A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS – or – THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS

By Clement Clarke Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

1864

1864

And Mama in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap —
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

1883

1883

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the luster of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

1886

1886

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Donder and Blitzen;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”

1896

1896

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys — and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack.

1898

1898

His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples: how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

1901

1901

He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew, like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight —
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

What Do You Call a Group of…?

Things you always wanted know and didn’t know where to look? Here’s the answer!

Science-Based Life

There is just no way you are not going to find this interesting. Below is a (semi) complete list of what you would call various groups of animals.

I absolutely love the Victorian flair. An exaltation of larks? A shiver of sharks? Fantastic.

Feel free to break these out in conversation. “Science is the poetry of reality”, after all.

Mammals

Apes A shrewdness
Asses A pace
Badgers A cete
Bats A colony
Bears A sloth, sleuth
Buffalo A gang, an obstinacy (I suspect these refer to old world buffalo; use “herd” for American bison)
Cats A clowder, a pounce; for kittens…A kindle, litter, an intrigue
Cattle A drove, herd
Deer A herd, bevy (refers only to roe deer)
Dogs A litter (young), pack (wild), cowardice (of curs); specific to hounds…A cry, mute, pack, kennel
Elephants A herd
Elk A gang
Ferrets A business
Fox A leash, skulk, earth
Giraffes A…

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ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

Time travel makes my brain go “eek.” This is a compliment. Not many things make my brain do back flips and somersaults. Time travel is an impossible concept I cannot understand because it is inherently incomprehensible. Therefore, I love it.

This review contains spoilers, so if you’ve never read this, you might want to stop now and allow yourself to be surprised.

I first read this story by Robert Heinlein long ago as part of a compilation of his classic short stories. After all these years, it remains on the top of the heap of time travel tales. I couldn’t remember its title, so it took me a while to find it. It is called “All You Zombies.”

Heinlein All You Zombies

In a strange infinite loop, a baby girl is mysteriously dropped off at an orphanage in Cleveland in 1945. “Jane” grows up lonely and dejected, not knowing who her parents are, until one day in 1963 she is strangely attracted to a drifter. She has a brief passionate relationship with him and becomes pregnant.

The stranger disappears.

During a weird and complicated birthing, Jane’s doctors discover she actually has two complete sets of sex organs. With her life on the line, the doctors change her from female to male. Jane is now a man. Then …. a mysterious stranger kidnaps her baby leaving Jane a man and childless.

Depressed, lost, he becomes a drunk and a drifter. He eventually, meets a young woman in a bar, who he impregnates during a brief affair. The story contains even more complexities, involving the Time Corps and a bartender. Throughout, everything continues moving forward and backward in time.

Read it, and get your own brain in a twist.

Zombies

The story is a paradox, impossible yet structured with its own internal logic that you can neither reject nor accept. At which point, my brain goes “Eek!!” Jane is everyone. Everyone is Jane. She is her family: tree, trunk, branches and roots.

I found this amazing diagram on the Heinlein Society’s web page. They have lots of other cool stuff too and if you’re a fan, take a look. You won’t be disappointed.

The circular logic combined with the impossibility of the sequence where the same person is mother, father and child forever in an infinite loop — the snake eating its tail — is deliciously mind-blowing. You can get it for your Kindle from Amazon for $1.25, or as part of an anthology of Heinlein short stories. There are several listed on Amazon, new and used.

Heinlein did much of his most creative writing in these early short stories. His later novels are better known today, especially Stranger In a Strange Land. The short stories have gotten a bit lost in time but are well worth your time. Most were written for the science fiction fanzines — newsprint magazines that were the primary outlets for sci fi until the genre broke into mainstream literature in the 1960s. Not only Heinlein, but all the classic great science fiction authors started their careers writing for the fanzines.

I’ve read many hundreds of time travel books and stories over more than 50 years of loving science fiction. But this one, this story, has stuck firmly in my brain as the most perfect paradox where the past, present and future come together in a perfect conundrum.

All You Zombies is my favorite for good reason. It’s unforgettable. I promise you will never forget it either.

WHY I BLOG, BUT YOU PLAY GOLF

A friend asked me why I do this, why I blog. So I asked her why she plays golf.

We do what we do because we love it, need to do it, or both. Writing is like breathing. If I don’t write, I suffocate. My friend needs to compete, to be active. To play golf or she will suffocate.

I can’t begin to count the number of people who have told me they want to be writers, but don’t know how to start. They want me to tell them how. Because they asked the question, I’m reasonably sure they will never be writers. If you are a writer, you write. No one has to tell you how or when. You will write and you will keep writing because it is not what you do, it is what you are. It is as much a part of you as your nose or stomach.

75-FadedBooksFloatingWordsNK-004

I started writing as soon as I learned to read, which was about 45 minutes after someone handed me a book. It was as if a switch had been thrown in some circuit in my brain. Words felt right.

Putting words on paper was exactly the same as speaking, but took longer. I didn’t mind the extra time because I could go back and fix written words. Being able to change my words and keep changing them until they said exactly what I wanted them to say was the grail.

old favorite books

I was awkward socially and my verbal skills were not suited to my age and stage in life. I was not talented at sports. No one wanted me on her team. But I could write, I could read. It gave me wings.

If you are going to be a writer, you know it. Practice will make you a better writer, can help you understand how to build a plot  and produce books that publishers will buy, but writing itself is a gift. If you have it, you know it.

computer gargoyle

Writers have words waiting to be written. Heads full of words, full of sentences, full of pronouns and adjectives and dependent clauses.

Talent comes in an endless number of flavors. Gifts are given. It’s up to us to use them well. My advice to all hopeful writers is: write.

Don’t just talk about it. Do it. Write a lot, as often as you can, even if most of it is bad. Sooner or later, you’ll find your way. If you don’t write, it is your loss, but maybe the world’s loss, too. You will never know how good you could be if you don’t try.

ONE LAW TO RULE THEM ALL

It’s a matter of definition. I say, magic is nowhere — or magic is everywhere. 

I prefer to believe it is everywhere. When I click the lights and a room is illuminated; when I flip the switch and the coffee begins to brew; when Amazon delivers and packages appear neatly piled by my back door. That’s magic.

Magic circleWhen the winter snow melts and the earth wakes up, bringing green leaves and flowers, nothing else can explain it. It is magic. I count on it.

Ultimately, when I turn on my computer and connect. I write, you write. I read you and you read me. That is magic. How is it possible for you, on the other side of this spinning globe, get my messages in real time?

circle of life teepee door

Just because we don’t stand in a circle and chant, we might as well be doing that. I understand about as much of how my computer uses all its written code to do what it does.

Chrysanthemum autumn

Why should all that “code” (read “magic”) make it work? I know how to write code — not well, but enough to understand its intent. That said, why do computers obey such writing? These codes?

British author Arthur C. Clarke formulated three laws:

  1. When a distinguished, but elderly, scientist states something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

My Corollary to Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Life is magic to me. All of it.

CAUGHT IN THE ICE – THE FAR ARENA

The Far Arena by Richard Ben Sapir

FarArena

I recently bought a used copy of this long out-of-print book. I first read it when it was released in 1978. I was working at Doubleday and it fell to me to do the write-up for it in the monthly publication that was sent to book club members.

A large part of my job was reading books. Talk about great jobs, that was the best. I’m not sure I ever fully recovered from my Doubleday years. Not merely was I paid to read and write about books, but I received (as did all the editors and graphic artists in the department) new copies of every book we worked on. We all had huge personal libraries. We also had 2 hour lunches and wonderful co-workers. I looked forward to work the way most folks anticipate the weekend. It was that good. I realize this is a digression, but I wanted to put this in context. Maybe brag a little.

The Far Arena is classified as science fiction. It is, but not in the traditional sense. It doesn’t fall into any genre except perhaps speculative fiction, a catch-all term for odd books. Time travel? Sort of. But without the machinery.

gladiators2The story in brief: A Roman gladiator is flash frozen in the arctic ice. He is accidentally discovered by a team drilling for oil and subsequently defrosted and brought back to life. What follows is his story as a Roman married to a Hebrew slave, and his perceptions of the modern world from the point of view of a man whose world disappeared 1600 years ago. His observations on modern society are priceless.

For example, while in the hospital, he asks about the slaves who serve him. He is referring to the to nurses and other workers who attend to his needs. His new friends explain that they aren’t slaves, that they work for wages and are free to leave, or be dismissed by their employers. He thinks this is a fantastic idea.

“You mean they do everything you tell them to do, but when they get old and can no longer work, you don’t have to take care of them? What a great idea! Slaves without responsibility.”

“They aren’t slaves,” insist his modern friends.

“They are treated like slaves, they act like slaves. They are slaves,” he responds. Who would argue the point? Not me.

That is paraphrasing, of course, but it’s the spirit of the dialogue. I have never looked at the world quite the same way since I read this book. Modern workers have all the freedom of slaves, but no assurance that anyone will care for them when they are no longer able to work. That’s a pretty good deal from the owners’ … I mean employers’ … point-of-view.

This is a brilliant, unique book. It stands apart from all the books I’ve read over the years. All other time travel stories are about modern people visiting the past. This is the only book I can think of where a man from the past offers a view of the modern world and it’s not pretty.

Richard Ben Sapir wrote other books that are unusual and worth reading. I especially liked The Body. But The Far Arena stands head and shoulders above the rest. Ben Sapir only wrote a few novels. His world was really comic books, or what are now called “graphic novels.” Finding copies of Ben Sapir’s books is challenging. If you can buy or borrow one, it’s a must-read, even if science fiction is not normally your favorite genre. It’s a worth your time.

It would make a great movie. I can see it all in my mind’s eye. Read it if you can.

Did I mention that it’s exceptionally well written? Highly literate? Well-researched? Convincing? All those things and a gripping story too.

Happy hunting and with a bit of luck, happy reading!