Paint-Your-Own ceramic places do a booming business during the holiday season. My son has a growing collection of dishes imaginatively painted by his sister—if he ever gets married, he and his bride won’t need to buy a single dessert plate. (I hope she will like plenty of color.)

For those without inspiration, there is a large selection of mass-produced figurines. But we always go for the plain white dishes. I’m sorry, but I pity the grandparent who finds the Little Mermaid paperweight under the tree.

This sketch is from another Christmas season, so I’m not spoiling any surprises.

Advent IV: Wrapped in sleep

Here is a verse we sometimes say during Advent before dinner, or as part of our homeschool lesson opening exercises. 

Now the twilight of the year
Comes, and Christmas draweth near.
See, across the Advent sky
How the clouds move quietly.
Earth is waiting, wrapped in sleep,
Waiting in a silence deep.
Birds are hid in bush and reed
Flowers are sleeping in their seed.

Through the woodland to and fro
Silent-footed creatures go.
Hedgehog curled in prickly ball
Burrows beneath the leaves that fall.
Man and beast and bird and flower
Waiting for the midnight hour
Waiting for the infant’s birth
Down from Heaven, onto Earth.

—Ann Ellerton

This image is available as a high-resolution print on 8.5″ x 11″ archival paper.

Man of Steel (and Iron)


Ah, Paris… The history! the art! the cafés! the romance of an evening stroll beside the Seine with the lights of the Tour Eiffel twinkling downstream! Unless, of course, you are among the artists, poets, and other French citizens of 1887 who were horrified to contemplete the erection of what one writer called “an odious column of bolted metal” that “even commercial America would not want on its soil,” and who together signed a paper protesting its construction.

Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was born in Dijon, France, and after obtaining his baccalaureate came to Paris for further education. After the disappointment of rejection by the Polytechnique (take heart, aspiring applicants), he obtained a diploma in chemistry from the École Centrale de Paris and launched a career in metallurgy, a fortuitous choice at this exciting phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Eiffel was hired first to manage, then also to design, the construction of bridges. Within ten years he became an independent consultant and started his own company for the creation and construction of new large-scale iron and steel engineering projects. Because he was gifted as an engineer and construction manager, and the economy was booming, Eiffel was soon successful, rich, and in demand. He designed not only bridges but train stations, churches, lighthouses, palaces, and the armature for Bartholdi’s new Statue of Liberty. When a competition was held to design an iron tower for the Exposition Universelle de 1889, the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Eiffel’s design was chosen from the 107 entries. Despite the aforementioned protests, Modernists and Republicans (as opposed to Monarchists) viewed the project with enthusiasm.

Construction began in January 1887, and the increasing fascination of the steadily growing tower foreshadowed its future popularity. It was completed in twenty-six months without a single fatality, and as the newly tallest structure in the world immediately drew crowds of visitors. (Amazingly, the weight of the tower per square inch is no greater than that of a man sitting in a chair.)

Eiffel went on to design other projects, including an ill-fated Panama Canal venture in 1887 that, through no fault of his, collapsed due to financial mismanagement. Discouraged, he turned from construction to experimental research (another of his passions). Eiffel had planned in advance multiple functions for the new tower, and he began a series of aerodynamic, meteorological and radiotelegraphic experiments to be undertaken from its height. In 1898 an antenna was mounted for radio transmission.

Originally planned for removal after twenty years, by 1907 the tower had become far too useful and admired. A new generation of artists now celebrated the Eiffel Tower in paint and literature. Who can envision Paris without it? Of all Eiffel’s work, this tower that bears his name is probably the most beloved. Happy Birthday, Gustave Eiffel! What a gift you have given to painters, photographers, filmmakers and lovers.

This sketch is from our old neighborhood in Paris.

Many happy cookies, and the flowers on a queen


Today is the birthday of writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), born in San Francisco, California, but transplanted to the East Coast where she attended university and eventually settled with her husband in Vermont, raising a large family but all the while continuing, somehow, between PTA meetings and making hamburger casseroles, to write.

Many readers have probably been introduced to Jackson through her short story, “The Lottery,” once a classic of the high school English syllabus, which when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948 evoked overwhelming response exceeding that of any previously published New Yorker story.

Jackson came to my attention, however, through the books my parents owned: her collections of dark, evocative, seemingly plotless short stories that are typical to this day of New Yorker fiction (probably a contemporary literary parallel of Abstract Expressionism that nevertheless persists into the 21st century); and her similarly eerie, compelling novels. As a child, I was fascinated yet rather baffled by Jackson’s fiction.

What I really liked, however, were her memoirs of her children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which I read and re-read, the pages yellowing and held together with Scotch tape. Her unsentimental, low-key, definitely politically incorrect descriptions of ordinary daily life with her four bright, imaginative children, her hovering-on-the-fringes professor husband, and their cats and dogs, in their book-stuffed rural Vermont farmhouse, made me laugh again and again. When I grew up I read the books to my husband and offspring, and now they read them to one another. Into our common family vocabulary have effortlessly crept quotes from the various children (see title above).

This winter, when you and your family are all abed with the flu, read aloud the chapter, “The Night We All Had Grippe.” Laughter is healing. Happy birthday, Shirley Jackson, many happy cookies, and thank you ever so for the years of healing episodes.

Funny Guy


Today is the Feast of Santa Lucia, but I woke up with a nasty flu (ugh) so instead of baking Luciabrød, as was my plan, it’s a period of enforced foodless inactivity.

However, it is also the birthday of Dick Van Dyke (b. 1925), who has a long and illustrious career in film and television (as well as a sideline in barbershop quartet and 3D animation—who knew?). But I got to know him through reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, a cultural touchstone of my childhood and probably the cleverest and most intelligently funny sitcom of its day, certainly ahead of its time (1961-1966) in its approach to religious and racial issues. Some years back I introduced it to my children on DVD, and as a result he has two new young faithful fans.

So tonight we’ll celebrate by watching a favorite episode. You can too, by going to hulu for a free download. Happy Birthday, Dick Van Dyke! Thanks for the joy and laughter you have brought to my childhood and now to my children’s. As the saying goes, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.