Thursday, December 30, 2010

A good week; a good year

It has been a really good holiday season. I have managed for the past several years to take off work the week between Christmas and New Year's and I love it. It's just a great time to relax, unwind a bit and spend some time with the family while closing out the year.

I made a list last Sunday night of what I wanted and needed to do this week, with a good balance of worthwhile activities (sweeping the garage, cleaning out the closet, etc.) and fun. I have just about marked everything off.

This Christmas we learned how to "share" since Older Son and FDIL split their time between the two families. Wife and I had vowed some time ago that, when the time came, we would be agreeable and flexible around holidays. It all went very smoothly. The engaged couple spent a good part of Christmas Eve during the day and evening with FDIL's family, then joined us for our Greek Christmas Eve dinner which we did a little late, then church at 11 p.m. It was a beautiful service as usual, made only better by walking out into the beautiful snow at midnight.

Christmas morning I did the usual mid-morning breakfast for the four of us. Older Son and FDIL, after spending Christmas morning with her family, joined us for the afternoon and we did our gift-opening. We had a late afternoon dinner, then all went to see "The King's Speech," a movie I HIGHLY recommend.

Other highlights of this past week have included going to a cool downtown spot that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches and joining Daughter last night for a great concert presented by the Zac Brown Band. We gave her the tickets for Christmas and she invited me to go with her!

We also had a family game night a couple of nights ago, playing spirited rounds of "Scattergories" and "Phase Ten." I am pleased to report that Older Son, who is super competitive and has an annoying habit of almost always winning, has met his match with FDIL who will not put up with his nonsense.

Spent most of today taking down the Christmas tree and putting away everything. Although I love it, by this time it is beginning to look a little tired and I'm glad when everything is back to normal and looking fresh again.

Only real negative has been a nagging sinus infection that I've been dealing with for nearly two weeks. I broke down and went to the doctor Tuesday and got on an antibiotic. Happily, I'm doing much better.

Wife and I have no New Year's Eve plans. Our offspring will all be otherwise occupied and looks like most of our friends are out of town or have plans that do not include us. Fortunately for us, we can still amuse each other.

Looking toward 2011, we can only fasten our seat belts. We are at just under the six-month mark for the June 18 wedding. We'll have graduations in May, then moving Daughter home and getting Younger Son ready for college. Wife and I have also agreed to chaperone his Senior trip -- a Caribbean cruise in March.

It will be a challenging year at work, as it has been in the banking world for some time now. After enjoying this week off, I will hopefully be mentally ready to deal with all the new banking regulation I'm going to have to try and understand in the months ahead.

Yes, it's been a good week and overall it's been a good year. I am blessed -- far more than I deserve.

A Happy New Year to all of you and enjoy the rest of the holidays. Thanks for stopping by from time to time. Here are some glimpses of the holidays at our place:

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Thoughts

I think that, the older you get, the more Christmas brings mixed emotions. Overall, it's just an immensely happy time and I love gathering with my family.

But I am keenly aware that it's not happy for everyone. We just heard some awful news from Little Rock. A young man who is a year older than Older Son and used to play with him in our old neighborhood, and whose parents we knew from church, was killed in a plane crash a couple of days ago, along with his wife. A pilot, he was trying to land his plane at the airport in Colorado Springs in unusally heavy fog. They had flown from South Dakotah, where he was stationed in the Air Force, to Colorado to be with her family for Christmas.

Just like that, this family's Christmas is not happy at all, but wrapped in grief and sorrow. Each Christmas now will remind them of this tragedy. And all I can do is offer a prayer for them, that the child we celebrate this time of year will meet them right where they are and comfort them with a supernatural comfort, and help them to somehow know that He does, in fact, make all things new.


I went to the grocery store early this morning to get a few items for Christmas morning breakfast. The pickings were rather slim, but that's what I get for waiting until today to make my list and get what I needed.

I was surprised that there weren't more fellow shoppers. It really wasn't very crowded. I guess the serious Christmas cooks have already gathered what they need by December 24. Among my peers this morning, though, was a lovely lady who looked to be about 70. Her dark brown hair was swept into a bun, she had high heels on her feet and she was adorned in a full length mink coat.

And that coat reminded me of my mother.

To explain, there was not one thing pretentious or showy about my mom. She hung clothes out on a clothes line until sometime in the 1970s when she bought a used clothes drier at a garage sale. She still hung sheets on the line, and ironed them, until she became sick with cancer in 1996.

She rarely spent money on herself. She clipped coupons with a vengeance and could sniff out a bargain better than anyone I ever knew. She and my dad recycled before it was even called recycling.

So to say my mother lived frugally is an understatment. Sometime in the 1980s, though, after years of her longing and dreaming, my dad bought her a mink coat. I don't know why she wanted a mink coat, of all things, but she did. And the fact that she had lived her life so economically made it that much more cool for her to have something so seemingly extravagant.

And oh, how she loved that coat. It's not like South Arkansas had brutal winters but when the thermometer would hit about 50 or below, my mother would put that coat on and yes, she would wear it to the grocery store and, although I never saw her do it, I would not have been suprised to have seen her wearing it as she hung sheets out on the line.

So this morning, when I saw the dressed-up lady with the mink coat, I couldn't help myself. I told her that it was one of the most beautiful coats I had ever seen and I told her it reminded me of my mother. Her face lit up with a big smile and she graciously thanked me, and said she just loved wearing it. I told her I could tell she did.

And I know mink coats are no longer popular, and are in fact frowned upon, and I am really sorry for the animals that were killed to make the coats. But seeing that pretty lady in the mink coat added a very happy dimension to Christmas for me.


In keeping with our internationally themed Christmas Eves, we're doing Greek this year. Gyros, Greek salad, roasted potatoes and baklava. And dear Wife, bless her, with the blessing of all of us, got part of it from a Greek restaurant. She has had a low stress day and I think that's just great.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Not Much Ado

The supposed to-do over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays,” fueled greatly by media outlets having slow news days, is one of the silliest topics in years and hardly worthy of comment, if not for all the silly comments I hear about it!

So, since a very few who unfortunately have broad forums want to make hay of this, I will offer this comment. Then I am done:

As a Christian, I celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ (and that’s how “Christmas” got its name). I understand perfectly, however, that we have no record of the actual birth date of Jesus Christ and more than likely, it wasn’t even in the winter. It appears that Christians, at some point in time, adopted this date which actually corresponds roughly with the pagan celebration surrounding the Winter Solstice. Many of the Christmas traditions have pagan roots.

In the public school I attended when I was a child, we had Christmas parties, Christmas plays and Christmas programs. There were references to the birth of Christ. Nobody seemed to get upset over this.

On the other hand, I suppose if there had been a Jew, Muslim, believer in some other deity or a total non-believer in my school, this might have made that person uncomfortable. I knew a fair number of Jewish people in the town where I grew up (although I don’t remember any from elementary school when we had those activities), and as I remember, they had Christmas trees in their homes and attended Christmas parties. They didn’t observe Christmas Day as the birth of Christ, of course, but they took the day off as most did and seemed fine with it. Everybody seemed to handle it all just fine.

Over time, Christmas activities that specifically referenced the birth of Christ became taboo in public schools. They now have to be “holiday” programs. They can make reference to Christmas but should also include nods to Hanukah or other religious observances.

That seems fair enough to me, and in principal I agree with it. But the political correctness of it has gotten way out of hand. In the elementary school my children attended, there was always controversy over Christmas trees, of all things. And they just did away with any Christmas songs religious in nature, opting for only the secular holiday songs.

Again, that’s just silly. Why didn’t they sing “Silent Night” and then sing a song about Hanukah? I remember singing a couple of Hanukah songs in elementary school and I thought it was cool. I don’t recall anyone getting worked up over it.

I am a firm believer in the First Amendment and the last thing I want is government establishing or endorsing religion. But I believe the majority of people in the U.S. celebrate Christmas. And I believe the vast majority of those who DON’T celebrate it don’t mind the rest of us who do, and don’t mind getting the day off work that day.

I saw this atheist guy on a news program this week just going on and on about how Christmas trees in the workplace make non-believers feel bad. I respect this guy’s right to not believe, I really do, but come on. He objects to a Christmas tree?! Does he know that bringing a dead tree inside and decorating it is one of the pagan traditions adopted by Christians to be part of the Christmas celebration? His problems run a lot deeper than he knows if he is threatened by the presence of a decorated tree in his place of employment.

Likewise, as a Christian, I’m not going into apoplexy when someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas. I’m not going to boycott a store that doesn’t appear to use the word “Christmas.” (I actually boycott most stores but that’s another story). I’d love to have the chance to share with someone who chooses not to observe Christmas why I joyfully celebrate Christ's birth, but I doubt I’ll get that opportunity if I’m having a hissy fit over words.

Ben Stein, a great writer and actor, and a Jew, wrote a wonderful piece a few years ago about how he, a non-Christian, is a happy recipient of a “Merry Christmas” greeting. And if Ben were to wish me a Happy Hanukah, I would also graciously receive it. I wouldn’t need to call the ACLU or go on a news program to yammer about my rights being violated. Here’s part of what Ben said:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees. It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, "Merry Christmas" to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Isn’t that great?

Wish me Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or whatever, and I’m going to say right back at you, friend, may your days be merry and bright and may you be protected from the insane political correctness that is a genuine threat to our way of life, unlike a Christmas tree or a Menorah.

And to the news media, here’s a big news flash for you: this is no longer news. 99.9 percent of us just get along.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Oh Christmas Tree

We finished decorating the Christmas tree today. I know many of you have had yours up since Thanksgiving or even before but it's always been a slow process for us.

We're too tired Thanksgiving weekend to even think about Christmas. We get a real tree so we usually go get it the first weekend in December. Younger Son, Wife and I went and got it last Saturday morning at Home Depot.

We tried putting it up last Sunday but the old Christmas tree stand we have has seen better days and it just refused to stand (a common occurence -- nay, a tradition of sorts -- with us) and I didn't even say a cuss word. I just carried the tree back to the garage and put it in water and asked Wife if she would pick up a new stand when she had a chance. (Note: there is a video recording of me saying the "S" word while trying to put up the Christmas tree. I have confessed and asked forgiveness but it is forever etched in family lore).

Wife had her Bunko group over this past Wednesday night and she didn't want to fool with the tree while getting ready for that, so she decided to do her other decorating and wait until this weekend to put up the tree.

The tree stood beautifully yesterday in the new stand that has five screws and bolts rather than three. Daughter's home now, so she, Wife, Younger Son and I sat in the den, put the lights on, put the angel on top, then got into some conversation and never quite got the tree decorated. This morning after church we did it.

It's a nice tree and it looks good in our renovated den. With the new configuration of furniture, there's a lot more room for it.

We have had our share of stress this week so I am pleased to report that putting up the Christmas tree was a stress-free, and even joyful, time. I've progressed so much.

Here's Wife and me having fun with the lights:

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sending Season's Greetings

One of my favorite things about Christmas is sending and receiving Christmas cards. I have always been the correspondent for the family and I guess that goes back to my love of the written word and the fact that I love to read and write.

And yes, I do the dreaded “Christmas letter,” but with a different twist. The Christmas letter, I believe, became popular once copy machines became such a common part of life. When I was growing up, we might have ever so occasionally received a mass produced letter. My mother, a proper and genteel southern lady, scoffed at them as impersonal and, if they contained too much unsolicited information, crude (she liked that word).

They seemed to really take root around the time I got married (in 1984). More and more, we would receive the letters and more and more, unfortunately, they would give WAY too much information and WAY too much “good news” -- all about new houses, new six-figure jobs, exotic vacations and children that are gifted beyond belief.

On the other hand, I love to hear from my friends at Christmas. And really, I love the Christmas letters if they are done in such a way that does not make me feel like a big loser because I’m not as successful as the letter’s author and my children are not National Merit Finalists. Give me a little summary of what you’ve done this year, how your family is doing, etc. and that’s all I really need to know. I don’t need painful details.

I started writing a Christmas letter in 1995 but it was the anti-Christmas letter, explaining how Younger Son refused to be toilet trained, my older two wouldn’t do their homework, Wife was on a cooking strike and I was mad as hell at a Christmas tree that refused to stand.

The response was quite encouraging and I’ve been doing it ever since. I usually try to write something funny, kind of like I would write on this blog. I wrote one in 2002 about my annual battle with the Christmas tree that some of my friends still pull out and read every year. A couple of times my dog Ralph has penned the letter.

But every once in a while I’ll throw a curve and write something a little more poignant or serious. I wrote essays about Older Son and Daughter when it was the Christmas before their respective high school graduations, and this year it will be about Younger Son since he’ll graduate this spring.

I’ll include some personal information but I try to follow the Golden Rule and only say what I would like to read myself.

So, with great humility, I offer you my guidelines for Christmas cards and Christmas letters. Hear me well: these are MY rules that I impose on MYSELF. I'm not saying I expect anyone else to abide by these (although I do, of course, endorse your own adaptation) :

1. Don’t send Christmas cards in town. Wife disagrees with me on this one and I’ve graciously offered to turn over the sending of Christmas cards to her, an offer she has so far not accepted, so the rule remains in place. (It just galls her to see her friends’ refrigerators plastered with holiday photos, with our family conspicuously absent). My thinking is this: my Christmas greeting is intended for those friends and family members who live away from me and who I don’t get to see as much as I would like. If you live in the same town as me, I'll wish you a very Merry Christmas in person. If you think you'll miss me, invite me over for Christmas cheer. And if you want to send me a Christmas card, it will be graciously received and appreciated. Just please don’t feel slighted if you don’t get one from me. I have to draw the line somewhere.

1(a). If you choose to send cards in town DO NOT, under any circumstances, include the Christmas letter. I mean, really. If I am sitting next to you in church or on the bleachers or wherever, I at least have the opportunity to know what's going on with you. I don't need to read it in a letter. This is the height of bad taste.

2. For the Christmas letter, less is definitely more. Include very little, if any, information about vacations, job promotions and/or awards and honors achieved by offspring. This can be done in summary fashion. GOOD: "Mary is now 15, a student at such-and-such and will be released from detention in a month." Short and sweet. Don't poor-mouth it either. BAD: "The third time is definitely the charm and we fully expect Johnny to pass second grade this year."

3. At least part of the Christmas card and/or letter should be in your handwriting, if only the address on the envelope. We have to cut corners, I know that. Time is precious. But I know for a fact (because he has told me) that the yearly card I receive from one of my best friends and his family is formatted on a computer by his wife's secretary, from the photo card to the mailing label. I just don't get a warm fuzzy from that. Hallmark has a commercial where the mom goes online, creates the card and downloads her address list and it's all done instantly. Hallmark addresses and mails it. I just think that's wrong. If you have time, a personal note is lovely (but I understand not usually feasible). Signing the card is good. But if you can do neither of those, at least manually address the envelope.

4. It's OK to send a photo or photos but use good judgment. The photo card is standard practice now and I enjoy receiving them. Like the Christmas letter, these should be tasteful and understated, and one should think long and hard before sending a photo of your family posed in front of the Eiffel Tower or The Great Wall. Likewise, be careful about those photos where you're all in your pajamas. Those are cute when your children are little, not so much when they're teenagers and never when they've all left home and it's just the two of you. Also, a piece of paper enclosed with photos copied onto said paper, which includes a legend, is pushing it.

5. There are times to cut. If your card list exceeds 100, it's probably time to review. Do you really stay in touch with all those people? Do you think they want to hear from you? Would you remember their names if you didn't send them a Christmas card? Would they remember yours? Ask yourself these tough question.

6. An e-Christmas card: NO. No additional comment needed.

7. Be careful about enclosures or adding a smell to your card/letter. The perfumed card, even with a pleasant Christmasy scent, is probably a little much and a lot of people are allergic. And the festive confetti that falls out when you open the card? Remember someone has to clean that up.

8. Try your best to send cards at least by New Year's Eve. I know it's tough with all that's going on in December but it is supposed to be a seasonal card and sending it in January or February is fine, of course, but kind of defeats the purpose, don't you think? Not that I won't be glad to hear from you anytime at all, of course.

Now please don't take offense if you engage in any of these practices. As I said, these are my guidelines. A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Enjoy those cards and letters.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Good for the soul

Wife and I both love to travel. We have done it as much as possible during our life together when the budget has allowed and have packed up our offspring and taken them with us. You just can't beat a family vacation.

We did the beach vacation thing more times than I can count, going back to our single days, then as married "DINKS" (double-income, no kids), then with our children as they were growing up, usually going down to the Florida Gulf Coast. We started going to Destin, where the white sand beaches and emerald waters are pristine, a long time ago. Sometimes we would go with or meet other families and we never went that we didn't run into folks we knew. It was (and still is) an immensely popular spot for beach goers.

From Little Rock we could get there in about 11 hours, depending on how many stops we'd make, and from Nashville we can be there in about seven.

The routine would nearly always be the same. We would rent a condo in a high-rise complex on the beach, would take enough groceries for breakfasts and lunches during the week, then usually visit one of the area restaurants for dinner. I absolutely love seafood of just about any kind, and you just can't beat getting it fresh right there by the ocean.

The days consisted of sitting under umbrellas at the beach, frolicking in the waves and making use of the beach-side pools. The place we usually stayed had organized activities for children as an option during the days which Daughter loved (she's always embraced structured, organized activities, hence her early desire to be a teacher) but which our boys would have none of. We also built the ubiquitous sand castles and went through the every-beach-vacation ritual of burying each other in the sand up to our heads and taking pictures of same. We have tons of happy memories of fun times at the beach.

Over the years Destin became more and more populated. The high-rises multiplied, as did the restaurants and shopping centers, as did the traffic and congestion. We eventually migrated eastward to the beaches on Highway 30-A. The little beach villages of Grayton Beach, Seaside, Seacrest and Rosemary Beach -- just to name a few -- all run together and are more sedate than Destin.

Eventually, as the curmedgeon gene took root in my being, I tired of the beach trips. The broiling heat of the summer, the growing crowds, and shaking sand out of everything I own, had all run its course with me. After our last family trip there in the summer of 2004 right before Older Son went to college, I told Wife that, although I cherished the memories of the good times, I believed I was going to be done with the beach vacations for a while.

As it turned out, she and I made a brief trip together in May 2005 right before I started the job I now have. She has been back a number of times without me, with my blessing. Wife loves the beach and will never, ever tire of it. Older Son and Daughter have been a lot closer to the beach at Auburn, so they've spent some spring breaks and long weekends there as well.

This year we invoked a "travel moratorium" of sorts. The house renovations earlier this year ate up the travel budget, and then some. So there were no real summer vacations, to the beach or otherwise.

October came and I still had quite a bit of vacation time to take. It's "use it or lose it" and I just don't feel obligated to "give back" to my employer in that way. I took a couple of days in October, puttered around the house a bit and did some fishing.

Wife and I started getting a little restless about a month ago. Business has been really good for her which is definitely a good thing, but she's weary. The banking regulatory world is making my head spin as well.

So I presented to Wife the possibility of a brief trip over to our neighboring state of North Carolina which I thought we could do quite economically. I suggested we go the week after Thanksgiving, then proceded to tell her all the people we would visit along the way, including a couple of longtime friends with whom I grew up, and a former special teacher I have wanted to see for a long time.

Wife gazed at me with that incredulous look that requires no verbalizing. The look alone said, "Are you kidding me?!" In other words, hopping from point to point seeing people -- some of whom Wife hardly knows and at least one she doesn't know at all -- didn't exactly appeal to her. I kind of dropped the subject.

Coincidentally, around the same time we had dinner with a good friend and client of Wife's who mentioned a condo he owns, guess where? On the Florida Gulf Coast. And we would be welcome to use it for nothing more than a small cleaning fee.

Need I go on? We just got back. We originally planned to leave last Sunday, then moved it to Monday, then finally got out of here very early Tuesday morning. We had thought we might go from there to Atlanta for the Southeast Conference Championship game but ticket prices proved to be astronomical, so we just came on home last night and watched Auburn blow out South Carolina on TV this afternoon.

The time at the beach -- Panama City this time, just east of the Highway 30-A beaches I had most recently visited -- was quiet, definitely the off-season. We took some long walks, did some reading, ate some great food, and Wife got a major part of the Christmas shopping done, which took a big load off of her (I am never much help there). She told me last night on the way home that the beach, quite simply, "brings peace to my soul."

And you know what? That's good enough for me. You know the old saying: "Happy Wife, Happy Life." We're happy here.