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Books, My Books, movies

Gray Days, Old Houses, and Christmas Reads

We’ve had actual winter-like weather lately, with cold, gray days, so I’ve followed my personal policy of declaring days like that to be reading days. I’ve spent time curled up under a blanket on the sofa, reading Christmassy books. I’m enjoying doing that more than I’ve enjoyed watching Christmas movies. I can lose myself in a book, but I get sidetracked when watching something.

I think it also helps that the books are a bit more to my taste. It seems that the Christmas romantic comedy book is a big thing in the UK. The “chick lit” trend never really died there the way it did in the US, so you can still get that kind of book that’s got a romance, but it’s more about the heroine’s life in general, dealing with work, family, friends, etc. And now there are a lot of those set during the Christmas season, not necessarily about Christmas, but against that backdrop and the way the holiday tends to amplify existing issues.

I wonder if the Brits have their own versions of the holiday movies, like the Lifetime and Hallmark movies in the US. Are there movies about the high-strung career woman from London having to spend the holiday in the quaint little village where she grew up so she can help save the family bakery? That might be a fun change of pace.

A lot of the books seem to be about saving the historic family home — the medieval or Tudor manor—which I guess is similar to the American version of saving the family farm. I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for the “saving the crumbling medieval manor” type plot, given that I find the maintenance on my 1984-built house overwhelming. It’s fun to read about, but I imagine wouldn’t be as much fun in real life.

I burned out on the movies I tried to watch because I just couldn’t take the “return to hometown and get together with guy from high school” story yet again. Having to move back to my small hometown is the sort of thing I have nightmares about, and I’ve seen the guys I graduated with. Nope. I was sad in school that no one wanted to date me, but I really dodged a bullet there. I have a couple of old favorites that I know don’t have that plot, so I may give those a shot. When I’m not reading and listening to Christmas music.

In book-related news, I’ve done a paperback version of Spindled, the book I serialized on the blog earlier this year. You might still be able to get delivery by Christmas if you’re a Prime member. It should eventually be available through places other than Amazon, but that will take time to get through the system. You can order it here.


Romantic Comedy Trends

My attempt at my traditional Labor Day rom-com weekend fizzled because I wasn’t really in the mood for watching movies. I mostly ended up watching episodes of The Office, which kind of count because I was at the part of the series when Jim and Pam finally get together and Angela and Dwight were breaking up. I did watch My Man Godfrey Monday night, a classic screwball comedy, but that was largely because I needed 1930s references for something I was working on.

I didn’t really want to sit and watch anything for the length of a movie. A half hour or so (including the deleted scenes) was about the right length before I wanted to read a book instead.

But I did put together a list of various movies to watch when I am in the mood for that sort of thing, maybe in the fall when it gets dark earlier and I don’t want to sit outside and read. I scrolled through the list on IMDB of everything tagged both comedy and romance and picked out the ones that sound good that I haven’t seen, which isn’t a lot.

Looking at that list showed some interesting patterns. This kind of movie comes in waves. There was a big golden age in the 1930s and early 1940s when the screwball comedies were big. To a large extent, that was a response to the Depression. People wanted fun, uplifting movies, but there was also an underlying theme, usually with the couple consisting of a wealthy woman isolated from the ills of the world and working man who helps her wise up. The movies showed that the wealthy could be brought down to earth to appreciate what everyone else was going through and that an honest working man could win the “princess.” So, yeah, probably pure fantasy.

There was another wave in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the battle of the sexes comedies exemplified by the Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, though there were some outliers like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The next golden age was in the late 1980s through the 1990s. That was the era of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock and then Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore. It sort of held on through the early part of the 2000s, with Amy Adams looking like she’d be a contender, but then the genre began fizzling out. At the same time, starting in the late 1990s we had the rise of the male-oriented rom-coms that went more in the gross-out direction, starting with There’s Something About Mary and going on to things like 40-Year-Old Virgin. The movies became mostly about overgrown man-child types who were forced to grow up by humorless harpies. Then the women-led films started trying to outgross the guys, and it pretty much killed the more traditional romantic comedies.

I can’t really find a clear theme for this age like there was in the previous clusters. There’s no thematic link between movies like When Harry Met Sally, Pretty Woman, Working Girl, Four Weddings and a Funeral, etc. There was a lot of variety during this era, a lot of challenging the formula and telling the familiar story in different ways.

Oddly, some of my favorite movies came toward the end. That’s when we got films like The Holiday, Enchanted, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. And some slightly more obscure films that I love, like I Capture the Castle, I’m With Lucy, and The Very Thought of You. For a while, it looked like Henry Thomas (yes, the little boy from ET, all grown up) would end up being the Tom Hanks of his generation because he kept popping up as the love interest, and he was quite good at being the ordinary guy who deserves the girl, but then he seems to have fallen off the radar.

Now it seems like there’s been a revival, but not on the big screen. Netflix has been making a lot of romantic comedies. From what I can tell, they tend toward the teen movie, but there are still plenty that fit the classic mold. I don’t watch enough to make having a lot of streaming services worthwhile, but I may have to get Netflix for a few months to check out what they’ve been doing.

I did come up with a story idea for a rom-com, though. I may have to write it up as a screenplay because Netflix and Ron Howard are doing regular screenwriting contests, with a different kind of film each quarter. I should be ready when they want a romantic comedy.


The Chick-flick Holiday

It’s Labor Day weekend (almost), and I’ve had such a productive week, getting my main task done, that I’m going to take the holiday. I’ll probably do a little work-related stuff, some things that almost count as “fun,” but otherwise, my traditional way of observing this holiday is with chick flicks.

That started the year I was gearing up to write the first Enchanted, Inc. book. Since I was trying to capture that “girl in the city” tone, I spent that weekend watching a lot of romantic comedies. There was Bridget Jones’s Diary (since I was pitching the book as “Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter”), When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail for the New York settings, and then Kate and Leopold for New York plus a hint of magic (interestingly, the guy who wrote Kate and Leopold was the screenwriter for the Enchanted, Inc. movie that didn’t make it beyond the script stage).

I continued the tradition the next year because I was gearing up to write the second book in the series, and I happened to be watching a movie on cable when a friend called. We spent the afternoon on the phone, watching the same movie together, and we did it again the next year.

I haven’t necessarily done it every year. I don’t force myself to do things for fun that I don’t want to do, so if I’m in the mood for something else, I do something else.

I think this would be a good year to continue the tradition. I’m in the mood for something light, fluffy, and fun. I just don’t know what. Do I want to see if I can find something I haven’t seen on Amazon Prime? Watch an old favorite? Modern setting or costume romantic comedy (like a Jane Austen movie or A Room with a View)?

There’s something so reassuring about an old favorite, and I’ve been burned by trying something new that ends up not being what I expected it to be (or wanted it to be). The last time I tried something on Amazon that looked like a romantic comedy with an amazing cast, it turned out to be a rather depressing dark comedy about someone losing everything. Fun!

Then again, there are only so many times you can watch something without getting distracted because it’s too familiar, and I don’t want to wear out any favorites. Maybe I’ll try something new but have an old favorite in the mix.

The menu is set. I found the chili con queso recipe for one of my favorite restaurants, and I have avocados, so it’s going to be chips, guac, and queso for dinner. I’ll do boiled shrimp another night to balance it out, health-wise.

I may not take Monday as a full holiday because I have a lot to accomplish in the next month or so. I have a huge to-do list, and I’ve told myself that I get to take a vacation (well, a holiday, since I won’t likely be going anywhere) in October when I get it all done. I need to take some time when I don’t think about work. I’ll take long walks, bake, and read, maybe do some other creative stuff. That’s a good motivation for checking things off my to-do list each day.


Empire of Dreams

I celebrated “Star Wars Day” (May the Fourth be With You) yesterday by watching part of the Empire of Dreams documentary (it’s two and a half hours long and I was sleepy, so I got up to the release of the movie. I’ll watch the aftermath later). It was fascinating seeing what went into getting the movie made and all the various iterations the story went through.

One thing in the documentary is clips from actual auditions. You get to see some of the actors who were considered for the roles. For instance, William Katt, who’d go on to be the Greatest American Hero, seemed to have been close to being cast as Luke. The dialogue in the auditions was absolutely ridiculous, and Mark Hamill really did seem to be the one who did the best job of delivering it in a way that sounded sincere and natural. They were initially just using Harrison Ford (who already knew George Lucas) as someone for the various people auditioning to play against, but then decided they liked his take on Han Solo.

You also get to see the footage of Darth Vader with Dave Prowse doing the dialogue, before they dubbed in James Earl Jones. Anthony Daniels was originally cast mostly to wear the suit for C-3P0 — he was slim enough to fit it and had experience as a mime artist. They were auditioning people to do the voice. He mentioned that someone known as a “man of a thousand voices” who did cartoons was brought in to read, but he told them they should keep the performance they had. That implies that Mel Blanc could have been C-3P0, and it’s largely due to him that we got the version we did. Now I’m trying to imagine 3P0 sounding like Bugs Bunny.

The special effects guys were having trouble figuring out how to do the big space battle, so George Lucas edited together clips from WWII movies to fit what he had in mind, and they then were able to maneuver the models to recreate those scenes. They showed some of the original footage side-by-side with the Star Wars version. It was fascinating.

And during all this, they had no idea what was going to happen with that film. They were all braced for utter disaster, sure that it would be a complete flop.

I guess that’s an object lesson in going after your dreams and being true to your vision even when everyone around you is being critical and dismissive.


Comfort Viewing

Earlier this week, I gave my list of comfort reads. Today, I’ll share some comfort viewing ideas. If you’re like me, right now concentrating is sometimes difficult, which makes reading harder. Curling up on the sofa and watching something reassuring may be what you need.

As with books, each person is going to have a different definition of comfort viewing or low-stress. I think repeat viewing also changes the equation. There are intense things that work as comfort viewing if you know the outcome and aren’t on the edge of your seat. For me, that includes things like the Star Wars movies. They’re actually pretty intense if you’ve never seen them before, but when you can recite the lines along with the characters, they can work as comfort viewing.

At the top of my list would probably be the movie version of Stardust. I love that movie so much. It’s funny and romantic, with a good dose of swashbuckling adventure.

The Princess Bride is also perfect for times like these. It even has the framing story of the grandfather telling the story and reassuring us when things get tense. If you’re holed up with other people, have a quote-along.

Movie musicals are great (and now I wish I had more on DVD). The Sound of Music has lovely scenery and good music everyone can sing along with (though I also rather like the recent British live TV version that was on PBS). Into the Woods is fun (I may actually prefer the stage version, which is available on DVD and to rent from Amazon, but the movie works, too). My Fair Lady is another favorite.

In a similar vein are all the Disney musicals and “princess” movies, either live-action or animated. Some of Pixar, but they tend to make me cry and I don’t need that right now.

I recommended the book Cold Comfort Farm, and the movie may actually be even better. The cast is utterly amazing. But be prepared to go around saying things like, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” and “There’ll be no butter in hell” for days.

Less funny but still somewhat reassuring is I Capture the Castle, a lovely coming-of-age story set in the 30s. I think it got an R-rating in the US because there’s some non-sexual full nudity (a scene that’s in the book but that might have been a bad idea to include in the movie because it moved it out of the “family” category for ratings), but the rest of it is pretty safe. Another one with an amazing cast, including some young actors who are now much better-known. It was an early role for Romola Garai, and there’s a very young Henry Cavill. On the other extreme, the romantic hero is a very grown-up Henry Thomas (the little boy from ET).

And while we’re in the 30s, there’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It can get a little heavy at times (since it’s set right before WWII) but is mostly funny and ultimately hopeful. It feels like the kind of screwball comedy they made in the 30s (it’s based on a book from that era and the movie is much better than the book). Another one with a brilliant cast. Just writing about it makes me want to watch it again.

For TV shows, in case you want to really binge, Pushing Daisies (which I believe is on Amazon Prime) is a sweet two-season show with musical numbers and a candy-colored reality.

I just discovered that Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is on Prime Video. This was a short-run series from the 80s in which the Henson creature shop is used to dramatize fairy tales, as told by a storyteller (played by John Hurt) and his dog (a Muppet). They seem to have done some remastering, as this is a widescreen version, which is unusual for things from that era. You’ll see a number of now-familiar faces in the cast. If you like fairy tales, you need to see this.

Of course, the One True Pride and Prejudice (the miniseries from the mid-90s) is a good option, as are most of the other Jane Austen adaptations. I’d probably avoid the most recent Mansfield Park. Look for the one with Jonny Lee Miller instead (that one’s on hoopla, if your library system offers it).

I keep rewatching the Once Upon a Time spinoff set in Wonderland, which is available for free streaming on the ABC web site and Roku app. It’s a short run, just 13 episodes (I believe, maybe 12?) that tells a complete story, and I find that the writing and pacing are much tighter than in the main show, which went totally off the rails.

Parks and Recreation is on Amazon Prime, and it’s a sweet comedy. The first season is a bit rocky, as they hadn’t yet found their groove, but it really takes off in season 2.

I don’t know where it’s currently streaming, but Galavant is sort of like if The Princess Bride was a musical and on in half-hour installments. The music is by the composer who’s done so many of the recent Disney movies.

That should keep you occupied for a few hours. Any other suggestions?


Back to Middle Earth

I did my Lord of the Rings movie marathon over the weekend, watching the films for the first time in nearly 10 years. The last time I recall watching them was when I was gearing up to write No Quest for the Wicked and I watched them to make a list of quest story tropes to play with for when I put a quest in modern Manhattan (that book was so much fun to write). I thought I was checking the extended editions out of the library, since the illustration with the listing was the extended edition box set, but they just turned out to be the Blu Ray versions of the edition I already had. I would like to see the extended editions at some point, since I suspect a lot of what got added was the character stuff, and that’s the part I like. I have a feeling some of my friends have a set I can borrow, so maybe next winter I’ll do another viewing.

I also need to re-read the books. I first read them when I was in sixth grade and was utterly captivated. I tore through them. I re-read them in college and found them to be a bit of a slog. I wonder what I’d think of them now. As I rewatched the movies, I was trying to remember what it was that captivated me so much when I first read the books. I think a lot of it was the characters. The hobbits were really relatable to a kid, perhaps less so to an adult, and maybe that was the difference in reading between the ages of 11 and 21. I liked the relationships among the characters. I loved the Shire and Rivendell. I recall that my favorite part of the series was the first book, before things got really awful and dire. I think a lot of the stuff I liked in that book got cut from the movie.

I kind of feel like the movies went overkill on “epic.” It got almost too big to care too much. I was really involved in the character moments and found myself tuning out when it was massive CGI army of good guys vs. massive CGI army of bad guys. Even in smaller fights, they went to overkill in a way that I felt undermined the situation, like in a case when a swarm of at least 50 orcs attacks Aragorn while he’s on his own, and he manages to hold them off until backup arrives. Really, he’s just fighting about six of them, probably the ones who were stuntmen in costume, while the rest are CGI that don’t interact with him at all. If they’d only shown the six stuntmen, it would have actually been a more engaging fight, one I could imagine him winning with great effort. When he’s outnumbered at least fifty to one and they can’t easily beat him by just swarming over him, I figure he has plot armor and am not too worried about the outcome.

I do think that, in general, they did a good job of translating the books to film. The imagery is just about perfect (though I think the Ringwraiths in the 70s animated version were scarier). I just wish it hadn’t been so focused on massive battles. That was also the flaw in the Hobbit movies.

But I’m kind of a weirdo in that I’d have been okay with a story that was just hobbits living happily in the shire and maybe having some minor adventures, like traveling to Rivendell and hanging out with elves, then going home.


Fun Fantasy Movies

Since I had a free couple of nights and I was enjoying my newly repaired living room, I thought I’d do a couple of movie nights over the weekend. And then I ran into a problem: there’s very little of the sort of thing I want to watch, and I’ve already got those things more or less memorized.

I wanted a kind of romantic fantasy adventure — something that’s more about a small group of characters than about an epic cast of thousands, as fantasy tends to go these days. Basically, I want Stardust, but that I haven’t seen a gazillion times and almost have memorized. Or The Princess Bride, and ditto. If you go back to the 80s and don’t mind bad (to current eyes) special effects, there’s Ladyhawke (but I wish we could get the edition with the music from the European release because the US music is so out of whack with that movie) or Willow. A couple of the “fantasy cheese” movies they used to show on Saturday nights on SyFy kind of fit, but they can also be rather painful.

And that seems to be about it. I did a lot of scrolling and searching on Amazon Prime and a few other services and didn’t come up with much of anything. I ended up watching Thor on Friday night because I figured that his backstory would be more fantasy-like (it was), and there was romance and action, but it didn’t quite scratch the itch. For Saturday night, I rewatched the Disney live-action Cinderella, which is pretty much my “happy place” movie. I guess the big carriage chase sort of tips it into the “adventure” category, so it might loosely fit what I’m looking for.

It does seem like the fantasy genre has gone to where it’s either a fairly dark epic with lots of battles, like Lord of the Rings, or it’s fairy tales done by Disney. I like the Disney fairy tales, but they’re not quite what I’m looking for.

A live-action version of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty might be fun — and not from Maleficent’s perspective where she’s the real victim (ugh). Do it more like Cinderella, where it was a new telling of the same tale, with a few nods to the Disney cartoon, rather than a direct remake of the Disney cartoon. Flesh out the relationships and characters, maybe have Philip and Aurora meet a few more times (they can have been running into each other in the woods throughout their lives), and then there’s the potential for an epic action sequence near the end with the battle with the dragon.

Are there any romantic fantasy adventure films I’m missing? Something along the lines of Stardust?


A Good Mystery

I actually left the house yesterday for a morning out (celebrating the audiobook release and the start of writing a new book) to see the movie Knives Out. I’ve been wanting to see it and I was afraid it would leave theaters soon (though the Oscar nomination for screenplay may help keep it around longer — I saw a 9:30 a.m. show and while the theater wasn’t full, there were more people than I usually see in morning screenings). I thought it was apt for something to watch before starting to write another mystery novel.

Though I’m not sure if it was inspiring or intimidating. It was nice and twisty, though I did figure out the final twist ahead of time (to be fair, I had three candidates for what it might be, and I was right about one of them), but I think it was as much of a character study as it was a mystery, though it did feel like a modern take of the classic Agatha Christie-style mystery. It was set in a somewhat spooky grand mansion (the home of a successful mystery novelist, so it was full of props you might expect to go with that), with the novelist’s various family members gathered for his birthday party, and all of them had motives for murder. And then the brilliant outsider detective shows up to investigate the crime. If there was a crime. It was a really tight script, and I can see how it got an Oscar nomination. I kind of want to see it again now that I know what was really going on to see how it was all set up.

I can’t say too much more without giving away the twists, but it ended up being a lot more hopeful and uplifting than you expect from a murder mystery. It was also really funny in places. The cast seemed to be having an absolute blast and really inhabited their characters.

If you like stories like And Then There Were None, then you’ll want to catch this one. I don’t know if it’s an absolute big screen must-see since it’s more about characters than spectacle, but I think there are little details that will be lost on a smaller screen that do make a difference in how you see things. Plus, it’s absolutely gorgeous. They did something with the photography that saturated all the colors, so it looks really rich.

I guess I wasn’t too intimidated because I came home and wrote the first chapter in a new mystery novel.


Looking Back at Star Wars

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been rewatching all the Star Wars movies. It’s been an interesting experience, since I hadn’t rewatched most of them in ages. I hadn’t watched the original trilogy since the prequels came out, and I hadn’t watched the prequels since their original release era. That meant I hadn’t really looked at the originals in terms of what was revealed in the prequels, and I hadn’t considered any of them in light of the newer films.

I have to say that while the first movie still holds up really well, the rest of the original trilogy doesn’t. Some of that is because Lucas undermined himself with some decisions he made in the prequels. For instance, all the “Luke is our last hope, no, wait, there’s another Skywalker” drama. Well, the Jedi were supposed to have been celibate. They weren’t allowed to marry and have families. There’s only a Skywalker bloodline because Anakin broke the rules and married. That means the Force-sensitive people who were Jedi candidates had to have just randomly appeared all along. If it was strictly a genetic trait, then making the people who had that trait be celibate would have led to it dying out. Where did the Jedi find their candidates all along? Wherever that was, couldn’t they have found those kinds of people again now? The galaxy should have been full of “hopes” who had just as much potential as the Skywalker kids, maybe even without so much Dark Side potential.

In fact, why were they waiting around for Anakin’s kid to grow up, with no effort to train him? They had twenty years to prepare. They didn’t find Force-sensitive people and get them to Dagobah? What would have happened if Jyn Erso and the Rogue One crew hadn’t defied orders to get the Death Star plans, which led to the droids ending up on Tatooine and bringing Luke into the fray?

I know a lot of people were really distressed by the revelation in The Last Jedi that Rey was nobody, that her parents were nobody. While I’m not sure I believe that, since Kylo Ren was trying to manipulate her at the time, where did they think the Jedi came from during the glory days? They were all nobodies. There was no noble line of Jedi families because the Jedi were celibate.

The Empire Strikes Back is often considered the best movie in the series, but I’ve never liked it that much. Some of that was because nothing could have lived up to the anticipation, some because I was so thoroughly spoiled from reading the novelization so many times before I saw it that I had the movie memorized before I saw it. But analyzing it from a story perspective, I think it’s pretty weak, mostly because the stakes are actually pretty low. After the opening battle and escape from Hoth, the Rebellion no longer matters. Everything becomes entirely personal — will Han and Leia manage to escape, will Luke be able to train as a Jedi, will Darth Vader catch Luke. Personal stakes aren’t necessarily bad, but in something that’s supposed to be epic, you need a bigger story question than “will they repair the ship?” And we have more undermining from the prequels — there, becoming a Jedi is a lifetime thing, with children taken away from their parents at an early age, then going through an extensive program of training, followed by apprenticeship. Luke can’t have been on Dagobah more than a few days, and yet he’s declared fully a Jedi. I guess the other Jedi wasted a lot of time. And how did he learn to build his own lightsaber? Did he find a YouTube video?

The Last Jedi follows a similar story arc and pattern to The Empire Strikes Back, but the stakes are much higher — the survival of the Resistance. It’s not just whether one ship can escape, but whether any of them can. Rey isn’t meant to have had a full Jedi training while with Luke. She gets a crash course in connecting with the Force, but there’s no “you’re a full Jedi now, I have nothing more to teach you.” The bit about Rey already having everything contained in the sacred Jedi texts wasn’t because she’d learned it all but because she’d already stolen the texts.

I found the newer movies a lot more engaging than everything but the first one. I have a lot more thoughts about the views of heroism and all that, but this is getting long and I need to think more.


Last Christmas

I took a day off yesterday for a Grand Day Out. I did some Christmas shopping, got groceries, ran some errands, then went to the mall, did some me shopping (some things I should have bought ages ago but didn’t want to deal with the mall), and saw Last Christmas. I was glad it was still in theaters because I wanted to see it, but they released it in early November, when I was so not in the mood for Christmas stuff.

I’d heard that the marketing was misleading and that it isn’t the romantic comedy it looks like, and I think it helped knowing that going in. I might have still figured it out at about the 3/4 mark. I actually didn’t mind that it wasn’t really a romance. It’s nice to see that a romantic relationship isn’t the only kind of happy ending. I enjoyed the movie a lot. It’s fun and fluffy but also has some depth to it. You can tell Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay because the dialogue is very sharp and witty. I laughed a bit and had a good cry, so it was just what I was looking for. I don’t know if this is the sort of thing that I want to get on DVD and make an annual tradition out of watching, but it makes for a good antidote to the bland, cookie-cutter Hallmark movie if you want something that feels seasonal and very Christmassy without being the same old thing.

The ads make it look like one of those TV Christmas movies, and it very much isn’t. I’d say it’s kind of like the Kate Winslet side of The Holiday (more focused on personal growth than on romance) crossed with something like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol, but done as though it was one of the story threads from Love Actually (London at Christmas).

Now I have to buckle down for the crazy weekend. I need to bake cookies today for the church cookie sale. Tomorrow I have a big choir rehearsal, then a party tomorrow night, then my children’s choir is singing Sunday morning, and I’ve got two Christmas concerts on Sunday that I’m singing in. I also have a party Monday night, but I hope to get some rest on Monday. Tuesday is supposed to be cold and rainy, and I’m planning a day in my pajamas, watching Christmas movies.