The Best Christmas Movie Ever

 Actually, it's a dead heat. The two best Christmas movies ever made are It's a Wonderful Life (IAWL) and Die Hard (DH).

It should be clear to everyone why the first holds the title. There's no better story of the hero's journey toward redemption or the blessings of selfless giving. George Bailey earns heavenly intervention during a literal dark night of the soul--because of his life of devotion to his family and his community. Every frame is perfect. But no one needs a dissertation to be convinced of that.

Die Hard, however? On par with Frank Capra's masterpiece? Whatchu talkin' bout, Willis?

First, let's establish that Die Hard is a great movie that changed action films forever. Unlike Rambo, the Terminator, or any character played by Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis as John McClane has no superpowers (other than the ability to drive people crazy, as his wife wryly notes at one point). He prevails through sheer grit, humor, and ingenuity, all the while motivated by his love for his wife. Score points for meaningful theme.

To boot, the script features excellent characterization; seamless plot building; brilliant dialogue, including memorable one-liners that have become iconic; and try-fail cycles with escalating stakes for protagonist (John McClane), antagonist (Hans Gruber and team), and contagonist (the LAPD and FBI). Bonus: did I mention Alan Rickman, aka the best villain of all time? There's not a single false move anywhere in the film. 

But a Christmas movie? The heck you say. Oh, sure, it's set at Christmastime, and Christmas music begins and ends the film. Santa hats and tinseled trees are everywhere. Other than that, it appears to be a pretty profane movie. Grisly deaths, sick jokes, and F-bombs abound. Bruce Willis as the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed John McClane seems considerably less than messianic at first glance. When all is said and done, it's a movie that more than earns its R rating.

And yet. There's more going on here than meets the eye. To wit:

1) Names: the name of every character is deeply symbolic. More on this throughout the points below. 

2) John McClane (Bruce Willis) as Everyman: The 15th century morality play The Summoning of Everyman is an allegory illustrating the progress of man through life, from calling to fall to redemption. The original character Everyman finds no help in his pilgrimage, eventually learning when he comes to death that all he has to offer God are his good deeds. The idea was that the audience members of the time would identify with Everyman's humanity through both his flaws and his vulnerability, learning something about themselves as they witnessed the drama. 

McClane is a modern Everyman. His enemy, Gruber, tells his hostages, "You will all be witnesses," signaling the drama that will unfold. McClane is a blue-collar, NYC cop who's temporarily lost his wife, Holly, through arrogance and stubbornness. At DH's beginning, he's leaving home with hopes of reconciliation, only to fall into the same trap of bickering and blaming when he and Holly first meet up. Though he's flown across the country, he still has a journey to make--one of self-discovery and reconciliation--much like IAWL's George Bailey.

3) John McClane as Christ figure: Throughout the Old Testament, Israel, God's covenant people, is personified by a bride, with Jehovah as her bridegroom. In chapter after chapter, Israel goes astray and breaks her covenants, but Jehovah is endlessly patient and forgiving. Reconciliation is prophesied, often in the image of a blissfully united husband and wife. The New Testament shows God condescending/incarnating into mortal form as Jesus Christ to fulfill those prophecies--to redeem and to unite His covenant people. 

McClane leaves the safe comfort of NYC for the strange land of California. Throughout the beginning of DH, he's confronted by the weirdness of Los Angeles, showing just how out of his element he is. Interestingly, while Jesus had no earthly authority (despite being legally entitled to it), McClane, being out of his jurisdiction, has no legal authority in LA.

His trip has one objective: to be reunited with his family forever. As DH progresses, McClane becomes more and more vulnerable: barefoot; friendless and cut off from communication; exposed; wounded; weaponless. He doesn't see it yet, but the farther he descends, the closer he comes to redemption.

4) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as Satan: "Hans" and "John" are forms of the same name, which means "Jehovah is gracious." Likewise, Gruber becomes McClane's dark mirror, constantly reflecting and contrasting false salvation with true salvation. He is a consummate trickster: posing as a high-minded freedom fighter, he's really a master thief. He is a smooth, educated, polished, and gracious liar, motivated by selfishness and greed. He promises his followers miracles at every turn, only to fail them in the end. At DH's climax, McClane frees Holly from Gruber's grasp and casts him down from the 30th floor to the earth, just as Lucifer was cast down.

Oh, and just to hammer the point home, "Gruber" means "from the pit." Boom.

5) The 30th floor of the Nakatomi Building as Heaven: "Nakatomi" is the name of an ancient Japanese clan that acted as intermediaries between mortals and the gods. McClane and Holly are reunited (both times) on the 30th floor. Gruber seeks to "lay up treasure" for himself there, since that's where the Nakatomi vault is located. McClane is baptized there, fully immersed in the decorative fountain in the common area. And McClane vanquishes Gruber and casts him down from there. 

6) False saviors other than Gruber:

Mr. Tagaki, the gracious, well-meaning U.S. head of the Nakatomi corporation--his name means "tall tree," but like the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan, he cannot prevail.

Harry Ellis--"Henry" means ruler, and Ellis is the English form of Elijah, or "my God is Jehovah." This coke-snorting executive thinks he can save himself and his co-workers, but his arrogance earns him a bullet in the head.

Johnson and Johnson--The sneering, brutal FBI duo think they can save the day with "only 20% civilian casualties." A whole lot of C4 on the Nakatomi Building's roof says otherwise. Note their names, which refer to "John," but also connote what jerks they are. 

Dwayne Robinson--the know-it-all Deputy Chief of the LAPD is humbled rather quickly after a few disastrous attempts at leadership. 

7) Other significant names:

Holly Gennaro McClane -- Holly is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. "Gennaro" is the Italian form of January, which connotes open doors and new beginnings. "McClane" means "son of the servant of St. John." John the Baptist or John the Beloved/the Revelator? Either works, given his close connection with Jesus. At the beginning of DH, Holly rejects McClane's name (see Israel/Jehovah, above), but assumes it at the end. 

Al Powell -- McClane's only true friend in LA, an African-American cop who's a self-described "desk jockey." His first name means "bright" or "noble" (in contrast to the white Deputy Dwayne's name, which means "dark"). His surname connotes both "pal" (especially when Bruce Willis says it), and Paul. Like St. Paul, who prosecuted and killed Christians before his conversion but then became a valiant warrior for Christ, Powell mistakenly kills an innocent boy early in his career, but then redeems himself by helping McClane and ultimately saving his life. 

Roy -- Seeking to hide his identity from Gruber, McClane tells Powell to call him Roy, which of course, means "king."

8) False redemption: Gruber has one goal: to steal $640 million from the Nakatomi vault. (Satan wants to steal power from Heaven.) From the moment the thieves appear, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is used as their leitmotif, first in a minor key as they sneak into the building, and then at their moment of apparent triumph, when the vault opens (total darkness in the form of a power cut must occur for this to happen, by the way). Beethoven set Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" to music to celebrate the eternal happiness that comes from brotherly union. Working as a team, Gruber and his men achieve their goal--only to be foiled by the true savior, the battered and wounded McClane. 

9) True redemption through the passion of John: From the Greek word meaning "to suffer," the "passion" in Christianity refers to Christ's redemptive suffering. Throughout DH, McClane suffers increasing pain as Gruber and his henchmen specifically target his vulnerabilities. He's pushed to every extreme physically, emotionally, and mentally as he works to save his wife and the other hostages. Significantly, his feet get the worst treatment of all.

He's also despised and rejected by everyone in authority, from Ellis to the Johnson twins (no, I don't think the Tintin allusion is an accident, either). 

In his moment of greatest agony, McClane begs Powell to tell Holly how sorry he is for his past mistakes. "She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times, but she's never heard me say I was sorry." Shortly after this atonement, he's baptized as he dives into the Nakatomi fountain to escape a fireball.

Coming through both water and fire, his renewal is thus complete, but it's not until McClane surrenders to Gruber that Holly recognizes him as the savior that he is. "Jesus," she whispers when she sees him--whereupon McClane defeats Gruber once and for all.

Still don't believe me? Just go watch Die Hard again, and see if all this doesn't jump right out at you. Merry Christmas!


Bound for Vermont!

No, not for Christmas, like the merry quartet above. (That's Bing, Rosemary, Danny, and Vera in White Christmas.) We'll be in New York for Yuletide for the first time in four years. But in January, after Epiphany and the kids' melancholy return to school, I'll head to Montpelier for my first seminar in the MFA in WCYA Program at VCFA.

I could not be more excited. Ten days of workshopping with peers; sitting in on lectures by writers I adore; plus lots of walking through the SNOW. Heaven! While I will miss Patrick, the kids, and Moneypenny, I will welcome the respite from the Land of Eternal Sunshine. I'm even knitting a new sweater that it will actually be cold enough to WEAR. 

I've been preparing in other ways for a while. I turned in my workshop pages weeks ago, and after that, I turned in a draft of next year's book to my fabulous editor at MAG. I wanted to get that done so that my mental decks would be clear for the new stuff I write as part of the MFA.

This new book? I love it. It has been THE most torturous of all my books to write, but I hope that increased opposition = a cracking good tale. I'll tell you more about it as the publication process gets under way. 

Next, I'll critique the pages of my future workshop buddies and read some more books written by our august lecturers. (Tim Wynne-Jones and M.T. Anderson, anybody? (Sorry. I don't want to rub your noses in it.)) Then we'll do Christmas--and then it'll be time to go. I hope it's as awesome as my favorite alumna has promised. Wish me luck!


Thirteen Octoberish Pilgrimages

For the past couple of years, I've written posts about things Octoberish: books, movies, and music that put me in a pleasurably melancholy mood. I'm not much for Halloween itself, but I do love the mystery and sehnsucht that (for me) herald autumn. Think more Misty Mountains than Mordor, if you get my drift. 

Christian (above, in a photo taken by his friend, Emily) asked me whether I was going to do an Octoberish post this year. I had to think hard about what I'd list this time, having previously covered the most obvious ground. Then it hit me: pilgrimages. What could be more Octoberish than being a stranger in a strange land? Below, I'll list evocative, forlorn places around the world that I'd like to visit. I decided I wouldn't include any place I've already been, like Tintern Abbey or Eureka. The yearning is part of the fun. 


Château de Gudanes

Sometime last year, I first read about this castle, located in a remote corner of southwestern France; I've been following it on Instagram ever since. An Australian family bought the abandoned château a few years ago and is now in the process of painstakingly restoring it. Every photo they post could inspire a book.



Japan's "haunted forest of death": need I say more? No, really: go read about it. Freaky.


Zverglgarten, Salzburg, Austria

Another location that needs little explanation, this 18th-century garden filled with statues modeled after real dwarves at the Mirabell Palace is clearly an ideal setting for a creepy children's series. To my mind, the statues are just this side of clowns and marionettes.


Elephanta Caves, India

Located on an island near Mumbai, these caves filled with ornate sculptures that date to the fifth century AD are now a UNESCO World Heritage site. I love this photo, taken in the 1870s. Indiana Jones should have explored this place.


Detroit, Michigan

Nope, not prosaic in the least. My son James once said, "There are only two things to do in Detroit: meet Eminem and get shot." Despite his (widely shared) pessimism, Detroit fascinates me. I'm not alone; it's recently been the filming location for several post-apocalyptic or horror films. The link above leads to much more photographic goodness. 


Noisy Castle, Belgium

After spending a fortune on it, the Liedekirke-Beaufort family only occupied their opulent summer home for about forty years. During World War II, it briefly housed German troops, and actual combat took place on its grounds during the Battle of the Bulge. In the 1950s, it became a convalescent home for children, but was abandoned sometime thereafter. (Think of the possibilities, ghost-wise.) Now there's a struggle between the department of Celles, which wants to preserve the building, and the castle's current owners, who threaten to demolish it. Perish the thought.


The Louisiana Bayous

The bayous have given rise to countless urban legends, folktales, and ghost stories. And then there are the alligators. I don't know what autumn is like in Louisiana, but I'd love to find out.


Dark Hedges, Northern Ireland

Unsurprisingly, I haven't been able to avoid heavy inclusion of the British Isles on my list. Among the many places I'd love to visit in Erin are Moore Hall, where the photograph for the cover of Dispirited was taken, and the twisty, fabulous Dark Hedges.  


Devil's Bridge, Ardino, Bulgaria

I could do an entire blog post on the many so-called Devil's Bridges the world over, but this is my current favorite. Ardino looks to be pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes it all the more appealing for my purposes.


Castell Coch, Wales

Apparently, untold wealth + several centuries = Octoberish for me, though the portion of this massive Welsh castle visible is only about a hundred years old. As if I needed another reason to visit Tongwynlais


Svartifoss, Iceland

Its name means "Black Fall." Its uniqueness derives from those natural hexagonal pillars of crystalline lava that flank the waterfall itself. Remote and peaceful, it looks like a place Merlin would have loved. 


The Isle of Skye

There's the haunting "Skye Boat Song." And the legends of "The Old Man of Storr." Everything I know about Skye speaks of melancholy and what C.S. Lewis called "northernness." 

The Yorkshire Moors

Undoubtedly in an effort to attract tourists, the official website makes the moors look sunny and bright. But Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Nicholas Nickleby, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell tell us otherwise, don't they? Don't be fooled by modern propaganda; the moors are a place where anything magical and mysterious might happen. 

Oooh, now I have all kinds of story ideas humming through my head. I'd better finish this and go write them all down in my idea journal before they fade away. I'm much indebted to the brilliant website Atlas Obscura for some of the details and images above; if you want to lose an hour or four, follow the link.

What melancholy place most strikes your fancy?



All nine of us (plus Moneypenny!) the day we left to take James to the MTC. Anne couldn't manage a smile.

The years just keep rolling around, don't they?

Our house has experienced all kinds of upheaval in the past several months. We went from having seven kids living at home to just four. We got a new roof and are having solar panels installed. And I was accepted into a Master's of Fine Arts program in Writing at Vermont College of the Fine Arts!

No, I'm not deserting the family and moving to New England for two years. Vermont College offers a low residency program, which means I'll travel to Montpelier (oh, darn) for ten days straight each semester, then do the bulk of my work with my professors through the mail. I'm so excited to work with VCFA's amazing faculty to improve my fiction writing. 

I start classes in January, and I'm glad I have a bit of time beforehand. I have a long-ish commissioned piece of fiction that must be finished by then, for one thing. More on that in a post to come. For another thing, we're starting the long slide into the holidays this week, and I'm trying to whip my routines into shape little by little in preparation. 

Update on the kids: Christian, our oldest, graduated from college in May and moved home while he looked for a job. He landed a temporary gig working on the campaign of a Virginia state senator, and left for the East Coast on August 24th. The job ends on Election Day at the beginning of November, and then he'll be on the hunt for more permanent work. But he's enjoying himself and learning a lot.

Mid-July, our second oldest, James, left on a two-year mission for our church. His assignment? The France Paris mission, which comprises the northern half of the hexagon. (The southern half is the France Lyon mission.) He spent six weeks in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, then left for France on August 30th. He's currently assigned to the Parisian suburb of Évry, and he's having a wonderful time. The work is hard, but fulfilling; his letters have been delightful. 

And then our foster daughter, Aolani, got a job in Hawaii and left the second week of September. She's delighted to be living her dream, and already has her Hawaiian driver's license. After two years with us and her high school graduation in May, she felt ready to fly, and we are so proud of her. 

Four kids at home. I haven't had that few in eleven years, and back then, they were all little. Though teenagers are as demanding as toddlers, family life feels a little like a cake walk most days. I'm not doubling recipes anymore; in fact, I often have leftovers. It's quieter around here, that's for sure. Less homework to supervise, fewer papers to edit. I miss my big three, but it's nice to have more time to focus on those who remain.

Speaking of which, they (Hope, 16; Tess, 14; Daniel, 11; and Anne, 7) decided they needed to switch bedrooms all around, so we're in the midst of a massive purge/declutter to get ready for the big shuffle. The fun never ends! Hope and Tess are at high school together, Daniel has started middle school, and Anne-the-caboose still has a ways to go at the elementary school. Moneypenny and I walk her there every morning, then go on a long, circuitous ramble on the way home. 

Decluttering, redefining, redecorating...I've had (virtual) help and inspiration from Marie Kondo, Alison May, and Martha Cilley. I'm trying to streamline my daily obligations even as I lighten our material load. Adding the Master's degree program to my schedule in January means I'll have to be very disciplined and organized, so I'm starting now. I want my house and life to remain peaceful, even as I tackle this new challenge--and I don't want sweet Patrick or the kids to suffer at my expense. 

Though it doesn't yet feel like fall here in Southern California, I love the sense of renewal that the new school year always brings. Here's hoping I'll be prepared to navigate the transtions to come with grace! 

Moneypenny in the jacaranda litter. I need to copy her poise and dignity.


Ten Great Reasons to Live in L.A.

It's no secret that I miss the New York. What do I miss about it? Pretty much everything. I was constantly near tears when we visited this summer. Our friends and family, the seasons, the culture, the food...It has been hard to leave all those things behind. 

And then there's France. I actively hope that we can move there in 15 years or so, and I try on a daily basis to prepare for that, language-wise and otherwise. 

But I'm here now. I knew moving to Los Angeles was the right thing for our family, and Patrick has never been happier in his work. And I believe strongly in savoring and living in the moment, even while preparing for a different future. As I've struggled to adjust to life in Southern California--finding zen despite the traffic, enduring the relentless sun, dealing with homesickness--I've identified at least ten great reasons to be here and be happy about it. Some are general, while a few are personal. See what you think.

10) It's always easy to be a dog owner here. 

As much as I love the seasons on the East Coast, I'm not sure I'd want to own a dog there, where every element must be braved to ensure dogs' comfort and hygeine. Here, my morning walks with Moneypenny (above right) are delightful. It's almost always cool and pleasant, with no violent weather to endure. This may sound like a small thing, but since I spend nearly an hour walking Penny almost every single day, it's a significant portion of my time, and I appreciate the ease and convenience.

9) Excellent ethnic grocery stores are close by--and mad inexpensive.

My favorite of these is 99 Ranch Market, a Chinese supermarket less than ten minutes from our house. The fish, poultry, meat, and produce are amazingly priced and much fresher than what you find in more mainstream stores. Ditto goes for Baja Ranch, which is just a little farther away. (Fresh, house-made tortillas...drool....) And when we want to make sushi at home? We go to Mitsuwa to get all the essentials. I can never resist trying new things--the Asian cookies, the Mexican drinkable yogurt. I don't love shopping, but these stores make it more of an adventure.

8) The Pacific Ocean is better than the Atlantic.

It's true. The waves and tides are more interesting, the topography is more varied and wild. The abundance of beaches can't be beat. And then there are the sunsets. We don't get to the ocean all that often, but when we do, the Pacific refreshes my soul. 

8a) Corgi Beach Day

7) White flowers are my favorite.

For a good portion of the year, jasmine, mock orange, all kinds of citrus, and gardenias are blooming in our yard and neighborhood. Their exotic, bewitching scents fill the air, making every inhalation a luscious treat. Oh, and the datura. Last night, we were watching a movie in our room, and as usual, our French doors were wide open to let in the evening air. The datura beneath our balcony, which releases its fragrance mainly at night, was out of control scent-wise. Bliss. 

7a) We sleep with our windows open nearly year-round.

As hot as it gets in the summer, it's almost always cool enough to turn off the A/C at night. And, you know, winter doesn't really exist here. I love to fall asleep looking out at the palm trees and the city lights far beyond. It's like living in a treehouse, and it's amazing.

6) We never run out of terrific, inexpensive restaurants to try.

It's true that great Italian food is scarce and great French food is almost nonexistent. (But we've squirreled out a few favorites in that regard, so we'll get by.) But when it comes to Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Mexican options, the San Gabriel Valley is a treasure trove. Oh, the dumplings; ah, the scallion pancakes, tacos, beef rolls, banh mi, and pho. I mine two excellent food blogs: 626 Foodettes and Gastronomy, for ideas, and haven't been steered wrong yet. Also: donuts and burgers. In these things, L.A. excels. (But don't get me started on In n Out. It's not good and never will be.)

5) I love me some Trader Joe's.

Here's another great thing about L.A. that may seem trivial, but affects our life for the better on a daily basis. (And I fully realize that 30% of this list concerns food. That shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me.) I'm at Trader Joe's at least three times a week for lovely dairy, produce, and other groceries that make life good. Just this week, we discovered Thomcord grapes, a hybrid of sweet, crunchy Thompson and luscious, full-bodied Concord. Insanely delicious and affordable. They'll likely only be around for a few weeks, because Trader Joe's likes to focus on seasonal stuff, but we're eating them while we can. 

We're doubly fortunate, because Trader Joe's is notorious for having horrendous parking options--or lack thereof. If I lived in Toluca Lake, for example, I'd likely only walk to TJ's. But our local branch is close, convenient, and has ample and sane parking, which again is a bigger deal than it may appear.

4) The independent bookstores and movie houses are the best.

I've never been to a better bookstore than Vroman's. It boasts a huge selection of wonderful books, intelligent staff reviews and recommendations, lovely stationery and gifts, international magazines, and a really cool program that rewards the community with every purchase you make--Vroman's rocks. But then there's Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Kinokuniya downtown, San Marino Toy and Book, and a host of others over on the West Side that I haven't even gotten to explore. Yet.

Movie-wise, we favor either ArcLight, a local, upscale chain, for mainstream movies, or Laemmle for independent and foreign movies. I love them both.

4a) Also: the Pasadena library is great: branches all over town, and the ability to order any book in the Pasadena/Glendale system online. The Central Branch in Old Town is gorgeous. 

3) L.A. has given my children opportunites they didn't have in New York. 

Specifically, my younger four have become avid, skillful swimmers. Hope and Tess swim and play water polo in Pasadena High School's aquatic program, and Daniel and Anne are on the town swim team here in Sierra Madre. They're fit and having a great time. Marching band and orchestra are two other activities that weren't available to us in New York. And I doubt that James would have decided on UC Berkeley had we been on the East Coast--and it has turned out to be the perfect place for him to attend college. 

2) I'm closer to my family.

We miss Patrick's family in New Jersey terribly; there's nothing good about that. Visits with my family, however, have gotten much easier. My mother is in Reno, my grandmother is in St. George, and nine of my ten siblings are in the San Francisco Bay Area (2), Portland (2), Utah (2), and Arizona (3). This was a blessing when my father died, but being closer to my family under non-tragic circumstances has also been a boon. And we've even seen Patrick's family from Texas a lot more often. 

1) I've made life-changing friends.

Again, it's a bitter thing to be so far away from people I cherish in New York. Four groups of people have saved me. We are surrounded by kind, generous, interesting neighbors. My amazing book group is full of diverse, fascinating women who treasure each other and make excellent conversation (and meals). My world-class writing group (above)--I can't even believe these famous, skilled ladies want me around, but I've learned so much from our weekly meetings. And a few stalwart friends at church, who both understand and inspire us. I can't imagine life without any of these people--and I would never have met them if we hadn't moved here. 

I wrote this post mainly as a count-your-blessings exercise, a reminder to ground me either when the challenges of living here loom large, or when being away from New York seems intolerable (friends; bagels; autumn leaves). But maybe a few other immigrants to the Southland will find it helpful. If so, let me know by leaving a comment.