Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Tree

Usually, I arrive home sometime between the 20th and the 22nd. The first year or two that I was in college, there would somehow already be a tree at the house (we have an artificial tree from my childhood, but we we've gotten a pine/fir--I can't tell the difference unless you tell me first--for years now) and my brother and I would decorate it. Then, at some point, I remember arriving home and there wasn't a tree anymore: my mom had unilaterally decided that tree acquisition was a chore best left to P and me.

So, the way it's been for the past few years (when I've been home, so about half the time, and not at all for the past three years), is that my brother and I take $7 and go to a tree lot somewhere on either the 23rd or Christmas Eve. By then, the only trees that are left could charitably be described as either poor judgment on the part of the feller, or, well, Charlie Brown.

The dialog goes something like this:
P: How much do you want for this tree?
Tree Lot Guy: Um ... you want that tree? Um, I dunno, twelve dollars?
AV: We brought seven.
TLG: How about ten?
P: We have seven.

By this point, Tree Lot Guy's putting the tree through the netting that they use and I'm giving him seven singles. And within twenty minutes, we have a perfectly workable, albeit lopsided, Christmas tree in the living room and are trying to make the tree stand hold it up in some semblance of upright (usually, wedges are involved.)

This year, we didn't manage to get a tree until today. You will note that today is the day after Christmas (although we're having Christmas on the 6th or 7th, since that's when P gets home. Conveniently, that's also Three Kings' Day/Armenian Christmas/Eastern Orthodox Christmas, so it's not as if we're outside the bounds of tradition. Another one, but a tradition nonetheless.)

My mom and i went to the tree lot, where there was exactly one (1) tree left, and it was way too tall, and the guy wanted $35 for it, which is absolutely insane. He offered to chainsaw it down to a smaller size, but still. He had two little weird tree-top things that were super scrawny. We were going to the hardware superstore anyway, and my mom mentioned that they had trees there, so we decided to see if they had any left.

They had some, but no one knew what the prices were (we asked at customer service and the lady told us to look on the box and we said, no, not a fake tree, a previously-live tree) and the people in the greenhouse area were unknowledgeable and so we didn't get a tree there.

Anyhow, on the drive home through Passaic, my mom says, keep an eye out for Monroe Street; there's a tree there. And there was.

Someone had put it out to the curb already; I'm not sure if it had previously been decorated or not (it didn't seem to have been; all the branches are still super up-pointy and the tree seems closed. It was right outside a big parking lot; maybe that was a tree lot before?) and so we put that into the trunk and put down the hatchback of the car and then I talked to my dad on the phone and I said, "Hey, we got a tree!" and he asked, "Where did you buy it?" and I said "Monroe Street."

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Material Culture

So, my mom has a few nativity sets that she puts up around the house around Christmas. When I was little, she would put up a fairly elaborate one involving the model-making equivalent of roll-out turf, a water feature, and some sort of structural framework underneath it all for topography.

This was nowhere nearly as elaborate as the nativity scenes facilitated by the Christmas markets in Spain, where you can find scale models of, among other things, pigs in various stages of life/slaughter/curing/finished product, and miniature eggs: whole, cracked, and fried. (Aside: they also sell masks at these Christmas markets in Spain, and kids wear them for New Year's, and I have yet to satisfactorily figure out why.)

We had some model animals that went into the mix: there were sheep,goats, and camels, and, I think, some ducks. I had (I still have, somewhere!) a set of jungle animals, to pretty much the same scale. There was a jungle section of the crèche where they were supposed to go, but I remember insisting that at least one of the tigers should go threateningly close to the manger.

My family hasn't put a nativity set requiring any effort up in years, though. Today my mom mentioned that the cats have a particular penchant for running through it and knocking it down.

Her solution? Instead of putting up one complex, labor-intensive set, she's put a few small (the tallest one of these is maybe four inches) one-piece sets around:

Classic! Note the emphasis on the manger, what with the thatchiness of the roof. Also (not visible in the photo): the faces are definitely just suggestions.

Essence of Nativity: no wise men, no architecture. The colors on this one remind me of light-up Madonna lawn statues from my Italian-suburban New Jersey childhood.

This was given to me by my friend Lital, who had gone to a conference in Alaska. It's an igloo! And a jewelry box! Snazzy!

My favorite: The Guambiano Nativity.

The Guambianos live in Silvia and other places near the Piendamó River in Colombia, about an hour from Popayán (NB: the Wikipedia article needs editing; it notes, "there is no straw roofs in town anymore although there is plenty of them in the city neighborhood.") There are some Guambianos here and there in Popayán, too. I love the colors on this one. But what I love even more than that is that none of the adult figures are kneeling or sitting: they're all just standing around, as if they don't know what to make of the little swaddled Guambiano baby. And the way they're gathered also always reminds me of this.

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Best. Present. Ever.

from Pablo!

Friday, December 05, 2008


Yesterday I met up with my friend Alex, who is a Scottish mathematician who works on piatic ... numbers? sequences? Did I mention that I've never even taken calculus?

Anyhow, Alex is great fun and is a pretty fantastic ambassador for math as a way of life/religion/drug. He uses rapturous adjectives to describe how great math is. In short, he's a breath of fresh Scottish air. We go to Raleigh's together once every couple of weeks, and he talks to me about things that I'm pretty sure are making my mind crack, like the idea that different prime numbers have different distances, and that somehow these distances translate into alternate universes in which mathematical concepts that seem simple to us seem outlandish to those hypothetical residents of those other universes, and what seems incomprehensible to us is like adding for them.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I was feeling peckish and so I ordered myself a sandwich. Three years away, first in a country with pretty fantastic sandwiches (ma3quuda?! hello!), and then in Spain, where the sandwiches are terrible* (with a couple of notable exceptions) somehow made me forget that other than my regular Cheese-n-Stuff fix, California sandwiches are to be avoided.

There are a couple of reasons: first, one of the ingredients on the sandwich was avocado. What I was served was an avocado sandwich with a little bit of some other stuff.
Second, I was never asked what kind of bread I wanted (and, as far as I remember, the menu didn't give any options.) It was honey whole wheat (as far as I can tell). That's almost parodically Californian.

The main problem, though: the bread:filling ratio was all wrong. And that's not just there; it's symptomatic of the California sandwich.

In this weird coastal universe with beaches and Atkins diets, you would think that the bread slices would be normal, if not tending to thin. But no: this was a tall sandwich. And two-thirds of that height was too-thickly sliced bread. Each slice was about three times as thick as a slice of, well, sliced bread. Blech. Even after making the sandwich open-faced, there was still too much bread for the amount of filling.

Never again.

I'll still keep going back to Raleigh's to have my mind blown by Alex and his mathtalk (Did you know that there's something in math called a motive? There're probably also plots, narratives, and backstories.) I'll stick to the $2.50 pints, though (and maybe I'll get some onion rings; some of those came with my sandwich, and they were crisp and tasty.)

* an explication for my Spanish friends: Spaniards are sandwich literalists/fundamentalists. In Spain, when a sandwich is billed as a cheese sandwich, it consists of bread ... and cheese. Which I guess is alright, if that's what you want. What I usually want is for there to be a pile of green leafy things and tomato and mustard and mayo and swimming in vinegar.