Friday, December 12, 2008

[Scroll down past two columns/posts to see the pictures from the Candlelight Walking Tour last weekend, which are much more worth looking at that reading these columns . . . really!]

Notes From My Knapsack 12-18-08
Jeff Gill

Toys In a Less Than Playful Time

With the economic downturn, and retail sales down five months running, I know stores and shop owners are nervously watching their sales this Christmas season. That three percent growth that we keep hearing is a baseline for a healthy economy makes me wonder what a healthy economy is by their definition.

Still, there’s that whole tradition of gift giving that the Magi got started with their dratted myrrh, gold, and frankincense, and the children expect something under the tree.

Between the recession on steroids and a kind of retreat into nostalgia that times like these promote, we’re seeing less of the hip, cutting edge, high tech look for what is the ad world’s normative seasonal atmosphere, and more knit mufflers and carolers and even the stray top hat and lantern.

What would happen if we got really all throwbacky about Christmas for the kids? The Granville Historical Society had a set of old-timey tools out for the Candlelight Walking Tour which generated a great deal of conversation on the streets about rug beaters and sugar shears and all those things labor saving devices were invented to save us from. But what about toys?

Somehow the standard street scene meant to holler out to us “olden times” in movies has come to include a lad in knickers with a hoop and stick. Currier and Ives put this young fellow in a number of their atmospheric scenes, and whether in old engravings or today’s TV programs, you get the impression that this was all the rage at some indeterminate point, long ago but recently enough to have metal barrel hoops.

I can’t find a reference that tells me if children got a hoop with a special stick for a present, or if it was more like kids playing with the cardboard box Christmas afternoon. A found toy, perhaps, but what an interesting toy for today, promoting getting outside, aerobic activity, and hand-eye co-ordination? (The Lad says “No, it isn’t.”)

Those of you who loved “A Christmas Story” (25 years last month, with the house in Cleveland now a delightfully kitschy shrine – see, and you can search my site for photos from there, see archives at right, scroll down) remember the Red Ryder BB gun, which I still can’t recommend: you’ll shoot your eye out!

But there was a prequel made later, with a different cast yet the same names, Jean Shepherd narrating, and filmed at that house again, called “My Summer Story.” The plot anchor here is not an air rifle, but a fighting top.

Yes, a greatly desired and fondly hoped for gold painted top that you tossed with a pull string. If it looks easy, try it sometime; cracking a whip is easier. I played with one, with grim intent, over at Ohio Village years ago, and the movie makes group play with them look like marbles with attitude.

Dolls are a whole ‘nother category of then vs. now. In keeping with laws first outlined in “Brave New World,” no new toy can be released, apparently, without being more complicated and feature-ridden than their predecessor.

Try to find a doll that is warm, soft, well stitched, and without any Velcro pockets for batteries, voice recorder devices, or embedded aliens to burst from Betsy-Wetsie’s chest (you thought excreting baby dolls were bad). They do exist, but they are well hidden. If the voice and posture and activities are to be supplied by the owner from her or his own imagination, you’ll not find them on the front shelves in the larger stores.

This isn’t just to idealize corn husk dolls – my brother and I loved to play with some rubber figures with internal wires in what was a high-techy play set for the late 60s, Maj. Matt Mason and Sgt. Storm. I looked on-line to see if I could recover a bit of our childhood for both of us, and wow . . .

If we still had ours, and they were in good shape, let alone in original packaging, they . . . just go look at eBay and marvel. They’re worth something, but apparently (gulp) as antiques. Our guys lived full and active lives before vanishing into wherever their tattered bodies and plastic parts ended up. (I didn’t buy him any; he couldn’t let his girls touch them for what they cost now anyhow.)

But for those few fellow astronaut toy fans out there, consider this – Jeff Long just beat Matt Mason for President!

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; send him a word at

PS - If you're having trouble remembering Major Matt Mason, but think it rings a faint bell, here's the line's 1969 Christmas ad, which has it all (i think my brother and i had about half of it all between us):
[For painfully lovely pictures of last weekend's Granville Candlelight Walking Tour, scroll past this blather, which is my Advocate column for tomorrow. pax, jbg]

[seriously, just scroll down! jbg]

Faith Works 12-13-08
Jeff Gill

Your Family May Be Dysfunctional

Just taking a wild shot in the dark, but I’m gonna guess your family is dysfunctional.


You’d think pretty much every family is. This Christmas season is cinematically all about “Four Christmases” and now “Nothing Like the Holidays,” along with movies like “The Family Stone” from a couple years ago (telling us that if we only would “fly our freak flag” then all would be well).

Actually, I’m ready to embrace my inner AND outer dysfunctionality, not to mention that of my family. All families are dysfunctional in some way or another, even if we rarely make it to “Momma Mia!” level chaos.

Leo Tolstoy, whose “Anna Karenina” somehow hasn’t made it to film as a heartwarming family holiday classic (the ending needs some work), famously opened his novel with the line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s a clear signal for a novelist that you want to write about unhappiness as much as possible, because happiness, sameness – yawn. Who wants to read about that?

The uniqueness of unhappiness, though, gives you texture and novelty and a narrative arc to follow.

So we have the uniquely dysfunctional family at the heart of our seasonal story this month. There’s a fellow who had some kids when he was younger, working hard, traveling a great deal to follow the major construction projects contracted by the Romans. His first wife dies, and as time goes by, he is set up to be engaged by concerned family members (he’s a busy working man, remember), to a young woman . . . a very young woman.

She’s of good family, good enough that they probably aren’t exactly thrilled by the workman, skilled though he might be, who is older and rough-hewn and is engaged to their dear one. Who turns out, she says one day, to be pregnant. The circumstances are, from the point of view of most of Nazareth, murky.

Business and taxes and family ties force them to make a trip while she’s pretty far along, making you suspect already that the older half-siblings aren’t exactly excited and supportive of Dad’s late in life remarriage. She gives birth on the road, in a strange town, away from her OB/GYN and neo-natal intensive care unit back home, but everything works out.

They meet some of the kind of folk you expect to meet on the road, dusty and stained by labor and their last meal, not to mention by their work (think herding), accepting the aid and support of this aromatic and picturesque crew -- again, Mary’s family, coming from the lesser aristocracy, can’t have been charmed by all this picturesqueness.

Yet those relatives and in-laws should have been pleased, since they made contact with some minor royalty (so they claimed), exotic celebrities who had been received at court. Herod’s rule might have been shabby and disreputable, but a king’s retinue is nothing to be sniffed at, especially by people with a tendency to sniff at many. Noses wouldn’t have turned up, though, at a house with a hatful of kings in residence. Soon enough they leave, and the image becomes an almost legendary part of neighborhood lore. “Do you remember when there were wise men from the East staying with those two?” It was an unpredictable house in many ways, so soon the story no longer sounded to their credit, but was just more evidence of their peculiar nature.

This non-traditional family finally comes back home with many strange tales of close calls and grim danger, which just makes the neighbors ask each other, after the couple is out of earshot, “What were they thinking, taking a baby into a war zone? When they made such a long jaunt, a side trip into Egypt – did he say he had a dream? – how could that have been a good idea?”

Then they try to get back into the usual groove of life back in the home place, Joseph working up the road in Sepphoris and the family back in Nazareth, tending the shop, baking bread, whittling scraps of wood next to the earth oven. They join the throngs heading up to the Temple for festivals as any prosperous craftsman might, but they keep losing track of their boy – can’t these two keep a sharp eye out on their child? He just roams at will and rules the roost – let me tell you, say some, I’d let that child know who was in charge if I were in that house!

As best we can tell, the older Joseph dies well before the boy gets too old, but seemingly not before his chance to teach a trade, which is a father’s chief role, then and now. If the son became a carpenter, then the father had done well by him.

Is that a dysfunctional family? Is yours? So what?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio, and is part of a gloriously dysfunctional family. Tell him about yours at

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Just a few more assorted images from the Granville Candlelight Walking Tour, starting with a view of the front of the Avery-Downer House (1842), and the Mower House next door (1824), followed by the interior of Centenary Church (1894, founded 1810) where the 6 pm youth musical was getting started --

Christmas in Hogsmeade

Call this little sequence "Christmas in Hogsmeade" if you like (we do like!); they're from last Saturday's Granville, Ohio Candlelight Walking Tour. It was even more beautiful than usual, and as the evening settled into darkness, the snow began to fall. The inn at the end isn't the Three Broomsticks, but the Buxton Inn, built in 1812; the white pillared building is the Avery-Downer House & Robbins Hunter Museum, with an odd little folly built onto the very back, an octagonal study that Mr. Hunter would go into at night to play one of his three organs, much to the discomfiture of the neighbors.

That may not go on anymore, but it still is the kind of town where the volunteer fire department brings Santa Claus in with Mrs. C and an elf all in the bucket of their big truck, down past Sugar Loaf and stopping at village hall where they were gently lowered to earth amid cheering throngs of children. It's quite a town, Granville is.

The church down towards the bottom is Centenary UMC, where the Little Guy did essentially the same part Linus did in his Christmas program as his part of the Walking Tour, and it made the whole evening for his mother and me, snow and all.

This is one of the walls of the former stable of the Buxton Inn, which is now the Tavern in the cellar -- in this space, if Johnny Appleseed spent a night in any building still standing in Ohio, it was here. These walls, and the timbers overhead, are what were put in place in 1812.