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Brandenburg Gate Berlin in the SnowI’ve decided to start a new Christmas tradition. Or rather, put a new spin on an old one.

As some of you know, I send out Christmas cards from Germany whenever I spend the winter holidays here, which is most years. Usually, this has meant arriving in Berlin five or so days before Christmas Eve and frantically running to stationery shops, papeteries, and department stores to find cards with German season’s greetings on them that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to send out — after all, German Christmas cards can have a strong tendency towards kitsch. Also, to find enough of them, since it appears to be difficult for stores to stock more than two or three tasteful ones at a time. It meant going home, warming my cold fingers around a cup of hot tea, and scribbling my fingers stiff with my fountain pen the same night, all so I could send the cards in time for them to arrive in the States before Christmas Day. It then meant getting up early the next day and standing in line for hours at the post office to secure the collectible Christmas stamps that add the touch of excitement we all get when we find foreign mail in our mailboxes. As you can imagine, the whole thing gets a little old, especially when I could be spending my time at the Christmas market drinking glühwein.

This year, I decided to be smarter. First of all, I discovered I could order the stamps on the internet and have them shipped to my parents’ house. Happily, I found myself able to skip braving the cold and bureaucratic Zehlendorf post office with its government building charm, know-it-all clerks, and lines of bickering omas. I picked the stamps I wanted sitting in front of the fireplace in Princeton, days before I even began packing my bags.

(Doing things ahead of time turned out to be a good idea. Like all travelers to Europe this year, I very nearly ended up snarled in the grand flight cancellation disaster caused mostly by our friends at London-Heathrow airport, where snow apparently is so rare that they can’t clear their runways or de-ice their planes. Since two thirds of Europe-related flights either go through Heathrow or are scheduled on planes that at some point in the week landed in Heathrow, and since most of those planes stay stranded there, something like two thirds of European flights have been canceled and half the planes on the continent tied up. Classic. In fact, my sister and her fam are still tied up there.)

But I didn’t go to London.

Instead, I got stuck in Munich because some granny waiting for her flight at Berlin-Tegel left her bag of undies and scarves standing by itself in the terminal, triggering a bomb alert complete with swat teams, bomb-defusing robots, and flight cancellations that had me climbing back out of my seat between three Ukrainians and an Italian businessman conversing loudly in Russian when the plane was halted at the last second on the Munich runway. I’d nearly gotten on a high-speed train to Berlin when I was called back to board the flight that did, thankfully, get me to Berlin the same day, dangerous granny underwear nonwithstanding. Not so my luggage. It came by courier, days after. But I’m here now and happy and with wool socks.)

My stamps were already waiting, courtesy of Deutsche Post.

These are the stamps I picked:

The motif shows Mary and the Christ child, as carved by the famous German religious sculptor Sebastian Osterrieder (1864-1932) for the nativity scene at the Liebfrauenkirche (Church of the Cherished Virgin) at Munich in the German state of Bavaria. Germans are big on nativity scenes, though they tend to put them under their Christmas trees as finely carved ensembles, not as neon-lit blow-up dolls in their front yards, like they do in New Jersey.

The second motif contains the same Mother and Child figures detailed on the first stamp, but also shows the fuller ensemble, which includes the Christ child, Mary, Joseph, and the three Wise Men from the East bearing gifts.

For those interested, the Christian accounts of how Jesus Christ was born can be found in the part of the Bible called the New Testament (that’s the second section), in the books called The Gospel According to Matthew (chs. 1 & 2) and The Gospel According to Luke (ch. 2). It’s a good read.

When I finally got to Berlin, I also decided to skip the hunt for the rare non-gaudy Christmas card among red-faced last-minute shoppers and chose to just make the Christmas cards myself. Thanks to my mother, who is a decorative artist, this sort of thought is normal in my family; we have an artsy streak below all the swagger. (Speaking of swagger, I went for a two hour walk with my father in the snow yesterday to get a real Christmas tree, which we lugged back on a sled. My fam does real tree, real candles, so tree needs to be relatively fresh. We like to do Christmas right, the old-fashioned way.)

For the cards, I designed a motif and created a series of 20 originals, which I initialed and numbered. I kept the motif simple enough so I could replicate it twenty times by hand without spending a week doing so. The materials for the cards are fine hand-made bütten paper, ink, and enamel. I sent out 19 of them; one will stay in Berlin to be mounted and framed.

The motif consists of a stylized Christmas tree covered in snow with a gold star above, and snow falling on a crimson Chi Rho. The Chi Rho is the ancient symbol of Christ that Roman soldiers painted on their shields and used on their battle banners after the Roman Empire converted from paganism.

My intent with the motif is to make two symbols meaningful in a new, playful way. The Christmas tree, which stands for the more whimsical, popular aspect of Christmas, has become rigid and formal, much like contemporaries obsess about the formerly playful parts of Christmas — like gifts, caroling, and decoration — as if they are Serious Business and Fun Will Be Had By All or Else, to the extent that this has become the rigid tradition and dogma. The Christmas tree beneath has become thin, a mere sketch of its self, but its branches still point toward the Chi Rho, and the same snow drifting toward the Chi Rho covers its branches.

As an ancient symbol, the Chi Rho stands for the mystical truth at the heart of Advent: That God becomes a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Chi Rho is at the center of the motif, just like that truth is at the heart of Christmas. The crimson red and the fact that snow can cover an abstract symbol emphasize that Christ’s incarnation was a real-life event. Jesus’ birth is symbolic, and yet it is also God becoming a real, tangible person, and so entering the world just like we humans inhabit it.

The snow stands for peace, purity, and for a blessing from the God who also controls the winter storms. It stands for the double shivers the Christmas story can send through our lives: on the one hand, the cold chill we feel when we truly understand the magnitude of God’s gesture and of just how inescapable God’s truth becomes because of it it; on the other hand, the warmth and exhilaration we feel at the beauty of a snow-covered world. Beauty is a gift from God in much the same way as the Son of God is.

The cross part of the Chi Rho mimics the petals of the poinsettia, also called the Winter Rose or the Flowers of the Holy Night, alluding to the prophecy in Isaiah, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots…,” which is often used, like the rose associated with that scripture, as a symbol for Christ on the cross.

I kept the style of the graphic art naive and slightly fragile, to mimic one of my inspirations, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas.

Here is the motif. The photo is unretouched and taken with a phone cam, which I remembered to do just before the cards went out, so excuse the odd lighting.

Anyway, all this to say, if you’re lucky and got one of these, you may have minor (very, very minor) artwork on your hands… hope you enjoy it!

I think all of us have a favorite animal when we are children. Mine was the owl.

If you’re wondering why, I’ll have to disappoint you. I don’t know. When I was about ten, I had a long list of favorite animals. I liked otters and beavers and wolves and hawks and penguins and badgers and cheetahs. I could tell you about habitat of the ocelot, the hunting patterns of the orca, the migration patterns of the white stork, the language of whales, how to tell the difference between the tracks of the roe deer and the red deer, how to tell birds of prey by their outline in the sky, and how bats fly and hunt at night even though they’re blind.

In fact, when I was ten and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told them, “A zoologist.”

They’d say, “A what?”

I’d roll my eyes behind my too-large glasses like ten-year olds do and brush my hand through my hair sticking up all ways like ten-year olds’ hair does and say, “A zoologist is someone who studies animals.”

And they’d say, “So you want to be a zookeeper?”

And I’d say, “No. A zoologist isn’t a zookeeper. Don’t you know anything?”

And then I’d leave them standing there in their red-faced shame. Or at least what I imagined was their red-faced shame.

(I grew out of this behavior. I swear. That’s why I’m now my own charming self and not like this guy or this guy. Or only on my worse days. Also, I didn’t know anything either. I thought zoologists were the guys who went on expeditions to make the animal documentaries I watched all the time. I loved Heinz Sielmann‘s way of letting nature speak for itself in all its violent, glorious beauty. Turns out, most zoologist observe a single pond all their lives counting mosquito larvae, sit in labs and watch caged animals do erratic things, send lots of begging letters for funding their travels and cages, or else conference-hop. I decided maybe zoology wasn’t for me when, in eighth grade biology class, our teacher decided that for the unit on animal behavior we should focus on why toads wipe their mouth after eating worms and on calculating the geometric patterns of bees’ dance. I find that fascinating now — I raptly learn about parasitic wasps that hijack cockroaches and ride them around for a while before laying their eggs inside them, avidly read about the effect of the anatomy of the zebra finch and chingolo sparrow on the structure of their birdsong, and write to my political representatives in defense of the preservation of wolves in the Mountain West — but at the time, learning from bad textbook drawings why a dog could be made to salivate if a bell rang didn’t quite measure up to watching orcas create artificial waves to wash a seal off an ice float and directly into their mouths or a hawk’s eye view as it soars through forest trees. So, for a fourteen year-old boy, that was that.)

Anyway, back to owls.

As you can imagine, I went to the zoo a lot. I grew up in Berlin, and the Berlin Zoo has the most comprehensive collection of species in the world, and the Berlin Aquarium, which isn’t too shabby, is right next door for rainy days. I probably wore out my parents and grandmother, having them take me there as often as I did.

I guess what happened to make the owl win out over all the others was that I was at the zoo one day, and the otter habitat was crowded because people like to watch otters slide with obvious glee down waterfalls on their backs, and the beavers were hiding in their stick-tumble lodge, and the wolves were sleeping in a heap in the corner of their enclosure, and the clipped-wing hawks were pouting, and the badgers were underground in their burrow, and the cheetahs were staying inside the raubtierhaus walking incessantly back and forth along an eight foot stretch behind bars instead of going for sprints of up to 120 km/h, which is, after all, mostly what’s fun about them.

So, since everyone else was either sleeping or pacing neurotically or, in the case of the elephants, flinging dirt, or, in the case of the monkeys, flinging excrement, I wandered over to where they keep the owls. To appreciate an owl in a zoo, you have to be fairly patient. They tend to sit in small aviaries with dead mice or chicks on the floor if they’ve recently been fed, and at first sitting there is all they do. You have to give them some time. I was willing to give them some time because behind our house in Berlin there’s a row of ancient trees, and an owl lived in them that I could hear hooting when the window to my room was open at night, and I wanted to see which kind it might be. I wanted it to be a snowy owl or an Eurasian eagle-owl (which in German is called, fittingly, an uhu), so those were the ones I looked at. I was hoping they’d make their ooh-hoo sound so I could tell whether one of their cousins was my neighbor. Finally, one of them opened his one gigantic yellow eye, and then the other, and he blinked at me.

“Hi,” I said, to break the ice.

The owl said nothing. Instead, without moving its body, it turned its head 180 degrees to look at the wall. Which, as disgruntled rejection goes, is a pretty darn effective way to tell someone you don’t want to be bothered. Being the disgruntled type myself at times, I appreciated the honesty.

And I guess that’s when someone saw me standing there, smirking in front of the owl cage, and the someone decided I’d like things with owls on them as small gifts.

“What?” you might say. “Owls?”

To which I’d answer that other kids are made to pretend they really love collecting spoons from tourist trap trinketshops, or postage stamps, or Star Wars figurines, or worse, they’re taught they’re not unique enough to like anything at all except what can be bought on sale at anonymous toy stores so they can be exactly like all their friends, who are trying to be exactly like all their other friends, who are trying to be exactly like them. What I got was the symbol of wisdom and of silent death (which owls are because  their flight feathers have saw-shaped edges that muffle all sound from flapping their wings and because their hoot scares people with vivid imaginations). Not a bad choice. Especially if combined with my family’s crest, which is a fox, symbol of cunning and mystery. (In fact, my last name was also that of the fox in medieval fables, which were so popular that the French now call the fox renard and no longer by its old French name, goupil). Not that I claim any of those attributes, but it’s nice to pretend.

So by the time I was twelve, the owl was my favorite animal.

As a result, for much of my childhood and teens, and sometimes even now, I’ve been ending up with owlish things. (Technically, my dictionary tells me, that should be “strigine things,” derived from the Latin word for owl, strix. But “strigine” is a hideous word. It reminds me of strychnine. For a moment there I thought, well, if we have to be all Greco-Roman, perhaps something derived from the Greek tyto or otus, which both mean owl. But “tytose” or “otine” don’t really sound much better to me, so owlish it is. Or maybe owlous. Owline. Owlesque. Owliform.) Mostly it’s art. I have owlish art of all genres, media, and provenances. I even have owlish stationery, and if you receive a hand-written letter from me, which only a very select number of people do, it will have an owl seal or stamp on the flap.

That can be not-so-good, such as when people who are much more bland think it’s odd for someone to have a favorite animal. But then, I don’t care what milquetoasts think. And an owl is much more interesting than the pocket schnoodles and purse chihuahuas such types usually prefer.

And yes, it can be very bad, such as when I lived in rural Africa and wore a ring with an owl on it until the day a real-life owl got caught in a nearby classroom building and the locals came running to ask me to come and kill it, and I told them no, owls eat rodents and snakes, let’s just set it free, and they told me they knew I was the only one who could kill it because I wasn’t afraid of owls, and I asked why I was supposed to be afraid of owls, and they said that owls were harbingers of death, and when you heard one hoot, it meant someone would die, and at night they’d sit on roads to fly up in your face and kill you because they were curses sent by ill-wishers, and I said, no, they sit on the roads because the sand is warm from the day’s sun, and insects go to the warmth, and rodents go to eat the insects, and snakes go to eat the rodents, and owls go to eat the rodents and the snakes, and they only fly up in your face because they don’t like being stepped on, but they didn’t buy it, and they tapped on my ring and said, see, I was not afraid of owls even though they are death, and could I go and kill it. I set it free. Somehow, that story ended up being retold with a different ending — that I took the owl home with me — and that, I was later told, was why nobody ever broke into my place out there in the bush, even though everyone else’s places frequently got broken in to. And yes, that’s bad, not good, because I’d rather people not be superstitious. I haven’t worn the ring much since, and not at all in years.

But it can also be a nice thing, such as when someone sent me this link for a free owlish calendar for 2011. All the artwork in this blog post is from that calendar. You can pick yourself which owl you want for which month, and it’ll send it to you as a pdf, and you can print it out on whatever artsy expensive paper you want. That made me happy because I move around the country a lot these days, and my owlish things along with my childhood and all the things I used to know and no longer do are nearly all packed in boxes in attics and basements, some a few thousand miles away, and now I can have at least one thing that reminds me of being a ten-year old boy who stood in front of an owl’s aviary in the zoo hoping the owl would turn its heard around again and hoot and blink its eyes sleepily, even though it never did.

So have a free calendar. It’s that time of year. Besides, they’re beautiful things, owls. And the art’s nice, too.

(In case you were wondering:

a) The owl in our backyard turned out to be a Little Owl, which I found out from reading its pellets, matching its hoot, and then spotting it — and if you don’t know what any of those things mean, that’s probably okay.

b) No, I didn’t develop this interest after reading the Harry Potter books and really liking Hedwig, Errol, and Pigwidgeon. I didn’t read those books until I was in college. It would, in any case, be a bad idea to have an owl as a pet. They are strong, sharp-taloned birds with a temper that have to be fed small animals whole, don’t like company, smell bad, and make enormous messes. The only place they should be kept, if at all, is in falconries. I don’t own one of those. Yet.

c) A group of owls is called a “parliament of owls.” Also a “hooting of owls” or a “looming of owls.” If it’s snowy owls, they can also be a “blizzard of owls.” When you should ever use this knowledge, I don’t know.

d) This preference for owls also made me curious to visit The Owl Shop in New Haven when I lived there. Turns out, the Owl Shop is the best place in New Haven for reasons entirely unrelated to owls and thoroughly related to being the best whiskey & cigar lounge I’ve been to.

e) No, owls don’t actually cross my mind more than once a month, so about as often as baseball does. But they’re fun to write about. And if you and I are on a stroll in the woods sometime, or out hunting, or in the zoo, and we see one, I’ll be happy to tell you all their little secrets I left out of this post.)

Harry Mulisch Is Dead

Dutch author Harry Mulisch died yesterday, of cancer. He was 83 years old.

Mulisch is one of those authors I read when I got to college and wanted to figure out what I liked and what I was supposed to like, and ended up liking for having read his books once each.

As part of my explorations, I read The Discovery of Heaven, a magical realist book in which God gives up on human kind and sends an angel to recover the original tablets of the Ten Commandments through an especially chosen child, Quinten, from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I also read his The Assault, which is a sort of murder mystery set during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The protagonist is the only member of his family to survive a retaliation by the SS after a Nazi collaborator is found dead in front of the family’s house, and years later he tries to piece together how the collaborator’s body ended up there. Finally, I recently read Mulisch’s novel Siegfried, in which he imagines that Hitler secretly had a son, Siegfried. A famous novelist searches for Siegfried in Vienna and gets in over his head.

Mulisch was interesting to me not so much because he kept being mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature — which, by the way, almost seems to guarantee that a writer won’t ever get it – but rather because his biography seemed to make him well suited to explore certain themes, like the complexities of being one’s father’s son. Mulisch was born to an Austrian army officer and a Jewish mother in 1927, and when the German Wehrmacht and later the SS occupied the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, Mulisch’s father dealt with confiscated Jewish assets. Fathers who collaborate with the Nazi occupation come up several times in Mulisch’s work, apparently an important theme in Dutch literature since World War II, as that country particularly honors members of the Dutch Resistance, and yet, like France, was made up mostly of apathetes and a good share of quite enthusiastic collaborators who contradict the prevailing national narrative. On the other hand, despite working for the Germans, or likely because of it, Mulisch’s father managed to help keep his Jewish wife out of the concentration camps, which blurs all the supposed clear lines and complicates motivations.

His work is in some ways antithetical of my own approach — Mulisch famously said he doesn’t care about his readers and writes only for himself — but it’s just as important to know whom one is choosing not to emulate as it is to know whom one should.

Perhaps the best way to get an idea of Mulisch’s work is here at The Ledge, which includes a full list of Mulisch’s work, who influenced his craft, and who writes books that make good follow-up reads after Mulisch. More thorough obituaries come from the Associated Press and Reuters, and other excellent resources about Mulisch can be found at The Complete Review, the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, and on the author’s official website (if you know Dutch).

Here’s Jack

As I posted earlier, my good friend and raconteur extraordinaire Jack Shock performed Tuesday night at North Little Rock’s Starving Artist Café as part of NPR’s Tales from the South series. His contribution was titled “Miss 1977.” It will be aired on KUAR on a Thursday at 8 pm, although I’m not sure which Thursday, since their most recent podcast, released yesterday, is several weeks behind the recording schedule. But not to worry. We have him on YouTube.

Here’s Jack:

I spent way too much time looking at this and just enough time laughing about it. Strikes me as rather true.

I was in Searcy, Arkansas earlier this week for personal reasons, and I’d like to endorse two things about it.

The first is an event happening tonight at Little Rock’s Starving Artist Café. My good friend and raconteur extraordinaire Jack Shock will be part of NPR’s Tales from the South series, and his contribution, “Miss 1977,” will be recorded there tonight, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010, at 8 pm. Go if you can make it. You will not be disappointed. If you happen to miss the reading, Tales of the South is available as a podcast. This particular show also airs on KUAR on Thursday, October 28th, at 7 pm.


The second thing I always take for granted as being amazing but that I should also endorse publicly on occasion is Searcy’s Midnight Oil Coffee House. It may easily be one of the best coffee shops in the South, and I haven’t found many that live up to it even in hipster-caffeinated New York. I remember the place best when I spent a great deal of time there writing, and it was being managed by my good friend Steven, but when I dashed in there they still made my very favorite coffee drink, the Vienna, just as excellently as back then. The place has recently been bought by the Kibo Group, so buying your coffee there also contributes to social justice in the world. In other words, there is no reason you should fail to buy your coffee there. If a barista named Hannah happens to be working that day, give her an extra smile from me (I think that’s how her name is spelled, anyway. She spelled mine Johnathen on the order sheet, so I’m not worried). If you happen to run into either Isaac or Lynn, who run the place, let them know I sent you. They’re excellent people.


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