Saturday, December 29, 2007

New name; same address

When I began blogging in May 2006, I was going to China. I saw blogging as a way of keeping in touch with family and friends without writing endless feature emails or clogging everyone's mailbox with pictures. I had read just a handful of blogs and had no understanding of their power. Blogs link us with friends, strangers, and enemies, rendering location irrelevant. They provide a writing space at once personal and connectional.

I hope to travel again, but for now I'm in the US. No longer am I writing a 'China Blog.' I have renamed this blog 'Gannagram,' but its address will remain the same: Address changes on the web are a nuisance, as they are everywhere else.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Re-entering the blogosphere

A year ago, I returned from my stint in Weihai. I was in China again for two weeks in March. Re-entry into the life of the university and that of my family took quite awhile. I'd been warned that it all took time, but I was surprised nonetheless. You change while you're overseas, and returning home requires that you change again. This makes it hard to find your orientation to writing, your voice.
In reentry, there is a heightened sense of absurdity. For a long time I felt unable to blog about anything interesting without being negative, critical or tactless. This is changing. I'm back in the blogosphere.

Meltdown avoided!

Our sons pushed off this morning; Emily and Steve leave tomorrow morning after breakfast. There has been no significant meltdown in our family's Christmas this year. My daughter Emily reminds me there is still time. After all, "It's not over 'til the fat lady sings."
All kidding aside, it's been an unusually harmonious holiday, considering what things can be like when our family gets together. Christmas conflict seems to be hard wired into our species. You probably read about the trigenerational murder in Carnation Washington Christmas Eve Our family is not violent; we're much to boring. We're good at hurting each other's feelings, though. Especially at Christmas.

So what was different this time? Families don't change that much or that fast. I think of the celebration which preceded our family's Christmas. We had guests from across the world. Did the universe approve and send us a gift? It's possible. 'Tis the season, after all.

Family negotiation

The past is never over, as Sydney Carter once wrote. For this reason, family holidays can be tense. When I see my sons this time of year, I remember their first Christmas, when we photographed them inside the Christmas stockings which now hang by the fireplace; and I think of the Strawberry Shortcake bed set we bought for my daughter one year. To our children, this silent reminiscence must be annoying. At times they allude to occasions when I was arbitrary and out of touch. This hurts, for I did my best.
Their energy level is different from mine and Joe's. We go shopping, and in the space of two hours, they visit four or five stores. Left to my own devices, I'd go to one and take a break. Joe no longer comes on these excursions. As I struggle to keep up with them, they obviously view me as feeble. I find their perception unfair. Earlier this year, I climbed the Great Wall of China.

In my preparations, I fixed enough food for a small army. Clearly, our children prefer to eat out. This morning, Ben's and Mike's last at our home, they will humor me by coming here for breakfast. As I write, cinnamon rolls rise in the kitchen.
Above: Emily and her husband Steve.
Below: Ben, Mike, Emily, and Steve.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Now, the real challenge!

Zhao caught the greyhound after dinner yesterday evening. Our children have arrived: Emily, her husband Steve, Ben and Mike.
Now begins the challenging part of the holiday. The rituals are the same: dinner, stockings, presents under the tree. But families can have melt downs unlike anything that can occur with those not so close. To get myself prepared, I have been blogging more than I have in months.

Above: Ben and Mike
Below: Emily and Steve

How I learned about Christmas

I grew up in a Jewish section of Brooklyn. Christmas was not a holiday celebrated by my Jewish family, though we were quite secular. My early images of Christmas came from television and things people wrote. In Mr. Kent's seventh grade English class at Cunningham Junior High School in Brooklyn, Marnie Mahoney wrote an essay about what her family did on the holiday. So unusual was its content that she was asked to read it to our class. It was very detailed, and my early knowledge of Christmas customs was based on her composition.

Marnie and I were good friends, but we have not seen each other for upward of forty years. Some months ago, she googled my name, wrote a brief email, and we had a brief exchange. I thought of her when I was stuffing stockings, and I wrote saying I remember her essay. As a professor of law, Marnie does more technical writing these days and does not remember the essay.

Turns out that Marnie and her husband have a house in Asheville, North Carolina, an hour's drive from here. So when the kids go home this holiday, we're getting together.

Tree guests

Christmas afternoon, our Chinese guests showed us how to make paper ornaments for the tree utilizing the Asian art of paper folding. The Japanese call this art origami; I cannot remember its Chinese name. Both nations claim to have invented it.

Let's hear it for reindeer!

Santa does his work in the context of a complex organization, which is dependent on the efforts of many elves and reindeer. I hope Santa realizes this.


Usually, holidays are spent with families, and that makes the enterprise more nuanced and complex. Christmas is different when spent with friends. You make all the preparations, but there is not the history, the strong emotional ties. But also, there is less likelihood of conflict.
Above: Yinguan and Joe, the latter in his reindeer antlers.
Below: Dennis and Marie Cope

In the kitchen

On Christmas, I spend lots of time in the kitchen. It's one of the few times I get to bake, these days. Joe is in charge of the cookies for the most part, and these can be done ahead, but breads and coffee cakes should be made up fresh. Zhao and Leonard Li were interested in helping, which I much appreciated.

With so much activity in the kitchen, Butter, our orange tabby, retreated from his accustomed perch on the counter top and took up residence in an Amazon box.

Santa Turf

When the Gann family Santa went down to the family room to fill stockings, she noticed something curious. Two of the stockings-- Roz' and Joe's-- already had presents in them. These appeared to be from China. How was this possible?

Leonard Li offered an interesting hypothesis. He thinks the unidentified presents were placed by the Chinese Santa Claus, who arrived earlier, because China is thirteen hours ahead of the U.S.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Night Before Christmas

Before leaving for church, we labeled our stockings with our names. We wrote our names on our stockings in English and Chinese, the latter with the help of our guests. Dennis and Marie have Chinese names, now. Joe read us the Clement Moore poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas."

Christmas Crackers

The descriptions of Christmas crackers in English novels always confused me. In my mind, 'cracker' denotes something edible and crunchy, like a saltime. But apparently English crackers explode, at least at Christmas.
After dinner last evening, my confusion was finally put to rest. Dennis Cope, native of London, brought over a box of Christmas crackers, sent by his brother. They are actually low voltage which contain tiny amounts of explosive. They open with a loud pop, offering crowns and small toys-- kind of like a pinata. Inside my cracker was a shoe horn. Zhao got a silver yo-yo.
We were lucky to have these Christmas crackers from England. While their explosive force of was not enough frighten the cats, no one would want explosives on a plane or travelling through the mail these days, whatever the amount. Marie Cope said she'd seen them at Bath and Body Works, so apparently you can get them over here. They're lots of fun.

Deck the Halls!

Joe put up the tree a couple of weeks ago, but except for the lights, we left it untrimmed until Christmas Eve. By then, the Chinese members of the crew had assembled-- Leonard Li and Zhao from Troy University in Alabama; Yinguan, my graduate assistant and her friend Jing. They put the finishing touches on the tree.

It's always interesting to go through the ornaments we've accumulated over the years. They aren't just decorations-- they are artifacts of our life. Along with the generic glass balls of past years: embroidered cloth ornaments made by Joe's mother in the latter years of her life; beaded candy canes and clothespin reindeer made by our children in grade school. A silver ornament inscribed with the name of Jan Lenz, my daughters first grade teacher. On it is a date: 1986/

Monday, December 24, 2007

Go Greyhound!

This Christmas, our home will be full of international students. Some from Johnson City, some from further away Our kids don't arrive here until December 26 as they're going to Cincinnati first.

I sent an air ticket to Leonard Li, a former student from Weihai who is now studying at Troy University in Alabama. Leonard helped me in countless ways when I taught in Weihai last year. He wanted to bring his girlfriend Zhao, but she decided to come by Greyhound. I wondered what kind of experience she would have. Turned out Zhao's trip was much better than Leonard's. She left Troy at 3:00 PM Sunday and was in Johnson City by 9:15 the next morning. Leonard arrived at the Montgomery airport at 4:00 PM Sunday. His flight was delayed, and he slept on the airport floor. He finally got here today (Monday) just before Noon. I haven't taken Greyhound in years, but it apparently does better sometimes.

Above: Zhao and Leonard

Below: Butter, principal feline and master of the of the feast

What does tomorrow mean? It is 5:30 pm here, but at home it’s 5:00 in the morning. I leave Weihai tomorrow and make a stop in Beijing. ...