27 November 2013

What's in a Christmas?

I live with the juxtaposition of being both rather cynical about Christmas and a bit of a sap about it. I went through an "I hate Christmas" phase in high school, after Christmas had lost its ineffable zing (I think that was once I really started noticing and disliking the materialism of the holiday), but some of that wonder and fascination has seeped back over the years.

I love the music and films that evoke a sense of wonder and family. There's a great deal of humour in the holiday as well as pathos, which is probably why Love Actually and The Family Stone are among my favourite Christmas films. I also have a fondness for Elf, because my husband and I watched that together one night shortly before we admitted that we were turning into a couple and decided to make that transformation deliberate, rather than accidental. I suppose that means I should also really love Back to the Future, since a Back to the Future marathon sparked the incident which forced us to talk about our relationship, but since we were watching that with a group of friends, and it was just us watching Elf, I tend to have fuzzier feelings about that one. The traditional movies, like White Christmas are great, too, and I usually end up watching those at some point during the holidays.

E. and I were out for a walk the other week while people who work for the city were putting lights in the trees. It hit me that we get to experience Christmas with her from now on. This year she'll probably be fascinated with the lights, and next year, well, I'll have to make sure our tiny tree is out of her reach, since she'll be about 16 months old then and probably into everything. We took her for a walk in the evening so she could see the lights and the sparkly Christmas trees in the shop windows, and she found them captivating. True, sometimes she finds the wall captivating, but I think this time it was the sparklies that were so interesting.

We don't intend to do Santa with E. It wasn't something that my family really did; I don't remember ever believing in Santa Claus, though I did believe in fairies. Neither of us is particularly enthused by the idea of waiting in line at the mall with a bunch of screaming children so we can plop our child onto a stranger's lap and then pay an exorbitant amount for a picture. And I don't want her to have the expectation that Christmas is about the presents, and that if you're good enough, Santa will bring you anything you want.

J. and I like giving and receiving gifts, but we're not particularly gift-oriented. If you're looking at the "love languages" thing that was so popular a few years ago, gift-giving is at the bottom of the list for us. So we don't want Christmas to be all about the presents, fun as they are.

I try to live through the Christmas season focusing on Advent (originally a time of fasting prior to Christmas), to live in expectation, rather than getting caught up in the more hectic aspects of the season. It doesn't always work, but sometimes, I stumble across serenity.

I found myself rather more literally living in expectation last Advent, when we found out E. was on her way a week and a half before Christmas. The Christmas Eve service that year resonated more deeply than usual. This year, with a new little person in our lives, I wonder what Christmas has in store for us?

05 November 2013

All's Well That Ends Well

By the time I was halfway through the first scene in All's Well That Ends Well, my eyebrows had hit my forehead. I'm no longer wondering why my English lit teacher in high school did not include this play on the syllabus for the Shakespeare class. That first scene contains an amusing discourse on virginity, how it is lost, and whether it's better to keep or lose it, and how it doesn't keep well (odd to think of that having an expiry date). Needless to say, given that the Shakespeare lit class I did in grade 12 was for homeschooling families, I can't see it going over well with the parents or with some of the students.

The story goes thus: A young woman named Helena is in love with young Count Betram, who has recently departed for the sick and ailing King of France's court. She is an attendant of his mother's, the Countess, and is the daughter of a physician. When the Countess discovers Helena's love for her son, she wishes to encourage it, and so Helena departs for Paris, hoping to gain favour in the King's eyes, and a promise of marriage to Betram, by providing him with some of her father's medicines. When she meets with the King, she offers to cure him. If her remedies fail, then her own life is forfeit, but if she succeeds, the King will arrange a marriage for her with the man of her choice. In the meantime, Bertram and the King's lords are trying to handle a war within Italy which France is involved with.

Helena's medicines work, so the King allows her to choose a husband. When she selects Bertram, he refuses. The King insists, so Bertram marries Helena, then refuses to consummate the marriage and sends her home, intending to head out for Italy the next day. So Helena hatches a new plan. She leaves France and goes to Italy as a pilgrim, where she encounters a woman and her daughter, Diana. Diana has caught the eye of Bertram. She's not happy about it, nor about his promises to marry her once his wife is dead. Helena takes Diana's place in bed the one night she consents to sleep with Bertram, and claims his ring. Then she fakes her death, so Bertram believes himself free to wed another. When Diana turns up at the King's court, claiming Bertram as her husband now that his wife is dead, he disavows her. A friend of his bears witness that Bertram was in love with Diana and had claimed to sleep with her. When Diana claims to yet be a maid, confusing matters more, the King is about to throw her into prison when Helena arrives, revealing that she stood in for Diana and therefore claimed her own husband. Bertram acquiesces to a marriage with her now that she has out-smarted him, and the King volunteers to provide a dowry for Diana, for the work she did in assisting Helena.

This isn't one of the more popular comedies. The ending is dissatisfying because, though Helena triumphs, she has chosen a man who only accepts her once she has proven that she is more clever than he, and that makes her somewhat worthy in his eyes, when before, she didn't matter because she was not highborn. He's not the greatest of men. His friend Lafeu, who provides wise and insightful commentary on the situation throughout the play, is a far better character. I feel like Helena's been cheated, even though she wants Bertram and does get him in the end.

One more comedy to go, and it's the one I've been waiting for: A Winter's Tale!

"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven." Helena, All's Well That Ends Well, I.1.218-219

"If men could be contented to
be what they are, there were no fear in marriage." Clown, All's Well That Ends Well, I.3.370-371

"I am not a day of season,
For thou mayst see a sunshine and a hail
In me at once: but to the brightest beams
Distracted clouds give way; so stand thou forth;
The time is fair again" The King of France, All's Well That Ends Well, V.3.2711-2715

Twelfth Night; or, What You Will

Note: Yes, this project went on an unintentional hiatus for a while, but we are getting back on track. The comedies will get finished up this week and then we'll be on to the histories. 

I think my extreme fondness for Twelfth Night was strongly influenced by the film version starring Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter. It's a great production. It rearranges a few things and cuts down some of the speeches, but it's fantastic. I've also seen it staged by Portland's Shakespeare in the Park company. Live outdoor theatre...and my favourite show. I was so into Twelfth Night that my fifteenth birthday party was themed around the play (and yes, yes, I am a geek). To be honest, it isn't as thought-provoking as some of the comedies, but I find the characters interesting and the plot more cohesive than the other comedies which use similar plot devices.

Twelfth Night uses the plot devices of the separated twins (which we saw in Comedy of Errors) and the shipwreck (Comedy of Errors again, and Tempest), but isn't like either of those plays. In this case, the twins are a brother and sister. Each believes the other dead, and the sister, Viola, finding herself without family on a foreign shore, goes for that other classic Shakespearean plot device, cross-dressing. She dresses up as a man. Then she heads over to the local Duke's residence and gets a job working with him. The Duke, Orsino, grows quite attached to his new attendant, and sends her to convince the nearby Countess Olivia to marry him. Olivia's not interested, and has told Orsino so repeatedly, but he is persistent. Viola's pleas on behalf of her master attract Olivia's attention, but sadly, her attention is grabbed, not by Orsino's love, but by Viola's words and appearance. Caught between Olivia's demands and her own love for Orsino, Viola's about ready to pull her hair out when it all comes to a head. Her brother Sebastian, who survived the shipwreck, arrives in town and is mistaken for her by Olivia. He is happily swayed by Olivia's invitations (she's beautiful, she's rich, she wants him) and the two secretly marry. Orsino and his retinue arrive at Olivia's for a visit, Viola and Sebastian come face to face and Viola's gender is revealed. The siblings are reunited, Olivia accepts Viola as a sister, and Orsino proposes to Viola.

The secondary plot involves a number of Olivia's servants and one of her relatives. It involves the overly pompous steward, the drunkard relative, the local fool, the housekeeper, and a few others. The steward, Malvolio, is in need of a comeuppance, and the others decide to give it to him. I love this part of the story, and I think it's a better-structured one than many of the subplots in the other comedies (the ones in Measure for Measure and Two Gentlemen of Verona were so simple as to be nearly non-existent). The practical joke angle keeps it fairly light-hearted when the main plot is dealing with Viola's frustration at loving a man who is eager to confide in her but doesn't know she's a woman, her grief for her brother, and her trying to convince Olivia to stop loving her. As both plots end with at least one wedding, the story's a happy one, though there is some angst in the middle.

And that's Twelfth Night. If you can, get to a production near you, or watch the film. We'll wind up our journey through Shakespeare's comedies with A Winter's Tale  and All's Well That Ends Well before we proceed into the histories.

Favourite Quotes
"O, had I but followed the arts!" Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Twelfth Night, I.3.202-203

"Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we!
For such as we are made of, such we be" Viola, Twelfth Night, II.2.688-689

"A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit: how quickly the
wrong side may be turned outward!" Feste, Twelfth Night, III.1.1246-1248

"And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges." Feste, Twelfth Night, V.1.2589


This last weekend was a whirlwind of busy-ness. My parents, one of my brothers, my grandparents, and my in-laws were all in town. My family arrived on Friday, so E. and I spent most of the afternoon with them, had a break before dinner, and then did dinner with them. Saturday morning, J. and I dropped E. off with my parents so they could hang out with her and we got some much-needed time to ourselves before we had to go back to pick her up and drive out to Abbotsford for my graduation.

I must say, I definitely enjoyed the MA grad ceremony far more than the one for my BA. The speeches were shorter and more interesting, and it was really neat to see my name and my thesis title printed in the program. I didn't get to wear a funny hat--they skipped those this year--but hopefully I'll be faculty at a university at some point in the future and then I can buy my own funny hat to wear to commencement ceremonies. My hood colours are definitely ones I can live with. Red and white suit me much better than the blue and orange than one of the other programs had.

Me just after being hooded (photo by North Clackamas Photo, aka my dad)
The other preferable side of the MA graduation is that I got to pick up my diploma then and there. I don't have a frame for it yet, but I'm going to get one sometime soon and stick it up on the wall. I think my diploma from my BA is in a box somewhere. It's funny how I'm still paying for my BA (no student loans for the MA!), but the MA means a lot more even though it didn't cost as much. It's exciting, though. My youngest brother is threatening to get a Ph.D. just to out-do me, but since I'm planning to start on one of those sometime in the next ten years, he'll have to get going on that (he's in his last year of high school and is uncertain about what to major in--he's said he wants to do a Ph.D. in General Studies).

I'll be going in to school sometime in the next couple weeks to take advantage of the alumni perks. I can get a parking pass for the school for free, and a subscription to the library for a really great price. I want the parking pass so I can go in and use the library without having to pay for parking. I think the library subscription gives me access to the journal databases, which I need if I'm going to work on a couple of the paper ideas that I want to submit to a journal.

E. survived being away from me for over four hours, which I think is the longest we've gone being apart so far. When I held her after the ceremony and asked if she missed me, she stared at the wall. She had everyone making a fuss over her, so she was fine. My grandparents love her, my parents and my in-laws love her...I'm almost afraid to think what Christmas is going to look like. My dad took hundreds of pictures of her over the weekend. She's pretty photogenic most of the time. There will probably be thousands of pictures of her by the time Christmas is over.

My brothers have decided that (at least for now), I'm the official elitist of the family, since I'm the one with the Master's. We're having an elitist party at Christmas to celebrate the graduations that have taken place over the last couple years in our family (two of my brothers, J., me). It's also an excuse to invite people over that haven't seen me in years because while I was waiting for my paperwork to be processed here, I couldn't leave Canada. I haven't visited my hometown for nearly three years, I think. And now we're only about 6 weeks away from being there. Dang it. I have to start Christmas shopping.