Bob Schwartz

Month: November, 2013

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

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Online Gambling and Real Life Guns: It’s About The Children

sheldon-adelson-615cs013012
A team of highly-paid ex-politico lobbyists are out there arguing against proposed bills in Congress to allow Internet gambling. Under one of these bills, a 12% tax would be shared between the federal and state governments, 4% and 8% respectively. That would be a lot of revenue in these hard times.

Gambling is an American and ancient tradition. Lotteries helped fund the American Revolution, which makes them practically sacred. In this case, the main opponents of digital gaming for money are the wealthy owners of real-world casinos and establishments, most visibly billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who helped bankroll Mitt Romney’s quest for the Presidency. No surprise there. The practice of online gaming, which already goes on with offshore sites, would expand dramatically, leaving bricks, mortar and showgirl spots with a severely reduced market.

Some of the arguments against the bills are, on their own terms, not entirely unpersuasive. Gambling does support hospitality and tourism, and if the already declining dollars drop further, there are going to be folks who lose their jobs in this challenged economy. It’s not clear that the entrepreneurs getting rich off this have the will and creativity to come up with substitute businesses that would replace those jobs. Gambling is also already a social problem, damaging lives and families, and what is bad gets worse with increased volume. The final big argument is, naturally, about “the children.” No matter what we try to do, the online environment is notoriously freewheeling, and there is no question that underage players would find a way to play, just as they get cigarettes and alcohol.

On the tourism question, cultural and social trends have always left some forms of entertainment and diversion behind while other new or more appealing ones prospered. Either you believe overall in the free market or not. People who say that government shouldn’t be picking winners and losers shouldn’t be telling the government to pick winners and losers.

Out of control gambling can be pernicious, no doubt about it. But the argument, one actually made, that the poorest in society would be unfairly burdened by the attraction of online gambling is under current realities absurd. First, because it is not clear that all the opponents of online gambling care so very much for the lower tiers of American society. Second, because government already endorses, promotes and profits from easy-access gambling that does weigh on the most vulnerable—the lotteries. With all the strains on government budgets, it is unimaginable what state some states would be in without those gaming dollars.

Then there is the ultimate trump card: the children. That score is easy to answer. On the scale of things kids shouldn’t be allowed to do, alcohol is number 2, tobacco is a close number 3, and then comes gambling. Number 1 is easy. Children should not have guns, should not live in an environment where guns are widely available and acceptable, and where guns are regularly used to shoot, injure and kill innocent people—including children.

So if you happen to see or hear any of those lobbyists shilling for Sheldon Adelson and his ilk, talking about how it is about “the children” and how we must protect them from the evils of playing online poker or placing a digital bet on an NFL game, ask them if guns aren’t a tad more dangerous, and ask them what they’ve done to seriously reduce the ubiquity of those guns and to eliminate the personal and social costs that those guns have inflicted on all of us.

There likely won’t be a good answer, at least not one that isn’t laced with equivocation, hypocrisy and protests of irrelevancy. It is relevant. Ask them to put the two side by side, the harm to children from online gambling and from guns, and tell them that the billionaires are free to make billions more on their casinos—just as soon as the guns get put away.

Oxford English Dictionary Names Selfie Word of the Year

Arbus Mapplethorpe Selfie
The Oxford English Dictionary has named “selfie” the Word of the Year. At least one journalist covering this issue spoke in praise of the selfie, offering a few rationales:

Selfies are in the centuries-old tradition of artists making self-portraits.

This is an age of memoirs and selfies are part of this phenomenon.

So for all those who do take cover in these explanations, be aware:

Above are self-portraits by two modern masters of photography, Diane Arbus and Robert Mapplethorpe. Photography is blessedly democratic, easy and fun. But when looking at any of the millions of selfies, consider whether artistry applies.

As for modern memoirism, chronicling every moment, whether overshared or not, we might be looking at the range of those chronicles, from deeply examined reviews to diaries to nothing more than barely annotated calendars. Here are some questions:

Would you rather have your good, great and remarkable moments go unnoted and unrecorded?

Or would you rather have your ordinary, unremarkable moments go public and get attention?

Or is the point of modern sharing to elevate ordinary life to a special place where it has always belonged?

Smile.

Annals of Journalism: The Best Lead Paragraph Ever (Hint: It Involves Miley Cyrus)

Miley Cyrus Joint Dwarf

The Associated Press has issued the following lead paragraph for a story about Miley Cyrus’ most recent antics. It is the best lead paragraph ever.

AMSTERDAM (AP) — In an unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention, singer Miley Cyrus smoked a joint on stage and twerked with a dwarf during the MTV Europe Music Awards.

Journalism students and logicians, please don’t focus on the joint smoking and the dwarf twerking, and for God’s sake, avert your eyes from the videos and photos (okay, you peeked; it’s irresistible, isn’t it?).

Instead, pay attention to this phrase: “unabashed — and likely successful — bid for attention.” What makes that phrase so delightful, the cherry on the Miley Cyrus-joint-dwarf news sundae, is that one of the largest news organizations in the world is covering the story, moving the success of her bid for attention from “likely” to certain and actual. As sure as the sun rises, Miley Cyrus will do something outrageous (the dwarf is an interesting touch, though it’s hard to say whether it’s trite or hip old school), and even the most respectable media outlets will cover it. So Associated Press, you just made your journalistic prediction come true. Oh the humanity! What would H.L. Mencken say?

 

Rock and Roll Prophecy: Show Biz Kids

Show Biz Kids
Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else
Show Biz Kids, Steely Dan

Pop music self-reflection has been around for decades. The wonderful Lorde does a take on it with Royals, looking at superstar excess from the perspective of a regular teenager. Jethro Tull sang “When you’re too old to rock and roll but too young to die” in 1976—without a time machine to watch 70-year-old Mick Jagger prance around the stage almost forty years later.

But when it comes to visionary, nothing beats Steely Dan’s 1973 Showbiz Kids from the Countdown to Ecstasy album. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen always cast a little bit of jaundiced eye on society, show business and fame, which along with their musical sophistication and eclecticism made them a lock to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

Their lyrics are often poetic, obscure and ambiguous, but Show Biz Kids is just plain straightforward. Show business, including pop, has had its share of bratty, self-absorbed behavior from star children of all ages. So it’s nothing new, and it may not be more over the top than ever—even if it seems that way sometimes. The poor people are still sleepin’ with the shade on the light while the stars come out at night. Once in a while these days, it appears, as Steely Dan sang, the show biz kids don’t care what they do or how it looks.

While the poor people sleepin’
With the shade on the light
While the poor people sleepin’
All the stars come out at night

After closing time
At the Guernsey Fair
I detect the El Supremo
From the room at the top of the stairs
Well I’ve been around the world
And I’ve been in the Washington Zoo
And in all my travels
As the facts unravel
I’ve found this to be true

They got the house on the corner
With the rug inside
They got the booze they need
All that money can buy
They got the shapely bods
They got the Steely Dan T-shirt
And for the coup-de-gras
They’re outrageous

Show biz kids making movies
Of themselves you know they
Don’t give a fuck about anybody else

Veterans Day and Busby Berkeley

Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1933 may be the strangest of all classic movies—and the one that has the most to say about Veterans Day 2013.

It is classic because it is still entertaining: snappy, cynical dialogue; singing and dancing that may be a little out of style, but Busby Berkeley production numbers that are still wonders of the world, in part because they were actually performed and filmed on sound stages—no special effects or shortcuts. Your jaw will drop in astonishment and delight.

The strangeness is that framing this jollity is a movie about the Depression—not as a backdrop but about it, head on. Nowhere is this incongruity more obvious than the close of the movie. There is a penultimate mega-happy ending, where the three down-on-their-luck showgirls marry the three rich Boston bluebloods. But just then, there is one last song and production number: Remember My Forgotten Man.

In 1932, most veterans of World War I were out of work, as were so many others. In 1924 the government had authorized a longstanding practice of offering bonuses to those who served in war. This took the form of Certificates of Service, which matured over 20 years, and were to be paid in annual installments. But in the midst of the Depression, the veterans didn’t need that money down the road—they needed it right now. A movement for immediate redemption of the certificates gained momentum (the amount was tens of billions of dollars in today’s money). So in 1932, 43,000 marchers—veterans, their families and their supporters—gathered in Washington in what came to be called the Bonus Army, to demand cash payment. This was rebuffed. President Hoover and Republicans in Congress believed that this would require a tax increase, and that a tax increase would delay the recovery of the economy.

These were the Forgotten Men. As the tragic climax of a musical comedy, we watch a sordid street scene, narrated in song by Gingers Rogers. She is now surviving as a prostitute, married to a war veteran abandoned by the government and the nation. On stage we see the troops marching off in glory to cheers and flag-waving, only to return broken and injured, with no one to greet or comfort them—or even to remember them.

Remember My Forgotten Man

I don’t know if he deserves a bit of sympathy,
Forget your sympathy, that’s all right with me.
I was satisfied to drift along from day to day,
Till they came and took my man away.

Remember my forgotten man,
You put a rifle in his hand;
You sent him far away,
You shouted, “Hip, hooray!”
But look at him today!

Remember my forgotten man,
You had him cultivate the land;
He walked behind the plow,
The sweat fell from his brow,
But look at him right now!

And once, he used to love me,
I was happy then;
He used to take care of me,
Won’t you bring him back again?
‘Cause ever since the world began,
A woman’s got to have a man;
Forgetting him, you see,
Means you’re forgetting me
Like my forgotten man.

Maybe the musicals of the 1930s are old-fashioned and for a lot of people unwatchable. Maybe Busby Berkeley is just some campy choreographer whose over-the-top numbers are funny but incomparable to today’s digital masterpieces. Then again, maybe ending a popular entertainment with a bleak and uncompromising plea to our national conscience isn’t a bad idea—and never goes out of style. Remember Our Forgotten People, circa 2013.

Lesson from The Voice: Caveat Inspector

The Voice
The Voice is now the dominant singing competition on television, having surpassed, probably permanently, American Idol. There is a lesson from The Voice that goes beyond just music, a lesson that goes to the heart of what has become a more media centric/entertainment centric society.

The reasons for the success of The Voice are pretty simple:

A substantial number of solidly talented and interesting contestants.

Panels of likeable and helpful celebrity coaches, with real musical expertise and real chemistry between them: Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton in the fall; Shakira, Usher with Levine and Shelton in the spring.

The show process begins with the uber-concept in the show’s name. The first round is a blind competition, where the panelists can hear but not see the contestants sing. It is, at least in part, all about “the voice.”

This week began the Knockout Rounds, where votes from the TV audience determine who will stay and who will be eliminated. The first of two nights on Monday was peculiar, anomalous for any singing competition. Of the ten singers who performed, not a single one was criticized, even for a tiny misstep—even though a few performances were very good, some were okay, and some were just not quality singing.

American Idol never quite figured out how to deal with judges’ criticism of contestants. Starting with the original panel, and continuing through the revolving door of judges who failed, there were more or less roles for the judges: the more brutal but somewhat constructive one (Simon Cowell), the kind, encouraging and heart-on-the-sleeve, maybe a little ditzy one (Paul Abdul) and whatever one (Randy Jackson).

There was an underlying issue in all that. There is little doubt that the producers of Idol shaded and spun the show so that certain contestants might rise a little higher than others. Whether this amounted to rigging results is unsubstantiated overstatement. But clearly, with all the elements at their command, producers could shine a different light on different singers, light that might affect voting. A judge’s praise or criticism could certainly be one of those elements.

In so many ways, for the better, The Voice is not American Idol. But the toolbox has some of the same tools: heartwarming or heartrending back stories, strategic song choices, etc. If the panelists/coaches criticism could affect the outcome, on Monday the decision seemed to be to have none at all.

And it was weird. At some point, even as the least trained audience ears could sense a musical problem, you could see coaches forcing smiles and faint praise. One big tell is when a panelist begins by telling a singer how good they look or how wonderful a person they are. Which is utterly ironic, since the show is based on the premise that voice matters above all.

If Monday’s absence of criticism was notable, it was even more apparent as soon as the Tuesday Knockout Round began. From the first singer on, many of the performances received what was in all cases deserved small critiques—never devastating, sometimes not as big as it could have been, but critique nonetheless. It was as if someone behind the scenes had noticed and said: our audience may like certain singers for their look, their attitude, their personality, but the audience isn’t deaf or stupid. We have a panel with four eminently talented musicians, and while we don’t want brutality, their credibility as judges of performances—their honesty—is on the line.

Which brings us to the greater lesson that should never be forgotten. From the beginning of advertiser-paid media, newspapers to now, all of those media have dual roles to play. They are whatever they essentially do—report news, entertain us, stage competitions, offer ways to publish short messages to the world, etc. But they are all also ways of delivering eyes, ears, hearts and minds to advertisers. There is nothing wrong with this. Nor is there anything wrong with media not being transparent about this obvious dual role and announcing all the things they do to increase the audience.

So enjoy. Get invested in your favorites (this season: Caroline Pennell, Tessanne Chin and Cole Vosberry, all of whom could be The Voice, all of whom deserve success). But remember that in commercial media, along with caveat emptor (buyer beware), it is caveat lector (reader beware), caveat inspector (viewer beware), and on this day of the Twitter IPO, caveat tweeter.

Reviving Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson
It is time to bring Emerson back from the dead and ignored.

Up until the late 20th century, at least one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays—usually the one titled Self-Reliance—was a staple of many high school curricula. So was the work of his fellow 19th century Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau—though it was mostly Thoreau’s nature paean Walden, rather than On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Maybe they are still there, but with our changing definition of what constitutes an American liberal arts education—if we consider that worthwhile at all—they have likely disappeared.

In the middle of the 19th century, the philosophical/political/religious/social/literary movement known as Transcendentalism gave birth to new ways of thinking and acting in America. Among the many intellectuals and activists associated with it, such as Thoreau and Margaret Fuller, none was more famous or prolific than Emerson. Transcendentalism gave new legitimacy to questioning the authority of convention and history. In the 1960s we would call this counterculture, and it is no coincidence that Thoreau became a guiding light to many in that generation.

Books and essays by the hundreds are devoted to Transcendentalism (see this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). They agree that pinning down exactly what Transcendentalism was and what it became over the years is a challenge. The same is said about Emerson, who unapologetically might contradict himself or change particular views over time.

With all that fluidity and vagueness, a few points of it are clear. According to Transcendentalism, we are driven to improve and grow, to aspire and rise higher. What drives us there is spiritual, but not in any conventional, narrow or simplistic sense. What we do is as important as what we believe and say. We must act, believe and speak as individuals, but knowing the nature of our particular individuality requires work and solitude. This life, this world, this existence are all-encompassing processes and not things—a concept that would later be refined as  a core of modern philosophy, but that had its origins in the most ancient roots.

All of the work of the Transcendentalists is in the public domain and widely available free online. Though more people are familiar with Thoreau, or at least some of his concepts, Emerson is a good place to start. In his Essays (First Series) you will find Self-Reliance. In it you will find what we might consider a libertarian distrust of the crowd and of the government, something shared with Thoreau. But this is an enlightened sort of selfness, different than modern mutations, because it makes no distinction between the one and the all, that is, if I do what is good for me but is not good for all, it is by definition no good at all. Figuring out how that exactly works is the mission of the Buddha, of Jesus, of just about every philosopher who urges us to find our unique self and act in the benevolent context of community, country and cosmos. Emerson was one of the first to say this in American, as an American, in America. Maybe he got lost in the rush to the shiny and new, but he’s still there, just waiting to be discovered.

Saints for All

Catherine Wheel
It is All Saints’ Day, and you don’t have to be Catholic, Christian or a believer of any kind to appreciate it.

Observed in the Western Christian church on November 1, it is the day that makes All Hallows’ (Saints’) Eve, aka Halloween, possible. Many denominations, including Anglicans, Lutherans and others, find a place and meaning for the holiday. But it is most associated with the Catholic Church, where it is a celebration of all saints known and unknown.

Saints are most specifically and tightly defined in the Catholic context. Saints are those whose lives allow them a special theological position and a special relationship with the divine after death, so that they may intercede on behalf of the faithful. You’ve no doubt heard reports about the two-step process of being designated a saint by the Pope: beatification (with the title “Blessed”), followed by canonization, based on the investigation and proof of intercessory miracles. It is usually a long road, though it appears that the very popular Pope John Paul II is on the fast track to sainthood.

The Catholic Church has had an historic problem with saints, one that continues to the moment. Two related problems really. The first is that from the beginning, people had a way of venerating those who inspired and who they admired, essentially developing cults around them, whether or not it was “official.” The related problem is that this enthusiasm was often based more on legend and even on superstition, rather than on actual biography or theological fine points. Early on the Church took control of saint making, though sometimes to little avail. As for saints whose life stories were questionable or constructed out of whole cloth, in recent years the Church has begun cleaning up the database, literally demoting some and stripping them of their sainthood.

Many religions, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism, hold special regard for those we might call saints, ones whose holiness goes above and beyond those of regular mortal people. In Judaism, for example, a tzadik is one whose righteousness sets him apart and allows him to serve as a channel flowing between the earthly and the divine, or better yet, serving as a model for the divine in the earthly.

Even if you don’t like religion but love good stories, saints are for you. Take Saint Catherine of Alexandria. In the early 4th century, this pious Christian scholar attempted to convince the Roman Emperor Maxentius not to persecute Christians. He arranged for Catherine to debate great pagan philosophers, but she won the argument. He tortured her. He proposed marriage, but she claimed her only marriage was to Jesus Christ. He condemned her to die on a spiked wheel that was to break her body apart. Instead, the wheel was destroyed at her touch. Maxentius then beheaded her; she became a martyr and a saint. (The wheel had its own life. Now known as a Catherine Wheel, it is used to this day as a spectacular spinning fireworks display.)

Or so the story goes. Despite her importance as one of the most revered of saints in the Middle Ages, this is now regarded as legend, with no evidence of the events or even of Catherine’s existence. Though she still has a place in Church tradition, her feast day was removed from the official Church calendar in 1969, only to have her day restored to the list in 2002 as optional.

Besides good stories, and besides the miraculous aspects that some find outside the circle of their own tradition, rationality or belief, the saints often provide some inspiring modeling in their lives. It isn’t necessarily the difference between the sacred and the profane, although there’s plenty of that in cases such as Augustine, where the base and worldly give way to something greater. It is the difference between the ordinary and the extraordinary—no more or less than we might admire athletes, artists or anyone who excels in ways that make the impossible seem possible for us too.

In a way, it is a back door path to redefining exactly what miracles are. We might not be martyrs, we might not make a deadly instrument of torture disappear at a touch, we might not heal the incurably sick. Saints reach beyond grasp, and besides asking them for help when no help seems available, that is why people are excited by them. We have arms, we can reach too. We can help, even if it isn’t the kind that gets us listed in some official church roster.

Good stories. Some fireworks. Plenty of inspiration. Maybe every day can be All Saints’ Day.