Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Year?

There was a time when I looked forward to a new year.

But not so much anymore.

I think I might have outgrown the New Year's concept. I mean, it's all arbitrary anyway. January 1 basically serves as the demarcation date for starting over. And "starting over" basically  implies a series or collection of goofs, mistakes, errors, miscalculations and Lord knows what else that were made in the previous 365 days that got us to where we are anyway.

This sounds grossly pessimistic, although I am by nature (I think) not a pessimistic person. It just is,  because there is no such thing as perfection in our human condition.

So we muddle on.

Yes, yes, yes. Good stuff does happen, and that, too, is part of our condition. But very few of us wish each other a happy new year for the good stuff to keep continuing. Peel back the layers and it's likely we'll see that we wish each other happy new year in the hope that things get better for all of us.

It's a good wish to have.

I used to like New Year's because it is a continuation of the holiday season, coming on the heels of Christmas, as it does. We're in winter, and we need reasons to celebrate while freezing our tails off. Plus, we get a lot of time off. Holiday time off from school all those years, which actually conditioned me in my adulthood to expect time off from work. I still feel it. Talk about entitlement, sheesh....

Anyway, I'd park myself in front of the television around 11 p.m. and watch Dick Clark count down the new year, drink some cheap champagne, kiss my wife, and hope the new year would somehow be better than the old one.

Turns out, the new year almost always pretty much resembles the one we just put into the history books. It usually takes me to Jan. 2 to figure that out.

Still... I don't have to stay up late to see the crystal ball drop in Times Square. I don't have to drink my bubbly vinegar, or kiss my friends on the cheek, to reach another demarcation date. But I still do, only now with a seasoned eye and an earlier bed time.

So Happy New Year. Toot the horns and let the streamers and confetti fall.

We get to start over, my friends. Muddle on.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A holiday feast

Christmastime is a feast for the senses, full of sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

So what is the one thing that sensuously stands out in my mind?

I miss the smell of ozone. Specifically, electric ozone. And more specifically, the electric ozone that wafted from the Lionel HO scale train that circled endlessly underneath the Christmas tree.

When we lived in Fountain Hill, Pa., back in the 1950s, and Santa Claus was still a believable annual visitor to our house (What, you mean he isn't?), one of the things he brought was the train set.

No, wait. You don't understand me. He brought the train set, along with the gifts. And the tree. Each year. Yep, that's how Santa worked at our house. My brother and I would go to sleep on Christmas Eve in an undecorated house, save for a single wreath on the front door, only to wake up in the morning with a fully lighted tree in the living room soaring from a mound of gifts. Oh, yeah, and with a six-car Lionel steam locomotive chasing its caboose — and nearly catching it — around the tree.

I can't imagine how my parents hustled to get all this stuff together in a single night. I mean, a tree? With lights and tinsel and glass balls and all those other ornaments? C'mon. Really. A different time, I guess. A different era.

Anyway, dad was the engineer of this train. After the presents were opened, we'd sit by the tree. Dad would flick on the control box, and the little engine that could sprang immediately into life, jumping into full speed like a sprinter from a cloud of blue ozone.


The thing was, my brother and I could never operate it ourselves. That was dad's domain.

Over the years, as we got older and Santa was less believable, the train display grew. It eventually took over our living room year-round, set up as it was on an old Ping Pong table, and included scenery: tunnels, trestles, crossing gates, water towers and train stations. There were two trains: the original steam locomotive, and a diesel. It was great. I wonder how mom ever let dad get away with it. I don't recall us ever entertaining guests, other than dad bringing in his male friends to the house to check out his train display. They could play with it — but we couldn't.

There is one other vivid memory I have. A few years later — maybe our last in Fountain Hill, around 1958 — and I was beginning to understand that Santa was more of a Christmas sentiment than a Christmas sentinel — dad had the entire family trudge through our quaint little hillside village to purchase a tree a few days before Christmas. It was snowing, and it was in the evening. It could have been a scene stolen straight from the Norman Rockwell collection.

But we bought our tree, put it on the sled we brought with us and lugged it back to the house, snowflakes kissing our faces along the way. How could I know then that this would stay with me for more than 50 years?

We set the tree up that night, without Santa's help, and turned on the string of colored lights. The ozone was gone, but the Fraser Fir more than compensated.

So did the Tollhouse cookies and the hot chocolate.

Merry Christmas all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The heavy heart

My original intent today was to write about a childhood Christmas memory, particularly about selecting and then decorating a tree. As a child, those were awesome days for me, and awesome times.

But I can't seem to shake the horror of Newtown, Connecticut.

Of the mass shootings in my lifetime — the first one I can remember is the shooting spree from the clock tower on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin in 1966, in which 14 people were killed (among them the shooter's mother and his wife) and 32 were wounded — the slaughter in Connecticut seems most grievous and most heinous to me.

This is no doubt because of the 26 people killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 20 of them were first graders, 6 and 7 years old, all with multiple gunshot wounds. Somehow, to my mind, this transcends Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora — as if it were even possible to raise the bar on senseless horror.

But, geez. Kids. Kids at Christmastime. Their time.

We're learning that many of the teachers at this school performed heroically, perhaps saving untold scores of young lives. And that is wonderful, and amazing, and a triumph of human spirit, until I realize that teachers should not be heroes in the soldierly sense. I want them to be my heroes in the professional sense. Dodging bullets should not be in the job description.

So my heart is particularly heavy. I'm glued to the television news until I can't stand anymore, walk away for a little bit, then come running back for more to fill my information vacuum. I don't think it's a ghoulish voyeurism that motivates me here — I think it's more a quest to try to understand why. Why. Why.

The answer most likely will not come from television. It might even be unanswerable, I don't know.

So I'll continue to shed the unchecked occasional tear, swallow hard my emotions and try to balance the heart that weighs heavy on my soul.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The end is near, Part DOH!

Kim and I were fitfully running around earlier this week, trying to get the rest of our Christmas shopping done.

We even made a dreaded trip to Winston-Salem Thursday night to go to the mall, hoping to beat the crowd as Dec. 25 approaches.

Then it hit me: Dec. 21 is the end of the world. What am I worried about?

This is probably about the 33rd Doomsday Proclamation that I've been so forewarned in my lifetime, and miraculously, I've survived them all. This one has something to do with the end of the Maya long count calendar on Dec. 21 and is somehow connected with an impending collision on that date with a planet called Nibiru that nobody has ever heard of before.

I don't know how the prescient ancient Mayas knew this would happen or even why the Mayas seem to have so much credibility — as opposed to the ancient Aztecs or the ancient Incas — in this matter. I'm not sure I'm going to spend the next 12 days worrying about it, though. What you don't hear too much about is that the Maya calendar begins a new cycle on Dec. 22, which in itself implies continuation of life as we know it, even for the Mayas.

Buuuut, you never know.

NASA has put out a nice FAQ page explaining why it's best not to stop wrapping your gifts (see here), but I wonder if it's still best to hedge your bets. Anything can happen. I suppose we could wake up Dec. 21 and the atmosphere has suddenly turned to hydrochloric acid, or better yet, nitrous oxide. Then we could laugh ourselves to death. Maybe the seas will rise up or maybe the sun will explode. Who knows?

I always kind of wondered what it would be like if gravity simply stopped working.

I do find it a little disturbing that this end-of-the-world event is scheduled just a few days ahead of Christmas.

So now I'm thinking I might hedge my bet in the opposite direction. I'm betting I better not stop shopping for Christmas gifts. Anyway, not until I get my 34th Doomsday Proclamation.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Getting ready

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which means we have just a little more than three weeks left until Christmas.

Usually, the First Sunday in Advent is the last Sunday in November. I'm not quite sure why it's waited to fall on the first Sunday of December this year, but if I was industrious enough to find out, I might learn that that extra 29th day back in February might have something to do with it: ah, yes. Leap Year.

Leap Year might also go a long way to explain why there are five Sundays this month as well as five Saturdays. But maybe not. I don't know. That calendarian Julius Caesar is long gone, no doubt buried under all those centuries of 29-day Februarys.

My Moravian star and flag announce the Advent season.
Anyway, it's now the Advent season. The First Sunday usually is my signal to get started decorating the house, and this happens in spurts and fits. Most of our decorations are hidden away deep in the back corner of a walk-in closet upstairs. That means climbing steps. Then it means groping through a forest of old clothes and winter jackets while tripping over bags of storage on the floor to get to the Christmas candles and artificial wreaths bagged on a back shelf.

And you don't want to step on a bag. If you do, and you hear a sound like Styrofoam crunching under your heels, well, it's probably best to tell the wife right off what happened so as not to spoil the rest of December for either of you. I'd probably feel so bad I don't even think I could look inside the bag to see what crunched.

My closet strategy is to keep the the stuff I use most often near the front for easy access. But somehow, during the course of the year, stuff migrates. I don't know how this happens. Consequently, it took me 20 minutes to locate my bag of candles, which I thought were up front but turned out to be near the back of the closet, underneath a bunch of other stuff. It took me less than 10 minutes to put the candles in four windows after I found them. Sheesh.

I also hung my Moravian star. This requires converting my front porch light into a receptacle for the star, which in itself is not difficult. Unless you're me. I have to climb a two-step ladder to get to the light, which does not lend itself to a stable sense of security as you might think. Plus, the star itself is not particularly easy to handle what with all those plastic points jutting out everywhere.

Making matters somewhat difficult is the fact that my star is about 10 years old now. Some of the plastic rivets holding the points together have become brittle and have broken off, or are about to, so now I handle the star with extra care. I halfway expect to see star debris on my porch one morning.

I also noticed that after I hung my star and turned on the switch, the light momentarily flickered. Uh-oh. My star has given me good service over the years, but it's time may be near. Look at it this way: I keep my star lit through all of December. That's 31 days. Now figure I've done this for 10 or 11 years, and you suddenly realize I've had it lit every day for a full year. Can I get another season out of it? We'll see.

I also hung my oversized Moravian Love Feast flag, which features a mug of coffee, a Love Feast bun and an iconic Moravian candle with curled ribbon at the base. It's a great flag.

I haven't hung the wreaths yet. That's a combined project with the wife, and we'll probably tackle that one in the next week or so.

At least I know where they are in the closet.