terry jones

Very sad here for the last day or so, since the news came down the line that Terry Jones  has died.  Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one of the two central formative influences in my creative life as a teenager, and today it proves the theory that the things you love most when you’re in your late teens and early twenties will always be the best things.  Monty Python is the best of all possible best thing.  Graham Chapman and Terry Jones were always my favorite Pythons, and now they are both gone.

Terry Jones created any number of memorable characters in dozens of Monty Python sketches, but my two very favorites are The Bishop and Mystico  of Mystico and Janet, played by Carol Cleveland.

And then there is this drawing, which in some odd way is a drawing of Terry Jones.  I didn’t use a picture reference and didn’t really make any attempt to get a likeness, but I was definitely thinking about him when I drew it, and it depicts a character he definitely could have played.

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“on pruning maples”: haiku and not-a-haiku for a changing year

The first post of the new year, reflecting the last events of the old:

  • Thin moon at twilight,
  • Pruning the Japanese maple.
  • I’m in a haiku.

On Pruning Maples

  • Pruning the Japanese maple
  • At twilight, under a crescent moon.
  • I’m in a haiku.

The first is a haiku proper, with the syllable counts reflecting the patterns of Japanese, the second my English language friendly not-a-haiku, a three line poem capturing the same idea or feeling.  In this case I felt more justified, and less constrained than usual, in attempting the traditional form.

Why was I pruning trees at twilight on New Year’s Eve? Because a Japanese maple is as much a maple as sugar maple, and its sap rises just as early. This is why maple sugar time is in February.  To avoid pruning away sappy, growing wood and upsetting the tree, you prune maples between the Fourth of July and Christmas, with New Year’s as the last safe day.

And since you want to prune Japanese maples twice each year, once with the leaves on and once after they fall, I was waiting for the last leaves.  But the tree outstubborned  me this winter, holding onto most of its foliage well past the human deadline.  I made this photograph a week into 2020– most of the leaves are crumpled and faded, but a few retain the classic form.

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the possum lady of old kekionga

(Our now traditional post for Christmas night, an invented-on-the-spot bit of Kekionga folklore, originally posted in 2013.)

One Christmas night we got home late from spending the holiday out of town.  Our dog sitter left the Japanese lantern on beside the front door, and in the thin layer of snow on the front walk I saw the distinct tracks of two passers by: a woman’s small boot prints and the pawprints of a large opossum.

In the house, nothing had changed, but I was sure the Possum Lady had been there.  In Kekionga, the Possum Lady and her possum visit on Christmas night after all the celebrations are over.  She doesn’t bring material presents like Santa Claus does, but if you have made a significant effort to be a decent person during the year, she may walk by your house and give you a small dose of inner strength or an extra dollop of the will to keep moving when things get difficult– gifts that adults can appreciate.

possumlady1The tracks were soon covered by the snow that began falling heavily as we unloaded the car and let the dogs out, but here’s hoping the Possum Lady thought well of us this year.

You too.

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waiting for christmas

Our annual Christmas Eve post, featuring the drawing of the day from December 24th, 2009. 

December 24, 2009

This little creature in his cave, looking out into a wintry landscape, will always make me think of Christmas Eve.  Here’s hoping you will find whatever it is you are waiting for.

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christmas wolves, part 5

(Our traditional Christmas Episode comes to a traditional conclusion)

“And they’re ours.  Rudolph and the Grinch belong to everybody.  But the Christmas Wolves are Kekionga’s.”

Nobody had much to say to that . And so there, Iowa thought.  Logic, mythic or otherwise, was one thing and beloved holiday traditions were another.  At Christmastime, it’s OK for even logical people to believe in Christmas Wolves, at least a little.  She peeked over at Jack and found him peeking back, and smiling that particular Jack smile, the one that said that Jack believed in stuff like that all year round, and that didn’t keep him from being logical at the same time.  (She was going to figure out how he did that, no matter how long it took. )

She looked beyond Jack to Bud leaning on the back of the bench watching the crowd (his crowd?) in a benevolent way, and back the other way to the Professor, who had managed to snag a hot cider in a styrofoam cup and was sniffing it with concentrated, uncritical pleasure.  Bud had lived here for longer than anyone could quite remember.  How many Christmases had he spent in Kekionga?  The Professor had come here when she was in high school; he’d been an adult and he was still learning.  Iowa herself hadn’t had that many yet, but they were all the Christmases she had.

And Jack, well, she knew it was his first time, but he was already better at it than everyone else.  Iowa kind of decided right then that he wasn’t ever going to spend Christmas anywhere else if she had anything to say about it.

“Rankka Rakka Voop Prit Voop!”  Josef popped out of the hood of Bud’s red hoodie, vocalizing at the top of his variable sized lungs. Because really, since when was Josef, who was usually the size of a rather large fox terrier, also small enough to hide in the hood of a Carhartt sweatshirt?

“Josef says any holiday tradition with positive social impact is a good one,” Jack translated, and since Bud nodded his approval he was probably correct.  Iowa and the Professor didn’t have time for their usual debate about whether Josef ever actually said anything or were Bud, Jack, and several of the neighborhood children were just messing with people’s heads when they interpreted his remarks, because Josef disppeared into Bud’s hood again and reappeared carrying a stem of mistletoe.

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“There,” said Jack, “is a tradition we can all get behind.”

“Speak for yourself,” said the Professor.  “I am not going to kiss Bud.”  Bud didn’t protest, so the Professor kissed Iowa’s hand in a Continental sort of way, and Iowa kissed Josef on the head and Bud on the cheek, then she turned to Jack and kissed him. Properly.  And yes, this was definitely her favorite Christmas tradition.

When they finally finished, they were alone.  “Wow,” said Jack.  “Talk about a winter wonderland.”  Iowa went to smack him, because really, he was so corny sometimes, but she stopped suddenly.  Because at that moment, just at that single, exact moment, it began to snow.

“C’mon.”  Jack was tugging at her hand.  “Let’s go by the pet store.  We should get some dog biscuits in case it keeps snowing.”

“Dog biscuits?”

“Sure,” he said. “For the Christmas Wolves.  You shouldn’t give ‘em people food.”

Iowa and Jack went running together down Indiana Avenue. And the snow fell around them, as white and perfect as the snow in a Christmas story.

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A very Merry Christmas, a happy winter holiday season, and a hopeful New Year, from everyone in Kekionga to everyone else, wherever you are.

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christmas wolves, part 4

(The discussion of Kekionga’s official Christmas story continues in part 4 of the Christmas Episode.)

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“My guess,” said another voice, deep and with some kind of weird lilting accent Iowa could never quite identify, “is that the historical models were almost certainly feral dogs, perhaps of herding ancestry.”

This was turning out to be quite the little boss/subordinate holiday outing.  Bud was certainly entering into the spirit, with a holly wreath on the brim of his usual grey Stetson fly fishing hat.  If Iowa was an apprentice Librarian under the Professor, then Jack was just as much Bud’s apprentice at whatever it was they were doing at the Junkyard.  It was more than just the salvage business, that’s for sure.

The Professor pulled himself up to as close to his full height as he could get while lounging on a bench.  “Dogs don’t make much of a story, old man.  Oh, dogs herd livestock into a pen!  Dogs eat leftover food! It’s a Christmas miracle!”

‘Not to mention,” Bud went on “that I’ve lived in this town for a long time, and I don’t remember hearing about the Christmas Wolves until sometime in the late 1940s or very early ‘50s.  And I’m pretty sure when I did it was part of a marketing campaign by the Telephone and the Chamber of Commerce to encourage downtown Christmas shopping after the dual privations of the Depression and the war years. Lots of lights, lots of loaded shop windows and a distinctive holiday story to make Kekionga stand out from the next county seat.”

“Really, Bud!” Iowa was sort of appalled.  “The Christmas Wolves are real, or at least a real legend.  We learned about them in school.”

“I don’t doubt that,” muttered the Professor, whose experience with local undergraduates had left him unimpressed with the Salt County School District.  Iowa got to hear about this a lot.

“I’m sure that there are probably some kind of historical basis—I seem to remember some little pamphlets the Historical Society used to hand out; I’m sure there’s one in the Archives somewhere.  But I think if you do some research, you’ll find the Christmas Wolves are just as real as Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer or the Grinch.”

“Which means they’re real.”  Jack, who had been quiet up till now, spoke with solid conviction. “They’re real because they tell the truth about Christmas. About miracles happening and people, and Whos and reindeer and wolves, all celebrating together.”  Jack had away of saying things like that and making you believe them.  That was the best thing about Jack.

“And they’re ours.  Rudolph and the Grinch belong to everybody,” Iowa added. “But the Christmas Wolves are Kekionga’s.”

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christmas wolves part 3

(Every traditional Christmas story is open to debate … the traditional Kekionga Christmas story continues)

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Clap. Clap. Clap.  Iowa heard the “slow clap” applause behind her and didn’t even have to turn around to know who it was.

“Very nice, Ms. Ginsberg. Well done.  You’re certainly ready to go back to Story Hour whenever you like.”

“No thanks, sir.  Never again.  But Shelley’s telling “Christmas Wolves” at the Winter Folklore Fest next month, and she’s practiced it on Gale and me so often that I couldn’t help learning it.”  Shelley could sometimes get a little intense about her projects, but, hey, roommates.

“Ms. Berry should do well with her rendition.”  Her boss, Professor Lykander, joined them on the bench without an invitation.  He was wearing a rather disturbing red and green felt elf hat and, even worse, had transformed just enough to add a pair of hairy pointed ears.  The teeth, also slightly transformed, were just the final touch.

“That’s my very favorite Christmas story,” the Professor went on.  “There are so few folk stories where the wolves are the good guys, much less tales with heartwarming holiday content.”

“I’m sure that’s true.” Iowa replied, willing him to ease off because she really didn’t want to have to explain him to Jack, who was looking at him with mild curiosity, no doubt wondering what unfamiliar local Christmas character cosplay combined an elf hat with furry brown ears and plastic vampire teeth.

“The part where the wolves eat the Christmas dinner is my favorite.”  The Professor smiled at her (with all the teeth), declaring his intention to push it.  Thanks a lot, sir. “That is, of course, if the Christmas wolves were natural wolves at all.”

Jack smiled at him, with his usual “my girlfriend’s library assistantship is great for her academic career, and her boss is a really smart guy but a bit of an oddball,” expression.  “What do you mean, Professor? What other kinds of wolves are there?  I guess they could have been Christmas spirits, like in Dickens. Or maybe ghosts or something, but then they wouldn’t have left tracks or been able to eat the Christmas dinner.”

“Think about it, Mr. Swann.  All the versions of the story that I’ve ever heard emphasize the fact that there was a full moon that Christmas Eve.”

Jack thought about that for a moment.  Iowa waited for him to put two and two together.  Finally. “Werewolves you mean?” Jack chuckled to himself at the absurdity of his own question. “Would old-timey settlers have mixed genres like that?  Putting werewolves in a Christmas story sounds more like something a modern fantasy writer would do.”

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christmas wolves part 2

(Our Kekionga Christmas story continues.)

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“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of the Christmas Wolves.” Iowa was slightly amazed.  “It must really be a local thing.”

“Sorry, never heard of them,” Jack replied, shrugging in an embarassed sort of way.  “They look cool, though.  Very …lupine. But very Christmassy.  Never seen anything like them.  So they’re characters from a story?”

“They certainly are,” Iowa replied, and she led Jack over to a park bench between two of the wolves. “Want to hear it?  You can’t really have a Kekionga Christmas without the Christmas Wolves”

“Yes, please, Miss Iowa!” Jack imitated the audience at Story Hour at the Public Library during Iowa’s brief internship in the Children’s Department and earned himself a light kick in the shin as he sat down.

“Hush now,” she said, in a quite professional voice, “And I will tell you a story.

“Back in the earliest part of pioneer times, before Kekionga itself was founded, even before the new United States had started to show much interest in what would become Indiana, the first settlers lived in scattered settlements all around what is now Salt County.  Just one or two families in a little clearing, maybe a mile or two from their nearest neighbors.  A lot of them didn’t know each other very well—they came from all kinds of places and some of them thought the others were … strange.

“Then there came a winter that was much worse than the previous ones.  This still happens today: winters come along in clumps, and when a harsh one comes after several mild ones, people can be caught unprepared, especially newcomers.  So when the lake effect snow started to pile up early in December and some domestic animals and even a couple of people had already died, the settlers got frightened and sent messengers around the the settlements  and they finally decided to hold a meeting at the Deer Tavern, which was pretty much the only gathering place there was.”

Jack looked down the block, where the Third Deer Tavern occupied the space between the bike shop and Iowa’s favorite café, The Beanery.  “Yes,” Iowa said.  “It was right there, a big log building where the Old Fox Road passed through the district.

“At the meeting, the settlers voted to move in closer together and winter over in the Tavern and a couple of big houses that had been built over the summer, so they could pool their resources and protect each other other and their animals.  The snow got deeper and deeper and even the short journey in from the clearings was frightening, but by Christmas everyone was gathered in, even the animals, the cows and the sheep and the horses.  The men fenced some big corrals for them, and the women and children built them shelters out of pine branches and chopped up turnips for them to eat and melted snow for them to drink.

“Then on Christmas Eve it got terribly cold.  There was a full moon, and all around the Tavern and the houses packed full of people, and the corrals packed full of horses and cows and sheep, from Mystery Hill and Rook’s Hill and all the high places along the Terminal Moraine as far as Balancing Rock, wolves started to howl.  So many wolves, and they were howling so loudly that the animals panicked and knocked over the fences, which had been built very quickly, of course, and all the horses and the cows and the sheep stampeded away out into the snowy woods.

This was a disaster. The wolves were sure to eat all the animals, which the settlers needed to work the land and give them milk and wool, and without them things were going to be very bad even if everybody lived until spring.  The men were getting ready to go after them, and the wolves, with their guns when it started to snow again.

“The women and children made the men put their guns away and come to bed.  Having their animals freeze or be eaten by wolves would be bad, but having their husbands and brothers and fathers freeze or get eaten by wolves would be worse.  But a few teenage boys and girls stayed up and watched, thinking that if the snow stopped the search party could still go out.

“So they were awake to see the sky clear up, and the moon come back out, and the howling start again, as the wolves drove the animals back to the corrals and stayed by the toppled gates, pacing and growling, keeping them inside until, very timidly, the young people crept out of the taverns and the houses.  They were terrified, but the wolves stepped back and let them come closer, and they were brave enough to put the fence rails into place and set the gates back up, and close them.  The wolves never touched or threatened them,  and as soon as the pens were secure, they ran off.

“But they didn’t go far.  The wolves clumped together on a little hill nearby and howled in the moonlight for a long moment before fading into the woods.

“By then, the adults had woken up and the boys and girls told them what had happened.  Nobody wanted to believe that wolves had actually done what they had done, but the animals were in the corrals and the snow all around was thick with wolf tracks, so the evidence was there.  The settlers decided to thank the wolves by making a second Christmas dinner for them and they put it out for the wolves the next night, at a safe distance from the animal pens, of course.

“The winter eased up after the new year, and the settlers returned to their homes.  But after that Deer Tavern and the little hill where the wolves had howled were the center of a new community, and well, you know what happened after that.

“And to this day, when it snows hard on Christmas Eve in Kekionga, you can hear the Christmas Wolves howling in the wind, and  if you do, you might put out some of your food on Christmas night to thank them.”

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christmas wolves, part one

(Part one of our classic Kekionga Christmas Episode, the story of the Christmas Wolves.)

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Iowa Ginsberg walked through downtown Kekionga, enjoying the weekend-before-Christmas holiday atmosphere with the glorious smug relief of someone who had finished her last exam yesterday.  Finals were over and it was almost Christmas—what else did a person need?

Except maybe a headband with reindeer ears and antlers and a green and red scarf that looked quite cute with the camel colored cashmere sweater you’d gotten as an early Christmas present from your boyfriend. Well, it was more “web safe tan” than camel, but it was cashmere and really warm and soft and Jack had declared he was celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas with twelve presents for his Best Girl, the sweater being number three in the series.  Iowa knew, of course, that the Twelve Days of Christmas were technically the twelve days after Christmas, between that holiday and the feast of the Epiphany, but she was not going to ruin Jack’s romantic idea with trivial details.  (Also, presents.)

She turned onto Lincoln and crossed the street to the Courthouse square. The Parks Department had finally finished the decorating. From the red and green lights in the Bell Tower to the white ones in all the windows and the strings of little blinkers wound around the banisters and strung through all the trees and bushes, the red sandstone bulk of the Courthouse looked fairly festive.  And, two on each side of the square, facing the street, were the topiary wolves, slightly larger than life size, decorated with burlap harnesses lined with silver jingle bells and wearing red Santa caps trimmed with fluffy white fur.

Iowa loved those wolves   They’d been there every year since she could remember, watching over the town in every direction.  It wouldn’t be Christmas without the wolves.

“Hey, Iowa!”  She turned around, and there he was, only slightly late, and dressed up as she’d reminded him.  Jack had never spent the holidays in Kekionga before and he’d had no way of knowing that you always wore something Christmassy when you came downtown to shop and look at the decorations on the “Saturday before.”  He hadn’t done anything elaborate, but he looked handsome in a green sweater under his usual grey hoodie and a Santa hat like the ones the wolves were wearing.

(Very handsome.  Really.  He was seriously a bit of a dreamboat, and no one had any business looking that … attractive in a Santa hat.  You go, Iowa.)

“Uh, Iowa?” he asked, looking charmingly baffled.  “The … plant sculptures? Are those wolves?”  Wow.  It really was his first Christmas in Kekionga.

“Of course they are.  They’re the Christmas Wolves.”

 

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public holiday decorations in kekionga

(The second introduction to the classic Kekionga Holiday Episode, which really does start tommorrow.)

Yes. In Kekionga, they’d be wolves.

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One of the topiaries on the courthouse square in Kekionga.

Starting tomorrow: Christmas Wolves.

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