Thursday, December 22, 2011

Snow Falls In San Francisco

Snow Falls in San Francisco

A holiday memory


Riley Joyce

It was my first Christmas in San Francisco, and I was alone. I couldn’t afford to fly back east, so I was marooned in SOMA. I didn’t know anybody in the city at that time, save for my roommates. They were all heading elsewhere, so I had the run of the house; which was a mixed blessing. Then again, since none of them really celebrated Christmas (or even bothered to decorate) I was probably better off on my own. While I’m not a massively religious person, I don’t pay lip service to the sacred. While I may not understand other people’s beliefs, I’ve grown to tolerate them. My faith is, “believe as thou wilt, as long as it harms none.” Yeah, I paraphrased that from the Wiccans. What can I say? I’m a Mr. Potatohead when it comes to religion. I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Unseen World for several decades. My attendance at Grace Cathedral was the most recent, and the most profound.

I had started attending Grace Cathedral for very selfish reasons. I was lonely, I was in therapy, and I was heartbroken. I remember coming across it one night purely by chance. Anyone who as ever seen the great gothic structure in person, knows that you can’t miss Grace Cathedral. It sits on Nob Hill (the second highest hill) in San Francisco, and watches imposingly over the city. One could fancy that Quasimodo slept in the belfry, or that royalty was married at its altar. It is almost an exact reproduction of Notre Dame in Paris, save for some minor changes. There aren’t that many cathedrals that have a window dedicated to Einstein. Nor, do they have artwork by Keith Haring. It was also the first church I ever entered that had a policy of, “A place of prayer for all people.” That was surprisingly refreshing from what I’d experienced as a teenager. The church of my father was based on an “Us vs. THEM” mentality.

“THEM,” in this case, was everybody else. The people who preached at Grace didn’t foster that kind of belief system. Instead, the good Reverend Alan Jones preached that, “A human being is where God chooses to dwell.” And rather than tout hellfire and brimstone, he simply said, “Avoid the works of darkness.”

It was all a far cry from what I’d been exposed to before.

I also happened to start attending on the first Sunday of Advent. I had no clue that it even was Advent. I hadn’t paid attention to such things since I was about seventeen. Even then, it didn’t mean much to me. The major holidays were about it for me. After being programmed the wrong way, it took ages to rewire myself. I went through a period where I couldn’t stand anything overly religious; especially from a rightwing stance. To be honest with you, I still can’t. For me to attend one of the most liberal and progressive churches in America shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Going to church was just one of the many things I did there. For the most part, I’d go there to walk the outdoor Labyrinth; an elaborate stone pattern of concentric circular shapes. I’d do this after therapy every week. I’d also sit in the cathedral itself, and meditate for while. I think I spent more time just being there, rather than going to church there. I found it all to be really silly. I felt that in my desperation, I might have backslid into some form of wish fulfillment. I’d been an atheist for quite some time; but for all the wrong reasons. There’s a difference between not believing in something, and being sick of having it shoved in your face. I fell into the latter category. Nothing turns a person off more than being forced to accept a belief.

I told my therapist about all this. Much to my surprise, she didn’t find it silly it at all. She said, “It’s a place of prayer and strength for you.”

Though I never officially became a member, I look on Grace with great reverence. It’s the only church I’ve ever felt comfortable in.

On Christmas Eve of that year (2009, I think it was) I prepared to do something I hadn’t done since the late 90’s; go to church on Christmas Eve. Before Grace I would have seen this as a chore. Though my family was not very religious, both of my parents went through their “God phases” in the late 90’s. I think the last time I’d been to church was in 1999. I knew that this service wouldn’t have the usual boring sermon, gnashing of teeth, and the ever popular, “Dear Christ, people don’t send me to hell! I’m so disgustingly vile. Dear God, please don’t hurt me!” Instead, I would see something far more interesting, and uplifting.

That brings me to Reverend Alan Jones (now retired). I attended Grace during his last season there.

How should I best describe him? If you took the voice of Sir Ian McKellen, the humor of Monty Python, the theology of C.S. Lewis, and the beard of Father Christmas, you’d be close. He sounded exactly like Sir Ian. At any given second I expected him to summon a crew of Hobbits to decorate the cathedral. I also expected him to gallop while doing the procession. And you just know he’s going to read from the Book of Armaments on Sunday morning. He was definitely a minister of silly walks. He often injected heavy doses of humor into his sermons--something that most preachers are sadly lacking. Christmas Eve was to be no exception. It was to be his last Christmas at Grace. You could say that he pulled out all the stops.

I got there early to join the 1,000 plus crowd that would soon flood the place. If I had arrived later than 10:30 p.m., I wouldn’t have been able to get a seat. As it stood, I wasn’t in a pew. Instead, I was in a metal folding chair on the left side of the pews. That’s how crowded the cathedral already was at that stage. I was to see next Christmas Eve just how packed the place can get; standing room only.

Gradually, the place filled in more and more, until every seat was taken. Then, at the chiming of the bells at midnight, the ceremony began.

If you don’t mind, I’m going to fast forward through this part. Though of you who have been to an Episcopal or Anglican service already know what happens. The Reverend/Priest walks around the congregation a few times, whilst chanting. The congregation joins in with a chorus of “hallelujah.” There is incense, robes, and much organ music. It’s all very medieval-like. However, no bawdy wenches, drunken knights, or pig farkers are anywhere to be seen. Though they would certainly be tolerated at Grace, they just don’t mix with that crowd on a regular basis…except during Pride Month.

We all took our seats, and after the reading, the Reverend Jones took his place at the pulpit. Resplendent in his purple robes, he stood before us, and then said, “Tonight is Christmas Eve. This is the night when we wait for the glorious resurrection of Tinker Bell.”

I then heard something I normally didn‘t hear in a church--the sound of laughter. Everybody, myself included, burst out laughing.

“I want you all to hold hands,” Rev. Jones said.

We did as he asked.

“And I want you all to chant, ’I believe in fairies,’ three times!”

We did so, but he was unimpressed.

“Pathetic,” he said, as he shook his head. “Tinker Bell is dead!”

After some more banter, he launched into her sermon.

His sermon was about Irving Berlin, and his signature tune, White Christmas. He mentioned that even though Berlin was Jewish, he captured the essence of Christmas in that song. While it wasn’t his holiday, he was able to define it for so many of us. We often forget the simple things like that. We get so bogged down in the artificial sentiment of the season, that we lose sight of ourselves in all of it.

Speaking for myself, I used to love listening to Bing Crosby sing White Christmas, or anything, for that matter. I’d watch Going My Way, and his team-ups with Bob Hope; The Road Pictures, every Christmas season. But then something happened to me: WORK! I worked my first Christmas at age nineteen. There is nothing that will kill the holiday spirit more than hearing Christmas carols repeated nonstop in retail outlets. What was once a source of childhood fun soon becomes a source of dreaded noise. In my own family, it used to be a tradition to listen to Johnny Mathis’ Christmas Album every Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But when you work a holiday, and have to put up with people’s unholy attitudes, you no longer feel festive. Instead, you feel that the holidays are a time of suffering that must be endured. In that instance Easter isn’t the only holiday with a crucifixion.

Now, back to Rev. Jones…

One of the points he’d made in his sermon was this; that someone who didn’t celebrate Christmas was in the festive mood. Irving Berlin was wishing us all a Merry Christmas. Couldn’t we do the same by reclaiming the Christmas carols from the retail giants, the ill-will, and the inhuman stress of the season?

Printed inside our programs for the evening were the lyrics to White Christmas.

“I want you all to sing along with me. Let’s sing White Christmas together.” Rev. Jones requested.

Initially, it was just the congregation that sang. Then, the choir joined in with us. Their angelic tones were slightly drowned-out by the 1,000 or so in the pews. Finally, the organ kicked in, and blew us all away.

It was then that a miracle happened.

It snowed in San Francisco.

I kid you not; it snowed from the rafters of Grace Cathedral!

Alright, so the snow was made of paper confetti. It still counts as a miracle in my book. What did you expect; walking on water?

We took communion soon after. It was then followed up by another hymn. At the end of the service, we had a very special visitor. Santa Claus rode into the cathedral, and distributed candy canes to everybody. Even I got one, which was a relief. It would have been really embarrassing to get reindeer turds in my shoes in front of all those people.

As we all assembled to leave, we lined up to shake hands with Rev. Jones.

I had spoken to him once after church, in reference to the phrase, “God is where a human being chooses to dwell.”

He must have remembered me from that day, and other Sundays. He lightly tapped the front of my coat, and said to me, “Keep coming back.”

I nodded, and then smiled. I said, “I will Reverend, thank you.”

Once I stepped outside, I was surprised to see that it had not snowed in San Francisco. Instead, it had rained just a little bit. The temperature was warmer than what I had expected as well. Though I knew that the Bay Area really doesn’t get snow (except in higher elevations) it still came as a surprise. I was so used to seeing it at Christmas time that I missed it, just a little. Normally, I hated snow, but it just felt appropriate this time. I took what I could get, and accepted the confetti from the rafters.

That night, as I lay in bed, I thought of myself as child. I remembered lying under the Christmas tree, as it rotated on a motorized stand. The lights on the tree made a fantastic kaleidoscope show on the ceiling. If I thought hard enough, I could feel the carpet underneath me. I could also smell the artificial pine spray that was used to scent the plastic tree. It was the closest I’d gotten to normal in a long time.

Perhaps that’s all that normal really is; performing the rituals that keep us human. That could involve birthdays, funerals, weddings, holidays, or the small things; like eating candy canes, singing Christmas carols, and playing in the snow.

On Christmas morning, I was alone. Still, I opened the gifts my mother had sent me. I also made the same breakfast I do every Christmas; maple sausage links wrapped in crescent rolls. I also made pancakes, if I recall. And all the while, I listened to a CD my mom has sent me. It was of Bing Crosby performing old holiday standards.

That was the last time I spent Christmas alone. And I’m very thankful for that.

Copyright Riley Joyce 2011

The Above image is of a montage of Wilson Bentley's snowflake photos. He was a pioneer in the field of photography. He was one of the first people to photograph a snowflake before it melted. He codified over 5,000 types of snowflakes during his career.

The below image is of Grace Cathedral, as it appears from California at Mason. Photo: Jon Davis, under a Creative Commons License. 

Before it's too late, I have to develope (yes, develope) my own photos of Grace Cathedral. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Black Box Joke

The Black Box Joke

An essay
Riley Joyce

There are some jokes that will always be with us; such as the simplest “knock-knock” joke, or the banal banana peel slip. For many of us, Mad Libs, “knock-knock” jokes, and bad puns are the earliest forms of humor we’re exposed to as children. They are safe, clean, and use a simple form of logic. Even when we tell bawdy barroom jokes over drinks, there’s a certain “surprising, yet inevitable” formula at play. On some unconscious level we know what direction the joke will take. But on a conscious level we want to be surprised. We don’t dare give away the punch line, unless the old cliché, “stop me if you’ve heard this one,” is invoked. While this type of humor isn’t the most sophisticated, it doesn’t have to be. It just has to work. A little laugh from a basic set up, followed by a punch line. They are simple, effective, and based on some sort of reason.

The antithesis of this would be the Black Box Joke. This is a phrase that I’ve coined to describe a joke, or humorous situation, that relies on the ignorance of the audience for a laugh. It is one of the cheapest shots in the book. It is also to be avoided like a rabid monkey in heat. Smart audiences respond to smart humor. Stupid humor can also work, but not for very long. Eventually, the audience knows it has been cheated. A Black Box Joke might generate a laugh for a few moments. But once the audience has sobered up from the laugh, they’ll have a chance to think about what the performer has actually said.

The eponymous phrase takes it name from this joke…

“You know, when a plane crashes, all that is left is the black box. Why don’t they just make the whole plane out of the black box?”

The infamous “black box” flight data recorder is actually not black. It is painted orange, so it is easier to find. And as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) pointed out in an essay*, “The black box is made of titanium.” The aircraft is made of light-weight aluminum, so it can fly. He goes on to point out that the reason for this is that titanium is too heavy to build an airplane from. He is right on both counts. Not to mention titanium would be vastly more expensive to use as a building material. This is one of the many reasons why it is rarely used as a material for anything (except the defunct space shuttle, and Robocop).

Not to mention there are aluminum recycling programs across the world. Similar programs for titanium are few and far between. This makes building something practical out of such a material not very practical.

The end result is that on the surface you have a joke that is silly, but plausible. Granted, no one really challenges such a joke; most people just shrug it off. We hear it once, and then repeat it at the water cooler. We hardly give it a thought afterwards.

The joke itself was popular in the 1980’s when incidents of airplane disasters were running rampant (in the eyes of the news media). Humor, being the great arbiter of all things, rebounded with a response. Perhaps the rebound this time didn’t make it to the basket, but it was a semi-decent try.

A joke like this, while ignorant, does serve a social function. It helps us to feel better about the unknown. We can’t control natural, or man-made, disasters. If we can at least joke about it, then perhaps we’ll feel better about loss of control. The joke still relies on ignorance, but it is a blissful ignorance to an audience. It doesn’t take into account the number of routine flights that go smoothly each day. Nor, does it take into account how incredibly rare airplane crashes/accidents really are.

Speaking from my own experiences with air travel; I was once on a flight where someone had a heart attack before take off. The person was a large, overweight man, who’d keeled over in the aisle. One of the flight attendants was able to resuscitate him. An EMT crew came aboard, and then took him to a hospital. The last I’d heard of him, he was ok. What was the likelihood of someone having a heart attack on a plane before it took off? Would this person of fared worse if they’d had a heart attack while we were in the air? And would it have been more practical to just have an O.R. in the fuselage?

The answers to the above are: Not very likely, probably, and don’t expect me to pay for it.

The point I’m trying to make is this: a joke that denies the intelligence of the audience is insulting. But a joke that enlightens the audience with observation, truth, and out-of-the-box-thinking lauds the intelligence of the audience.

Will you open the black box? Or, will you open the orange box?

Copyright Riley Joyce 2011

*The essay in question can be found in Adams’ posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt. It was that essay that inspired this piece. The quotation used in this piece is paraphrased from his work.