Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On patience.

For the past four years, I've been involved with a strange project - FRAGILE: Global Performance Chain. It started in Italy by artistic duo VestAndPage, who wanted to see if a fragile object (a glass plate, made for the project) could be passed hand to hand, artist to artist, around the world and make it back to the place where it started. Each artist would create something that utilized the object and document it before passing it on to the next. There was an initial call for artists, and I signed up, along with 750 other people. I remember getting the full itinerary of the journey the object was going to travel. I was assigned a spot sandwiched between someone in New Mexico and someone in Kansas. I had hoped a bit that the person to whom I'd pass the object would be in a different country, just so I could have an excuse to travel, but I was excited anyway because I'd never been to Kansas.

I still haven't, four years later.

I remember initially brainstorming ideas for what I would do with the object, or how I would get it to the next person, roadtripping to Lawrence. But the reality of the project set in within the next year, when we saw just how slowly things were going to progress. You can scroll down here and see that progress, the places it's been are the orange dots, the ones it still needs to go to are the black. I'm in the USA slot that's at about 3:00. My friend Misha in Houston recently let me know that she had finally received it, so it has left Europe and entered the United States after all this time, but still has a long way to go throughout North and South America before it comes back to Texas and to me.

Progress as of the writing of this blog post

Based solely on how long it has taken to travel the cities within those first seven orange dots, I'm guessing I have about another 19 years. I'll be 57, and most likely not living in Texas, and hopefully not the same artist I am today. The amount of brainstorming and thinking I've put into this project over the years has dwindled. Hearing that the object did arrive safely in the US is definitely exciting and I'm 100% still on board with the project - but I've also figured out that this is definitely a work of art that can't be planned at all. The object will get to me when it gets to me, wherever I am.

I've had very few opportunities to create like this, and never (obviously) with this unending amount of time allotted. My MFA thesis was one, and it was as close to a perfect collaboration as one can ever hope for. Even then, though, the creation took place mostly within a six month period of time. I'm imagining starting a project with no idea if it will ever materialize, or in what form it will materialize, and being ok with that - but continuing to work on it and let it evolve and breathe however it wants. I imagine Caden Cotard in Synechdoche, NY, creating with no ending in sight, and no real need for one.  I'm starting to brainstorm an immersive piece with Will right now which I imagine we'll have to approach in this way. Maybe at some point the project is finished; maybe it isn't. It's very Buddhist, letting go of the outcome.
It involves keys. That's all we really know.

I am currently undergoing another process in my life that is taking more time than I had anticipated - the academic job search. And I'm learning the exact same lesson, that planning and thinking too much about jobs as I apply to them - where I might live, what my life might be like - makes the long wait to hear back from anyone much harder. This year has taught me that as I move into the next round of searching, I need to let each application go as I send them off, and move on to the next one, or the next project, or the next thing going on in my life at the time. Reading about others' processes during academic job hunts helps - it's unfortunately good to know that there are too many people for too few positions right now. I know that I'm probably an atypical lighting design candidate for these positions and the "right" position for me has to come along. It might take awhile; of all the positions to which I've so far applied, TWO jumped out as a "perfect match," and neither one came to be. I have to breathe, let go, apply, and trust that eventually the perfect match will actually exist. For someone who doesn't believe in fate and carefully plans out each step in her journey, that is a tall order. I've never been a very good Buddhist. But dwelling too much on a nebulous outcome that will happen sometime that is the future leads to forgetting about what's going on now, and ultimately leads to unhappiness and stress.

The process and the journey are just as much of a work of art as the finished project.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Problem With Sleep No More's Audience.

On my recent trip to NYC I had my third visit to the McKittrick Hotel. Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" is sacred ground to me, ever since my very first life-altering experience of it. I love this show. I love what it opens up about theater and art to everyone and how it has affected the way companies use the audience-performer-stage design interaction.

And I enjoyed my third trip. When I got off the elevator (the first elevator) I was near the ballroom, on the mezzanine level, and found myself standing next to Macbeth. I had planned to make this visit about following the performers and their arcs, because my previous visits has focused more on the design and space itself. I really hate competing with crowds and every time in the past that I've started to get the slightest bit annoyed with those around me, I just left and went to look at something else. This results in me having seen many individual scenes, but never one full character's story, something a lot of people have experienced. I was able to follow Macbeth for a little bit, out of the ballroom, up to his bedroom, and then back down to Duncan - I lost him after he killed him. I made my way to the hotel lobby and hung out with the Porter for a long while, because I'd never seen any part of his story. I was able to see the first prophecy, interactions with Banquo, another audience member bringing him a note from Hecate, and lots of Lady MacDuff's scenes. I headed up to Hecate after this and was alone in the rep bar when she walked in - I think I was touching her peacock feathered fan. People began following her in, and eventually she was eating the piece of raw meat at the table but staring me down the entire time. She coughed up a ring, stuck in the meat, and put it on my finger, at which point she began the haunting lip-synch to "Is That All There Is?" while holding my hand. When the song was over, she whispered "Thank you" into my ear, and led someone else off for a 1:1. I saw several other moments that I hadn't seen before because I was more focused on the performers and less focused on my surroundings this time. I also was able to see the prophecy/orgy/rave sequence again, and some of the Matron's traipsing through the woods. And when I wandered by accident into the ballroom and saw there were already white masks camped out in there, I figured that the ending was near, and was able to get a good view of the final scene.
Your pre-game instructions

A few weeks later, two of my close friends in Austin were at "Sleep No More." One had already been and the other, Will, was seeing it for the first time. I had been thinking about the Audience Problem since my visit - the fact that there are people who see the show repeatedly, and seek out specific moments and interactions within it, in the same way that everyone who had read "A Storm of Swords" started looking at their non-book reading friends as soon as the Red Wedding started - and also the fact that there are so freaking many people in that building, the inevitable result is pushing and stampeding, and this can lessen the experience. I had noticed none of this on my first visit in 2011 - I'm not sure if at the time it wasn't as popular as now, or if I was just blissfully unaware - but I did see some on my 2nd and 3rd visits. I wondered if it was apparent to Will, though, since he had never seen the show before.

Turns out he definitely noticed and it affected his experience of the piece. The audience frustrated him a lot and continually took him out of the moment, which saddens me because the whole reason I fell in love with "Sleep No More" was the three hour experience of being fully in another dream-like world. I've sent a lot of my friends to see the show and I really want them to have the chance to experience that magic. Will said that he could tell when and where things were about to happen, which audience members had seen the show before, and which ones were vying hard for a performer's attention. He still enjoyed the show, but having just seen "Then She Fell" a few days earlier he was missing that level of intimacy.

My other friend, Amanda, got to have the same Hecate experience that I described above - having the ring put on her finger, and going through "Is That All There Is?" When Hecate turned to choose someone else for her 1:1, however, that selected person apparently tried to take the ring off my friend's finger! I really want to know what was going on in that person's head, to make him think that this behavior was ok. And this is not the worst behavior I've heard of on the part of the audience - just the worst that has happened to someone I know. Bad "Sleep No More" audience behavior stories have been going around for years now. It makes me hesitate to send anyone else to see it, especially Travis, knowing that he is likely to be aware of and annoyed by everyone's behavior.

"Sleep No More" has been discussed as part of the "gamification" of theater, a concept I adore and want to explore endlessly but which also might be the problem. When we play games (that are heavy on story, or quests, or interactions with characters) we get to save and try again. We can walk wherever, open whatever doors, shoot whichever people the game will let us. Anything that is within the programmed limits of the game is possible, and acceptable. We like being able to experience all of the different endings, or unlock hidden scenes, or if given a quest (like finding a ring), trying over and over again until it's FOUND and the quest is complete. In a game, it doesn't matter if there is someone standing between you and that ring, because you can simply push them out of the way, or shoot them, or do whatever the game allows you to do to achieve your goal.

Many people by now have had so much experience visiting and revisiting "Sleep No More" that they are becoming like gamers, saving and restoring and attempting something new to experience something they KNOW is there but has so far been hidden from them. They try to find the secret combination of moves that unlocks the 1:1 with Hecate, and get visibly frustrated when they are not the chosen ones. They don't care that someone else next to them might be experiencing the show for the first time - they want their experience/interaction/hidden secret scene, dammit. After all, they paid roughly $90 to play this game (or more, if like me you are not in NYC) and they want to win.

I love the parallels between "Sleep No More" and games, I really do. I love being responsible for my own journey through a story, and having to do some work in order to discover a narrative. I love that there are little errands and quests within the show that are given to different lucky audience members. I don't want the 1:1 experiences to be removed. But how do you let the audience of 400 something people a night know that the experience of the show doesn't have to include any one of these things? That their ticket price does not entitle them to a specific experience? And that the other audience members and the performers are not non-playable characters?

The easy answer seems to be smaller audiences (and, for the record, both Will and I agreed that we would happily pay twice as much to see it with half as many people), but how small - "Then She Fell" small, which only takes 15 people per performance? How much of a rail do you put the audience on in order to control what they are able to do? How do you create art like this without fearing  the audience - not the occasionally wonderful person who gets swept away in the scene but the person who deliberately tries to steal an experience or force something to happen? How do you build a show that really has to be experienced multiple times in order to "get" the story without creating an audience that has been here, would prefer to skip over the lip-synching and just get to the part where she chooses someone for a private moment?

How do you create an open-world piece of art that allows 400 people to freely experience it however they choose, and still have people act like decent human beings?

(Prediction:  Since the above post included the words "Sleep No More," "Hecate," and "ring," this will soon rocket to one of my Top 5 Most Read Blog Entries.)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Down the Rabbit Hole.

My artistic world was altered forever when I first saw Punchdrunk's "Sleep No More" back in 2011.  I fell in love with the show, with the idea of experiential/immersive/gamified theater and have been following the show's online fan community ever since.  And it was through this community that I first heard of Third Rail Project's immersive production "Then She Fell."  Since I currently don't live near NYC, and getting tickets to this show can be difficult due to a limited number of audience members allowed at each performance, I wasn't sure that I would have the opportunity to experience it.

Last week I spent a couple of days in NYC binging on theater, and finally was able to see "Then She Fell."

It's better than "Sleep No More."

I credit this difference largely to the intimacy of "Then She Fell."  With only 15 audience members allowed at each performance, I was greeted personally at the door and led from moment to moment in the piece by different characters.  There were moments in which I was asked questions, and was given the impression that my answers had an effect on the narrative I was experiencing.  I had conversations, alone and under the stairs, with characters.  I left behind painted roses and messages in bottles that seemed to become parts of the set for future audiences to explore.

It's a dizzying experience.  I was afraid that without the freedom to go wherever I wanted it would feel too much like a conventional theater piece, but that thought never once entered into my head beyond the first or second scene.  Right from the start, I was given food and drink - almost all of the drink was alcoholic.  I was given a set of keys with absolutely no explanation for their purpose, but soon found that they unlocked different doors and boxes within the room.  And while I was at first led to watch my first scene (a beautiful encounter between Alice Liddel and Lewis Carrol, in which they danced up and down and through the railing on a set of stairs) with a group of three other people, including the person I had come to see the show with, that group was split up slowly through the first half of the show in a way that was barely noticeable.  I was so swept up in being moved from place to place, in watching the environment around me and wondering what was coming next in this bizarre dream that I failed to notice when my companion just wasn't behind me anymore.  And that moment?  Was kind of huge.  I turned, he was gone, and I was alone.

I spent most of the second half of the show alone, actually.  The only other people I encountered were the performers - I never once saw any of the 14 other people with whom I had begun the evening.  I can only assume that they were each experiencing something similar, and the choreography it must have taken to move 15 people through a relatively small space like that, giving each the sense that she was in her own dream world, by herself, must have been insanely complex.  Each character I encountered paid me special attention, talked to me, fed me, asked me to help them with tasks.  I ended up finishing in the same room in which we started the evening together, with a doctor showing me step by step the moves of a chess game.  She left me alone for a minute, with a cup of tea, and the next thing I knew the other audience members were wandering back in.  The dream was over.

Two aspects of the design of this experience have fascinated me and made me consider other ways they could be used.  The first was the set of keys I was given at the beginning.  I wish I had actually attempted to use these beyond the very first room I was in - I never used one of my keys at all, the fact is that I was too swept up in the rest of what was going on to seek out what they might unlock.  But the idea of giving a set of keys to your audience members and letting them unlock the secrets of the show and their own experiences - I wonder how far this could be carried?  Could the set of keys craft a unique path and experience for each person - you can only go through a door into a room if you can unlock it yourself?

The second was the food and drink, specifically the alcohol.  I doubt it ever really could be done for a public audience, but inducing an altered state in them before or during a show could become part of the experience, especially in something as dreamlike as this.  They never gave us enough alcohol for this to happen, but I could imagine ways in which that first cocktail I was given - the "elixir" - might affect how I perceived the rest of the show.  I've often thought that John Fowles's The Magus might make an excellent immersive theater experience, because it essentially IS that for its main character - however he does undergo some serious mind-altering experiences before and during his story.  To what extent would an audience be willing and able to do this?

I'm also thinking a lot about the responsibility of the audience at "Then She Fell" to discover the narrative for themselves.  Yesterday I read this article about the trend towards immersive theater that "Sleep No More" has created.  The piece annoyed me. The writer says " impressive as Sleep No More is as a piece of installation art, any glimpses of coherent drama (or Macbeth) are few and random."  This assumes that the audience is supposed to be spoon-fed the story in order for it to be "coherent," and what "Sleep No More" and "Then She Fell" do is leave it up to the audience to discover the story.  It's there.  But as an audience member, you're given an amount of responsibility over your own experience.  Within the set of "Then She Fell," you will find letters, articles, stories, photographs that contribute to the narrative.  If I hadn't stopped and examined these, read them carefully, I might not have "gotten" it - that isn't the same as the narrative not being coherent.  It's just as valid a theater-going experience as my viewing of "Waiting for Godot" was two nights later.  And as far as "Sleep No More" goes (I saw it the following evening, my third time, and am still in thrall to Hecate), there is an amazingly complex story going on that simply cannot be taken in on one viewing.  My sense of "Then She Fell" is that I do not need to see it a second time in order to grasp what was going on (I could be very wrong on this and am absolutely willing to go again!).  However, I know from conversations with others who have been to "Sleep No More" that after three viewings I still have not experienced the entire story, and I LOVE this.  I love that there's an ongoing mystery to be uncovered within the space of that piece of art, and that very few people (maybe not even the ones who have been dozens of times) have the full picture. 

I am considering a trip with one of my best friends later this year to London, specifically to see "The Drowned Man."  The only real risk in that is that the show itself is much larger than "Sleep No More," and probably more complex, and also much more difficult to attend more than once (what with it being in a different country).  I will have to be content with whatever I discover within my one experience of the show (and the many, many dreams it will induce afterwards).

Friday, February 21, 2014

Five Things: Updates from (after?) Sila Tech

"Sila" has opened (and is amazing, you should see it if you're anywhere near New Hampshire), and the tech process for the show was intense enough for me that nothing else happened for those two weeks, including reading, writing, visiting family, yoga, working out, etc.  I am really and truly ready to go home and see Travis and my kitties, and can honestly say that if I don't see any more snow for another decade, I won't be sad.

1.  Areas that embrace shades of grey - I love staying true to the complexities in life and not oversimplifying issues or existence into patented solutions, talking points and soundbites with which no human can really identify.  The past couple of weeks I have been binge-watching "Continuum" during countless hours of editing, re-editing, rendering, re-rendering, and cueing video for "Sila."  There is true conflict there over what in the given circumstances is the "right" thing to do, and how much of what one wants for one's self and family should be sacrificed for it.  It is difficult to root against the terrorists when you've seen the future they are intent on changing, and it's difficult to against the heroine for not wanting to alter that future and risk her family never existing.  The most interesting parts (to me) of "Sila" involve discussions over arctic policy, Canadian sovereignty, and the governing power of the Inuit, and how these things combine to show that there are far more complex issues at stake than just climate change.  Having seen recently what gross oversimplification of an issue will do, I want to try to make sure that as a member of the left I don't do the same.  I am still deeply concerned about climate change and our nation's (world's?) refusal to address/accept it, but have a bit more of an understanding of how things like a nation's desire to maintain control over the waters closest to its borders and not sit idly while other nations jump in might affect how the issue is addressed.  I am still not understanding or empathetic, however, to our disdain for science and unwillingness to see that we are not ourselves experts in everything, and not all "opinions" are of equal weight.

2.  A longer post is required to talk about my experience last night at Third Rail Project's "Then She Fell," a show I've been wanting to see for a long, long time now, but one important thing I should mention is that this show, in my opinion, is far better than "Sleep No More."  It is tighter, extremely intimate and personal, and for at least half of it I really felt like I was the ONLY audience member.  Without the distraction of 400 people pushing and shoving to get closest to the performers, I was able to focus on their dancing and interactions instead of getting frustrated and walking away.

3.  With "Sila" open, I am going to channel some of my creative energies into several small projects for myself for a bit.  Some of these will be video projects or animations and I will post links as I work on them.  Some of it is getting back to figure drawing and moving into painting.  All of it is a rest from the intensity that has been the "Sila" process since last summer.

4.  Noe Venable is running a Kickstarter for her upcoming album "CASCADIA."  This album's release is one of the things I am most looking forward to in 2014.

5.  It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year:  The Fusebox Festival lineup is up and reservations are live!  There are several things I'm really looking forward to this year, not the absolute least of which is the work of Miwa Matreyek.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Unconventional Collaborations.

Next week I head to New Hampshire to kick "Sila" into gear.  The light plot was turned in this week and There Will Be Revisions in the coming days.  The projection design is coming together and has had me exploring things - like animation - that I hadn't expected to be doing a year ago.  It's amazing and exhausting and a reminder of why I do love taking on things that I know will challenge me.

The projection design also gave me an opportunity I had not expected - the chance to collaborate with my nine year old niece.  I love it when a project lends itself to collaborations with unexpected or unconventional people.  This isn't the first time I've asked a child to help out with something - we did that for the projection design in "Transformations" back in 2008, involving a good friend's daughter doing large-scale finger painting.  There is a moment in "Sila" involving a child's drawing.  After a couple of attempts at creating this myself I realized that I wasn't going to be able to capture what makes a child's drawing so unique and awesome no matter how long I kept at it - so, I did what my husband refers to as "using child labor" and called my sister.  I spoke with my niece on the phone, explained what I was doing and what needed to be in the drawing, and twenty minutes later I had a photo of a sketch appear in a text message.  I'm not sure I've ever received drawings so quickly from a professional!

There are elements to this that my non-child brain never would have thought to do - the circles around the stars, the marker strokes in the sky.  My job has been to take this picture and animate it.  My niece made this easy.  Sometimes you need to borrow someone else entirely in order to find motivation to create.

Ever since I got involved with the ActLab at UT Austin back when it was still in full-time operation, I've wanted to work with non-theater artists to create theater.  Having worked in theater and gone through a graduate program in theater, my brain was ready for something much more open and uncertain and risky.  Theater can frequently get very structured.  There's generally a workflow/process that is similar for all shows, even if the details differ.  The ActLab offered a chance to just Create Something, and to do so surrounded by people from every corner of the university community.  I came out of my first ActLab experience with new ideas for creation, collaborations, and definitions of "art" and "performance."  

One thing that has been circling around in my brain for awhile now is the desire to work with people in STEM fields to create art.  Through endless tumblr-ing I came across "Pulsum Plant," a project by artist Leslie Garcia that attempts to use technology to translate the way plants communicate into sound.  And the crazy thoughts begin - could this find its way somehow into opera?  Today I was listening to an old episode of Radiolab, "Musical Language," and was fascinated by a segment with a neurolinguist that talked about the possibility of a universal language in music and sound that is recognized even by newborn babies - the idea that mothers communicate using the same intonations regardless of the words being used when praising or comforting, and as babies we recognize the meanings of those intonations.  Could this be used to create music that goes beyond creating emotions in listeners but actually communicates with the brain directly to produce a specific effect or feeling?  There's something in questions like this that invigorates me and gets me to work.

(And as an aside, this sounds so very similar to the use of language, specifically Sumerian, to program the human brain, in Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," a concept that has fascinated and terrified me ever since I read it.)

After "Sila," my next lighting design is a dance concert in the spring, and between the two I'm hoping to start work on a new original project with a new unconventional collaborator.  I'm still trying to figure out how that's going to work and am not ready to talk about it yet, but I'm excited.  And now, back to animating my niece's beautiful drawing.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Five Works of Art Discovered in 2013.

This is a few days late, since we are already four days into 2014, but visiting family, holidays, and working on "Sila" have kept this post on the back burner.  At the end of the year everyone seems to have a list of the Top Ten Whatevers from the year - movies, books, etc.  Unfortunately, I rarely "discover" something the year it was released or created.  My consumption of art and media is such that I'm always randomly finding things a month, a year, a decade, later than everyone else.  Each December I try to make lists of things that *I* discovered for the first time that year, whether they were from this year or not.  These five cover things that I have not written about in this blog in 2013 but which have intellectually or emotionally stuck with me this year.

1.  Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color."

Carruth's previous film, "Primer," was one I watched twice in one night, without even a five minute pause between the two viewings.  It's compelling and frustrating, impossible to understand without seventeen flow charts but still, I couldn't take my eyes off of it.  I was prepared for his second film to be just as difficult, and while there is definitely a challenge to watching "Upstream Color," the film is far more abstract than "Primer" and probably less explainable.  But it's a beautiful experience, probably the most beautiful film I saw last year.

After you watch it, make sure to watch the following explanation (with stick puppets):
It's very helpful.

2.  "Braid" (indie game).

"Braid" is a work of art, a game so beautiful I played it simply for the experience of looking at the gorgeous art and animation work.  I've been following indie games and the "games as art" conversation a lot this year and stumbled upon this game because of it.  The art is gorgeous, and I love the use of color and light in all of the backgrounds.  The mechanics of the game are frustrating but extremely satisfying when solved - it's the kind of game you might play for hours, and then put aside, feeling the urge to give up, and then be thinking about it the next day on the bus or as you're falling asleep and suddenly hit upon the solution to a puzzle.  The other thing that draws me to this game is the rather ambiguous ending or meaning behind it.  I love the unexplained and the abstract.  I love it when art isn't dumbed down for its audience and asks the audience to do a tiny bit of research in order to appreciate it.    There is a quote used in the game's epilogue that turns the meaning of the entire story into...something else entirely, and I had to google it to get to its history and meaning.

3.  Margaret Atwood's poem "Habitation."
I don't have much to say about this poem, other than it's been a challenging year for me, and for those who love me, and this is truth in poem form.

4.  Vienna Teng's "My Medea."

I've discovered a lot of her music this year, thanks to Pandora.  It's achingly beautiful.  This song - personifying depression in order to heal, understanding the link between our pain and the art we create - just beautiful.  "There's a mysterious illness that I carry with me, whose symptoms flare up from time to time, though they're mercifully rare these days. It's not a medical condition, I don't think, but it feels like a disease to me: sudden bouts of grief and anger, completely out of proportion to the events that trigger them, and a frightening desire to dismantle anything good I've built."

5.  7 Towers Theatre's production of McDonagh's "The Pillowman."
I know I'm biased, but this production wasn't seen by nearly enough people in the Austin theater community.  It was, I think, Travis Bedard's best performance.  The design was beautiful and exemplified many of the things that led me to write this piece for HowlRound earlier in the year.  When I compile this list I look for things that moved me in surprising ways.  Parts of this play are still stuck in my brain, clattering around my dreams and disturbing my sleep.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Christmas as an Atheist.

Two stories.

Story #1:  I was standing in line at the post office a few weeks ago, mailing a bunch of packages filled with Christmas presents for friends and family.  The line was LOOOOOOONNNNGGGGG, of course - who goes to the post office in the couple of weeks before Christmas expecting a short wait?  And while standing in line, the man in front of me started a conversation with those around him.  He said that what would make the wait more bearable was if the post office was playing Christmas music (there was no music playing).  Then, after a pause, he said "well, I guess that's offensive these days."  He then proceeded to talk about how stupid it was that people think Christmas is offensive, and how one day he said "Merry Christmas" to someone at the cash register at the grocery store, and they said "Happy Holidays" in return.  He then turned to them and said "I FIND THAT OFFENSIVE!" as though that just ended all arguments on the subject.  And all I could think was, that kind of just makes you a jerk.  This person wished you happy holidays.  As far as I can tell, that's a nice thing, it should make you smile, or at least that was the intention.

Story #2:  I unfortunately have to spend a lot of quality time on I-35, and noticed this year that someone on 6th Street had put up the words "Merry Christmas" in giant, red letters on the side of their building, facing the highway.  And my immediate reaction was to sigh and think cynically "this must be because of the supposed 'War on Christmas.'"

The holiday season - the time between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day - is my favorite time of year.  It always has been.  There's a sense of peace that permeates it, of contemplation, quietness, joy, and celebration of those we love.  It's the time of year when I want it to be freezing cold so I have to stay in, bundled up on the couch next to a glowing Christmas tree.  It's the time of year when I most appreciate my family, chosen family, and friends.  I get excited about having to buy presents for people and have to try very hard to reign in the spending and shopping impulses every year.  I love wrapped presents and winter holiday music and baking cookies.  Most people are in fairly good moods.  Houses and neighborhoods are decked out in beautiful lights.  Annual local celebrations occur.  Coworkers bring baked goods to work to share with everyone.  Bosses let you off early.

But, of course, in the last few years people have gotten crankier.  More defensive.  More hostile.  Someone has decided that there is a "War on Christmas" and that it has to be discussed ad nauseum in place of actual news or even things that actually are in the spirit of the season.  I have to resist the urge in myself every year to do some sort of daily photo blog showing how Christmas permeates everything around us and isn't an endangered species at all.  When people complain that Christmas decorations go up in the stores too early and then a few weeks later complain about not being allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas, I have to resist the urge to jump in and show them (probably angrily) the flaws in what they're saying.  I resist those urges because that hurts MY Christmas spirit, and MY holiday mood.

Listening to the man in the post office, I really wanted to interject and tell him that actually, I have NEVER heard someone tell me that Christmas offended them.  I have, on the other hand, heard a lot of people talk about how OTHER people are are offended by Christmas.  The man tried to demonstrate how progressive he was and say that if he wanted to say "Happy Hanukkah" instead, he would, because he's that kind of good guy.  And I wanted to interject and ask him when he had actually last done that.  The truth is, he probably hasn't ever wished someone a Happy Hanukkah, because he probably rarely thinks about Hanukkah.  There are very few daily, constant, visual reminders that Hanukkah is even taking place.  But those who celebrate it walk around in a world filled with Santa and reindeer and Christmas trees and news anchors spouting off about how everyone is ruining their Christmas.  I doubt that they actually forget for one second that Christmas is happening.

And, I understand that to Christians, Christmas isn't about Santa Claus.  They want to "put the Christ back in Christmas," a sentiment which is beautiful when thought of as a personal reminder to celebrate the season in the way that is most meaningful to an individual who is Christian, but feels more like someone wanting to force ME to celebrate that way.  I don't want to harbor negative feelings, anger, and resentment at this time of year, and yet others seem to delight in it.  Instead of spreading the Christmas spirit, they want to talk or hear others talk about how persecuted they are because there is a little less "Christmas" in Christmas today and a little more "something else."

Every year I send out almost 100 cards to family, friends, coworkers, and collaborators (both mine and Travis's).  My cards are always non-denominational, usually referencing "peace" in some way, because that is what I experience most during the season.  I also add a personal note to every card.  I do this because I have friends who are not Christian, and I'm uncomfortable sending them cards that reference Christmas specifically.  I never, ever resent getting a card from someone that references Jesus's birth (and those of you that send them to us, please don't stop doing that because of what I'm saying here), but at the same time when I read it I feel like a non-participant in my favorite holiday.  I don't think that this is ever intentional on the senders' part, but because I've felt that way on occasion I am aware that I might make others feel that way, and I want to avoid that.  One person on my list of recipients celebrates Yule, and another celebrates Hanukkah, and the other 98 - I don't want to assume that they all celebrate the same way that I do.  Writing personal messages inside 100 cards takes a lot of time, energy, and money once you figure in the cost of stamps.  And, unfortunately, last year when I was doing it I felt more than a little conscious of the fact that some of the recipients would probably look at my non-denominational happy holidays peace loving card (carefully chosen and bought from an artist on etsy) and mock me for my attempt to not offend.  Once that thought had taken root in my mind, I couldn't enjoy sending the cards anymore.  And so this year I chose to avoid that experience altogether.  That's what the "War on Christmas" has done to me - made me a little more cynical about how people perceive my celebration of the holiday.  I WANT to drive down the highway, see that "Merry Christmas" sign and feel happy.  And I hate that a part of my mind has to have the cynical reaction now.  Until *I* feel good again about sending cards, I probably won't.  It will be put on the list of Things That Make Me Feel Unhappy at Christmas, alongside shopping malls and airports and cable news and listening to my cats fighting.

And I will, instead, celebrate with Travis, our cats, family and friends that are in Austin and New Hampshire.  I will try to make those people feel loved.  I will arrange Skype calls with our families on Christmas morning, at least one of which won't really make any sense because our nephew will just run around a lot and scream, and I will be happy with the traditions that we've created together.  I will bake a LOT of cookies.  I will listen to Stuart McLean's "Polly Anderson's Christmas Party" (if you don't know this, find it and listen) and laugh a lot.  I will try to keep a certain 8 month old kitten from tearing down the Christmas tree.  And I will try to put my Christmas in a protective bubble for six weeks, long enough for me to quietly celebrate my favorite holiday in the way that is most meaningful to me.

Winter Solstice - Dan McCarthy