When Christmas Comes Early

Normally I hate the too-early anticipation of the Christmas season.  When I  walked past a Starbucks this week and saw that the outdoor sign was advertising all of the sugary Christmas concoctions, I groaned.  When I walked past St. Mary Church and saw that they were setting up the Christmas tree holders for their annual Christmas tree sale, I groaned  again.  And when I saw that the Hausfrau Haven was selling egg nog, I groaned still more — and also felt a little sick to my stomach at the thought of the coating, cloying taste of egg nog, because I really don’t like egg nog.

IMG_9059In my book, Christmas shouldn’t be anticipated until Thanksgiving is over, period.  I know that some people can’t resist jumping the gun, and have already started listening to Christmas music. wearing red sweaters with reindeer on them and watching the saccharine Christmas movies on the Hallmark channel, but I’m not one of them.

I do make one exception to my no Christmas before Thanksgiving rule, however.  If I see that Great Lakes Christmas Ale is for sale, I’ll always pick up a six pack, whether Thanksgiving has passed or not.  The Great Lakes Brewing Company can be depended on to brew a high-quality, spicy, holiday ale that Old Fezziwig would have loved.  I picked up some of this year’s batch yesterday, and it’s excellent — packed with flavor and a little holiday dash, besides.  After savoring a bottle, I felt more in the Christmas mood already.  Hey — when is the first showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, anyway?

If you like a seasonal brew, I highly recommend this year’s edition of Great Lakes Christmas Ale.  But be forewarned: consistent with the generous spirit of the holidays, it comes in at 7.5% alcohol by volume.  Pace yourself, or you might not be able to finish trimming the tree.

Avoiding Barside Embarrassment

When you go up to a bar to order a drink, you want to project a certain nonchalant yet decisive elegance with the bartender that shows her that you’ve been here before and you know what you’re doing.

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The goal is steely-eyed, white-jacketed, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca-like cool certainty, as opposed to waffling or floundering or acting like goofy Clarence the Angel ordering a flaming rum punch at Nick’s, the hard-drinking bar in the alternative, George Bailey-free universe.

Knowing how to correctly pronounce the drink you’re ordering sure helps.

Would you know how to order a caipirinha, which the national drink of Brazil?  Made with sugarcane distilled spirits called Cachaca, lime, and sugar, it packs a lethal punch and is pronounced kai-pee-reen-ya.  Or let’s suppose you were up in Sweden during its endless, dark winter and wanted to warm yourself with a glass of traditional mulled wine, called glogg (with an umlaut over the o, too).  Appropriately, it’s pronounced glug, which should be easy to remember after you’ve swilled down two or three of them, because Swedish mulled wine tends to have a lot more alcohol than the American version.  Or let’s say you’re in a somewhat daintier mood, and feel like having a sgroppino to top off your meal.  That’s an Italian concoction of Prosecco, vodka, and lemon sorbet that’s pronounced sro-pee-no.  (You wouldn’t want to order that one at Nick’s, by the way.)

Hospitality Training Solutions has provided a guide to the correct pronunciation of these and other cocktails, to ensure that you project an image more like Bogie and less like Clarence the next time you belly up to the bar.  And remember, too — people rarely mispronounce beer.

In Praise Of Rudolph

In the pantheon of annual must-see Christmas TV events, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is right up there with A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  (At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the supremely annoying Frosty The Snowman.)

Of course, Rudolph combined great characters, like Yukon Cornelius and Hermey, the elf who desperately wanted to be a dentist, with great settings, like the Island of Misfit Toys, and great songs, like Holly Jolly Christmas.  But the crucial and underappreciated significance of Rudolph is that it provided many teachable moments for growing boys.  For example, it featured a female character who wore a pink bow — which obviously was how you knew instantly that she was a girl reindeer in the first place.  This was vitally important information for the young boy eager to grow into adulthood.

Of course, Rudolph did a lot more.  It not only put a lot of flesh on the bones of the song, by doing crucial things like explaining what the heck were the reindeer games, it also prepared young boys who were watching for the gentle attention of whistle-blowing coaches and taught them how to react in the unlikely event that a girl ever said you were cute — as shown in the classic scene shown above.

Sure, sure . . . I know that some people argue that the real message of Rudolph is that people should just accept themselves for who they are and not try to hide their glaring red nose with some soot.  They’re wrong, of course.  The young boys who watched Rudolph knew that what it really told you was that if you felt sorry for yourself because you were different, disobeyed your parents, and ran away from home, you were likely to meet a flying lion and an intrepid gold prospector, fight and defeat the Abominable Snowman, and return home in the nick of time to get the girl and save the day.

It’s a great holiday message.

Sequel Fatigue

Last night Kish and I went to see Toy Story 3 in 3D at the Easton movie theatres.  It was well done, I suppose, but I found myself thinking about how little true creativity we see in popular culture anymore.  As nice as it was to see Woody and Buzz Lightyear in a new adventure, I would rather see the team that made Toy Story 3 devote their considerable talents to creating something totally new and different.

It seems like 75% of the movies showing at any given time are movie versions of TV shows or comic books, or sequels of prior successful movies, or remakes of old movies, or even remakes of sequels.  Everybody seems to be searching for a “franchise” that they can ride for a few sequels until diminishing quality and declining audience interest have irreparably damaged the memory of the excellent original movie.

Contrast the current approach with the golden age of Hollywood, during the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.  The most popular movie ever, Gone With The Wind, ended with a cliffhanger if there ever was one, but the studio resisted the temptation to crank out a sequel.  There was no sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, High Noon, or Rear Window, or It’s A Wonderful Life.   After Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a big hit, Walt Disney made Pinocchio, not Snow White 2:  Grumpy’s Revenge.

I sometimes wonder whether the focus on sequels has caused writers, directors, actors, and animators who are at the peak of their abilities to take the path of least resistance, rather than breaking new ground and creating new characters, story lines, and techniques.  What potential masterpieces have gone unmade as a result of the emphasis on producing sure-fire sequels?

Bank Failures And A Salutary Example Of Federal Regulation

Yesterday the FDIC announced the failure of three more banks, bringing the total number of bank failures this year to 123.  The 123 failures this year compare to 25 failures last year and three failures in 2007; there have been more bank failures this year than in any year since 1992.  The cost to the FDIC fund for the failures this year has exceeded $28 billion, and is one of the reasons the FDIC is looking to banks to prepay fees to help cover bank failure costs over the next few years.

The FDIC website has lots of information about the bank failures, including a list of all the institutions that failed this year and a guide for depositors who wake up to find that their bank has failed.  If you review the list of bank failures, you will note that they occur in week-long intervals.  That is because the FDIC typically announces bank failures on a Friday, after determining whether a healthy bank will assume some or all of the assets and liabilities of the failed institution.  The weekend then allows the FDIC to sort things out, so that commerce can proceed and accurate information can be made available to all affected parties the following Monday.  This weekend no doubt will see hectic activity at the offices of all three failed banks.

Conservatives often complain about government regulation, but I think the FDIC, its role, and the calming effect of federal insurance of bank deposits should be regarded as an inspired example of the salutary role federal regulations can play under the right circumstances.  Messy bank failures are, for the most part, handled quickly and discreetly.  As the story about funding linked above indicates, the regulated banks that benefit from the FDIC’s guarantees pay fees to defray the costs of the regulatory regime to the government.  And, the reality of federal support and insurance has had a calming influence on depositors that has avoided the panicky runs on banks that were seen during the Great Depression (and memorably depicted in It’s A Wonderful Life).  Without such insurance and depositor confidence, how would consumers react to alarming news stories about a dramatic spike in bank failures throughout the nation?

Of course, the fact that banks are failing says something negative about our economy, but it mostly says something negative about the bankers who ran the banks.  The traditional stereotype of the conservative, cautious, boring banker has long since been overtaken by extraordinarily aggressive practices by banks in their residential and commercial lending areas, in their issuance of credit cards and other forms of consumer credit, and in their general business operations, growth plans, and mergers.

Grampa Neal, who epitomized the traditional conservative model of a hard-headed banker who wanted collateral and protection before he made a loan, would no doubt cringe in horror at the lax practices of modern banks.  If the current crisis causes banks to return, even slightly, to more conservative lending practices that reject hyper-risky loans, that would be a good thing.