Thursday, December 24, 2009

Skywatch Friday: In the Bleak Midwinter?

It's Winter Solstice week here in the Northern Hemisphere of Planet Earth.

In North Texas, however, there have been few signs of winter, except for today's promise of a white Christmas. My Skywatch Friday sequence focuses on the old saw, heard repeatedly among oldtimers in this neck of the woods: If y'all don't like Texas weather, wait a minute; it'll change.

On the eve of the solstice I took the shots that open the post: pretty white clouds, contrails deformed by high winds aloft, and moderate temperatures.

On the actual Solstice, I tried to capture the sunrise, but gave up because it was too hard to get between the power lines across the street, and it wasn't all that spectacular anyway. I did record the morning sun on the bare tree trunks, and later got the evening sun doing the same thing, from a different direction. The first photo was taken facing north; the second facing east.

On the 22nd, change was in the forecast, and the first of two fronts began to move in. Darker clouds formed to the west, although the weather remained unseasonably balmy for another full day. (Folks were walking their dogs yesterday afternoon, wearing shorts. The folks; not the dogs). We even got a bit of color in the evening.

Last night the harbinger of the Big Storm (we get very excited about weather around here) came through, and as we drifted off to sleep we heard claps of thunder to the north. Morning dawned misty and dreary, but still not terribly cold. The temperature dropped quickly, however, and now at 2 pm CST it's 2C and snowing.

Nothing is sticking, but if the temperature plunges much more it will, and we'll have snow for the "puppies" (our dogs and my daughter's behemoth) to play in Christmas morning. If you squint (or enlarge the photo), you can see some flakes against the tree trunk below. This is actually our second snow since the beginning of Fall, but this one promises to stay around a bit longer if it actually keeps falling for a while.

To all visiting Skywatchers who celebrate it, have a happy Christmas. And in case I'm too busy grumbling about something next week to post celebratory photos, have a good New Year as well.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Thanksgiving in Deep Ellum

As usual for this time of the year, I'm immersed in a flood of exams and projects to grade, so I have to fall back on earlier photos if I want to post this week.

I mentioned in the Cabinet that we spent Thanksgiving with Little Owl and some of her friends, and her enormous mutt, Homer.

They live in a converted cotton gin, in an historic part of Dallas near the lower part of Elm Street, commonly known as "Deep Ellum." The loft is huge and, of course, since Little Owl has a BFA in interior design, spiffily decked out. It also has a grand view that takes in both Fair Park (hence the flagpoles in the first shot) and downtown.

When I noticed that a sunset was happening, I grabbed the Nikon and got the shots included here. I've lately become interested in the juxtaposition of technology and nature in photos, and these are good examples of how nature manages both to manifest itself and visually conquer all of the industrial detritus we've thrown up against the sky.

These aren't the kind of pictures I like to post, but they represent the inescapable reality of urban living. And, quite frankly, I think they're a good deal more honest than the sentimental sunsets in suburbia I usually contribute.

Happy Skywatch Friday, folks. I'll try to get some Solstice pictures on Monday for next week's entry.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Skywatch Friday: If on a Winter's Evening

Last weekend I bought Sting's lovely new(ish) album, If on a Winter's Night, filled with atypical tunes for the season. I played it Wednesday, and that evening caught a terrific sunset after a few rather bleak days. Of course, it's not quite winter, according to the calendar, but by my reckoning, the so-called "first day of winter" (the Solstice) should really be called Midwinter's day, since it marks sun-return, and growing amounts of daylight henceforth.

Whether or not it's officially winter, it feels like it. It's so cold everything's dead, the water in the metate is frozen, and birds are having at the pyracantha. But if we keep getting sunsets like this, I'll stay content.

The first shot is directly out the back. The second (below) shows the remains of a contrail, suffused with pink light.

Hope everyone's Skywatch Friday is as lovely--and thanks again to our ineffable team.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Gift

This season really brings out the bah-humbuggish curmugeon in me, primarily because of all the noise emitted from the television, the sound systems in stores, and the consummate waste generated in the newspapers by all the advertising.

The older I get, the less I like Christmas--and this isn't just because I'm a Jew. I was, after all, raised by a passel of nuns and a more-or-less believing mother. I don't like Hanukkah hype any better, since this once-simple, lovely holiday has become a Christmas clone.

What dominates the modern notion of Christmas is the sheer excess of it all: shoppers camped out overnight on Thanksgiving to snag a bargain at Buy More on "Black Friday"; the incessant, stale, monotonous Christmas carols played endlessly in all public spaces; the wreath-laden SUVs and Hummers in this region; the constant pleas for overindulgence in food, drink, and buying in general. There are reports going around that people are spending less this year because of the economy, but this town doesn't seem to have gotten the word.

I'd much rather celebrate the Solstice, and welcome the sun back, with its promise of longer doses of daylight. I'd much rather have a few people over for good, simple food cooked slowly and lovingly. I'd much much rather sit in front of a fire on a cold morning, snuggled up to Beloved Spouse and/or dogs, with a good cuppa to warm my frigid hands (it never does get above 60F in this house during winter). I'd much rather read a good book than watch another crappy Christmas "special" on the telly.

Apparently I'm not the only one who's getting annoyed by the situation, and especially about what has happened to the idea of a gift.

George Will's column for November 26 hit the old mole on the nose: The Gift of Not Giving, in which he reviews a book by Joel Waldfogel called Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn't Buy Presents for the Holidays. The bottom line here is that we do such a bad job of choosing gifts for people that it's actually bad for the economy and bad for our relationships as well because the process generates both ill will and a net loss in value. We'd apparently be better off simply spending the money on ourselves.

The most disappointing thing about the season these days is the way gift-giving has deteriorated into filling a list of demands or bad ideas about who might want what. In Judith Martin's Miss Manners column last Saturday, one writer mentioned the absurdity of having relatives ask for a list of what she wanted for Christmas. Now, I can understand why a parent might ask a child to "write to Santa" so that said parental unit might be able to fulfill a wish or two. But if one is exchanging gifts with friends or relatives, is it too much to ask that they know you well enough to be able to buy a suitable gift?

I once had a mother-in-law who was always spot-on in her gift-giving. But that was because she had tons of money and an equal amount of time to shop the catalogues. She always got me "earth mother" presents, and was equally good at sussing out what other family members would enjoy. I usually tried to make stuff (jam, flavored olive oil, baked goods) because we didn't have much money to spend. Occasionally we'd try something different, like the year we bought old books for everyone (an aged medical text for a doctor, vintage kids' books, that sort of thing), but eventually we ran out of time and ideas.

So we decided to donate what money we had to spend to a charity, settling on Heifer International and presented everyone with Christmas ornaments that matched the animal chosen that year: chicken ornaments the year we gave flocks of chickens, llamas when we chose a llama--this year it's water buffaloes. Miss Manners isn't sure she likes the idea, because the donor gets a tax deduction (good for us--but it's a drop in the bucket), and the recipient might not approve of the charity. But, no, we don't send a check to Planned Parenthood or some such organization that might well annoy the few folk we still give gifts to. Heifer is safe because it can't offend conservatives or liberals; it's actually a great outfit because it does real good and was founded on good Christian values.

Although we still give our children gifts, they share our social values and appreciate gifts that don't exploit the environment or other people. We buy them durable things we know they will enjoy, and we actually enjoy shopping for them. The big difference between now and when they were younger is that, except for the Solstice/Christmas/Hanukkah season, we don't buy for specific occasions. Instead, when we come across something we know they will enjoy, we buy it and give it then. This way everybody gets something out of the experience, and we don't have to endure the holiday crush, cranky children, and stressed out parents in stores.

As Lewis Hyde describes in his wonderful book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (now subtitled Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World), gift-giving among tribal peoples is a cultural exchange of meaning, not of capital: the gift must always move, as Hyde points out. "You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away."

Ideally, a gift comes from the heart; even better, it comes from the hand: the best gifts I have ever received have been made by hand: warm afghans knitted by my grandmother, a pair of stone bookends made by my grandfather, a scarf my daughter-in-law made for me, a handy carrier for casseroles sewn up by my step-mother, things baked or canned by friends. But many of us can't make much any more, being, as we are, so remote from craft traditions that would once have allowed for the gift of a carved bowl, or a thrown pot.

So the next best thing is to choose carefully. And this is my proposal for future gift giving in my immediate family. Keep up the Heifer donations and the ornaments. But for spouse and children, a single gift chosen for its pleasure value: a bottle of great Scotch, a book, a beautiful object (preferably with a use), a dinner at a good restaurant, a beloved film on Blu-ray.

If more of us did less, we might gain back a little of what gift-giving meant to us as children (as long as we weren't spoiled silly by over-indulgent parents). If I had grandchildren, they'd get hand-made stuffed dragons or Froebel gifts. And they'd be invited into the kitchen to revive a tradition of holiday cookie-baking and decorating.

I really do think that by refusing to buy in excess and buy into over-indulgence we'll actually enable ourselves to enjoy a much more uplifting season--and I just might smile occasionally, and perhaps even shed a bit of my grinchy demeanor.

Image credit: Once again I find that Carl Larsson's wonderful paintings of family life in Sweden at the turn of the nineteenth century evoke some of the qualities missing from modern life. This is Christmas Eve, from 1904, via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Skywatch Friday: Squirrels!!

One of my favorite bits in the wonderful animated film, Up! has to do with talking dogs.

These dogs can actually carry on a technologically mediated "conversation"--at least until one of their tiny little brains is distracted by passing vermin. "Squirrel!" is a signal for all talking dogs to forget what they're talking about and attend, if only momentarily, to a passing distraction.

Now, my yard is heavily populated by fuzz-tailed tree rats who seem to have great fun distracting my own dogs. But the other night (the same one mentioned in my previous post) I caught them having fun amongst themselves, running hither and thither through the branches of overhead trees.

The waxing gibbous moon provided a nice backdrop to their antics.

It's now much colder, and even snowed briefly yesterday morning. More snow is in the forecast for tomorrow. Maybe I can catch the little monsters running through the snow for next week.

Happy Skywatch Friday, and thanks once again to our best-beloved team for gathering us all together to share skies.