out tender young roots. “It’s not fair to you. Let’s go somewhere else.”

“Like my house?” Garrett asked.

“Sure,” said Jill, shrugging in sullen despair.

“Fine.” He unwound her scarf and unzipped her coat. “Regina accepted my offer this morning.” The warmth of his mouth set the life racing back through her numb forehead and nose and lips. “Ergo, you’re in my house now.”

After a delicious, frantic moment that melted any snow left on the two of them, Jill pulled back and gasped, “I hope you lowballed her.”

“Not at all,” Garrett answered between slower kisses. “I figured… I was doing my part… to set her up… far away from here.”  

“Well, you’re a fast mover,” Jill murmured. “If I’m going to move from Los Angeles, now I’m going to have to find a place to live.”

“Here, I hope, eventually.”

This time Jill did disentangle herself. “Are you… proposing to me?”

Garrett didn’t let her go. “Not just yet. We barely know each other. And it seems like we both have a lot of healing to do before we’re able to make any vows. But I’m going to keep the mistletoe up until the day I carry you over the threshold.”

“And I’ll keep it up every day after that,” Jill promised, relaxing into the glorious, unbelievable reality of right now, in snowy, forested, small-town Luxembourg, Ohio, where the population is, as of this current moment, 12,001. 

The End

Friday, December 28, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 16


The door opened, and a voice said, “Jill, get out of Mother’s bed.”

Jill grunted and pulled the blankets over her head. A moment later they were pulled off of her, and the lamp beside the bed glowed sharply in her face.

“Get up,” said Del. “Mother needs to lay down.”

Jill sat up, blinking. Del was standing beside the bed, with her arm around Mother.  Mother radiated the remains of a tragic dignity. Smudges of mascara had been inexpertly wiped from her face. Her hair, so precise at midnight mass, looked now as though it had been patted down after being styled with a cattle prod. Groggy as she was, Jill felt a dart of alertness shoot through her.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“Everything’s fine,” said Del, in a voice that said that everything was certainly not fine. “Mother just needs to get to bed, so you get up.”

“No, no,” Mother murmured, “Jill shouldn’t have to move when she’s been working so hard all night long. I’ll go sleep in her bed.”

“You can’t!” yelped Jill, bolting out of the bed and standing in the doorway in what a drunken observer might term a “casual attitude”.

“Why not?”

“Because Garrett French is in my bed.”

It was not easy to catch Del off her stride, but this tidbit took her a moment to process. Mother, rallying her signature spirit for a moment, remarked, “And you’re in mine. No wonder you’re still single, Jill.”

“Go to bed, Mother,” Del commanded softly, and to Jill’s astonishment, Mother climbed right into bed, hair, makeup, clothes, and all. Del steered Jill out of the room and shut the door

In the hallway, the windows over the stairs were just starting to be illuminated. “What time is it?” Jill whispered

“7:00 in the morning.”

“Why are  you guys up so early?” moaned Jill. “It’s Christmas.”

“We haven’t been to bed yet,” said Del shortly. “If you’re making coffee, make me some.”

She disappeared into the bathroom. Jill glanced longingly at her own bedroom door, where she could be sure of finding a sweater, then took herself downstairs. She stumbled around the cold kitchen wrapped in a Christmas afghan she grabbed off the back of a couch. Pickings were a bit slim, as Mother had been at Reagan’s for more than a week, but there were pods for the Keurig machine. If the coffee would not be lovingly hand-crafted, at least it would be fast.

Feet were shuffling down the stairs. Jill turned around and gasped to see Daddy, angles and proportions all absurd, standing in the doorway. An instant later, the image resolved into Garrett, entirely correct, wearing the Christmas sweater and the pair of Daddy’s old sweatpants she’d tossed him last night. Either way, Jill wanted to throw herself into his arms and feel the Christmas sweater wrapped around her.

The sweater she would get, at least. Concerned by her initial shock, Garrett was all apologies. “I was just looking for something warm that would fit. I hoped it wouldn’t bother you if I wore the Dad sweater,” he said, pulling it off. Jill had a glimpse of abs as his t-shirt slid up. 

“You didn’t have to,” she protested, without force, as he handed her the sweater.

“We’ll trade,” he said. “Gimme the blanket.”

Del walked in as Jill was struggling her way into the sweater and Garrett was draping himself like a chieftain. She went straight to Jill’s mug of coffee and downed it black. 

“Long night?” Jill asked.

“Reagan called the paramedics on Mother because she threatened to kill herself,” said Del.

Jill and Garrett both stared open-mouthed. “What happened?” Jill finally asked.

“Nothing that needed to happen,” said Del. “Reagan was angry and wanted to stage a big intervention. I told her she should wait until Mother had started her meds again. But she had to make a big scene and demand an accounting from Mother right then, and of course Mother got defensive and angry. She and Reagan screamed at each other for a long time and raked up every old grievance on the books.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t there,” said Jill.

“Me too,” said Del. “You would have only made it worse. Finally Mother got dramatic and said she would be better off dead.”

“Did she try to hurt herself?” asked Garrett.

“Of course not,” said Del. “Mother loves herself too much for that. But it was a stupid thing to say, and Reagan jumped on it and called 911. Reagan and Mother both sobered up when the paramedics came and they had to deal with the assessment and the paperwork. I talked with one of them about whether Mother needed to go to the ER and get her prescriptions filled right away, but we agreed that sitting in the ER for hours would only agitate her more and be a waste of money.”

“She still has some pills here,” said Jill. “Can’t she start on those?”

“Yes, but she says they make her feel sick, so we need to get an appointment and see if we can adjust the dosage or try something different,” said Del. “I’m going to stay with her today and make sure she stays quiet, so you should probably leave.”

“Fine,” said Jill, unreasonably stung. Of course, she and Mother didn’t get along, but she wasn’t about to stir up Reagan levels of drama.

“You don’t have to be pissy,” said Del. “It just makes sense for today, until she regulates. One of the reasons Mother stopped taking her meds was because you were coming home. She was embarrassed that the reason you were coming home after all these years was because she couldn’t manage Daddy’s finances. She felt like she had failed him by not being able to carry on by herself, without pills.”

“That’s really stupid,” said Jill, almost nauseous with humiliation and rage. “I will not take the blame for this. This is not all my fault.”

A warm mug of coffee was placed in her shaking hands, and Garrett was tucking the afghan around her. 

“No one’s blaming you,” said Del. “Mother is all messed up with grief and guilt. Tonight she saw how toxic she looks from the outside. Mother thinks she can just say anything and there won’t be any consequences. The paramedics don’t take the same view.”

“What happens now?” Garrett asked, as Jill was resolutely absorbed in her coffee.

“Mother isn’t good at living alone,” said Del. “And she can’t live with Reagan, and you can’t live with her. Scott and I have been talking about moving to Albuerquerque. Mother will come with me.”

She sipped her coffee. Jill felt completely bludgeoned by the events of the morning. This new twist was too much to take in.  She herself had moved to get away from Mother, and here was Del proposing to just pack Mother up and take her along like it was that easy.

“Have you talked to her about this?” asked Garrett carefully.

“Not yet, but Mother will usually listen to me,” said Del. “She talks a lot about going to Florida, but she was counting on Daddy to make the arrangements. As long as I do the work, she’ll talk a good game about plans, and eventually she’ll feel like it was all her idea in the first place.”

“Well, I never,” said Jill.

Garrett focused on the practicalities. “What about the businesses?”

Del shrugged off the business. “She gave the hotel to Jill, didn’t she? And Reagan will get that useless piece of land. Daddy should have sold Heath Albany that garage years ago anyway.”

Jill finally found her voice. “What’s Mother going to live on? Is Scott going to make her an allowance? Who’s going to finance her pills and counseling and shopping and trips?”

“Mother’s old enough to go on Medicare. And you can sell the house and send her the money.” Del stood up and stretched. “I’m going to sleep now. See you later.”

Jill stood up too. She flung her arms around her warm, solid sister. “I love you, Cordelia,” she mumbled into Del’s coarse hair. “Merry Christmas.”

“I love you too,” said Del. “You should take a shower.”

She stumped off to bed, leaving Jill and Garrett to their coffee and recalibration.

“What now?” Jill said finally.

“Well, we’ve got a snow plow,” said Garrett. “Want to go to Christmas mass at 9:30 at St. Boniface?”

Jill’s party attire from last night’s hot chocolate reception (an event now shrouded in the mists of time) was rumpled. Garrett, himself arrayed in jeans and parka, dismissed her fashion concerns: “I think this is one occasion where it’s actually justifiable to say that God won’t care.”

They opened the front door and immediately recoiled from the glittering assault. Beyond the shadows of the porch, sunlight refracted into every color and resolved into a vast, gleaming whiteness. The world had been freshly washed and bleached and hung out to melt.

“A Christmas miracle,” said Garrett, taking Jill’s arm. “It’s stopped snowing.”


They Shall Not Grow Old: Film Review

I had a chance today to go see the limited release World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, directed by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame and The Hobbit infamy. The concept of the film is fairly well conveyed by both the poster and the trailer. As Jackson explains in a brief interview before the film (and in a 30min making-of piece after it) the Imperial War Museum approached Jackson (who was known to have an interest in WW1) to see if he'd be interested in doing "something unique" with the ~100 hours of vintage film footage from the war that the museum possessed. The request was open-ended, and what Jackson eventually decided to do is surprisingly restrained and quite effective.

If you've watched movie footage from 1914-1918, it tends to look jerky and fast. The reason for this is that the frame rate of early movie cameras (and projectors) was slower than today, and often inconsistent. The "standard" for silent movies was 16 fames per second. A standard modern movie is shot at 24 frames per second. So if you run film stock shot at 16 frames per second through a projector at a rate of 24 frames per second, you get jerky, fast movement. Add to that the effects of 100 years time on the physical film stock, and you can see why the clips you see so often in documentaries don't look very good.

What Jackson did was to make use of the full powers of a modern special effects house to adjust the frame rate, bringing the movement back to a natural, smooth movement. You can see this contrast watching the trailer above. They also cleaned up scratches, smoothed grain, and in places colorized the footage. Conscious of the bad artistic reputation that colorization has, Jackson argues that the use of black and white footage by military photographers in World War One was not due to some artistic choice, but simply due to the fact that they didn't have access to color, and thus that by colorizing the film he's doing a better job of conveying what the soldiers really saw.

All this technical work is very well done, and the movie would be worth watching just for this.

The additional very interesting choice which Jackson made in putting the film together was to restrict himself exclusively to images from the war and to narration taken from recorded audio interviews with WW1 veterans recorded by back in the 1960s. Thus, rather than hearing historians or writers tell us about the war, we hear veterans in their 60s and 70s talking about their experiences. The only modern voice talent added is where the footage clearly showed someone talking, in which case Jackson's team had forensic lip readers figure out what the men in the film were saying, and voice talent from the proper part of the UK for that regiment dub in the words.

From the ~100hrs of film footage the Imperial War Museum had, and ~600hrs of audio interviews with veterans, Jackson has created a movie which provides a soldier's eye view of the war experience from start to finish. At the beginning, we hear men talk about how they enlisted and about training. Then we hear them talk about trench life, life behind the lines, and about an attack. At last we hear them talk about the end of the war and going home.

What's good about this is that there's fairly little interpretive filter on what we hear. Jackson seems to have gone into this with no particular ax to grind, and so we hear a wide variety of reactions, from men who said they'd do it all again to men who said there was no point to it all.

What's limiting is that this is such a relentlessly soldiers-eye view that we get no sense of how the war progressed and changed. Near the beginning, one of the veterans who fought all the way from 1914-1918 talks about how the war changed so much that if you could take a man from 1914 and drop him straight into 1917, it would seem to him like a different war. However, because the film focuses on the experience of training, the experience of trench life, the experience of attack, we don't get any sense of how all those things changed during the four years of the war. Near the end, we see footage of men preparing for an attack, and we hear narration from men talking about an attack. But the narration is cutting from one veteran to another, and if you know your WW1 history well, they're clearly talking about different battles. One talks about an attack with 300 tanks, which must be from 1918. Another is clearly talking about the Somme. One talks about how their attack would be a complete surprise with not long barrage. Another talks about the artillery firing all night before the attack.

I'm not actually sure that a non-expert would notice this much at all. You do get a strong impression of the war, both visual and audible. But it's a very static impression, which is too bad in that one of the misconceptions about the war is that it was one long static period in which tactics and technology failed to develop as foolish generals sent millions of men charging towards machine guns.

That sort of editorializing isn't here. I don't think that generals are mentioned even once in the movie. The view is totally at the foot soldier level. And in a movie that's only an hour and 39 minutes long, there's not time to get across all of the change that went on during the war. So I think that the approach Jackson took is a good one for what he was doing. It just has certain limitations.

The movie itself was only in very limited release in the US. It played on two days (December 17th and 27th) so the next stop will doubtless be DVD and/or online streaming. If you have an interest in the period or in the technology of film restoration, it's definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 15


It was likely that somewhere, old-timers were rocking in chairs exclaiming over how this had been the worst winter for snow in living memory, but Jill had no idea where old-timers in Luxembourg were likely to gather and swap tales. Anyway, no one was gathering today. The town was under a level three snow emergency. 

Jill had spent the day at the Inn, since she couldn’t go anywhere else. She checked the inventory of supplies. She consulted the service records for crucial systems: electrical, HVAC, backup generator. She reviewed the employee scheduling and talked with the manager about skeleton staff and overtime pay. She spent time working on paperwork and accounts.

 Amita helped with this, in a cursory fashion, but she was floating in another genre, snow-bound in a country inn with a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. For that matter, Jill was in the same situation, but somehow Amita’s holiday fantasy was playing out with lights and music, whereas Jill was stuck in a windowless office doing her mother’s job. Would Amita be having such a good time if her family were here? Maybe so; Jill had met her parents, and they were peaceful, loving people, a bit overbearing maybe, but clearly proud of their daughter and wanting the best for her. 

What did her own family look like from the outside? Mother, the matriarch; Reagan, the mother; Del, the wife; and Jill, the prodigal daughter and now the resentful older child as well, dutifully cleaning up messes with no clear path to reward. Did people think that they were happy? Did it look like the O’Learys were in a golden age? Did Mother’s friends envy her her three established daughters?

Jill pushed aside her laptop. Time to stop grinding her teeth and get some goddamn Christmas spirit. So they were stuck on Christmas Eve. Well, the Inn wasn’t the worst place in the world to be. They had heat, they had a tree, and most importantly, they had food. And they were going to be merry if it killed her. She stopped into the manager’s office and announced that they were going to be hosting a hot chocolate social for all the guests trapped in the hotel. 

That evening, the tree glistened, the tunes were cranked, and guests were gathered, chatting and laughing, around the gas fireplace with mugs and plates of cheese and little donut holes appropriated from the continental breakfast supply. Amita and Mr. Singh sat across the fire from one another and basked in the flattering, flickering light. A few intrepid souls were even trying to carol around the grand piano with the help of an iPad. Jill, sipping her own cocoa, found the tension melting from her shoulders. She’d done it. She’d improved a bad situation. She’d made people happy. Food, fun, new friends — this was the essence of Christmas, right? She had found her Christmas spirit.

A moment later she lost her Christmas spirit, as Reagan’s name popped up on her phone.

“Jill, I need you to do me a favor.” Reagan’s voice was as tight as Saran wrap over a bowl of jello salad. “Go over to Mother’s house and look through her medicine cabinet.” 

“What on earth? Why?”

“Because Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass…”

“But it’s only 8:00.”

“Midnight mass can be whenever.” Reagan dismissed mass times as irrelevant. “It’s just a phrase. Anyway, they left, and Mother forgot her phone here, and she got a text just now. It was an automated message from her pharmacy, saying that it’s been a few weeks since she refilled her prescriptions.”

“Wait,” said Jill. “I thought you were joking when you said Mother had gone off her meds.”

“I was joking!” Reagan sobbed. “Please, Jill, please. I need to know if Mother is driving my daughter in a blizzard when she hasn’t taken her anti-depressants in weeks.”

“Why on earth did you agree to let Mother take her in this weather in the first place?” Jill demanded, following the first rule of crisis management: Find someone to blame. 

Reagan, for once, was open to self-recrimination. “I don’t know. It’s Christmas, and church, and Mother seemed so set on it, and Quennedey can be really exhausting, and it’s nice to have someone else in charge of her for a while…”

“I’m sorry,” said Jill, more shaken by this new honesty of Reagan’s than by anything else. “What do you want me to do?”

“Go over to Mother’s and check her medicine bottles.”

“How can I get in?”

“She always keeps a house key in her desk drawer there at the inn. Go. Please. You can get there faster than I can in this weather.”

“Okay, okay,” said Jill, infected by Reagan’s alarm. “I’m going now. Don’t worry, Reagan. It’s probably nothing. ”

Fifteen minutes later, bundled up to her nose, she was dripping melting snow in Mother’s bathroom as she stood with two bottles in her hand, doing hasty calculations as to how long ago they were prescribed and what the dose was. The math was not reassuring: If Mother had been taking her medicine as prescribed, she would have run out at the beginning of December.

“Jill,” Reagan wailed thinly over the phone. “Oh my god oh my god oh my god. I’m going out to get my baby.”

“Listen to me, Reagan,” Jill pleaded. “Call Del to come over and sit with you. She lives so close it won’t matter if she drives a little. Let me go down to church and find Quennedey and bring her and Mother home. Reagan, are you listening to me? Text me when Del gets there.”

In the hallway, Jill tried to marshal her thoughts. The weather was apocalyptic. Should she call the police to get Quennedey? She pictured Mother’s reaction to officers pushing their way through the crowds of worshippers at St. Boniface, and quickly dismissed that idea. Quennedey probably wasn’t in any imminent danger. Mother had been living with Reagan for the past week without harming anything but Reagan’s nerves. But the snow was extreme. Mother shouldn’t be driving in it with impaired judgment. Were there penalties for driving around during a snow emergency? But this was an emergency too, of a sort. She wished she had someone to consult.

Above her head, the white berries of the mistletoe gleamed with the light of the electric candles in the window. Jill felt a sudden stab of loneliness and longing. She sighed, swallowed her pride, and dialed Garrett.

“Garrett, please, I have to ask you something.” She sounded pathetic, just like Reagan when she’d first called. “You see, Mother took Quennedey to midnight mass at St. Boniface…”

“There is no midnight mass,” said Garrett.

“Yes, I know, it’s at 10:00 or something. It’s just a phrase.”

“No, Jill, there’s no midnight mass. Level three snow emergency, everything was canceled. There will be mass at St. Boniface tomorrow morning at 9:30. She said she was going to St. Boniface?”

“No,” said Jill, feeling each slow heartbeat in her throat . “She just said she was going to midnight mass.”

“The only parish anywhere around here holding a midnight mass is St. Joe’s in Milton Corner.”

“Oh my god. That’s fifteen miles down the road.” The room swam for a moment. A chair rose up to support her. Grasping for anything to say that wasn’t going to end up in Reagan-esque waterworks, she blurted, “How do you know all these schedules?”

“I’d been considering going to St. Joe’s myself.”

This bizarre statement functioned as effectively as a slap to jolt Jill out of her building hysteria. “You’re Catholic?”

“I’m in RCIA.”

“Well, I never.” That was the kind of dumb thing Daddy used to say in moments of shock. Great, she was turning into her father in her old age.

“Is there something wrong with that?” Garrett asked.

“No! No, I mean… I just thought being Catholic was something you left, not something anyone joined.”

“How could there be an RCIA class if there weren’t people wanting to join the Church?” Garrett said reasonably, and Jill had no answer for that.

“So your mom is taking Quennedey to Milton Corner,” he said, back to business. “That’s bad, but she’ll call if they have a problem, right? Can you get a hold of her?”

“She left her phone at Reagan’s.”

“Does Quennedey have a phone?”

“Yes, but she might not know there’s a problem.”

“How do you mean?”

“We just discovered that Mother probably hasn’t taken her antidepressants for more than three weeks.”

“Oh,” said Garrett. “That explains a lot.”

Jill was about to retort, but sudden memories of Mother’s recent behavior convinced her that Garrett, if anyone, had a right to comment. 

“Reagan is freaking out,” she said. “She wants Quennedey home now.”

“Is Regina a threat?”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Jill dubiously. “But taking a child on the back roads to Milton Corner in a level three snow emergency is just about certifiable.”

“So the best thing to do would be to trace their route, which is pretty straightforward. But on a night like this you’d need a snow plow to be sure of getting through safely.”

“I do have a snow plow,” Jill said, a light slowly dawning upon her. “Or at least, there’s one at the garage. I’ll call Heath Albany. He ought to drive out for us — I mean, technically, Mother owns the plow.” She was suddenly urgent to be moving, doing anything to resolve this situation. “Thanks so much, Garrett. I’ll call you back when I know something.”

“But I’m…,” said Garrett, but Jill was already ringing off. 

There was no point in calling the garage on Christmas Eve. As Heath’s cell phone rang, Jill prayed that he was home, observing the snow emergency. Would God be mad if Heath’s phone rang in church? Surely a snow plow operator would know better than to go to church in this weather. Would his wife be mad at Jill for asking Heath to drive out on Christmas Eve when he should be spending family time, or filling stockings, or assembling toys, or doing whatever parents did? 

As usual, Jill was worried about all the wrong things.

“I’m completely blind,” said Heath.

“Look,” said Jill, fighting against the urge to fly off the handle again. “I know we have history, but I thought we were past that. If you don’t want to go out because it’s Christmas Eve, because it’s me, just say so…”

“I do want to help, don’t get me wrong,” said Heath, who seemed to understand how feeble this excuse sounded, “but there is no way I can drive tonight. I literally cannot see. I was out plowing the roads yesterday afternoon when the sun suddenly came out so strongly. It was the strangest thing. It was like rainbows flashing everywhere. I have such a terrible case of snow blindness that I’ve been in bed all day. I can barely open my eyes right now.”

“Oh my god.” In one way or another, people had been appealing to the Almighty all night. Was he ever going to answer? Probably he was waiting for someone to ask him for help a bit more reverently. Jill drew a deep breath and breathed out a prayer. Maybe God would send a miracle.

Heath spoke hesitantly, stepping gingerly around her temper. “I’m really sorry I can’t help, but if you’d feel comfortable taking the snow plow out yourself… It’s probably the safest thing you can drive tonight.”

Thanks, God.

“I can’t go alone,” Jill protested, more to God than to Heath. “It’s dangerous out there, I don’t know what I’m looking for, it’s been twelve years since I’ve driven to Milton Corners, and it’s a pitch black whiteout.”

As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Garrett French, bulky, bundled, ridiculously pink of nose and cheek, heaven-sent, stood on the porch. 

“I started driving over as soon as you called,” he said. 


The snow plow was big and heavy and warm, a moving fortress rumbling over the caked roads. Jill, at the wheel for insurance purposes, fought against the lure of false security as the lights illuminated the snow flakes driving at them against the blackness. These are the voyages of the snow ship Enterprise, floating on its five year mission, in no way likely to skid off the road or get trapped in a drift. 

“If this were a movie, we’d know exactly what we were trying to do,” she said irritably to Garrett, as they crept their way past the last lights of town. “There would be some definite way we were going to save the day. Maybe we’d be rescuing Mother and Quennedey from an accident, or taking someone to the hospital, or delivering presents on Santa’s behalf, or doing something heroic. Instead, we’re in a big-ass snow plow in a level three snow emergency. On spec! A couple of chumps trying to get themselves killed.”

“We’ll be making sure Regina and Quennedey don’t get themselves killed,” Garrett pointed out. “There’s nothing spec about that.”

“Why are you being such a white knight about of this?” Jill demanded. “You don’t even have a personal stake in this whole rescue mission. I’m snapping, I’m falling apart, I’m rude, and you don’t even lose your temper.”

“We can’t both be losing our temper at the same time,” Garrett replied, reasonable as always. They sat in silence for a moment, until he added, with only the slightest of preliminary deep breaths, “And I do have a personal stake.”

A wave of warmth that had nothing to do with the blasting heater swept across Jill’s cheeks. She swallowed hard and plunged in before he said anything else.

“Look, I need to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I don’t know why I was so ugly to you. I’m an adult. I know I shouldn’t take out my frustrations on people around me. And I do know — believe me, I do — how terrible it is to throw accusations at people just to get a rise. I don’t know anything about your dad except that Mother thinks he’s a good bludgeon to use against you. I am very sorry, and I’ve been sorry ever since the moment you walked away from the table.”

She spared a glance away from the road to see what he was doing, but he was staring straight ahead in the faint green glow of the dashboard lights.

“My parents got divorced when I was a baby,” he said, in a carefully even voice. “My dad got remarried right away, to the woman he was having an affair with. My brother is barely a year younger than I am. My mom and I moved from apartment to apartment, barely making ends meet even with the child support. She bounced from relationship to relationship, while my dad’s other family lived securely. When I went to his house on his weekends, I was a second-class citizen. His wife didn’t like me — still doesn’t, after thirty-five years. Her house, her rules. And my dad went along with it, because he was committed to his second marriage in a way he wouldn’t be to his first. 

“And who cared?” Now he was looking at her, and she was the one staring straight ahead, white-knuckled with the intensity of her listening. “Not the people at the church where my dad found Jesus. They saw a good husband to his wife, a good father to her son, saddled with a sullen kid from his sinful past. They said everyone was welcome, but I wasn’t welcome.” 

He started to light a cigarette, then caught himself. “Sorry, it’s a tension thing. Replacing one addiction with another.”

Jill let out the breath she’d been holding and dared to ask, “When did you start drinking?”

He shrugged. “In high school. All through college. I hit rock bottom — and your silver maple tree — ten years ago. Almost exactly. Dec. 21.” He laughed briefly, another tension thing. “Ten years, but people still remember. And they’re right, I guess. I caused a lot of harm, and I don’t want to gloss over that. But it’s funny what you can be forgiven for. My dad earned forgiveness for abandoning my mom because he had a successful second marriage. But I didn’t stop existing once he repented. To be honest, I can barely look at my brother sometimes. It’s not his fault. He’s a good enough guy. I don’t want to blame him for existing. I know how that feels. But I see his basic, normal life, every step right on time — college, job, house, nice wife, cute kids — and I wonder if that could have been me. Maybe I could have been a success too, with his advantages.”

Jill felt her way around her words. “I don’t know what you see in me. I can only see myself from the inside, and what I see right now is a hot mess. But I can see you from the outside, and what I see looks like a success. You have a little real-estate empire. You’ve been sober for ten years. You’re gracious and reliable and strong. You don’t let my mom provoke you. I don’t know if you realize how amazing that seems to me. You already are a success.”

“‘If I have not love, I am nothing,’ saith the apostle,” quoth Garrett, with mild bitterness. “I’m also thirty-five, unmarried, childless, alone.”

“I’m not a Scripture scholar,” said Jill with trepidation at having to essay a theological conclusion, “but I don’t think the apostle was writing about a Hallmark romance.”

Garrett burst out laughing. 

“Point to you,” he said, “or to the apostle.”

“While we’re talking about all the awkward things,” said Jill, distancing herself from the apostle, “what is it about your dad’s money? Why should my mom go on about it?”

“Because she likes to go about things,” said Garrett. “There’s nothing spectacular or unusual about it. My dad developed a conscience before he passed away, and felt like he owed me something, which he did. So he left the bulk of his investments and his local property to me rather than to my brother. His wife didn’t forgive me for that either, and we went a few rounds in court. I buy old buildings around town, and I restore them and rent them out.”

“So you’re responsible for maintaining the wholesome small-town charm,” said Jill.

“Wholesome, nothing,” said Garrett, suddenly on a soapbox. “There’s not much charming about Luxembourg these days. Do you know our county has a higher rate of overdose deaths than Cincinnati or Columbus? Do you know how the population has plummeted over the past decades? Do you know the stats on unemployment? We are a community without hope. But even people in rural, underpopulated, drug-addled Luxembourg deserve to be proud of their heritage. They deserve to have their history maintained instead of demolished to build strip malls that will decay in ten years. They deserve beauty.”

Jill’s pulse was pounding, her breath came in shallow gasps. Were it not for the restraint of her seat belt, and the effort of staying alive while operating a motor vehicle, she would have thrown herself into his arms.  She opened her mouth to say, “I love you,” but what came out, weakly, was, “Is it just me, or is it boiling in here?”

Garrett turned off the heat. “Look,” he said, “that’s the lights of St. Joe’s ahead. Vincero.”

Due to the vagaries of crossing the county line, Milton Corner was only at a level two snow emergency. St. Joe’s, on the outskirts of town, was on the cleared main road. A number of brave souls had trusted to God and the road crews and come out for midnight mass. Mother’s car was parked prominently near the church doors. Jill sent a reassuring text to Reagan and Del before she and Garrett crunched across the salty parking lot and slipped into a pew in the back of church.

Everyone was kneeling after communion as the choir warbled a carol. In the front pew, sleek and pious, Mother bowed her head, while Quennedey slumped sleepily beside her and droned along with the music. Jill knelt next to Garrett, and put her face in her hands. Relief and anxiety and anger and love and desire roiled around her stomach and tore at her head. So much for the peaceful Christmas spirit she’d had earlier that day. Here she’d done one brave thing and had one frank conversation and accomplished one mission, but it wasn’t good enough. How could she make Mother understand how much worry and terror she’d caused? How could she break through her facade? Jill’s slapping hand was starting to itch as she looked at Mother’s perfect posture. Make her understand. Make her hurt like I’m hurting. Lord, where’s my Christmas spirit?

She looked at the stable scene, with the chaos of shepherds and sheep and donkeys and oxen and Joseph bending over the mother and child to shield them from all commotion, and in the midst of them Mary contemplating only her baby Jesus, pinkly serene in his swaddling clothes. 

This is not your fight, the mother said to her.

Not literally. The mouth of the statue didn’t move, and the expression didn’t change. But Jill heard the words in a mother’s voice — not her own mother’s voice, and not her voice, which had never said anything maternal ever. It annoyed her. Why should it not be my fight? I want it to be my fight. I’m hurting. I’m a casualty. Why should I not strike a blow for justice and responsibility?

This is not your fight.

Heh, thought Jill. Whose fight is it, then? 

Let the baby handle it.

Oh my god, thought Jill for the umpteenth time that evening. What does a baby know about handling anything? She gaped at the plaster infant, more oblivious than any living child.  Indeed, there were living children in the congregation. A few pews in front of her, a real baby fussed and writhed as its mother sat and jogged him on her lap. You go, kid, thought Jill. You handle it.

“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see,” the choir sang in feeble harmony. Jill contemplated the baby in front of her as he were the baby Jesus. See baby Jesus suddenly buck and bang his Godhead on the pew in front of him. See his frustrated mother scoop him up and rush him down the aisle.  See the Godhead, veiled in flesh, bawling, big tears rolling down his screwed-up face. 

Poor little kid, Jill thought, as the screaming infant was swept past her. At least baby Jesus knows what you’re going through.

Mother seemed completely unfazed to see them after Mass. 

“So you came to church after all,” she said to Jill. “You might have told me beforehand. We all could have ridden out together.”

“We’re all going to ride back together,” said Jill lightly, borrowing a little Silent Night from the sleeping baby Jesus. “We’ll come back later in the week and get your car.”

The drive home was anticlimactic. Quennedey, oblivious to any snow emergency, slept. Jill, whose main desire was to get home safely, was now disinclined to pick a fight, and left the bulk of the conversation to Garrett, who mostly jollied Mother along. Jill was in a state of weariness in which her consciousness seemed to float above her body. Her hands moved the wheel as if on auto-pilot, steering the plow gently through the whiteness that extended on forever. In a daze, she escorted Mother and Quennedey to the front door where Reagan stood waiting with her arms crossed, tear-stained and white-lipped. This is not your fight, she thought as she pulled away again. This is not your fight.

On auto-pilot, Jill turned into Mother’s driveway and sat, heavy-lidded, as the lights of the parked plow illuminated the snowflakes against the backdrop of the house. Beside her, Garrett stirred drowsily. 

“Am I going home?” he mumbled. “My car is at the garage.”

“You can sleep in my bed,” said Jill.

“Ah?” said Garrett, opening his eyes. “And where will you be?”

“In Mother’s bed.”

In the hallway, they slogged to a stop under the mistletoe. 

“Merry Christmas,” said Garrett. As if on cue, they both yawned fit to split their heads open.

“Merry Christmas,” returned Jill, and they dragged themselves upstairs and shut their respective doors.


Home For Christmas

Family portrait drawn and given to me by several of the children.  The animals
are all plays on nicknames or favorite animals: Baby Groot, dragon, skunk, baby
shark, pigeon, giraffe, monkey.

Real life family portrait on Christmas Eve, in almost the same order, except that
Monkey is in front of me rather than at the far right and Pigeon is in front of MrsD

We had no visitors, but our house was full this Christmas. This has been striking me the last few holidays: We no longer feel like a small, satellite family staying home from the ancestral gathering with the larger family. We're starting to feel a lot more like the ancestral gathering itself. The older girls (the Big Three at 16, 15, and 12 this year) can be called in to tackle adult tasks in the kitchen and elsewhere, but if left to themselves they drift off to do their own activities. The youngest, at 18 months, is still of an age where he has to be watched, lest he pour someone else's drink on the floor or smash things with the wonderful toy sword someone left lying around, but it's starting to feel more like an older family with a few young kids knocking around than the reverse.

It's chaotic and takes some management. We didn't have dinner until around 7:00pm, and the cake for our Christmas baby turning five wasn't until nine. As we put it together I realized I'd failed to buy birthday candles. At nine o'clock on Christmas, that's a call for creativity rather than a quick dash to the store.

But all these, as I have often to remind myself, are still within the context of a very good time. Yet another golden year. When the one year old can't be calmed because he's cutting multiple molars at once, I have to remind myself to this, because it would be foolish to be ungrateful at a time like this.

These times are not earned. They are not guaranteed. I find myself looking back at the happy Christmases of my own youth. There is no revisiting the ancestral home of my youth. Not all broken families are broken by choice or moral failing. Some are broken by the relentless intervention of outside forces. Cancer broke ours. And it broke it as thoroughly as any other means. We survivors gather, but without that key missing piece -- Dad -- even though we all love each other the connections seem not to work like they used to. Where Dad used to be at the center of every conversation, now silence looms.

So I look around at our happy, healthy family and give thanks, knowing that there is no knowing how long it is given to us. Perhaps a year or two. Perhaps long decades stretching out before us.

This rift, the sundering seas that divide us, whether that divide comes from the brokenness of our lives or the brokenness of our world, is why Christ came to us today, a tiny baby born into obscurity and placed in a manger, a baby born into a world whose turbulence and cruelty is familiar enough around the world today. Christ came to triumph over death, and offer to us the promise that there is beyond this world a healed one, where the grey rain-curtain is rolled back, and we shall behold beyond a far green country under a swift sunrise. We are not meant to feel torn in two, but solid and whole, and we will be.

In the mean time, we have the promise of the Christ Child, and of Christ died and risen from the dead. We have, as this Christmas season reminds us, hope.

A merry and blessed Christmas to all you.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 14


But even Amita’s indomitable cheer found its Waterloo in the Inn’s finances. After a long day, she and Jill sat in the Luxembourg Inn’s restaurant, nursing mulled wine (both had turned down the opportunity to order the Yule Lager) and tension headaches. Across from them, Garrett resolutely downed a cup of the Inn’s signature coffee blend. Mother had insisted that a signature blend gave the Inn cachet. Mother had been gypped by her supplier.

“You’re never going to be able to fix up this place on the profits alone,” Amita said, her eyes fixed in gloomy reverie on the gold and avocado carpet.  “And it does need fixing up.”

Jill sloshed her wine around her mug. “Mother looks at the revenue and says, ‘All this money, we’re doing fine!’ But the revenue is plowed back into expenses, and there’s simply not enough profit, even after I’ve cleaned up the books, to make it possible for us to do upgrades. We’d need a loan for more than five years worth of profit to even begin to touch the upgrades the Inn needs to make more profit, and frankly, we’re a bad risk for any lender.”

“Also, your coffee is terrible,” said Garrett. Having no personal or professional stake in the Inn’s woes, he could have his little joke.

“If you want better coffee, why don’t you invest in the Inn?” snapped Jill, who privately agreed with his assessment.

“I invest in properties that I own,” said Garrett. “And your mother doesn’t want to sell to me, and you don’t technically own the Inn yet.”

Jill was about to retort that she wouldn’t sell it to him even if she did own it when a faint spicy hum of music, a breath of Bollywood, seemed to drone in her ear. She blinked and looked around, but she saw nothing out of the ordinary except Mr. Singh, who had just entered the restaurant. Jill made a mental note to have the doors checked: a draft was blowing Amita’s hair back from her face, and the sudden brightness made the colors of the restaurant swim and pop. 

“Mr. Singh, let me introduce you to my friend Amita, from Los Angeles,” said Jill hastily, shaking her head to clear it. “She’s here to help me with the accounting.”

“Amita,” Mr. Singh said, low and suave. “Charmed to meet you.”

“Mr. Singh,” said Amita, with lashes demurely sweeping her cheeks. “How do you do?”

“Won’t you join us?” asked Jill, feeling strangely like a foreigner in her family’s own inn. “We were just finishing up business.”

“Please excuse me,” said Mr. Singh. “I was just passing through. I’m going to take a walk outside.”

Jill looked outside, where the snow was dropping thickly. “But the weather…”

“I love the snow,” Amita breathed. “I’d never seen it before in my life before now.”

“Perhaps you will allow me the pleasure of showing you the grounds,” said Mr. Singh, extending his hand. And fantastically, Amita rose and, draping her coat over her shoulders, accepted it. Jill and Garrett sat open-mouthed as the two moved with graceful steps through the door.

“He’s a fast mover,” said Garrett.

“Did the sun just come out?” Jill asked. The sudden sparkling of flakes outside made the restaurant fade back into obscurity. As the last buzz faded from her ears, the Christmas tunes piped through the restaurant seemed flat.  She felt the weight of the Inn forcing her down into the ground. If only she could feel a warm salt breeze on her cheek. If only she could contemplate the vast expanse of the ocean.

“If only it would stop snowing,” she whispered.

“What?” Garrett said.

“If only it would stop snowing,” she said, louder. “No wonder the Inn is failing. Why would anyone visit a place where it never stops snowing? Why would anyone live in Ohio?”

“Not everyone can just walk away,” said Garrett, shrugging. “Some of us have jobs and family here.”

The old fury was flaring up in Jill’s chest. “For some of us, family is job. Working with Mother doesn’t just mean managing the Inn, it means managing her. I come out to do finances, I’m expected to declare my blind allegiance to anything Mother wants to do. Everything I do is related to the family business. Nothing is simple. Nothing is straightforward.”

Garrett was staring at her as if she’d begun to drool. “Jill, sometimes a job is just a job, even if it is attached to a family business.”

“What about you?” Jill demanded, suddenly angry at him because he was kind. “Where’s your independence? Where’s your objectivity? I thought you couldn’t stand your family, but here you are investing your dad’s money anyway.”

“It’s my money now, and well it should be,” said Garrett sharply. “What’s the matter with you? So you’re angry with your mother. It gives you no right to be gratuitously rude and throw my family in my face, which you don’t have any idea what you’re talking about anyway. Is this your modus operandi? When you’re unhappy you lash out at the person closest to you? It’s unattractive.”

“What the hell is modus operandi?” Jill shouted. “And why should I care if you don’t find me attractive? So I’m unattractive. Who cares? I don’t need a man to validate my appearance.”

“I didn’t say I don’t find you attractive,” said Garrett. “But your tactics right now are repulsive. Repulsive: that means the opposite of attractive, ergo, unattractive. Modus operandi: the way you work. I’m learning more than I’d like about that, at this moment.”

He stood up and put on his hat. “Call me when you’re in a better mood.”

Jill watched him walking away and wondered if she should wait to break down until she was in her room, or whether she should just complete her public disgrace and bawl right here in the restaurant. When Mother was cool in the face of a rage, it always seemed like she fully intended to be provoking. In Garrett’s case, Jill felt like he was actually disappointed. Disappointed not just in her words, but in her. What, he’d hoped for something deeper? Maybe he’d thought she was a professional, or some kind of emotionally competent person? Well, what if that was all there was to her — rage and reaction? Let him just walk away. See if she cared.

She cared.

She stood up to go after him, only to find herself confronted by a snow-blown Reagan.

“Do you even answer your phone any more? I had to walk all the way over here to find you, and now my hair is ruined.” By way of proof, she shook her lank locks accusingly at Jill. 

“Wear a hat,” Jill advised, in no mood to be sympathetic to the failure of Reagan’s blow-out at the expense of losing Garrett.

“Look, you’ve got to help me,” Reagan said, pushing Jill back toward the table she’d come from. “Mother is out of control. Did you know she’s been staying at my house? She’s rearranged my pantry, fired my house cleaner that I’ve had for three years, and opens my mail. I told her she needs to go home, but she cries about being near her loved ones. If you were staying at the house she wouldn’t need to suffocate me.”

“I’m not one of her ‘loved ones’,” said Jill flatly. 

“Oh my god, Jill, you can’t pay attention to anything Mother says. She just gets that way. She’d probably welcome you with open arms if you would just talk to her. It’s only fair to me.”

“If I would just…,” Could Reagan even hear herself? Did she realize how entitled, how disgustingly pampered she sounded? “I should be Mother’s punching bag so you can have a night off?”

“Yes, exactly,” Reagan agreed with relief. “I mean, tomorrow night she’s taking Quennedey to midnight mass, so I’ll get a little quiet time then, but otherwise…” She appealed to Jill with a gesture that was probably supposed to convey a weary candor. “I just can’t take any more of her, Jill. I’m just emotionally tapped out. Let’s work together, get her back home in time for Christmas. It’s what Daddy would have wanted.”

Jill was suddenly exhausted. “You should go home before it gets worse out there,” she said, rising from the table. 

“Think about what I’ve said.” Reagan zipped her coat with purpose. “It’s time of love and joy, not a time to hold grudges. Show a little Christmas spirit.” 

Jill showed her to the door. “See you later.”

Reagan paused in the doorway, for the first time seeming genuinely unsure of her words. “By the way, when I was coming in… I mean… does Mr. Singh dance?”

“Does he what?” 

“Never mind,” said Reagan hastily. “Only I thought I saw… It must have been a trick of the light.” 

Finally Jill was free to collapse face first on her bed and ponder whether even the Christmas spirit could paper over her mess of a life.


Thursday, December 20, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 13


Amita was enchanted by everything about Ohio — the flatness, the fields, the snow that fell relentlessly during the hour and a half ride from the Columbus airport. Jill nodded and smiled, but mainly she concentrated, white-knuckled, on keeping the car on the road. Small remote town living was charming until you were in a virtual whiteout, wondering when the next marker of civilization was going to appear, or if you were going to skid and die in a forest ditch in the middle of nowhere.

“So tell me all about everyone,” Amita demanded. “What happened with the ex-boyfriend?”

“Nothing, really. He’s a normal guy trying to run a business.”

“Anything going on there?”

“He has a wife and two kids. And we don’t have anything in common anymore, if we ever did.”

Amita collapsed in disappointment. “So much for romance.”

“Would you consider my mother’s real-estate nemesis an acceptable substitute? Smokes, has father issues and used to be an alcoholic, but is single and easy on the eyes.”

“Jill…” Amita scolded, fixed her with a stern eye. “Sounds like a bad bet to me.”

“He’s also patient and gentle and he says, ‘Ergo’.” 

“Points to him, I guess, but he still sounds kinda sketch to me.”

“And then there’s our man of mystery, Mr. Singh. Tall, dark, elegant, seems to know everything. Probably royalty. Certainly rich.”

Amita was not impressed. “I’d stick with the nemesis. At least he’s probably a real person.”

A real person. Amita was right that on paper, Garrett did sound like a bad bet. Jill was ashamed of herself for playing up his flaws, but they were really flaws. If she’d heard some man described that same way, she would have written him off as bad news, not worth the trouble of building a relationship. But Garrett himself, in in the fullness of his person, was very good news to Jill. He was more than his past, whatever it was. And he’d seen some fairly ugly sides of Jill herself and had not rejected her yet.

They had not seen each other since Mother’s rampage, but he had texted her the next morning to check on her, and they had been exchanging quiet messages on and off for several days. It was new and strange to be peaceful with someone — not just withdrawn or guarded or civil, but truly pacific. Garrett brought out this hidden quality in her. Was there anything hidden in him that only she could bring out?

There was space for lots of lovely meditation there, but Amita was pushing onward. “How about your mother? What’s going on with her?”

Jill sighed, her bubble of serenity burst. “How can you talk to someone who’s the center of her own universe? Nothing I say is right. But I’m going to finish this job anyway.”

“And then? Which of the guys do you pick?”

Jill snorted. “What do you mean, which do I pick? What is this, a Hallmark movie? Why should these men be my only options simply because they all reside in my hometown at this particular point on the space-time continuum?”

But Amita was an incurable romantic. “Los Angeles is full of men, but you’re still single. Maybe you’ve been subconsciously waiting for all these years to come back home.”

“You’re single too!”

Amita grinned and extended her arms to embrace the car, the snow, the blurred outlines that indicated that they’d entered the forest. “So it’s time for Ohio to work its Christmas magic on me!”

“I’m not sure you understand Ohio, or Christmas, or magic,” Jill humphed, but resist as she might, Amita’s cheer was piercing her gloomy soul. 


Purity Culture and Chastity

As I've grown older in Christian circles, I've heard a lot of negative re-assessments of what people have labeled the "purity culture" which held some sway in Evangelical and Catholic circles during the 1990s and early 2000s.  As with many terms, what this is applied to can vary.  I'll take it here to mean what I think is the most common usage, referring to a type of evangelization which was used to encourage teens to not have sex outside of marriage.  Since the goal was to encourage kids who had not yet had sex to avoid fornication, this evangelization tended to focus on teaching and rituals designed to emphasize the importance of maintaining the virginity which it was assumed the audience still possessed.

The rituals involved included the giving and wearing of "purity rings" (which symbolized a promise to remain pure until marriage), the signing of chastity pledges, proposals for replacing dating with "Christian courtship", and Father/Daughter purity dances (sometimes accentuated by white dresses for the daughters to symbolize the purity they were supposed to maintain.)

Teaching often focused on a purity vs. contamination metaphor for avoiding sex: Would you want to chew used bubble gum?  Would you want to drink from a bottle of water full of backwash?  Well then why would you want to marry a spouse who'd had sex with other people?  You should avoid having sex until marriage so your spouse won't feel like they're sleeping with lost of other people when they sleep with you.

As with many invented rituals, the rituals of the purity movement could be hokey, which more than any principled stand was why they didn't appeal to me at the time.  Looking back, however, what seems most problematic was the fact that the rituals but most especially the teaching placed such an emphasis on virginity that they seemed to hint that if someone did have sex before marriage, she was permanently contaminated and there was no path back to virtue and salvation for her.

A piece of gum, after all, really only has value as a thing to chew.  If it's already been chewed, it has no value and becomes something useless.  A person is unlike a piece of gum.  A person has value simply for being a person, made in the image and likeness of God.  A person who has sinned by choosing to have sex outside of marriage is not of less value as a person.  They have sinned, but their innate value and dignity is the same.  Because a piece of gum is good only for use (and only desirable for use if it's un-chewed) there's no sense in which a piece of gum can return to virtue.  However, for a person, no matter how many sins we have committed, it is always good to commit to not sinning again.  We never reach a point where we are so spoiled that it just doesn't matter if we sin any more.

None of these misinterpretations of these metaphors occurred to me at the time.  If you'd asked the teenaged me whether someone who had been unchaste once was ruined forever and thus might as well keep sinning, I would have said, "Of course not!"  But apparently plenty of emotionally vulnerable people did take these examples to mean exactly that, and the harm done was real.

To what extent the people who taught this way believed there was no recovery from sin is, I suppose, an open question.  Certainly, I remember lots of "I used to be a sinner, but now I've changed and I'm waiting to find the perfect spouse" testimonies that went around.  I even remember my native Los Angeles Times running an indignant and perplexed piece about how a local evangelical youth movement was encouraging high school girls with sexual histories to commit to "second virginity" and renounce further sex until marriage.  The author of the piece conceded that the youth pastors involved did apparently realize this didn't cause physical virginity to grow back, but they still seemed to find the whole thing to involve magical thinking.

But regardless, it's important that when people teach on behalf of the truth they do so in a way which conveys the truth as clearly as possible, and I think there's a good case to be made that many of these purity-based metaphors failed in that regard.

All of which is to say: I think there are legitimate complains to make against the 'purity culture' as it existed conservative religious circles in my youth.

That said, however, I want to poke at the confidence with which people reject it.  Because while some of the metaphors used to urge people to maintain their virginity were metaphors that tended to obscure the truth, I think it's worth pointing out that the project of encouraging young people who are virgins to remain so until they get married is not itself wrong.  The problem with these purity metaphors is not that they emphasized that fornicating was wrong, it's that they suggested that someone who had fornicated was then worthless or irredeemable.  However, encouraging someone to maintain their virginity until marriage is not in itself bad.  It is good.

Why should we say that avoiding fornication entirely (in other words, never voluntarily losing one's virginity until marriage) is a good and important thing?  Isn't that in and of itself over-emphasizing the importance of 'purity'?

Perhaps it's easier if we think for a moment about sins which it remains fashionable to consider always and everywhere wrong.

Is it important for a man to maintain the purity of never having beaten his wife?  Are we over-emphasizing the important of sinlessness and discouraging the sinners if we say that a man should never, ever, haul off and smack the woman he loves, no matter how bitter their disagreements?  Are we unfairly smearing men who've beaten just a few women if we suggest that women should consider a man who has beaten other women permanently suspect?  Are we suggesting that there's no forgiveness and thus writing such men off forever?

Of course, I would hope we all agree that it is not at all unreasonable to emphasize not just that guys should overall, most of the time, especially once they settle down, avoid hitting women too much, but rather that they never, ever hit women, that they not do it even the first time.  Why?  Because abuse is wrong.  Does that mean that a man who commits that sin can never be forgiven, that he has no value as a person and might as well keep doing it because there's no redemption?  No.  We emphasize that he should not sin in this way even once not because he'll cease to have human value if he sins, but rather because it's a bad, destructive thing to do and we don't want the bad effects of this sin to touch either him or the person he committed such a sin against.

Now, if we admit that fornication is in fact wrong and destructive (which as Christians we should) then clearly we should desire that any person for whom we wish the good (and we should wish everyone the good) not commit this sin even once.  In other words, we should wish them to maintain their virginity until marriage.

So while it's important that Christians avoid the use of teaching metaphors and rituals that suggest people only have value to the extent that they remain 'pure' for the later use of another person, encouraging young people to maintain their virginity until marriage is not something we should feel embarrassed to do.  It is a good and worthwhile thing to teach young people to avoid sin.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Christmas in Luxembourg, Part 12


The next day Jill moved into the Inn. She had gone to bed after the blow-up in shock, almost numb to anything but the memory of Garrett’s presence. But after a restless night she woke up shaking, in an incandescent rage. What had she done to merit having her very existence denigrated, by her own mother? How dare Mother make accounting a litmus test of love? How dare she foist the Inn on Jill as a punishment for being a disappointment? Maybe it was ridiculous to have come back to Ohio only to run away from the family house a second time, but Jill was damned if she was going to stay another night under the same roof with Mother. 

Jill didn’t put much stock in Mother’s threat to transfer the Inn to her, but as she was checking in at the desk, the manager pleaded for her help. The poor woman wrung her hands as she explained that Mother hadn’t come in that day and had said in no uncertain terms that Jill would be running the Inn from now on. Jill dismissed this as mere childishness, but no, it turned out Mother was serious, and on a day Jill had hoped would be a quiet time for reflection, she found herself signing off on purchasing decisions and interviewing new cleaning staff.

In the afternoon she had a call from Reagan.

“Why don’t you come over to my place tonight?” Reagan suggested, with a sweetness that put Jill on her guard. “Del and Quennedey and I were going to bake some Christmas cookies, and I thought you might want to join us. You know, have a little sister time.” 

Jill had had about all the sister time she could stomach, but the underlying note of hysteria in Reagan’s voice intrigued her. And so, that evening she found herself wrapped in a green apron with a big Rudolf nose pom-pom, rolling out cookies on a floury counter. 

“I wasn’t even 100% serious about building a new house,” complained Reagan, glancing around at the gourmet kitchen financed by alimony. “And now Mother won’t get off my case about it. She’s been calling me all day with plans and suggestions about how we should lay it out. She’s been talking to her lawyers about how to transfer the ownership. I thought she was serious about wanting to move to Florida.

“She wanted to move to Florida with Daddy,” said Del, settling on a stool. She didn’t like baking and wasn’t even pretending to help. “She’s falling apart without him. She depended on him to rein her in, and now that he’s gone she doesn’t know how to manage herself.”

Quennedey was underfoot, armed with cookie cutters. “Mom said Grandma was off her meds.”

Jill didn’t feel quite ready to talk about Daddy yet, or Mother without Daddy. “Why did you even bring up the land last night then?” she snapped at Reagan. “It’s not like you were obligated to even say anything.”

“You get to go back to Los Angeles. We have to live with Mother here,” Reagan said. “Anyway, I thought it might be a chance to put in a word about that land.”

“Why?” Jill demanded. “You’ve never cared about it before.”

Reagan made an elaborate show of vagueness. “Mr. Singh says that owning land is a solid investment.”

Jill flattened the dough with a vengeance. “And so you kissed up to Mother and left me holding the bag just to get a piece of stupid land?”

“Why not?” Reagan demanded. “What else has Mother ever had to give? Kisses? Affection? If she can’t behave like a human to her children, at least she could give us our inheritance before she completely demolishes it.”

“If you roll out those cookies any thinner, they’re going to burn,” said Del. “So you’ll get her to hand you her property, and then you’re planning to support her when she retires?”

Reagan blanched. “But she’s going to Florida!”

“On what money?” asked Del.

Jill finally let Quennedey shove her away from the dough. “Well, if that money is supposed to come from her properties, I guess it’s up to me.”

“I’m the only grandchild, so it’s all my money in the end,” said Quennedey, stamping out cookies with great satisfying thumps of the cutters.

Jill was determined not to do anything underhanded, so she scrutinized the accounts before she felt satisfied that she could call in a consultant. Then she phoned Amita.

“Hey, girlfriend, how’s snowy Ohio?” chirped Amita. “I’m so jelly.”

“Out of control. Even the old-timers can’t remember such a horrible year. Want an expenses-paid trip to see it for yourself?”

Amita’s enthusiasm carried all the way across three time zones.

“I can’t wait to see everything! I want to ride a horse and go sledding and eat chestnuts roasted on an open fire. What about the ex-boyfriend? Is he available? Has he been making your life miserable?”

“Who?” Jill’s mental wheels spun for a moment. “Oh, yeah. No, there’s no drama there. He’s been the least of my worries.”

“Well, your worries are over now! We’ll fix your books and taxes, and then we’re going to make the season merry and bright.”

Oh, the season would be bright, Jill thought. That glow is just my family burning down.