2013: A Year Well Met

A smidgen of wisdom from the good folks at WordPress:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 16,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.  Hopefully they’d put on something good.

Click here to see the complete report, you know, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

The end of the year is that time when, bloated by festive treats and wearied by revels and revelers, we turn our collective gazes navel-ward to look back on what we managed to get done despite odds and what we hope to accomplish in the coming months (usually a laundry list of everything that wasn’t finished this past year, with “losing weight” at the top of the list.)  I could launch into a tremendously dull recapitulation of everything I wrote this year and which posts connected well and which didn’t, but I suspect there’s little interest out there in such a thing.  Really, you write something, you publish it, and either people like it or they don’t, and you move on to the next, with little time available for reflecting on past glories or hardships.  And just because something hits hard once is not a guarantee that anyone sticks around.  The beast must be fed, continuously, or it wanders on like a herd across the Serengeti in search of a more consistent food source.  That’s one of the hardest lessons we have to learn.  A fan of one good piece of writing is seldom a fan for life, unless we’re discussing enthusiasts of J.D. Salinger.  Even Stephen King never rests on his laurels.

2013 will be a year recalled fondly not in terms of anything specific I did with my writing, but who it enabled me to meet.  Ksenia Anske, Rachael Spellman, Drew Chial, Jennifer Howard, Nillu Stelter, Rachel Thompson, Amy Good, Rachel Ott, Louise Gornall, Alicia Anderson, Amira Makansi, Jessica West, Colleen Albert and J. Edward Paul (and a bunch of other amazing folks I’m sure I’m forgetting, so sorry) were complete strangers a year ago and now they, their work and most importantly, their senses of humor, have become inextricable components of my journey across the pages.  They set the bar with their words, they motivate with their dedication, they inspire with their passion and they make me laugh whenever I need it.  If you have not heard of any of these incredible people, that will be remedied very soon, you can count on it.  And I’ll be right there cheering them on – from behind the 500 feet mandated by the restraining order, undoubtedly.

For myself, the keyword for 2014 will be discipline.  Ksenia’s blogged extensively about the need for focus and routine as a writer, and it isn’t enough to say that I’ll do it when I get the time.  It truly is about making time; no small challenge when you have a regular job, a spouse, a son turning thirteen and a brand spanking new gym membership.  But as I am fond of telling my boy, he will not look back on his life and wish he’d spent more time lying on the couch.  There is simply too much to do; too much world to experience, too many words to write, and precious few minutes to do it all in.  Our lives aren’t getting longer; they’re ending, as the man says, one day at a time.

So I won’t make a bunch of goals or resolutions that I can sit around on December 31st, 2014 ruing that I didn’t finish.  I’ll begin with changing my attitude about what’s possible through enough effort.  That agent didn’t like your novel?  Send it to 30 more.  Nobody cared the post about what’s wrong with Star Wars and Star Trek?  Reach deeper.  Make it more personal.  Readership drying up?  Introduce yourself to more strangers.  The great thing about Twitter is that it can give you the balls to speak to people you wouldn’t dare approach in real life.  Use that wonderful tool to make more and more lasting connections.  And read more.  Lots more.  Embarrass your Goodreads friends with the raw tonnage of literature you consume.  Talk, listen, discover, share, open up, advocate, take in, give back.  And damn the motherf@#$ing torpedoes.

See you next year, my friends.  Limitless promise is only a few hours away.  And let’s see where the road takes us together.

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption

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I posted a few days ago about holiday memories being the best gift you can give yourself.  One of mine that I didn’t get into in great detail was my annual required viewing of the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  This seminal tale, which has probably done more to shape how Christmas is celebrated worldwide than any other work of literature, has been adapted for stage, television and film hundreds of times, the earliest surviving movie being a 6-minute silent British version in 1901.  The version aired most often every 24th of December, and most beloved by both critics and families, is the 1951 remake, titled either Scrooge or A Christmas Carol depending on which print you happen to catch (avoid the colorized version at all costs), starring Alastair Sim as the pitiless miser who learns to change his ways following a 1:00 a.m. visit from three pesky spirits.  My father introduced me to it when I was very young; he and my uncle were fond of quoting it at length, badly imitated British accents and all, during family holiday gatherings.  Now, as a father myself, watching it is the last thing I do before turning out the light on Christmas Eve.  And while my son is not likely to understand why Dad’s making him watch this boring black and white thing that doesn’t feature Iron Man in any capacity, it’s important to me to carry this tradition forth for as many years as I’m able.

Consequently it’s difficult for me, as it is with most of the movies that I look upon fondly, to sequester my emotions and memories and evaluate the movie from a strictly critical standpoint.  Since it was the version I grew up with, I was surprised to find scenes and characters missing and/or altered in later remakes (like the 2009 Jim Carrey CGI version) that turned out to be upon further investigation inventions of screenwriter Noel Langley and not part of the original story.  It might be sacrilege to suggest that anyone could improve on Charles Dickens (or would even dare to try), but for once, we have an example where exploring deeper into the background of an ostensible villain enhances the stakes of his journey.  Langley’s script switches the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, making Ebenezer the younger brother who is estranged from his father after his mother dies giving birth to him, paralleling Scrooge’s later disenchantment with his nephew Fred who has cost him the life of his beloved elder sister Fan in the same way.  We also see Scrooge, after apprenticing with the jolly old Mr. Fezziwig, come under the influence of the corrupt Mr. Jorkin (a Langley creation) who seduces him to the dark side of capitalism and ultimately introduces him to Jacob Marley, the man who will become his equally covetous business partner.  (Gosh, could this sound any more like Star Wars?)  But it all works.  Ebenezer Scrooge was not born a bad man; like so many of us he made bad choices and reacted adversely to what a cruel world threw at him.  He hardened his heart to avoid feeling sad and eventually to avoid feeling anything at all.  Langley’s insightful adaptation shows us more of what Scrooge has lost, deepening our desire to see him reconnect with the meaning and importance of Christmas.

None of it would matter, however, if the performances weren’t there, and Alastair Sim’s is probably one of the best ever put to film.  His is without flaw, equally credible in full miser mode and giddily standing on his head upon achieving his catharsis, by turns terrifying and repulsive, then endearing and delightful.  And as I noted earlier, his inflections around choice lines are the stuff of impersonation fodder for both professionals and fathers and uncles decades onward.  He is matched perfectly by Kathleen Harrison, Cockney charm through and through, as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman (i.e. housekeeper), another role greatly expanded from the Dickens original.  In fact, there isn’t a poor performance in the lot.  It’s a treat as well to see Peter Bull, perhaps best known as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, as the film’s narrator and the business acquaintance of Scrooge’s who insists he won’t go to the funeral unless lunch is provided, and Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of British TV’s The Avengers, as the young Jacob Marley.  If you’re a detail-oriented James Bond fan as I am, you’ll also enjoy spotting Francis de Wolff, the leader of the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love, as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present.  The acting by the ensemble is so good that it remains fresh and surprising even after dozens of viewings – you really feel the sorrow of the Cratchit family on the loss of Tiny Tim and revel in the triumph of watching him run towards the reformed Scrooge at the finale.  You hate Scrooge’s guts for treating everyone so poorly and laugh with him as he tries to contain his glee in finally figuring out the truth that has lain dormant beneath the Christmas snow.

The possibility of redemption remains a powerful driver of human existence.  Most major religions, and the criminal justice system, are predicated on the concept that atonement and forgiveness are always within reach.  Even for the secular, Christmas can be a time where we can tally the events of the previous year, come to terms with them and resolve to make the necessary changes going forward, with a sense of renewal, optimism and hope.  No matter what kind of year I’ve had, whether it’s been a time of robust progress or of perceived stagnation, putting on A Christmas Carol and watching Alastair Sim’s Scrooge plead with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that he’s not the man he was, is an important reminder of possibility, that it is never too late.  The challenge, however, is in making enough of those changes so that you begin to live your life as robustly as the post-ghost Scrooge.  So that you become, as Peter Bull intones, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”  Perhaps that’s the lesson my father wanted me to learn by making me watch the movie every year.  It’s certainly one I want to pass on, and I’ll make my son watch it until he gets it too.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.

Unfreezing creativity

You can emerge from a great movie in any number of frames of mind:  stirred to action, moved to tears, smiling ear to ear or even enraged beyond words.  And then there are those movies that have a different and in some ways, more profound effect.  They come along at just the right moment, when you’re a bit discouraged by a recent course of events, when the well is drying out and replenishing itself with doubt instead.  Movies that embrace your simmering creativity and stoke your desire to tell stories, because they remind you of the possibilities inherent in the blank canvas by pushing the limits of what can be done with it.  They disarm and enchant the cynic and turn him into a dreamer again, fingers twitching to fill hard drives with a wealth of new words.  Frozen, Disney’s magnificent animated retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, did that for me.

The story of a bond of sisterhood tested by fate, magic, misunderstanding and a heck of a lot of snow and ice, Frozen is visually sumptuous, befitting the pedigree of its studio, and uncommonly emotionally profound.  The two princesses of the vaguely Nordic realm of Arendelle are the playful young Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and her elder sister Elsa (Idina Menzel), who possesses the power to create ice and snow.  They are inseparable until Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her magic, at which point their well-meaning royal parents decide that the two would be better off kept apart, for their own safety, and Anna’s memory altered to remove her awareness of her sister’s abilities.  Years later, after the girls have been orphaned, Elsa is poised to be named Queen of Arendelle until a confrontation with Anna over a rash decision to marry a handsome prince she’s just met results in Elsa’s long-suppressed powers bursting forth and blanketing Arendelle in eternal winter.  Shunned by her people, Elsa flees to the distant mountains, pursued by Anna who has faith that her sister can be convinced to bring summer back to the realm.  I’d prefer not to say more at the risk of being spoilery, but despite some red herrings dropped early on that suggest you’re in for the typical schmaltz about princesses in towers and the conveniently available square-jaws they always fall for, and despite the prominence in advertising of the goofy living snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the story goes in a much more mature and welcome direction, keeping the relationship between the sisters as the emotional linchpin – while dazzling your eyes with some breathtaking animation work, especially in any scene involving Elsa’s magic.

Given what I’ve discussed at length here before in terms of the onscreen portrayal of women, how refreshing indeed to find a story that both passes the Bechdel test and gives depth and complexity to a female character with supernatural powers!  The clip I’ve linked above is my absolute favorite moment in the movie, because not only is it a terrific song belted out by a sublimely talented Broadway veteran at the top of her game (even calling back a little to her famous interpretation of Wicked‘s “Defying Gravity”), but it’s a scene of a young woman embracing everything about who she truly is and reveling in the wonders of what she can do with her amazing gifts.  A triumphant coming out of a sorceress, if you will, and a scene of unbridled joy.  We don’t get to see that very often, if ever.  Women with powers in movies are usually punished for them – they have to give them up to attain the life they really want, or, they choose to use them for evil and must therefore be destroyed (usually by… sigh, a virtuous man).  While Elsa does cause some inadvertent mayhem that must be undone, the resolution of the story thankfully doesn’t require her to abandon what makes her unique.  She adds to her life instead of taking something away.

As a man writing a novel in first-person from a woman’s point of view (a fantasy about a woman with magical powers, no less), those issues are always top of mind for me.  It’s too easy to venture down the well-trodden, familiar path at the end of which lies the execrable Mary Sue; the collection of cliches guaranteed to please no one, least of all the author.  Experiencing Frozen, though, shows me that it can be done, and done extremely well, and the positive response to the movie by both audiences and critics proves that these kinds of characters can touch hearts.  Magic has always had a lingering visceral appeal, and too often literature and cinema adhere to the conservative religious view that there is something fundamentally wrong about it, forever at odds with how the world is supposed to function.  Yet it’s something that we all still seem to want in our lives – in the first encounter with a new love, in the twinkle in the eye of a child waiting for Santa, in the wish made on the shooting star.  Why can’t the world be magical?  Why can’t we make it that way?

Writers have our own magic to offer.  We have these crazy ideas and wild emotions that we are somehow able to transmogrify into a collection of permutations of 26 letters that cast spells upon those who read them, with the very effects I mentioned off the top.  When we’ve suppressed that nature for too long, because day jobs and other obligations have gotten in the way, or we’ve just been too downright lazy to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we risk not a catastrophic explosion like Elsa, but a gradual withering away of our spirit.  We get mopey and find little to be happy about in what should be fulfilling lives.  What we need to do is have a “Let It Go” moment instead and revel in what we love and what we know we’re meant to be.  Sometimes it takes a reminder; a movie like Frozen that assures you that storytellers are capable of some wondrous things.  And then you want to get back to your own fictional universes and start pushing your own limits again, typing until your fingers fall off and you’ve created magical palaces of skyscraping prose.  Hoping somewhere in the back of your mind that one day your story will have the same impact on somebody else – and the cycle of creativity will continue, forever unfrozen.

Weighing in on Wonder Woman

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“Don’t let them screw it up,” was producer Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli’s advice to his daughter Barbara as he handed her the reins of the James Bond franchise.  The same six words tremble on the lips of every comic book fan who dreams of seeing Wonder Woman represented on a theatre screen with hundreds of millions of dollars and a booming Hans Zimmer score behind her.  While the last three decades have seen Superman and Batman go through their cinematic paces with both triumphs and nadirs, WW remains shackled in the vault, a victim of Hollywood’s utter inability to figure out how to handle her.  While her comic continues to sell, and she’s seen some action in animated form, the leap to live action feature remains daunting.  Big industry movers and shakers like David E. Kelley and Joss Whedon have tried and failed to bring her to life.  But as everyone with even a passing interest has heard, Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known from the recent spate of Fast & Furious franchise offerings, has been signed to appear as Wonder Woman in the next Superman movie, alongside Henry Cavill reprising his role from Man of Steel and Ben Affleck taking over for Christian Bale as Batman.  That’s all we know at this point.

What we can offer by way of conjecture is that the role for Wonder Woman in a film already top-heavy with marquee characters and A-list names, built around a conflict between DC’s two heaviest hitters, is not fated to be of the substance her biggest fans crave.  Firstly, the movie is intended as a sequel to Man of Steel, so it’s not meant to be an ensemble piece with each character having his and her requisite beats.  Superman remains the lead part with Batman as a second lead/supporting player.  The primary character arc, the hero’s journey, will be Superman’s.  The demands of a limited running time mean Wonder Woman is unlikely to be given much of an origin story; she’s likely to merely show up at some critical point (or be disguised as Diana Prince, new reporter for the Daily Planet and Lois Lane rival, for the majority of the plot before a third-act costumed reveal).  And the character’s Greek mythological (i.e. fantasy) background is an uneasy fit in between Superman’s science fiction nature (at least, as it was depicted in MoS) and Batman’s hard-boiled detective leanings.  The Justice League animated series adopted a “just go with it” approach whereby the characters simply got on with battling whatever military/magical/alien villain happened to show up this week, without stopping to explain how all these genres could logically coexist.  But I doubt that an intended-for-mainstream-audiences movie will be satisfied with that.  Marvel’s The Avengers had the advantage of five different introductory movies to get the exposition out of the way so you could accept the idea of Thor and Iron Man together; MoS II or whatever it’s going to be called has no such luxury.  (Part of the problem is that the rollout of the DC properties has been haphazard, first with the mediocre Superman Returns, then the abysmal Green Lantern, and the incompatibility of Nolan’s wildly successful Dark Knight trilogy with an overarching story, and now they are struggling to play catch-up to Marvel’s much more strategic approach.)

The thought, then, is that her extended cameo in Man of Steel vs. Dark Knight, or whatever they’re calling it, may serve as a springboard for her own standalone spinoff.  That puts a heckuva lot of pressure on Gadot to deliver a performance that stands out just enough amidst the testosterone-fueled Kryptonian/Gothamite smackdown without taking so much focus off the two male leads that we lose interest in their story.  And she has to accomplish that herculean (hera-ian?) task while competing for attention with Amy Adams, no slouch she with screen presence.  While the trolls trashing the relatively unknown Gadot for not having the right look or not being American or not being insert favorite large-breasted actress you’d love to sleep with here need to open a window in that basement of theirs (seriously folks, have we learned nothing from the short-lived backlash over Heath Ledger and The Dark Knight?), legitimate questions can be asked about how the character will be written for her to play.  For one of the most difficult characters for any person to write well is an empowered woman, and especially difficult is a superpowered woman.  Going back to my mention of James Bond earlier, while he may be held up as an aspirational example of a certain kind of masculinity (he shouldn’t, in my view), hardly anyone in criticism writes of Bond as a template for Man.  But every time a woman of significance appears on screen in a role that calls for slightly more than “focus group-required love interest,” critics leap to immediately assign her a greater significance in the canon of All That Is Female.  Woman becomes Everywoman.  So too, we expect, will Wonder Woman.

And they won’t be able to help themselves.  Wonder Woman is essentially, a goddess; flawless beauty and figure combined with indomitable strength and abilities, an aspirational, unachievable paradigm of feminine perfection.  You’re the writer of Man of Steel 2: Batman Boogaloo or whatever.  Now quick, go pen some dialogue for this character.  Dialogue that, you know, intrigues and endears audiences but doesn’t send them bolting for the exits with a preachy collection of dumbed-down feminist stereotypes, or turns a beloved icon into a brainless git making sure to point her shapely hind end provocatively at the camera while slam-punching supervillains through buildings.  Fancy that assignment?  Particularly when we’re still operating within the restraints noted above, that she has to be memorable but not so memorable that she diminishes Batman and/or Superman, the latter of whom the movie is mainly supposed to be about?

If it sounds like I’m not holding out a lot of hope for Wonder Woman circa 2015, you’d be partially correct.  I hope she’s the most awesome version of the character we’ve ever seen, leaving folks asking Lynda who? and begging for Wonder Woman Begins.  What I’m missing is the faith that this can be executed properly by the creative team handling her live-action feature debut, or indeed by any creative team in the realistic position to handle this potential franchise.  Because too often in the past, we’ve seen them (the generic them) screw it up.  They screw it up by refusing to invest female action heroes with humanizing nuance, by writing them as archetypes instead of as people.  Broad caricatures who have to lose what makes them women in order to compete on the same playing field as men.  Or, they venture too far the other way, where femininity is cranked up to vampy extremes for the benefit of naught but teenage boys.  The Lara Croft movies presented a lead utterly without warmth or any discernible charm and consequently any audience empathy.  Catwoman put its lead in bondage gear and involved her not in a battle for the fate of the world, but in a silly plot about toxic makeup.  (And the failures of these films set back the female action genre by years, as shortsighted executives figured people weren’t going to see them because they didn’t like action movies with female heroes, not the real reason – because the movies themselves just sucked.)

What I’d like to see, and what I expect folks who are far greater fans of Wonder Woman than I am would want to see as well, is a character who despite her superpowered trappings still possesses emotions that we can understand and encounters situations we can recognize.  (You know, like walking to work one day and running into a massive, marauding interstellar beast.)  A character with some real weight and depth.  A goddess who is still human where it counts most, in her heart and in her head.  That’s what will make us love her and want to see more of her.

Over to you, Zack Snyder, David S. Goyer, Christopher Nolan and Gal Gadot.  Show us the Wonder.

What to get yourself for Christmas

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A cynic has no easier target than Christmas.  As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake.  As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit.  Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables.  We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.

I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination.  Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield.  Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it.  But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants.  It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it.  No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.

Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it.  It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity.  The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment.  The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off:  tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string.  I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes.  What are we celebrating, really?  The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out?  The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch?  Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?

To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future.  The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast.  The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches.  The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows.  The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree.  Snowmen standing valiant guard outside.  The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking.  The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner.  The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift.  Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s.  The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus.  The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips.  The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it.  And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.

You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear.  It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill.  But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes.  So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking.  They’re the best gift you can give yourself.

What are yours going to be?