Friday, December 31, 2010

This Changes Everything

Our daughter took her first real steps yesterday. I've been told that we'll look back on this as when everything changed.

Thea apparently already realizes this. She spent half the night crying inconsolably--I presume it was for her lost innocence.

It may, however, have been for her first french fries, which I suppose is a whole different loss of innocence. Her little digestive tract will never be the same.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Delightful little podunk establishments

I've achieved something perhaps unique in the history of car trips: I managed to return home--after 8+ hours of driving--with the car cleaner than when I left.

Since the car dealership where we get our car serviced is almost an hour away--but on the way from our place to my mom's place--I got the car serviced this morning on the way to return her home. They very kindly took care of the mildewy smell that was starting to emanate from the floor mats. Thanks, Toyota dealership! They also washed the car, but they might as well not have bothered: it was quickly speckled and then coated with dirt from semis.

Once I got to Mom's and unloaded her, I took advantage of a little vacuum cleaner she has to vacuum out the car (after I'd thrown away the mountain of crap that had accumulated). Our car was, quite honestly, disgusting. And it was all the back seat, where my 1-year-old daughter and her mother, my beloved wife, sit. I'm not saying whose fault the mess was, but I am saying that it was disgusting. But with a little time, I had it shipshape and looking good.

Around noon, we were around a small town in the middle of nowhere--in other words, fairly close to my childhood home. Mom wanted to stop at a little place that truly is in the middle of nowhere, a sort of track-stop-slash-local-hangout. They serve "home cookin'" there. It doesn't look like much: clean and homey, but a little shabby, which is to say that the covers of some of the seats at the bar (they don't serve anything harder than black coffee, incidentally) are split, all of the old thick red plastic "glasses" that they serve beverages out of are chipped, and the carpet looks quite old (albeit fairly well maintained).

There's a sign on the cash register--which echoes the sign by the entry--informing you that they are sorry, but they don't accept credit cards, debit cards, or personal checks. Here's the thing, though: it's signed "Judy." I don't know who Judy is--presumably the owner--but how often do you see a sign stating a businesses operating practices with an individual taking responsibilty for the policy? Doesn't happen, except for delightful little podunk establishments.

Speaking of delightful: let me tell you about the prices. Sandwiches were priced from $2.50 to $5.95. Dinner entrees ran from $6.95 to nine or ten dollars, except for the steak, which was $14.95. Slices of pie were $2.50.

It's quirky though. Mom ordered a soup and an order of pasta salad, which they brought her in no time at all. I ordered a sandwich and sweet potato fries ($2 to add the latter). Those things took--and I'm estimating here--forever. Let's just say that Mom got a piece of pie to go with her meal at the same time that I got my meal. Like I said: quirky. And a little frustrating, but you've got to take the whole package.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Secular Christian?

I was recently listening to an interview with Ronald A. Lindsay, the president of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He spoke at one point about his education at Georgetown, a Catholic university, where he--then an ardent Catholic--was appalled to learn that his professor in the study of the gospels, a nun, was also an atheist. He came to respect and like her, but it's nonetheless a striking combination, is it not? It's one thing to imagine a nun--especially one of a scholarly bent--ending up an atheists, but what then compels her to stay in the Church? It could, of course, be mere inertia--easier to stick with the life you already know--especially if she'd been a nun for a long time. Anyone who's ever been in a school has probably seen some teachers like this: going through the motions, any passion they may have had for teaching apparently long gone.

But I'd like to think more positively that such a person might have a real appreciation for aspects of the lifestyle--a life of contemplation, helping people, a sense of community with the cloister... plenty of positive aspects even in the absence of belief in God (at least, if the vow of chastity is no biggie for you). Whatever the reason, there it was.

I bring this up to juxtapose it with something that came up in a conversation with a friend. Before I wrote this entry, I touched base with a conservative-leaning friend of mine who often listens to FoxNews (it was nice, incidentally, that he basically agreed with my analysis). He made a comment (I couldn't really say whether it was serious or not) that only Christians should get Christmas off as a holiday (and everyone else is welcome to their holidays too, naturally). I said that was alright, but I was claiming status as a cultural Christian--rather like a cultural or secular Jew. I mean, I grew up going to church, I get all of Garrison Kiellor's church-related humor, and I get most Biblical references that you can throw at me.

I'll probably only claim this designation, however, if only Christians get Christmas off. But it occurred to me that this was more or less the perfect designation for this nun. She's a cultural Christian, even though she's not a believer. And that's a designation that not only make sense, but it says a lot more than merely "atheist."

At the same time, I wonder how many people who call themselves Christians are, functionally, what I'm calling cultural or secular Christians--even if they don't proclaim a lack of belief in God. Agnostics who go to church, maybe? I don't know--what do you think of the category I'm proposing? How big do you think it is?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who do we admire?

I saw the results of a recent poll indicating that the three most admired men in America are, in order, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Well, I thought, that's all sorts of interesting. It's interesting that it would be the three most recent presidents (we still admire politicians?). It's also interesting that, as much as they may be the three most admired Americans, I'd wager that there are quite a lot of people who have strongly negative views of each of those men. I wonder what it would look like if there was some kind of overall admiration index that takes into account both the positive and negative? Not incidental to all of this, the top three women were Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Oprah (with Michelle Obama fourth). It's interesting that, again, we have polarizing political figures at the top.

I saw all this on the evening news (my mother is visiting, hence the trip in the wayback machine to the days of nightly news), so I should have figured right off that there's more to it. If we look deeper--going to the source, we see that Obama was #1 with 22%, followed by Bush with 5% and Clinton with 4%. Two points to make about that--Obama's place in the top spot was by a large margin... but it was still very much a minority opinion. Here's a surprise hidden deeper in the numbers: Obama got 46% of Democrats' votes, followed by Clinton and Nelson Mandela (then Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama); among Republicans, 11% said W, followed by 6% saying Obama. Yes, you read that right (behind him, Glen Beck tied Pope Benedict and they narrowly led Billy Graham, in case you were wondering). There's something astounding in that, no? Among independents, it was Obama (17%), Clinton (4%), Bush (3%), the Bill Gates and Billy Graham.

Obama's numbers were down from 2008 and 2009, but there's something interesting in those results (maybe he's not as hopeless in 2012 as many think?). Is it just that the President is still an admired man in America, no matter who he is? That the office is somehow inherently admirable in the minds of Americans generally? In Obama's first year, he was at 30%, while Bush in his first year was at 39% (and in his fourth was still at 23%. Is that the rea message here? Or does the meaning behind these numbers have to do with the fact that no one got even a quarter of the vote? And after Obama, it was fewer than 5%--is it just a symptom of how fractured our culture is, that we can't agree on who to admire? If so, it's not a new phenomenon: back even as far as Eisenhower, Presidents' numbers (at least in their first terms, which is what I have data on) are pretty consistent, never getting more than 1/3 to <2/5.

Hilary Clinton, it should be said, "has dominated... for most of the past two decades, earning 15 No. 1 rankings since her first appearance on the list in 1992." Her number this year was just 17%.

Oh, and I forgot one other message: you won't get depth from the evening news.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Bisque in Bread Bowls Beats the Cold

With the congestion, my brain isn't working at full capacity, but my stomach, fortunately, still is, so I'll share with you the meal we had tonight. It's been cold cold cold, so soup in a bread bowl sounded more or less perfect tonight. For us, it was Portobello Mushroom Bisque in whole-wheat bread bowls.

For the Bread Bowls:

Since they aren't the feature item, I just need an adequate bread recipe, so I go for ease of preparation and use a variation of Mark Bittman's pizza dough recipe in How to Cook Everything. It's really sped up by being done with a food processor.

1 tsp instant dry yeast
2 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt
1 - 1 1/4 cup water
2 T olive oil

In the food processor, combine the dry ingredients. Add the oil to the water and gradually add it to the dry ingredients through the feeding tube. Process for about 30 seconds, until a ball forms. Add only as much water as necessary to form a tacky ball. Knead for just a short while. Put some olive oil in a bowl, turn the dough ball to coat with oil and cover with a damp cloth or plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise for 1-2 hours. Retarding the rise by putting the dough in the fridge can be good if you have the time to spare. When the dough has risen, divide into two or three balls (three makes a very good size for each) and allow to rise a while longer. Pre-heat an oven with a baking stone to 500. When the oven is heated, put the balls onto the baking stone and splash some water on the sides of the oven to create steam. Wait 30 seconds and make steam again, then another 30 seconds and do it one more time. Lower the heat to 350. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the balls and bake for 5-10 minutes more.

Let cool a few minutes, then cut holes in the tops and scoop out some of the interior bread, being careful not to puncture the crust. Reserve bread for dipping into soup.

Meanwhile, prepare the soup!

Portobello Mushroom Bisque

4 T butter
2-3 leeks, white and green parts, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3-4 large Portobello mushrooms (basically, two packs of whatever sized bellas
3 T flour
1 ½ T fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 T red wine vinegar
6 cups chicken stock
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
½ tsp pepper
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 T butter
¼ cup minced parsley (optional)

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Swirl to coat the bottom of the pan, and sauté the leeks and onion stirring constantly, until slightly softened and well coated with butter, about 2 minutes. Lower the heat, cover the pan, and cook for 30 min. stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and vinegar, stir to combine, cover and cook for 10 min. longer. Raise the heat to med. Stir in the flour, and cook 3 min. Add the thyme, bay leaf, stock, salt, sugar, and pepper. Simmer, partially covered for 10 min.

Cool the soup slightly, discard bay leaf, then puree the soup in batches in a blender. Return the pureed soup to the pan and add the cream and 2 T of butter. Cook on low until heated through, but don’t boil. Taste and adjust seasonings. Ladle soup and garnish with parsley.
Serves 8.

I guess you'd have to make three batches of the bread to serve 8. Or, as we did, if you have fewer to serve, you can freeze some for later.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

One word that says it all:

Describe your day in one word: Ugh.

How else to describe being congested all day? It's that feeling of being not quite with it, of not really feeling like doing anything--but also not being able to go to sleep until really, really exhausted. Exhausted enough to sleep through the congestion and post-nasal drip. Yeah: ugh.

How else to describe a day that includes 5+ hours crammed into the car, driving? At least I had an audiobook ready to listen to the whole way... well, except for the couple hours where Lauren was sleeping, since I couldn't listen without her. I would be perfectly happy never to have reason to drive hours at a time again, but I'll be doing it sooner rather than later: 8 hours in the car on Thursday and probably another couple on Friday. So it goes.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas--or whatever

I was awakened around 3:30 this morning, either by the dog wanting to go out or Thea wanting to not have a stuffy nose so she could go back to sleep. Either way, while taking Beaker out, I checked e-mail and Facebook on my iPod Touch, and amidst all the unremarkable well-wishes were also "Merry CHRISTmas" and "It's Merry Christmas NOT Happy Holidays" and a couple others along similar lines.

This has to be the most bullshit controversy in the history of bullshit controversies.

The supposed issue is over the secularization of Christmas. "Holidays," of course, means "holy days." So it's not secularizing Christmas, it's just acknowledging that there are many possible holy days that someone might be celebrating. Granted, most people don't necessarily think "holy days" when they say "holidays"--they think "day off" maybe or "something people celebrate," and we do use "holiday" to refer to things like New Year's Eve / New Year's Day, which I doubt most of us think of as sacred days.

But anyway, my point is that it seems to me that the commentators pushing this "war on Christmas" or "just say no to Happy Holidays" agenda are really in the business of stirring up controversy for the sake of getting people angry so that they'll donate money and support particular political agendas. And what they're playing off of seems to be the desire by some Christians not to live in a pluralistic society, to be surrounded only by other Christians and not to acknowledge, if possible, that other belief systems even exist, except perhaps as an "other" to be feared and hated or, at the very least, mistrusted.

Ultimately, if Christians want to "fight" against the "secularization" of Christmas, then they should start by doing so in their own homes. Dont' buy so much crap. Focus on prayer and kindness, peace and joy and brotherhood and all that. If other people want to celebrate Christmas in their own way--even a completely secular way--why is it anyone else's business, anyway? Opt out of the Christmas you don't want, opt into the Christmas you do: why isn't it as easy as that?

On that note, I'll close. Here's hoping you had the Christmas you wanted and that your holiday season has been a good one, whatever and however you choose to celebrate (or not).

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Food of the Season

Although Thanksgiving is the food holiday, Christmas is naturally right up there. Thanksgiving is about the turkey and stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce and--oh yeah--save room for some pie (or pumpkin roll!). Christmas, however, is about sweets. Cookies and candy canes and on and on. You can have turkey for Christmas dinner or ham or whatever you want, but there'd better be cookies and candies and sweet treats of all kinds, or it just isn't Christmas.

I don't remember any particular cookies from Christmas time in our house--it seems in memory like it was the same cookies mom would bake at any other time of year, just more of them. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, corn flake cookies (and later potato chip cookies). I don't remember Mom making a lot of sugar cookies, though lots of other people would of course, and I was always particularly fond of the cookies with the Hershey Kisses in the middle, which I don't think Mom ever made--which was okay, since it made them a special treat to get.

Although it wasn't exclusive to December, I remember chocolate fudge and peanut butter fudge being as common as Christmas ornaments around the house, and every so often, not every year, Mom would make Divinity. And every time she did, she would complain about how it was not like her mother's Divinity. So I've never known what it was "supposed to" be like, but I always liked it pretty well anyway.

There were always lots of candy canes around from the Christmas parties I blogged about and from school Christmas parties and my piano teacher and on and on. Lots of candy canes. While they were fine to suck on, what I really loved to do with candy canes was toss them in the blender--all of them, every single one I got except for the nasty ones that weren't peppermint--and then use that peppermint dust on ice cream, racing against natural forces to use all the peppermint dust before it re-solidified in whatever container I'd put it in.

Perhaps my favorite Christmas Eve / Christmas morning food memory is of the times when my grandmother came home with us after Christmas Eve services and made "Sticky Rolls." She would make up the dough the night before and prepare a pan by putting butter and brown sugar in the bottom and letting the heat from one of the heating grates slowly melt them together and raise the dough, and then on Christmas morning we would have these glorious home-made caramelly rolls. Just wonderful.

Perhaps just to make it different from Thanksgiving or perhaps because my mother never really liked cooking a turkey anyway, we always had ham for Christmas. Here's something I've realized about ham: I love it best when it's one great big shank. I don't want it pre-cut into neat, perfect slices. No. I want it to come in big, thick hunks. That's how I want the leftovers, too: thick, not thin. I don't care if it makes my sanwich lumpy, and I'm fine with pan drippings coming along for the ride--as long as I have thick chunks, anywhere from a half-inch to an inch thick, I'm good. Hog heaven, I guess you could say.

What about you? When I say "Christmas food," where do your thoughts wander?

And now's as good a time as any, I suppose, to wish everyone a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Missing blog, missing wife, missing an opportunity

This has not been my day.
I went to update my blog today and... it appeared to be gone. Eventually, I went to log into my gmail account (it's not my primary e-mail account, but it is the one associated with the blog. It turned out that I was locked out of my e-mail because of "suspicious activity." Once I went through the process of unlocking my account, it turned out that someone had gotten into my account and sent spam. Apparently, someone wants me to sell Acai for them.

I was afraid whoever had done that had also deleted my blog, but it reappeared eventually--I'm guessing that the hacking of my blog froze up everything associated with it. I guess I should be glad they didn't try to sell Acai through my blog and post it to Holidailes.

I've been on-line since 1995 and in the 15 years since, I'd never had a trouble with having my account hacked. I've received my fair share of spam, I've had a virus here or there, but never has my account been hacked. And then, around Thanksgiving, someone got into my Facebook account and initiated chat conversations trying to get my friends to click on some link. So within a month or so, I've now gone from never having been hacked to having two different accounts hacked in almost no time.
This, however, was not even the main attraction. Last night, Lauren had a stuffy nose. She took something for it and went to put Thea down to sleep.

Already, I find I should digress a bit. You see, we're attachment parents. That means a lot of things, but among them is that Thea sleeps in the same bed we do. For now--she's out of there before she's 13, tops. While not a direct result of the Attachment Parenting philosophy, we have ignored the advice to not let Thea remain used to falling asleep nursing, so a corrolary of that is that Lauren is the most effective at putting her to bed--and getting her back to sleep when she wakes up. I can sometimes manage, but when I do it, I've always got a safety net.

Back to last night. At some point, Thea woke up and that woke me up, and I realized that Lauren wasn't there. I shushed her and rubbed her back and got her back to sleep. Well, I thought, maybe Lauren wasn't feeling well sleeping with us or she was hacking and didn't want to disturb Thea or maybe she just needed a good night's sleep.

Whatever the reason, as a result, I learned what it's like to be the parent who soothes the child back to sleep each time she wakes--and that either happens more than I've heretofore realized or she was especially wakeful. If the latter, it may have been because mama wasn't there or it may have been because she was developing her own little stuffy nose. In any case, I didn't get nearly as much sleep as I usually do, but I found myself also far more attuned to Thea than I normally am. Usually, I'm only really aware of her when she's encroaching on my space (in which case I usually end up halfway hanging off the bed). Last night, as soon as she would wake up, I would wake up (well, maybe not totally wake up) and quickly, efficiently soothe her back to sleep.

Around 6 or 7, I found out what the real story was: Lauren had been really, really sick--diarrhea and vomiting all night. We're still not sure whether it was food poisoning (our original hypothesis, for which we can't muster much evidence) or a virus of some sort (fortunately, no one else is ill... yet). Lauren did her best to nurse Thea and then I got her back to sleep.

Basically, I spent most of the rest of the day taking care of Thea, with the exception of the few hours we spent in the emergency room getting Lauren re-hydrated. She's feeling better, but not great, and Thea's off to bed for the night again. Here's hoping the rest of the night will be better than last night.
And just to add insult to injury: at the Emergency Room, I was using my new iPod Touch to play the Scrabble games that I would otherwise play through Facebook. It's been nice to add more opportunities to play my Scrabble games with friends, but today--I should have known--was not my day. I was playing a word that ended on a Triple Word space, but something about the interface wasn't working right and it played my incomplete word (which was still a valid word) before I got the last letter on the TW space. As a result, I missed out on 41 points that I should have gotten and gave away an extra 21 points to my opponent when she took the spot.

That I'm still holding onto a lead is, I think, beside the point.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas parties

I knew that Lions were meat eaters, so the chili was no surprise, but I had no idea they could go through booze at such a prodigious rate.

My father-in-law, you see, is a member of his local Lion's Club and he took us along to their annual Christmas party. It was a pot luck including a half dozen different chilis and lots of goodies. There was a self-serve bar and a double culmination to the evening: a visit from Santa for the kids and a raffle for a "Basket of Cheer" (i.e. bottles of booze) and individual bottles as well. We had a nice time.

I was reminded of all the Christmas parties I went to as a kid, though they bore only a passing resemblance to this one.

My parents were members of the Grange: they made apple butter and cider with the Grange, they made sausage, they were part of the Grange bowling league. And every December, they had a Christmas party. I don't remember much about it--some kind of boring meeting followed by a gift exchange for the adults and Santa for the kids--either the parents brought a gift for their child or they brought a gift for a particular gender (matching their child's). Maybe they did each at different times, I'm not sure.

I think the one I loved the best as a kid was our church's. I can't remember whether or not there was something upstairs in the sanctuary before we wound up in the church basement for a potluck. We always ended up singing Christmas carols, led by Mr. Behm. He was a leader in the church, he was a middle school science teacher (I think every kid who went through our school system had him for 7th grade science) and the announcer at the high school football games (and the loudest singer of the national anthem at those games). He led us through various carols, both religious and secular. He was famous for his "Twelve Days of Christmas" and the way he made us kids laugh on "Five Golden Rings," which sometimes when on and on ("Five golden ring-ing-ing-ing-ing-ing-ing-ing-ings!") and then sometimes cut off much more quickly (as kids, we were easy to surprise into laughter). The last song, though, would always be "Jingle Bells," and during the song, we'd hear the jingling of bells coming down the stairs and Santa Claus would arrive. I don't think we got any gifts other than candy canes and popcorn balls, but we got to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what we wanted.

Really, though, it was the singing that made the biggest impression on me. I always loved singing.

What about you? What are the more memorable Christmas parties you've been to, either as a child or an adult?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gifts that stay with us

Through the years of my childhood, I received a lot of presents. Never, somehow, as many as I thought I wanted, but always more than enough. I could name a lot of them very specifically even now, but there are two basic trends in Christmas presents that I want to reflect on.

First, for the first several years of my life, until I was probably 9 or 10, one of my grandmothers gave me savings bonds every year. For some of those later years, I might have preferred to have gotten toys, but of course those toys would themselves have been forgotten or put aside before too long. There are two points to make about these gifts: one, they paid off well into the future, and also at a time when I had a better idea what to do with money. They stop paying interest after 30 years, so it's only been in the last few years that I've started cashing them in. I could have done so sooner, but they pay far better interest than anyone else would just now. The second thing to note about these gifts is that they set up a pattern, they suggested the importance of long-term planning, of fiscal responsibility. I don't mean that I understood any of that as a 10-year-old, but receiving savings bonds for Christmas was part of that gradual process.

The other, even more important gifts I received while growing up were books. I would be hard-pressed to name specific titles, but I can tell you that some were specifically asked for and others were not, but in either case they were appreciated, and in either case they fed my love of books and my love of reading, which I have no doubt has been an important part of my growth as a person. I'm sure I did better in school because I was a reader. I'm sure I've done better at all sorts of things because I believed that  could learn about most anything from books, and as a result I always had teachers--in the form of books--available to teach me what I wanted to know. To this day, a book that's given because someone who knows me knows that I will find it interesting or a good read is one of the most joyously received presents I'm likely to get--and a gift card to Borders or Amazon won't be unappreciated either!

Readers, what are some gifts that have stayed with you, either individually or as a class?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Wars and Battles: a general history of a major holiday that's sometimes private

Many social conservatives want to see a "War on Christmas," but probably more accurate a description comes from the title of Steven Nissenbaum's history of the holiday, The Battle for Christmas. It's not so much that we have a war on Christmas as we have had over the centuries a lively debate about what Christmas is and isn't. And yes, through the years some people have wanted not to celebrate it at all (but those people were Christians--more on that later).

The date December 25 was taken for Christmas back in the 4th century, not because anyone had evidence that this is when the famous little tyke was born, but because those crafty Christians wanted to annex the pagan winter festival. From the Roman Saturnalia onward it was--and remained--a time of drinking and debauchery for many centuries. In 16th-century England, it was the center of a festival of misrule, in which people boozed it up, and the poor went door to door essentially demanding "trick or treat"--give us good food or money or gifts or we'll wreck $#!+. Think of carols like "We wish you a merry Christmas" and all its demands for figgy pudding, as well as all the wassailing songs and their demands. "Here we come a-wassailing," for instance, first reminds the listener that "We are not daily beggars / That beg from door to door, / But we are neighbors' chidren / Whom you have seen before"--and then they go on to ask for money, cheese, some of the Christmas loaf, and (of course!) some wassail. And in "Wassail, wassail," after they spend innumerable verses building up the master of the house, they get to the point, asking for drink and to be let in by the fire.

The holiday as a festival of misrule was basically accepted by the upper classes, too, as a sort of pressure valve for the lower classes. The social hierarchy is inverted once a year, no big deal. The wealthy would get angry with particular wassailer or particular acts (they could get rowdy and destructive if their demands weren't met!), but overall the drinking and singing and demands for food and drink and gifts were tolerated.

For exactly this reason, Christmas had a hard time making its way across the pond. The Puritans outlawed it on the basis of its nature as a holiday of drinking and debauchery, as well as on the argument that the Bible doesn't indicate when Jesus's birthday was, therefore God has no interest in having us celebrate it. Nonetheless, people rather like an excuse to drink and revel, especially in the bleak midwinter, so it continued on the edges of legality in New England and had a bit more success in other parts of the country. Since it couldn't be ended, it ultimately ended up tamed--by a rather unlikely force.

In the mid-to-late ninetheenth century, retail stores were just starting to take off. Standardized manufacturing was just getting going on a large scale, and retail stores were outlets for all these material goods. The problem? America was firmly entrenched with the so-called Protestant Work Ethic. That is, people worked hard, saved their money, and didn't buy stuff they didn't need. Retailers knew this would never do, so they are the ones who took the largest steps to inventing the Christmas holiday as we know it. They made Santa Claus big (okay, years of cookies and 2%-to-whole milk did that) and they marketed Christmas as a time of love and good-will and--you guessed it--gift giving. They employed writers to create the stories that presented this kind of Christmas. They made people nostalgic for a type of Christmas that hadn't even existed before: a warm, cheery, wholesome holiday--and it became precisely that. The St. Nicholas mythos got drawn into it (and pulled to Christmas from its normal place at (duh) the feast of St. Nicholas. And some of our ideas were just flat-out made up. In the process, Christmas went from being a public holiday to a private one, from one celebrated in the streets with the community to one celebrated at home with the family.

I didn't get much further in the book, but I reckon it likely that, once commercial forces had sanitized Christmas and made it good and pure, Christianity decided it was high time to get back in the Christmas game, and they set about re-holy-daying it. That is, they claimed it for their own now that it was a wholesome time. And who can blame them? It's a nice little holiday.

But, of couse, retailers did their job too well. We've gone from the protestant work ethic to the consumerist spend ethic, and whether we work enough or not, by Visa we can spend! We don't just spend the money we have, we spend the money we will have, which is just a more positive way of saying the money we haven't. As the culture has changed and become more materialistic, so too has the holiday become ever more materialistic. Religion, naturally enough, fights against this tendency (we're reminded that "Jesus is the reason for the season," i.e. not Santa Claus or gift-giving). So, too, do more secular types who nonetheless see something negative in crass materialism.

Secular though I may be, I have at least that much spiritualism that I mistrust unchecked materialism--even as I enjoy the hell out of a limited degree of it. Because yes, I like stuff, just like most Americans do. But not to the exclusion of all else, and not beyond a certain point. There's a limit to how much stuff any person needs, and there are a lot of things more important than stuff. As long as we don't lose sight of those philosophical touchstones, gift-giving during this season is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Gift-giving is--to steal a phrase--an outward and visible sign of an inward condition. It's most meaningful when it comes from the heart and speaks to the heart, when it's freely given and not expected as a duty.

For me, Christmas isn't a religious holiday, though they're welcome to keep claiming it. It's a social institution that's evolved through many different forms and ultimately is--or will be--whatever we make of it. Although the name puts a distinctly Christian stamp on it, our brief look at its history shows us what an uneasy time religion has had throughout the centuries in trying to claim it. That's why I say it's a social institution: it's shaped our culture and been shaped by our culture, and anyone who participates in that culture, it seems to me, has a claim on that tradition in whatever form they choose to stake that claim. There was a festival at the winter solstice before Christianity claimed it by naming it Christmas, and I'd wager that in many places there was such a celebration long before Jesus was born. We need a holiday at this time of year, which is probably why every religious tradition--as well as non-religious traditions--has a holiday at this time of year. I suspect that even if something happened that caused everyone to cease believing in Jesus, we'd probably still celebrate Christmas, because it's just the sort of thing we want.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say two things: 1) this is based almost exclusively on Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas and 2) I've published versions of this in two previous years on my former blog.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Commence Living

Today, I went to a graduation ceremony that was most like any I've ever been to. I say that with, now, 13 high school graduations at four schools under my belt as either a student or faculty member, along with a singular college graduation. Today's was at Cleveland State University, as my sister-in-law graduated along with four or five thousand of her closest friends. My largest graduation before this was with perhaps four hundred.

In this case, it was held in a basketball arena, with all the intimacy that implies. They sold concessions and--thankfully--had free wi-fi. Henry Louis Gates was one of the honorary degree recipients, and he gave a pretty good speech... just not a very good graduation speech (at least not according to the unscientific poll I conducted). All told, we have four speakers, plus the college president, who also spoke his fair share despite not actually giving a prepared speech. Given how many pairs of feet needed to walk across the stage, that seemed like about three too many--if not four--but so it goes.

I had a realization, though. Graduations have never really meant that much to me. Sure, sure, they mark the end of one part of life and the beginning of another; they celebrate, in a broad sort of way, our accomplishments. But I guess the thing about it was that it never seemed like that much of an accomplishment. I can't remember ever not knowing that I would go to college. So high school graduation was no big deal--it's not like I was going to fail high school! And sure, I achieved at a high level, but that was without that much effort.

Even college, where I finally learned to work hard, it wasn't as though the outcome was ever in doubt--of course I would graduate. "Congratulations" didn't seem all that meaningful. Today's ceremony, however, was a bit different in that regard. I would not be surprised, from the speeches I heard and what I know, if a lot of these graduates hard a hard time and/or were the first in their families to earn a college degree. For many of these students, I realized, a college education was not a given. Far from it. So I suppose congratulations were in order.

At the same time, I was particularly struck by one moment in the keynote speaker's address. She was a CSU professor, and she told a story about talking with a senior in her office recently, and the discussion turned to politics and the economy and world events, and the student--despairing of the state of the world--said "Someone should do something about these problems." And the professor told her "You are the one who should do something." It's a normal enough moment in a commencement speech, I guess, but it struck me as, well, ridiculous in a way. Because although it may very well be the case that some of these graduates will go on to do great things, I suspect that most of them are just hoping to land some kind of job where they can be told what to do and bring home an adequate paycheck to support themselves and their stuff habit. It's not just that they may not have an interest in changing the world--it's that they probably don't have the slightest idea how to go about it. And to be clear here: I'm not talking specifically about Cleveland State students--I'm talking about college graduates more generally, right up to the most prestigious universities in our country. Schools like to talk about educating the leaders of tomorrow, as a percentage, they're probably turning out a lot more of the followers of tomorrow.

And you'd have to think this professor knows that, but perhaps if she inspires just one person to step outside the box and forge her own path instead of treading trodden trails, perhaps that will be worth it.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Savoring Saturdays -- Pancake Day!

I have a friend from high school who, more or less every week, declares PANCAKE DAY! in her Facebook status. We don’t have pancakes quite that often, but when we do, it’s a sweet indulgence. Since the holidays are all about indulgence, it only seemed right to kick off our first Saturday of break with pancakes (see last recipe below).
We ate pancakes with fair regularity when I was growing up, but they were more likely to be a Sunday evening supper than a breakfast food. And they were more likely to be from a box of Bisquick than they were to be made from scratch. In my first year of graduate school, however, my mom—who’d always fed me Bisquick pancakes, set me on a different path when she gave me the recipe that I used for years to impress friends. It was a good pancake recipe, but as much as anything what it had going for it was that it was different. It went something like this:
1 egg, beaten
1 ¼ c. sour milk or buttermilk (if your milk hasn’t soured, you can add a bit of vinegar to perfectly good milk)
1 ¼ c. flour (one variation I did of this was to use ½ c. whole wheat flour and ¾ c. white flour)
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 T melted butter
Combine the wet ingredients, then add everything else. (Variation: add some cinnamon and vanilla). Cook pancakes.
This was a great recipe for my bachelor days, because it was almost a given that there would be sour milk in my fridge. It was not usual for me to call up a friend on a Saturday or Sunday morning and have an impromptu pancake party.
For  a while, I was in a serious, committed relationship with a sourdough starter, and while that lasted, I had a great recipe for sourdough pancakes—it was not only delicious but it was also useful, in that it used up extra starter when it was time to refresh it anyway. I never memorized that recipe, so I can’t share it now while I’m traveling.
Recently, in Sally Fallon’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions, I found the recipe that I used to welcome the first Saturday of winter break. This is a great recipe for any number of reasons. It’s claimed that the soaking neutralizes phytic acid in the whole wheat flour, and that’s supposed to be good for you. Even leaving that aside, it’s a great way to make pancakes out of just whole wheat flour (getting all the benefits that provides vs. white flour) and still have really tasty pancakes.
2 c. buttermilk
2 c. whole wheat flour
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp sea salt
2 T melted butter
Soak the flour in the buttermilk overnight (Fallon recommends 12-24 hours). Add the other ingredients, stir to blend, and add some water to the mixture to get the desired consistency. Cook and enjoy.
Although for years I enjoyed high fructose fakple syrup, I’ve become something of a snob in the past year or so. The thing that pushed me over the edge was this: I started eating real maple syrup on my oatmeal, and it’s been hard to go back. Fake syrup does not cut it on oatmeal. It’s still acceptable to me on pancakes—I’ll take it if it’s offered and be just fine with it—but nothing quite satisfies like real maple syrup.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Speaking Truth to the Clueless

A couple months ago, a colleague presented at a faculty meeting using, among other things, a brief animated movie with Einstein talking to... someone else. He did it using Xtranormal, whose motto is "If you can type, you can make movies." At the time I thought "well, that's a nice change of pace for delivering content." Little did I know that I was seeing the first contractions in the birth of a new video genre.

Since then, I've seen this medium come into its own, and what's arisen is a new genre with its own conventions. Let me give you a few examples:

This is the first such movie I saw, in which a bridezilla seeks to hire a band for her wedding reception. She wants to pay $500 for 6 musicians for 5 hours of music. Non-stop music. And the requests only get worse from there.

The next one I ran across was a parent talking to a music teacher about her elementary cornet prodigy of a daughter. Then there was the eager young undergrad going to talk to her advisor about pursuing a PhD in the humanities:

And then there's this one, in which a "helicopter" parent meets with her son's teacher (warning: explicit language, may be offensive):

The common thread in all of these is that a person in some particular profession is shown dealing with their worst "customers" such that 1) they are telling this person what they really think but would never say and/or 2) they are showing the ridiculousness of the things they encounter in the course of their job (usually with no comment necessary).

As someone who has made a career at independent schools, I should hasten to add a couple caveats: while this sort of thing does happen (rarely to this level of ridiculousness), the overwhelming majority of parents are wonderful people who are a pleasure to work with as we collaborate on getting the best education for their son or daughter. Most years of teaching, I have not had a single bad experience with a parent.

That said, I'll bet that every teacher with any experience to speak of knows the type, either dealing with such a parent or hearing the horror stories from colleagues. Just as musicians run into unreasonable demands from clients.

I like to think of this emerging genre as "Speaking Truth to the Clueless." And all of us have seen clueless people in action, so we recognize the type, even if we aren't in that particular profession.

Have you seen these videos? What do you think about them? Do you have particular favorites--or ones that really stick in your craw for some reason?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Touch Me (but more importantly, please Touch my wife!)

Originally, Lauren and I planned on not getting each other Christmas gifts. The plan was that we were going to put our money toward a trip to Italy over spring break. The best laid plans of mice and men being what they are, however, that fell apart when we realized exactly how expensive flying would be, since even at 20-some pounds our girl is required by law to have her own seat. Well, shoot.

So we're getting presents for each other after all. appeared to make things easier for us Sunday when they had a one-day-only special on the newest 32GB iPod Touch. Lauren has been wanting such a device from the moment the iPhone first came out, but some Scrooge shot that down with basic math and household economics. Still, they are awfully shiny, so Scrooge has come around on the issue, especially with all the new iPod Touch has to offer. So: iPods it would be for our Christmas gifts to each other.

Now, the deal was this: the iPod Touch was offered at a discounted price compared to what pretty much everyone else is selling it and you got a $25 Amazon gift card. Just add both to your cart and, Amazon assured me, all would be taken care of.

Well, it wasn't. They charged me $25 for the $25 gift card. So I had to call customer service, and for some reason the guy couldn't promo the gift card, even though, you know, that was the deal, so he cancelled my order and ran it again, discounting the iPod by another $25. Fine--as long as the math checks out, I'm good. Lauren placed her order--they were separate because, of course, there was a limit of one per customer--and it didn't work right for her either, so she called customer service as well. They handled things a bit differently for her--they credited her account for $25. But again, as long as the math is good, we're good.

Or are we?

I'm expecting mine to arrive Wednesday, but I go through Amazon's website to track my package and... it's already been delivered. Whoa! I go over to the post office, expecting to pick up two shiny new iPods, but only mine has arrived. Weird. Ordering an hour later apparently made it a day later...? But now I was left in a quandry: I have this shiny new thing, but Lauren does not have her shiny new thing. How can I, in good conscience, spend all evening playing with a new toy right there in front of her? Clearly, I cannot.

I didn't get much playing done in the afternoon either, because work duties called--I got it configured and got music moved over from my computer, but that was it. In the evening, I studiously avoided mentioning anything Apple-related, though when Lauren put Thea to bed (or went to settle her back down when she woke up), I grabbed my new toy and began exploring the app store in fits and starts.

As we were getting ready for bed, I made a tactical error. After doing such a good job of not revealing my new iPod's arrival, I wanted to know that Lauren would be getting hers the next day, so I could openly play with mine. And that's when I made my mistake. I asked if she had tracked her shipment.

"No. Did you?"
"Uh... yes."
"So where is yours now?"
"Um... in the living room."

At that point, she called me a not-very-nice name and the game was up. I think I managed to convince her that my ruse was for her own good, but since she still hasn't received hers, she won't be happy about any of it. And, consequently, neither will I.

She contacted Amazon yesterday and they gave her some vague response and credited her account $10 for the trouble. When it still hadn't arrived today, they asked her to call tomorrow and promised to either send it super-fast to us here or send it on ahead of us in our upcoming travels to Ohio. It's baffling, though: how did one get here very quickly and the other not at all?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Holidailies: The Christmas Puppy in Chocolate Syrup and Packing Peanuts

Disclaimer: No puppies were harmed in the making of this blog. Likewise--and surprisingly--no chocolate syrup was wasted. The packing peanuts are a different story.

Before we talk about man's best friend and man's best ice cream topping, I want to reflect--one week in--on why I do Holidailies, now for the third year. Go ahead: you take some time to do the same. I give you permission.

  1. The Challenge of Daily Blogging: In the six and a half years I've been blogging, there were entire years where daily blogging wasn't a challenge, it was the norm. Those days have long since passed, but it feels rather good to get back into that rhythm.
  2. The Sense of Community: Really, this is the big one for me. Back when daily blogging came as naturally as the leaves in spring, a big part of that was because I felt myself to be part of a community of readers and writers. It wasn't just that there were people giving feedback, it wasn't just that someone noticed if you didn't post: there was a real synergy there, an energy that made the community greater than simply the sum of its parts. I haven't quite felt that yet with Holidailes--I've found some blogs I like, I've exchanged some comments, but it's not quite there yet. To be frank, I've been surprised that there haven't been more comments going around, not on my blog in particular but on a lot of them that I've read and about which I've been interested enough to comment. And don't call me Frank. And is it just me, or is the positive and negative vote system on Reddit under-utilized?
  3. The Stories and Experiences: It's always fun to read good stories, whether they're funny stories or moving stories or just real stories. With Holidailies, all of us who are participating are taking some time out of our busy lives to think, to reflect, and to write, and whether what comes out is a thought, a reflection, a story, or an expression, with a hundred or so of us taking the time to do it, there's bound to be some good stuff there, stuff that moves us or makes us laugh or makes us think. 
Some of the things that people share have a confessional tone to them, and in that spirit, it's time for me to make one: I have no story about puppies, syrup, and packing peanuts. I wish I did: it sounds like a great story. Maybe I should make one up; maybe you should. If you do, let me know. If you don't, but you have something else to say, let me know that too. I'd love to hear what's on your mind--thanks for stopping by.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has been on my radar for some time now--I've heard good things from fellow teachers and librarians, and the final book in the trilogy just came out this year. So picking it up was a no-brainer when Lauren saw it as an audiobook at our public library a couple days before we jumped in the car to go--as my mother mis-said it--over the woods and through the river to Thea's grandmothers' houses for Thanksgiving.

The action takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America divided into 13 districts separate from the Capitol, which is somewhere in the Rockies (Denver finally makes good, I guess). There's something rather colonial about the world, with the districts sending their raw materials and manufactured products to the capitol and kept more or less at a subsistence level. At some time in the past, the districts rebelled. When the rebellion was put down, the 13th district was utterly destroyed. The others are forced each year to send two teen-aged "tributes" to the capitol--one boy and one girl--to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games of the title. It's one part blood-sport, one part reminder of the price of rebellion.

The protagonist is 16-year-old Catniss Everdeen, a survivor who, to provide for her family, has had to venture outside the safe confines of District 12 into the wilderness to hunt and gather since she was 12 years old. With this background, it's no real surprise to the reader that she ends up in the Hunger Games. In fact, there are few real surprises in the course of the novel. That's not a knock on it; in fact, we quite enjoyed the ride. Just because the basic arc of the story (and the basic arcs of the characters, for that matter) was easily predictable didn't diminish our enjoyment of the story. We were still excited by the details of the plot and there were some emotionally powerful moments. With any luck, we'll track down the second book as an audiobook before we head out for winter break.


The novel manages something that I thought was rather interesting: an emotional cliffhanger. By that, I don't mean that the ending was emotional so much as I mean that what was left unresolved at the end was an emotional issue. Although she's survived the Hunger Games (as if you couldn't guess that she would from the beginning!) and done so without killing Peeta (again, not that shocking), she has no idea where things go from here. Her feelings for Peeta (and for Gale, who we've barely seen since the beginning except in memory) are conflicted and barely explored. There was something unsatisfying about this, but knowing that there are two more books in the series allows me to trust that she'll get around to it.

I don't know whether I'd call it unsatisfying or not, but there were a lot of hints dropped, I thought, about possibilities for rebellion outside the basic paradigm of an armed uprising, and that sort of materialized at the end, but I was perhaps a bit disappointed that Catniss never saw those possibilities herself, except in a very reactive way. I'm sure it was intentional, but Catniss--however much we may like her--is a pretty limited character in her thinking. Sometimes that was annoying, when we found ourselves thinking "Seriously? She doesn't get it?" But ultimately, it is what it is. As noted here, we have picked up the second book and even started listening to it--we expect to finish on our Christmas trip--and (spoiler alert) there's a good deal more up-in-arms rebellion shown, but I hope that Collins proves to be a bit more creative with this aspect of the story.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

When I was growing up, we always had an easy solution to where to put the tree: there was an entryway from the front door that was perhaps an 8x8 foyer. You couldn't, normally, justify putting anything there because it was an entrance to the house you'd be blocking, but the fact of the matter was that we never used that door and no one who knew us ever used that door--the garage or the back door were the correct ways to enter the house, period. That foyer always made the perfect place for a Christmas tree, though: visible from the living room and dining room, yet out of the way. We always put up a big door-sized thing with Santa Claus on it--my mother had it from her days of teaching elementary school. And the tree topper was a double circle of blinking, colored lights, surrounded a star of blinking, colored lights, with a three dimensional Santa Claus head imposed upon it, complete with hat and fluffy beard. Man, that thing was probably hideous to anyone with taste. Fortunately, no such person lived with us or, as near as I can tell, ever visited.

Which brings me back to the fact that Mom had a lot of decorations that she had once used in her classroom, all laminated. I used to love decorating the house with all this stuff. The day after Thanksgiving was the first day I was allowed to decorate, so that's when the magic happened. Usually, we'd fire up the wood-burning furnace as well, just for atmosphere. We had an ancient nativity scene whose manger looked properly, well, mangy. It looked like a real barn instead of a sanitized manger scene. We had figures from at least three different nativity scenes all mixed together in a hodge-podge. At some point, I started setting up the wise men across the room and gradually moving them over to arrive on Epiphany (and, of course, the shepherds had to go by then!).

For a number of years after I graduated from college, I didn't do much in the way of decorating. It seemed fairly pointless, first because I wouldn't be celebrating Christmas where I lived, but instead going home, and second because Christmas had lost some of its luster when I set aside my faith. I still liked Christmas as a holiday, but it didn't have a lot of magic any more (I'd also rather less materialistic and didn't get as excited about gifts, but that's another story).

The first year Lauren and I lived together, I wouldn't have put up a tree or decorations if she hadn't more or less made me do it. Ditto that the next year. Last year, though, perhaps because we had Thea on the way (in the pipe, if you will), I found myself getting more excited about Christmas again. I was the one who wanted to get lighted evergreen garlands to decorate. I was the one who--for the first time in our life together--decorated the outside of the house, as a surprise to Lauren. Scrooge had left the building.
When it comes to tree placement, it's never been so easy anywhere I've lived as it was when I was growing up, and the task was even more difficult this year with a baby who's crawling--almost walking--and curious about everything.  Fortunately, our tree is only 6' tall and our ceilings are close to 9: we just put it up on an end table so she can't reach it, which will work out well until she tugs on the tree skirt and pulls the whole tree down on top of herself...
 The tree skirt, by the way, was my mom's, which we always used when I was growing up. All of the ornaments except for the ones we've bought together are Lauren's. The little dinosaur is, theoretically, teaching Thea to walk. And putting the tree on a box in front of our window probably makes it appear to passersby that our tree is a lot bigger and more impressive than it actually is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Babies are not bicycles

Babies are not bicyles. Really, I know that. But sometimes, metaphorically, I've wished Thea was, because the thing we know about bicycles is this: once you've learned how to ride one, you never forget and--what's more important in this context--how to ride a bicycle never changes.
Lauren and I are way up in Rockford, IL, where Lauren is coaching our Quiz Bowl team at a tournament. I came along so that Thea wouldn't spend 30-ish hours away from mama. This morning, the Quizbowlers left at 7:40 CST while Thea and I stayed at the motel, watching Sporscenter and alternately eating and ripping apart a breadstick to scatter crumbs on the floor, perhaps for the birds.

The reason we stayed behind was so that, we hope, Thea could get a nap this morning. Babies, after all, need their naps, or they get cranky. No one wants a cranky baby at a Quiz Bowl tournament, no one wants to go shopping for Christmas presents with a cranky baby. Around 9, which would be around 10 back home, and a perfectly reasonable nap time for Thea, she started to get a little fussy, maybe a little tired, so I decided to put her down for a nap.

Except, you see, that I realized that I've barely put her down for a nap for the past four months. I used to do this all the time--I used to be the Nap Master! For those months when I was a stay-at-home dad and Lauren was back at school teaching, I had this down. But now that I've gone back to work and we've got a nanny who comes in each day, not only are my nap-inducing skills a bit rusty, but the old tricks don't work! She's, you know, grown and changed! Who let that happen? Who decreed that 11-month-olds should be so different in their napping ways than 3-month-olds?

Even when I was in the groove, there were times when I just wanted her to "be rational," by which I didn't mean that I expected her to take up chess and discourse with me on philosophy (though she's welcome to take up either of those pasttimes any time now). By "be rational," I meant that I wanted her to be predictable. I wanted to be able to follow steps A, B, and C to get result D, every time.

This was true for me even though I also had read Dr. Sears, agreed with Dr. Sears, and knew that this time of her life isn't about me, it's about her. Not my needs, baby, but thine. Easy to say, not always so easy to live, but we've tried.

Not only was putting her down for a nap this morning difficult because of the aforementioned rustiness and changes, but she was also absolutely fascinated by a new place. That's why she wouldn't eat breakfast out in the motel eating area--too much going on! too many people to see! And of course, there are our black-out curtains at home compared to the light-in curtains here. I wasn't sure I would ever get her down for a nap this morning.

I hoped I might induce some kind of sympathetic response: either that she would sense how much I myself wanted to take a nap and want one herself (the viral yawn theory of baby napping) or that she would sense how much I wanted her to nap and give in, but that's not how babies work, sadly. They're not the most sympathetic creatures on the planet. No dice in that approach, but I kept trying everything I knew, everything I could think of.

In the midst of all this, she did something amazing: she kissed me. Okay, I know that doesn't sound amazing, but because my beard is scratchy, she usually wriggles away when I kiss her or claws at her face (get it off! get it off!!). Instead, she leaned in for a kiss, pulled back with a smile when I'd kissed her, leaned in again, and repeated the whole thing several times. It was so sweet, and nothing like how she's ever gone down for a nap before. A few minutes later, she fell asleep in my arms.

So yeah, scratch all that stuff I said earlier--who needs a bicyle? Not the fishes and not me.

Friday, December 10, 2010


I was walking through our campus and saw a woman who must have been a mother, waiting outside one of the girls' dorms. As she waited for her daughter, she was using her boot to plow around the snow that was rapidly turning to slush.

It's behavior that's so uncharacteristic for an adult (at least in public!) that one could be tempted to call campus security to escort the crazy woman off campus, but even if she was crazy, she seemed harmless enough. Anyway, who hasn't sometimes felt the call of playing with snow? For me, there's always been a certain appeal, on days like today when the temperature is above freezing but most of the snow hasn't yet realized it, to stepping on the snow to turn it into slush, perhaps making patterns through the choice of which fallen precipitation stays snow and which transmutes into a new state of being. There's just something oddly satisfying about this sort of thing.

Before seeing this woman out and about, I might have thought it was a guy thing--we have a tendency to amuse ourselves with fairly simple, made-up-on-the-spot games, either solo or with company, but obviously this child-like amusement knows no gender boundaries. It's probably good for the soul, to break out of our adult stodginess once in a while, to smush snow to slush, and not to rush.

Later in the day, I was walking our dog, Beaker, and I looked back to see our respective trails through the snow. Mine was a straight line between A & B, while hers looped around, back-tracked, and went off on tangents as whim--or her nose--moved her. At the end of the walk, we both arrived in the same place, but who had more fun getting there?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Frustration in the Stacks: A tale of the local library

I've always loved libraries. I loved going to story time, I loved getting books for my mom to read to me, and then I loved getting books for myself--there were always so many that I still hadn't read but wanted to! Today, however, the library was a sad, sad place.

My first clue should have been how dimly lit it was, but I've never subscribed to the pathetic fallacy. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before Thanksgiving, Lauren and I went to the library to look for an audio book to listen to while we drove to Ohio. We found something or other to be marginally enthusiastic about. We also decided we'd better get some things for Thea, our 11-month-old. We checked out some board books and a DVD, and while we were in the children's section, we saw The Hunger Games audiobook. I'd heard very good things about the novel, so we picked it up and put the other title back. We weren't disappointed, but that's a review I need to write.

We were, however, disappointed when it turned out that they only had The Hunger Games and not either of the sequels. Since we're going on a long trip up to Rockville, IL tomorrow, we decided we needed that sequel, so I got it as a free book from audible (go to as part of a trial membership. I'll probably cancel, though I'm tempted to keep it.

So, as I was saying before I dipped back into the past, I should have known from the dark and stormy look of the library that it would disappoint me. I went in to pick up some different board books and a different DVD for Thea, and what do you think the first thing was that I saw on display in the children's section? Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. On audiobook. With a little "NEW" sticker on it.

In other words, I just wasted my free audiobook download from Audible. Thanks for nothing, library.
And then, while I was looking for board books (I got a baby haiku book, a couple Sandra Boynton works, and some more entries in the "That's Not My [insert animal/object]" series), I overheard a conversation between two local high school girls. I'm fairly sure from their conversation that at least one was a senior (unless she's already in college but on one of those long breaks from Thanksgiving to New Year's that some colleges have), because she was talking about what she was going to do--or perhaps was doing--in college.

Now, my assumption would be that the adolescents who work at the library are some of the finer specimens of intellect that a given town has. I mean it's not the illiterate--or even the aliterate--who get jobs at the library, right?

The one girl must have been shelving a dinosaur book, because she was holding forth on how dinosaurs are "in the Bible ... at least indirectly." She didn't believe, in other words, that dinosaur bones are a hoax or God putting them there to test our faith.

"So they were destroyed in the Flood?" The other girl asks.

"No, Noah took all the animals on the ark. But he wouldn't feed the other animals to the dinosaurs, so they starved."

Where to begin? The fact that many species of dinosaurs were vegetarians or the fact that, if you actually believe this story, there must have been predators on board who, after all, would have to eat. Noah fed lions and tigers but took dinosaurs on board only to watch them starve? I mean, it's one thing to believe in fantastical myths. When I was their age, I did too. And even many perfectly capable adults do too. Fine. But how about a little internal consistency, eh?

I'm pretty sure my brain, falling into rhythm with theirs, shut down for a little bit there, stupefied as I was, because I can't recall the rest of the conversation, except that when the other girl asked about carbon dating, the one with the answers simply said that "the theory is good, but the science is wrong."

We have no intention of sending our daughter to the local public schools, in case you were curious.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parenting Addicts?

A friend's blog had an interesting collection of thoughts today on parenthood, four months in. I always love reading their take on parenthood, whether Ben or his wife Erin is writing, because they either have a male, younger version of our daughter, or else there's a lot that universal about parenting and they just say it all so well. One of the things Ben touched on today was an article in Slate by Shankar Vedantam called "Parents Are Junkies: If parenthood sucks, why do we love it? Because we're addicted." I'll quote some of the same passages Ben did, because they're just that perfectly representative:
Parents spend endless hours commiserating with one another about the travails of parenthood. Yet when researchers present data about children and unhappiness, parents rise up in protest. Research may depict parenthood as a bile-inducing, rage-fueling, stress-producing ordeal, but parents tell us that becoming parents is the best thing they ever did. Nonparents write off this reaction as defensiveness—if you've screwed up by having a kid and don't want to admit it, you pretend to be happy—but parents regularly choose to have more than one child. If parenthood were as subjectively awful as the objective research implies, wouldn't all parents stop at one child? It's one thing to claim that a stubbed toe doesn't hurt, and quite another to aim a second kick at the chair.
Parents, I would argue, are hardly unique in spending hours commiserating about the travails of what they do: ever hang out with teachers? We talk about the kids. If you get a bunch of people from the office together, I bet they complain about the stupid people who call customer service or the middle-management boss who can't deal with people, rarely gets caught doing his job, and picks his nose semi-discretely (but obviously not enough so that it isn't an open secret). In short, anyone who has someone to commiserate with about work, does. And there are a lot of parents out there. In any case, there's a fair point to be made there. The article continues:
Parenting is a grind, and most parents are stressed out much more than they are happy. But when parents think about parenting, they don't remember the background stress. They remember the cuddle and the kiss. Parenting is a series of intensely high highs, followed by long periods of frustration and stress, during which you go to great lengths to find your way back to that sofa and that kiss.
We have a name for people who pursue rare moments of bliss at the expense of their wallets and their social and professional relationships: addicts.
Hmmm. I see what he's getting at, but I just don't quite buy it (yeah, I know--the first step is admitting you have a problem, right?). To me, it's not that parenting, in particular, has a lot of frustrations, disappointments, stresses, and heart-break, along with occasional rewards--that's life. Could it be that we've got it so good in the Twenty-first Century that real life looks strange to us? That we expect life to be one big amusement park, a brave new world where we take the good and avoid/ignore the bad?

Once, growing up more or less meant taking on the responsibilities of a job, a family, a place in society or your community, dealing with hard realities, and finding meaning--and joy--in the midst of it. Increasingly growing up seems to mean just getting older and getting a job to get more toys. We're not junkies, we're grown-ups (I've written before, elsewhere, about how getting married and having children are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for becoming mature, so I'll let that gross generalization stand). Ben wasn't talking about this precisely, but he was right to write that "All of the things we did before we became parents were fun. Now all the things we do as parents are fulfilling, and fun, in different ways." Fun is nice, but fulfillment is where we really touch life.

But maybe that's just the addiction talking. Maybe I'm just too far gone....

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Days that will live in memory

While we've still got some time left in Pearl Harbor Day, I thought I'd throw this question out, gleaned from a comment on a friend's blog:

What's the earliest world event memory you have?

In a sense, I remember the election of 1984. I was in second grade and just about everyone in the 2nd grade favored re-electing Ronald Reagan. In fact, Mondale/Farrar probably got as many votes in my class as he did in all the rest of Ohio. However, it's not like I remember any specific event, like election day. Couldn't tell you a thing from memory.

So: the first world event memory I really have is of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. I had stayed home sick from school, I was watching the Scrabble game show, which was interrupted by news of the disaster. We were glued to the TV for the rest of the day and filled at least one VHS tape recording the news coverage. It seemed like the right thing to do, though I don't think we ever watched it again or even know what became of it.

Please do share your own memories.

Easy Lies

Given how much easier than the truth lies can be, it's amazing that the kids I work with ever tell the truth.

A boy came into my office today to apologize. I'd gotten an e-mail earlier in the day from one of our tech guys, telling me that the young man in question had come in with a shattered screen and the story that he'd left it on his desk Saturday night, and someone came into his room while he was sleeping and vandalized it. He came into my office, however, to follow up on an e-mail he'd sent earlier in the day, apologizing for making up a story to relieve himself of culpability: the real story, he said, was that he'd fallen asleep watching a movie and apparently knocked it off his top-bunk bed while he was asleep.

While he was there, we got to talking about his classes, and settled on his humanities class, since it's a class that I think he could be doing better in. He started telling me about the project he was working on, a persuasive essay that is, vaguely, about "atheism vs. monotheism." He told me then that he had been an atheist for four years, but that he's recently become an agnostic.

I asked him if he could tell me what the difference was and, although he thought he could, he turned out to be wrong. That's fine with me, as it gave me a chance to discuss the difference between metaphysics and epistemology. He seemed to get it.

"What did you major in?" he asked me. When I told him English and music, he seemed surprised, and wondered how I knew so much about religion.

Oh, where to begin? The value of a broad, liberal arts education? Instead, after clarifying that, after all, I was actually talking about philosophy rather than religion, I told him that I'd also grown up going to church (religiously, so to speak), that I'd paid attention in Sunday School, and that I'd thought seriously about the issues involved. And then, sometime in college, I realized I didn't believe in God any more.

That really shocked him. If I'm not mistaken, it seems that his switch from atheist to agnostic, although he seemed to understand agnosticism as something like "spiritual but not religious," was motivated less by actual belief and more by a desire to fit in. Well, make that not stand out so much. As an atheist, he was a target, in some of his peers' minds just one step above--or perhaps sideways from--a satanist. Other Christians, you can write them off as basically the same as you (albeit with some disagreements). Other religions, you can rationalize as different paths to the same goal. An atheist, though, even if he doesn't say anything more than "I don't believe in God," is a direct challange to the believer's beliefs. An agnostic, on the other hand, isn't nearly so threatening. They may still want to convert him, but he's not "asking for" a fight in the same way.

Like I said: given how much easier than the truth lies can be, it's a wonder kids ever tell the truth.

It seemed to really mean something to this young man to find out that someone else is "on his side." We are not only in the heart of Indiana, but we're at a school that requires attendance at some kind of religious service each week. Most of his peers are active and outspoken believers, and any who aren't probably don't talk much about it. I've been comfortable in my own skin long enough that it's easy to forget how hard it can be to stand up for what you believe when doing so makes you different--and for many people, that will be different in a bad way, not just an interesting one.

At some point, he made a comment to the effect that atheists tend to have the smart people on their side--the scientists, the reasonable, what have you, but I had to caution him against generalization. There are, I reminded him, lots of very smart Christians. And Muslims and Jews, and on and on. Likewise, as an atheist, you will find people "on your side" who you wish weren't: people who haven't thought through their views or don't have a good reason for believing what you have spent a lot of intellectual energy to arrive at. No matter whether you're talking about religion or politics or anything else, you will usually find that, whatever your position, there are idiots who agree with you and very intelligent people who don't.

I felt I had to make this point. When you're not quite comfortable owning your beliefs and your identity, it can be easy to put things into black and white, us and them, terms, to write off those who disagree with you. Not only is that often inaccurate, but who likes sanctimonious people anyway?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Saturday Morning Introduces Me to Holidailies

Among other things, I'm the guy who says yes to going in at 8 am on a Saturday to teach yoga to a high school swim team, even though I've never taught yoga before. I've already recently introduced myself when I launched this blog, so to answer the Holidailies prompt, I thought I'd go in a different direction so as not to be a mere re-hash for those readers who've been with me for years.

I am neither our local fitness instructor who leads weekly yoga classes around here nor am I my friend from college who spent a month last summer at an intensive yoga teacher training workshop, so I did feel a bit underqualified to be leading this class. But then, I have been dabbling in yoga off and on for almost two decades now, and one of those decades has been spent teaching English and/or music at the high school and college levels, so neither yoga nor teaching daunts me on its own.

And that, right there, says a fair bit about me. First, I'm a dabbler. I prefer the term Renaissance Man, but those are just two sides of the same coin, you say potato, I say Frontier Russet, German Butterball, Keuka Gold, Purple Majesty, Rose Gold, or Yukon Gold. What it amounts to is knowing a little bit about a lot. Look up in the header, you'll see some of the lot that I know a little of. And I like trying new things.

Second, I'm a teacher. First, I was a student, and I've always loved being a student. Not that there weren't aspects of it along the way that I didn't like, but for the most part, I liked learning about a lot of things and I was fairly good at it. I hope that I have been, in my time, a fair teacher as well: certainly, that's an inclination of mine, to explain things, to guide inquiry, to help. I've taught choirs, and general music classes, and various high school English classes. I've coached tennis and soccer and basketball. And I have an 11-month-old daughter, which surely means a lot of teaching on the horizon. But, I should hasten to add, although I'm currently working in education, I am not employed as a teacher.

In any case, these are the characteristics that found me leading a yoga class on Saturday morning: dabbling, teaching, and being willing to pitch in and help out. By the time it was done, I felt great, not only because I'd put myself through an hour and a half of yoga but also because the team seemed to genuinely appreciate it. I can't count how many of the girls left saying "I feel really good!" And that makes me feel good.

No single anecdote could introduce me--or anyone else--but I hope you'll take this as a handshake and keep coming back.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Open Letter to Adolescents Who Feel Alone

I wrote this to a former student of mine after I saw a recent Facebook status: "This year, i was on the varsity football team. My friends call me one of the popular kids. I have 528 friends on Facebook. And I've never felt more alone in my life." It was written to him, but I suspect there's a universality to my reply.
----------------------------------------------------------I know it's not like we've kept in touch beyond (presumably) seeing each others' status updates on Facebook since my wife and I left *****, but seeing your status from this morning, I felt compelled to send you a note.
So here's how I see it. Popularity is about people knowing you and people liking you. It's a nice thing, but it doesn't prevent anyone from feeling lonely, because loneliness is not about how many people you know or whether or not people like you. It's about connection. It's about feeling known and understood and loved. And I think it's probably the case that most adolescents don't really feel that. Mostly, especially boys, they don't express it, but that doesn't mean that they don't feel the same way. Of course, some do feel that kind of connection in their lives and others don't have as much of a need for that kind of deeper connection because they live their lives on the surface. That's not you--you're a young man with more depth than that, and so it's not surprising that you feel alone and that the feeling bothers you.

I don't have any easy answer, but I'll throw some ideas around and you can see if any of them "stick" for you.

Have you seen or heard about the "It Gets Better" campaign where celebrities (and regular people too, I think) are making videos to tell gay teens that it gets better (and how it gets better)? The thing is, regardless of whether one is gay or straight, adolescence is often a tough time. Thanks to puberty, you've got quite a few years where your body and brain are hopped up on hormones and your brain and body are still developing, and at the same time you're trying to navigate a social world that's filled with people who are also going through those physical and mental changes, many of whom are still more immature than you are. But it gets better: you and your peers grow up, your body and mind, even if you're still growing, settle into a sort of equilibrium. You and your peers get better at forming real connections with each other, and more of your peers recognize the need for that.

That leads me to another thought--you've probably heard it said that girls mature faster than boys. In the first place, it's true, and in the second place, when it comes to emotional things, girls are just flat-out more attuned to the emotional world. That's why, I think, a lot of more "sensitive" guys, deeper guys, tend to have more meaningful friendships with girls than with other guys when they're in high school. And that can be one of the difficulties of going to an all-boys school: fewer people are at the stage in their lives where they "get it." But it gets better.

I'm also reminded of a passage from Thoreau's book Walden: "We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers." In other words, there's something lonelier about being around lots of people--and I think this is true even in the virtual sense, looking at all these "friends" on Facebook--when you see all these people and you don't feel connected with them. For Thoreau, he feels less lonely when he's actually alone than when he's out among people, and I think that points to something else: when it comes down to it, the most important source of happiness you have is yourself. That is, you need to be comfortable with yourself, you need to be happy with your own choices, you need to have something to do that makes you happy, that inspires you. That's not to say that relationships aren't important, that other people shouldn't be a source of happiness: family, close friends, and casual friends in the right circumstances all contribute to a happy life, but it starts with you.

And here's the thing. Yeah, it's true that I don't really know you, I'm not claiming to have some great insight into who you are or evn to know who you are. But from what I did know about you, you've got a lot going for you. I firmly believe that you've got the tools you need to make a good life for yourself--and for those around you.

I don't know whether any of this helps. In the strictest sense, you didn't ask for my opinions or my advice, except in the sense that by putting yourself out there on your Facebook status, you were asking for something from somebody. So I hope that, in some sense, this helps. If you want to talk about what you're feeling, I'd be happy to listen. I'd be happy to give my two cents, too, or just to listen to what you have to say, whatever you want.

In any case, I wish you the best.