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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Ball Drops

And it's 2014, just now as I write this.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot...does that mean we should forget them? Might be a good idea, in some cases.

A lot of us make New Year's Resolutions.

A lot of us resolve not to make resolutions, and then secretly make them anyway.

My resolution is to live to see 2015, or die trying.

Sorry. Bad joke.

What about you?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Six Steps to A Fresh New Year

Hard to believe, but it's almost time for another calendar. Twenty-fourteen...remember when 1984 had an ominous ring to it?

Well...it was pretty ominous, if only for the music that was popular that year. Could have been worse, though. Could have been disco.

All that aside, a New Year is a new page. It has the feeling of a fresh start, and while a lot of people - including me - tend to play it down, we really shouldn't. Playing it down is turning your back on an opportunity.

What's the best way to start a new year? Almost everyone has their own method - and unfortunately, many of those methods result in disappointment. Goals aren't reached, resolutions aren't kept, and the shine of the new takes on a quick tarnish.

So...here are some suggestions that I hope will help, and that I pray will keep the coming year shining, in some small way.
  • Get a new calendar. Even if yours has an extra month or two...start with a fresh one.It's a visual reminder of newness, and doesn't drag all the notes and appointments and their associated memories into the coming year.
  • Start the new year at work in a new outfit, or at least a couple of new accessories. 
  • Don't make any resolutions. At All. Stay off that road to disappointment.
  • Eat out somewhere you've never been...even if it's choosing a local hamburger place over the Golden Arches.
  • Hang a picture of somewhere you've never been, but would love to visit. Don't make it a 'resolution' to get there this year. Just keep it as a hope for 'someday'.
  • Clean the screens on your TV and computer.They are a window on the world.
Simpole things...almost trivial...but each of them will give you aquick feel-good glow, and taken together they'll help you get the coming year off to a bright, fresh, and positive start.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Missing the Christmas Target

Did you have a nice Christmas? I hope so, and hope that you're looking forward to 2014.

Too many people, though, didn't enjoy the Christmas experience. Putting aside (hate to say it that way) those who lost loved ones, dealt with illness or financial burdens, or had otherwise overwhelming external events, there are a host of ways to ruin Christmas.

All of which can be boiled down to one reason.

Putting oneself first.

In all of the dinner-table arguments...someone just had to have the fun of goading another until the argument began. Someone just had to be right. And the stakes? Nothing. Over 99% of arguments don't matter. They're just rearranging the rubble of the past.

In all of the 'must be perfect' Christmas preparations, where tempers fray and feelings get hurt, are the family and guests the first concern of the partygiver-in-chief?

Not likely. The main concern of this individual is his or her ability to live up to expectations that are made up of commercial images of the 'perfect' Christmas, and bright shiny - and overglossed - memories of what childhood Christmases were like.

It's a moving target. You can't hit it. So the arrows hit bystanders, instead.

But heck, at least it was satisfying to hit something, right? On the theory that breaking a dish or putting a fist through a wall helps win an argument.

Finally, there's the Dreaded Gift Exchange. You don't know what to 'git' someone, and instead of focusing on the potential needs or desires of the recipient, you look to your own need - the need not to look bad, or cheap, or unimaginative. Instead of being a joy, it becomes a burden.

Is this what Jesus would want in celebration of His birth?

Finally, perhaps the very worst thing you can do is to give your .spouse the feeling that you'd rather be somewhere else...back home with your real family.

Usually, this doesn't come from malice. It comes from homesickness, gleefully fueled by advertising and stupid sentimental songs.

When you hear "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and say, sadly, "only in my dreams", you may be honest...and you're also opening a wound that will never fully heal.

If your spouse's family is also out-of-town, he or she may retaliate in kind, and you'll be living similar Christmas wishes, that of being apart.

But if you are your spouse's only family, and the home you share is their only home...what then?

If any of these happened, don't sweat it. You'll have another chance next year.

You hope.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Real Meaning of the Day

Three-thirty am. An accidental poisoning, and a night of PTSD flashbacks.

Heck of a way to start Christmas.

Or maybe not, because there's no Currier and Ives moment, not gift, that would make this OK.

The carols fall flat, and I dread the morning of PBS music specials. I just can't face them right now. Where's that convoy escort job in Helmand when you need it?

But even nihilism has its limits. You might live through the work you hope will kill you.

On the other side of the darkness, then...what?

A baby, in a bed of straw, in a place far away and long ago...and here, and this very morning.

God, caring enough to come back for us.

Not as some awesome giant heaven-king, blinding us with white-gold fire. A baby, that we can pick up and hold.

A God we can protect.

And in so doing, we save our souls.

Monday, December 23, 2013

What Really Happened?

I recently saw a TV preacher who tired to make the point - and I don't know why - that there was an interval of between several months and over a year between the birth of Jesus and the visit of the Magi.

This, based on the words used in the KJV. "Babe" for the birth, as described by Luke; and "young child" as described by Matthew.

He also used as evidence the story the Herod ordered the killing of every child under the age of two, and not just babies.

As I said, I'm not sure what the point in doing this was/

But I do think it's kind of dumb. It messes with the traditional interpretation of the Nativity, and looks to re-interpret events of the past based on our 'present knowledge' -and, more importantly, our present prejudices.

In other words, we're tending to look at things and saying, "This is how we would act, so this is what probably happened".

Not considering that we are very different from them in many ways. We are softer, and while our knowledge base is broader, our faith is shakier.

If we had been kings of old, would we have taken off to follow a star? Probably not. Even if told by God to do it?

We probably would have talked ourselves out of it.

We're not strong, even though we wish we were. That's why it's important to hang onto what we can, and the places where faith and our culture are interwoven are really the best handholds of all.

As Christians, we're attacked by humanists from all fronts - and one of the favorite avenues is the perception of inaccuracies in the Bible.

The Nativity story is a tiny part of the Gospels. The timing of the Magi's visit is utterly unimportant to the meaning of the events.

But it is important to the way we celebrate Christmas, from songs to Nativity scenes.

It brings us together.

Don't mess with it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dinner Table Diplomacy

One of the prime loci for conflict at Christmas is...yes, the dinner table.

Breaking bread seems to make us want to break noses.

There are undoubtedly deep-seated psychological reasons for this. Perhaps we should place a therapist at the head of every dinner table, share how we're really feeling, and have a group hug afterwards...


Oh, very well. Here, then, are some suggestions for a harmonious dinner, with guests, in your house.

  • Remember that it's your house. You have the right to set some rules and boundaries, and you don't have to vacillate under pressure. "This is my choice" is a perfectly good answer when you turn a conversation from a sensitive subject, or choose to seat venomously warring cousins at separate tables.
  • Manage time - don't call the guests to the table until food is actually ready to be served. Waiting is a great incubator for idle thoughts and conflict. And have an activity scheduled to begin just after dessert - again, leave no time to sit at the table.
  • Use tall centerpieces to break up lines of sight across the table if you feel a conflict might brew. It's hard to argue through or around an immense floral spray.
  • If you serve alcohol, serve it sparingly, because it loosens inhibitions against "in your face" argumentative behaviour.
  • Put the dinner table - or tables - in view of the Christmas tree. It's a soothing element.
  • Play favorites by talking with the quietest guests. The effort to to this can forestall those who are argumentative.
  • Keep party favours - small wrapped gifts for each guest - in reserve. If necessary, distribute them to defuse developing tension.
  • Above all - keep calm, and don't be drawn into conflict. It takes two to argue. An individual talking without response will realize the silliness of his situation in short order.
If you're not the host, the last point will be most operative - you can't really control the overall flow of events, but you can control yourself.

If a guest begins to become confrontational during time spent socializing away from the table, you can have a preplanned strategy to cull that person from the 'herd'; lead him or her somewhere else, without referring to their poor behaviour. If distracted long enough, most people will forget what they had been talking about previously.

We wish you a Christmas season of joyful times and happy memories!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Great Expectations

In "Shrek the Halls", Donkey makes the comment, "Christmas ins't Christmas unless somebody cries".

It's funny, but it hits pretty close to the mark. Christmas is the time when we see perhaps the biggest gap between expectation and reality on the calendar.

We are bombarded by TV shows and commercials, old Currier and Ives prints, and sugary songs that make Christmas seem like an endless hug from Barney the purple dinosaur.

Reality is a bit different.

When the doorbell rings, and the folks we haven't seen in a year and might prefer to wait another year before seeing come through the door, we try to have our attitudes and behavior and smiley-face masks adjusted.

How long does that last for you?

Tensions surface quickly, turn into cracks, and while open warfare doesn't usually develop the whole experience is fraught with one-upsmanship and small digs and at the end of it, "Whew! I'm glad that's over".

Is there a way to stop the cycle?

Sure. Celebrate Christmas in Bora Bora with just your spouse. leave the kids in boarding school, and don't tell the family where you're going. Or if you'll come back.

Failing that...make an effort to be low-key. Where you think you have to decorate a lot, don't. Where you think you have to cook sumptuous meals, make them simple. When a multi-thousand-dollar gift list beckons, buy paperback books and CDs.

If the expectations are lowered going in, you may well find a refreshing release from the tyranny of the secular tradition in which we're bound.

And you might just get a little closer to the experience of the first Christmas Day.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas Lights

There was a particular string of Christmas lights.

It carried twenty of the big, clunky old outdoor lights. The globes were transparent, delicate shades of yellow, red, blue, green, and purple, and you could see the filament within.

And they blinked.

Not all at once, or in a 'running' pattern, but individually, each according to its own unknown internal beat.

Those lights mesmerized me. I tried to time the blinks, looking for a pattern I could predict. But there was none.

They went their own individual ways.

There was a fragile beauty to them, a delicate majesty.

They are so much like us. Burning bright, and then going dark, to no visible pattern, but holding nonetheless to the hope that when the light goes out, it will come back.

Monday, December 9, 2013

This Year, Beat the Post-Christmas Blues

Does December 26 feel flat to you?

It does to me, sometimes. The Christmas music's gone from the radio, the decorations are coming down, and the only thing we really have to look forward to is Dick Clark.

Oops. He's dead.

Our Canadian and British friends have Boxing Day on the 26th - whatever that is.

But for the rest of us, there's nothing.

Or is there?

There can be, if we'll follow the old tradition of celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas, from the 25th to January 6 - the Feast of the Epiphany.

Here are the individual days -

December 25 - Christmas
December 26 - Stephen the Apostle
December 27 - John the Evangelist
December 28 - The Holy Innocents (the kids killed by King Herod)
December 29 - Thomas Becket
December 30 -  the Holy Family
December 31 -  St. Sylvester
January 1 - Solemnity of Mary (also the Holy Circumcision of Jesus...yes, really)
January 2 - Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen
January 3 - St. Genevieve and the Holy Name of Jesus
January 4 - Elizabeth Ann Seton and Simon Stylites
January 5 - Edward the Confessor (England), Julian the Hospitaler, and John Neumann. This is also the Twefth Night, as in the Shakespeare play.

The saints are those recognized by the Catholic church - the twelve days predated Martin Luther by quite a bit.

It may surprise one to learn that in some countries the tradition of the twelve days is still alive and well - in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth nations, many elements of the celebration survive. In England, it's generally practiced by the 'high' Anglican church, which has many Catholic trappings.

In the United States, it's not the case. Largely because of commercial interests ("After Christmas Sale! December 26!) we look at Christmas as a one-day event. Here on the 25th, and utterly gone the next day.

There has been some effort - largely commercial - to recast the twelve days to the period before Christmas Day, to put a different spin on shopping.

An extended celebration changes quite a bit. It almost has to focus on the real meaning of the holiday. Reliving Christmas Morning for twelve days running is way past tolerable, and twelve days of Christmas parties...ugh.

So, what to do?

One suggestion is to investigate the individual feast days between Christmas and Epiphany, and develop a themed evening that incorporates the traditional celebrations.

A less formal approach would be to exchange gifts on each of the twelve nights, with each gift symbolizing a wish of hope for the recipient in each month of the coming year.

However you may choose to do this - if you choose to follow this tradition - it'll make the season quite different for you and your family.

It'll make it richer.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Oh Come, Let Us Ignore Him

'Tis the season for largely ignoring Jesus.

The first major ice storm made its way through most of the United States last night, and another one is coming. Millions of people are without power. Some, because the power lines went down.

And some, because they have nowhere to go, and no one really cares.

Does the phrase, "the least of these" ring a bell?

Sure, many of the homeless are there because they made really, really bad decisions in life, for drugs or alcohol or crime.

The least of these.

Many are there because of mental illness.

The least of these.

Many are there because of bad luck - especially inj the recent recession.

The least of these.

Relief organizations do their best. Do you give money to the Salvation Army, when you see their representatives standing in the cold, ringing a bell?

The government doesn't do enough. We pay taxes that are supposed to benefit all of us. I fail to see how a presidential golfing vacation benefits all of us. I fail to see how congressional offices with twelve-foot ceiling benefit all of us.

We can do something. We can give money, and even our time, to organizations that help.

We can vote for candidates who want to make sure that no American freezes to death on our streets. But when was the last time you heard a candidate put that on his or her platform?

But in the end, we can't shift the responsibility. The smallest and most damaged souls in our environs are still God's children, and our brothers and sisters. Ours. It's up to us.

So many of us look to the old movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" as symbolic of Christmas, and of the spirit of community. The townspeople rally to help George in his hour of darkness.

Who are you rallying to help?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Beating the Christmas Blues

It's the most wonderful time of year!

Blah, blah, blah.

Christmas is wonderful for some people, and more power to them. But for some, for many, Christmas is an ordeal.

It's something to be endured.

It's a survival situation.

Does this strike a chord in you? Does something in all the gaiety grab at your heart and give you a choking feeling?

Do the popular, sentimental carols raise a wave of darkness?

Is Christmas shopping something you dread...not because of the crowds, but because you know that all the glitter and flash and bustle will leave you feeling cold and empty...and you can't even explain why?

And do you feel alone, unwilling to seek help from friends and family because you don't want to rain on their Christmas Parade?

If so, you're not alone. More people than you know - millions - feel the way you do.

And there are some things you can do...

  • Know this - it is not your fault, or your doing. No one has the right to make you feel guilty.
  • Ditch to sentimental music. If certain carols make you sad, don;t listen to them. If it's the radio...change the station. If your spouse puts on a CD - ask that it be changed. It doesn't matter that the songs are pretty and traditional. It doesn't matter that they were your parents' favorites. They are not helping you now.
  • Shop online. You don't owe it to anyone to make yourself feel worse by going to the mall, so don't. If you do your grocery shopping at a 'big-box' store, consider  switching to a dedicated grocery store like Albertson's or Kroger for the duration.
  • Cut back on commitments. If you don;t want to go to parties, politely decline invitations. You won't become an outcast, at least not among people who really care about you.
  • Cut back on decorating. Decorations can be freighted with memories and tradition, and these frequently trigger depression. If you have to put something up to keep peace in the family, consider buying a new, simplified set.
  • Drop the PJ tradition. If you do the present-opening ritual while wearing pajamas, consider getting dressed immediately you wake up. PJs are comfortable, yes, but lounging around in them is not empowering. It sucks energy and vitality from you when you need it most.
  • Don't explain. Follow the 'Mary Poppins' rule - "I never explain anything". Explaining the changes you're making can easily turn into a perceived need to justify them, and puts you on the defensive. Just make the changes, and keep the talk to "I decided to do it this way because I prefer it".
Perhaps the most challenging situation is when you have a spouse who's really into Christmas traditions - and you want to go from November to January, directly. In this case you have to violate the "don't explain" guideline, and be forthright about exactly how the holidays affect you. And then you have to be ready for your spouse's efforts, well meaning they may be, to "fix it".

Resist that, because you're not broken.

You're just you, and you have the right to happiness.

Even at Christmas.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Over the weekend, Barbara and I saw "The Mask of Zorro", with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins. Great movie - funny, fast-paced, and satisfying.

But afterwards, Barbara said something that made me rather sad, on reflection. Long ago, she'd seen Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs", and in this very different role that the actor played, she saw shadows of Hannibal Lechter.

I was fortunate never to have seen that film, but I know the story and the details well enough. And I think it's a tragedy that for many people, Hopkins will be forever associated with that vile image.

But don';t we run the same risk in our daily lives? Each day, we play a role...not in the form of acting, but in simply moving through the day and interacting with others.

Most of those roles are forgettable. Can you remember what your spouse did last Tuesday? Or what your kids did a week ago Saturday?

Can you remember what you did a year ago today?

But some days stand out in memory like a sheet of flame. Usually these are the bad days, like knowing where you were when you heard about 9/11.

If a parent told you that you'd never amount to anything - you probably know exactly where you were and what you were doing.

If a spouse said something particularly cutting, the scene is stuck in your memory, ready to replay.

And the things you said or did - they're remembered, and they help define you in someone else's eyes.

The good things you did help to define you, too. but as Shakespeare said, "The evil men do lives after them, but the good is oft interr'd with their bones". Or, to use a more pithy military saying - "It takes seven 'attaboys' to make up for one 'dumbs**t!' ".

What this means is pretty simple. Be vigilant in what you say or do. Be the person you want others to remember. Guard your tongue, your actions, your heart.

Because you have an audience, and your performance matters.