Blue Christmas

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 The Swiss have a word for it: Weihnachtscholer; psychiatrists have a word for it too: Post-Christmas Traumatic Syndrome. Most people just call it the Christmas Blues, a feeling of sadness that overcomes those for whom the holiday period is a time of dysfunction instead of joy.

It must not be thought that this ailment affects only jaded moderns. An American woman’s diary from 1858  notes: “As these days come round our hearts are made Sad; we miss our loved Mother, now gone to her rest.” On Christmas Eve 1872 a widow wrote “These days are sad indeed to me. I try to conceal my feelings for the sake of those I am with.” On Christmas Day she wrote: “There many sad hearts, as well as merry ones.” In the 1901 Norwegian short story “Before the Candles Go Out” a couple struggles to be happier and to see the holiday through the eyes of their child but the wife says of her melancholy: “Do I need to tell you all over again that there’s something called Christmas Eve memories?”

Here are some reasons that have been proposed recently for the phenomenon of the Christmas Blues:

  • loss of a loved one through death, relocation or broken relationship
  • resentment of the commercialism of the season
  • a sense of not belonging stemming from membership in a religion, such as Judaism, that does not celebrate Christmas
  • anger over not being able to afford gifts for one’s family
  • anger at seasonally-induced weight gain or increase in indebtedness
  • homelessness, friendlessness or alienation from family or ethnic group
  • guilt at not being as happy as the ideal family depicted on television
  • spouse saturation syndrome: too much of one’s mate underfoot
  • separation at holiday-times from one’s lover who is married to someone else

Popular music, quick to spot trends, has cashed in on the sentiment with a plethora of songs emphasizing Yule-tide depression led by Elvis Presley’s 1957 hit “Blue Christmas.” One might add “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” by The Emotions, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” by The Everly Brothers and “Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas?” by The Staple Singers.

Though Christmas is not a time of increased suicide (in fact for women suicide declines in December and January) doctors do report a rush of depressed patients after the holidays. A number of churches hold “Blue Christmas” services to assure the faithful that God continues to be present even in the midst of sadness.

June 29

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1861 The death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

They don’t make poetical romances as romantic as the real-life love story of the two English versifiers Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. She was the chronically ill daughter of a tyrannical father and he was a younger and more famous poet who courted her in secret. They wed, moved to Florence, Italy, and lived in bliss until her death. Here is a contemporary account of her passing:

When in the summer of 1861 the sad news reached England that Mrs. Browning was no more, the newspapers confessed with singular accord that the world had lost in her the greatest poetess that had appeared in all its generations.

Elizabeth Barrett, the subject of this supreme eulogy, was the daughter of a gentleman of fortune, and at his country-seat in Hereford-shire, among the lovely scenery of the Malvern Hills, she passed her girlhood. At the age of ten she began to attempt writing in prose and verse; and at fifteen her powers as a writer were well known to her friends. She was a diligent student, and was soon able to read Greek, not as a task, but as a recreation and delight. She began to contribute to the magazines, and a series of essays on the Greek poets proved how deeply she had passed into and absorbed their spirit. In 1833 she published an anonymous translation of the Prometheus Bound of Æschylus, which afterwards she superseded by a better version. Her public fame dates, however, from 1838, when she collected her best verses from the periodicals, and published them as The Seraphim and other Poems. 

At this time occurred a tragic accident, which for years threw a black shadow over Miss Barrett’s life. A blood-vessel having broke on her lungs, the physician ordered her to Torquay, where a house was taken for her by the sea-side, at the foot of the cliffs. Under the influence of the mild Devonshire breezes she was rapidly recovering, when, one bright summer morning, her brother and two other young men, his friends, went out in a small boat for a trip of a few hours. Just as they crossed the bar, the vessel capsized, and all on board perished. Even their bodies were never recovered. This sudden and dreadful calamity almost killed Miss Barrett. During a whole year she lay in the house incapable of removal, whilst the sound of the waves rang in her ears as the moans of the dying. 

Literature was her only solace. Her physician pleaded with her to abandon her studies, and, to quiet his importunities, she had a small edition of Plato bound so as to resemble a novel. When at last removed to London, it was in an invalid carriage, at the slow rate of twenty miles a day. In a commodious and darkened room in her father’s house in Wimpole Street she nursed her remnant of life, seeing a few choice friends, reading the best books in many languages, and writing poetry according to her inspiration. 

Gradually her health improved, and in 1846 the brightness of her life was restored and perfected in her marriage with Robert Browning. They went to Italy, first to Pisa, and then settled in Florence. Mrs. Browning’s heart became quickly involved in Italy’s struggles for liberty and unity, and various and fervent were the poetical expressions of her hopes and alarms for the result. Her love for Italy became a passion stronger even than natural patriotism. Inexplicably to English readers, she praised and trusted the Emperor of the French as Italy’s earnest friend and deliverer; and Louis Napoleon will live long ere he hear more ardent words of faith in his goodness and wisdom than the English poetess uttered concerning him. Blest in assured fame, in a rising Italy, in a pleasant Florentine home, in a husband equal in heart and intellect, and in a son in the prime of boyhood—a brief illness snapped the thread of her frail life, and she was borne to the tomb, bewailed scarcely less in Tuscany than in England.

June 28

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I believe that if one is going to say cruel things in print, particularly if one is being paid for such writing, that the cruelty should be leavened by wit or, at least, elegance. Consider the case of the infamous New York critic John Simon whose was tendency to dislike all that he saw and to denigrate performers based on their personal appearance. Of him fellow critic Roger Ebert remarked, “I feel repugnance for the critic John Simon, who made it a specialty to attack the way actors look. They can’t help how they look, any more than John Simon can help looking like a rat.” He is said to have an abiding concern for the elevation of the art of criticism and the use of the English language but one struggles to find that concern in remarks like these:

Built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses. 
– John Simon on Diana Rigg as a naked Heloïse

What is one to make of that metaphor? Mausoleums never came equipped with flying buttresses and his description of the sublime Dianna Rigg does not match with her svelte reality. A poor attempt at a medieval reference.

She looks like a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun. 
– John Simon on Barbra Streisand

The mind struggles to conceive of the fruit of an aardvark-rat union. Another failed metaphor made no better by the incongruous addition of a metallic horse puck. Simon just plain didn’t like Streisand and it looks like he threw a bunch of bad-sounding animal names in a sentence and hoped for the best.

Here is another failed figure of speech from the animal kingdom. Ask yourself if constipated gazelles sulk.

Christopher Duva, as Valère, Mariane’s lover, seems to have just drifted in from the nearest gay bar, and often sulks and postures like a constipated gazelle. – John Simon on a performance of Tartuffe

The British do nastiness much better.

Twin miracles of mascara, her eyes looked like the corpses of two small crows that had crashed into a chalk cliff. – Clive James on Barbara Cartland

He looks like a brown condom stuffed with walnuts. – Clive James on Arnold Schwarzenegger

Whenever Clare Short wrestles with her conscience, she wins. – Ben Macintyre on a Labour politician

Randolph Churchill went into the hospital . . . to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not “malignant.”. .. I remarked that it was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it. – Evelyn Waugh on a friend

He reduced everything to politics… He would not blow his nose without moralizing on conditions in the handkerchief industry. – Cyril Connolly on George Orwell

In the Dally Telegraph not long ago, A. Wilson produced one of those short but seemingly interminable opinion columns at which he so often excels, this one putatively in praise of the present Archbishop of Canterbury. The panegyric, however, was somewhat overwhelmed by the comical dolorousness of the prose. No fewer than sixteen-hundred times (at least, if the impression lingering in my memory Is to be believed), Wilson departed from his theme to inform us that we are living In the waning days of the Christian religion, that it will kindle not be long before the last church is closed, and that hence we may not see the likes of the good Archbishop very often again. Surely, I thought as I was reading, this is a man in whom parochialism has metastasized into a psychosis. Here we are living In an age when Christianity is spreading more rapidly and more widely than at any other point in the two millennia of its history throughout the global South and East and yet, because the Church languishes in the senile cultures of a small geological apophysis (with a few appertinent isles) at the western edge of continental Asia, Wilson concludes that the faith is in its death throes. Of course, being morbidly tiresome is part of Wilson’s special post-Christian style: the air of weary, sage solemnity and flaccid resignation, the boring declarations of religious disenchantment, the bleak glimpses he affords us into the empty closets of his soul, the oracular intimations of the fate he has suffered for all of us in advance. – David Bentley Hart,  In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments


June 26

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363 Death of Julian the Apostate

Flavius Claudius Julianus was born into the Roman imperial family in 331. The emperor Constantine and the sons of the dynasty that he founded were prone to fits of political paranoia that would regularly lead to some unfortunate relative or colleague being murdered. In this way Julian lost his father, half-brother, and a number of cousins but perhaps it was his youth that spared him in the purges.

Julian had been raised as a Christian but at the age of 20 he abandoned that faith and turned back to a variety of Neoplatonic paganism. Though he was closely watched by court officials for any possible treachery he was permitted to continue his philosophical enquiries. 

In 355 Emperor Constantius, the last of Constantine’s sons, decided that he needed a loyal Caesar (junior emperor) in the West and sent Julian to Gaul. There he distinguished himself as an honest administrator and successful military leader, winning battles against Germanic invaders along the Rhine. When Constantius, who was having trouble dealing with the Persians on the eastern border, ordered half of Julian’s troops to march to his aid in Mesopotamia, the legions rebelled. They had no interest in leaving their homes in Gaul and so proclaimed Julian their Augustus (chief emperor). The empire was spared a civil when Constantius died in 358 leaving Julian the sole emperor.

As a ruler Julian was an active reformer, trying to lessen the burden of the imperial administration while giving more power to the local civic officials. He laid restrictions on Christianity but attempted no bloody persecution and tried to revive the pagan sacrifices and oracles. The empire’s population was still largely non-Christian but Julian’s reign was too short to check the growing influence of Christianity. He was killed in 363, dying from a wound taken in battle against the Persians.

There was speculation at the time of his death that he had been murdered by one of his own troops but a much more interesting legend developed in Christian circles over the years. In this story, Julian was killed by the apparition of the martyr St Mercurius summoned to the deed by the prayers of St Basil. As the ghostly spear pierced the side of Julian, the emperor is reputed to have said, “Vicisti, o  Galilaee” –- “Thou has conquered, O Galilean!”

June 25

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One of the joys of reading noir fiction is to come across the striking metaphors and similes that are a hallmark of the genre. Here are some from my favourite authors.

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight. – Raymond Chandler, The Little Sister 

The only illumination came from one of those economy lightbulbs that looked like a radioactive pretzel. – Stuart MacBride, The Blood Road

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away. – Raymond Chandler, The High Window

The lawyer Thien, when Morath was ushered into his office by a junior member of the staff, turned out to be an ancient bag of bones held upright only by means of a stiff, iron-coloured suit. – Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows

“She died in a fire. I miss her like you… If I was underwater, I wouldn’t miss oxygen that much.” ― Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island

Looking at him I felt as if I had just met a powerful gorilla while at the same time being in possession of the world’s last banana. – Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb

The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips. – Raymond Chandler, The Lady in the Lake

Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said. – Alan Furst, Dark Star

She had a long fur coat on over a very short skirt and sparkly top. Heels high enough to give Sherpa Tenzing a nosebleed. – Stuart MacBride, Now We Are Dead

A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock. – Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

“Remember, I’ve got no idea what this is all about,” said the girl when they were in the living room, a narrow room, where blue fought with red without ever compromising on purple. – Dashiell Hammett, “The Assistant Murderer”

 Hair like someone had run over Albert Einstein with a ride-on lawn mower. – Stuart MacBride, The Blood Road

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. – Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Torres finally smiled again, but it was a smile so vicious Bob could have smelled it with his eyes closed. – Dennis Lehane, The Drop

I called him from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest. – Raymond Chandler, “Trouble Is My Business” 


June 22

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War is cruel and men sometimes try to mitigate its brutality with “rules of warfare”. One controversial practice is that of retaliation for the other side’s violation of the norms of battle. In the American Civil War, the Union sometimes executed prisoners in response to Confederate guerrilla tactics. 

In 1864 Major James Wilson of the 3rd Missouri State Militia Cavalry and six of his men were captured and murdered by rebel irregulars. In retaliation, Union troops executed six prisoners from Missouri. Quaker Zadok Street wrote this letter to Abraham Lincoln to protest such acts.

Salem Ohio 9th of 11 Mo 1864
Esteemed & Honored Friend
Abraham Lincoln President

The shooting 6 Men in Missouri in retaliation for 6 Union Men murderd by Guerillas was the companion of my mind frequently day and night,’ And since then the shooting of others in Tennesse & Kentucky for similar retaliation is so inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ, and cannot be looked upon in favor by the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, and as no Nation can be blessed only whose God is the Lord, which thy various Proclamations wisely made from time to time fully declares in substance, I therefore respectfully but earnestly request Thee to seriously consider in thy retired moments when asking secretly for Divine aid to conduct the affairs of the Nation rightly, and ascertain if Thee should not prevent such acts by our Union officers, We do not know the private feelings or the hearts of those Men thus selected to be Shot, what injury may be done to them and their families we know not,

With thy enlarged and comprehensive view of Justice and right, argument is entirely unnecessary and refrain therefrom,

Allow me to say from the time of a few moments interview at thy House in Illinois prior to thy going to Washington after thy election, I have felt a very great desire for thy Administration to be one of Justice and honor under the peculiar trials in which Thee is placed I feel that a Divine interposition placed Thee in the Presidential Chair, and that Thee has been highly favored in thy movements,

Thy sincere Friend
Zadok Street

The quintessential Norm Macdonald joke

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Norm Macdonald, the brilliant enigma, left this earthly plane too soon, dying in 2021 of cancer. In his honour let us chuckle at the wisdom and hilarity of this story.

A moth goes into a podiatrist’s office. 

The podiatrist says, “What’s the problem?” 

The moth says, “Where do I begin with my problems? Every day I go to work for Gregory Vassilievich, and all day long I toil. But what is my work? I am a bureaucrat, and so every day I joylessly move papers from one place to another and then back again. I no longer know what it is that I actually do, and I don’t even know if Gregory Vassilievich knows. He only knows that he has power over me, and this seems to bring him much happiness. And where is my happiness? It is when I awake in the morning and I do not know who I am. In that single moment I am happy. In that single moment, before the memory of who I am strikes me like a cane. And I take to the streets and walk, in a malaise, here and then there and then here again. And then it is time for work. Others stopped asking me what I do for a living long ago, for they know I will have no answer and will fix my empty eyes upon them, and they fear my melancholia might prove so deep as to be contagious. Sometimes, Doc, in the deepest dark of night, I awake in my bed and I turn to my right, and with horror I see some old lady lying on my arm. An old lady that I once loved, Doc, in whose flesh I once found splendor and now see only decay, an old lady who insults me by her very existence. 

“Once, Doc, when I was young, I flew into a spider web and was trapped. In my panic, I smashed my wings till the dust flew from them, but it did not free me and only alerted the spider. The spider moved toward me and I became still, and the spider stopped. I had heard many stories from my elders about spiders, about how they would sink their fangs into your cephalothorax and you would be paralyzed but aware as the spider slowly devoured you. So I remained as still as possible, but when the spider again began moving toward me, I smashed my wing again into my cage of silk, and this time it worked. I cut into the web and freed myself and flew skyward. I was free and filled with joy, but this joy soon turned to horror: I looked down and saw that in my escape I had taken with me a single strand of silk, and at the end of the strand was the spider, who was scrambling upward toward me. Was I to die high in the sky, where no spider should be? I flew this way, then that, and finally I freed myself from the strand and watched as it floated earthward with the spider. But days later a strange feeling descended upon my soul, Doc. I began to feel that my life was that single strand of silk, with a deadly spider racing up it and toward me. And I felt that I had already been bitten by his venomous fangs and that I was living in a state of paralysis, as life devoured me whole. 

“My daughter, Alexandria, fell to the cold of last winter. The cold took her, as it did many of us. And so my family mourned. And I placed on my countenance the look of grief, Doc, but it was a masquerade. I felt no grief for my dead daughter but only envy. And so I have one child now, a boy, whose name is Stephan Mikhailovitch Smokovnikov, and I tell you now, Doc, with great and deep shame, the terrible truth. I no longer love him. When I look into his eyes, all I see is the same cowardice that I see when I catch a glimpse of my own eyes in a mirror. It is this cowardice that keeps me living, Doc, that keeps me moving from place to place, saying hello and goodbye, eating though hunger has long eft me, walking without destination, and, at night, lying beside the strange old lady in this burlesque of a life I endure. If only the cowardice would abate for the time needed to reach over and pick up the cocked and loaded pistol that lies on my bedside table, then I might finally end this façade once and for all. But, alas, the cowardice takes no breaks; it is what defines me, it is what frames my life, it is what I am. And yet I cannot resign myself to my own life. Instead, despair is my constant companion as I walk here and then there, without dreams, without hope, and without love.” 

“Moth,” says the podiatrist, “your tale has moved me and it is clear you need help, but it is help I cannot provide. You must see a psychiatrist and tell him of your troubles. Why on earth did you come to my office?” 

The moth says, “Because the light was on.”

June 20

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Why, it seems like only yesterday when the French government was dragging its heels on joining the American-led war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Oh, how we mocked them for their pusillanimity (even we Canadians who also held back.) Despite the fact that the French are one of the most war-like countries in European history (anybody remember Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon I, and Napoleon III?) we focussed on their poor performance in World War II.

Here are some of the rude remarks which, in retrospect and considering the mess that was made of the 2003 intervention, now seem regrettable:

The French will only agree to go to war when we’ve proven we’ve found truffles in Iraq. – Dennis Miller 

They’ve taken their own precautions against al Qa’ida. To prepare for an attack, each Frenchman is urged to keep duct tape, a white flag, and a three-day supply of mistresses in the house. – Argus Hamilton 

What do you expect from a culture and a nation that exerted more of its national will fighting against Disney World and Big Macs than the Nazis? – Dennis Miller 

War without France would be like World War Il. – Unknown 

The last time the French asked for ‘more proof’ it came marching into Paris under a German flag. – David Letterman 

Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion. –  Norman Schwartzkopf 

We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it. –  Marge Simpson 

It is important to remember that the French have always been there when they needed us. – Alan Kent

Somebody was telling me about the French Army rifle that was being advertised on eBay the other day the description was, “Never shot. Dropped once.” – Rep. Roy Blunt, MO


June 19

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Dandified Cake Eaters Beware!

In 1923, a group of women in Washington, DC decided to form the Anti-Flirt Club, an organisation “composed of young women and girls who have been embarrassed by men in automobiles and on street corners”, its aim being to protect such ladies from any further discomfort. Its rules were simple:

  1. Don’t flirt: those who flirt in haste oft repent in leisure.
  2. Don’t accept rides from flirting motorists-they don’t all invite you in to save you a walk.
  3. Don’t use your eyes for ogling-they were made for worthier purposes.
  4. Don’t go out with men you don’t know-they may be married, and you may be in for a hair-pulling match.
  5. Don’t wink-a flutter of one eye may cause a tear in the other. 6. Don’t smile at flirtatious strangers save them for people you know.
  6. Don’t annex all the men you can get-by flirting with many you may lose out on the one.
  7. Don’t fall for the slick, dandified cake eater the unpolished gold of a real man is worth more than the gloss of a lounge lizard.
  8. Don’t let elderly men with an eye to a flirtation pat you on the shoulder and take a fatherly interest in you. Those are usually the kind who want to forget they are fathers.
  9. Don’t ignore the man you are sure of while you flirt with another. When you return to the first one you may find him gone.