Monday, December 28, 2009

Year in Books

I am not going to do a full-blown top ten or twelve year-end book review but I can't let the year end without at least a little bit of commentary on some of the books I read this year.

My favorite fiction read of the year had to be The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This new 40-year-old Alabama author struck a cord with readers, especially Southerners, with her poignant account of life in Mississippi in the early sixties and the relationships of white women and their African American domestic workers.

A close second was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society which left me feeling warm all over. Upon the recommendation of blog friends Quid and Steve, I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the chilling post-apocolyptic account which literally kept me up at night after I finished it. Did I enjoy it? That's hard to say -- don't know if I would use the word "enjoy" associated with this book. Did it keep me spell bound? Without a doubt. Now I'm trying to decide if I would dare go see the movie.

Also near the top of the list of fiction was Sarah's Key which centers around the little known (at least to me) part of the Holocaust which took place in France.

My hands-down non-fiction favorite was Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years in which this unconventional Christian author of Blue Like Jazz had me dying laughing then crying, as he related his journey of learning how his life is a story. Also loved Witsec, which tells the fascinating history of the U.S. Government's Federal Witness Protection Program; Letters from a Skeptic, a collection of letters back and forth between a seminary professor and his agnostic father; and Late Edition, a Love Story, by Bob Greene, in which he laments the shrinking of the American newspaper at the hands of the Internet by telling his own story of working as a high school student at a local newspaper in Columbus, Ohio.

Also on the non-fiction side, really enjoyed Three Cups of Tea, about Gregg Mortensen's amazing success at buiilding schools in Pakistan.

My nod to classical literature this year was J.D. Sallinger's Catcher in the Rye which somehow I misssed as a high school and college student. Really enjoyed it and I am open to suggestions for more classics in 2010.

I am ending the year with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, originally written in French but translated into extremely readable English. I am about two-thirds through this one, which tells parallel stories of a middle-aged widowed concierge in a French apartment building and a 12-year-old girl who lives in the same building. I started it Christmas night and it has been a real page turner.

As usual, I would welcome your reading recommendations for 2o10. Good reading to all.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Notes from Christmas Day

Christmas night. It was a great, relaxing day. I did Christmas morning breakfast which we enjoyed about 10:45 -- we have to wake them up now! My how things have changed. We lingered at the table talking and laughing, then opened gifts.

We had about ten minutes of snow!

Lunch about 3:15. The young ones off to the Titans' game (which is proving to be sad) about 5. Wife and I in our PJs, watching the game but losing interest.

The menu for Christmas Eve ended up being Shrimp Scampi and Baked Ziti, both of which were wonderful. Also had a tortellini appetizer. Wife found a CD with Italian Christmas music. Great fun. Bread pudding for dessert. Mmmmmm!

Need to get to the Y early in the a.m. to start working off some of the excess I enjoyed these past couple of days. They're having a 90-minute cycling class, twice as long as the norm; think that could kill me but Daughter is challenging me to go. We'll see.

Hope everyone enjoys the long holiday weekend.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What I Love About Christmas

We will have a different kind of Christmas this year in that we will have no extended family. Over the time Wife and I have been married, we have gone to one of our parents’ homes and celebrated with them and, at times, our siblings, or, in more recent years, they have come to us.

My parents are now, of course, deceased. Wife’s parents, who live in Little Rock and are both 81, were here at Thanksgiving, along with their other daughter and family. They said they were staying home this Christmas, that the trip over in November was enough traveling for them for a while.

While we will miss them terribly, we are turning our attention toward our own family and what we will do. We started a tradition last year of having an international theme on Christmas Eve. Last year was Mexico and we strung up red pepper lights, played “Feliz Navidad” over and over, ad nauseum, and ate tacos, etc. It was a riot.

This year, in honor of Wife’s and my recent European trip, we are going with an Italian theme. Haven’t settled on the menu yet but I am sure we will have some type of pasta and it will be wonderful. How authentically Italian it will be remains to be seen but it will be great. Not sure about the music.


I think I might have written about this last year, too, but it’s worth mentioning again. I just don’t get worked up over whether people say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or whatever. There are some Christian organizations that are urging us to boycott stores that don’t say “Merry Christmas.” One even goes so far as to tell you how you can “rate” the various retail outlets for their attention to the word Christmas.

Please. Don’t you think those of us who are Christ followers can make better use of our time and energies? And don’t you think Jesus would rather we concentrate a little more on that “love your neighbor” stuff than trying to assure that those who choose not to follow Him acknowledge his birthday? Nobody can stop you or me from celebrating the birth of Christ, just as I can’t force anyone TO celebrate it. So please, chill out about this one.


Have you seen this year’s hands down winner of the award for “Sure-to-make-you-cry” Christmas commercial? I’m telling you, Wife and I can’t even talk about this one, much less watch it, without tearing up.

It is presented by Publix Supermarkets and I haven’t been able to find it on YouTube so I owe it to you to try and describe it.

There’s this young man, looks mid-twenty-ish, and apparently he’s a medical resident and he’s having to work Christmas. He’s standing at the nurses’ station in the hospital talking to his mom on his cell phone and it’s obviously Christmas Eve. It cuts away to Mom and she’s just as wholesome looking as can be, standing there with the phone in her hand amidst all the activity around her – folks trimming a tree, rolling out biscuits, putting a pie in the oven -- while Christmas music plays in the background.

He tells her how he wishes he could be there and she says she does too. He has to go, he says, and tells her he loves her. You can tell Mom’s being strong for him, as moms are supposed to be.

The next scene is him standing at the foot of a hospital bed and you can hear the voice of his patient asking if he’ll be going home. He replies no, that his family will all be gathering but he won’t be there this year. He tells the unseen patient that he’ll see her tomorrow.

He is next seen walking down the street about sundown with just a hint of a slump in his shoulders, observing store windows with holiday greetings. We then see him walking down the hall of an apartment building. He stops and punches in the numbers on his phone and tells his mother that he almost forgot, but to please be sure and greet everyone for him and tell them Happy Holidays. She says she’ll be sure to do that.

He then opens the door to his apartment and what do you know, there is his mom, having just hung up the phone, and the other family members. All the while they have been getting his place ready for him to come home so they’ll celebrate Christmas together.

And folks, I’m getting choked up just typing this and my description doesn’t even do it justice.


And that’s one of the many things I love about Christmas. I love the sense of family and togetherness that it evokes. My family could have been a case study in dysfunction and nobody knew it better than my mother, but until she died she and my dad had us, along with my brother and his family, come to their house on Christmas Day. It was not always -- nor even often -- the idyllic scene I have described from the TV commercial, but the holiday held enough significance for her that she would always make an effort to patch together a family celebration for a family that, sadly, was not often inclined to gather together.

Late Christmas Eve, after our internationally themed dinner, where there might or might not have been harmonious togetherness, Wife and I will gather our little brood and one of our grown or nearly grown children will read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke as they have done since they were little guys. This will happen after we have a debate about whose turn it is to do it (we once thought of writing it down, but arguing about who did it last year has become part of the tradition).

At 11 p.m. we will go to a local church that we always attend on Christmas Eve, where we will hear beautiful music, listen to Scripture readings and take Communion. As midnight approaches we will light candles, sing “Silent Night” and usher in Christmas. We will welcome the Baby Jesus and prepare our hearts. For a moment things will be perfect, as He is perfect.

I will hear the music, see the candles glowing and look at my beautiful family and I will hardly be able to take it in.

And these are some of the things I love about Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

RLS Home Remedy

I like to think I use the common sense approach when it comes to illnesses and their remedies, be they the prescribed or home kind.

I get about one cold or sinus infection-type malady per year. I try not to go to the doctor if I can possibly avoid it because, inevitably, she will say either (a) that it’s probably a virus and it’ll have to run its course and in the meantime drink lots of liquids and eat fruits and vegetables or (b) it might be bacterial so here, go get this prescription filled and take the entire amount and if the mucus is yellow, yeah, it’s for sure bacterial and this won’t do you any good if you don’t take all of it but, really, it just kind of has to run its course.

So, as I said, I try to use common sense. I get the flu shot every year. I try to eat right and exercise. And I try to just let whatever it is run its course (as if I had any choice?!).

Ever so occasionally, I’ll try a home remedy if I can stand it. My dad was a big believer in caster oil and/or this awful ointment-stuff called Mentholatum – for anything! If one of these wouldn’t do the trick, according to him, you were probably beyond help and were going to die. And believe me, I much preferred that alternative to getting anywhere near either of those products.

I know a lady who has drunk a glass of Ovaltine every day for the last twenty years and swears she has not had so much as a sniffle during that period of time. I don’t do Ovaltine but I started eating a bowl of oatmeal most mornings about three years ago and it definitely helps with the cholesterol count. The makers of Cheerios claim their cereal will do the same thing but if you look at the fine print you’ll see that you probably have to eat them at every meal to have the same benefit as oatmeal. I think I would tire of that much Cheerios.

But I digress. The latest home remedy that Wife and I have discovered is, get ready for this, IVORY SOAP! No you don’t eat it, silly, you go to bed with it!

And get your mind out of the gutter!

Let me explain. Wife and I have both self-diagnosed ourselves with Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS). You might have seen the commercial in which the narrator describes this stick person (who appears to be androgenous) who can’t get his/her stick legs to stop twitching. He/she takes this drug and, lo and behold, the sticks/legs become calm. Side effects include -- and this is the God’s honest truth -- a tendency toward compulsive gambling and/or sex. Ahem.

Wife and I both think we have mild cases so we haven’t sought medical attention. I won’t comment on sex but I have never gambled and don’t want to start.

My leg restlessness, when I have it, is purely nocturnal. It starts sometime in the evening when I’m sedentary. It continues a little more noticeably when I go to bed, which is when Wife’s really kicks in -- pun intended. If I am dead-dog tired I’ll just toss and turn a bit, then drift off to sleep and it doesn’t bother me anymore. Wife can pretty much do the same.

But if either of us happens to be having one of those nights where we are a bit preoccupied with the affairs of the day and either or both happen to be twitching and kicking too, it can be a long night. One of us inevitably ends up going to the guest room to sleep.

It’s not awful but it’s annoying. I have thought of telling my doc about it the next time I go but it’s not worth a special trip just for that. And again, there’s that sex and gambling thing. So we have lived with it for, oh, a couple of years now.

That’s until about three weeks ago when Wife announces that she has found the cure, the aforementioned Ivory Soap. Now understand this is coming from a woman who has been known to buy into an urban legend or two, so you might understand my skepticism.

But she was adamant that she had gotten this from a reliable source, a friend of a friend, and she actually named names.

Well, why not, I thought. It’s a bar of soap and it will have other uses. And I’ll get a lot of mileage out of this when I want to share about it at parties, I thought to myself.

Well, folks, I am here to tell you that said bar of Ivory Soap has resided in our bed going on two weeks now and there has been narry a twitch! NONE! NADA! The bar of soap rests between our bottom sheet and mattress pad and I tell you our legs are just as calm as sleeping babies!

I have done a little Internet research and there are numerous testimonials to this and apparently it’s good for leg cramps too. I just wonder why it took us so long to hear about it.

I understand that, if you suffer from RLS, you might want to go the more traditional route, get a prescription and take the risk of unbridled sex and/or gambling. (Now I can’t make any guarantees as to the side effects; that’s just what they say on the commercial). That’s your prerogative.

But if your legs, they are a-twitching, you’re skeptical of drugs and you want to keep sex and gambling in check, I urge you to invest in this stuff that is still, famously, 99.44 percent pure. Your legs will thank you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


I have a friend named Jack. Jack is in his mid-seventies and we first got to know each other years ago when my sons and his grandsons played summer baseball together. My older and younger sons correspond closely in age to his older and younger grandsonss.

A few years after meeting Jack at the baseball field, I accepted a position as a board member for a non-profit in Nashville. Jack is also on the board and we got to know each other better through this. He asked me to serve on a board committee that he chairs. We continued to compare notes on the boys and he was always interested in what all three of my children were doing.

Earlier this year, after noticing Jack had missed a couple of our board meetings, I learned that he had been diagnosed with ALS -- Lou Gherig's disease. It came on him quickly and within a couple of months after his diagnosis, he was in a wheelchair. Today he's mostly confined to a hospital bed.

Jack and his son, the father of the aforementioned grandsons, each sold their respective houses a few months ago. They pooled their resources and bought a house together that has a downstairs living quarters where Jack and his wife now live. The son and his family live upstairs and are, of course, nearby when needed.

Jack was and is an exemplary grandfather. During the summers we were wathcing the boys play baseball, he and his wife scarcely missed a game. If there were any conflicts they would tag-team. Jack enjoyed getting to know and visiting with the other spectators in the bleachers, like me, as much as watching the games.

He always loved to talk. I remember several occasions after one of our board or committee meetings when he would call me just a few hours after the meeting to go over a point that was made or rehash some things. We would end up having lengthy conversations that I always enjoyed. Knowing I was in banking, he also liked to ask me financial questions from time to time.

He was particularly kind to me when my dad died in 2006. He wrote me a very nice note and said he would be available to talk at any time. He said just the right things.

I remember telling Wife that Jack was the kind of man I would like to be when I reach his age. Not only did I aspire to have the fitness and good health he enjoyed, but I also hoped I would have the integrity and depth of character so evident in my friend.

Possessed of a wry sense of humor, Jack has not always been long suffering with his peers. I remember one lengthy Saturday morning board meeting when one of our especially verbose fellow board members had been, as usual, very talkative. Our board chairman made mention of a called board committee meeting on which this member and Jack served. This guy, who could be a little dramatic at times, heaved a big sigh and told the chairman, "I'll be here if I am able to get here."

Jack, sitting by me, leaned over and whispered, "Do you think you can get me over to his house so I can trip him on his way out the door?

A couple of weeks ago, several of us from our board went to see Jack. I was prepared for the worst.

His wife, an attractive and energetic seventy-something, welcomed us with a warm smile and thanked us for coming. She led us into their bedroom where Jack was in a hospital bed, on a feeding tube and a ventillator.

Although it was hard seeing Jack in this state, I could tell with one look that this was still the same old Jack and he had lost none of the characteristics I hold so dear. He can no longer talk but he grabbed and squeezed my hand and mouthed my name. His eyes communicated beautifully.

I told him how Younger Son was playing football and his team was in the state playoffs. His eyes got wide and he grabbed my hand again, and I could tell he wanted more information as things developed.

We said a prayer with Jack and he mouthed "Amen." I was definitely blessed by the visit.

How I hate sickness and disease. How I despise things like ALS, cancer, heart disease and all those other horrible afflictions that attack and hold hostage good people like Jack. Although I was encouraged by visiting Jack, I cuold not help but weep and pound my steering wheel as I drove home, daring to question God as to why Jack would have to be visited with this slow, grueling death sentence -- this condition from which he will, short of a miracle, not recover.

Yet still, I was blessed by going to see Jack, when I was supposedly there to be an encouragement to him. His eyes and his characteristic grace and good humor, still so evident, told me that Jack has accepted this as another bump in the road.

I don't understand it and I don't like it. But I am still thankful for Jack and his friendship.