11/17/17

Andy Weir's Artemis Releases Tomorrow

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ARTEMIS (2017)
By Andy Weir
Crown, 320 pages.
★★★

The Martian, Andy Weir's debut novel, was a smashing success. His follow-up, Artemis, is too good to be called a sophomore slump, but it's at best a mixed bag. Fans of nerdy science will find plenty to contemplate, though the literature side of it yaws more toward Dan Brown than to Ursula K. LeGuin or Robert Heinlein.    

It is set in the near future in Artemis, a small city of 2,000 clustered in five bio bubbles on the Moon (Armstrong, Aldrin, Conrad, Bean, Shepard) that has solved the problem of producing enough oxygen to keep everyone inside alive. Artemis is run by the Kenyan Space Corporation (KSC) and headed by Administrator Fidelis Ngugi, the woman who figured out how to make Kenya a leader in the space program. She is one of the many politically correct boxes Weir ticks off; there are also gay characters, Latinos, Scandinavians, a hunky Ukrainian researcher, Brazilian and Chinese baddies, our protagonist, Jasmine ("Jazz") Bashara, is of Saudi extraction, and her welder father, Ammar is a devout Muslim for whom Jazz is a disappointment. Jazz, aged 27, has lived on the Moon since she was six and considers herself an Artemisian. She's certainly not a good Muslim; she's a hard drinker, sleeps around, and walks on the razor's edge. Her biggest fear is that head of security Rudy DuBois will someday bust her small-scale smuggling operation and deport her back to Earth.

Artemis is like a big extended village, but it's not a utopia—more like Deep Space Nine set on the lunar surface and stripped of its aliens. Lots of Earth stuff is conveniently ignored: the legal drinking age, corporate monopolies, petty crime, casual sexual relations, etc. Only its wealthiest members get to eat anything other than Gunk, flavored algae, and everyone is in one way or another in thrall to KSC as the Artemisian currency, slugs, is credit from the KSC. (It's shorthand for soft-landed grams and each one is pegged to a gram of Earth cargo.) Still, tourists fly to the moon to gawk and bounce around on the surface in "hamster bubbles," and many of residents such as Jazz prefer its Mild West vibe of drinking, hookups, cussing, libertarian values, and improvised ways of making a living.

Jazz, however, wouldn't mind having a bigger living space, and that sucks her into a Get Slugs Quick scheme from a regular smuggling customer, the ridiculously rich Tron Landvik. All she has to do is slip outside the city and destroy four mineral harvesters belonging to the Sanchez Aluminum Company. As such things go, Tron's stated reason for wanting them taken down isn't his real reason. Let the caper begin. It will involve murder, a crime syndicate, geeky technology, double-dealing, hair-raising danger, an unlikely set of partnerships, and beat-the-clock scenarios.

How you'll feel about all of this takes me back to my Dan Brown analogy. Do you buy into computer-like minds that are able to do the science, overcome physical threats, and concoct improvised solutions in a parsec, or does it stretch your credulity? I can't assess Weir's science—my Ph.D. is in history, not STEM—but his solutions at least sounded logical to my right-brained thinking. His human responses, however, often rang false. To me, this novel has Hollywood thriller written all over it. Its central drama is pretty much the template for such projects, especially the put-aside-existing-prejudices-for-the-good-of-all setup.

Mind, I have no objection if Artemis becomes a good Hollywood thriller, though somehow I doubt it has the capacity to match the gravitas of Blade Runner or even The Martian. Artemis is a decent read and bad girl Jazz will grow on you as she evolves. Ultimately, though, Artemis is a pretty standard thriller dressed in enough respectable scientific garb to make it appear weighty in a setting with 16% of Earth's gravity. But, hey, I like Dan Brown.

Rob Weir*

*Note: Though we bear the same last name, to my knowledge I am in no way related to Andy Weir.

11/15/17

More from Canada's National Gallery

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Art Road Trip: Ottawa Part Two

In an earlier post I featured Canadian art from the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa, Ontario. In this post I feature a few other things to investigate.

Canada is, by area, the world's second largest nation, though the bulk of its population lives within a hundred miles of the US border. Yet those large, underpopulated regions have dramatic influence upon weather pattern, hence Canadians are also among the most geographically aware people on the planet. It should thus come as little surprise that Canadians and landscape painting go together like love and maple syrup—a Gordon Lightfoot reference for those wondering about the analogy. 

Varley: Stormy Weather Georgian Bay


Thomson: Jack Pine
MacDonald:The Solemn Land

Lawren Harris


Emily Carr
Probably the most famous of all of Canada's art coteries was the Group of Seven—landscape painters whose peak period was the 1920s and 1930s. Originally they included Frank Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley, but it was a changing lineup that wasn't always seven. In fact, two of its most famous members were not originals: Tom Thomson and, a personal favorite, Emily Carr, whose depictions of totem poles and the Canadian West differentiated her from the rest, who were mainly Ontarians and Quebecers. These days, thanks to Steve Martin, Lawren Harris is probably the best known of the bunch.




Yvonne Houser: Rossport Lake Superior

Canadian landscapes often covey a sense of largeness and majesty. Most lack human subjects and if you've been to the Canadian Shield, the Rockies, or the Far North, you can understand why. I've not been north, but those other places have a way of making you think humans are pretty damn puny compared to the settings in which they roam. There's also a hard-to-describe mystery about some of those places. Harris portrays hat quite well in paintings whose subjects are at once real and surreal. Thomson does this as well, but with interplay of light and natural features.

William Raphael: Behind Bonsecouers Market, Montreal
Houser: Cobalt
Oddly, Canadian town and cityscapes often take on toy-like features: wooden structures that that evoke building blocks, streets filled with figures that border on folk art, and villages set amidst outsized features. Canadian painters also tackle historical subjects such as the coming of railroads, contacts with First Nations people, and so on. And, let's face it; Canada gets a lot of snow, a detail in all sorts of painting.   

 
Alex Colville (1920-2013) isn't very well known outside of Canada, but he's one of my all-time favorite artists. He painted with the same sparseness and evocations of emotional isolation as Edward Hopper and is sometimes called the Canadian Hopper. People look everywhere except at each other, but where they gaze is as debatable as the Mona Lisa's smile. There are also echoes of Winslow Homer.



Like any other museum, I have personal favorites. A few are depicted below.

Joseph Legare: Josephine Ourne
Prudence Howard Rollande
Harris: Toronto Street

Liubov Popova: The Pianist

11/13/17

The Dressmaker Has Too Many Loose Seams


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THE DRESSMAKER (2016)
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse
Universal Pictures, 118 minutes, R (language)
★★

The Dressmaker, an Australian comedy, concludes with a delicious revenge scenario. Would that everything that came before it been as good. Alas, Jocelyn Moorhouse serves us a film that's quirky, but not quirky enough; weird, but not weird enough; goofy, but not goofy enough; and surreal, but not surreal enough. Detect a pattern?

The Aussies have a talent for offbeat comedy and have produced such small gems as The Castle, Strictly Ballroom, Malcolm, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This one seeks, but doesn't quite find, that same vibe.* It takes us to the Outback settlement of Dungatar, which would be nowhere at all except inexplicably it's near another town, Winyerp, and the two are rivals. It opens in 1951 when Myrtle ("Tilly") Dunnage (Kate Winslet), arrives at the local train station dressed to the nines, her red lipstick a rare flash of color amidst the parched gray and yellow landscape. Her mother, known as Mad Molly (Judy Davis), lives in Dungatar, but Tilly's not there to see mum and mum doesn't want to see her. Tilly wants to know what happened 25 years earlier. All she can remember is that she was accused of being responsible for young Stewart Pettyman's death in 1928, when they were both eight and that she was exiled from the town. Was she really the young murderess she was accused of being? Does this explain why she feels cursed? 

In her exile to the city (Melbourne?), Tilly picked up some serious seamstress skills. She wears clothes that disgust the local women—until they see how she turns the heads of every man who looks at her. Locals still think she's a cold-blooded killer, but when her red dress turns a soccer match against Winyerp to Dungatar's favor and her dressmaking skills help frumpy Gertrude Pratt (Sarah Snook) ensnare a beau, they are willing to hold their noses and beg her to make frocks for them. Soon we are treated to the absurdity of windblown Outback matrons decked out in high couture. That's a pretty funny idea, but the subtexts are labored. Stewart's father, town councilor Evan Pettyman (Shane Bourne) hates Tilly, blames her for his son's death, poisons townsfolk against her, and even recruits a rival dressmaker to compete with her. Her only friends in town are hunky Teddy McSwiney (Liam Helmsworth), his half-witted brother, Barney (Gyton Grantley), and local police sergeant Horatio Farrat (Hugo Weaving), who loves the gowns Tilly sews and can't wait to try them on!

As you can see, The Dressmaker has all the makings of a Joel and Ethan Coen film—except that it never lives up to that potential. The search for what really happened in 1928 rests on a pretty lame repressed memory device and all the primping and preening starts to feel like a really bad mall fashion show. To underscore an earlier critique, a key pivot point comes new tragedies unfold, except they're not sad enough to be poignant, nor camp enough to be funny. Then we get the reveal and payback, the latter of which is vicious and satisfying, though its tone is out of keeping with that of the rest of the film.

Winslet is fine in the film, but it's really just a walk through for her, Davis, Hemsworth, and Weaving. There are a few laughs and that final scene, which could have only been improved had someone more acid, like Tilda Swinton been in the role of Tilly. Overall, there's nothing inherently awful about The Dressmaker and it would certainly fit the bill as a download for a night in which you don't want to do much except crump in your favorite chair and veg out for a few hours. Just keep your expectations low.

Rob Weir

* Oddly, The Dressmaker was Australia's top box office grosser for 2015. That probably explains why Universal picked it up for a 2016 release in the US.

11/10/17

The Black Widow: Novel, Screed, or Clarion Call?

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THE BLACK WIDOW (2016)
By Daniel Silva
HarperCollins, 517 pages
★★★

This is the 16th book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series, though you need not have read any of the others to appreciate it. For those who don't know Allon, he's an urbane, sophisticated, and deadly Israeli master spy—think a more compact and domesticated version of James Bond. In this novel, Allon is rumored to have been killed in his last assignment. Actually, he's trying his best to be retired and is living a secluded life—a necessity for a man every Muslim terrorist would love to murder—with his Italian wife Chiara, recently born twins, and his other passion: art restoration.  He has no desire to get back in the game and, frankly, he's getting a bit long in the tooth for such activities.

Gabriel's plans go awry when he inherits a Van Gogh—the hard way. An ISIS bomb explodes in the Marais district of Paris and kills dozens of people, including the woman who entrusted her priceless Van Gogh to Gabriel. French intelligence is paralyzed and Israeli intelligence wants Allon to takeover for longtime head Uzi Navot, whom they view as past his sell-by date. This sets the stage for a sprawling novel that takes us from Paris and Israel to Beirut, Syria, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Israeli intelligence knows that something much bigger is afoot and Allon's job is to bring down an ISIS cell headed by a mysterious figure known by his nom de guerre, Saladin.

This time, though, Allon needs information, not a daring assassin. Little is known about Saladin except his penchant for recruiting revenge-seeking "black widows," women who have lost husbands, boyfriends, fathers, and brothers in the terror wars and blame Israel for their heartaches. In short, Allon needs an insider. To that end, he recruits Dr. Nathalie Mizarhi, a multilingual French Jew, and transforms her into Dr. Leila Hadawi, a Palestinian black widow. It's a dangerous game for many reasons: Mizarhi sees herself as apolitical, she'll be beheaded if caught, and even if she's not, Saladin likes to turn female recruits into suicide bombers.

Allon is clever and his network strong, but is Saladin his Professor Moriarty? The book's drama is gripping, Silva masterfully builds the suspense, his characters have depth, and he throws in many unexpected twists that take you places you wouldn't expect. For many readers, though, Silva's politics will cause as much anxiety as his plot. In an afterword Silva pulls no punches when asserting that that ISIS and much of the Muslim world is engaged in a literal crusade against the West. The novel's U.S. president is clearly modeled on Barack Obama, and Silva sees him as a naive fool who thinks the US can ignore ISIS and disengage from the Middle East. The French are hogtied, the British are inept, and the Dutch and Belgians are clueless about the severity of the threats in their midst. Where analysts see dozens of terrorists hiding in places such as the Molenbeek section of Brussels, Silva sees thousands. To put it bluntly, The Black Widow is an apocalyptic warning masquerading as a novel.
Is he right? I happen to share Silva's view that Obama's worldview was/is overly optimistic, but it's also easy to tar Silva's as hysteria bordering on paranoia. I'll get back to politics, but for review purposes, how good is this novel? The answer, in my view, is that it's a mixed effort—an assessment that is surely open to the charge that my own take on terrorism lies between those of Barack Obama and Daniel Silva. Silva is a skilled writer whom we must take seriously within the suspense/spy/thriller genres. Past Gabriel Allon novels work very well in part because the dance between heroes and villains operates within the relatable intimacy of personal encounters-even when broader networks are involved. ISIS is a different lump of gefilte fish. Saladin has a personality, but ISIS does not—it's more akin to the swarm mind of the Borg in Star Trek. Its objectives are nihilistic and annihilistic. Saladin aside, The Black Widow has too many villains without faces. In addition, critical parts of the novel seem like something out of the movie Independence Day.

Readers ultimately face questions of whether this is a work of fiction, or a screed—a novel, or a call to arms. Silva tries to have it both ways, but I am torn as to whether he has chosen the right forum to promote mobilization. But then again, I am also torn between the feeling that Silva is overly alarmist and the gnawing fear that maybe he's not.


11/8/17

Lost City of Z: Not Bad, Should Have Been Better

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THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016)
Directed by James Gray
Amazon Studios, 141 minutes, PG-13
★★★


 
In tone and subject matter, The Lost City of Z often evokes other films about intrepid individuals far from their comfort zones: Fitzcaraldo, Gorillas in the Mist, Apocalypse Now…. It's not as good as any of those, rather a classic 3 out of 5 stars film: decent, but not dazzling. Oddly, when it falters it's because it should have been even longer than 141 minutes—or else considerably shorter.

The central tales—based on actual events—are compelling. In 1906, the British government tapped an undistinguished army officer, Captain Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), to spend several years seeking the source of South America's Rio Verde River. (Britain had been asked to survey the area as a way of averting a war between Bolivia and Brazil but its intentions were not entirely benign—Bolivian tin was an in-demand commodity.) Fawcett arrived, only to be informed that his government had aborted the project as too dangerous. Fawcett nevertheless persisted and, with the aid of Captain Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Corporal Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), located the river's source by traveling into parts of Amazonia no Europeans had ever seen before. This made Fawcett the darling of the Royal Geographic Society (RGS)—sort of. Fawcett's claim that he also glimpsed the ruins of a lost civilization whose past glories surpassed those of Europe divided the RGS at a time in which prevailing Eurocentrism held that Caucasians were superior to non-whites and always had been.

Unfortunately for Fawcett's team, one RGS member, biologist James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) was intrigued enough to insist on taking part of a Fawcett return expedition in 1911-13. At the time, Murray was a leading light in the RGS for having taken part on one of Shackleton's Antarctica sojourns. In truth, Murray was a blowhard self-promoter who was as prepared for the rigors of the tropics as a polar bear for a visit to the Everglades. Fawcett sent an emaciated Murray home, an act of charity for which Murray later tried to sue to divert attention from his own failures. Fawcett made seven trips to Bolivia before he and his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) disappeared in 1925, presumably eaten by a tribe practicing ritual cannibalism*. 

Perhaps you see both the promise and challenges of a Fawcett biopic. The material offers very rich possibilities, but which part or parts can one actually bring to the screen? All films elide time and the challenge facing director James Gray was whether to offer tantalizing appetizers or a full-course meal. He served both and that was a mistake. The Lost City of Z highlights the three trips I mentioned. Fair enough—they were the most noteworthy. But Gray also shoehorns various side stories: a military career stymied by humble birth, the arrogance of the British class system, the limits of anthropological knowledge in the early 20th century, the strains on Fawcett's family life, the frustrated ambition of Fawcett's feminist wife Nina (Sienna Miller), the coming of World War One, and simmering Oedipal conflicts between Percy and Jack. All of these are worthy topics, but not if all you to do is give a nod and a wink.

Gray broke the current screen norm of 100-110 minutes, so why not add another 20-30 minutes to give subjects such as Nina's feminism a deeper treatment instead of presenting a tokenistic firebrand in Edwardian corsets? Similarly, Jack's resentment of his father goes from bitterness to slavish admiration so fast that it hardly seems plausible. (Not to mention Holland's cheesy faux mustache that makes him look like a choirboy in drag.) Alternatively, Gray could have pared the material. Do we need more than a footnote about a middling army career for someone we'd never have known were it not for his Bolivian adventures? Could collage and montage have been used to meld the journeys and overcome the problem that it feels like we are seeing three separate loosely connected films?  

 Still, The Lost City of Z has moments of fascination and I'll admit that I never gave much thought to Fawcett prior to viewing it. Fawcett's perilous encounters with Amazonian tribes made me ponder whether explorers such as Fawcett were intrepid pioneers of knowledge or madmen. The film is rich visually and lots pique the appetite. I suspect, though, that most viewers will share my view that The Lost City of Z should have somehow been better.

Rob Weir

* As a tragic ironic footnote, John D. Rockefeller Jr. financed the lion's share of Fawcett's last visit. His grandson, Michael—son of New York politician, Nelson—also became an explorer. In 1961, New Guinea cannibals devoured Michael.   

11/6/17

Guy Fawkes: The Man Behind the Meme


THE REAL GUY FAWKES (January 2018)
By Nick Holland
Pen and Sword History, 230 pages
★★★

If you've seen the movie V for Vendetta or an Occupy Wall Street protestor behind a black-and-white mask marked by distinctive eyebrows, goatee, mustache, and impish smile, you might recognize the name Guy Fawkes (1570-1606). You know the meme, but do you know the man? His pop culture props notwithstanding, Guy Fawkes is like Che Guevara, a problematic rebel figure. I finished reading an advance copy of Nick Holland's new biography of Fawkes on November 5, a day in which much of Britain celebrates Fawkes' memory by burning his effigy. On that day in 1605, Fawkes was arrested on the eve of what would have been a monstrous act of terror: he and co-conspirators had placed enough gunpowder under the House of Lords to blow it sky high and kill most of the English government. Some observers claim—with perhaps a touch of hyperbole—that such a blast might have leveled all of Parliament. Other plotters planned to kill King James I, if he survived the blast, and to kidnap his daughter, who grew up to become Queen Elizabeth I.

What drove Fawkes to such fury? That is the question Holland seeks to answer. His is a very thorough biography on Fawkes analogous to the sleuthing done by Robert Cecil, the royal administrator whose spy network stopped Fawkes. As a biographer, Holland—also known for a book on Anne Brontë—is firmly in the camp of those who see the times as shaping individuals, not vice versa. Although he spends time discussing Fawkes' childhood and formative experiences, he makes it quite clear that in an earlier age Fawkes would have lived a comfortable life unmarked by controversy. 

Indulge me in some history, as it's pretty easy to get lost in these sections of Holland's book if you don't know the terrain. Fawkes lived at a time in which religious faith was a command, not an option. The event known as the Protestant Reformation broke Roman Catholicism's monopoly on Christian orthodoxy. It's often (inaccurately) dated as starting in 1517, but it took centuries before Christians fully embraced ideals of religious freedom. Until then, sanguinary wars of religion took place over a single question: Catholic or Protestant? Fawkes was born into an Anglican (Church of England) South Yorkshire family in 1570, just 36 years after King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) declared England a Protestant nation. After a few short reigns, Henry's daughter, Queen Mary I (1553-58) restored Catholicism, but her sister, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and nephew James I (1603-25) pushed Catholics to the margins and made the Anglican Church supreme again. Political intrigue seldom settles what people believe, however, and Catholicism thrived in low profile, especially in Yorkshire. Queen Elizabeth, however, enacted increasingly harsh laws that targeted Catholic  "recusants" that refused to take in Anglican services.

As Holland explains, this was very bad timing for Fawkes, who likely converted to Catholicism after his father died in 1577, possibly the result of his mother's remarriage to a recusant. Fawkes was just 21 when he sold most of his estate to avoid losing it to crippling penalty taxes on recusants. He trudged off to the Continent to fight for Catholic Spain against the Protestant Dutch, an act that bordered on defiance given that England was still technically at war with Spain*. By the time young Guy, now using the affected Italian name Guido, was back in England, his Catholicism had so deepened. that he was inexorably drawn into a circle of plotters and schemers seeking to overthrow Protestant rule.

Although his work focuses on Fawkes, one of Holland's contributions is to deemphasize Fawkes, whose military background made him good with munitions, but whose diminished social status would made him an unlikely master planner. He views Robert Catesby (1572-1605) as the real leader of the Gunpowder Plot, with the powerful Percy family the shadow puppet masters. Catesby, like Thomas Percy, met his demise at the end of a musket rather than the prolonged tortures that befell other conspirators. Holland describes these in gruesome detail—the rack, partial hanging, emasculation, disembowelment, beheading, and more. Ironically, Fawkes fell from the scaffold and broke his neck, hence avoiding a prolonged death.

Holland has certainly done his homework; so much so that a small drawback is that his book sometimes bogs down in a genealogist's welter of detail. In these sections the narrative tone slides into a chronicler's dry voice. In my view, there's too much of this and not enough on the plot itself. I'd rank Holland's as the best biography of Fawkes, but Antonia Fraser's 1996 book remains my favorite on the unfolding drama. Kudos to Holland though for taking some of the sheen off the Gay Fawkes masks. Was Guy Fawkes a martyr for his faith? You could conclude he was no more or less bloody-minded than his contemporaries, but it is just as easy to imagine a successful Fawkes as one of history's greatest mass murderers. Perhaps he's much better as a meme than a memory.

Rob Weir  

* England's war with Spain lasted from 1585-1604, though it was pretty much over in 1588, when the mighty Spanish Armada was destroyed in the English Channel by storms and battle.

How to Celebrate the Hols without Breaking the Bank


Ho Ho, No!


Here’s our annual Black Friday “How to Opt Out of Christmas” piece. It gets a yearly refresh. Here's the 2017 version.

Years ago we opted out of Christmas. It wasn’t the money; we simply wanted release from the stress and mindless consumerism. Spare us the Babe in the Manger speeches; Christmas in America is more about Adam Smith than Baby Jesus. Or is it Xi Jinping? Communist China manufactures what passes for North American Christmases.

Our breaking point came when our nieces and nephew were still children. One Christmas morning they were literally swamped under a mound of gifts, with wrapping paper piled to twice the height of the youngest! The kids no sooner opened one present than another was thrust at them so that every relative under the sun could snap a photo. Soon, they were dazed and numb. By mid-afternoon the wrapping paper and boxes had more allure than the presents. Sadder still, the wreckage represented hundreds of dollars of outlay, much of it from working-class folks that could have used the cash for much better purposes.

Christmas is even dumber for adults. It's a zero sum game: You buy me the item on page 72 of the L.L. Bean catalog and I’ll buy you one from page 104. Such a system of forced reciprocity is about as sentimental as sharing a cold. Even worse, Christmas shopping sends consumers down the rabbit hole of debt. Consider that the average American family now has a negative income; they owe more than they earn.  

Our nieces and nephew are older now and have kids of their own. We have one parent left between us and other extended family members have departed. Now we think about "intentional" family— friends, younger folks, and neighbors whose presence we cherish more than their presents.

It's pretty hard for anyone with kids to avoid Christmas altogether—no matter one's religious heritage—because it has become a secular holiday rooted in materialism, not spiritualism. Still, you don't have to fly a white surrender flag on Black Friday and join the sheeple at a soul-crushing mall. Here are a few alternatives:  

 Step One: Breaking the Habit Through the Power of Guilt.

You can start breaking the materialist habit by getting the adults in your life to join you in opting out. We started by asking people not to buy any gifts for us and telling them we'd rather they give money to a charity. Let them know which ones you'd prefer and ask them which charities they'd like us to support in their name. Our Oxfam request went down a storm—those with kids got pressure from them once they got a look at the brochure filled with animals that donations help purchase! We also found that appeals to how lucky we are to have so much went a long way—especially when linked to the whole notion of Christmas being a season of giving. It took a few years to get everybody on board, but soon adult gift giving stopped to everyone's relief.

Step Two: Be True to Your Principles.

Spend quality time with friends and family. Don't just say you want to get out of the mall and spend QT with them—Do it!  Schedule dinners in or out with close friends and family. It doesn't even have to be that complicated. You'd be stunned how much it means when you ask someone you've not seen for a while to chat over a cup of coffee. There's not much that tops sitting in a decorated café with your hands wrapped around a warm mug on a cold December day and laughing with someone you care about. Ho, ho, ho indeed! 

Step Three: Replace Consumer Goods with Thoughtful Ones.

Presents are really a reminder that you care and there are plenty of ways to say that better than junk from Walmart. Do you know anyone who hates homemade baked goods? Can you lighten someone's burden by helping them with a household task? Can you give them a ride if their car is in the shop?  Are you craft-oriented? (One friend has a perfect knack for offering small ornaments that fit the personalities of the recipients.) We have a staple of films we watch with others around holiday time: It's a Wonderful Life to be sure, but also the Scottish film Comfort and Joy, and a few that aren't seasonal at all. Make popcorn or crack a few beers as is your pleasure, but watch with someone else. The biggest gift you can give is your time!

Step Four: Replace Old Rituals with New Ones.

Confession: we loathe Christmas carols, plastic reindeer, mall Santas, and blow-up lawn displays. If you too dislike hollow rituals, make some new ones. We buy a new tree ornament every year, date it, and share memories when past ones come out of storage. We celebrate Moosemas on December 16 by eating clam chowder and drinking Scotch. (Festivus is also good for some laughs!) A small ritual is walking amidst the downtown lights on Christmas Eve after the stores close. Another is strolling in the woods on late Christmas morning. Still another is playing CDs of English and Scottish carols that we’ve not heard a billion times. Our most cherished ritual involves annual pre-Christmas dinners at a restaurant with our dearest friends. A favorite new one is pooling resources to buy an expensive bottle of wine that we'd not buy on our own. Merry Châteauneuf-du-Pape! 
  
Step Five: Step into the Light.

If you live in the North, the stretch between Thanksgiving and Ground Hog’s Day is filled with (way too much) darkness. We like the ritual of bringing light into the darkness. Take a drive and look at the lights; some are garish and awful, but there's also a lot of cleverness and creativity on display. This one also goes down well with the kiddos. Take a daylight hike and collect pinecones, boughs, bittersweet, and other such things and fashion them into a centerpiece for a candle. (This is often a mirthful moment for us, as we have a distinct lack of talent for such things.)  Other light-themed events include after-sunset shop window gazing, bonfires, and nighttime visits to ice cream shops, cafes, and bars. Call it darkness tempered by atmospheric lighting.

Step Six: Share the Traditions of Others.

A very good way of breaking bad Christmas habits is to remind kids and yourself that we live in a bigger world with lots of other traditions. We've been honored to join Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah, which occurs December 12-20 this year. On December 1 Muslims celebrate the birth of Muhammad (Mawlid). It depends on local practices whether outsiders are welcomed, but you can certainly educate kids about it even if you can't attend an event. Dhanu Sankrati is a joyous Hindu holiday that happens December 16 this year, and odds are good a local Indian restaurant will prepare for it. December 8 is Bodhi Day for Buddhists. Spend some time in quiet reflection, as it's the day Siddhartha Gautama became the enlightened one (Buddha).  Need I tell you that Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) is a poignant time to appreciate African American culture and reflect on race relations in America? There are very good collections of Kwanzaa music to enhance the mood.

The holidays are a good time to begin a child's global education. Unicef and other agencies have programs to sponsor a child abroad. Set one up for your kids and spend part of Christmas with books, pictures, and maps that illustrate where that child lives. Corny as it sounds, a pen pal can be amazing; one of us remembers a Peruvian pen pal better than his Christmas toys! Help your kids write letters, and follow up with lessons on language, food, and culture.

Step Seven: Treat Yourself in December.

Take some of the dough you’re not spending on presents and go out. Take in a concert or a show. Soak in a hot tub. Go to an inn. Ski.

Step Eight: Build Up to Christmas Instead of Piling It Up.

Can you recall childhood says in which the anticipation of Christmas often surpassed the event itself? After all, what's left after the presents are opened? Remember those awkward silences sitting sat amidst the loot and wondering, "Now what?" Thin of money-saving ways to anticipate Christmas Day.

Let's face it, Americans don' do delayed gratification very well, which means a lot of us have most of what we might want. If it's the thought that counts, why not spend the weeks before Christmas doing "secret projects" with your kids. Let them make "special gifts" for each other and for adults. Sure, they'll be silly and ephemeral. As opposed to, say, the cheap toy that breaks in a week?  Let them bake things, build stuff, and create. Buy a little, not a lot. I suspect that they will get just as much pleasure from the homemade stuff they give and receive as the store-bought items.

Step Nine: Remember the Box Rule.

Overindulge children and you run the risk of overwhelming them (or having them grow up to be pampered brats). Kids need to exercise their imaginations so when you buy, gravitate toward things in which they can participate, not merely consume. A box fort is fun—says an uncle who used to dive right in with the kids!  So too are time-tested things that last: Lincoln logs, blocks, Legos, bikes, fantasy dolls, interactive books, musical instruments…. It's telling that the National Toy Hall of Fame contains exactly two electronic games in its entire collection (Atari, Nintendo), which suggests that this year's glitzy über-expensive “hot” toys will be landfill by Easter.

Step Ten: Make a Wish.

When buying for kids, don't confuse quantity with quality. You can establish some very solid life lessons if you make your kids set priorities. Instead of buying everything under the sun, ask your kids a simple question: If you could only get a few things, what would you really like? (You could even tell the young ones they have to choose so Santa doesn’t run out of gifts for other children.) Select a few of the reasonable ones because, hey, a pony won't fit into the kitchen! Save them for last; let the handmade gifts and anticipation come first.

Step Eleven:  Socks are not Stinky!

It’s horribly environmentally unsound, but debris is part of Christmas. So who says the stuff inside the paper has to cost an arm, a leg, and a kidney? Sock gifts are a lot of fun–dollar store Etch-a-Sketches, crayons, tops, and wind-up toys for kids, inexpensive foodstuffs for adults, card games to share…. You can get very creative about sock gifts and you can fill a sock for a fraction of what it costs to buy 'big' gifts.

Step Twelve: Make Christmas all about the Food.

Polls tell us that America's favorite holiday is Thanksgiving and not because it's our only non-religious non-patriotic event. It’s about food, family, friends, and a relaxed pace. So make Christmas into a second Thanksgiving. Prepare foods that take a long time to make. Buy that aforementioned really good bottle of wine. Have a multi-course meal that unfolds over several hours. And don’t forget to mention how lucky you are to have so much when others have so little.