Thursday, December 13, 2007

Three Books for the Holidays

I recently found three new books I’d like to recommend:

I collect crèches. Recently Chicago’s Loyola Museum of Art presented an exhibit of over 100 crèches from around the world from the collection of James and Emelia Govan. What a great exhibit! I was quite surprised that I had seen none of the crèches shown. At the exhibit, I made sure I picked up the book written by the exhibitor, James L. Govan. Called Art of the Creche: Nativities from Around the World, this 208-page oversized book (11.3 x 9.8) is filled with large highly detailed color photographs of many of the pieces from the exhibit.

Italian artist Francesco Scarlatella created my favorite piece, a terra cotta family grouping of an old Joseph holding the baby in his lap, with Mary seated beside. The figures sit on volcanic stone from Mount Etna. A marvelous large vignette by Scarlatella of the wise men and family is shown in the book. Creches range from those of professional artists like Scarlatella to a myriad of folk art examples ranging from the abstract to complex, coming from such countries as the United States, Peru, Poland, Czech Republic, Mexico, Germany, France, New Zealand, Nigeria, Sweden, Swaziland, Thailand, Ghana, and Singapore (to name only a few).

I was struck by how each culture interpreted the basic details in their own image: the holy family become the common man, animals become those indigenous to the artist’s country, shepherds, and wise men. Each piece shown tells not only the story of the nativity, but also conveys much about the artist’s culture.

If you are fascinated with crèches also, you be sure to add this book to your library.

I found Terry Taylor’s book Artful Paper Dolls: New Ways to Play with a Traditional Form while on vacation in New York. Taylor has collected a large series of unique and artistic paper dolls done by a range of contributors, including Taylor. The 144 page book (10.1 x 8.7) is in full color. Including some history of paper dolls (such as, Katy Keene, Tom Tierney, original doll artists), traditional paper doll forms are contrasted with shadow box figures, wall hangings, memory dolls, accordion panel books, collage figures. The book is well laid out and offers the viewer lots of creative views of the paper doll form.

The third book is mine. Called The Paper Doll World of David Claudon, I’ve taken 17 sets of the paper dolls I’ve done over the last couple of years and put them in a large size (8.25 x 10.75) 163 page book complete with large full color pages. The book has a casewrap-hard binding. Among the subjects are The World of Samuel Pepys, Elizabeth I transformations, several Renaissance paper dolls sets--The Birth of Venus, Michelangelo and DaVinci, Shakespeare and Taming of the Shrew--Moliere, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, the World of Oscar Wilde and his Importance of Being Earnest, Theda Bara and her film Cleopatra, and Santa Claus. These are sets of paper dolls created in high detail using Adobe Photoshop CS2 and Corel Painter IX. Many of the sets have sold on Ebay. Well, here they are all collected together in book form.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Bring on the Tenors

I love to sing. I sing with a choir and cantor in church, but I realize how my voice pales listening to these young tenors. These are tenors I’d love to hear in concert.

Michael Ball – Prepare Ye the Way/Gethsemane

Mario Frangoulis – Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

Patrick Fiori with Lara Fabian – La Difference

Patrick Fiori - Juste Une Raison Encore [love the video]

Patrick Fiori – Il Parait

Josh Groban – You Raise Me Up

Powered by AOL Video

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Passion Play

When I was a child, my parents took me to see the American Passion Play presented by the Scottish Rite Temple, Bloomington, Illinois (I was surprised to see that it is currently being presented, now in its 85th year). In my childhood eyes, the play’s cast consisted of hundreds of people. The production told the story of the life and death of Christ—from birth to ascension, often quoting famous paintings in their telling of the story.

Drama can entertain. It can teach us lessons. It can make us think. Sarah Ruhl’s play The Passion Play, currently finishing its run at the Goodman Theatre, is filled with ideas for us to wrap our heads around. I have purposely avoided reading reviews or articles about the play in order to figure out what I think the play is about. To me one of the basic premises of the play is how we fashion and present the Passion of Christ. If the playwright is right, we do it through our visions of ourselves.

This is a play about dreams—what we want, what we fear. Mary (Kelly Brady) in Act I says, “All my life I’ve dreamed of playing the Virgin Mary.” Pilate says in the same act, “I dreamt of fish.” At the end of the play, we are admonished to go home and sleep because only after sleeping fully can we arise with a clear head and see what is reality.

The play is staged on a pine platform stage with large moveable boxes for walls with doors, a window, and a large pine trestle table. Above the walls runs a projection frieze used throughout the play to establish location.

We open to the sounds of the ocean in a fishing village still locked in the medieval view of the world, lying far from the Enlightened World of Elizabeth I. They catch fish here. They gut fish. They even dream of fish. At the end of the act, John the Fisherman who plays Christ strains in silhouette against a red sky pulling in his catch of fish while his dying cousin is carried off by a dream of a school of giant fish.

Our bridge character in Act I is a priest who has come incognito to view one of the last remaining Passion Plays. He becomes the adversary of Elizabeth I.

Throughout the play, a red sky becomes a motif of fear. “I can turn the sky red,” say both the Village Idiot and Pilate) In Act III, Pilate quotes the old adage, “Red sky at night sailor’s delight; red sky at morning sailors take warning.”

In the first act, Christ is portrayed (we are told) by the handsomest and most virginal man of the village (Joaquin Torres). His cousin (Brian Sgambati), limping like a Medieval Richard III or Iago, talks of wanting to kill his cousin—to literally nail him to his cross. “Why does he get to play Christ and I have to play Pilate?” he asks. This conflict becomes one of the motifs of the play--not that of the traditional Christ betrayed by Judas but Christ versus Pilate—Christ whose kingdom is not here on earth versus Pilate whose kingdom is.

Not only are the two men in conflict. The actress playing Mary Magdalene wants to play the Virgin, but the director tells her, “She looks like the Virgin. You look like a whore.” So we find ourselves stuck in roles beyond our own making. But not only are our play parts confusing. Mary Magdalene confesses the desire to kiss another woman—and does. The kissing is used in each act with great power.

The Village Idiot, played with great poignancy by Polly Noonan, wants to be in the Passion, but she is not allowed to until the actress playing the Virgin commits suicide. Then we see her performing the part of Eve—mother of all. The character of the Village Idiot becomes another motif shaped and reshaped in each act. It is she, of course, who sees and knows all and offers us some of the wisdom of the play.

Act I presents the first of the major symbols and motifs of the play: the fish. These larger than human-size fish are carried on like giant floats from a distant Mardi Gras parade. Actors ceremoniously carry the fish in (or are they swimming in?) as if performing in some somber medieval religious rite. The visual effect is stunning.

[A couple of weeks after the production I chanced upon a closeup picture of Peter Brughel’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights and from the center panel I was astonished to see the picture at left. At a seminar on the play I was told that this was one of the inspirations for the fish pageantry.]

We should note that the village consists of scores of hidden Catholics, and the symbol of the fish has for centuries been used as the sign of their followers. “Come with me,” says Christ in the Gospel, “and I will make you a fisherman of men.”

Another motif is a dream of sailing ships from which we desire protection. I assume they were inspired by the Spanish Armada which Elizabeth protected her people from? The march of ships—another ceremony repeated throughout the play--suggests the banners from the medieval ceremonies. It was strongly reminded me of the magic realism of Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves in his painting, “In Search of the Sea.”

The “flying ships” introduces another motif: an obsession with birds and flying. In Act I, the angel of the annunciation is given fantasical wings a la DaVinci and flown against his will up in the air. Are we to see an angel in the first act or perhaps a reluctant holy spirit? In the last act, Christ is flown without wings while op art clouds part to show an op art sun. A man dressed to suggest a bird in the second act can’t fly at all, but merely investigates and leaves—a threatening, vaguely malevolent figure wearing the wings from the first act, but wearing a triangular “bill” which gives the appearance of the gas masks of World War I. In the last act, the daughter who is said to draw pictures of birds, sees her father’s vision of the flying ships.

[When I was a child I went to see Jean Arthur in the Chicago production of Peter Pan. For years I dreamt of flying—my way of escaping my world. But my flying was swimming in the air, like a fish.]

In the production there are three ascensions: the angel of the annunciation in Act I, Christ in Act III and Pilate’s at the end.

Act II finds us in Oberamergau, Germany in the 1930s. The Jews have become the enemy of the “good people.” The Jewish priests are depicted as devils with horned headdresses. Our bridge character becomes a pacifist English spectator who has come to write a book about theatre, with a chapter on the Passion Play. His pacifist views counterbalance the views of Hitler who appears during the rehearsal of the production.

In Oberamergau, the production is only performed by members of families who have traditionally presented the plays. Christ is new—the young man’s father had essayed the role before but is too old now. This young Christ has trouble remember his lines and debates whether he even wishes to play the part.

The young Christ is in love—with the actor performing Pilate who is going into the German army. They have a long kissing scene which is observed by a few officer of the S.S. The officer has a scene where he asks Pilate to feel Mary’s buttocks. He then asks if he is aroused. When Pilate says he is not, he is warned that in Hitler’s army he must function as someone who gets aroused by women.

During the act, the young girl—the act’s village idiot—wants to be part of the production and watches rehearsal. She is told she can’t be part of the play because she is not one of them. When she feeds Christ incorrect lines, she is put in a cage. Later Christ frees her. Shortly after comes a dream sequence where a giant bird—one of the actors in the wings from the previous act and a funnel “beak”—comes and walks around her. He is not a savior, he seems menacingly, even malevolently inquisitive. At the end when the girl is told that she is to be taken away, Christ tells her that she must go, because “your blood is different.” When he attempts to take her away, she struggles and says that she wants to walk on her own. One of the obvious ironies is that it is Christ who gives her up, who betrays—and the other cast members end the act looking accusingly at the audience.

By Act II two questions become prominent:

· What is the role of a leader?

Pilate? Elizabeth? Hitler? Reagan? Christ? In each act, a ruler/leader stops the reality of the play—just as the director does in the inner play—to redirect, to focus to interpose his/her will. We are manipulated—directed if you will—by leaders who stop us from living the lives we want to live. Notice how much each enjoys the “acting” of the part.

Elizabeth in Act I doesn’t want the Passion Play presented because it supports the Catholic view. Hitler decides to allow the work because it disparages the Jews. Reagan welcomes what he sees as wholesome Christian values.

We’ll come back to this idea later.

· What is the role of art in our lives? What is the role of the actor? How does art translate our pain? How does the actor’s obsession with a role change the actor?

The Oberammergau Christ worries because his father’s face glowed and his doesn’t. The director tells him that audiences seeing the play have spent money to attend. They’ll believe his face glows because they’ve paid to believe.

The South Dakota Christ wants to change his acting style to be more real and the new director asks, how will the huge audience then see the emotions without the larger than life gestures? This is, after all, about the production, not about living life.

Research tells us that “Mystery or cycle plays were short dramas based on the Old and New Testaments organized into historical cycles.”

“Unlike morality plays, the cycle plays did not try to influence people to alter their behavior in any way to achieve salvation, but rather they were a celebration of the ‘Good News’ of the salvation preached by the apostles that had been granted through the Passion and Resurrection of Christ.”

The people in each act are presenting the Passion Play. Is this an obvious pun? Is it the Passion of Christ? Or the passion of his people?

In a panel discussion of the play, the actress playing the Village Idiot stated that Act III was the act that on first read through seemed the most complete and ready. It was only as the other two acts became refined that the act became more problematic.

In Act III we are in the 1980s in Spearfish, South Dakota. Pilate, in this case, marries the Virgin Mary and Christ, his brother, betrays him by sleeping with her. There is a sense of a much more episodic storyline since this act covers several years.

For me, the act becomes a descent into the mind of Pilate and we get further and further expressionistically away from reality. Perhaps this is one of the problems that some have with the act. This is not realism and not intended to be. It is perhaps all within the mind and dreams of Pilate.

The act returns to examination of the role of the leader. One of the strongest moments of the play comes when Pilate lies wounded on a battlefield in Viet Nam. Elizabeth I amid all her medieval pageantry enters and says to us:

I cannot fathom why any subject would be willing to die for any leader other than a monarch. What man would die for a leader who was not rushing to the battle-field with him—their blood soaking into the dust together. On the battle-field the monarch and the nation’s blood are one!

In contrast, the Ronald Reagan of Act III describes being a radio sports announcer who had to announce a game he wasn’t even at—he was fed his news through an earpiece. At one climatic point—when the feed is dropped—he makes up what he says. And that’s how he plays at being president. Our modern leaders must learn to act—watch The Queen. Who better to show us that than an actor who became president? Reagan reveals:

I never did serve in the military. But I feel as though I did. I made training films for soldiers, during the war. … Luckily I never sent my men into combat. It is a fearsome thing to do.

Pilate returns home, but as damaged goods, to find his wife and brother and the child he thinks is his but is his brother’s. Has he at this point become our Everyman? [Has he been that all along?] He says at one point, “I don’t want to be in the play anymore.” But in his delusions, he nails his own hand to the cross. So who is this Pilate? Does he represent all of us who think we are good but ultimately wash our hands of Christ’s suffering? Do we all think we want to play Christ until the play gets too close to our own lives?

The theme of infidelity and loss and betrayal runs throughout the act.

But we are also told that we need to hold onto our dreams. We share a need to have someone sleep with us, share our dreams. Pilate’s daughter, who might be Christ’s daughter, ultimately sees the same visions as Pilate—the ships and the fish. She too has listened for the wind. We long for ceremony and religion in our lives, even when we lose touch with God and organized religion.

In the end, the playwright suggests that we should mount the ships of our dreams and fly away holding onto whatever we think is real.

[For the pictures from this production, go to Photo Flash: 'The Passion Play' at Goodman Theatre.]

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Giving High-Fives

Teachers don’t stand at their doors here. That’s different than the public school I retired from where the administration “strongly suggested” [read often demanded] that we stand by our doors during passing periods. The reason there, of course, was that in the public school, fights, drug deals, harassment, and inappropriate behavior could be deterred by the visible presence of a teacher. Here we don’t have those problems.

One of the good things that grew out of greeting the students at the door happened quite by accident. During third quarter a student walking into my History and Thought of Western Man class was feeling goofy and gave me a high-five. When I responded, the student following him wanted one too. And so on… and so on. Within a couple of days students began expecting high-fives. If I was late getting to the door, they waited for me before coming in. It became a game of community—and fairly quickly the woman I taught with felt left out and joined in too. Each beginning of that class became a celebratory event.

After a couple of weeks, I began noticing that that class’ camaraderie was more visibly positive. They seemed to feel good about themselves and each other more than the other History and Thought class that didn’t do it.

When I questioned some students about their perception of a change and what they thought the high-five was doing, one young lady told me:

“You’re the first teacher who ever made me feel like you wanted me in your classroom. I came to class one day, embarrassed that I hadn’t read the assignment—and you still gave me a high-five. I didn’t feel like I deserved it, but you still made me feel like you cared that I was there.”

I’d like to report that her class grades dramatically improved. They didn’t. But what did change exponentially was her involvement with and interest in the class. She knew I cared more about her than her grades—and that made the class easier for her to take.

On my last day with that class, the students formed a long line so they could all give me one last high-five. It was the most appropriate parting present they could have given.

So two years later I’m at a new school where I’m very happy, but I realized today that I am one of the few teachers standing at my door. Last week I shared with my freshman class about the high-fives and they have now bought into their own tradition—a couple are very tentative, some smack my hand as hard as they can seeing if I’ll flinch, one even had to do it a couple of times today to make sure the sound and the hit was to his liking. It’s contagious also. The teacher who shares the room before me said the day we started it, “I want one too.” So now he and I also high-five a greeting as I walk in.

Call it goofy, hokey, whatever you want. But I’m going to be interested in seeing how the sense of community grows.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Returning to Teach

My attempt at full-retirement was a failure. I spent a lot of time feeling vaguely guilty that while others were working I was sitting around doing my art and writing. The Midwestern Middle-class Puritan Ethic my parents taught me was pretty hard to move beyond. When in Second Semester St. Ignatius College Prep’s administration asked me to cover for a maternity leave from last April through June, I jumped at the chance. Having taught in public school for 39 years, I suddenly encountered a brand new world where it is okay to talk about one’s own faith journey and I can actually teach a majority of students who want to be where they are.

As summer approached, I was asked to teach full time this year. I didn’t want to do it—after all I am retired. But when I was offered part time again—four classes first semester and three second—I was happily agreed.

So in August I rejoined the staff of St. Ignatius for the beginning of my 40th year of teaching. The first day of freshmen, 22 August, I walked in with them. Seniors acting as leaders had formed into a long gauntlet—a pretty intimidating prospect for a teacher, even more so for a freshman. But as students walked past the seniors, they were cheered and applauded—and buoyed up with comments such as, “We’re glad you’re here”…”welcome”…”you’re going to love it here.” I was walking behind two freshmen girls. As they entered the building a senior stopped one of the girls and said, “Those are very cool shoes.” Imagine hearing a compliment on your first day in high school instead of being thrown pennies or castigated with catcalls.

Each senior leader counsels five freshmen. Before opening day they had called all of their charges to wish them good luck and tell them they would see them. Once a week during homeroom, they now come and talk with the kids to see how things are going. This will be for the entire year. My freshmen seem happy to work with them.

Friday we had our first Ignatian Value Day. These are four days set aside each year to deal with issues of social change, growth and justice. Our theme was “Being Open to Change.”

The day started with an all-school Mass. Students were released according to their class. My freshmen came in at the end… and were greeted at the front door of the church by the President of the School and other administrators. Inside, all the students were applauding and cheering as my students walked down the center aisle and sat in the center pews. What a powerful message of welcome.

I should point out that St. Ignatius students worship at Holy Family Church, which is beside the school. The Church, one of the most beautiful in the city of Chicago, was originally constructed in 1857-1860 under the supervision of Fr. Damon, a Jesuit priest. Additions to the original church in 1862 and 1866 enlarged it to its present impressive size. Surviving both the fire of the 1870s, changing neighborhoods, and threats of demolition in the 1980s, the present church is both inspiring and awesome.

As the Mass began, near the front of the procession, four students carried 7 foot banners -- two in maroon and two in gold bearing the legends ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11—which were placed on the altar. Seeing the church packed with some 1300 students singing and worshipping was a great boost.

After a powerful speech by one of the teachers regarding his views about being open to change, the last part of the day was spent reflecting on the message. My freshmen set goals of ways to make change in class more positive. They will in the next two weeks try to get to know three people in class they don’t know right now. It’s small steps, but after the sense of inclusion they’ve experienced, I know they can build their own community of trust.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Power of Quasimodo

I have found a new passion.

I am currently reading Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (a title Hugo despised, preferring the French title Notre-Dame de Paris). Thanks to numerous movies (1923, 1939, 1956, 1982, 1996), most people have an idea of the story of Quasimodo, Esmeralda, her little goat Djali, Phoebus, Frollo and the poet Gringoire, but it is often a distorted version.

The literary bellringer of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo [for those non-French like me, it's "Kazimoto"], was named after the first Sunday after Easter when newborn babies were abandoned at Notre-Dame. He was 4 and considered by those who saw him a monster. During the majority of the novel he is twenty, with a shock of red hair on an over-sized head, his left eye small and the right eye covered over by an egg-shaped wart, teeth protruding from his horse-shoe shaped mouth, bandy-legs, lame, deaf from the bells, and malevolent. As Hugo describes him:

Rather, let us say, his whole person was a grimace. An enormous head covered with red bristles; between the shoulders a great hump balanced by one in front; a system of thighs and legs so curiously misplaced that they only touched at the knees, and, viewed from the front, appeared like two sickles joined at the handles; huge splay feet, monstrous hands, and, with all this deformity, a nameless impression of formidable strength, agility, and courage—strange exception to the eternal rule, which decrees that strength, like beauty, shall be the outcome of harmony.

Such was he whom the Fools had chosen for their Pope. He looked like a giant broken and badly repaired.

Quasimodo falls in love with Esmeralda, a 16-year-old gypsy after whom all men seem to lust. The man she loves, Captain of the Guards Phoebus, already has a fiancé who is older than Esmeralda, named Fleur-de-Lys. Claude Frollo, idolized by Quasimodo, is a gifted scholar and churchman who learns love by caring for his rebellious orphaned younger brother and Quasimodo, but then he finds himself lusting after the young gypsy. Finally, Gringoire is a poet vagabond whom Esmeralda marries to save from being hanged by thieves.

I came to read the novel by one of those circuitous serendipitous internet journeys which Google seems to delight in providing. I was on looking for snippets from Hairspray, which I saw last week and truly enjoyed. That search led somehow to Lara Fabian’s I Will Love Again. After watching her video Le Difference, I next found a duet of the same song between Fabian and Patrick Fiorri. Not having heard of Fiorri, I checked his other links, which brought me to Belle from the 1998 musical, Notre Dame de Paris. If you are like me, you don't know about this musical either. Bewitched by Garou’s appropriately gravelly voice [Hugo describes Quasimodo's voice as "harsh and gutteral"], I found myself drawn into the pathos of the bell-ringer's plight. I spent one afternoon this week watching every clip I could find from it.

The 1998 French-Canadian musical Notre Dame de Paris debuted in Paris and had the most successful first year of any musical, according to the Guinness Book of Records. If you haven’t heard the musical, promise me you will check out each of the following numbers before you judge it:

  • Temps de Catedrali--Notre Dame de Paris, song 1

  • Belle--Notre Dame de Paris, song 19

  • Les Cloches--Notre Dame De Paris Act 2 Song 2

    One of Hugo’s most stirring moments (showing Hugo’s power of description) comes in Book IV, Chapter 3, the chapter on Quasimodo and his bells, especially his riding the Big Maria, becoming the soul of the cathedral. The song captures that same intensity of feeling.

  • Les Oiseaux Qu’on Met En C--Notre Dame De Paris Act 2 song 4

  • Liberes--Notre Dame De Paris Act 2 Song 14

  • Lune--Notre Dame de Paris Act 2 song 15

  • Danse Mon Esmeralda--Notre Dame de Paris Act 2 song 23

Note: one of the conventions of this production that I had to get used to is the use of head mikes. Ignore them and enjoy the music.

To see a Russian interpretation of Belle, check out

Finding the clips from the musical on YouTube spurred me on to not only order the DVD but also to read the original book for the first time. Hugo’s book was published the year after his infamous play Hernani was presented (and created one of the first riots that a performance has produced between the Classicists and the Romantics). Hugo was calling for a new kind of literature (Romanticism) which began to look at lower classes and the grotesque.

Hugo is a great storyteller once you get through his love of local color and travelogue detail. Rising above it all is the passion of the tortured Quasimodo which definitely rings true and his love for Esmeralda which brings a humanity to the grotesque. If you haven’t read the book, pick it up tomorrow. This English teacher will be delighted.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Signet Classics)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Enjoying Shrek 3

One of my freshman's reviews of Shrek 3 was that it wasn't very funny, so I was bit cautious when I went to see the movie today. After seeing the movie I understand why she would feel the way she did--and why I totally enjoyed the film.

The film feels much less a kid's movie than the first two films. Like before, there are all sorts of visual quotes and references that knowledgable adults could enjoy. At one point, for example, as Prince Charming is preparing a stage production, a group of dancers in the background are doing a Chorus Line routine while Charming wears pink dancer's warmers. At another point, Shrek, who has gone to find Arthur (as in Camelot/King etc.), finds him jousting with --and losing to-- Lancelot. Artie has a thing for Gwen. When they come across Merlin, he's projects himself like the Wizard of Oz and wears a hospital gown length robe. I'm sure that since many high school kids have only vague ideas of who Lancelot and Guenivere are, the humor is lost on many kids.

One of the things I enjoyed seeing as a graphic artist were the textures--the beautifully modeled skins of the people and Shrek, Shrek's knitted shirt and homespun clothing, the hair of Charming and Artie-- and the detailed matte paintings.

I had fun with the film and laughed a lot.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Lessons of Dickens' Christmas Carol

When I was around 9 or 10 years of age, my mother took me to see a lavish production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the Bloomington [Illinois] Scottish Rite Consistory. The Consistory was—to my young mind—a huge theatre and the play seemed peopled with hundreds. It proved one of the cherished memories of my youth. I remember being vaguely disappointed as an adult with the more modest production Goodman Theatre presents in Chicago.

The 1950's script as I think back on it might have come directly from Dickens' novel. It was all there—from Scrooge's small office and his bedroom to a vast Anglican Church scene where Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit attend and watch a Christmas Eve service. I remember I was amazed at the number of people on stage and how vast the whole thing seemed—complete with procession of priest, acolytes, swinging censures and rich fabrics. The warehouse scene with the dancing was another favorite memory. Whether I have added actors over the years or whether it was a cast of hundreds, I don't really know. But I can still see some of the moments some 52 years later.

Currently I am teaching British Literature at St. Ignatius College Preparatory High School in Chicago. Finishing up with the Romantic authors, I could not ignore Dickens, but with only a few weeks left to the semester, his long works seemed too complex for the time frame. I chose to teach A Christmas Carol for several reasons: it was short, it is an iconic work that still shows off Dickens' humor and plotting, and Dickens' messages seem to reinforce the school's focus on social justice.

One critic credits Dickens with single-handedly “saving” Christmas. His work, which was quite popular from its publication in 1843 onward, helped define many of our concepts of what “keeping Christmas” in one's heart means.

As one of the culminating activities for my students, I had them list as many of the lessons as they could that Dickens teaches us. Here are only a few—some students came up with 50:

  • Lesson One: The needy are our responsibility.

Before Marley appears, Scrooge shows his reaction toward the poor and mankind in the scene with the men soliciting donations.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I'm very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can't go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don't know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It's not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It's enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Marley tells us that it is our duty “to walk among mankind” doing good while we are alive. If we don't we'll be forced to do it after death.

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!” … “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

  • Lesson Two: Remember the past.

Early on in his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge returns to the school where he was deserted as a boy. Scrooge cries during the scene.

The Spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man's sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten!

“Your lip is trembling,” said the Ghost. “And what is that upon your cheek?”

Scrooge muttered, with an unusual catching in his voice, that it was a pimple; and begged the Ghost to lead him where he would.

“You recollect the way?” inquired the Spirit.

“Remember it!” cried Scrooge with fervour; “I could walk it blindfold.”

“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years!” observed the Ghost.

In a wondrous scene, Scrooge sees his younger self reading and outside the window can be seen the book companions who kept him company--Ali Baba, Valentine and Orson, the Parrot, Robin Crusoe and others. He finds himself thinking of a young boy caroler who he treated badly. He delights in watching Fezzwig's party. He feels the loss of the woman he loved. The past lessons show him all he has missed.

  • Lesson Three: Celebrate the season with song and music.

Early on Scrooge encounters a caroler already mentioned:

Foggier yet, and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

"God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!"

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.
When returning with Christmas Past to Old Fezzwig's, he watches several dances, which delight Fezzwig's employees.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

As he watches his nephew Fred and his house celebrate, they finish dinner and turn to music.

After tea, they had some music. For they were a musical family, and knew what they were about, when they sung a Glee or Catch, I can assure you: especially Topper, who could growl away in the bass like a good one, and never swell the large veins in his forehead, or get red in the face over it. Scrooge's niece played well upon the harp; and played among other tunes a simple little air (a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes), which had been familiar to the child who fetched Scrooge from the boarding-school, as he had been reminded by the Ghost of Christmas Past. When this strain of music sounded, all the things that Ghost had shown him, came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley.

  • Lesson Four: Decorate your houses.

The shock of the Ghost of Christmas Present for Scrooge is that his home is for the first time decorated for the season.

It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge's time, or Marley's, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly Giant, glorious to see; who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty's horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

  • Lesson Five: Celebrate with feasting.

Christmas dinners are lush affairs for Dickens.

The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocers' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and bloodthirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.

Even the poor Cratchits can enjoy a feast of goose:

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs. Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn't ate it all at last! Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows!

The goose is followed by the revered plum pudding:

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook's next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered—flushed, but smiling proudly—with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs. Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.

  • Lesson Six: Honor the family.

The scenes with the Cratchits and Fred and his wife show the depth of feeling that families bring their members.

  • Lesson Seven: Protect children.

The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children under his long green gown.

“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

One of the most touching scenes no one usually knows from the book is Bob Cratchit sitting alone with Tiny Tim's dead body, having returned from looking at the grave where he will be placed.

He left the room, and went up-stairs into the room above, which was lighted cheerfully, and hung with Christmas. There was a chair set close beside the child, and there were signs of some one having been there, lately. Poor Bob sat down in it, and when he had thought a little and composed himself, he kissed the little face. He was reconciled to what had happened, and went down again quite happy.

[It is this scene of true pathos and emotion for Tim's loss that makes such a heart-felt contrast to Scrooge's discovery of the deserted and empty rooms where his body lies. No film has chosen to show this scene, but the power of it shows Dickens' wisdom in including it.]

  • Lesson Eight: Forgive others.

Fred forgives his uncle his eccentricities and on Christmas Scrooge is quickly accepted as part of Fred and his wife's family.

  • Lesson Nine: Take care of others.

Some of Dickens' contemporaries were shocked and uncomfortable with his was suggestion of the duty of employers have toward their employees.

“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you, for many a year! I'll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!

  • Lesson Ten: Empathize with the lives of others.

Scrooge worries about the illness of Tiny Tim. With Belle and her husband he learns all he might have had with children.

  • Lesson Eleven: Spread peace and joy.

This might be interpreted as entertain others, laugh and celebrate with games and laughter. Fred and his household play blind-man's bluff, forfeits, How, When, & Where, and Yes or No:

It was a Game called Yes and No, where Scrooge's nephew had to think of something, and the rest must find out what; he only answering to their questions yes or no, as the case was. The brisk fire of questioning to which he was exposed, elicited from him that he was thinking of an animal, a live animal, rather a disagreeable animal, a savage animal, an animal that growled and grunted sometimes, and talked sometimes, and lived in London, and walked about the streets, and wasn't made a show of, and wasn't led by anybody, and didn't live in a menagerie, and was never killed in a market, and was not a horse, or an ass, or a cow, or a bull, or a tiger, or a dog, or a pig, or a cat, or a bear. At every fresh question that was put to him, this nephew burst into a fresh roar of laughter; and was so inexpressibly tickled, that he was obliged to get up off the sofa and stamp. At last the plump sister, falling into a similar state, cried out:

“I have found it out! I know what it is, Fred! I know what it is!”

“What is it?” cried Fred.

“It's your Uncle Scro-o-o-o-oge!”

Which it certainly was. Admiration was the universal sentiment, though some objected that the reply to “Is it a bear?” ought to have been “Yes;” inasmuch as an answer in the negative was sufficient to have diverted their thoughts from Mr. Scrooge, supposing they had ever had any tendency that way.

“He has given us plenty of merriment, I am sure,” said Fred, “and it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, ‘Uncle Scrooge!' ”

“Well! Uncle Scrooge!” they cried.

Later, in his long evening with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge sees other happy families celebrating.

Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery's every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door, and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts.

  • Lesson Twelve: Learn from one's mistakes.

It is in the presence of the final spirit that Scrooge realizes his lessons.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am
not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this
intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

And Scrooge does, of course. He learns the lessons well, and according to Dickens, “ it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Friday, February 02, 2007

Researching Family

I’m a genealogist. I couldn’t have escaped from being one. My mother made scrapbooks after scrapbooks, her mother neatly put together photo albums with the names neatly written in, and my father’s mother created two notebooks with both her family lines. My interest was sparked when my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer and I realized her knowledge of the family would disappear unless I got her to talk. She kept resisting saying she didn’t know any stories about the family. So I tricked her. I got the oldest family album and asked her to tell me about the people in the pictures. I sat with a tape recorder and began an in-depth introduction to my family.

Four months ago, I realized I had misplaced the research that took me almost 10 years to collect. Using, I began to reconstruct that research. After four months I have more than I had—and I didn’t have to drive three states like I did then. [Plus back in the 1970s I didn’t have the 1900, 1910, 1920 & 1930 censuses available.] Ever the researcher, I’m as interested in my collateral ancestors as I am my direct lines. So far I’ve connected 4100 names—and I’m still working. I even have four Revolutionary War soldiers. I’ve used censuses, obituaries, news articles, family histories, photographs, tombstones, public records—and the search continues. As any genealogist can appreciate, I stand on the shoulders of all those who went before and kept records.

Feeling the need to renew my roots, I visited my hometown yesterday, photographing the locations of my ancestors and the graves of 4 great-great-grandparents and 8 great-great grandparents and their children. I began at a small country cemetery, Evergreen, in Lawndale Township, McLean County, Illinois. With probably fewer than 125 graves, the solitary tree and melancholy tombstones stand alone among the flat barren cornfields. (In fact, I could see the cemetery long before I reached by the lone wild pine tree that towers over it.) When I first visited the cemetery in 1973, I found the family tombstones without a problem and was able to read them. Since that visit, some local yahoos have knocked over all the smaller stones so that many are broken and some are no longer readable, making the place feel even more melancholy.
Driving back into Lexington, I stopped at The Fort, home of the Lexington Genealogical & Historical Society. Spearheaded by the late Verda Gerwick, known locally as the “tombstone chaser,” this hidden gem provides the serious genealogist working on McLean, Livingston, Ford, and Woodford a wealth of information. In what other location could you find cemetery records that include the person’s obituary? Back in the early 1970s when the LGHS began publishing their magazine, I enthusiastically edited the first issue for Verda. She helped inspire me to enjoy the thrill of the research, connecting names to facts. It was a delight to spend a couple of hours with volunteer and president, Dennie Hieronymus. [Check out their website at}

Returning home I felt recharged and ready to continue the hunt.