Christmas Story

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Published : December 11th, 2012
949 words - Reading time : 2 - 3 minutes
( 21 votes, 3.7/5 ) , 5 commentaries
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Category : Editorials





On Saturday, the town next to us, Cambridge, New York, put on its annual Christmas breakfast in the main theater of its old opera house, Hubbard Hall. Cambridge is a farming town in a farming economy that died and is just beginning to be re-born. The town occupies a landscape of tender hollows and gentle hills that rise toward the Green Mountains of Vermont twenty miles east. This topography allowed a specialty economy of seed husbandry to thrive. Each little hollow, like a little isolation ward, could be used to cultivate pure seed strains of a vegetable untainted by other varieties.

The modest red-brick factory in the center of town was never a smokestack industry. It was a seed-sorting and packing operation. Today, the "re-purposed" building occupies a very mixed assortment of activities: a specialty woodworking shop, a health club full of cardio machines, and artist's studios. The town - indeed, much of Washington County - has attracted bohemians over the years. It is just a little too distant from New York City to have been taken over by weekenders, and my guess is that the way things are going the danger of that is now past.

Of course, bohemian artists are generally not wealthy and a glance down Main Street shows all the usual signs of distress visible in the shattered economies of small towns around the region. Many of the operating storefronts are antique shops - an effort to wring residual value from emptying the attics and barns of homesteads under-occupied and under utilized, the strip-mining of history. Many of the big wooden houses, typical of the 19th century when large inter-generational families were the norm, are slowly decrepitating. They require a lot of expensive maintenance, which has been impossible for decades now, and it shows.

Hubbard Hall, a big wooden heap with its Second Empire mansardic tower, was erected in 1878 for the traveling shows and vaudevilles of the day and shuttered in the 1920s. It was rescued from oblivion in the 1970s and has evolved into a very busy center for the lively arts, which now includes two other buildings, freight barns adjacent to the defunct railroad station. There's a ballet studio, a music rehearsal room, a room for kids' art classes, and a separate building for contra dances. The programming is very rich. The old theater, where at least four plays and sometimes operas are performed by a capable local troupe each year, is the heart of the operation and that is where last week's Christmas breakfast was held.

It is the kind of gathering place for people that could never be built now under the absurd burden of our construction codes. And that is finally what I want to talk about here: the magnificence of the room itself and how it affects the beating life of this struggling community. Unlike the depressing "facilities" most of our festivals take place in around the USA - the gymnasiums and Holiday Inn "function rooms" with their extraneous furnishings, acoustical ceilings studded with fire-prevention shower heads, off-gassing carpets, and atrocious fluorescent lighting - Hubbard Hall has a lofty painted ceiling and a graceful swooping wooden balcony in the rear. The proscenium arch is decorated in floral motifs out of the William Morris pattern book. The big room smells like old wood and history and the stairs to it creak musically.

For seventeen years, the town has put on a Christmas breakfast devised to celebrate the culture of a foreign land, mostly for the sake of the children who grow up in a town that is, in the language of social services, ethnically un-diverse. This year it was Poland. Now, it happens that I joined a string band about a year ago that practices every week and plays for the monthly contra dance. I play fiddle, an instrument that is easy to play badly. We practiced four Polish folk dance tunes for the month preceding and rehearsed with the dancers, a troupe of middle school girls, once.

I was not prepared for how splendid the event turned to be. The theater walls were decorated with pine boughs. Little electric lights and swags of pine edged the apron of the stage and the balcony rail. Many tables were set where the audience usually sits (the chairs are movable), covered with table-cloths, with a big platter of Christmas cookies at the center of each. Children about ten or eleven circulated with platters of pirogies and strudels. The bustle of life in that room was enchanting. There were two seatings at the breakfast, nine and eleven, both of them very full. The program on stage was a mixed bag of dance, story-telling, puppetry, and musical performance, all done surprisingly well and with the wonderful élan of people who know and care about each other. When both seatings were over, our little band broke spontaneously into Christmas carols, which we hadn't practiced at all, and somehow managed to play pretty well as the townspeople drifted toward the exits.

I maintain that there is something about the room itself, its small-scale magnificence, that honored the presence of the people in it, and amplified all the pleasures of being together for the purpose of festivity. America these days is mostly composed of places that are not neutral as they seem, but positively hostile and antagonistic to what is most human in us - the mechanism that produces love. To quote myself from a book published some time ago, we built a nation of scary places and became a land of scary people. Thus, we are truly fortunate that the long emergency is upon us, because now circumstances will compel us to do things differently.



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James Howard Kunstler has worked as a reporter and feature writer for a number of newspapers, and finally as a staff writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In 1975, he dropped out to write books on a full-time basis. His nonfiction book, "The Long Emergency," describes the changes that American society faces in the 21st century. Discerning an imminent future of protracted socioeconomic crisis, Kunstler foresees the progressive dilapidation of subdivisions and strip malls, the depopulation of the American Southwest, and, amid a world at war over oil, military invasions of the West Coast; when the convulsion subsides, Americans will live in smaller places and eat locally grown food.
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Through narrative Kunstler seems to be offering the results of some applied solutions to our economic dilemma. Kind of vague about the methodology; but I'm heartened by the ultimate effects and results. Bigger and more aren't necessarily better. Some advances should arguably always be our companions: medicine (especially care and understanding of the human body), electricity, transportation (ultimately without the reliance upon oil), construction, science and creativity; although I wouldn't include the "new" creative finance practiced at this stage of the game. Great abundance runs the serious and all too possible risks of creating great hubris which often creates great failure and/or destruction. The Greeks, The Romans, The Ottomans, The Persians, Chinese dynasties and many others all arrived at a point of no return and wound up destroying themselves mainly because they believed they were immune to error (What worked before will always work again). Without the abilities and virtues of honesty, self-appraisal, vision and humility, to name just a few, all civilizations will wind up on the trash heap. Sound familiar?
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Ah, the good life according to Kunstler, when buildings were small and quaint - and lacked fire prevention shower heads. When fireplaces burned brighly and one had the immense pleasure of inhaling smoke. When candles filled everyroom making reading such a pleasure -- nevermine the eyestrain, if one even had books to read.

The good life that Kunstler constantly envisions never existed except in fairy tales. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbs lived in such an era and wrote in 1651 that the life of man was, ""solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". But that was before the invention of the electric light (fluorescent lights that Kunstler loathes) antibiotics, modern food production -- and fire prevention shower heads.

To Kunstler a man's home is not his castle, but his hovel.
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The event JHK describes is very much what used to be considered a community gathering. The comparison he draws with today’s venues for such events is spot on. Not that many years ago people gathered for conversation and celebration in venues that were warm and welcoming. People spent many hours dressing up these halls and preparing meals, they did it because they enjoyed the company of their neighbors. You obviously can’t stand such close personal interaction. This is your personal problem, not that of everyone else on the planet.

You seem to have a love for the cold and technical world we live in today. You would rather not meet in person and if forced to do so would prefer the cold cookie cutter room, and it better have overhead sprinklers and carpets made of toxic fibers. Since the 50’s and 60’s we’ve made many advances in science and medicine but are we really any better off? Science has given us GMO garbage for food and we’re living shorter lives than our grandparents did without the benefit of our advanced medicines. We have all the electronic gizmo’s any one can desire and all the stress that comes with this technology. Science has given us government departments that are telling us that the food we grow in our gardens isn’t fit to eat. Advancements in medicine has given us a whole generation of zombie kids loaded up with Ritalin and hooked on video games. Their ability to use their imagination has vanished, playing outside with other kids is too scary. Parents are zoned out on Prozac walking around with stupid grins on their face while not being able to function at an adult level. Today’s parents seek help from ‘professionals’ for everything from child parenting to how they handle stress because they’ll have to use credit, money they don’t have, to buy that pair of red open toed shoes. In the old days parents turned to other parents if they needed advice on kids, if you couldn’t afford the new shoe’s you didn’t buy them. In the old days when kids did something they were told not to they got a swat on the back side, today liberal morons tell us that it’s better to not use corporal punishment and let the kids grow up to be drug addicts and criminals. New medications have proved to be counterproductive as we now have super bugs that all these wonderful new drugs can’t touch, yet we never suffered from these super bugs in the old days. Today we have communities of people that don’t know even their neighbors name. Kids’ spend hours socializing on Facebook and chat rooms, technology has given us free porn for everyone, no matter the persons age.

In the ‘good old days’ people took responsibility for themselves and their actions, today we have a legal system that thrives on personal law suits. Businesses can’t afford to pay the insurance premiums needed to cover the ignorance of the people they expect to serve. The cost of all this litigation to new advanced medicine and our whole health care system is through the roof because of law suits, people can’t be bothered to read the label on the medication they take so it has to be someone else’s fault.

But wait, there is one thing that can save us from all of these bad advancements, it’s the government. Surely they will set up regulations telling us that we must be more social in person, take responsibility for ourselves, and teach our kids how to behave by ourselves. This is the world of Jim C. Big government dictating our every move, what we eat, who we talk to, what we watch, how we play and using technology to ensure we comply. If we don’t, well that’s that Fusion centers are for.

As usual Jim, your comment on reeks of the hatred you possess for JHK. You are also, as usual completely wrong. This is one of the least offensive articles he’s authored. He was almost upbeat throughout. This just goes one step further to show that you post with no real purpose other than to slander.

If you grew up not liking the way things were when you were a kid then tough noogies. It was a better, cleaner, safer, healthier life so don’t begrudge anyone that want’s to share with others why the good old days were good, even without overhead sprinklers.

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James, I read this story on your blog, on Monday, and it brought back memories of the Fezziwig Chapter: when old Fezziwig threw the Christmas Party for Bob Marley, Ebeneezer Scrooge, all his friends and family. There's a story I can tell you of some beautiful, old, magnificent buildings (right around here) that are caving in on themselves. Oh, there are a few of us, poor but getting by, who would put our time and resources into rebuilding one of them ~ but the owner wants TOP DOLLAR for it (an historic building ? - greed ?) and so it sits, year-after-year (7 years now) getting worse and worse. Eventually it will be worthless, the owner will let it go for taxes, and the auction will sell it for Chump Change; but by that time it will NOT be repairable. So it goes . . . . Merry Christmas James.
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There is only one direction that greedy people are headed, and that is down. Way down.
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The event JHK describes is very much what used to be considered a community gathering. The comparison he draws with today’s venues for such events is spot on. Not that many years ago people gathered for conversation and celebration in venues that were wa  Read more
Hart - 12/12/2012 at 6:53 PM GMT
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