Friday, December 23, 2011

One of my favorite Khristmas specials starts with the line, "In all this world, there is nothing so beautiful as a happy child." The special is "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus," based on the book of the same name by L. Frank Baum. I love the sense of magic and the feel of a complete, original mythology in L. Frank Baum's version of the story of Santa Claus. It always makes me uncomfortable when Santa Claus mythology is combined with Christian mythology. The two don't really fit together. And while I enjoy movies like The Santa Clause (starring Tim Allen), there is a flippant quality to the mythology in them that isn't satisfying. There is something wonderful and deeply true about the way that the Sesame Street Khristmas special and the classic letter to Virginia in the New York Sun answer the questions behind the idea of Santa Claus, in a sense, by un-asking them. Very zen. Very true. Nonetheless, I do like to see Santa Claus turned into a story that has a mythological wholeness to it.

This is all beside the point, though. Watching "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" with Elaine this Khristmas, I found myself struck by that first line. I'd never paid overmuch attention to it before. I accepted it as a reasonable-seeming concept, although, it in no way spoke to me. Now that I have a child though, I find that it both speaks to me and that I can no longer accept it as reasonable.

There is a great deal that is beautiful in this world. A happy child is a beautiful thing. But, unless you are a human, biased by the drug-like chemicals that wash over your brain to reward you whenever you see happy infants and children, a happy child doesn't outshine all the other things of great beauty in this world.

A sleeping tiger. The flower-like wings of a deadly preying mantis. Waterfalls. Trees. Snowflakes. Grains of sand, greatly magnified. Two cats playing. A Sheltie prancing in the tall grass of a field. Only humans, under the influence of the drugs generated by their own brains, think that a happy child outshines all these other beauties. Without that peculiarly slanted vision, a happy child is merely a piece of all the other natural beauty in the world we live in.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Elaine asked me to remind her what number comes after thirteen. So, I offered to count with her. We recited numbers together until the mid-thirties, at which point most numbers were accompanied by a break for hysterical giggling. Elaine still doesn't see why we would bother having so many numbers. They're so unnecessary! And therefore comical.

Once we got up to one hundred, Elaine seemed to have the pattern down, so I broke off and let her keep counting alone. Once she reached the hundred-teens, the following conversation ensued:

"Is that all the numbers?" Elaine asked.

"No, it goes on forever," I replied.


"Yeah, you can count forever."

"But then I won't eat anymore!" she exclaimed.

"You won't eat?" I asked her, baffled.

"If I keep counting forever," she explained in a nearly incoherent burble, "then I won't eat anymore! I have to eat too! And I'll miss school!"

Clearly, numbers are terribly dangerous objects. We really shouldn't keep so many around.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Arthur C. Clarke is a writer who I found highly influential back in high school. I read his 2001 series, Rendezvous with Rama, Childhood's End, and a massive number of his short stories, even though I wasn't particularly a fan of short stories at the time. The last time I read anything by Arthur C. Clarke, however, was probably more than a decade ago when 3001: The Final Odyssey came out.

I know that many of the books I loved in high school have paled some with age -- others, that I couldn't stand in high school, I've come to realize have profound depth and subtlety. (Such as the entire works of Jane Austen and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Leguin.) In fact, over time, I've come to suspect that I preferred a certain type of 2-dimensional, cardboard character when I was younger. I found them easier to understand. Science interested me more than people, so I preferred authors who wrote about science (Clarke, Asimov) to those who wrote about people.

My tastes have changed some over the years. Deep Space Nine taught me to appreciate politics, handled well. Jane Austen and an excellent college professor taught me to appreciate irony. And I think that simply spending more time on this planet filled with people has taught me to have more interest in the stories of other humans. (Though, I do still prefer animals and aliens.)

All of that said, I have found it extremely pleasant, comforting, and downright restful to revisit Arthur C. Clarke by way of reading The Songs of Distant Earth this week. (A book that I'd never read before.) I don't believe, by any means, that it's his best work, but it's written in a voice that I haven't listened to in many years. And, no matter how much I've changed in the last decade or so, I still find it to be a really wonderful, thought-provoking and thoughtful, intelligent, well-considered voice. The words that Arthur C. Clarke had to share with the world are words worth hearing. It's an amazing treasure that there are still words of his for me to discover so many years after his death.

Arthur C. Clarke, you are still missed.