Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Year Just Ahead

The arrival of a new year always brings the promise of another chance to get things right. Of course, it's merely a metaphor and hanging a new wall calendar is not to be confused with signaling a fresh start. But it's still refreshing that we can begin a new experience.

Guess that's why many people make resolutions to help guide their behavior in the new year. Resolutions are actually promises which address actions for which we otherwise lack discipline, matters such as losing weight, getting more exercise, saving money and finishing projects. Rather than wallowing in guilt, we can look toward the future and promise to do better.

Personally, I'm not a big believer in resolutions and in the past have often hung on to promises made at midnight until perhaps 8 or 9 a.m. the following morning before admitting defeat. "Oh, well," I usually sigh. "There's always next year."

But this year will be different. 2013 will be the year I adhere to at least one new year's resolution -- not to be such a worrier.

I've usually taken bold actions in life. Not afraid of much, I got out of a young but dreadful marriage that no one could convince me to avoid in the first place. I've left jobs and relationships that bored me silly. I was never afraid to make decisions about hum-drum issues that make some people crazy. Rather than ask someone if an outfit looks good, I visit the nearest mirror and judge for myself. I've spoken my mind and trusted my instincts.

Yet in recent years, I've become a bit hesitant to rely on those instincts. Perhaps I have become more concerned about my image as a senior. Just why this hesitancy has begun to creep into my decision making is unclear.

The unrelenting bombardment of information might be one reason. Insignificant details of no importance jump off the web or are announced with banner crawls across our televisions without a break. As we are coerced into caring about such drivel, perhaps we tend to alter our view of the world based upon some issue, such as how others view us. Would someone think that wearing a bright color makes me looks as though I am avoiding growing old? Do they think…? Who really cares what they think?

We all tend to worry too much. Whether it is how your family will be viewed, how your children behave or how you will cope with growing older, we must all face the worry habit and try to break it.

Worry is nothing new but has plagued humans for centuries. As we make our resolutions, and welcome a fresh start, let's take a quick glance at some of the great comments made about worry over time:

"With certain limits, it is actually true that the less money you have, the less you worry."
-- George Orwell

"There are many terrible things in my life and most them never happened."
-- Michel de Montaigne

"Of all your troubles, great and small, the greatest are the ones that don't happen at all."
-- Thomas Carlyle

"Don't lose today by worrying about tomorrow."
-- John F. Herbert

"When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of an old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened."
-- Winston S. Churchill

"To live by worry is to live against reality."
-- E. Stanley Jones

"Worry is the interest you pay on a debt you may not owe."
-- Keith Caserta

"When I don't have something to worry about, I worry. Nothing comes so naturally to a human being as anxiety and worry."
-- Brian Richardson

Try to begin the new year with a fresh outlook. Make a few resolutions of your own and try and remain true to those promises. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

No Spouse Like an Ex-Spouse

The holiday season is a time to dust off our memories. Christmas cards bring messages from those we haven't seen in some time. Some day soon certain of the efforts to keep in touch will cease entirely. Friendships take work and require effort.

I received a pre-Christmas card from my ex-husband. It was a formal card with an address label, a printed signature and enclosing the inevitable, impersonal "form" letter to bring the readers up to date on events of his life.

I did not send him a card this year. Over the decades since our divorce, we have experienced periods of non-contact alternating with phone calls and actual conversation. We shared no children and were married and divorced at a very young age. So there were no issues requiring us to keep in touch. It has come down to this: if he was in a funk, unhappy or experiencing a break-up with one of his many female friends, he would initiate communication, despite the fact that we have lived on opposite coast for decades. He knows I am a phone call away and -- if he wants sympathy -- he will call.

We spoke last on Christmas 2011 and during that call, his other phone was ringing. After a several rings and a long pause, he said, "I've got to take that call. I'll call you in a week or so and we can catch up." He didn't call back.

Early in 2012, I heard that a mutual friend had committed suicide under extremely distressing circumstances. I sent my ex an email to see if he had heard the news or knew any more details. That awful event occurred in the city where my ex lives. He emailed me back, "I'll call you in a week or so and we can catch up." He didn’t call.

When eleven months had passed without contact. I decided to write off any attempts we had made to keep in touch. I also knew from his pattern that there must be a new woman in his life and predictably when that relationship ended, he would contact me again.

When his card arrived, I sent a brief email saying in essence that there is no point in our keeping in touch.

This exchange brought to mind the strangeness of having an ex-spouse somewhere out there in the universe. He is my only ex-spouse. I never saw too many benefits to the marriage tradition. However, my ex has had three failed marriages (including ours), plus several near-misses, involving a few women lucky enough to escape with nice chunks of diamond as the result.

After my email telling him that we should just "forget it," he phoned me to apologize. Since my experience in the world of exes is rather limited, I don't know if we are supposed to share some type of communication "bond." I have friends with ex-spouses but their breaks were clean and final.

My ex is talking about getting married again. His prospective bride has also had three failed marriages. They are both nearing 70. What on earth would make someone with that type of track record want to try another lap around the course? He said, "Isn't that romantic?" I said, "No. It's seems a little foolish."

I have to add here that I have always talked to him like that which exemplifies why we were so mismatched. In the late 1960s, few couples had the nerve to live together openly without being married. Had we gone that route, we would never have made it down the aisle. Perhaps the more modern approach is a step in the right direction.

No doubt there are people out there who benefit from being married, although probably not as many people as existed 40 or so years ago. Single people today are independent, able to live alone, pay their bills and find happiness, also a step in the right direction.

But women seem to still get thrilled about planning a wedding, getting a big diamond ring and new dishes. A marriage means a fresh start, a blank slate, a shining future.

That sounds nice in theory. But people need to remember that reality comes into play.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Here is the conclusion to "The Christmas Wish," a modern tale of festive traditions. 
Wishing you all a Happy Holiday! 

(Part Three)

The next day, Mildred removed the stockings from the mantle and tucked away her favorite centerpiece. She scurried around the house, removing decorations and door hangers, washing placemats and other linens. "In case you hadn't noticed, Leonard," she said finally, "Christmas is over. It's time to get rid of that tree. I would appreciate it if you would remove the decorations and haul it out of here."

Leonard knew she would bring the matter up again. In the meantime he was enjoying the sight and smell of the fresh tree and prolonging the holiday atmosphere.

Mildred had carefully packed a large box with candles, placemats and her good poinsettia tablecloth. She stood in the hallway grumbling loud enough that Leonard couldn't help but overhear. "I guess I'm going to have to put this box on the shelf myself," she said. "Clearly, no one else in this house is going to help me."

She stormed off to the garage, returning with the two-step aluminum stepladder. The ladder, purchased a couple of years earlier, was generally used for small chores around the house. It was made of aluminum tubing and was light enough to be maneuvered easily in tight spaces. Leonard avoided using the ladder whenever possible because of its flimsy construction. He preferred to step on his favorite footstool or even a kitchen chair. Stepping on furniture always angered Mildred and whenever she saw that occurring, Leonard would suffer the consequences.

This time, Mildred wrestled with the aluminum ladder banging it against the door and the side of the hallway, making a great deal of noise. She unfolded the ladder loudly, grumbling. "I guess I'm going to have to do this myself, like I usually do most things around here."

From his favorite chair, Leonard heard the squeak of the closet door and the sounds of fumbling. He imagined Mildred struggling with the cardboard box, scowling, cursing him under her breath. It was advisable to leave her alone at times like this. No question about her present state of mind, but it would pass when she turned to the next project. So Leonard remained in his recliner, feet slightly raised and focused on his newspaper.

A few minutes later, Leonard's serenity was interrupted by a loud thud, shortly followed by a single soprano-pitched shriek. Slowly he rose from his chair and walked to the hallway door. He peeked around the corner to see Mildred sprawled on the floor, blood trickling from the right side of her forehead. Next to her was the collapsed aluminum step stool, its thin tubular legs splayed and twisted.

Leonard was paralyzed for a moment. Mildred was not moving and, most noticeable of all, she was quiet. He squatted down and felt for a pulse but found none. Her wrist was limp.

Standing over the scene, Leonard tried to determine what had just taken place. It appeared as though the stepstool had twisted, its thin legs giving way. Mildred may have reached too far forward or shifted her weight slightly, collapsing the ladder. As it gave way, she must have struck her head, perhaps on the partially opened hallway door.

Leonard did not contemplate his next action. All he realized was that it was quiet in the house.

Again he reached for Mildred's wrist, searching in vain for a pulse. Clearly she was dead.

Suddenly feeling relaxed and a little hungry, Leonard strolled to the kitchen and opened a beer. He then returned to the living room, to his Christmas tree. Tipping back in his recliner, Leonard sipped the cold beer, savoring the quiet atmosphere. The scent of evergreen hung in the air, like a pleasant memory. What a lovely season Christmas could be.

His beer finished, Leonard began gently removing the ornaments as he had been instructed, placing each one carefully in its proper box. He carried the ornament boxes to the garage, watching where he stepped in the hallway and glanced down at Mildred still motionless on the carpet.

Leonard carried the Christmas tree into the backyard, leaning it against the fence. He had recently read that cardinals and blue jays often take shelter in discarded Christmas trees. Gardeners making this gesture might be rewarded in the spring when birds returned to nest in the same yard.

Standing in the yard, Leonard savored the brisk December air. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the loveliness of the season. Leonard paused to scatter sunflower seeds around the base of the discarded tree and refill the birdfeeders that dotted the back yard. He paused for several minutes, enjoying the bracing air and wood smoke from his neighbors' fireplace.

When Leonard returned to the living room, he noticed that the only visible reminder of the holiday season was the large white plastic tree bag. Scooping it up, he carried the bag into the hallway. After pulling and tugging, he had managed to enshroud Mildred's body in the billowy white plastic. Tomorrow the city's tree removal crew would be in the neighborhood to retrieve discarded Christmas trees. After dark, Leonard would drag the tree bag to the curb for their convenience. For now, the stuffed bag was secured with twister ties and dragged to a spot near the side door.

Leonard went to his storage cabinet above the hot water heater in the garage and removed a half-finished bottle of Dewar's. Everyone is entitled to at least one vice, he often rationalized. Leonard poured himself a glass of Scotch and returned to the house. At the side door, he stepped around the billowy tree bag, then returned to his chair. As he raised his feet, Leonard realized what a fortunate man he was. He had made only one Christmas wish this year and it had been granted.

(The End)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


In keeping with the holiday season, offered here for your reading is an original short story (The Christmas Wish), Part Two of Three.  The concluding episode will appear this Friday, December 21, 2012.  Happy Holidays!
(Part Two)

As Leonard leaned forward to plug the extension cord into the wall socket, he heard the ding of the kitchen timer. He raced to the oven and removed the cookie sheet, placing it on the stovetop, then returned to his task.

Now that the lights were in place, hanging the glass ornaments would follow. Leonard gently removed lids from the old, worn cardboard boxes. He knew all of the ornaments well, like old friends he visited each season. Some of the boxes were left from his own childhood and when he saw their contents again, he smiled at the warm memories that flooded forth. Leonard began hanging some of his favorite ornaments, spacing them on the appropriate boughs. As he reached for the second box, Mildred burst back through the door. She paused briefly to stare at the tree.

"What do you think you're doing?" she shrieked. "You have all the gold ornaments on one side and all the blue ornaments clustered in a group. For God's sake, mix 'em up. You have no eye for this sort of thing. Did I ever tell you that? Your sense of color and balance is faulty. I don't suppose you want my advice on the tree, though, do you? Did the timer go off? Did you remove the cookies? You must have because I don't smell them burning." She returned to the kitchen, apparently not expecting a reply.

Leonard wondered when Mildred was able to draw a breath or perhaps she was able to control her breathing so as to complain without additional breath intake.

About an hour later, the Evans' tree was completed. Leonard thought it looked wonderful and stepped back toward the hall doorway to admire his handiwork.

Mildred approached from the kitchen when she saw that work had stopped. "Well, it looks fairly good, I have to admit. It could use a little more height. Thank goodness you used a tree bag, because any moment now the tree will start to shed."

"It's pretty fresh, really. I had it cut only this morning." Leonard extended his hand to feel the needles. They were soft and pliable, shiny droplets of sap glistening in the lights' reflection. "See, still soft."

"That just goes to show that you know nothing about evergreens." Mildred spat her statement, emphasizing the words "know nothing."

There was no need for Leonard to respond. The tree was fresh and wouldn't be shedding for some time. He knew it and he also knew there was no arguing. Mildred turned and left the room.

Leonard stood before the tree, focusing on each limb and the decorations applied. He was pleased with the finished project, the balance and color scheme. No one could tell Leonard about trees and when they would lose needles. He packed up his emptied boxes and removed them to the garage. Now that the tree was complete, it felt officially like the Christmas season had arrived.

During the previous week, Leonard had decorated the outside of the house. After having experimented over the years with colored lights and various themes, his favorite combination had become an oversized wreath on the front door, illuminated by two clear floodlights. It was a simple but beautiful scheme and always drew compliments. With the storage boxes removed, Leonard flipped on the switch to illuminate the outside lights. Christmas always made him feel like a boy again.

Mildred had already headed to choir practice at the church. There were many activities at their church during the holiday season -- rehearsals, concerts, a Santa party for the children. Fortunately for Leonard, many of these events did not require his attendance while at the same time providing treasured moments alone.

As his thoughts turned toward dinner, Leonard wandered into the kitchen to make himself something to eat. The kitchen was peaceful with Mildred gone. This was her territory and she seldom let Leonard do what he wanted. He fixed himself a roast beef sandwich, opened a beer and sat down at the kitchen table to read the paper. Mildred would never have allowed beer at the kitchen table or, for that matter, reading the newspaper. It pleased Leonard that he was breaking a few of her steadfast rules.

Spending time alone was important to Leonard. Some people believed that his quiet personality and amiable nature made him easy prey for the dominating Mildred. Leonard really didn't care that she bossed him and he seldom let her temperament bother him. Even when Mildred did manage to wear thin, Leonard was able to restrain from saying anything in his own defense, preferring the quiet approach, often simply leaving the room.

But inside Leonard was often miserable. Even if Mildred's comments didn't bother him, her mere presence intruded on his privacy. Her shrill voice, so lovely in the choir, penetrated Leonard's ears, annoying with its high-pitched, unrelenting tone.

"I don't know how you can listen to that voice," his friend Marvin had said repeatedly through the years.

When people made comments of that type, Leonard would shrug, smile and generally say nothing. He knew that others appreciated his position and that they recognized his precarious balance. Somehow he found that awareness comforting.

As Christmas approached, every day was filled with holiday activities and Mildred was busily involved with events and absent from the house.

The week after the tree selection, Christmas Day came and went with little or no fanfare. Presents were opened and generally deemed acceptable.

The day after Christmas, Mildred began to hound Leonard about the tree being dry. "It has to go soon," she announced. "Christmas is over and I am tired of looking at it. You know, it never was a very nice tree."

"So soon? Well, sometimes we have left the tree up until New Years," Leonard offered. "But I can take it down anytime you wish, I suppose."

"No, no. If you are going to make a big thing out of it, leave the tree up. It's all right. I was only expressing my opinion. Not that you ever pay attention."

The issue was dropped for the moment. Leonard knew when to let a subject cool off.

(To be continued)

Friday, December 14, 2012


To celebrate the arrival of the Christmas holiday season, I am sharing an original short story appropos of this festive week.  The following story -- The Christmas Wish -- will be shared in three installments.  Parts Two and Three will follow on Tuesday, December 18 and Friday, December 21.  Happy Holidays!

Part One

Leonard Evans strolled slowly among the glorious evergreen specimens at the Thompson Tree Farm, searching for the perfect Christmas tree. This was one decision which Leonard enjoyed making alone. Not only did Thompson's have the freshest evergreens around, but hiking the manicured rows provided him with a few precious moments of serenity. Leonard didn't even have to dissuade his wife Mildred from accompanying him on this annual quest. He knew she would find a reason to do practically anything else and that was just fine with Leonard.

A young man wearing heavy denim overalls approached, his cheeks rosy from the crisp December air. "May I help you?"

Leonard smiled and extended his arm toward the chosen tree. "This one. It's beautiful."

The young man wielded his chain saw and in a flash had cut the trunk flush to the ground. He then hoisted the tree in one hand as thought it were weightless and turned back toward the office.

"How's business this year?" Leonard asked the young man as the two strolled through the perfectly shaped specimens.

"Oh, brisk," was the reply. "Last weekend was really busy. But we still have plenty of nice trees left as you can see." He propped the selected tree against the outside wall of the office, stepped to the open door and called inside, "A six-footer." The girl behind the desk jotted something on a small note pad.

The tree farm office was a small, cheery space, festooned with ornaments, garland, stuffed snowmen and sequined stockings. In one corner stood a large refreshment table covered with a red plaid cloth trimmed with green tinsel. A coffee urn labeled "Hot Cocoa" stood at the ready with Styrofoam cups nearby. A large bowl of popcorn invited sampling, so freshly prepared that its aroma still hung in the air.

A pegboard along one wall held tree stands, outdoor electrical extension cords and other seasonal necessities. Leonard retrieved a giant white tree bag and laid it on the counter to be included with his purchase.

"I always get one of these," he smiled at the girl. "They're the best."

"Oh, yes, we sell a lot of those bags." She added $1.98 to the total and handed the bill to Leonard.

Bidding her "happy holidays," Leonard headed toward his car, tree bag in hand. The man in overalls rejoined him along the path to the parking lot, carrying the 6-foot tree as if it were a feather. He positioned the tree into the trunk of Leonard's car so that only a few inches protruded and quickly tied the lid closed with twine.

"Merry Christmas," said the young man. "Thanks for shopping at the Thompson Tree Farm."

"Same to you." Leonard smiled, climbed into the car and laid the tree bag on the seat next to him.

Leonard congratulated himself that he hadn't forgotten to purchase the essential tree bag. The oversized trash bag would be carefully arranged around the tree's base before it was trimmed. When the tree was ready to be removed, the bag could be stretched to the top of the then-dried tree to catch shedding needles and help alleviate most of the mess. If Leonard had forgotten the tree bag, he would never have heard the end of it. Merely imagining the scene that might have ensued sent shivers down his back.

As Leonard pulled into his driveway, he was pleased about his tree selection. To him, the yearly selection of the ideal Christmas tree was significant, the official start of the holiday season.

He climbed out of the car and headed toward the trunk to unfasten the lid precisely as Mildred burst through the front door.

"Well, it's about time you got back. I was wondering what could have happened to you. How could such a small purchase take such a long time?"

Unfazed by her welcome, Leonard proudly removed the tree and stood it upright on the driveway. "What do you think? Isn't it nice?"

"Nice? It's all lop-sided. Look at it. The limbs aren't even. We have more ornaments that that tree will hold. Besides, it's already dry and the bark is flaky. And my goodness, the needles are already falling off."

Leonard said nothing, but hoisted the tree, closed the trunk lid and proceeded toward the back porch. He needed to attach the stand and knew to do so outside. If he had learned one thing during his many years with Mildred, it was that the Christmas tree enters through the rear of the house. He might still expect problems related to the general disruption of the household, but the back door was the only acceptable entrance route.

Leonard had discovered some time ago that if he were going to endure marriage to Mildred, he had to ignore her. The survival skills had been difficult to develop and took a great deal of practice. But he had become able to tune out the high nasal whine of Mildred's voice and could usually anticipate the type of things that might provoke her.

Christmas had always been a special time for Leonard Evans and remained his favorite holiday. Even though he and Mildred had never had children, they still managed to enjoy the holiday season. They visited friends, participated in church activities, performed errands for elderly neighbors and took pride in decorating their home.

Every year they continued the gesture of buying gifts for each other, but Leonard knew that nothing ever pleased Mildred. The sweater wouldn't be soft enough, the jewelry wouldn't be impressive enough. Through the years, her ceaseless criticism had dulled Leonard's creative gift giving. He had learned to select gift certificates or items that Mildred had described in specific detail, like the top-of-the-line cookware she had requested this year. Such gift selections removed any need for creativity.

After Mildred supervised Leonard's delivery of the tree, she returned to the kitchen to bake for the church's cookie exchange. The tree stand was attached now and the tree had slowly made its way from the back door toward the living room window. Leonard popped in a CD of his favorite Christmas carols and set about decorating the tree.

Following the holiday season each year when the decorations were put away, Leonard carefully wound the strings of lights so they would be tangle-free for the next use. He handled the lights carefully, stringing them through the dark green boughs, bottom to top. Decorating the tree was Leonard's responsibility and he enjoyed the task. He had heard friends refer to tree decorating as a family project, but that was not the case in the Evans' household.

A few minutes later, Mildred appeared in the hall doorway. "I have a batch of cookies in the oven, but I have to run next door. I'll be back in a few minutes. If the timer goes off, take the cookies out of the oven." She did not comment on the tree or pause for more than a moment. "Leonard, did you hear me?"

"Yes, I heard you," he replied from behind the tree, connecting the extension cord to the tree lights.

"Well, you'd never guess that from your reaction. I couldn't tell if you heard me. You seldom listen." Mildred bolted out the door, carrying a small wrapped gift.

(To be continued)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Different Christmas Message

There are only two more weeks to go, folks. Better get on those holiday chores. Is the tree up? The lights on the house? Shopping done? Packages wrapped and mailed? Mom has cookies to bake and cards need to be done and mailed. Time's a-wastin'!

Hey, I enjoy Christmas as much as anyone. But I try to keep focused on the fact that life is genuine while Christmas stories and classic films are far removed from reality.

It's a tough old economy right now. And yet parents and grandparents will take their plastic money to the mall and charge gifts that are neither appreciated nor necessary. As merchants struggle to counteract sales slumps, they will do anything to make us think that we have to buy something, even if we can't possibly afford it. My personal dislike for such tactics is inflamed by commercials suggesting that a fine luxury car should be placed under the tree. They forget to mention that there is a sizeable price tag attached. Oh, and maybe even future car payments to be made.

The one event that may encourage shoppers and the rest of us from going over our own "fiscal cliff" is the prospect of a new year looming just ahead. It's a clean slate that means we will all start over fresh and be able to think good thoughts and move on. Last year my year began with the news that old acquaintances (husband and wife) had decided to start 2012 with a suicide pact. That tragic news and resulting despair has stayed with me most of the year. The holidays are notorious for increased suicides and depression.

Life is not perfect. There are plenty of people out there who are unhappy, alone, desperate, struggling and lost. We may pass them everyday on the street. They may be our neighbors, our co-workers, faces we often see. During the holidays, they are expected to smile and wish others a "Merry Christmas" and seem as though life is just dandy. Many folks wish that their circumstances were the way they once were or should have been, but that's not the case.

People pretend to be living in a Christmas card illustration, sitting in front of a fireplace and sipping hot cocoa as carolers serenade us outdoors. Well, life may be wonderful, but sometimes it's tough, too.

Most of us try to accomplish way too much in a futile attempt to make the holidays perfect. We want life to be depicted as it was in classic holiday movies, complete with snow, community singing around the piano and Santa tip-toeing to visit during the night. Christmas and related holidays have been molded out of everything good and idealistic. Well, it's not the real world today.

It's easy to get too caught up in the fluff of the season. Instead of trying to make our lives and homes into something other than what they are during the rest of the year, perhaps we need to take it down a notch.

Try doing something nice for someone. Perhaps one nice task or gesture every day. If that seems like too much, aim for every other day. Hold a door open for someone at the post office or the bank. Smile once in a while. If a clerk addresses you with "Merry Christmas," stop, smile and return the sentiment.

Walk a little slower. Try to enjoy the day and not to sweat about what to do next. Lists often help us see what actually needs to get done. Once items are crossed off the list, it all seems less intimidating. Talk to your family and friends. Send emails if you are too busy to do cards and don't fill your communication with whining about your own miseries. (The email reader will sit there in shock and wonder how he/she is supposed to react to your libretto.) I would sincerely prefer to get a few friendly, newsy lines rather than a summary about how miserable the sender's year has been.

It's easy to get too caught up in all the hype. After all, advertisers have been "hyping" Christmas since Halloween. Make an effort to keep Christmas in a way that is meaningful to you and yours.

See? It's really not that complicated.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Best Part of Christmas

Alright. So the holidays are fast approaching and no amount of denial can alter that fact. It's inevitable that the next few weeks will include a number of tasks which require attention, no matter where you live or what demands are made on your time.

First, there is some type of gift giving on which to focus. Whether your family is large or small, where you are still in the workplace or retired, chances are there is at least some gift shopping to be done. So best to start reviewing the avalanche of advertising to see what might make a good gift for the people on your list. Just because an item is the "current favorite" for this year does not make it a logical or even desirable choice. Have someone on your list who is a bona fide techno-phobe who hates and avoids electronics? Doesn't sound like a tablet, sophisticated phone or other gadget would be a good fit. Your gift recipient can't cook and barely knows how to find the kitchen?   Perhaps cookware or kitchen gadgetry would not be an ideal selection.

Home decoration is a big event. Neighbors of mine have had their trees up for many weeks already, some from before Thanksgiving. Usually this rush to decorate is fueled by youngsters who are anxious to begin the Yuletide countdown. But anyone who still gets a real tree -- like me -- can appreciate that a live tree isn't going to be too pretty after a couple of weeks. There is something nice about going to a tree farm, selecting a tree, having it cut down, and hauling it home. The tree is real. It's fresh and the growers are conscientious about growing more to replace this year's crop. That part of decorating is lost when a "fake" tree is purchased, its manufactured limbs installed and later when it is hauled into the basement/attic until next year. Having a real tree is one thing I'm not willing to change.

Cards are part of Christmas, to be sure. Last year I waited too late to find boxed cards. Apparently enough people are no longer sending purchased cards that stores carry a smaller number of choices each year. Cards of any type include the preparation of a list, the writing of a line or two and perhaps the enclosure of a festive photo. Sending cards takes a certain amount of organization and focus and must include built-in time to get the cards to their destination.

During my working years, there was often the awkwardness of the office party. Would there be one? Was there anything to celebrate each year with co-workers I could barely tolerate? Could I concoct an airtight excuse not to go? Parties varied from one year to the next, one location to another, some of which were far more enticing. I had always wanted to see inside Mr. X's house or something along those lines. Some parties I simply avoided. The mixture of alcohol and people you sincerely dislike can be dangerous and career-limiting. Know your limits.

Fortunately only a couple of places I ever worked had a "secret Santa" routine, a rather silly attempt to get a gift for someone without them knowing the name of the giver. This might be enchanting in fourth grade, but in the adult workaday world, it's all rather unnecessary.

When I was a teacher, I used to get about 25 little gifts each year from the students. Many were forced onto the kid by moms who thought it was a good idea. On behalf of the teachers who continue to scoop up ornaments or desktop decorations every year, please be advised that most teachers truly dislike this sort of thing. Most of the time, the money spent on an unwanted gift would be better off deposited into the Salvation Army kettle for use elsewhere. Teachers are somewhat annoyed by the entire gesture. Also, students are often embarrassed at having to deliver some item that was not picked out by them.

Then there is the line of thought that we should remember and bestow a gift upon everyone in our vicinity. Years ago we used to bake cookies and deliver them to neighbors. But neighbors move and change, some now have dietary restrictions and others feel they must reciprocate. The mailman does not get a gift from me. Neither does the paper delivery fellow, although I tip him with each payment. It all gets a little tedious.

Traditions vary by geographical location, age group and other criteria, but there is still a tremendous amount of energy required to get everything on the list accomplished. Perhaps the best part is when we reach the point where we have done all the holiday prep that we are going to do. Then we can sit back, sip some tea and watch some classic Yuletide movie on TV.

That just may be the best part of Christmas.





Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Gift to Treasure

In the current onslaught of holiday advertising, it's easy for the Christmas message to get lost in the shuffle.

Mine is not the first rant this year about renewing the spirit of Christmas. And it probably will not be the last. But reminding each other about what really matters is not something that can be overdone, especially at the holidays.

News programs frequently offer interviews with shoppers hurrying along the street in some bustling city. An interviewer thrusts the microphone at a shopper who spews some inane comment about his/her shopping trends this year. The biggest question seems to be: Are you spending more than you did last year? The world economy awaits the answer.

The answer is spoken to the hushed audience: "More." Ahh, a collective sigh of relief. We can all relax now that the nation is avoiding financial disaster. Americans are spending more. Good news. Carry on.

From interviews and current information, it does appear that more "money" (or plastic) is being spent this year. One recent interview featured a frantic woman shopper with a heaped shopping cart who smiled and said, "After all, it's all for the children."

Is it? Really?

Think back to when you were a kid. Christmas was an exciting event, it's arrival heralded by several weeks, not many months. Kids began to anticipate Christmas when we began to rehearse Christmas music at school. In the lower grades, there was the making of some gift for the home. I recall such items as a candle holder with a Styrofoam base, decorated with sequins. One year there was a fabric table scarf displaying our family surname initial. These gifts were not great, but teachers seemed to enjoy the diversion of making an item which the students took home proudly. It was fun, everyone got involved and kids enjoyed providing a gift for the family.

So much has changed since those days. When I taught school, children who didn't observe Christmas had to be excused from participation in such events. There is ongoing discussion in many areas about what can/cannot be said in school about various holidays. But it's a little sad that many kids don't get to enjoy creating something that they can give as a present. Somehow those simple items convey the true meaning of the holidays and allow both parents and children to feel the joy of giving a gift.

Kids are missing out on a lot. If they receive a gift they don't want or something horrible -- like clothes! -- they protest, say something rude, have a tantrum or leave the room in a huff. What about behaving in some subtly civil manner? What about a "thank you"? Consumers have headed down a slippery slope in making everything about the kids -- and the kids realize this.

The next time you venture into a discount store, watch the kids. You will likely see enough displays of "gotta have" to jolt your system. Moms and grandmothers will do anything to get the kiddies what they want. As kids begin to appreciate that a human being is the holiday shopper -- rather than some jolly man in a red suit -- they set about to get what they want. They connive and plead to get the right result, knowing full well that parents will do just about anything to make each precious dream a reality.

We've gone way too far.

A few years ago, a friend was lamenting that her 12-year-old daughter wanted a cell phone for Christmas. My friend was a single mother on a tight budget and didn't see how another phone fit into her monthly expenses. Those of us offering our advice tried to convince the mother that her daughter was too young to be responsible for a cell phone. But the mother could not be convinced that she might have to disappoint her daughter. She would find a way.

Kids are running things now, like the proverbial tail wagging the dog. I'm not sure when that all came about and certainly do not understand why it happened. But if parents refuse to deny the kiddies things which are not only unnecessary but overpriced, poorly made and soon discarded, then it looks like we are in need of an overhaul.

Why not encourage kids to participate in some activity that might actually help others? Let them volunteer to help the homeless, serve a meal at a local shelter or collect coats for those who need them. Show them that there is more to Christmas than getting the latest electronic device.

Your action might just start something.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christmas Letters

I dislike re-runs. But occasionally, something rankles me to the point that I have to state my opinion more than once. If I feel that one confrontation with an issue has been insufficient, I may take another swing at it.

Today's re-run concerns "form" Christmas letters. My first "form" letter of the holiday season arrived yesterday. Reading it made me want to run into the street and lay down in front of oncoming traffic.

I had been expecting this particular letter since Thanksgiving. It's always the first to arrive and by far the most unpleasant initiation into the holiday season. What on earth makes people write about every pain, stress, illness or tragedy that they experienced during the past year? Does the writer think that the mishaps we all occasionally encounter are the least bit interesting to others? Seeing an envelope with this couple's return address sticker in the mailbox is enough to send a shiver down my back. Not only is their letter a diatribe on misery, but their letters are always written in the third person. Did they dictate to a secretary?

Let's chat a moment about the form letter idea. It seems that many people send form letters now rather than take the time to write an actual sentence or two. Remember writing? Remember pens? Sure, folks are busy in this silly hustle-bustle world. And it might actually take a minute to shape a few words on the bottom of the card. But somehow the gesture of writing a line shows that the sender actually cares about the recipient.

There have been times when I have typed enclosures to my Christmas cards. But even those letters were personal, including the recipients' names and no two letters were the same. Typing is an easy method of communication and there is a wide variety of attractive holiday printer paper available. But no letter should be intended for wholesale complaining about the injustice of one's life.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about Abraham Lincoln, especially in the shadow of Steven Spielberg's new film "Lincoln." Lincoln was a man who seemed to know his audience, a talent lost on many politicians and celebrities today. He knew when to talk and when to be quiet. At the occasion of the Gettysburg's Address, Lincoln followed orator Edward Everett whose pomposity bored the crowd for nearly two hours. No doubt Everett's listeners tuned out his message long before it ended.

Lincoln then rose and spoke for only a few minutes. There is some debate over precisely the words he chose and at least five various versions of the famous speech exist. But the unanimous consensus appears to be that he "nailed" the speech, carefully selecting each word and making every word count. The result was heartfelt and personal and conveyed to the audience that the president recognized the country's pain resulting from the Civil War.

Reading my first "form" letter yesterday, I couldn't help but roll my eyes and chortle a bit at the flagrant whining and self-pitying. Such is the tone of many of the letters that are sent during this joyous season which, after all, is not about us. Senders of such tedious greetings are missing the point entirely.

Like many folks, I have gathered friends and acquaintances throughout life, most of whom I hear from only at Christmas. That's a result of our mobile culture. Hearing a year-end update should be a pleasant experience. I would rather receive three handwritten lines of personal communication than three pages of self-indulgence.

This year, if you are tempted to send a "form" letter along with a Christmas card, stop and ask yourself these questions:

* Does what I'm writing matter to anyone outside of earshot?
* Is what I'm writing something that I want people to remember once read?
* Does what I'm writing make me sound silly, shallow, petty and selfish?
* Is this how I want people to remember me?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, find a nice, fresh pen that doesn't leave behind blobs of ink. Then write a few light-hearted, warm and personal words such as "Have a great holiday season," "Think of you often and hope you are well," or "Best wishes to everyone for a wonderful 2013."

See? That isn't too difficult. Feel free to use one of these phrases as your own. I won't mind.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I'm Not a Child

I have never appreciated being treated like a child -- even when I actually was a child. I hated being spoken to as though I had landed in some alien territory. My parents socialized with several childless couples, friends of theirs from before they had mid-life children. So visits with these couples during the 1950s exposed me to adult conversations and mannerisms. I learned to appreciate conversation on an adult level.

That's one reason I'm so insulted by advertising -- it treats all consumers as though we were unsophisticated slobs who salivate at products being waved before us. We are not children and are willing to hold onto our money until the right opportunity comes along.

You may have noticed a plethora of media advertising recently. Retailers and businesses of all types are frantic to get our attention and our money. Apparently they believe that they can wear down our resistance with repetitive messages imploring us to spend.

Newspaper advertising usually arrives in the form of large, glossy supplements resembling pricey magazines. These multi-page behemoths feature the items we are made to feel we must purchase for Christmas. Skinny models and unreasonably well-behaved kids smile broadly as they cavort through the pages. Fortunately for newspaper readers, the glossy enclosures can be perused and discarded very quickly. I don't know if the advertisers are aware of this sorting technique. Perhaps they believe shoppers wander through their stores clutching the flyers feverishly. Sorry to disappoint. The average flyer remains on my coffee table for .5 nano-seconds. A huge waste of trees, fellas, although I do recycle. An eye-scan through the paper debris and I can resume breakfast.

On the other end of the advertising onslaught -- there's television. Its incessant advertising blather is enough to put me over the edge. It can annoy the most die hard Yuletide fan.

In the early days of television broadcasting, advertisements were usually 30 or 60 seconds long. That got viewers used to few -- even though longer -- commercials. But in the 1990s, the rules for television programming were altered. The FCC dictates were relaxed to allow up to 21 minutes of non-programmed viewing (such as commercials, public service announcements and promotional material) within each hour. Commercials began to shrink over time from 30 and 60 seconds to 10 and 15 seconds. As a result, when a break in a program occurs now, viewers are subjected to numerous short and often obnoxious ads.

Watching these bursts of commercials reminds me of stepping outdoors on a summer's evening and turning on the porch light. That action brings hoards of insects out of the darkness. As the bugs attack, the flick their wings against your face, nearing your eyes and mouth. You swat at them wildly, trying to deflect the assault. The best escape is to hurriedly open the door and switch off the light. That adequately describes how I feel when experiencing an onslaught of numerous short, shallow TV ads.

Attention advertisers: How about trying to be creative? If you are invading my living room, how about entertaining me? Why not make me want to watch your mindless commercial rather than retreating to the kitchen to refill my iced tea? If women are a target shopping audience (and we often do the majority of shopping), give us something to keep us watching. I am more likely to watch an ad featuring an attractive man than one showing a child having a tantrum. It really doesn't matter what product is being hyped. It could be recycled galoshes. But if there is a hunky male featured, I'm going to pay more attention. Just sayin'.

Like the blizzard of political ads that has (finally) subsided, we should take consolation in the fact that the holiday blitz will be over in the near future. But in the meantime, they are quite simply not worth my time to watch.

Remember advertisers -- if you want women to help your sales figures, give us more to look at than Donald Trump and Justin Bieber. There are plenty of households where money is spent by women between the ages of 16 and 90.

How about a little eye candy? Oh, and remember -- we are not children.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Here It Comes!

Now that Thanksgiving is over, we must adjust our thinking and accept that it's time to focus on Christmas.

On Wednesday afternoon, I was standing in line at the local butcher's counter waiting to pick up my fresh turkey. (BTW, if you ever have a chance to order a fresh turkey instead of a frozen zombie bird, please do so. The taste is entirely different.) A tune was playing on a speaker, barely audible above the shoppers' voices. That tune was "Silent Night." Wednesday's date was November 21, over a month before Christmas.

Doesn't that seem a bit premature? Could there have been a single customer in the store who didn't realize that another holiday was lurking just over the horizon? Couldn't we go another week or two before commencing with the carols?

The newspaper yesterday morning -- Thanksgiving morning -- consisted of very little news and 15 pounds of advertising flyers. Everyone recognizes that holiday business amounts to a huge percentage of annual earnings for retailers. But perhaps they could take the money spent on newspaper advertising and use those funds to reduce the prices a few dollars. Everyone would benefit.

I have never understood what mania drives folks to camp out days in advance of Black Friday hoping to score some big item at a steep discount. The news on Monday --November 19 -- showed some folks in Florida already camped out in front of some big box store, awaiting the arrival of Friday. They had pitched tents and were cooking hot dogs on the grill as though they were about to tailgate. Actually they were waiting to spend money four days later. One of the men said that his mother would come down and see the group on Thanksgiving, bringing her good dishes and plenty of food.

Statistically, the Black Friday purchase prices do not represent huge discounts. They bring in customers and attract media attention. However, the same widgets that are discounted 15% for Black Friday will likely be stacked on the shelves in a week or two at 25% off. Some stores will naturally panic when sales aren't as high as expected and will continue to reduce prices repeatedly until Christmas in order to bring up their revenue.

Black Friday is truly a media-inspired event. It brings out the cameras to show footage on television of shoppers bursting through the doors. Local newspapers cover the sales, too, plastering photos on the front page of the "lucky" ones who resisted the need to bathe and changes clothes for days on end to save $2.35 on a sweater. The media does its best to make the non-attendees feel as though they have missed the boat.

I don't stand in line to pay for things, with a few exceptions. The grocery store, of course, often requires that we stand in line. But if a store really wants my money, they will either have enough cashiers available to speed up the process or I go elsewhere. Several years ago I was in the pre-Christmas shopping spirit at a Gap in Chicago. Sweaters were cute and available at a drastic reduction. So I took my purchases and headed happily toward the check out. Then I realized that the cashier's line was longer than the line I had endured to help elect Bill Clinton (first term). The voter line had a purpose. The Gap's line did not. I put my items down and left the store.

When I lived in Northern Virginia, I recall one after-Christmas sale extravaganza at a large shopping mall. The anchor stores had been advertising huge cuts and here was my big chance to find a bargain on the latest fashions. I arrived early, money and credit cards at hand. However, there was NO place to park. Recognizing how large parking lots are in comparison to the actual shopping area, I was undeterred at first. I drove around and around through the filled aisles until it suddenly occurred to me how foolish was my behavior.

In those days, I had virtually two days a week to take care of chores like buying groceries, hair salon trips, retrieval of dry cleaning, accessing veterinary care -- all the things that many folks squeeze in throughout the week. Living as I did and working long days meant frivolous tasks were allotted time only on weekends. So why was I driving around on a Saturday trying to give folks my money when I could be doing something more important? After a few more turns through the aisles, I went home and put my feet on the coffee table.

Spending money is bad enough, especially in these hard times. But buying holiday decorations or gifts should not be a Herculean task. A bargain is where you find it. And sometimes, all it takes is the click of a mouse. So that is exactly how I plan to shop this season -- again.

Long live online shopping!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Send in the Optimists

Gotta love optimism. It is a rare and valuable condition these days. Optimists are people that we need about now.

A friend of mind has recently been battling depression. Thankfully, she is doing better after admitting the existence of her problem and seeking help. She said one adjustment that has really helped is not watching the news on television. Oh, she still keeps current on events by reading newspaper headlines and scanning items of interest on the internet. But ignoring the overwhelming problems of the world helps her to avoid dealing with problems over which she has no control.

I'd heard this theory before. Some folks -- including those who like to control matters that life throws their way -- feel overwhelmed by hearing about all the bad things that are happening at any given time. These feelings can be overwhelming and counter-productive.

Take tonight's news, for instance. A half hour of network news included: the fighting in Israel/Gaza; details of a recent and extensive house explosion in Indianapolis (which has now been deemed a homicide); recovery efforts in New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy; and a well-known puppeteer from a famous children's puppet group who resigned following allegations of a very personal nature. Other than that, there was on-going updates from the resignation of a former CIA director, a report about people's lives being ruined by internet hackers and a story about striking personnel at a well-known discount store just in time for holiday shopping. Whew. And that occurred in a half-hour minus commercial time.

Things have been bad in the world and certainly in this country on many occasions in the past two centuries. Limiting consideration to that time frame eliminates such earlier events as the fall of Rome, the bubonic plague, The Inquisition and The Hundred Years War. This time restriction still allows us to face the rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, several wars -- The Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam, plus the Great Depression, presidential assassinations and the Civil Rights Movement. No doubt other atrocities occurred and have not been listed here. But let's face it -- a lot of really awful things have transpired on our planet.

In many of these incidents which occurred before the 1940s, there was little public awareness at the time. There was no television and many areas of the country without radio. Newspapers identified some of the turmoil and movie theatres showed snippets of some stories in a newsreel along with featured films. The public didn't know a lot of the details which was unfortunate for public information.

But was it really unfortunate that they didn't know? How would open dialogue about the existence of bubonic plague have made the public feel? No doubt there would be panic. Hysteria. Violence. What could the majority of people do about such a matter if they had known? Nothing. As the plague swept Europe, villagers heard stories about the approaching sickness. They had little choice but to wait until illness arrived and deal with it as best they could. Sometimes, it might be better if we didn't know about every lurid event over which we are powerless. Perhaps a little ignorance is bliss.

With the approach of the year end, the daily mail is filled with pleas for donations to help various charities. Each day brings another stack of solicitations. Most of us donate what we can as best we can whether serving as a volunteer or providing donations. No one can be expected to give to every worthy cause. In some instances, we need to turn off the sense of panic that such inability brings.

Some people are able to do just that. They remain optimistic about the "big picture" of life and do what they can. I admire optimism. It is optimism that keeps us moving forward and facing the world each day. It is not an easy trait to develop but unfortunately it is a trait which is easy to lose. I used to be such an optimist that some people actually told me I was too smug about life. Well, there is nothing like a few life experiences to take the spirit of optimism out of a person. Once lost, it is difficult to regain.

Looking at the end of another calendar year, I hope we can all find a little optimism waiting for us in our holiday gift exchange.

It's a wonderful gift indeed.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Facing Hubris

Hu-bris: 1. PRIDE excessive pride or arrogance 2. EXCESSIVE AMBITION the excessive pride and ambition that usually leads to the downfall of a hero in classical tragedy.

It was only in the last few years that I began to use the word hubris. Its current popularity is evidence that hubris may have risen to an epidemic level in recent years.

In recent days the national media has been in a frenzy about a particular military professional and former CIA director who was discovered to be involved in some type of indiscretion. Revelation of details relating to the matter have expanded to involve another high-ranking military general along with several other individuals. The entire episode appears to be quite complicated.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. Hubris is now out of control.

Having lived in various corners of the country and worked at several jobs over the years, I have direct knowledge of several cases of hubris. I can only imagine how many other cases of similar behavior have occurred. These are stories to be shared in the break room but do not warrant media coverage. There must be countless examples floating around out there, let alone the stories that make the headlines.

Any analysis of hubris must include scam artists. These are people who offer to install vinyl siding or repair a driveway, asking for money in advance. Of course, they disappear along with your money. Other scams include fund raisers for people who aren't actually sick. How about email scams which outline details of how a significant amount of the writer's money is frozen in a foreign bank? Upon receipt of your bank information or social security number, a large percentage of the sequestered money will be yours.

There are military veterans with storied records who never actually served in the military. Writers with highly-regarded educations who never attended the colleges identified on their resumes. Some people have reportedly impersonated medical professionals without bothering to be licensed.

This week I read a story of a comptroller in a small Midwestern town who pleaded guilty to embezzling $53 million from the city's accounts which allowed her to live lavishly while she continued to handle the town's finances. She will likely go to prison.

In my own experience, I know first-hand of several cases of hubris. One staff worker with a master key and access to offices was arrested for removing personal items from locked offices. Another person with similar access in a different setting took blank checks from Accounting, ran them through the check protector and then cashed them.   This does not even include the so-called "dalliances" which occur frequently in the workplace. Some such relationships are conducted with comparative discretion. Others are not.

Public examples of big-time hubris include famous athletes who may choose to use performance-enhancing aids, then vow to the press -- or even to Congress -- that they did not. They must believe themselves to be above the rules.

Some of these examples date from years ago, before cell phones had cameras and Facebook exposure was widespread. It's amazing to find that anyone -- like a former U.S. Senator -- would post compromising photos of themselves on Facebook without knowing that potentially millions of folks can see them. Stories of such poor judgment are rampant. "I didn't intend for everyone to see them" is a line often quoted in connection with such stories.

Poor judgment. At one time or another, most of us have displayed poor judgment. Telling a friend how much you dislike his/her current partner by saying "I'm glad you got rid of him/her. You deserve better." Then when the couple inevitably reunites, you have one less friend. Poor judgment.

However, displays of hubris are often headline grabbers. Reading about such events, it's natural to ask "What was the person thinking?"

Best to keep a watchful eye for our own lapse of good judgment to avoid making headlines. Hubris may be lurking around the next corner.





Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Renovation Time

One side effect of the approaching holiday season is that many of us decide to begin household projects. Whether families are expecting company during Christmas or entertaining for New Years, most people have at least a few undone chores.

The call is heard: get the projects done. Cool weather is always more conducive to indoor projects. In addition, the end of the calendar year gives us a deadline to finish tasks.

Since moving into my house a number of years ago, there was one, looming task remaining: redoing the kitchen. Why was this task delayed? Mostly because I could not decide what to do. Each time a new trend would emerge, I would cut pictures from magazines trying to analyze options. What style to try? What colors would look best?

The kitchen was finished a few weeks ago and the result is great. But the interruption to daily life far worse than anticipated. The work only took a couple of weeks, but workers were here daily and access to the kitchen nonexistent. Still, it looks great now and I didn't have to do much of the actual work.

A couple of recent events brought remodeling efforts to mind.

First, I was watching an HGTV program about people who purchased unusual buildings and remade them into fabulous homes. The buildings had all been abandoned and decrepit, including a classic old New York bank, a Spanish-style California school and a 19th century church. In each case, the buyers and subsequent homeowners had the vision to recognize the architectural beauty of the building and its potential. Each renovation was massive and no doubt frequently overwhelming. But the end results were spectacular.

What motivates someone mid-project to continue to the finish? There are probably countless untold stories of abandoned renovations where the task became too difficult or large to complete. Perhaps the buyer experienced some type of set back -- financial, personal, medical -- and was unable to complete the work. Perhaps the buyer had a spouse/partner who said, "Enough already."

Several years ago I worked with a woman whose husband was a contractor. He had begun remodeling their own kitchen many years earlier. "It's still not done," she would remark, shaking her head. "He works on other people's remodels all day long and by the time he gets home, the last thing he wants to do is more of the same."

I have to give kudos to those renovators who can stick with an overwhelming project until it is done.

The other event prompting thoughts of home repairs was the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy. Seeing the devastation suffered by folks on the East Coast is heartbreaking. I know what it is to encounter mold and water damage and cannot imagine how anyone can begin the process of clean up. Not only did they have to endure the storm, the frightening winds and rain, but they had to immediately turn their attention to rebuilding/repairing with no time for personal recovery.

Each time the news features stories of communities that have suffered flooding, tornado damage or wildfires, I cringe for the residents. They are dealing with loss on so many levels at once. They have lost everything, perhaps even loved ones. Many have become separated from their pets. They are without comforts, personal items, documents they might need. How can they begin to "fix" something forever gone?

Volunteer efforts appear to be strong, providing food, clothing and shelter within a short period. Volunteer agencies also step forward to help in the long run with clean up and rebuilding.

But as of today, some homeowners are still without power nearly two weeks after the storm hit. I cannot imagine what it takes to continue bravely under such conditions. People who keep their nose to the grindstone and forge on toward the future are truly to be admired.

Knowing that people have lost everything is a sobering thought. It makes the rest of our rather trivial concerns irrelevant by comparison.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Cats Rule

Thank goodness the election is over. Alas, one of my favorite candidates did not win his senate seat despite conducting a clean campaign and looking exceedingly handsome in each photo.

That would be Hank, a cat in Virginia who hoped to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Hank won 6,000 write-in votes and supporters contributed $16,000 to animal rescue groups on his behalf. It's rare to see a candidate with that much class who works tirelessly for the benefit of the community. Gotta give Hank credit.

I have always had immense respect for cats. Dogs are nice in their place. Birds brighten their environment, singing and even talking clearly. There are many other species which make good household pets: hamsters, gerbils, fish and ferrets to name only a few. However, it's hard to top cats as the all-round kings of Petdom.

Just like identifying what constitutes a truly attractive man, the secret to the appeal of cats is their eyes. When observing a cat, most people immediately attempt eye contact. Looking in our eyes is a cat's way of scoping out visitors and confirming they are non-threatening. Many cat behavior experts advise against locking into a staring contest with cats, who may interpret this as a sign of aggression and will often attack if they sense a challenger.

There is "someone home" behind a cat's eyes. The cat demonstrates focus as he analyzes what is going on around him. He pays attention to activities, odors, moving objects, even light and shadow. His eyes may open widely as he deciphers the signs, looking for threats and escape routes if needed. Sadly, these same skills are not evident in many human beings.

Some people simply do not like cats. "They're sneaky." "They bring in mice/birds and that scares me." "They have too much attitude." Admittedly cats are masters of their own domain and people who share space with a cat are keenly aware that they must pay attention to the cat's requests.

Hank, the Virginia candidate, could not express himself to his audience. Many other cats do speak to us -- everyday and often -- but many people fail to read the signals. Perhaps one of the greatest failures of cat ownership is neglecting to heed the signs. It is up to the cat's handler to pay attention, read the signs and obey.

My two cats Max and Tesla keep me on my toes. They co-exist despite being completely different and seriously independent. Max is five years old, 15 pounds and a gentle giant. He looks threatening but the ring of the doorbell or a stray clap of thunder will send him under the nearest bed. Tesla is nearly a year old, persuasion personified. She can get anyone to pick her up and make over her. Tesla knows she is irresistible and wants everyone to remember that fact.

But I am not the only feline fan around. Countless celebrities through time have indicated their partiality for cats. There is something about cats which unites us and which folks more famous than me have recorded. Here are some samples:

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea."
-- Robert A. Heinlein

"If animals could speak, the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow; but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much." -- Mark Twain

"I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time." -- Neil Gaiman

"The only escape from the miseries of life are music and cats…" -- Albert Schweitzer

"What greater gift than the love of a cat." -- Charles Dickens

"A cat has absolute emotional honesty; human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not." -- Ernest Hemingway

"The smallest feline is a masterpiece." -- Leonardo da Vinci

If you are also a fan of the feline, take pride in your position. If you are among those who never found the appeal of cats, perhaps you should rethink your position. After all, there are many great minds who have found something to love in a fur ball who can't wait to climb into your lap.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Running for Office

Today's the big day and hopefully people are flocking to cast their votes.

That's the American way, the process that repeats every four years. Admittedly, this past year has seemed long and tedious as the field of various candidates narrowed and those remaining took to the air waves.

It's all over, as they say, but the shouting. Whoever wins will have obtained a job I could never envy. Just why would someone run for public office?  The entire process has become nearly prohibitively expensive and anyone with a cell phone can record every misstep by each candidate.  Why would anyone want to run?

I "ran" for Student Council in the 7th grade. It seemed like a big deal. When it came time to vote, someone asked our teacher whether we could vote for ourselves. She said, "Anyone who doesn't vote for himself/herself does not deserve to win." I voted for myself and won, too. While it was fun to serve on Student Council, that was the end of any desire to be a candidate for anything else.

Who ran for class offices in junior and senior high school? Guys who wanted girls to recognize their maturity. Some candidates merely wanted to see if they could win. Many girls who ran were pretty or popular and basked in the attention. Winning also meant having more photos in the yearbook, more than enough reward.

That makes as much sense as anything, I suppose.

A friend recently suggested that candidates run because they have enormous egos. Call it ego, sense of entitlement, poise or naiveté. Something nags away at certain folks who believe they can actually make a difference. That might have been noble in high school but any candidate who believes they will make a teensy bit of difference in the politics of any adult government -- local, state or national -- is living in a bubble.

I'm not experienced in the ways of politics, other than listening to candidates over the decades and voting regularly. I was employed in local government for several years, enough to know that very little is accomplished unless the person making the request is important or well-known in the community. That's a fact stated from first-hand observation and confirmed within a few days. Perhaps that policy is the result of government employees who fear losing their jobs. Perhaps they feel overly-important because they have a job that encourages favoritism. But most workers are merely hanging on until retirement, day-dreaming about life on Easy Street and doing little in the meantime to make waves.

I also lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. metro area for eight years. That's the equivalent of two 4-year terms and, believe me, that was enough for anyone. No wonder that was the length of time chosen for term limits. I did not work in government but witnessed the wriggling and gyrations caused by the influence of government's omnipotence. That period was astonishing and opened my eyes. The national government -- including the myriad of peripheral jobs and hopeful wannabes -- is a mind-boggling creature. Government workers at the highest level are usually exactly where they want to be. Life is good, very good. And they don't want anyone bringing change.

Recent local campaign advertising has depicted sweet-faced, well-groomed family folks who vow to fight the good fight for love of their fellow citizens. That is hard to believe. But if there are those candidates who really believe they can rock the boat of long-time pirates, they are in for a surprise. New arrivals won't be able to find their offices for months. It's a jungle that likes to scare off newcomers who want to see the wild animals. Intimidating. Exclusive. Filled with pork and pretension.

No place for the faint of heart.

So a message to any candidates out there: I hope you won your election if that's what you really wanted. But just remember: be careful what you wish for.

To quote Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate" when, as Bill McKay, he won election, "What do we do now?"

Friday, November 2, 2012

Falling Out of Favor

A friend and I were recently discussing certain things which seem to have fallen out of favor.

We can all acknowledge that today's world is defined by the here and now. There is little room for yesterday's news in our whirlwind existence. That's too bad. Ignoring the past narrows our frame of reference and deletes ideas and people which are extremely worthwhile and deserving of remembrance.

The late philosopher-poet George Santayana expressed an often-quoted opinion about this subject. He is noted for his statement that "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them." His concept has been often misquoted but the basic concept is simple: we should pay attention to the past and learn from it. A wise man indeed.

This morning's news about the recovery from Hurricane Sandy sparked a perfect example, not of historical importance but of common sense. The story was about the disruption in cell phone service following the recent storm and how pay telephones had been brought in to enable residents to contact family members and others who can assist. Apparently some people living on the East Coast had never before seen pay phones and had no idea how to use them.

I don't think this observation warrants comment. I merely wanted to pass this along. People who don't pay attention to what happened day before yesterday are missing a great deal.

In order to absorb information from the past, we need to be open to learning about things which existed outside of the past 24 hours. Two personal examples come to mind and are worth repeating.

While working in an office a few years back, I had a co-worker in her twenties who was responsible for several tasks which kept things moving smoothly for the staff. One day I was showing her a simple way to do two of the tasks at once so that she could achieve the same result more easily. "Sorry," she smiled. "I don't care to learn anything more. I've already learned all I want to learn."

The other example involved a comment I made one day regarding something about President Franklin Roosevelt. I don't even recall the context but it most likely had something to do with Social Security. The girl I was talking to rolled her eyes and sighed. "Well, that was WAY before my time. So I don't know anything about that." I calmly responded, "Franklin Roosevelt was WAY before my time, too. In fact, John Quincy Adams was WAY before my time, but I've heard of him."

I used to think that the casual dismissal of the past was something practiced by the so-called younger generation. Now I don't think that is entirely true. The under-20 group does live in its own world with its sense of infallibility and omnipotence. But that has been true since Elvis Presley first came on the scene and rock 'n' roll music separated us from our parents. (In truth, the separation probably goes back to the Pilgrims and even before.)

Perhaps it is natural that we forget a great deal about our past. I've heard a theory that the dominant role of computers has allowed us the luxury of forgetting a great deal of information. Instead of asking, "What was the name of the original Beatle that Ringo Starr replaced?" and perhaps trying to recall it, we now merely Google the question and immediately are provided with the answer (Pete Best). That requires a lot fewer mental gymnastics than a few years ago and we learn that we aren't compelled to recall relative minutia.

But in ignoring the past we seem to have lost a lot of practical knowledge (like how to sew a seam or prepare substitute cooking ingredients) as well of interesting things about numerous topics in the process.

We need to pay more attention to the past. This does not need to be as momentous as the name of the leader of the Nazi party during World War II or which scientist developed Polio vaccine. That data is available from several sources. Life involves a myriad of informational tidbits (how to make our own mayonnaise, the date of Aunt Susie's birthday, which color you get from blending yellow and blue) that we might want to recall.

Exercise those neurons one way or another. Assemble a puzzle or complete a word game. Occasionally pick up a book or magazine. Try something completely outside of your comfort zone.

You might be glad you did.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's The Date Again?

Today is October 30, the day before Halloween. As I've whined about before, Halloween has nearly completed its journey from trick-or-treating to becoming an adult play day. Kids still go out looking for candy, but the spirit of the day has been drastically altered.

If one thing hasn't changed, it's the affection adults have for the bite-size candy bars and goodies intended for the little guys. Today I found my stash of such treats somewhat depleted. Some time ago I bought two large bags of candy and, as is my usual practice, bought the good stuff just in case there was an abundance of leftovers. OK, so I had a few myself in recent days and decided this morning to return to my favorite store to pick up a couple of additional bags before the door bell starts ringing.

Guess what? The store was out of Halloween candy. Clerks were unpacking Christmas candy today. The checker said that this close to Halloween it would be silly to expect the store to have -- Halloween candy.

Let me get this straight. Christmas candy? Christmas is almost two months away.

Sure, we've all seen television commercials dropping hints about the Big Event that rolls around in December. One TV commercial is for scented candles and, although it doesn't refer to Christmas outright, the candles being hawked are red and green. There are ads for major department and discount stores explaining the benefits of lay away and casually depecting elves. Plus there is that one often-shown ad for a large retailer which includes a white dog with a red bulls-eye painted around his eye (get it?) which has actually received a significant amount of negative feedback. People have said, "Hey, it's really too early for that." But the ad continues to run. So be it.

Christmas hype has been with us for many years and does not appear to be waning either.

When I was a kid, even a very young kid, the Santa hysterics were quite evident. There were church events, a school band event, singing carols and making a gift at school. All of those activities involved either making something or rehearsing to perform, all of which required getting into the swing of the holiday weeks earlier than everyone else. That was OK because we realized the planned performance/gift required oodles of practice and time.

But Christmas was not hyped on television or in the press, at least to the same degree. We eagerly awaited the Wards and Sears catalogues and looked through the pages to see what we might want to put on our Wish List. The process was done discretely, quietly, carefully. We marked the pages and made a list.

Excitement didn't build seriously until after Thanksgiving. When we watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and saw Santa riding a float at the end, it was official. Christmas was on its way! Thanksgiving was savored for its warmth and family gathering. Turkey sandwiches followed and then… it was time to begin looking ahead to the next holiday. Enthusiasm was there when we really needed it.

Today many people shop well in advance of Christmas. Some shoppers are hoping to find the best bargains. Some have to buy early because they are shipping gifts to a distant location and have to leave enough time. Some want to purchase an item before the store "runs out." Others simply want the shopping to be finished, somewhat like going to the dentist.

Rushing and enjoying seem contradictory. If you are going to enjoy a holiday (or vacation or dinner at a nice restaurant), isn't it better to relax during the event? Why run around like a chicken with its head cut off?

Now through the end of the calendar year is a period filled with a myriad of events. There is family time. Cooking and eating time. Decorating the tree time. Plenty of memories to recall and cherish.

But we need to keep in mind that we are supposed to enjoy the time we are given. Especially during the rush to do everything, we need to slow down and enjoy each minute.

Friday, October 26, 2012

I Don't Get It

In this world of sound bites, instant messages and late breaking headlines, a most extraordinary development has occurred. There seems to be a wide-spread breakdown in information that we all need.

The public is told the minute that certain celebrities get plastic surgery, check into rehab or file for divorce. It doesn't escape our attention when a politician misrepresents a fact or ignites controversy. There is instant coverage for any number of media trollops who bask in the spotlight promising some juicy tidbit.

No, that "information" is immediately provided to the public.

What seems to be missing is good, old-fashioned details about matters which are confusing.

Recently I have been sifting through materials provided by insurance companies hoping to lure Medicare recipients during the so-called open enrollment period. Having turned 65 this year, I quietly entered the bracket and selected supplemental coverage. Open enrollment is my first indication of just how many friends I have in the insurance industry. It's rather nice to be wanted.

But gotta say that navigating the materials is daunting. In fact, I'm only reviewing materials following a rather disappointing performance by my original choice. On more than one occasion, I had contacted my original provider to ask coverage questions. In each instance, I was given the assurance that yes, the matter would be 100% covered. At no time was this information correct, resulting in additional expenses to me. One matter was "appealed" and I was assured in writing that a reimbursement payment would be forthcoming. When 60 days had passed without receiving a check, a follow-up inquiry uncovered that the letter was wrong and in fact there would be no payment. Why had I received a letter saying that a check would be issued? "Sorry, I don't know" is hardly reassuring.

It's thoughtful to offer an annual period when seniors can shop around to identify a different provider. From what I've gathered, it sounds like many people actually do change coverage to find better customer service or access to information.

But after looking at alternatives, I'm not so sure that such an option exists.

Recently I met with a local insurance consultant who helped explain coverage. His answer? "They're all pretty much the same. They will avoid paying you if at all possible." This statement is probably the most revealing information received to date on the subject.

Medicare supplemental insurance is not the only area to deal in smoke and mirrors. It only happens to be a current example which impacts a large audience. Someone remarked to me that I happen to be inquisitive enough to ask some pertinent questions. He added that most people don't even ask questions and merely accept what is offered.

While the Medicare coverage issue seems rather insignificant in the "big picture" of life, this example provides a chance to revisit some points we should all keep in mind.

  • Pay attention. If you are about to do something big (or even small, for that matter), pay attention. Whether that action involves buying a house/car, signing a contract/agreement, or getting married/divorced, slow down a bit and think the matter through. Putting your name on anything should not to be done carelessly. If the matter is particularly momentous or intimidating, get a second opinion.
  • Ask questions. It's surprising how many times I ask a question about some matter when the response is "You're the first person to ask that." People should ask questions about anything that is unclear. Expressions like "what if" or "why" should be part of your dialogue. Take these phrases out of storage, dust them off and use them.
  • Do your homework. Whether it's changing insurance providers or trying a new medication, gather some information. It's out there. Try searching the internet. Don't have internet access? Most local libraries are wired. If not, the library can help you find information one way or another. There is likely a senior center or agency which can provide guidance.
  • Get assistance. Being a pest is not necessarily a bad thing. Customer service is provided by most organizations. They may not welcome questions, but that's the reason they exist. Make sure you feel comfortable with your conclusion.

You owe it to yourself to take control of your decisions. You'll be glad that you did.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis

It hard to believe that 50 years have passed since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Last night NBC Nightly News ran a story about the event and showed video of President Kennedy speaking to the nation about the matter. A very young president said: It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.

President Kennedy certainly got our attention.

I was in high school at the time and remember that period vividly. Of course, there had been talk about the so-called nuclear threat all during the Cold War. Ever since the end of World War II -- even before I was born -- the majority of people were aware of the dangers of atomic warfare.

At first, the nuclear threat was explored in films starring gigantic insects and organisms resulting from nuclear tests. We giggled as we silently pondered whether such things might actually exist.

Waves of paranoia ebbed and flowed throughout the 1950s, accompanied by other hysteria, like the "Red" witch hunt conducted by the late Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was a period of post-war apprehension and uncertainty.

Then began more open discussions about nuclear war. Some folks constructed bomb shelters in their back yards. Others created survival kits for their homes -- flashlights, food and water -- just in case. At school, we practiced "duck and cover" drills in which we got on the classroom floor beneath our desks, face down and rolled up like a ball so we would be able to withstand a nuclear attack.

But suddenly an actual situation had developed. The missile crisis involved a challenge by the Soviet Union which had established missiles in Cuba, a stone's throw away from the United States. It was a tense thirteen days until the matter was resolved and the missiles were removed.

In hindsight and based on all accounts of those involved in 1962, the United States was very close to entering nuclear war.

Graham Allison, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has said: Fifty years ago, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. During the standoff, U.S. President John F. Kennedy thought the chance of escalation to war was ''between 1 in 3 and even,'' and what we have learned in later decades has done nothing to lengthen those odds. We now know, for example, that in addition to nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, the Soviet Union had deployed 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander there could have launched these weapons without additional codes or commands from Moscow. The U.S. air strike and invasion that were scheduled for the third week of the confrontation would likely have triggered a nuclear response against American ships and troops, and perhaps even Miami. The resulting war might have led to the deaths of 100 million Americans and over 100 million Russians.

What if the American people had been fully aware of the situation in 1962? It seems likely that panic might have ensued, causing riots and worse. Perhaps that would not have been the case in view of the American mindset of 50 years ago. We were not yet ruled by sound bites and instant information.

So, what's the point of exploring this event?

The point is that sometimes instant information should be reined in a bit. Today pundits are so anxious to get a scoop that they leap to conclusions which are both ill-advised and incorrect. As the present political campaign nears to an end, perhaps we should try to exercise a certain amount of restraint before reporting any rumor to be a verified fact.

This country has come a long way. It would be shame to see us regress into a nation of Chicken Littles who run through the streets screaming, "The sky is falling."

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Changing Face of Halloween

Halloween is on its way. Rather, I should call it The New Halloween.

Few things are exactly as we remember them from childhood. But Halloween may have undergone the most radical change of all.

Halloween was originally for kids. Knowing that it was coming meant it was time to pick a costume and decide what character you wanted to be. Moms were usually involved in the creation, which likely included some discarded clothing, perhaps a sheet with holes cut for eyes and maybe a mask purchased from Woolworth's or Kresge's. On the big day, kids disappeared during the lunch hour and returned to school dressed in costume. Younger kids often paraded around to visit each other's classes in costume, hoping that no one would recognize them.

Halloween was one time that we went to the neighbors' houses to trick or treat. It was simple but fun: we would knock on their door and ask for candy. Everyone would inspect his candy haul and carefully protect the loot. There was rarely an adult to accompany us as we covered the neighborhood in the dark. Occasionally a few of us would go to another neighborhood and perhaps be driven, but that was unusual.

The last time I recall going to any school Halloween event was in 7th grade when the school band had a big party. Many kids attended and there was a spook house where scary stories were told while your hand was immersed in dishes of raw liver. There were other activities including recorded music for dancing. But at 7th grade we already were outgrowing Halloween.

A lot of time has passed.

Today, Halloween is a big deal, especially for the adults. There are saucy, risqué costumes, the use of elaborate make-up techniques -- it's become very complicated. Sure, kids still trick or treat, but I would imagine nationwide the numbers of kids out on Halloween have vastly reduced.

Wonder when this all changed?

Many years ago, while living in a large city in the Southwest, we began to hear rumors of people "putting stuff" into treats handed out at Halloween. News reports indicated there were razor blades and straight pins being inserted into apples and candy bars. Just who the heck was doing such a thing? After all, this is a holiday for the kiddies. Some hospitals even offered to x-ray candy that had been received. Parents warned the kids not to eat anything before it was examined.

Today it's dangerous for small children to go out alone at night. I don't know whether or not there continues to be Halloween fear in all parts of the country. But most of the children who visit our house now at Halloween are in groups of 2 to 5 and always accompanied by at least one parent. Concern by parents is not over done. It's probably a very good idea.

Some towns don't encourage trick or treating at all. Instead, they have a community-wide event at a shopping mall, park or other public area where people congregate and kids can collect candy from local merchants. It's all in good fun and parents probably relax when there is a certain amount of structure. Sometimes these events include a costume contest with prizes given for creativity.

But nearly everywhere -- at stores, in offices, on campuses -- it appears to be the adults who wear the majority of costumes these days. They wear elaborate designs which consume a lot of time and even money to execute. In the 1950s, few -- if any -- adults participated. There might have been private parties at lodges or church groups which adults attended. But seeing someone in costume at the bank or grocery did not occur.

Several years ago, my groceries were checked out by The Hulk, a bulging specimen decked out in green paint wearing a torn shirt. This was the first time I recall seeing someone in the workplace in costume and it was a little awkward. Was I supposed to say, "Like your costume" as I handed him my check? Do workers know how out of place they appear?

Families still decorate for Halloween, carve pumpkins and buy bags of candy, but the spirit of Halloween seems to have changed. Too bad, too, because it's one of the last bastions of something set aside for children.

Perhaps that's why some people seem determined to remain a child for one more year.