Category Archives: A Christmas Carol

My 2016 Books.

At the end of 2015, I observed that I’d only read ten books for the year, including graphic novels—a record low number since I’ve been keeping a books diary. I had been reading, a lot, but it had mostly been blogs, magazine articles, and single issues of comic books. I resolved to pick up the pace in 2016.

Mission accomplished. I read 26 books in the year just concluded, including graphic novels (but only eight graphic novels, so it’s a pretty substantive list).

The predominant takeaway for the year’s reading is that 2016 was the year I discovered The Expanse. After watching the terrific first season of the television show, I began reading the James S.A. Corey novels on which it’s based. I read the first four, as well as two of the ancillary novellas and a short story also set in that world.

I highly recommend the series to people who enjoy hard science fiction, even though technically I wouldn’t say that’s what The Expanse is. The Expanse is sort of “science fiction science fiction”; the series begins two centuries in the future in a populated solar system that’s a fair extrapolation from the technology we have today—until a particular thing happens that violates physics as we understand it. You’ll know it when it happens, and it’s a thing that will continue to influence the story, but the human characters and institutions react and adapt to that thing as they would in a hard-science fiction universe. It’s all very relatable, and super fun to read.

Each year I try to read a few literary classics that I’d never gotten around to. This year, that project led me to read Dracula, The Wind In The Willows, and Little Women.

I was surprised and delighted by how modern Dracula seems. It’s an epistolary novel, consisting of letters between Jonathan Harker and his fiancée Mina, Dr. Van Helsing and his colleagues, etc. But the story’s also told via newspaper stories and diary entries. It’s a common storytelling technique today; I’d had no idea authors were using it in the nineteenth century.

I liked The Wind In The Willows, that classic of English children’s literature, but now that I’ve read it, I’m astounded that any children could enjoy it. It’s almost entirely devoid of action, and spends most of its pages exhaustively describing Mole and Rat’s picnics and boating excursions.

If Dracula seemed like fashion-forward writing for the Victorian era, Little Women is entirely of its time. I’m glad I read it, and I took some pleasure from the story (that Jo is a real firecracker!), but Twain and Poe were taking much bigger chances, and stretching the bounds of literature. Louisa May Alcott’s writing is safe. I’ve heard she and Twain hated each other’s writing, and I’m not a bit surprised.

In addition to those literary classics, I also read three classics of science fiction: Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold, and Neuromancer by William Gibson. Yes, I had never read Neuromancer. I can’t read everything within 30 years of when it comes out; give me a break.

Lest Darkness Fall is about a Latin-speaking archeologist who slips back in time to the era of the late Roman Empire, and begins inventing modern tools centuries ahead of their due dates (Arabic numerals, including “0”; the printing press; telescopes) to try to prevent the Fall. I love a good alternate history story, but here’s the thing: de Camp wrote Lest Darkness Fall in the mid-1930s, so reading the book today is like a form of time travel for me as well as the protagonist, because his “present-day” perspective, while much more enlightened than that of the Romans and Goths he meets, still embodies many racist and sexist assumptions that are cringe-worthy today. Which is, for me, another reason to read it. I love to see how the wheel keeps turning: up-to-date becomes old-fashioned in such a short span of time. Reading is itself a sort of time travel.

I had a similar experience reading The Man Who Folded Himself. I also found it to be profoundly creepy, and I’ll say no more about it.

Two short story collections I read in 2016 were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Complete Pat Hobby Stories and Aimee Bender’s The Girl In The Flammable Skirt. I knew about failed, skanky 1930s screenwriter Pat Hobby because of an adaptation of the stories starring Christopher Lloyd that I caught on PBS a few years ago. I love Fitzgerald, and I love stories of the golden age of the silver screen, so it was a no-brainer that eventually I’d absorb this volume. It’s a stitch! The stories are sort of a prose version of the “cringe comedy” seen in TV shows like The Office. Although the style is somewhat dated, I often found myself laughing out loud.

My partner recommended the Aimee Bender book to me; it’s part of her library. The absurdist stories reminded me of those of the late Amanda Davis in her collection, Circling The Drain. According to Google, I’m not the first person to make that comparison. Davis was funnier, though, and at times Bender gets just a little too fey for my tastes.

I closed out the year (more or less) with my annual reread of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I love it—we all know the story, but Dickens’s prose is a joy that’s lost in most TV and movie adaptations. It’s still the only Dickens book I’ve ever read. I resolve to read Bleak House in 2017.

I further resolve to read more books by and about Charles Darwin in 2017.

Not included in the list below, because I spent all of June reading it and am still only a third of the way through it, is Steven Pinker’s doorstop, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My final literary resolution for 2017 is to finish reading this fascinating, if voluminous, volume.

For those who take an interest in such things: 14 of the 26 books on this 2016 list were read on my iPad using the Kindle app.

==========

January

  1. From Personal Ads to Cloning Labs; More Science Cartoons From Sidney Harris by Sidney Harris
  2. Neuromancer by William Gibson
  3. Justice League Volume 4: The Grid by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, & Joe Prado.
  4. Justice League Volume 5: Forever Heroes by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Doug Mahnke, and Rod Reis.

February

  1. Forever Evil: Blight by J.M. DeMatteis, Ray Fawkes, Mikel Janin, Fernando Blanco, Francis Portela, & Vicente Cifuentes.

March

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

April

  1. Dracula by Bram Stoker.

May

  1. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp.
  2. Forever Evil: Rogues Rebellion by Brian Buccellato, Scott Hepburn, Patrick Zircher, and André Coelhou.
  3. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

July

  1. Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey.
  2. American Vampire Vol. 5 by Scott Snyder, Rafael Albuquerque, & Dustin Nguyen.
  3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

August

  1. [Citation Needed] 2: The Needening: More of The Best of Wikipedia’s Worst Writing by Josh Fruhlinger & Conor Lastowka.

September

  1. Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S.A. Corey.
  2. Ame-Comi Girls Vol. 3: Earth In Crisis by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Eduardo Francisco, et al.
  3. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling et al.

October

  1. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold.

November

  1. Abaddon’s Gate by James S.A. Corey.
  2. The Complete Pat Hobby Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  3. The Churn by James S.A. Corey.

December

  1. Justice League Volume 6: Throne of Atlantis by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, and Tony S. Daniel.
  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
  3. Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell by Paul Dini and Joe Quinones.
  4. The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender.
  5. Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey.

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Autobiography: 2003.






Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption
—from the song “My Way,” made most famous by Frank Sinatra

Got something in your eye, Frank?

Got something in your eye, Frank?

Ol’ Blue Eyes lived such an enviable life—wealth, fame, a successful career, parenthood, success in romance—it’s hard to imagine he had any regrets. It might be fun to speculate what they may have been. And we can only speculate, of course, since he doesn’t mention them.

I have a closet full of regrets. It’s the same closet I came out of, but unlike the truth of my gender identity, my regrets aren’t secret and hidden behind a closed door; they mewl and grumble, wafting through the house like the smell of a cracked sewer main.

At the beginning of 2002, I was working in IT support at a company I won’t name, but it’s an international beverage manufacturer based in Atlanta. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; beverage salespeople have tempers). My logical mind helped me figure out what was going on. My calming demeanor helped bring my clients back from the brink of losing their shit. I was good at this work, but I wasn’t happy doing it. In fact, I was miserable every moment I was there.

Not even slightly.

Not even slightly.

This was the career I fell backwards into after the Navy instead of making use of my degree in journalism and my lifelong interest in writing. I’d let myself get sidetracked, seduced by the security the job provided. I wasn’t fulfilled, but it looked at the time like IT would always be an in-demand vocational path, and the money was really good. After just a few years, I owned a house, carried no debt, had significant savings, and I went abroad for vacations every year. I was safe and content. I hated my job, but, I told myself, aren’t you supposed to hate your job? That seems to be the theme of most of Western culture, from Bob Cratchit, to Dagwood Bumstead, to the movie Office Space. My path seemed acceptable. Even somehow pro-American.

But the path ran out of pavement, you should pardon the tweeness of the expression. First the dot-coms foundered, and then the horrible attacks on New York and Washington transpired, taking the country into a recession that hit the digital industry especially hard. It caught up with me, and I was laid off in September 2002. I’d seen it coming, but I was still pretty lost when it happened. I marched out of my office cube that day carrying a great heaviness on my shoulders—emotional and psychological heaviness; not just the weight of stolen office supplies.

Once I got home, had a good cry, and bolstered my spot on the couch with cats, I did some overdue soul-searching, trying to figure out what was important to me. No, I didn’t consider transitioning. I still held up the bargain I had made with myself years ago in Honolulu, and the gender tinnitus continued to ring only faintly inside my brain. This crisis was about what I wanted to do, and I thought I found some clarity that afternoon.

Julius Dithers: Lumberg before Lumberg.

Julius Dithers: Lumberg before Lumberg.

In the past year I’d been trying to scratch the itch my job didn’t reach. I’d been helping my monthly neighborhood paper with its copy editing and proofreading, and I had written, produced, and performed two puppet shows (the second one paid and professional) at the Center for Puppetry Arts. These avocations were really satisfying, and they well received by publishers and patrons, respectively. So when the beverage company that sells products all over the world and has the most recognizable corporate logo in history, which I won’t name, cut me loose, it didn’t seem unlikely that I could turn these into a paying occupation. I resolved never again to work in computer support. My next job would use my real talents: writing and editing. I would do what made me happy.

Easier said than done. I thought my writing talent and my background in IT would make me a shoo-in for a technical writing job. Nope. Technical writers are the canaries in the coal mine of IT. When the job market spoils, they’re the first milk to curdle. A company with three programmers and two technical writers lays off both technical writers and one of the programmers, counting on the remaining programmers to write their own documentation.

That’s what I faced in my job search. Tech writing wasn’t the only work in the field I tried to find. Nobody was hiring copy editors and my published writing wasn’t the sort anyone would pay me to do. Moreover, it was hard to be creative while burdened by my fears for the future. I submitted an idea for another puppet show during this time, but it was rejected. It wasn’t very good.

By early spring I was getting desperate. My unemployment ran out, and it hadn’t covered my bills anyway. I was draining my savings and running up my plastic. So when my friend, Bean, who built decks for a living, invited me to help him out, I took him up on it. I knew it would be temporary, and the money wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. And I’d always had a hobbyist-level interest in woodworking and other construction projects. I’d designed and made furniture, refinished walls, put a floor in my attic, and tiled surfaces. I knew how to do this. I figured it would be fun.

It was fun! At first I was just an extra pair of hands, holding up the other ends of boards so Bean didn’t have to reenact vaudeville sight gags to get them from his truck to the jobsite. But I soon learned what I was doing, and within days I was measuring, cutting, leveling, bolting, and wielding a nail gun with alacrity. I was able to work unsupervised at most tasks that didn’t require both of us.

It was exhilarating. I created new locations where before there had been void. Bear with me here; this will seem like a bit of a stretch, and maybe it is, but it was real enough for me: building decks made me feel like an astronaut colonizing space.

We added on to the back walls of houses, often working dozens of feet up from the ground. Once the ledger board had been anchored to the structure and the joists and band were in place, it was easy to forget the ground was below. Then I’d perch carefully on a joist while I nailed on the floorboards, as if assembling a space station module on an EVA from a spacecraft. I was no longer on the surface of the Earth. I was defying gravity; creating a new world. Houston, we have a platform! For a lifelong nerd like me, it was living a childhood daydream.

I did this work for most of the summer, and had a great time. My financial situation improved slightly. I lost weight. I got as much of a tan as my pasty Caucasian-ness would allow (mostly I freckled). My muscles toned up, and they even began to show a little definition.

You might think this last effect would have cranked the volume of my gender tinnitus to panic levels. Surprisingly, it had an opposite effect. Slinging 2 x 8s and 4 x 4s around every day pumped my pecs as never before. My usual work outfit was a tank top with denim overalls; when I flexed just right, I could see cleavage. My pubescent daydream joined my childhood daydream: I could imagine I had breasts. In one of the most male-gendered professions, I found a way to experience my femaleness.

I was impressed by the sheer variety of shapes and configurations possible with decks, balconies, and other backyard features. We built a multilevel porch that flowed down a hilly Atlanta backyard to the creek at the property line. We extended an existing deck, lacing new floorboards in with old to preserve necessary strength. We wrapped a new deck around the rim of a woman’s existing swimming pool and koi pond, matching their curves in a sleek, sinuous way I’d never imagined you could do with wooden planks. And the techniques of the trade were fascinating. The way wood and nails come together to make a walkable surface isn’t always intuitive, but it always works. High school algebra and geometry in action. I learned more on that job than during entire terms during college.

I had an unexpectedly sad moment one day. A customer decided she wanted more shade over her deck, so Bean and I came out to add a partial roof to it. We found a wasp nest attached to one of the posts, and obviously we didn’t want to get stung. So we destroyed it; we sprayed it with bug killer, then knocked it off the post into a bucket filled with water. Once it was gone, we started work.

Hours later, a wasp flew into the yard. It had apparently been foraging; it carried some small green berry in its mouthparts. It went right for that post, then flew around the yard—searching? grieving?—when it couldn’t find its home. I know it was just an insect, but it still broke my heart. It was a fellow astronaut, hanging in the abyss, and its spacecraft had been destroyed.

I knew I would eventually have to return to Earth myself. I hadn’t stopped looking for more fitting employment. I sent out resumes, trawled monster.com, joined professional organizations, and attended networking events. No one was hiring entry-level technical writers.

At a party in August 2003, I bumped into my friend Bob. I hadn’t seen him in a while. When I told him I was looking for work, he said there was an opening at his company. I expressed interest, and he told me where to apply.

I got the job; it was at a large medical technology and software company. I was a software and hardware technician, helping employees solve problems with their computers; I talked them through error messages, got their files to print, showed them how to recover unsaved documents (or held their hands if the documents were gone forever), reconnected them to the network, and fixed broken parts (most often cracked laptop displays; medical technology and software salespeople have tempers).

I should have kept looking.

Posts in the ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
Paradise Glossed.
Untitled First Blog Post.

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Thank you!
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The Dickens You Say

Every holiday season, beginning on or after Thanksgiving, I reread Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” It’s a newly-minted tradition, because I’d never read the book at all until about four years ago.

I was finally moved to read it by the realization that the story pervades the culture of Christmas in the United States and the United Kingdom more completely than just about any other work. There are other big ones: Dr. Seuss’s book and animated short How The Grinch Stole Christmas; the movies A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life; the Peanuts television special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”; Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”; various seasonal songs and carols; and of course Haddon Sundblom’s paintings of a red-suited Santa.

We’ve ritualized our annual consumption of all of these, and it’s common to hear people say “It doesn’t feel like Christmas season has begun until I’ve read/seen/sung ______.” Some version of “A Christmas Carol” is king of these, and it’s one of only two that has contributed a word to the language, “Scrooge” (meaning miser). I have three favorite movie adaptations of my own:

  • Scrooge (1970): The idea of a musical adaptation of Dickens is as logical as asking “please sir, may I have some more?” And “Thank You Very Much” is a beloved song from my childhood.
  • Scrooged (1988): This surreally funny version isn’t well-loved by critics, but as a person with a degree in television, I love the update, and the cynicism, which isn’t entirely deflated by the end of the story as in Dickens’s story.
  • A Christmas Carol (1951): When Dickens wrote his story, I feel certain the Ebenezer Scrooge he imagined looked and acted just like Alastair Sim. At the end of the story, when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, he’s almost unhinged in his childlike, giddy joy. Alastair Sim does this part of the story better than any other actor who’s taken the role.
  • The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992): The greatest innovation of this adaptation was hiring Gonzo the Great to play Charles Dickens as an on-screen narrator. This let them include Dickens’s beautiful prose, which most other adaptations have to omit. It was listening to Gonzo’s narration year after year that finally inspired me to read the book. Kermit and Robin are perfectly cast as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim, respectively, and Michael Caine really commits to Scrooge; he plays it straight and serious, which is the only right way to work with the Muppets.

People are suckers for stories of redemption. I think that’s why “A Christmas Carol” is so popular. We want to believe bad people can be saved, and Christmas is the time we want to believe it the most.

That “A Christmas Carol” is in the public domain is another reason why we’re subjected to endless adaptations and works derived from it year after year after year. Just about every television show ever on the air has done an “A Christmas Carol” episode (well, maybe not Meet The Press), from Family Ties to Dora the Explorer to Xena: Warrior Princess. Almost all of them are wretched and unwatchable. They’re lazily written, and the shows’ existing characters have to be awkwardly mapped onto the book’s characters, usually to unsatisfying ends. It’s hard to bottle lightning.

I learn something new from the book every year. Last year I learned that “Walker!,” which was shouted by the little boy Scrooge asked to buy the giant turkey for the Cratchits’, was an exclamation in Dickens’s time that essentially meant “You’re shitting me!” Another year I discovered that Scrooge told his nephew, Fred, to go to hell when Fred invited him to Christmas dinner. But you have to read between the lines to know that’s what was said; Victorian readers probably didn’t have the stomach for such a blunt profanity.

This year I realized that reactions to Scrooge’s meanness are maybe gendered. The women in his life—Belle, Mrs. Cratchit, Fred’s wife—give up on him. Contrariwise, Marley’s ghost, Bob Cratchit, and Fred himself, seem to cling to a hope, ultimately rewarded, that the old man can be saved. I don’t know yet what, if anything, that means, but I love that I’m still discovering new things to ponder, year after year.

“A Christmas Carol” isn’t a full-length novel; it’s only 70 pages in the edition I own. I bet most people could read it in a day or two. I highly recommend it.