Archive for December, 2010

Revisited: Build-a-Bear.com website review

December 31, 2010

Let’s see: I’ve recently made fun of the old, the infirm and defenseless members of the animal kingdom. Seems like the time is right to set my sights on young children. I’ll do that via today’s website review, which visits Buildabear.com.

For those of you not familiar with this innovative retail concept, the Build-A-Bear Workshop confusingly describes itself as the “leading and only” global company that offers an interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience. Outlets exist mainly at malls in 400 locations around the world, though as early as 2007 they discovered the potential of expanding their “pawprint” by using something called the Internet.

I hope you enjoyed that little play on words there because this 12-year-old company uses and abuses the technique with merciless frequency throughout its corporate culture. In their online financial filings, the CEO is officially retitled the “chief executive bear,” while other corporate leaders include the chief operating bear, chief financial bear, chief marketing bear and chief information bear. (I’ll bet government auditors at the Securities and Exchange Commission got a real pleasant chuckle out of those.)

But it doesn’t stop there. World “bearquarters” are located in St. Louis, their online interactive experience is described as a trip into “cyBEAR space,” the corporate general counsel is called the “chief bearrister,” and the fully constructed plush toys are dressed in the “beary latest furry fashions.” You can’t help but wonder if their next annual report will be describing hard financial times causing executives to accept “golden bear-achute” retirement packages and a down-sized workforce portrayed as experiencing “involuntary hibernation.”

The actual in-store experience is described in great detail in the “About Us” portion of the site. There are eight distinct “animal-making stations” that sound like a rejected song title from the Who’s “Tommy”. These are Choose Me, Hear Me, Stuff Me, Stitch Me, Fluff Me, Dress Me, Name Me and Take Me Home. Despite the bear motif, there is no Bite Me.

At the Choose Me stop, customers select from over 30 varieties of creatures, including the decidedly non-bear-like bunny and kitty. At Hear Me, a sound chip is inserted into the still-unformed toy, which can include pre-recorded options like playful growls and “I love you” messages, or you can record your own customized 10-second choice like “kill your parents.” At Stuff Me, children fill their new friend with “just the right amount of huggability” using ingredients that are elsewhere described as “not likely to contain lead.” At Stitch Me, the new best friend is neatly closed up after a barcode (not a bear-code?) is inserted that will allow it to be reunited with its owner should it ever be lost or, more likely, sold for 25 cents at next year’s yard sale. Fluff Me gives a final grooming, Dress Me allows you to purchase a boutique wardrobe, Name Me generates a personalized birth certificate, and Take Me Home provides you with a Cub Condo to serve as a handy travel carrier and new home.

The cold-hearted part of the website discusses investor information for those more interested in turning a “pawfit” (that one’s mine) than simply having a wonderful childhood experience. The upbeat overview references a business plan based on the “widespread appeal of stuffed animals” that has thus far generated sales of over 70 million units. They plan to grow the concept with overseas franchises and the eventual introduction of new product lines. (My suggestion, especially if they move into Russia: a taxidermy service that would stuff actual bear skins.) They’ve increased their minority interest in an enterprise called Ridemakerz, an early-stage interactive concept that will allow customers to build their own cars. The virtual world is expanding with the Hal and Holly Moose webisode series and a Stuff Fur Stuff loyalty program.

Still, all these innovations are happening straight into the headwind of the worst economy in decades, and potential investors have to be informed of a downside. There’s a risk to young children in some of the toys that contain a magnet, so these products are clearly labeled with a tag reading “I have a magnet.” There’s a concern about ethical manufacturing and fair labor treatment, especially in China where many of the components are manufactured. (Presumably, Chinese pre-teens don’t get quite the same thrill as their Western counterparts when they’re building their bears in hot warehouses for 14 cents an hour.) There are some legal cases involving intellectual property and trademarks, so the company has to “bear the expenses” required to maintain and defend the patent. In 2007, they had to write off $1.6 million of inventory, primarily excess Shrek merchandise.

The financial data for the last several years doesn’t look especially rosy. A miniscule 0.2% decline in same-store sales in fiscal 2005 grew to a 6.5% drop the next year, a 9.9% fall in 2007, and a 14% decrease in 2008. The stock price fell from $31.50 per share in early 2007 to a bank-like $3.02 per share in the last quarter of 2008. Definitely what you’d call a bear market (once you get into the puns, they’re easy and fun!)

Executives are moving aggressively though to properly position Build-A-Bear in such a challenging environment. The “Friends 2B Made” subsidiary, which consisted of locations inside or adjacent to the workshop and offered make-your-own dolls, has been closed and liquidated. I’m speculating that the Choose Head, Choose Torso, Choose Creepy Unblinking Eyes production line wasn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as it is with the bear parts.

And, there’s probably hope in the online sale of founder Maxine Clark’s 2006 book, The Bear Necessities of Business. Clark draws upon her decades of business experience to give readers an inside look into what it takes to launch, nurture and run a viable company in the twenty-first century. She demonstrates again and again how the desire to create a pun – in this case, the suggestion that you do only the absolute minimum to succeed – outweighs everything else in the interactive make-your-own stuffed animal retail-entertainment experience segment of the market.

I can barely wait for the sequel.

Advertisements

Revisited: BabyNames.com website review

December 30, 2010

The year is 2050. Actress Dakota Fanning has been kidnapped by aliens. The extraterrestrials demand a ransom of Twizzlers (the cherry ones, not the licorice ones) in an amount that would cost nearly the entire GNP of the earth to produce and package.  

The Hollywood of the future springs into action the way it knows best: by staging a cheesy benefit to bring in donations to help fund the massive cost of Twizzler production. All the big names in show business are there to demonstrate their support, even though the captured actress’s most recent film work hasn’t been quite up to par.  

Mars Badu, daughter of singer Erykah Badu, is there, along with her brother from another father, Seven 3000, whose dad was Andre 3000 of OutKast. Audio Science Clayton, son of actress Shannyn Sossamon, is there. Moxie Crimefighter Jillette, daughter of magician Penn Jillette, and Speck Wildhorse Mellencamp, son of singer John Mellencamp, are a dating couple now, and have arrived together. Poet Goldberg, daughter of actress Soleil Moon Frye, and Elijah Bob Patricus Guggi Q Hewson, son of musician Bono Vox, are there, as are the daughters of singer Bob Geldof – Fifi-Trixibelle Geldof, Little Pixie Geldof and Peaches Honeyblossom Cheney (nee Geldof, and now the wife of reanimated former vice president Dick Cheney).

Even a few of the elders from previous generations make an appearance: Zowie Bowie and Diva Muffin Zappa join together in a duet written for the occasion, “It’s Not Our Fault Our Dads Were Rock Stars (Dakota Come Home).”  

Forty years ago, all the bizarre names in attendance might’ve taken focus away from the plight of Miss Fanning, now struggling so gamely to breathe in the thin atmosphere of East Pluto. But thanks to the creativity of parents everywhere, inspired by websites like babynames.com, virtually the entire world is now populated with goofily-named spawn. Today’s Website Review looks at this source of inspiration for parents and a lifetime of being bullied for their kids.  

Babynames.com is a darling site for prospective moms and dads looking to find just the right name for their bundle of Joiyieux, and not terribly concerned with the harmful effects that laptop radiation might pose for the unborn fetus. It has all kinds of helpful features to direct visitors to over 15,000 naming options, along with advice, games and shopping opportunities.  

The home page provides easy links to the top baby names of 2009, a search engine to allow you to browse for names by different categories, and a “Name of the Day.” Yesterday this was the two-star-rated “Verlee,” a combination of Vernon and Lee, and about as ugly as having two redneck dads might suggest. You can also buy an iPhone App to carry name ideas wherever you go, and can follow late-breaking names on both Facebook and Twitter. (If you sign up for these, you may want to consider not being pregnant quite so much).  

The most popular names for boys last year were Aidan/Aiden/Aden and Cayden/Caden/Kayden/Kaden, and for girls were Amelia/Emilia and Isabella/Izabella. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t saddle my child with all that slash drawing every time they had to sign their name, but I suppose it’s still better than plugging in a ∞ or a ∂ or a ‰. Other notable appellations to make the top 100 include Logan, Rhys and Xander for boys, and Isla, Esme and Aurora for girls. The once-popular John barely makes the list at the final spot.  

If you’re interested instead in a name that reflects a certain cultural background, there’s an option for you too. Most major nationalities are represented as well as some you’d think were long buried in ancient history. While there may be no Sumerian, Neanderthal or Australopithecus names, there is a nice list of Aztec names including Tlalli, Quetzalxochitl and the unfortunate Atl, who’s likely to spend a lifetime being constantly diverted to Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.  

If you’re not sure which of several names you’re considering are best for you and your baby, there’s a place to list your finalists and have site visitors vote on their favorites. Obviously, there’s no requirement that you go with majority rule, which is a good thing if you want to avoid Internet trends like Stephen Colbert, Megan Fox or LongerPenisCanNowBeYours.  

There’s an Info and Advice pulldown that features message boards, a celebrity baby blog (‘just barfed again,” reports Atlas Tupper, son of Anne Heche), and a name consulting service. “Tips for Writers” suggests romance authors steer clear of exotic names like Chesapeake Divine or Rod Remington, and that science fiction writers avoid unwieldy titles like Zyxnrid.  

The predictably named Jennifer hosts an “Ask Babynames.com” forum to answer specific reader questions. No, she tells Anna, you shouldn’t name your twin girls “Tara” and “Clara.” Danielle is concerned that her choice, “Akuji,” was copyrighted by a videogame of the same name, but turns out it’s not. Kimberly wants to name her son “Dresden,” but is concerned it will recall the German city firebombed into ashes during World War II; not great, Jennifer advises, yet still better than “Hiroshima” or “Pearl Harbor.” Tyler wants to know the derivation of the name “Stamatina” and is told its root is “stop” in Greek, and therefore a good name for a girl.  

In the Fun Stuff section, there’s a “Random Renamer” feature. I typed in my first and middle name and got options for the “wild” me (Juke Mason), the “stylish” me (Tempest Jareth), the “quiet” me (Jokull Seiko) and the “philosophical” me (Daytona Raul), all of which would also result in the m0rtified me. You can also guess the stage name of people who chose to change their birthname for show business. For example, R&B singer Akon was born Aliaune Damala Bouga Time Puru Nacka Lu Lu Lu Badara Akon Thiam. Audrey Hepburn was Edda Kathleen van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston. Della Reese was Delloreese Early, Elle McPherson was Eleanor Gow and Laura Nyro was Laura Nigro.  

A list of games that can be played at baby showers starts out fun but trends toward the creepy and ultimately the ghastly. A game called “Baby Got Back” directs players to ”get five little plastic babies and put them in a cup, have guests shake up the cup and toss the babies onto a table. The player with the most babies with their ‘bottoms up’ wins.” The game “Dirty Diapers” involves putting eight different chocolate candy bars in eight different diapers, microwaving them, then having each guest guess what candy bars they were originally (no tasting allowed). “Ice-Ice-Baby” again uses miniature plastic babies, this time putting them in cups of water and freezing them. “Each guest receives one ice-baby,” the instructions read. “Whoever can make the water melt first and announces ‘my water broke’ wins a prize.”   

Of course, the obvious temptation at a site like this is to check out your own name to see how it rates, so you can know if you’re a worthwhile human being or not. I searched for “Davis” and found that it’s the 395th most popular name currently in use and is contained on the tentative name lists of 547 expectant parents. The origin of the name is English and it means, not surprisingly, “son of David.” Other notables with the name are Sammy Davis Jr. and Bette Davis, but they’re not really using it any more. Though not common, ”Davis” is rated four stars on a five-star scale for desirability. For comparison purposes, I checked the name “Adolf” (German in origin, it means “noble wolf”) and it only rated two stars, so me and my fellow Davis’s are at least twice as good as, for example, Hitler. 

Below the name facts is a place to upload photos of your own special namesake. Adolf had “no pix uploaded, yet” but there was one cute little Davis, shown below: 

This one looks like a wise guy

I enjoyed reading through this website, and can definitely recommend it to anyone in the market for baby names. Readers of all ages who don’t have a name will find a virtually endless supply of possible things they can call themselves. And if people are already referring to you by some kind of label, you can still enjoy a few fun facts and diversions. Just watch out for those diapers and those frozen plastic babies.

Revisited: RefineInstitute.com website review

December 29, 2010

The billboard rising up in the distance along the interstate looks enticing at first. Hard to tell exactly what it’s advertising, but you can make out a great swath of bikini-clad flesh from a mile away. Your attention perks up in anticipation of some provocative treat amidst all the signs showing fast-food options and diesel prices at Truckland Truckstop ($2.93 a gallon; up a little from last week).

Soon you can see more detail on the billboard and there are actually two scantily clad torsos, the first trim and sexy and the second — whoa! — it’s got a huge sagging appendage where the abs should be. I’m repulsed, and that’s apparently the proper reaction, because it’s an ad for The Refine Institute, a Charlotte-area plastic surgery practice, trolling for patients along I-77.

The tagline reads “Changing the shape of Charlotte one person at a time,” which sounds like it’s going to take a while, if you’ve ever seen the line for biscuits at Bojangles. The “REFINE” logo is graphically intriguing too; the “R” is extra bold, the “E” a semibold, the “F” merely bold, the “I” roman, the “N” light and the “E” extra light, a progression from fat to thin type suggesting how you too could stand a little font change after all that cake you ate.

All of which makes me want to learn more about plastic surgery and leads me to the subject of today’s Website Review, RefineInstitute.com.

The home page is a simple affair, a black center square containing the company name and four shaded squares surrounding it, suggesting perhaps how the surgically improved will be the center of attention among her fading friends.

The box on the left tells about “Technical Expertise,” how the surgeons of the practice bring a “sharp” eye to their craft, using “cutting-edge” technologies, subconsciously setting you up for the scalpels that will inevitably follow. The bottom box, conversely, promotes the “High Tech/Less Invasive” nature of the work, including laser-assisted liposuction and something called “fractionated CO2 skin resurfacing,” in which I’m guessing they remove some fraction of your skin, probably using a carbonated beverage. The right box is “Core Consultation,” about holistic wellness and treating the “whole person,” not just the sagging parts.

It’s the top box that has the pulldowns going into more scintillating detail: body contouring, facial sculpting and “breast aesthetics” (hubba-hubba.)

But first, of course, we want to hear about the institute’s philosophy before we learn about the expensive fees, the pain and, ultimately, the slight enhancement of your frankly disgusting eyelids. Refine believes that cosmetic surgery is “rooted in gentle precision and polished elegance.” They offer a “unique 360° approach to restoring your image,” so much better than that earlier business model where only 180° of you was fixed, and you constantly had to triangulate and shift positions so people would only see your front.

We read about surgeon Dr. Ralph Cozart, who did much of his residency in Minnesota, where it seems the extreme cold would give any tightening efforts a nice boost. In his current practice, Dr. Cozart uses Vectra 3-D technology to take “before pictures” of your troublesome body part, then he does NOT — I repeat, NOT — put these on Flikr, then he creates a three-dimensional image of your projected outcome. It’s not mentioned whether your husband will have to wear Avatar glasses after your procedure, though you’ll probably have to go to an IMAX theatre to be fully appreciated.

This is also the area of the website that features “summer specials.” I was fully prepared to make a joke about buy-one-get-one-free, but Refine beat me to it with their SmartLipo offer for “50% of an additional area after first at regular price.” It really does say “of,” not “off.” I hope that’s just a typo and not a special to fix all of one breast and half of another.

Under the “Body Contouring” section, we learn about the various liposuction techniques. “LipoSculpture” is good for small stubborn areas of fat that resist exercise and diet. It’s laser-assisted and only requires “tumescent anesthesia,” which I hope isn’t what it sounds like. “SmartLipo” uses twenty-first century technology to remove fat and tighten skin, so much better than the eighteenth-century technique some surgeons use that involves lopping off as much as a flank. There’s also the “tummy tuck,” requiring your navel to be moved (can you put it on your forehead?) and the “minituck,” wherein your navel stays put.

Special mention is worthwhile here for the “Brazilian Butt Lift.” Developed deep in the Amazon and expected to be an exhibition sport in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Brazilian Butt Lift takes fat from a part of your body where you don’t want it and transfers it to your bottom. The fat can be harvested “from any place” — I’d choose the Food Lion meat department — and can create a very natural look and feel. You can’t sit down for a week, not all the fat will “take” and it could require more than one visit, but an increase in gluteal volume is virtually assured.

Under “Facial Sculpting,” you can get a “blepharoplasty” to fix your eyelids, the “SmartXide DOT Laser” to resurface your skin with the help of the Department of Transportation, or the “FineLift,” using “fillers to restore lost facial volume.” There are also fat transfer options for the face. You can use that saggy neck to enhance your lips, or you could simply run into a door. Aesthetic services are mostly facials, massages and relaxing acid peels.

Obviously, it’s the “Breast Aesthetics” pulldown (ouch) that you’ve all been waiting to hear about. Augmentation uses silicone or saline implants that can be shaped, much like balloon animals, into any style you like. These are somehow “adjustable” and I’d be glad to volunteer for that. The Breast Lift doesn’t involve any insertion of foreign objects and instead focuses on tightening to create a youthful profile. The website’s use of terms like “droop,” “sagging” and “pendulous” struck me as a little insensitive but I guess it does get the point across (ha-ha). Breast Reduction services are also offered, including a special procedure for men suffering from what Dr. Cozart describes as an ”emotionally devastating” condition I’ve rarely thought about, though now that he mentions it, maybe I’m a candidate for “complete removal of the breasts.” On second thought, no.

The final section is “Patient Information” and contains some handy Q&A. You’re told to look for board certification in any doctor you choose, so as to avoid those amateurs in the mall kiosks. “Does this surgeon care about the rest of me or are they just selling a procedure?” you should ask, and if they don’t care, avoid them too. A forum writer asks if saline implants are subject to evaporation and it turns out they are, but usually not condensation or precipitation.

This is also the area that offers online consultation, in which you can chat with Dr. Cozart and send him your picture. Though he maintains a strict “no fatties” policy, the doctor will give you a free initial estimate of how much work you might need. Financing is also discussed in this part, including a gentle reminder that it’s standard to require payment up-front, and that you’d be better off turning to a firm called SurgeryLoans.com rather than waiting for Obamacare.

There’s also a list of products the practice sells that must be effective, or they wouldn’t have names like Skinceuticals and Glominerals. One of these is a skin lightener with the following explanation: “The enzyme tyrosinase converts the amino acid tyrosine into melanin. Hyperpigmentation can result. Ingredients such as arbutin, kojic acid and thymol can suppress tyrosinase.” The only part of that I understand is the “kojic acid,” which I believe Telly Savalas used in his TV cop show of the 1970s to maintain his smooth baldness, and is now available for home use to remove unwanted hair.

All kidding aside, RefineInstitute.com is a well-constructed website providing valuable information about a service for which there’s a legitimate need. It would be easy to make fun of plastic surgery and tummy tucks and boobies, and forget how many women and men are helped by these practices. I hate to be shallow or superficial and think of beauty as only skin deep.

But I did it anyway.

Kojak: “You mean I don’t have to look like this?”

Revisited: Website Review of BillyGraham.com

December 28, 2010

The death last year of televangelist Oral Roberts leaves behind only one other elder statesman of Christianity, if you don’t count God. The Rev. Billy Graham has spent much of his 91 years ministering not only to his Southern Baptist base but to presidents, world leaders and millions of participants in his crusades around the globe. He even found time during the turbulent 1960s to run the Fillmore music venue in San Francisco, introducing the nation to seminal bands such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.

No, wait — that was Bill Graham, promoter and rock impresario.

See, I could keep these two straight if only I’d visit the Billy Graham Library, a Charlotte, N.C., site that houses memorabilia from the famous minister’s life. Built in 2007, the 40,000-square-foot “experience” allows visitors to discover the life and legacy of America’s pastor. The 20 landscaped acres include the “barn-shaped” library itself, a multimedia presentation about his dynamic journey from farm boy to international ambassador of God’s love, a prayer garden and the Graham Brothers Dairy Bar, featuring sandwiches, salads, cookies and ice cream (as it is in Heaven, no outside food allowed).

Billboards throughout the Carolinas promote the library with the tag line “No Books to Check Out … Just His Story,” lest potential visitors be scared off by the prospect of having to read something. However, the advertising is probably intended more for those who are just passing through, as those of us who live here are already well aware of the now-retired reverend’s impact on the area. Visitors to Charlotte are still alarmed to find that, in order to drive to the airport, you have to “take Billy Graham,” the parkway named in his honor, not the actual man, who is too frail to do much air travel these days. Locals take the influence for granted.

Now I’m not about to start making fun of an elderly, gentle man of God, even though he may have made some questionable political choices during his career. Despite early associations with right-wing nutcase Bob Jones and a well-known chumminess with Nixon, Reagan and assorted Bushes, Graham did oppose segregation in the South, even going so far as to bail Martin Luther King, Jr., out of jail at one point. So while I may be willing to give him a pass, I reserve no such restraint for the website promoting his library, which is the subject of today’s Website Review.

The home page includes some basic information about the library (obvious things like closed Sunday, no firearms or pets permitted, MasterCard and Visa accepted at the gift shop) and an overview of key features. There are re-creations of historic moments in Graham’s life, “amazing” films and more than 350 photographs, and an opportunity to “submerse yourself” in a special room dedicated to his late wife, Ruth. There’s also a brief video, slickly produced but a little lacking in audio quality, in particular the introduction that at first listen sounds like “experience the journey of one simple mind that impacted millions.” And there’s a description of the site’s centerpiece, the restored Graham Family Homeplace, which was rebuilt using 80 percent of the original materials and, presumably, 20 percent of stuff from Lowe’s.

The home page also includes news releases and testimonials about the power of God as exercised through Rev. Graham. There’s a statement in reaction to Oral Roberts’ death — Graham “loved him as a brother” and “looks forward to seeing him in Heaven” — and one from Billy’s son Franklin, who has taken over much of the day-to-day operations of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Franklin, naturally, had spoken to Roberts’ son Richard, and judiciously avoided saying anything about how his father could now beat up Richard’s father.

The testimonials are mostly from average Christians who have visited the library recently. “I can’t think of a better place to spend my birthday other than Heaven,” notes Chrissy from Louisburg, N.C. “I lived across the street from the Smithsonian in Washington for many years and it has nothing on this library,” says Fred from Lexington, S.C. “My son is addicted to meth and was ready to commit suicide,” writes one father, a bit off-topic.

There’s also a long piece from a former atheist and alcoholic (there’s a difference?) who came to Christ after being told by her bartender she should attend the local crusade, then showing up and hyperventilating among 65,000 Christians, then fleeing to the sidewalk outside to catch her breath, then becoming “completely transformed” because the sermon could still be heard in the parking lot. Now she has a radio show and is available through the Captivating Women Speaker Bureau.

There’s a Reservations pulldown encouraging advance arrangements for parties larger than 15 people, so theoretically Jesus’ 12 disciples could just show up unannounced but will be advised to wear comfortable shoes, allow at least two hours for the visit, and need to provide their own strollers and wheelchairs. A Get Involved section solicits volunteer library workers who have prayerfully considered their ability to stand on their feet for four hours at a stretch (no mention of requiring familiarity with the Dewey Decimal system).

The Special Events area describes two recent happenings, a Teddy Bear Tea Party and something called “Bikers with Boxes,” and promotes the currently running “Christmas at the Library” festivities. The latter actually sounds like fun, with a live nativity, horse-drawn carriage rides through a beautiful lights display, strolling carolers and holiday goodies. If you can nudge the Joseph actor to break character and burst into a giggling fit, you might even qualify for a free plate of Mother Graham’s poundcake and hot apple cider, though that’s unlikely since I just made it up.

There’s an extensive Books and Gifts section with some great ideas for holiday giving, such as DVDs, festive cards and the library barn Christmas ornament. A daily prayer journal with insights from Billy Graham will help you keep track of which requests God has already granted and which are on back-order. And there’s a whole collection of resources “equipping tweens to live for Christ” called the “Dare to be a Daniel” series. I checked with my son, who is an actual Daniel,  and he hopes there’d be minimal emphasis on being eaten by a lion and more about going out to movies and Taco Bell with friends.

The pulldown about “Billy Graham, The Man,” is one I will respectfully decline to deride, other than to note that his answer to the question he hears everywhere he goes is that hope in the future is possible “through Jesus Christ,” and that he looks ridiculous in his white wedding  tuxedo.

Finally, I’ll mention a Special Announcement that will be of interest to anyone who plans to visit the library soon. It will be closed. Despite being in business for only two years since its construction, the facility will shut down for several months of extensive upgrades and improvements beginning Jan. 11 and continuing until spring. Local news reports at the time of the announcement indicated that there are significant issues with acoustics in many of the exhibits, allowing sound from adjacent rooms to bleed through the walls. So, for example, during quiet reflection in a chapel you may suddenly hear what seems to be the Lord Almighty ordering a tuna salad sandwich and a chocolate milkshake but is in fact bleed-through from bustle in the Dairy Bar.

But the website will continue to remain in service during construction, so you can virtually enjoy the glory of God as reflected in his humble servant Billy Graham from the comfort of your own personal family homeplace or barn.

Recharging the ol’ batteries

December 27, 2010

Back in college at Florida State, I had several good friends who were studying music at the university. Though it may come as a surprise to many who tend to associate FSU more with football than any sort of artistry, the college at the time had one of the top music schools in the country, second only in some rankings to Juilliard.

Two of these guys excelled on keyboard instruments, one on piano and one on organ. So it came as no surprise for the latter of these, that a common joke was told.

“His major is organ,” his friends would tease, “and his organ is major.”

No matter how many times it was said, it was always funny.

+++

Some regular readers of these postings — I’m looking at you, Paul — have noted what they perceive to be a certain change in the quality of the blog.

Perhaps it shows itself in word choice. What I think of as a creative stretching of the rules of language may come across to some as simply awkward phrasing. So turning “mayonnaise” into the action word “mayonnaising” to describe the act of applying that eggy condiment to my sandwich is seen by some as questionable. Changing “prehensile” into the adverb “prehensiley” to tell how my cat picks up food bits with his claws is viewed as dubious.

What can I say? I love words and enjoy playing around with them. I’m still trying to figure out a way to work my two favorites — “jubilee” (a time or season of celebration) and “bolus” (a soft rounded ball, especially of chewed food) — into the same sentence. I’ve even considered staging an annual festival to honor gnawed, sodden masses of nutrition, just so I can promote the First Annual Bolus Jubilee.

Then there was the incident this past Friday, where I re-posted a biography of the artist Christo that had run only five days before.

“Wow, Davis,” wrote one commentator who claims to have roomed with me during my freshman year of college, though I recall no such living arrangement. “You re-gifted your blog from Dec. 19th. This might be the first re-gifting in the brief history of blogging. I guess we can all count our blessings twice.”

Well, maybe I intended to republish the piece so quickly because there was such a demand. Maybe it’s like those “instant classics” they show on ESPN, when a particular athletic event is so enthralling that it demands to be watched again only several days after it originally aired. Maybe I intend to run the Christo post every day from now on. He is, after all, the preeminent fabric-draper of buildings and geographic features of our time, and would be thoroughly deserving of such recognition.

The reality, however, is that I probably need a break, or a “hiatus” as they call it in the broadcast television and hernia repair industries. Excluding the weekends, and the unfortunate incident Friday that ruined several people’s Christmas Eve, I have posted original content in this space every single weekday for almost two years. Regardless of whether or not I felt funny, whether or not I’d had a tough day at work, whether or not I’d had a root canal on the number 12 lateral incisor, I showed up every day on WordPress with a unique offering. Occasionally, it was even humorous.

Now, after an estimated 520 essays, I’m going to take this week between Christmas and New Year’s off. Starting tomorrow and continuing until January 3, I’ll be re-running classic Website Reviews and other works that first appeared in late 2009 and early 2010 in this blog. Think of it as something akin to the various TV marathons we’re seeing a lot on cable over the holidays, only (hopefully) a bit more entertaining than back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of Top Chef: Boiling Water.

Given the chance to recharge my batteries, I am confident that I can return in the New Year with fresh and amusing compositions, many of which will use real words. Look for other changes as well here at DavisW’s Blog, as I attempt to remain current and keep up with all the latest in online technology. For example, all new posts appearing in January will be dated in 2011, whereas I had only used 2010, 2009 and 2008 in the past. I’m also thinking of publishing a picture of myself in which I’m wearing something other than a T-shirt.

So hang in there, you 162.17 average daily readers. Enjoy the “revisitings,” as I’m calling them, for the next week. Or find something more constructive to do with your life, like getting up from your computer long enough to recall that you have loved ones living in the same house that you can say “hi” to.

I hope to see you back in January.

Revisited: ChristmasVille.com website review

December 26, 2010

The signs of Christmas are everywhere, and nowhere more prominent than at local holiday festivals being staged around the country. There’s much to get you into the proper spirit — the old-fashioned parade down main street, handbell concerts, carriage rides through the “olde town” and, of course, the single-malt scotch tasting. For many revelers, nothing says Christmas like drinking whiskey until you start seeing gnomes, elves and roving members of “Chimpfabulous!”, the most-respected horseback-riding chimpanzee ensemble in the industry.  

Are they real or are they delirium? Such is the mystery and wonder of the Yuletide season.  

Unfortunately, many Christmas celebrations seem to be wandering from the central theme of the holiday in order to accommodate those with other, less Jesus-centric agendas. I’m all in favor of bringing together a diverse community in a joyous but inclusive gala. I’m just not sure that some of the event organizers on the calendar aren’t looking for any excuse to participate and promote their own narrow interest. Like the chimps, the geo-cachers, the tuba band and the local wireless provider, offering cell phone calls to Santa.  

In my hometown, we have an event called ChristmasVille, “jammed with over 70 different activities for all ages,” according to chairman Allan Miller. And the best part is that you don’t even have to leave your cozy home in order to join in the fun. In the Internet age, all you have to do to get merry is visit the website, ChristmasVilleRockHill.com — subject of today’s Website Review — and take the $5 you would’ve spent on the single-malt tasting to buy a couple 40′s of Olde English 800.  

The home page summarizes the four-day bash and notes proudly that it was named among the “Top 20 events in the Southeast for 2009″. I’m assuming these are planned events, not incidents like the shooting at a Jacksonville office building or the 100-year flood in northern Alabama, that you’d otherwise think have to be right up there too. There are also the usual links to corporate sponsors, including the tasty-sounding Williams and Fudge (which in fact is a rather bland account receivables management firm) and lead sponsor Piedmont Medical Center, doubtlessly hoping to drum up a little business from the unlicensed food vendors. There’s even an awkward poem:  

There’ll be fashion and artisans and carolers “by Dickens”!
Lamplights and starlight and dazzling white lights (I would’ve gone with “chickens” here)
Greenery and scenery and marshmallow roasts
Toddies and chocolates and gifts you love most!

The heart of the site, of course, is the Events pulldown, and these will be the focus of my post.  

The Opening Ceremonies, called “Lighting of the Village” but fortunately not sponsored by the fire department, features holiday music by “local legend Plair” and a performance by Rock Hill’s own “RockHettes,” all projected on a large screen above the stage so the 30 or so people in attendance don’t obstruct your view. Much of the festive art that appears throughout the event is inspired by hometown hero Vernon Grant, whose claim to fame is that he drew the cartoon characters Snap®, Crackle® and Pop® for Kellogg’s boxes back in the 1930′s, and managed the dash off a few Santas in his spare time. His sprites, pixies and trolls, who are basically the above-named cereal shills with the “K” removed from their chest, provide the theme at sites throughout ChristmasVille.  

There’s a Living Nativity, coordinated by a local Baptist church, where you can “come witness real people and animals acting out the birth of Jesus” in an outdoor manger setting. (In case of rain or severe weather, Christ will be born in the Freedom Center gym.) Also living will be “Roving Thespians,” actors in the costumes of Charles Dickens’ London who will be “interacting with festival-goers” in ways that are hopefully different from the pick-pocketing scamps in many of his classics. Some of these strollers may be caroling while others may be accompanied by their dogs, participants in the “Holiday Hounds Costume Contest.”  

I hope those dogs are well-behaved because there will be other animals in attendance at the festival. The afore-mentioned monkeys of “Chimpfabulous!” appear to be well-trained, wearing cute rodeo costumes appropriate to the season. But spooked by a shawl-wearing lab mix, they could easily rip the face and hands off of any nearby gnomes, which children may want to miss. Maybe it’d be safer to keep the youngest celebrants over by the Reindeer Romp, the Mother Goose display, or in Polar Bear Park, a “winter carnival with inflatable slides” that can presumably withstand the powerful swipe of the Arctic killer’s massive paw.  

Of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without the wonderful music we remember from our childhoods, and there’s plenty of merry melodies on tap. A performance of the classic “Nutcracker Suite” ballet is always a centerpiece of the season and “there’s no better way to celebrate the holiday than with beautifully crafted trick marionettes sure to get you in the nutcracker mood.” There’s also a “Tuba Christmas” and a “Saxophone Christmas” presentation, a “Senior Choreography Showcase,” blessedly produced by upperclassmen from the local college and not elders from the retirement home, and a bilingual songfest by something called “Grupo Latino.” My Spanish is a little rusty, but I’m guessing this is some sort of Latin group.  

Food is another big part of the holiday, and the opportunity to get as fat as Santa is not to be missed at ChristmasVille. In addition to the standard festival vendors offering traditional favorites like chili fries, barbeque and kettle corn, there will be a Brunswick Stew cook-off, a “souper” supper of holiday gruel, and an Asian Christmas feast. Plus, you’re encouraged to patronize sponsoring restaurants in the downtown district, three of which will fall victim to the recession and go out of business shortly after the weekend.  

Sometimes, though, it’s the miscellaneous events that can provide the most memorable fun. There’s the “Holiday Foam Pit,” where “older teens can slip and slide in a foam-filled pit — clothing will get damp as if playing in snow.” There’s the “Hands of God Puppet Theater” which, with any luck, will get into a bitter sectarian brawl with the Nutcracker marionettes. There’s “Santa’s Great Gnome Awakening,” an evangelical revival in which the trolls have a revolution in religious thought, accompanied by a Jingle Bell Parade. And there’s a “Pirate Christmas,” miniature golf in a Christmas tree forest, a show by the SMS Dancers (Sullivan Middle School, not text-messagers), and a snow village with 20 tons of trucked-in ice shavings that make terrible snowballs but excellent additions to single-malt scotch.  

ChristmasVilleRockHill.com is a fun and festive domain, comprising a complete guide to this award-winning community party. I’d invite nearby readers to come and enjoy but, unfortunately, it ended Dec. 6, nearly three weeks before the actual holiday. You can still tap into the website though to hear some cool 1980s-style digital music and read wrap-up comments from the festival director, the evocatively-named Candy Clapp: “Start planning now so you won’t miss a minute of the fun, starting Dec. 2, 2010.”  

Pirates, monkeys, geo-cachers and foam manufacturers — begin your preparations immediately.  

Poorly groomed Santa, or maybe a pirate

And a Merry Christmas to all!

December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas to everyone!

(There’s an original start to a blog posting for today.)

That being said, I’m already starting to look forward and plan for next Christmas, and I need your help. Christmas Eve Day is usually my favorite part of Christmas, in part due to the air of expectation of what the next day will bring, but also because everything is still open for business and people are scurrying about in merry preparation.

I spent yesterday cleaning up my yard, then took a brisk walk to the grocery store, then headed up to the big regional mall to buy one last Christmas present for my son. It was simultaneously chaotic, reflective and cleansing, and may end up being my fondest memory of the holiday season (especially considering we have pouring rain forecast for the entire day today).

In the process of yesterday’s activities, I snapped a few photos with my cell phone, and it occurred to me how great it would be to capture yesterday’s mood for repackaging in next year’s Christmas cards. Personalized cards are easier to produce than ever. Usually, they show a happy family wearing their Christmas finery and gathered around their tree, or perhaps a new baby in the family, or maybe a cow. Mine is going to portray one of the following joyful scenes from yesterday.

Please review the pictures, read a little bit about the context, and send me a comment about which one you think might make the best cover for next year’s Christmas card.

I started Christmas Eve day leaf-blowing the final remnants of fall out of my yard and onto the curbside. See how nice my lawn looks and what a neat pile of leaves I’ve left in the gutter? This scene of blessed order amidst the randomness of nature could make a great representation of why this time of year is so special to so many people.
  
 
This is me, walking to the grocery store. I may not look particularly jolly on the face of it but, trust me, I’m literally bursting with good cheer. I think the light and shadow are nicely captured, as is the discount bridal barn I’m passing across the street. I don’t think anybody’s going to mistake me for Santa, but this shot does show I have the chunky old man part down pretty good.
  
 
This is the inside of the Apple store in Charlotte’s SouthPark Mall around 3 p.m. Christmas Eve. Notice the red-shirted elves helping all the customers decide how best to dispose of their life savings. (We opted for the hard-to-find “Magic Mouse” which had just arrived in the last shipment before Christmas). I was also wearing a red shirt, and would’ve enjoyed being mistaken for an Apple employee. “Yes, this model is just what you need,” I could say. “It even has a calculator and a clock!”

Christo — The reason for the season

December 24, 2010

Only 24 hours till the big day is here. Most of us have finished our shopping, finished our party-going, and are just about finished with being cheerful. The time has now come to settle back with loved ones, and let the true meaning of the holiday wash over us.

It’s time to put “Christo” back in Christmas.

The man whose birth we celebrate tomorrow came from humble beginnings, only to emerge later in life as the transformative fabric artist we all know. Even if we don’t worship him as a God, virtually everyone acknowledges the positive impact he’s made on Western culture.

The performance/outdoor installation master we know today as Christo began life as Christo Vladimir Javacheff, born in a tiny Bulgarian town in 1935. His actual birth date was probably around June 13 (scholars have arrived at that date from contemporary descriptions of flocks in the field and from well-maintained birth records in the registrar’s office) though we now stage our celebration around the time of the pagans’ winter solstice.

His father, Vladimir Yavachev, was a scientist, yet he didn’t allow unblinking loyalty to the scientific method to cloud the metaphysical belief that his son was the Christo Child. Mother Tsveta Dimitrova worked two full-time jobs, as both a secretary at the Academy of Fine Arts and as a virgin (the latter position didn’t pay very well but had great benefits in a time when Europe was ravaged with venereal disease).

Young Christo displayed artistic talent at a very early age. Legend has it that once, when his mother experienced a chill, he picked up a throw rug and draped over Tsveta’s shivering shoulders, presaging a career that would see him wrap both natural and manmade objects in immense swaths of cloth and label it “environmental art.” He studied at the Sofia Academy and in Prague for four years, then spent the spring break of 1957 on a train trip to Austria after bribing a railway official to let him out of the Communist bloc.

In October 1958, he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Precilda de Guillebon, the mother of the woman who would become his wife and partner for the next fifty years, and known simply as Jeanne-Claude. Initially attracted to her half-sister, he got Jeanne-Claude pregnant instead (sounds like a tragically missed encasing opportunity). Already engaged to another man, she proceeded with the wedding at Christo’s insistence — it’s said he was intrigued by the prospect of seeing so many covered packages among the wedding gifts — but abandoned her new husband immediately after the honeymoon. Jeanne-Claude’s parents were displeased with the relationship because he was a refugee, even though they had plenty of other good reasons.

By 1961 Christo had become wealthy with the invention and patent of the cooking oil Crisco, allowing the two young artists to begin their first major work, covering barrels in the German port of Cologne. In 1962, without the consent of local authorities and as a statement against the Berlin Wall (?), they blocked off a small street near the river Seine with a different set of barrels, while Jeanne-Claude convinced approaching police to let the piece stand for several hours. Somehow, this made them famous in Paris, which convinced them to leave for the U.S.

Flying to New York on separate planes to ensure that both would not die in the same accident, unless of course the two planes crashed into each other, the duo began their American careers. Christo struggled with the English language (as he had struggled with French, and Bulgarian, for that matter), which led him to simplify the crediting of work done by both he and his wife. Even though Jeanne-Claude was the natural organizer, the extrovert and the one who dyed her hair bright red and smoked cigarettes, it was “Christo” who was famous artist. It wasn’t until 1994 that he retroactively gave her half-credit for the work.

Christo loved the freedom of America, and loved how many things it had to wrap. He had been “stateless” since his arrival in Austria years before, and decided to become a U.S. citizen in 1973. He studied hard to pass the citizenship exam, and had to take it several times until it finally sunk in that cotton, denim, acetate, acrylic, nylon, flannel and microfiber were neither presidents nor provisions in the Bill of Rights. One of his proudest moments would come in 2005 when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said it was okay with him if Christo wanted to erect his most famous project, “The Gates,” in Central Park, as long as he cleaned up after himself. It was that signature piece — 7,503 gates made of saffron-colored fabric and placed on paths throughout the park — which cemented Christo’s image in the public consciousness.

His other most notable works included “Documenta 4,” an inflated air package that hovered 280 feet over Europe for ten hours in 1968; “Running Fence,” a curtain of fabric that ran through the mountains and into the sea; “Surrounded Islands,” the wrapping of eleven islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay in pink woven polypropylene in 1983; and the 1995 packaging of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, in fabric. He also installed thousands of umbrellas in Japan and California in a seven-year project appropriately called “The Umbrellas,” that ended colorfully (blue for Japan, yellow for the U.S.) but tragically (two people killed) in 1991.

Not all of Christo’s work was so serious as to be potentially fatal. An important part of Christmas is the fun and levity the season brings, and this is reflected in some of his most light-hearted work. After cartoonist Charles Schulz drew an episode of his comic strip “Peanuts” with Snoopy’s doghouse wrapped in fabric, Christo constructed a wrapped doghouse and presented it to the Schulz Museum in 2003. The artist is also considering ways to enrobe some other popular animated figures, including the Taunting Robot who jumps up and down in the corner of the screen during Fox TV football broadcasts, and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.).

Tragically, Christo’s life partner Jeanne-Claude died of a brain aneurysm last year, casting a pall over the current holiday season. But knowing Christo’s resilience and his central role in the seasonal theme of new life, he’ll probably take that pall and wrap it around something festive, much like he folded himself into sackcloth to create the Shroud of Turin during his early years in Europe.

So as you finalize your Christmas preparations today, don’t forget to take time to remember the reason for the season. When you wrap up that last present and put it under the tree, don’t forget that it was Christo who was born into this world to save mankind and to offer the idea that gifts temporarily concealed by gaily colored swathing was a great way to celebrate the advent of a Savior.

CHRISTO: HE’S IN THERE SOMEWHERE

The Christmas interview with my cats, part 2

December 23, 2010

Yesterday, I published the first of a two-part interview with my three cats. Harriet, 14, is a small white female with several black patches who has lived with us for over ten years. Taylor, 5, is a solid slate-grey male and as sweet-natured as they come. Tom, 4, is a huge tabby with anger management issues.

Like many pet owners, I’ve developed a certain rapport with this trio of felines. In fact, I’ve become able to communicate with them on a telepathic level that allows us to hold animated conversations. We sat down last week for a wide-ranging discussion, as I attempted to find out their take on this most-human of holidays, Christmas. What did another species think, I wondered, about all the fuss we make at this time every year? I asked them, and they answered in today’s second and final installment of the interview.

If you think that makes me sound like a crazy cat person, just listen to them:

Me: Everybody, thanks for pulling yourselves together. I’ll hope that the dinner break put everyone in a more reflective mood, so we can discuss a little about the secular side of Christmas.

Tom: Well, thank you, Davis, for the dinner. How innovative of you to offer us cat food.

Taylor: Yeah, you’d think that since we’re doing this as a formal sit-down interview that you might have considered some type of catering. We were hoping for heavy hors d’oeuvres, or at least a little finger food.

Me: But you don’t have fingers.

Tom: I’ve learned to use my claws prehensiley. I really could’ve gone for cocktail wieners or shrimp cocktail.

Taylor: Or those vultures you mentioned earlier that are used in the Zoroastrian faith to pick the bones of the dead so their souls can rise to heaven.

Tom: Mmm. Vulture.

I really could've gone for cocktail weiners or shrimp cocktail

Harriet: I’ve had my claws barbarically ripped from paws.

Me: Harriet, I’ve told you a thousand times we’re sorry about that whole declawing thing. We did it back in the ’90s when it was considered more acceptable.

Harriet: That’s always your excuse — it was the fashion. Big hair, shoulder pads for women, Garth Brooks and removing what is basically the top half of our fingers at the second knuckle. You had to follow the trends of the day and take out my claws. Now, I’m the fashion victim.

Me: Okay, okay, let’s not rehash the past. It can’t be undone.

Harriet: I hear there’s a way to surgically restore cat claws, kind of like undoing a vasectomy. It’s only a couple of thousand dollars.

Me: I’m not spending that kind of money …

Harriet: They’re made out of titanium. Like what Wolverine has. It’d make a great Christmas gift.

Me: We’re not putting your claws back for Christmas. Period. Now let’s get back on topic. Let’s talk a bit about all the hoopla we humans put into the holiday season. You probably think it’s silly, right?

Taylor: I don’t know. I like some of the music. “O Holy Night” is probably my favorite.

Tom: I like that one about the reindeer.

Harriet: Mmm. Reindeer.

Me: That’s interesting. I didn’t think cats could appreciate music.

Taylor: It’s one of the few so-called “fine arts” that we actually get. That, and avant garde painting, the kind where it looks like a cat was dipped in water colors, plopped on a canvas, and then hit with a taser.

Tom: Not the “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” one, but the one about Adolf — Adolf, the red-nosed reindeer.

Me: What else stands out to you as representative of the holiday season?

Taylor: Well, you gotta love the trees, of course. Lots of cats climb up in them, or maybe bat at the ornaments, or strangle by eating the tinsel. I myself prefer to decorate them. Last year I did a lovely lavender and lace theme, with soft turquoise lights and a ballerina on top instead of a star.

Me: Such detail …

Tom: Hey, I didn’t ask, and he shouldn’t tell, if you know what I mean.

Well, you gotta love the trees

Me: You know, we put a special cat stocking up on the mantle for you guys, so we feel like you’re part of the celebration. Does that mean anything to you?

Harriet: It would if you’d actually put something in the stocking.

Me: We intentionally have chosen not to anthropomorphize you by giving you gifts. We might give you a little turkey after dinner if we’re drunk enough, but that’s going to be it.

Tom: Yeah, ask us about the foods of Christmas. I want an excuse to tell you how often we secretly lick your food when you’re not looking.

Me: Well, just remember — chocolate is poisonous to cats so be sure to stay away from the desserts.

Taylor: Again, how very convenient for you to see it that way. Giving us gifts is bad. Giving us sweets is bad. You can understand why we don’t regard it as much of a celebration.

Harriet: As the elder of this group, I’ve seen at least a dozen of these Christmases, and I’m just not impressed. It’s all so materialistic and commercialized that any expressions of love or joy originally intended come off sounding phony. You know, “Peace on Earth” and all that crap.

It's all so materialistic and commercialized

Me: Do any of you have special plans for the holidays?

Harriet: Yeah, I’m going to fly to Pittsburgh to see my new niece. Oh, wait — that’s right, you won’t let us out of the house, so we can’t really go anywhere.

Tom: The only family I keep in touch with is Taylor, because he might possibly be my brother. And I pretty much hate him.

Taylor: Likewise, my tabby brethren. At least we can agree on that.

Me: Well, there you go. I think we just hit upon the true spirit of Christmas. It’s all about putting aside any stress or antagonism we may carry during the rest of the year so we can appreciate one another. Even if the feeling only lasts for a couple of days.

Tom: We have another two days of this to go? Jeez.

Me: Don’t forget — “Jeez” is the “reez” for the “seaz,” as they say.

Taylor: Don’t ever say that again.

Me: Well, I want to thank you all for taking time out of your schedules to have this chat. It helps all us humans put everything in a little more perspective to hear some outside opinions.

Harriet: We live to serve you. No, wait — it’s you who serves us. Now can we please have some more cat food?

My annual interview with the cats: Christmas edition

December 22, 2010

Every year or so, I step away from this blog’s human-centric perspective on the universe and check in with some of God’s lesser creatures. I interview my cats.

We have three — Harriet, 14; Taylor, 5; and Tom, 4 — and in the time I’ve “owned” them, we’ve established a certain language between us. They say meow, I feed them. They say meow, I clean their catbox. They say meow-meow-meow and I presume they’re sick and take them to the vet.

Deeper than any verbal communication, however, is the power of mental telepathy. Now, before you think I’m some kind of psycho pet lunatic, I’m not claiming I can read their minds. Actually, I am, but I don’t do it in a malevolent or intrusive sort of way. It’s just a manifestation of the bond that occasionally develops between one species and another species that sits on top of it. We stare at each other and can just tell what the other is thinking (most days, it’s Me: “You’re a good kitty, yes you are, yes you are”; Them: “This guy is both warmer and softer than any pillow.”)

In previous interviews, we discussed aspects of the relationship between man and his animal companion and, in a landmark December 2009 interview, a range of political issues and current affairs. Two of the three correctly predicted the Obama honeymoon was just about over, and that the GOP would become ascendant and sweep into Congress in 2010 (Harriet, instead, chose to lick herself). Though all three consider themselves Democrats, there’s just enough of an independent streak in them to give any halfway moderate Republican a chance to win their favor in 2012.

But this is the height of the Christmas season, and I was interested to hear what they think about how we humans celebrate our grandest of holidays. I wanted to hear their take on the religion behind Christmas, and whether there were any similar festivities in the cat world. I sat down with the panel near a window sill on a sunny afternoon recently to see what they think about Christmas.

Me: First, let me say Happy Holidays to you all. I won’t use “Merry Christmas” because I presume you’re not practicing Christians.

Tom: No, we’re not. I thought about converting a few months ago but it’s too much hassle, considering you won’t let me out of the house.

Me: Really? You thought about becoming a Christian?

Tom: "I thought about converting (to Christianity) but it's too much hassle."

Tom: Actually, you can do it online. My claws make it pretty hard for me to type, though. And, I needed to get a hold of your credit card, which isn’t easy either.

Me: My credit card? Why would you need that?

Tom: The Methodists had a nice no-money-down, no-payments-for-six-months offer that included a free toaster and I was really tempted. Then I realized, what am I going to do with toast? Probably just push it around the kitchen floor until it ended up under the refrigerator. No, mainstream Christianity is not for me.

Harriet: I toyed with Buddhism in my youth. I have a little Siamese in me, you know. But it’s way back on my mother’s side.

Me: Taylor, how about you? Agnostic, I presume?

Taylor: Yes, that’s right. I don’t believe it’s possible for the living to know for certain what heaven and hell and the afterlife are like. I presume it’s just vast, eternal nothingness, but what do I know? I thought that thread dangling from your shirt the other day was wild prey that I had to kill and eat, so I’m not even a real good judge of reality, much less the great beyond.

Me: Well, Christianity teaches that only humans have souls anyway, so you’ve all probably made the right choices for yourselves.

Taylor: Yeah, I’ve heard that too, and it bothers me. Makes it sound like God thinks you’re better than us.

Me: I think it’s just a matter of you being unable to accept Jesus Christ into your heart as your Lord, at least as a conscious choice.

Taylor: How do they know we can’t make conscious choices? Maybe not well-informed choices, but we can certainly act intentionally when we want to.

Me: I don’t know if that’s it, yet I can see … oww! What’s with the biting?

Taylor: Just wanted to prove I can do things on purpose.

Harriet: I think that’s why I was attracted to Eastern religion for a while. You might be a cat in this life but then you get reincarnated into something else in the next one. I was hoping I could make a kind of grand tour of all life forms, sort of shop around for one I liked and when I found it, stop being a believer and just remain what I had become. I was hoping for elephant but would’ve settled for rhino or hippo or really any large hooved mammal.

Tom: That’s not Buddhism, I don’t think. Isn’t that Hinduism?

Taylor: No, you’re thinking of Zoroastrianism.

Taylor: "I can do things on purpose, you know."

Harriet: No, that’s the one where they put your body in a tower when you die and the vultures pick your carcass clean. They do that instead of burial. I didn’t like the sound of that one.

Taylor: You’re an idiot. That’s not what they believe.

[Brief spat erupts between Taylor and Harriet, with much hissing and batting but no one gets hurt].

Me: Okay, okay, maybe I should change the topic away from something as contentious as religion.

Tom: I think you’re trying to make us fight amongst each other. Last time, it was all political questions and now we’re talking about what we believe spiritually. These are emotional questions and we all obviously have strong feelings about them.

Me: Well, let’s take it out of the spiritual realm and talk instead about the “reason for the season,” as we like to call it. You can at least acknowledge the birth of a very wise man, and how it’s probably a good thing that so many people structure their lives to emulate his good works and loving philosophy.

Taylor: Or pay lip service to it anyway.

Me: No, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it at all. I’m a lapsed Christian myself, and yet you can’t help but admit that a lot of good gets done in Christ’s name.

Harriet: The only time I hear you mentioning “Jesus” or “Christ” is when you stub your toe on your way to pick up the TV remote.

Me: That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to all the charity and the fellowship and the Golden Rule, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Tom: So that’s why you make us get down from the kitchen table while it’s perfectly okay for you to eat your breakfast up there.

Me: I don’t think that’s quite the right analogy. I’m just trying to keep you from tracking cat litter into my cereal. I’m talking about the compassion for other living creatures that brought you guys into our home in the first place.

Taylor: Oh, here we go. The noble human plucks us from the wild, civilizes us, makes us eat that crappy Science Formula, and we’re supposed to be eternally grateful for your kindness. Did you ever stop to think maybe we liked being feral animals? Just because living on birds and squirrels and sleeping under the deck isn’t for you, don’t assume other species want your kind of life.

Tom: He’s right. You Western European descendants were always out to save the savages of the world, not stopping to think maybe the aboriginal lifestyle of American Indians and native Africans and the bushmen of Australia was something that worked just fine for them.

Me: The bushmen? You’re bringing our treatment of the bushmen into this?

Harriet: The bushmen are totally relevant to what we’re talking about.

Me: Alright, I think we’re losing focus here a little bit. Let me ask you this, then: Is there any equivalent myth in the feline world to the ones we have, about God’s son coming to earth to die for our sins so that we’ll have eternal life in Heaven?

Taylor: No, we couldn’t come up with anything that creative. Remember, we’re simple beasts driven only by hunger.

Tom: What about that story we all heard growing up about a glorious kitten being born to a virgin, growing up as a simple cat, assembling a core of disciples, then threatening the power of the human legions and ultimately being put to sleep at the Animal Shelter only to rise from the dead three days later?

Harriet: I believe your thinking about that zombie movie Beth was watching that time.

Harriet: "The bushmen are totally relevant."

Tom: No, no. You know the story I’m talking about. A group of Wise Tabbies come from the East bringing gifts to the young kitten, they follow a star to find him, he’s got a halo on his head …

Taylor: Again with the Wise Tabbies, huh? You made up that story yourself just to make you and your kind look good.

Harriet: Everybody knows Tabbies have a mean streak. That story doesn’t hold any water.

[Again, a fight ensues, this time with all three chasing each other up and down the hallway.]

Me: Look, it’s obvious you’re all a little out of sorts at the moment. Let me feed you your dinner and we’ll finish our discussion when saner heads can prevail. Kitty, kitty, kitty! Who wants some cat food? Kitty, kitty, kitty.

[All telepathy is temporarily halted as Harriet, Taylor and Tom rush to their food bowls, and wolf down their meals.]

Tomorrow’s installment: We discuss the secular side of Christmas.