Christmas display

Usually, I have an attitude of “bah humbug” when stores debut their Christmas displays before Thanksgiving. In my mind, displaying too much Christmas too early simply pushes the hand of time, and that’s never a good thing. Instead of pushing consumers to think about Christmas months before the first snowflake falls, I personally believe businesses and their customers alike should follow “a predictable and leisurely seasonal succession, with September bringing fall foliage, October bringing pumpkins, November bringing turkeys, and December bringing Santa.” No need to rush into a season that will arrive on its own eventually.

All that being said, I make a blanket exception for the Christmas shop windows at Creative Encounters, an art-supply and frame shop on Main Street in downtown Keene. Over the years and in various seasons, I’ve taken lots of pictures of their window displays. The windows at Creative Encounters aren’t large, but they are always colorful, interesting, and attractive. Just as the mannequins at Miranda’s Verandah always catch my eye, I always find myself admiring whatever is on display at Creative Encounters.

Christmas display

The Christmas windows at Creative Encounters debuted last week, more than a week before Thanksgiving, and I for once am not complaining. On these dark and increasingly gray days, I’m grateful for the spot of color and sparkle these well-designed windows offer. This year’s display at Creative Encounters features a three-sided kiosk that rotates before a wall with several framed mirrors, an arrangement that highlights the various products on sale while also providing a moving, changing display of colors, shapes, and reflections. It might sound strange for me to admit that I stood several moments so I could see the colorful kiosk cycle through its various arrangements, but I wasn’t the only one. Before I could approach the window to snap these shots, Reggie and I held back for about five minutes while a woman and her daughter stood transfixed in front of the display, watching the artfully decorated kiosk turn around and around, offering a kaleidoscopic allure of light and color.

Sniff & shoot

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do. On Christmas day J and I drove Reggie and Melony the beagle into downtown Boston, where we left the car at a Back Bay parking meter and took a several-hour stroll down Boylston and Newbury Streets. J and I wanted to see the sights and snap photos; Reggie and Melony wanted to sniff and pee. To each her or his own, right?

No sooner did J and I pass Copley Square on Boylston Street than we encountered a slow-moving truck emblazoned with Christian condemnations. "Christians in the Bible never celebrated Christmas," block letters on the truck proclaimed. "How can you honor Jesus with lies about Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and drunken parties?" To drive the point home, this Hellfire-Mobile had a loudspeaker with which the driver preached his message of condemnation to passing pedestrians. Why greet random strangers with a friendly "Merry Christmas" when you can shout "You're going to hell" instead?

You all are going to hell

Christians in the Bible never drove trucks with loudspeakers and damning slogans stenciled on the sides. How can you honor Jesus with drive-by words of hate? J and I have been around separate segments of the evangelical block: whereas I was raised Catholic and was “born again” as a college undergraduate, J was raised Catholic and became a Baptist as an adult living and working in Georgia. Currently, neither one of us attends church, but we aren’t antithetical to Christianity, either; we just don’t drive around with Christian slogans emblazoned for all to see. If choosing to take a quiet walk with your dog and digicam constitutes a damnable offense–if what God wants His followers to do instead is drive around yelling at people–then I guess J and I should get ready for a warmer climate. Let it be done to me, Lord, as you say.

Luckily, not all of the characters J and I encountered on our Christmas dog-walk were as “colorful” as the Drive-by Christian. Instead, some of the most tolerant folks we encountered were themselves plastic.

Mannequins and reflections

One claim I often hear around the holidays–one shared by Christians and non- alike–is that Christmas is too commercial. I guess it’s fitting, then, that J and I spent a good part of our afternoon shooting dummies who were born to be shot: the empty-eyed mannequins who peer with aloof gazes through the reflective windows of the boutiques on Boston’s upscale Newbury Street.

Mannequins and reflections

If you’re looking for an embodiment of Everything Wrong with Commercialized Christmas, a Newbury Street mannequin would be a likely candidate. Empty-headed, a mannequin exists only to be an object of desire; displaying the wares of modern consumer culture, a mannequin is the poster-child of style over substance.

Mannequins and reflections

Mannequins, after all, are created to reflect what we as consumers presumably crave. According to mannequins, we prefer our icons skinny and bloodlessly white, their limbs inconceivably slender. Attenuation, it seems, is what catches our attention; judging from mannequins, we want to hang the clothes we seek from sleekly skeletal forms who are ghostly and ethereal.

Mannequins and reflections

Still, I can’t bring myself to dislike, much less condemn, the mannequins of Newbury Street. If we lived in a world where people bought only what they needed, families exchanged hand-made rather than store-bought gifts, and nothing was marketed, we’d certainly consume less…but where would we go window-shopping?

Mannequins and reflections

Just my fond memories of a Catholic childhood make it unnecessary for me to reject that part of my upbringing even if I don’t currently practice it, I harbor no ill will toward mannequins and the marketers who manage them. As a child, one of my favorite pre-holiday activities was leafing through the pages of department store catalogs, where I’d see all sorts of toys I’d dream of but never own. Why do we automatically assume that seeing an object of desire means we’ll necessarily acquire it?

Mannequins and reflections

Of the countless times I’ve gone window shopping on Newbury Street, I’ve actually bought things there only a handful of times and at a handful of stores. If anyone should be shouting condemnations here, these mannequins should ask me when I plan on paying them for the visual pleasure they have continually provided.

Mannequins and reflections

I have no doubt Christmas is too commercial…and yet, when I try to find flesh-and-body people to condemn for their overly consumerist ways, I can find no likely suspects. The flesh-and-blood people I know are simply trying to live their lives regardless of how “simple” I consider those lives to be.

Mannequins and reflections

Long before Christmas, an acquaintance privately criticized another who was buying a popular plastic toy for her son at a big-name toy store. “When my children were young,” my acquaintance explained, “I never shopped at Store X, and I certainly didn’t buy my children Toy Y.” Implied was an assumption that civilization is going to hell in a handbasket because some parents are buying brand-name toys like Barbies, Legos, and Transformers at big boxes like Toys R Us, Target, and Wal-Mart. If our children play with plastic toys bought from plastic stores, at what point will society itself become plastic?

Mannequins and reflections

And yet, I myself played with Barbies and Legos…and had Transformers existed and been on sale, Santa would have brought me those, too. Did my parents love me any less because they selected my mass-produced toys from the clearance tables at K-Mart? Is the world today cheaper, more disposable, and more materialistic because my blue-collar parents bought what they could afford where they could instead of giving me hand-made, free-traded, earthy-crunchy artisan wares bought from from independent sellers?

Mannequins and reflections

We live in a nation where you have the right to worship where you please or not at all, and you similarly have the right to proclaim your beliefs (religious or otherwise) from a slow-moving truck if you so please. To each her or his own, right? And yet, what troubled me about the acquaintance who prided herself for not buying Toy Y at Store X was her very pride: we each have the right to decide what, where, and whether we spend our cash, but isn’t it downright pharisaical to condemn another parent for her or his choices?

Mannequins and reflections

What bothers me about the “Christmas is too commercial” rant is how it, like a drive-by Christian’s sermon, is typically directed toward other folks. I can’t recall ever hearing a concerned citizen say “My family’s holiday is too commercial,” which is unusual considering the amount of credit card debt the “typical American” carries. Instead, the “Christmas is too commercial” spiel always seems to be directed toward other Americans, not me: the problem with society, this rant suggests, is that other parents are buying too many presents of the wrong kind from the wrong places. The source of this presumably pervasive problem, in other words, always seems to be that elusive wraith, Someone Else.

Mannequins and reflections

J and I didn’t set a price limit on the gifts we exchanged; we simply tried to find gifts we knew the other would like. For J’s birthday, I spent what some would deem Too Much on tickets to go to a New England Patriots game; for Christmas, J spent I-don’t-know-how-much to transform my dog into art. Was either gift Too Expensive, Too Commercial, Too Whatever?

Mannequins and reflections

In my mind, only J and I (and perhaps Jesus himself, if He’s keeping an eye on our checkbooks) can decide. As for me, I pay my credit card balances in full each month, but I love my friends who don’t; I occasionally shop at Target, Wal-Mart, and the like, but I love and respect those who choose otherwise. To each her or his own, right?

Mannequins and reflections

One way to celebrate a holiday is by condemning those who celebrate differently than you do, and the same applies to shopping. It’s easy to target the upscale shops of the world’s Newbury Streets as being the source of modern materialism; it’s easy to see and condemn folks who pay top dollar for designer clothes while the Politically Correct of the world choose overpriced organic veggies over name brands. When it comes to both shopping and salvation, maybe we all should see to our own souls rather than shouting about the sins of others. As the Bible itself teaches, it’s better to tend to the log in your own eye than sweating over the speck in another’s.

Downtown clock

Last week I ventured out after dark to see Into the Wild at the Colonial Theatre here in Keene. That my going to a movie after dark merits a blog post is saying something. It’s been a long time since I’ve taken myself to a movie, much less a movie after dark. I’ve never been much for night life.

The Apothecary

I first read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild not long after it was published in 1996, and since the spring of 2001, I’ve taught the book at least once–typically several times–a year in my “American Literature of the Open Road” class. When you’ve repeatedly read and taught a particular book, you become intimately acquainted with both its storyline and the way its story unfolds. I don’t have to refer to my note-riddled copy, for instance, to know the character of Ronald Franz appears in Chapter 6, a handful of Alaskan wanderers meet their individual deaths in Chapter 8, and Krakauer tells the story of Everett Ruess in Chapter 9. Having lectured and led discussions on those particular passages several times, I can find them in my well-thumbed copy almost without looking. When you’ve repeated read and taught a particular book, you come to know its nuances by heart, the pace of its narrative seeming as familiar to you as your own walking stride.

Fine Art Gallery

I first set foot in downtown Keene in the summer of 2001 when I interviewed for a full-time adjunct position here. I’ve previously told the story of how I instantly fell in love with Keene’s quaint downtown, knowing from first sight (and first stride) that I’d feel at home both teaching and living here. In the years since the summer of 2001, I’ve done a lot of walking here in Keene, so I feel the same intimacy with her downtown streets and sidewalks as I do with an oft-read book. Although I can’t tell you the addresses or even necessarily the names of various downtown businesses I’ve passed on nearly daily basis for years, I can see with my mind’s eye the goods they display in the shop-windows I’ve admired and photographed time and again. Why do I need to keep looking at shop-windows I’ve seen countless times before? Why do you re-read a beloved book when you know exactly how that book will end?

The Corner News

I knew when I walked into the Colonial Theatre last week that the Hollywood version of a book I nearly know by heart was destined to disappoint. How could anyone else’s depiction of a story I know and have repeatedly taught match the imaginary visuals in my own head? At every point where Sean Penn’s screenplay fed voice-overs of Jon Krakauer’s narrative into the mouth of protagonist Chris McCandless’ sister, Carine, I winced. “Too much exposition,” I found myself thinking. In Krakauer’s book, Carine doesn’t narrate her brother’s story; in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’ parents aren’t depicted with almost cartoonish simplicity, the “bad guys” who drive Chris into the Alaskan solitude where he dies.

In Krakauer’s book, you know from the beginning that Chris McCandless ends up dead in an abandoned Alaskan bus–Krakauer tells you as much on the cover of the book’s first paperback edition. In Krakauer’s book, what keeps you reading isn’t the question of what happens to Chris but the gradual unfolding of the mystery of why. Unlike Sean Penn’s movie, Krakauer’s book isn’t only about Chris McCandless; it’s also about how one writer discovered and pieced together Chris McCandless’ story. In the film version of Into the Wild, this meta-narrative is abandoned in favor of hagiography: Chris McCandless becomes an undeniable Hero, the story of his passion and death not a mystery to be solved but a gospel to be imparted.

Colonial Theatre

I knew when I left my apartment last week to walk to a movie after dark I’d encounter a whole other world even before I entered the theatre. Walking by night streets and sidewalks you regularly walk by day is like watching the Hollywood version of an oft-read story you’ve always imagined for yourself. What is this setting, these props, these characters in a place I thought I knew? After dark, Keene is a narrative I’ve barely skimmed, its stories as strange as strangers met and passed in silence. Having taught in Keene since the autumn of 2001 and having lived here since the summer of 2003, I still don’t know Keene by dead of night. There’s more than a touch of mystery still to the same old place viewed in a different (lack of) light.

This is my belated contribution to the Photo Friday theme Dead of Night. This week promises to be busy as my classes at both Keene State and Granite State College enter their final week. While I’m grading late into the Dead of Night this week, blogging here will probably be light. That’s another way of saying this blog might temporarily go dark, but don’t worry. Things that are dark aren’t necessarily dead.

Hope, framed

Just like Santa Claus, I’m a huge fan of lists. This past weekend, overwhelmed by the number of teaching deadlines I need to juggle from now until Christmas, I sat down and made a list of lists. From now through mid-December, every day has a dedicated page in my teaching notebook, and each day has its own list. Simply by flipping to a given day’s list, I can see what is due when and when I plan to work on any given item.

Also this weekend, I updated my Christmas card list: the first step toward actually sending Christmas cards this year. Last year, I postponed my Christmas cards until New Year’s, and even then I never got around to sending them: another uncrossed item on yet another to-do list. This year, though, I’m hopeful; hope springs eternal, as the saying goes.

Extraordinary framing

If the Grading Grind between now and the day after Christmas, when my last batch of online grades is due, isn’t too bad, maybe I’ll send this year’s Christmas cards in time for Christmas…or maybe New Year’s…or maybe “whenever.” It strikes me that Santa seems perpetually jolly during December, which is technically his busy season. How does he withstand his own daunting workload? The answer, I think, is in those lists, duly checked twice, that show a time for everything and everything in its time.

Both of today’s images are from a photo-set of Christmas shop windows in downtown Keene. Enjoy!